John Maynard Keynes believed that there would come a time when capitalism would be able to provide for all our needs. When that time was reached, there would be no further reason for growth. Capitalism was a necessary but temporary evil - 'a transitional stage, a means to an end, the end being the good life' (P17). Unfortunately, as we have seen, this 'end' has actually been the triumph of an aggressive and consumerist capitalism that has swept all before it, capturing us in a seemingly endless spiral, not of 'needs' but 'wants'. We are caught in an 'insatiability trap' and 'the good life' appears to be receding into dreams and sitcoms.
This book tries to explain just how this all came about. And, after exploring the roots of what more and more people are recognizing as our global dilemma, attempts to put forward some solutions and new ways to define and move towards this 'good life'.
The book starts with Keynes. Keynes believed that the average number of hours that people worked would slowly diminish as technology became more and more efficient. In reality what we have seen is instead of four people being employed for ten hours a week, one person works for forty hours, leaving three people unemployed. At the same time, capitalism has increasingly 'monetized' and commodified everything it can, as Michael Sandel
, amongst many others, has shown. Monetizing things changes how they are valued - not only do they become comparable in money terms, but their very nature is altered. For example: '[e]ducation...is increasingly seen not as a preparation for the good life but as a mean to increase the value of 'human capital''.
The result of this depressing utilitarianism is all around us. Not just a growing number of people unemployed, but also a growing number of people forced down into what Guy Standing refers to as 'The Precariat
', semi- and temporarily employed, while the gulf between the poorest and richest is now wider than it was in the so-called 'gilded age'.
What is it in the nature of capitalism that makes it at the same time so productive and yet so destructive? The authors believe that capitalism was 'founded on a Faustian pact'. (P68) Whereas previously usury and avarice were considered evils (Croesus, Midas), it was agreed that these sins were acceptable for the time being in order to release the productive powers of capitalism, on the understanding that once having 'lifted humanity out of poverty', the evils would be banished. But:
'Experience has taught us that material wants know no natural bounds, that they will expand without end unless we consciously restrain them. Capitalism rests precisely on this endless expansion of wants. That is why, for all its success, it remains so unloved. It has given us wealth beyond measure, but has taken away the chief benefit of wealth: the consciousness of having enough.' (P69)
Capitalism has overturned the meaning of greed - it is now 'good'.
It turns out that capitalism has overturned the meaning of the word 'happiness' too. The authors in 'A Very Brief History of Happiness' (P97) show how the old idea of a 'happy life' or a 'happy people' has gradually changed from an external, social concept to a highly individual and internal state. To make people happy then does not necessarily require changes to society but to the individuals. Along with this individualisation comes a sense of paternalist liberalism - not yet perhaps handing out the 'soma
' but not very far off.
So what are the limits (if any) to growth? The authors consider both natural and moral aspects of this question, in particular considering the various 'green' approaches. In 'The Ethical Roots of Environmentalism' (P132) they trace a fascinating path from romanticism through Heidegger and then to Adorno and Horkheimer, Marcuse and the modern day green movements. They suggest that:
'...mainstream environmentalism has continued to frame its case in the utilitarian language of sustainability, though its profounder influences remain ethical, aesthetic or even religious. This has led to a tension in the movement between so-called 'deep' and 'shallow' ecologists, the former valuing nature as an end in itself, the latter valuing it as an instrument of human purposes.' (P134)
The point the authors wish to make is that we really cannot base a critique of capitalism on either 'deep' or 'shallow' environmentalism. 'Nature is neither raw material to use as we please nor a strange god demanding sacrifice...[but]...the mute bearer of the same life that has come to consciousness in us.' (P 144) In that sense, the 'good life' must by definition be bound up with a harmonious relationship with nature as with ourselves.
So what is the 'good life'? The authors try to define it by identifying 'The Basic Goods' (P150), the indispensables. By goods, of course, is not meant necessarily material goods but the aspects of life that go to make a happy state, a state of happiness and a life well lived.
And finally they look to 'Exits from the Rat Race' (P180). It is clear that there really is no existent political party that has 'the good life' (in the sense the authors mean) as their goal. Their proposals are both varied and specific. One is the provision of a 'basic income' (this is a central demand of Guy Standing's too). Another is 'Reducing the Pressure to Consume' (P202), including reducing the impact and all-pervasiveness of advertising. Yes another is a temporary halt to globalisation. They bluntly point out that '[n]o country has become rich under a free-trade regime.' (P214) Underlying all this is a belief that we need to re-examine just what wealth is for. And here they look for inspiration to Catholicism and to the 'religious impulse' more generally. Materialist philosophies have failed, they believe. Politics has failed. And economics has failed. One way or another we need to re-imagine the 'collective good life'.
The authors' views clearly coincide with those of Jeffrey Sachs
- searching for an Aristotelian 'middle way' - and of Michael Sandel - there really are things that money shouldn't buy. And maybe that's a weakness - money (commoditisation) really does change everything and it is very difficult to change things back. Neoliberalism is still alive and well, as Colin Crouch
has pointed out, and a well entrenched oligarchy continues to dominate the global agenda.
Nice ideas though.