on 1 July 2012
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, if idiosyncratic, 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.
on 26 October 2014
Father-and-son duo Edward and Robert Skidelsky never answer the question posed by their title (although one footnote provides an estimate that around $66,000 per year should be sufficient to live their version of the good life; roughly the average wage in the USA in 2014). They ask it to highlight the ludicrous assumptions which underlie contemporary economic policy; in particular that an ever-increasing GDP and full employment should be the principal policy tool for improving citizens' wellbeing.
The Skidelskies rightly point out that economics is not an end in itself; a argument that may seem self-evident; but often appears to be overlooked in contemporary political discourse. Instead they portray it as a 'Faustian bargain' with the less admirable qualities in our nature; used to bootstrap society to a developmental stage where we can again focus on quality of life. One of this book's most valuable points is that the continued focus on improving objective economic measures does not do away with the values-based politics which so traumatised the early 20th century. Instead it merely obscures the ideals and beliefs required to justify such an aim. Contemporary politics, in other words, is not the bland managerialism its propenents portray.
So far, I found the Skidelskies' thesis compelling. But problems begin to creep in. Robert Skidelsky is the author of a biography of Keynes - whose short essay 'Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren' is used to introduce the book - and Edward a professor of philosophy with a preference for value ethics. One gets the feeling early on that the Skidelskies tend to frame the debate in light of their preferred fields. There is a heavy over-reliance on the wisdom of Keynes and ancient philosophers, especially in the book's first half, which feel out-of-place in an analysis of the 21st century's ills. At the risk of being accused a Philistine; I do not believe Aristotle's thoughts on a perfect society can be translated into policies for today's society, beyond concepts so broad-brush as to be meaningless.
The Skidelskies also have an unfortunate habit of theorising in a vacuum. Much and more has been written on the topics they address here, but very little contemporary thought is well-represented. They are quite happy to dismiss the entirety of economics as misguided, and spend a few short paragraphs explaining why they have no interest in 'happiness economics' and environmentalism; two mainstream schools of thought opposed to a narrow focus on economic growth. This dismissal of other thinkers, including a reluctance to engage with their critics, weakens the Skidelskies' case, and leaves them open to the charge of intellectual arrogance.
Having nevertheless well-described the problem, How Much is Enough? is less satisfying when it comes to offering solutions. The Skidelskies' development of the seven 'basic goods' which underpin 'the good life' is blatantly subjective, somewhat elitist and occasionally open to ridicule (their weird fixation on farmers' markets, for instance). I suspect the Skidelskies are correct when they assert that human wellbeing relies on a host of factors, rather than a single objective measure (whether GDP per capita or 'happiness'). Attempting to catalogue these goods, however, let alone develop policies to promote them, may be a hopeless task. Furthermore, with the ongoing existence of appalling poverty in much of the developing world; the Skidelskies do not address - much less make the case - that our global society is ready to jettison the booster-rocket of liberal capitalism just yet. They do not discuss the ramifications of their thesis for the emerging economies of, say, China and India, where capitalism has proven the greatest poverty-reduction tool in history. Finally, the few policy ideas directly promoted by the book are in no way commensurate with the scale of the problem outlined, and have a whiff of armchair theorising about them. Again, greater engagement with economists, political theorists and think-tank policy blueprints would greatly have benefitted How Much is Enough? here.
Readers sympathetic to the Skidelskies' thesis will nonetheless find this a refreshing and thought-provoking work. Those who start skeptical may not be won over by the end. Despite the book's problems, the Skidelskies ask profound questions here, the answers to which may help to formulate solutions to the developed world's ills. The project is left far from complete, however. How Much is Enough? is a valuable contribution to the debate, but at its conclusion one is still left waiting for a coherent alternative to liberal capitalism to emerge.
on 3 November 2012
How much is enough? is a family effort - Edward is a philosophy professor, his father Robert is an economic historian and cross-bench peer in the House of Lords. The book straddles economics and philosophy effortlessly. It doesn't answer the question of the title in a literal sense, but is rather "an argument against insatiability, against that psychological disposition which prevents us, as individuals and as societies, from saying `enough is enough'."
Their theory is that as consumer society has developed, tendencies that have always been there in human nature have morphed from vices into virtues. Where it used to be frowned upon, the desire for money has become the central motivation of a whole civilization. All through history, people have had a vision for what makes a good life - friendship, leisure, respect, and so on. The difference now is that we no longer have an end in mind; we do not know what wealth is for. The "assumption that there is a good life, and that money is merely a means to its enjoyment, has been shared by every great civilization but our own" they suggest.
The book draws from a wide range of sources, both Western and Eastern. It weaves its logic through Goethe, the book of Revelation, the Brahmasutras. Within two pages you might take in Machiavelli, Milton and Marx. If you enjoy this kind of philosophical rockhopping, it's a real joy to read, and reminds me of Margaret Atwood's writing on debt. If you don't, well, consider yourself warned.
There's one big downside to the book. In the process of critiquing the idea of constant economic growth, there's a chapter on the environment and the idea of natural limits to growth. Although this idea ought to chime with theirs, they have little time for it. This would be fine if they could make a good case, but sustainability is not their area of expertise, and their arguments sound rather secondhand. They also focus their critique around extremist green writers such as Paul Ehrlich or James Lovelock, rather than the hundreds of more moderate and considered writers in the field. Naturally, this prejudices their conclusions.
This uncharacteristically weak chapter aside, it's a fine book. The concluding chapters attempt to define `the good life', and how it could be pursued in policy, including more leisure time, localism, and ending the dominance of finance, amongst much else. Whatever you think of their specific proposals, it's not enough to shrug off the question, say Skidelsky and Skidelsky: "simply to blunder on without having a view about what wealth is for, is an indulgence rich countries can no longer afford."
I agree, and I hope How much is enough? is widely read, because it opens up some interesting new perspectives. Its ecological blindspot aside, it's a very good book.
on 25 June 2012
This is a very readable account of how, despite getting much richer since Keynes wrote his essay 'Economic possibilities for our grandchildren', we haven't had the concomitant drop in working hours Keynes forecast. The authors mine a rich stream of thought which considers capitalism a 'Faustian pact' with unseemly motives for the production of wealth. How this pact has got out of hand, with GDP growth changing from a means to bringing about the good life to the end pursued by government policy is the first argument of the book.
The authors also argue - following Aristotle, and echoing Michael Sandel in his book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? - that the draining of a moral and ethical discourse from public discussion of policy has merely obscured, rather than removed, the ethical stance behind political decisions. This is a welcome point, and along with their discussion of the 'Faustian pact' forms the most successful passage of the book.
So far, so good - but unfortunately the rest of the book is on shakier ground. The authors outline their own vision for 'the good life', which I felt was too subjective to be a programme with a real chance of being adopted by any mainstream political party. They make some valid criticisms of it, but nevertheless I feel the capabilities approach (developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum) remains a much better guide for policy than their assertion that the good life be promoted by government.
Two chapters deal in turn with the new happiness economics promoted by Richard Layard and the green/sustainable movement. They convincingly argue that neither happiness or sustainability should become the ultimate policy goal to replace GDP. The questionable alternative they propose, though, detracts from the chapters' impact.
Overall, definitely a recommended read, but I'd suggest some discussions of the capability approach as a guide to better solutions: like Nussbaum's Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach.
on 1 January 2014
One answer to the question of the book's title is given by the epigraph to this excellent book: "Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little". This is the default demanded by consumerism, as driven by the side of capitalism that exalts "some of the most reviled human characteristics, such as greed, envy and avarice." Robert and Edward Skidelsky are not dogmatic anti-capitalists, however. They acknowledge capitalism's success at making "possible vast improvements in material conditions" but they're more interested in how insatiability "leads us away from the good life" and in how the continued pursuit of economic growth may actually damage what we value most. For those of us who want to step off the "nothing is enough" treadmill, the Skidelskys provide a valuable framework with which to resist the clamour of advertising and lifestyle choice and the lure of endless acquisition.
What's wrong with acquisitiveness, or, less pejoratively, with aspiration? The authors dismiss the critiques given by both Marxism ("economic insatiability is a creation of capitalism") and Christianity (it's "the product of original sin"). Their own view is that economic insatiability is rooted in human nature - "in the disposition to compare our fortune with that of our fellows and find it wanting" - but that it "has been greatly intensified by capitalism, which has made it the psychological basis of an entire civilization." (They might have quoted Shakespeare. Nerissa, Portia's gentlewoman-in-waiting in The Merchant of Venice, puts it simply: "they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing.")
In The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, Robert Frank provides a fascinating evolutionary perspective on status competition, and he's also cited by the authors as one of the contemporary economists in favour of progressive taxation as a means of achieving greater economic and social equality. However, I'm not sure Frank would approve of the Skidelskys' term "Darwinian capitalism" - an unhelpful phrase that betrays a crude understanding of evolutionary theory. The same evolutionary mechanism that generates nature red in tooth and claw also gives rise to cooperative behaviour and all the goods that flow from that (see, for example, Paul Seabright's The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life (Revised Edition)).
One reason they should educate themselves about Darwin's dangerous idea is that they believe that "the long-term goal of economic policy should henceforth not be growth, but the structuring of our collective existence so as to facilitate the good life." Anyone embarking on such a project at the very least ought to be aware that human psychological traits, which are of significance at both the individual and social levels, have evolved as adaptations in environments that may no longer obtain. Thus, a sweet tooth was adaptive when calories were scarce but is now maladaptive in much of the modern world. Unfortunately, the Skidelskys have a somewhat blinkered view of science, which "is a marvellous instrument for the exploration of external nature" but irrelevant to questions of human flourishing and ethics. Instead, they propose that "it is our own intuition, broadened by reading, travel and conversation, that must be our guide."
Their desire to exile science in this way leads to some contentious positions. For example, they claim that, in ethics, unlike science, "universal error is not a coherent possibility, since the subject of ethics, the human good, is one on which all humans have something to say." While there is some truth in this, we also don't have to look far to find a cultural practice - e.g. female genital mutilation - that has widespread support within a community but which is nevertheless morally reprehensible. Think also of the universal moral errors of religion, which, unlike science, has no mechanism for self-correction.
They're on safer ground when they focus on the distinction between work and leisure, which is central to their argument. We may think we know what these are, but for the Skidelskys leisure is an activity and not simply time spent not working, to be filled by sitting on a sofa in a stupor. "Work is what is done as a means to an end. Leisure is what is done for its own sake." In economic terms, paid work is undertaken primarily as a means to money, while leisure in their sense is distinguished by absence of external compulsion. (Although it's often hard work, the writing of these reviews is an example of a leisure activity!)
In his 1930 essay "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren", John Maynard Keynes looked a century ahead and wrote: "As technological progress made possible an increase in the output of goods per hour worked, people would have to work less and less to satisfy their needs, until in the end they would have to work hardly at all." Since he wrote those words, we've enjoyed unprecedented technological progress and yet his prediction has not come to pass. Why have hours of work "fallen so much less than the growth of output per hour worked led him to expect"?
Now that we've achieved abundance, it seems that "the habits bred into us by capitalism have left us incapable of enjoying it properly." Capitalism "has given us wealth beyond measure, but has taken away the chief benefit of wealth: the consciousness of having enough." Material wants expand without end unless we consciously restrain them, "unless held in check by moral discipline."
This is where modern economics begins to flounder, although economics was not always devoid of ethics: Adam Smith and his contemporaries did not talk about growth but about "improvement", a term encompassing moral as well as material conditions. In What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel repeatedly finds "that market reasoning is incomplete without moral reasoning." He shares with the Skidelskys a concern over unchecked capitalism, summed up by one of the characters in J. B. Priestley's Summer Day's Dream: "You can't go shopping for a good life."
Where then to begin? A good place might be with the author of the epigraph, Epicurus. He was a pagan philosopher whose denial of providence and the afterlife makes him more in tune with a modern secular audience than with churchgoers. Indeed, he has been vilified and misrepresented by Christians for most of the past two millennia (see The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began), which seems to contradict the Skidelskys' claim that "the Catholic Church has always been open to the best of pagan wisdom."
Don't expect a one-size-fits-all solution or to be handed the good life on a plate: how we put the lessons of this book into practice in our own lives will be up to us. Passive consumption is, after all, part of the problem we're trying to fix. In the end, whatever our metaphysical commitments, the Skidelskys' central message is a timely warning against the continued pursuit of growth, and it's a message we would do well to heed.
on 13 July 2012
To be clear what this book is not, it is not a 'self-help' book setting out a 10 point plan for a happier life. In fact the authors in their wide ranging and fascinating discussions make clear that pursuit of happiness in and of itself is a pointless and self defeating exercise. Instead the book looks at potential political solutions to the current mess we seem to have got ourselves in, specifically arguing that economic growth as an end in itself is responsible for the problems modern society is facing with the laudable objective of making economics and free markets work for us rather than the other way round.
After detailing how philosophers, particularly from the ancient world, dealt with these conundrums the book's conclusion is a summary of the requirements for a 'good life' (while interesting, they are neither surprising or controversial) and in the final chapter some political solutions that might move us in the right direction: some of these, such as a 'basic income' for all citizens have some fairly obvious counter arguments, but on balance the authors won me round.
However, I have one fairly major criticism of an issue the authors fail to address. The basic premise is that the UK (and the rest of the developed world, but it is nice to read a book written from a British perspective) already has the wealth it needs and so should turn away from prioritising economic growth towards the ideals of leading a 'good life'. I am not an economist, but my understanding is that much of the trouble we are now in is a result of us having already lived a long way beyond our means both as individuals (credit card and mortgage debt) and as a society (government debt) and so we are forced to adopt an austerity no-one wants in order to avoid the fate that is befalling Southern European nations. The Sidelskys seem to advocate higher public spending and taxes (eg for the aforementioned 'basic income') without squaring how that fits with an economy which appears to be at the limits of what it can afford. In other words, the core idea of the book, that we -as a country - are already 'rich enough' does not seem to take into account the idea that much of the apparent material wealth is based on unsustainable levels of debt. This seemed a pretty key constraint to the authors' proposals, and strange that it is not addressed in their arguments. Otherwise, an interesting and stimulating read.
on 28 December 2012
I was quite enjoying this book and trying to take an interest in its erratic progress until Chapter 5; 'Limits to growth:Natural or moral?' This raised major doubts about the relative importance they give to the texts they refer to and also the depth to which they have read them. For example, after doggedly struggling through their seemingly endless surmise about Faust and an obscure 1928 paper by Keynes, I find this pivotal chapter dismissing in two sentences the multi-million selling and hugely relevant 'Limits to Growth' published in 1972, describing its 'prophecies' as having turned out to be 'unduly alarmist'. That book was forecasting the state of the world in 2100 and its predictions are still alarmingly on track, so how on earth can they dismiss it so prematurely? On oil reserves they complacently cite 'the opening up of new fields in Alaska and Mexico'. Those oil fields were actually discovered years ago and the authors seem disturbingly unaware of the fact that already in 2012 they have dramatically declined to 20% of their peak output. World oil production has been on a plateau for 5 years despite record prices, yet there is no mention at all of 'peak oil' and the many expert petroleum geologists who have written on this critical issue. On the vital topic of climate change they have referred to such famously biased science-denying hacks as Lomborg and Lawson rather than any one of hundreds of professional climatologists who have written extensively on this grave threat to humanity's future. Unbelievably, writing in 2012 they don't even mention the massive demands being placed on the planet by the unprecedented acceleration in demand for all its resources and the resulting global pollution caused by the hyper-development taking place in China, India, Brazil and the rest. I had imagined that this book would have been a useful addition to the critical debate about how much individual human consumption a finite earth can bear. Instead it is whimsical, poorly-focussed, ill-informed, badly-researched and years out of date.
on 29 June 2012
This is a welcome revival and excellent example of the genre of philosophical political essay. It is well written, intellectually well informed and referenced, and compelling. As the authors themselves say `Philosophy was a powerful force in public life until the early twentieth century, when it retreated into linguistic hair-splitting' (p92). Particularly Anglo-American `analytical philosophy' got lost in arid epistemology and methodology, although European philosophy has retained a focus on moral issues, value and virtue (see Susan Neiman, André Comte-Sponville etc).
The Skidelskys' main theme follows a well established critique of the pursuit of economic growth per se. It therefore suffers the same critique levelled by Tony Crosland at E J Mishan's 1967 `The Costs of Economic Growth', ie that the argument is elitist. Even in apparently wealthy societies, intellectuals enjoy lifestyles powered by 2 to 3 times average income. To bring the average lifestyle anywhere near that of the elite will require decades of high economic growth. The alternative of radical redistribution is not on their agenda.
Having keyed into Keynes's `mistake' in forecasting an immense increase in leisure from productivity gains, the second and third chapters offer a brilliant stimulating read tracing economic philosophy through Plato, Augustine, Goethe's Faust, Adam Smith, Marx and Marcuse. The conclusion however is a strong critique of the politics of state `neutrality' which emerged from tolerance, which places all moral decision with the individual and excuses the state from moral positions. The implied suggestion that we want to return to state defined ethics is one most freedom fighters would want to challenge.
The Skidelskys' argument is also subjective and not fully analysed. They dismiss `happiness' philosophy as merely substituting an un-measurable utilitarian goal for GDP, and environmental sustainability for its lack of focus on today's generation. Their proposal is to adopt 7 dimensions of the `good life', ie health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure. How and why these 7 elements have been chosen, why others like justice have been excluded, how this list is superior to the 18 virtues celebrated in Comte-Sponville's `Short Treatise on the Great Virtues' is not explored. The enabling policy prescription is then a basic income, an expenditure tax to reduce consumption, a tax on advertising, and a proportionate reduction in world trade.
This is where fuller analysis needs working through. Taking the work/leisure issue, firstly the definitions are not at all clear and absolute. Leisure will reduce output but increase consumption if it is not to be entirely idle. This may be entirely what is needed if the present crisis is caused by productivity diverging from real wages, increasing output whilst depressing disposable income. But it will need the basic citizen's income the Skidelskys propose. Indeed, the argument is complete if it is recognised that the productivity/real wage gap is inevitable in an advanced technology economy, making debt equally inevitable, and a non-repayable unfunded basic income the only ultimate remedy. Simply reducing consumption would aggravate the present crisis and lead to unemployment and poverty for lower income workers. For example, stopping eating bananas would devastate some developing economies, despite the ecological gain.
The book ends with a wistful suggestion that religion may have a contribution to the remodelling of economic society the authors promote. This would be preferable to state morality if coercion is to be avoided. But religion would also need to reform to be more inclusive, offer more social meta-narrative from its myths, and put aside its doctrinal emphases. We can only hope. In the meantime, the Skidelskys' book deserves and needs the rich debate it inspires.
Author `An Enlightened Philosophy - Can an Atheist Believe Anything?'
on 22 April 2013
I had heard high praises of this book on the radio and in the printed press - and was rather disappointed. It's interesting for a lay person as myself as long as it references historical economic and moral theories. But it is also paternalistic middle class, without realistic regard about the vast majority of the populus who neither has enough access to the means to live a good life, nor the eductaion to do so. Disappointing, struggeled to read the book till the end.
on 6 March 2013
This book takes a critical look at common economic concepts such as GDP. I enjoyed its questioning of the conventional wisdom, but I was not completely convinced by the alternatives suggested.
One thing though is clear - we must change how we live.