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How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life Paperback – 5 Sep 2013
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A crisp and pungent book (Rowan Williams Prospect)
"How much is enough?" is a good question. Anyone who sets store by capitalism and markets will find [this] book uncomfortable reading. It should be read all the same (Economist)
A truly innovative and radical perspective on reshaping the economy ... thought-stirring and extremely refreshing (John Gray Guardian)
A welcome call to reinvigorate society's ethical aspect and bring about the good life for everyone (New Yorker)
In their thoughtful book, the Skidelskys move seamlessly from the abstract to the concrete; from philosophy to public policy. They note that Keynes's futuristic essay was ignored as the world sank into the Great Depression. Will we again ignore this call to imagine a better future? (Jon Cruddas MP Independent)
About the Author
Robert Skidelsky is Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick. His three volume biography of John Maynard Keynes (1983, 1992, 2000) received numerous prizes, including the Lionel Gelber Prize for International Relations and the Council on Foreign Relations Prize for International Relations. He was made a life peer in 1991, and aFellow of the British Academy in 1994.
Edward Skidelsky is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Exeter. He is author of Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture and contributes regularly to the New Statesman and Prospect. He is currently working on a book entitled The Language of the Virtues.
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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.
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.
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