How much is enough?

25 11 2009

Robert Skidelsky, with whom I debated on this issue a few weeks ago, has returned to the fray in the Guardian. In his new article he looks at Keynes’s prediction that by 2030 the world (or at least the developed part of it) will have raised living standards sufficiently to call a halt to growth and to reduce the working week to 15 hours. Skidelsky points out that we have already reached Keynes’s income target in the west, but instead of this leading to a shorter working week it has led to the tendency for people to work longer for higher pay. He explains this as due to  insatiable desires induced by the consumer society.

 Keynes …recognised that there are two kinds of needs, absolute and relative, and that the latter may be insatiable. But he underestimated the weight of relative needs, especially as societies got richer, and, of course, the power of advertising to create new wants, and thus induce people to work in order to earn the money to satisfy them. As long as consumption is conspicuous and competitive, there will continue to be fresh reasons to work.

As I pointed out in my debate with Skidelsky, the developing world is far from reaching even the basic levels of income required to combat poverty. This alone would demand that we continue to grow the world’s economy for many years to come. I also argued that even in the west there are many areas of life and many sections of society which are underfunded and  suffering deprivations of different types.

However let us accept for the time being that we stay in the developed countries and we equalise incomes to produce a tolerable subsistence level for all of society. Would this then justify an end to growth? It is a good question to ask. After all, it is true that often consumption for consumption’s sake can induce a feeling akin to nausea. It is something I experience every Xmas when confronted with the huge pile of presents which arrive for my children, most of which are consigned to the rubbish tip within days (sorry grandparents!). It is also true that we ‘need’ many of the things we buy only in the sense of satisfying a desire, rather than in order to keep alive and healthy.

So should we cut back on growth and train ourselves to not want things which we do not absolutely need? I think this is a dangerous path to pursue. Human beings have developed modern sophisticated societies on the back of scientific, medical, technological and engineering progress. Taking the long view, in the space of a few thousand years we have transformed ourselves from primitive beings at the mercy of the elements to masters of our own destiny. We have turned our planet from a hostile environment to one of relative safety for most. Accepting an end to growth in all of these areas would mean that we have effectively called a halt to our upward progress.

This would have profound effects on who we are. Humans have become something special through our conflict with the natural forces which threaten us. We have transformed ourselves into civilised people through this process. If we gave up on this struggle, stopped being inquisitive and experimental, we would be in danger of becoming the human equivalent of cows, well fed, safe and chewing the cud to pass the time.

Where Skidelsky has a point is in his recognition that we have paid a price for the way in which we organise production,

The accumulation of wealth, which should be a means to the “good life,” becomes an end in itself because it destroys many of the things that make life worth living. Beyond a certain point – which most of the world is still far from having reached – the accumulation of wealth offers only substitute pleasures for the real losses to human relations that it exacts.

Here Skidelsky touches on the alienating and destructive effect of modern capitalism on human relations,something Marx described brilliantly in his description of commodity fetishism. It is true that the capitalist mode of production isolates and alienates us from each other through the endless process of competition. But to use this as a reason to abandon economic growth is to confuse the current way we organise production (capitalism) with the purpose of production (raising living standards). We can find an alternative to the first eventually perhaps, but we should never give up on the struggle to develop ourselves through further control over the world around us.



6 responses

25 11 2009
Johny Morris

“I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power, but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. ” (Thomas Hobbes ‘Levaithan’ 1651).

Not much changed in 450 years then. It’s the crux of the probelm central to capitalism – we live in an Alice Through the Looking Glass world where we need to constantly run faster to stay in the same place. The British economy is just about at zero growth right now and unemployment is rising. It will continue to rise, or at leat plateau at an unaceptable level, until we start growing again. Our public services will be sweated until growth resstores profits and taxes and we can start to invest again. Has Skidelsky got an answer to this?

25 11 2009
Angus Kennedy

I’m not sure that Skidelsky is attacking alienation. I read his article as really attacking greedy consumers which he telegraphs at the start of the article re bankers and continues throughout.

This is a key bit:

“It is also unlikely that growth will stop – unless nature itself calls a halt. People will continue to trade leisure for higher incomes.”

What is he saying here? I read him to mean that “we” must act to halt consumerist greed, that it is to blame for the destruction of healthy human relationships, that individuals are to blame, eyes are bigger than stomachs, not that alienation or the capitalist mode of production is to blame. We can twist him to say that but I don’t think it really hits home. He must end up, that’s the logic of his argument, in an authoritarian position: put a stop to greed or nature will… I.e. he wants to politicise consumption: not the economy which is what we need.

He fails to make a distinction between growth – raising the productive forces of society – and individual accumulation of goods, wealth. We need to explain that difference – as you do – but concede no ground to individuals wanting to consume more (or produce more): whether in satisfaction of needs or desires. Both are commodity forms. Man needs both satisfied: it’s alienation after all, as Marx said, that separates man into “an abstract activity and a stomach”.

He is attacking growth indirectly through an attack on consumption. I’m a little nervous, in that context, Rob, by your too many presents example – do we risk conceding too much ground to his starting point? I know how difficult it is to argue this in any way that makes sense or is not easily caricatured, but don’t we need a way of celebrating the fact that we can give too many Christmas presents? I certainly don’t think that doing so is at all explained as a result of too much growth/wealth.

(As an aside, I don’t even agree that there could be such a thing as too many Christmas presents – that really doesn’t make sense! Before Christmas was ‘commercialised’ it really was rubbish..)

25 11 2009
Stuart Simpson

There is clearly much to disagree with in Skidelsky’s article. His acceptance of limits, his attack upon consumerism and the creation of needs, etc. There is a time and a place to argue against these ideas.

But at the heart of the piece there is a legitimate question. Why is it that the creation of vast amounts of wealth does not translated into the good life?
Asking this question is not the same as accepting limits to growth. Although Skidelsky may ask this question and also accept that there are limits to growth.

The answer to this question isn’t profound – Rob does it very well – it is just more constructive than worrying about conceding ground, etc.

25 11 2009
Canada Guy

We are nearing the end of economic growth. We are depleting our renewable and non-renewable resources faster than ever, while at the same time destroying our environment, and our economic base. In other words, we’re burning through our principal, not living off the interest.

27 11 2009
JJ Charlesworth

At the core of Skidelsky’s attack on individual consumption is a nihilistic acceptance that wealth, or society’s productive capacity, cannot be deployed more creatively than it is under Capitalism. It is an acceptance which is also in its heart cynical, as it shuts out any discussion about how wealth might better be deployed even in the here-and-now, under Capitalism, because this leads to a discussion of the role of the state in how it currently deploys wealth to social ends. The attack on consumption seeks, consciously or not, to depoliticise the social nature of production; and given that state spending in Capitalism is the main expression of the (potentially) rational, socialised deployment of socialised wealth, such an attack makes the nature of the state, and its use of the wealth we produce, off-limits to critique.

I would hope that Rob gets over his nausea about Christmas gifts; I personally would love the opportunity to give more to those who are dear to me. What is really nauseating with critics like Skidelsky is their disdainful assertion that consumerism (the individuated and passive encounter with Capitalist production) is an indictment of production per se, rather than to understand consumerism as the symptom of the inability of people to socially direct the use of the wealth that they create.

What is equally nauseating among these production-haters is their arrogant assumption that they know best what distinguishes need from desire. They pretend that need is authentic while desire is somehow superfluous; this betrays their degraded, psychobabbled understanding of desire, which they assume is merely unconscious satiation, which they equate with the passive and narcissistic individual consumer.

But desire should be more properly understood as collective ambition and social will, as the wish or ambition to develop what human society can be; we should take the fight to them on those terms. For example, how much wealth do Skidelsky et al think we will need to produce in order deploy the kinds of gene therapies that will bring a universal end to cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease? Is the wish to end of degenerative illness a need or a desire? How much wealth do they think will we need to produce to construct the first fusion reactors, which will put an end to energy scarcity? is that a need or a desire? Or how much wealth will we need to allow us to send humans to settle on Mars? Is this a need, or a desire?

In fact, everything good about these things is that they are desires, not needs. Humanity understood only as need, only really ‘needs’ a cave and some berries. In reality, base need is and always has been superceded by human desire. it is desire that humanises production, away from the actuality of survival, and towards the recognition of what its possible. And what is possible is, of course, endless.

30 04 2014
Killick critique of Skidelsky -

[…] Killick has written a response to Robert Skidelsky’s recent Guardian article (see 24 November post) on his Postrecession blog. […]

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