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.