Technology and the Good Life

By Aaron Peters

The widespread demand for a Keynesian “return” to before Thatcher and Reagan is not tenable. From current levels of debt, to variables such as urbanisation, energy scarcity and housing, the world today is a very different one to 1929. Those such as Paul Krugman and Robert Skidelsky who are turning to Keynes are doing so because he is the only economist (except Marx) who seems to make any sense in the current crisis. What is more, technocratically-minded Keynesianism, with its focus on macroeconomics, provides elites with a comfortable set of solutions that allows them to remain in control.

But such a choice would lead to the continued degradation of social life, the planet and the reduction of the “good life” to that of consumption and work.

We are living in conditions of unparalleled global material abundance: a result of the mechanisation and automation of what was previously human labour, huge improvements in agriculture and distribution systems and of course the presence of new non-market, non-state actors that allow us to share information and culture and much more besides. Within this context, we are quite capable of providing housing, education and healthcare for all while working only 21 hours a week.

Yet it increasingly seems that the role of the state is to defend enforced scarcity and therefore, value. This is true with regards to changes in intellectual property rights, the criminalisation of squatting despite nearly one million empty homes and the truculence of government in failing to accept the inevitability of sharing digital content within the new paradigm. Instead, labour and capital is deployed to those areas where it can get returns such as the advertising (to tell us we need things that we don’t), built-in obsolesence of consumer goods and affective labour. All of this is “growth” built on waste, not efficiency. Such an inhumane system increasingly will permit neither individuals nor culture to flourish.

While it may be tempting for the left to champion a Krugman-like Keynesianism and “go for growth”, given contemporary levels of abundance, combined with unprecedented levels of education, technical knowledge and new forms of non-state, non-market production, we should not be looking at the period of 1945-73 as an idyll to be repeated. It is not possible, neither is it – I would argue – desirable.

The solution to the current crisis cannot be a return to a statist capitalism. Instead must be built on new forms of common production, stewardship, localised production and manufacture and social reproduction beyond work. It must be about making the mechanisation of labour conducive to human flourishing, as opposed to private profit.

Working less would be a first step towards this goal. The recent 21-hour week proposal by the new economics foundation coheres with my own belief that such a proposition would do much to deal with unemployment, social and family breakdown and alienation more generally. The danger of the full employment utopias historically favoured by the left is that we reduce people’s needs to those relating to work, rather than the needs of their life. Andre Gorz argued that a 10-20 hour week could permit social reproduction and produce necessities for all – such as shelter, food, computers and clothes. His hope was that as technology progressed, efficiencies would mean less work, not higher profits.

This coheres with the stance of the Luddites, who were not opposed to technology in itself, but rather opposed technology that deprived people of “commonality”, seeking instead to harness it in a fashion conducive to the common interest. This would require the socialisation of certain industries, and also the active facilitation of new kinds of ownership and a challenge to the notion of intellectual property rights. There also needs to be a massive redistribution of land and resources and any republican movement in the United Kingdom necessarily also needs to be a land movement.

To propose any concrete alternative economic model at this juncture would smack of hubris. Right now no-one has the answers and that is precisely what characterizes a crisis. But one thing is certain: by embracing the underconsumptionist critique and the Keynesian solutions of those such as Skidelsky, Baran and Krugman, we will not only be failing to think outside the box, we will be reaching for a branch that simply isn’t there anymore.

There will be no second act for Roosevelt’s New Deal. Instead we must answer the question that Keynes posed in his 1930 essay: how, after growth, can we “live wisely, agreeably and well”?

Edited highlights of Forget the ‘golden age’ of capitalism: there’s no return, and our future can be better by Aaron Peters.