In a little known 1930 essay, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the present time we would be working just fifteen hours a week because technological progress would make possible an increase in output. Of course, a fifteen hour work week is as distant a dream today as it was 80 years ago. Father and son team Robert and Edward Skidelsky explain that what Keynes failed to understand was that capitalism “has no spontaneous tendency to evolve into something nobler.” Keynes, they argue, also mistakenly assumed material wants to be naturally finite, when in fact humans are predisposed to material insatiability. This destructive predilection is, in turn, inflamed by capitalism “which has made it the psychological basis of an entire civilization.”
Broad-ranging and well-written, How Much is Enough? is an argument against this insatiability. More broadly, Robert, Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick, and Edward, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Exeter, hope their book will contribute to “rethinking what we want out of life: what money is for and what is meant by the good life.”
At the book’s end they have a decent stab at defining this, setting out seven pillars of their Good Life: health, security, respect, personality (“the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes”), harmony with nature, friendship and leisure. Leading up to this the Skidelskys provide a meandering philosophical history of the Good Life, taking in Faust, Marx, Hegel and Marcuse. They also tender an interesting critique of the relatively new ‘happiness economics’ and a rather sloppy discussion of the politics of climate change. On the latter, bizarrely they claim politicians have latched onto the most extreme interpretations of the climate science in an attempt to bolster their green credentials. Surely, the public statements and actions of the mainstream political parties show the exact opposite is true? The Skidelskys also have great hope in technological solutions, which will likely enable “our descendents” to cope with four degrees or more of warming. “Our descendents” presumably doesn’t include the 300,000 people – overwhelmingly in the Global South – who die every year because of global warming, according to the Global Humanitarian Forum. The authors Western-centric ignorance continues: “Our Edwardian ancestors could not have foreseen the genetic technologies that enable us to feed 7 billion people today”, they argue. Nevermind that the World Food Programme estimates over one billion people go hungry everyday.
While many of the ideas in this lively book will be familiar to those who follow the work of people such as Richard Laynard, George Monbiot and the New Economics Foundation, that someone like Robert Skidelsky – a Conservative peer between 1992 and 2001 – is now taking them seriously is an important step. His suggested social policies to ring in the Good Life come across as an afterthought but are still of interest: a basic citizens income and a reduction in advertising. These attempts to move to a more European style of capitalism will necessarily require an increase in taxation, he believes, and therefore will trigger strong political resistance from the forces of the status quo. The fight for a better life for ordinary people – the Good Life – continues.
How much is enough? The Love of Money, and the Case for the Good Life is published by Allen Lane, priced £20.