Austerity, Abundance, Or Affluence: Visions For A Post-Scarcity World

Is ending poverty really the limit of our ambitions for a good society? Is equality really the right measure of our ultimate hope for a re-imagined city? We don’t want austerity, and we question affluence; what do we want?

At a recent Re-imagining the City visioning session, the term “abundance” was suggested as characterizing the desirable city being envisioned. It was in the context of what public policies are ultimately wanted to achieve a sound vision of a good thoroughly re-imagined city. It aroused the beginning of a serious discussion. And provoked the following thoughts, focusing on the concept of abundance as the answer to the controversial current policy issues of austerity and growth.

As a first reaction: we have too much abundance now. Even if “abundance” is not limited to the physical, we have too much of the physical aspect for an ecologically sustainable city,  We need, if anything, a redistribution of what we have to those that need it most, and most of us have more of it than we need or can really appreciate. And even in the non-physical area, we have too much communication pressing in on us, too many demands on our time, too many people we would enjoy seeing more of but don’t have the time for, too many things we want to see and do and experience for our limited lifetimes. So not abundance, with its implication of more, but rather less, but differently distributed and maybe differently formed.

But there’s another way of reading the claim for “abundance.” Over the long course of history, and until very recently, most societies have struggled to create both the social relations and the physical goods necessary to meet all people’s basic needs: the needs for adequate shelter, food, water, security, care, that are necessary to sustain life.[1] They have been societies of scarcity. Consequently, some measure of austerity was inevitable, even as to basic needs, and if some were in a position to get more than they needed, that was at the cost of even more austerity for the rest. Even if  slowly a net societal surplus was created, it did not eliminate austerity, because of two limiting conditions:  1) the ability to produce a surplus over basic needs was still limited, and 2) the social arrangements included inequalities of power that permitted some to take more than they needed, reducing what was available for others. Thus, a large measure of austerity as to basic needs was existed for very many. Not to speak of austerity as to the many elements that would be desirable for a rich and fully developed human life to flourish for all.

But times have changed.  Neither of the limiting conditions that have brought about austerity the past longer need to exist. As to the technical, since at least the middle of the last century technological advances have gone so far that it is readily possible for a society to produce enough to provide all with the basic necessities of life and in addition  produce a surplus to enable all lives to flourish. Even with today’s technology, if we eliminated both the production of the weapons of war and the devastation their use causes, if we ended the waste in the production and marketing of socially unneeded goods, if we stopped making luxury goods and providing luxury services used more as shows of status than for actual use, we would have an abundance of what was actually needed. And today, as to the social, we have the knowledge to organize our societies rationally and to organize production and distribution in a way to enable a just and sustainable life for all. (The difficulties in applying that knowledge is discussed below) Austerity is no longer needed.

The opposite of austerity is abundance. Abundance is today both technologically feasible and desirable.

But an abundance of what, and how much of it? No absolute answer can be given to either  question, but some conclusions relevant to public policy and social relationships can be suggested. They lead to one answer: what is desired in abundance is what is appropriate not only for the basic necessities of life, the traditional physiological needs for food, water, and shelter, but includes the availability of the social services and supports that are generally accepted as being among the rights of man, things like health care, education, recreational opportunities. And beyond these basic necessities, the higher levels of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, for social solidarity, security, respect, belonging, opportunities for self-expression, etc. . The aspiration for a level of abundance that can fully meet the hopes of all for this full range of needs, for what constitutes a full, rich life, is today a reasonable and feasible aspiration.

Abundance is a good term for what is wanted. Its precise formulation can, and should be, debated. It is not “growth,” for its own sak, certainly not as measure by GNP, or average incomes. Rising tides don’t lift all boats  equally, and growth of some activities can be positively harmful. “Abundance”  as used here is the generous availability of that which permits human flourishing and supports the full development of individual capabilities, that which optimizes happiness for all, that which promotes  living the most fully possible human life.[2] The aspiration for abundance goes beyond goals such as the elimination of poverty, the reduction of inequality, even the provision of justice based on performance. These are criteria that belong to a society of scarcity; in a society of abundance, they can be met and exceeded.

I take it for granted that what is wanted must meet criteria of social justice[3] and of sustainability. Neither of those criteria requires austerity today; both can be met consistent with the provision of abundance through the reasonable uses of technology and reasonable social arrangements.

So, as a matter of policy, austerity is not needed today as to neither the basic necessities of life, or as to the conditions permitting life beyond the basics to flourish. Imposing austerity on the level of governmental and social provision and actions is clearly the opposite of what is wanted, and stands in the way of achieving the good city and society that can be re-imagined today. Abundance is what is wanted.

But the question of the how much abundance is desired must also be answered.  Whatever that level is, it must of course be within the limits of ecological sustainability. That such a limit can technically be met and yet permit production of what is needed is not seriously debated.  It will certainly require alteration of some basic social arrangements. Detailing the requirements in concrete detail is in fact is one of the purposes of advocating re-imagining the city; the point here is only to clarifying the goal. The next step is appropriately a matter for democratic decision-making, there being agreement on the goal.

But, under existing social and political arrangements, there is a difficulty here. For there is a tendency among some within the  affluent portion of today’s societies to read into the goal of abundance, into the definition of what they need to flourish, an desire for recognition of  superiority,  a desire to have more than others, for a level of conspicuous consummation over and above their needs. The capitalist system inherently is based on the drive to accumulate; accumulation is an end in itself. We have the knowledge to change this and to do better, but the system blocks putting that knowledge to use. And it has been enormously successful in producing great wealth for some with poverty for others. And it is a self-perpetuating arrangement, for the possession of wealth brings with it power to keep the arrangements that provide it. Capitalism provides more than abundance for the affluent, and leaves less for the non-affluent, leaving as a result abundance for the few and austerity for the many.

Nor is that result accidental, or even unwanted, by the affluent.   The very dictionary definition of affluence makes the point clear

Affluence in the United States refers to an individual’s or household’s state of being in an economically favorable position in contrast to a given reference group.[4]

Affluence for the few contradicts abundance for the many.

And it is not only for the very few really affluent that this negative argument holds. The system that produces affluence for the few also creates a desire for affluence by many.  When people are asked why, if their income is modest, they object to raising taxes on the very rich, many answer that they hope to be very rich themselves some time in the future. They hope to change their position from one less favorable than that of the already affluent to one of affluence for themselves. Hence the phrase “affluent society,”[5] is used not because everyone in it is affluent, but because the pursuit of affluence is seen as a driving force in the whole society.

So the re-imagined image of the desirable society is neither one of austerity nor one of affluence, but one of abundance, somewhere in between.

A final important note: the vision of a society of abundance includes a vision of human beings quite different from what they tend to be in societies of austerity or of affluence.  They will not be like the suffering, worried, insecure, exploited and discontented and oppressed members of a society of deprivation and austerity. Nor will they be like the driven, one-dimensional, competitive, aggressive, self-satisfied but insecure top echelons of the society of affluence. Abundance would permit a society of individuals at peace with themselves, each other, and nature, relaxed, secure, other-regarding men and women. Acquisition of goods and services will not be for their commercial value, their exchange value, but for their direct use, in ways fostering sharing with others both for reasons of efficiency and solidarity.

No one will have to worry about whether they have enough of what they really need, as in a society of austerity, nor will anyone worry that others might have more than they have, as in a society of affluence.

The above description sounds utopian and a pipe dream. Abundance will not by itself produce such a society, but will make it possible. The path to it begins with a rejection of the necessity for austerity and a rejection of fixation on ever growing affluence, and an alteration of those social arrangements that today block the peaceful road to creating abundance for all.


[1] There’s a long discussion in the sociological literature about just how to define these needs. Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–96. is probably the seminal text, suggesting a hierarchy of needs, ranging from Physiological needs to Safety needs to needs for Love and Belonging to Esteem to Self-actualization. I use “basic needs” generically here as equivalent to physiological needs, and consider the other four as needs needing to be satisfied for a flourishing life. .

[2] For urban policy, Susan Fainstein’s The Just City, Cornell University Press, 2010, is good starting point for an examination of the possibilities, but the definitions of the good life have concerned philosophers, religions, political theorists, sociologists, economists, from time immemorial.

[3] Many different definitions of social justice have of course been put forward, with key contributions ranging from Plato to Kant to Marx to Rawls to Harvey to Fainstein and my own. The issues there involved again are not pursued in this paper.

[4] From  Cambridge International Dictionary of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995

[5] The phrase was first popularized by John Kenneth Galbraith. In “The Affluent Society” Fortieth Anniversary Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, 1998. It was further critically explored in the appropriately named talk on “Liberation from the Affluent Society,” reprinted in Unpublished  Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume III:The New Left and the 1960s (Routledge, 2005),

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