Why Keynes was Right, and Utterly Wrong
The economic theories of John Maynard Keynes are experiencing a resurgence. With the election of Francois Hollande as French President, Keynesian nostrums, such as state investment in infrastructure projects, are considered the only way to expand a European economy stagnating under demand-choking austerity. But Keynes himself would have been surprised by the need for this new renaissance. He believed that, by now, humanity would be nearing a permanent solution of its “economic problem”, enabling radically reduced working hours and increased leisure.
Technologically Keynes was prescient. But the man credited with “saving capitalism from itself” during the Great Depression, did not understand how capitalism would thwart the liberating potential of the very economic abundance it helped to create. The “distasteful” and “unjust” practices Keynes thought humanity could discard haven’t eased their grip. They have intensified. In order to realise the benefits of the “economic bliss” Keynes foresaw, we need the insights of anti-capitalist thinkers. We need to go beyond Keynesianism.
According to the person some regard as “the greatest economist who every lived” we should, by now, be approaching a state of “economic bliss”. John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930 that under the surface of the unfolding gloom of the Great Depression, mankind was solving its economic problem.
In the essay, “The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, he predicted that in 100 years’ time, Europe and the US would be between four and eight times more wealthy. He thought that his descendants of 2030 would work three hour days and fifteen hour weeks. Their main dilemma would be how to occupy their abundant leisure.
Keynesianism is undergoing a renaissance. As growth stutters in the developed world, Keynes’ belief in using the state to expand the economy through funding infrastructure projects, as an alternative to the failure of austerity, is swiftly becoming the conventional wisdom. New French President Francois Hollande is widely thought to be bringing Keynesian salvation to a Europe starving for economic growth.
What is less noted is that Keynes thought we should have outgrown the need for such primitive tools by now.
Keynes believed as the economic problem, the need to survive and produce, relaxed its hold on the human race, a great change in morality would ensue. “We shall honour,” he imagined, not the wealth seeker but “the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things”.
All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which will now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.
Now, just 18 years before the date of Keynes’ prediction comes to pass, we can see how right and yet, at the same time, how monumentally wrong, he was.
Caligula would be jealous
Right in the bare terms of social wealth. We are in the UK, according to the writer, John Lancaster, who has analysed Keynes’ prediction, 4.6 times more wealthy than we were in the 1930s.
We, in the West, live lives that would be the envy of any Roman emperor or pharaoh, says Lancaster.
“If I had been living in the 19th century and someone told me now most of the population have air conditioning, and enough food to eat and obesity would have reversed its social distribution, I would have thought we are living in some kind of utopian harmony,” said epidemiologist and co-author of The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson recently.
But we aren’t living in utopia. Though society has produced immense wealth, we are experiencing a dystopia in various ways. The unjust and distasteful practices that Keynes thought we could slough off haven’t eased their grip in the midst of greater wealth. Instead we are even more constricted by them. Humanity is further than ever from solving its economic problem.
Private fortunes, no qualms
There are various names for this process. Marketisation or commodification – the turning of human beings and their relationships into something you can sell on the market. John Lancaster says there has been a “reverse takeover” in British life. The City of London’s relentless obsession with short-term profit, shareholder value and league tables has seeped – or rather flooded - into the arenas of public service such as the NHS, the BBC and education. The public sector in Britain has been remade in the image of the private sector.
One in five British workers are now employed by a private equity company. Private equity funds takeover existing companies, restructure them often in the form of extensive job losses, increase the intensity of work, and then sell them on again for large profits.
“While the directors of these funds make private fortunes,” writes Ignacio Ramonet in Le Monde Diplomatique, “they have no qualms about applying the four great principles of rationalisation to the companies they buy: downsize staff, reduce wages, increase work rates and relocate.”
Strikes in the UK, when they manage to happen at all, are revealingly not just about wage levels, but bullying management. After a strike vote at British Gas in 2010, the union there called for an independent inquiry into the “profit at all costs culture” at the former state-owned utility.
The Institute of Directors wants the state retirement age in Britain to rise to 70. The government is set to save £2 billion by withdrawing benefit from ill and disabled people. We must take “tough decisions” we are told. Suddenly what we took for granted is now unaffordable. This is poverty in the midst of plenty.
Keynes prediction of a 15 hour working week has proved staggeringly inaccurate. Between 1998 and 2005, the number of people in Britain working more than 48 hours a week more than doubled. And one in six now works more than 60 hours.
This has happened in the midst of a technological development – computerization - that has vastly reduced the need for physical labour. When the need for toil is diminished, and thus the precondition for increased leisure established, but the result is much more labour, the culprit is clearly not the technology itself but the economic system through which it is applied in everyday life.
With technological development, Keynes looked forward to the end of the pretence that foul is fair “because foul is useful and fair is not”. But fair has not triumphed. Foul practices are regarded as indispensable because they are judged to “create wealth”. But there aren’t indispensable. We only think they are.
But under the dysfunctional economic system of capitalism, technological development, far from liberating people as it should, actually damages them.
Intelligent left-wing thought today is aware that people in Europe and the US live in immensely wealthy societies, but that more people do not see the benefits of that wealth: the ability, which Keynes envisaged, of devoting their energies to “non-economic purposes”. Because they are too busy making it for other people.
In the 1940s, the historian Karl Polanyi spoke of capitalism’s genius for creating “unheard of material welfare” but a simultaneous “catastrophic dislocation of the lives of the common people.” We are far closer today to Polanyi’s dystopia than Keynes’ utopia.
Noam Chomsky expressed the contemporary dissonance in an interview about the Occupy movement. Speaking about the US he said, “For the majority, real incomes have pretty much stagnated, sometimes declined. Benefits have also declined and work hours have gone up, and so on. It's not third world misery, but it's not what it ought to be in a rich society, the richest in the world, in fact, with plenty of wealth around, which people can see, just not in their pockets.”
Disputing that the Left Front candidate in the French Presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was simply an angry throwback to ‘70s bolshieness, politics professor Philippe Marlière, pointed out that Mélenchon has realised something that neoliberals and Blairite social democrats remain oblivious to.
“Our societies have never been as productive and wealthy as today,” he wrote in April, “but the majority of the population are getting poorer despite working harder and harder. The problem is not a question of wealth production … but of redistribution of wealth.”
To put it in more intellectual terms, what we are experiencing now in the West, is artificial scarcity. The social ecologist Murray Bookchin thought that in the 1960s, the developed world was on the verge of “post scarcity”. In the past, the material fact of scarcity, he believed, provided an objective reason for the re-emergence of privilege and domination, after they were overturned by revolution.
“Any society that could promise little more materially than equality of poverty invariably engendered deep-seated tendencies to restore a new system of privilege,” he wrote in Listen, Marxist! “The ‘masses’ were always compelled to return to a lifetime of toil and were rarely free to establish the organs of self-management that could last beyond the revolution”.
But in 1969, when he wrote that essay, Bookchin believed that the compulsions of scarcity were disappearing. Humanity was solving its economic problem, the predicament Keynes described as “the primary, most pressing problem, of the human race” since the dawn of time, “the struggle for subsistence.” If humanity was on the cusp of “post-scarcity” in 1969, we have certainly entered that state now.
That is why the problem we face not, as Marlière points out, one of wealth production. But it is not just a question of redistributing wealth either, but also of the conditions under which wealth is produced, and who controls, as the Marxists used to say, the means of production. Whether we will continue to allow resources to be controlled by small elites – boards of directors and shareholders – or democratize the economy.
A false choice
In the midst of the Great Recession, we are being presented with a choice, of higher unemployment and its associated malaises, or economic growth. We should rebel against the two sides of that choice. “We suffer from downturns but it is not the same as needing growth. We want stability of economic activity,” says The Spirit Level’s Richard Wilkinson. “People see it as a choice of either higher unemployment or economic growth. Again, we must break that idea and show that there are other possibilities.”
John Maynard Keynes realised the potential for humanity to solve its economic problem. But despite saving capitalism from itself during the Great Depression, he seemed blind as to how the system he helped preserve would stymie the potential for the “economic bliss” he foresaw. That’s one reason why he wasn’t, as John Lancaster claims, the “greatest economist who ever lived”. Or if he was, it tells you something quite revealing about all the others.