Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Utopia, a la John Maynard Keynes

There is much to admire in John Quiggin's article on the forgotten utopian ideals of John Maynard Keynes. An economy founded on a Greco-Roman principle of leisure, the tantilizing prospect of fifteen hour work weeks, and the glaring light these shine on the inequities of ye olde trickle downe effect can be listed. Calls for dignified work with a decent wage have long since been drowned out by law-makers, bankers, and CEOs, mindful of boards of governors with the fingers pointed squarely at the bottom line. The political will to see these things accomplished seems to have been exhausted. The activities of trade unions are being curtailed through so-called 'right to work' legislation, the number of hours in a work-week have increased, and the mandatory age of retirement creeps ever higher. Governing officials respond by saying they are merely responding to the pressures of a changing marketplace. But that's the point; or, more precisely, that's the problem.
An escape from what Keynes called ‘the tunnel of economic necessity’ is still open to us. Yet it will require radical changes in the economic structures that drive the chase for money and in the attitudes shaped by a culture of consumption. After decades of finance-driven capitalism, it takes an effort to recall that such changes ever seemed possible.

Yet it is now clear that market liberalism has failed in its own terms. It promised that if markets were set free, everyone would benefit in the long run.The goal of maximizing profits while minimizing costs will not ultimately square with the ideal of a decent wage.
A more efficient marketplace is not the same thing as a better social order. Today we are guided by different stars, and it's naive to think we are still traveling towards the same place.

The glaring presumption that there ever has been, or ever will be, a traversible road to utopia ought not be counted among those things to admire in the article. Whether we imagine that road to be paved by material progress, moral discipline, social planning, or technological development, the skeptical regard which Thomas More bore his own Utopia is a salutary reminder to denizens of the genre. Quiggin suggests there will be a point in the near future, given present material and technological progress, when no one will 'need' to be poor. The choice of terminology is telling. The suggestion seems to be, should poverty still exist beyond that point, it will be because humanity has perversely stood in the way of what was otherwise inevitable. Here is a prime example of a hopeful monster if there ever was one. If it can be thought, the hope says, it can also be accomplished, but the monstrous means would have need to be employed to achieve the supposedly inevitable end tell a cautionary tale. Utopia is quite literally no place, or not a place, so no road will ever get you there.

Humanity is made from crooked, knotty stuff, which does not conform to abstractions so easily as someone intellectually inclined might like to think. Not without good reason did Plato consign his Republic to the realm of ideas only vaguely approximated through great effort in bodily reality. Nor was Augustine merely giving voice to a unjustified pessimism regarding human nature when he placed the New Jerusalem at the conclusion of the present age. Hopeful monsters, like the one Quiggin proposes, are rather the progeny of an intemperate impatience. It is a trap not easily avoided by modern liberals, who profess love for humanity in enlightened abstraction, but are severely disappointed by its colourful exemplars.

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