Are we then suggesting a return to the living standards of 1974? Not necessarily, for the luxuries acquired since then may, even if they have added nothing to our real well-being, be painful to forego. (This is an instance of the general truth that damaging social changes cannot always be rectified simply by being reversed, any more than a man flattened by a steamroller can be restored to life by being run over backwards.) What we are saying is that the long-term goal of economic policy should henceforth not be growth, but the structuring of collective existence so as to facilitate the good life. How this might be achieved is the subject of [our] final chapter. — How Much is Enough? Money and the good life
Edward and Robert Skidelsky’s book is important. The last two chapters in particular (“Elements of the Good Life” and “Exits from the Rat Race”) are essential reading for Escapologists.
In their penultimate chapter, the Skidelskys lay down some universal assets one should seek in seeking the good life (it is a far better refined and universal version of what we said here). Meanwhile, their suggestions in the final chapter are designed to nudge society in the direction of the good life and away from the obsessive pursuit of economic growth (which is the current state of things, public discussion of the good life having all but disappeared since the 1980s).
The basic belief that a somehow qualitatively ‘good’ life is more important than financial gain is and old thing, but this book puts it all down so succinctly and with reference to Western society’s current challenges, that it’s hard not to see this book as the most important one of the moment.
The book reanimates certain philosophical ideas (such as Aristotle’s Ethics and the Escapologist’s favourite, Epicurus) about good living, and questions the goals of Capitalism and the uses of wealth. It describes Capitalism as a kind of Faustian pact, one which we have the opportunity to renege upon or be duped by.
The main axis on which the book spins though, is a 1930 prediction by John Maynard Keynes (Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren) that we should now be well on our way to an ultra-short working week and maximum leisure time (2030 being a kind of singularity for Keynes). As we always say in New Escapologist, this utopia seems to be within our grasp but it inexplicably doesn’t seem to be happening. Why do we have to work such long hours just to get by when the technology and expertise and abundance of today is enough to cater for everyone? Why is soulless toil and a consumer-oriented idea of leisure now the standard mode of existence?
The Skidelskys shed light on this by examining Keynes’ prediction and current economic theory and data. The reason seems to be twofold: power (amoral distribution of wealth) and insatiability (ever-expanding definitions of what constitutes ‘enough’). Those are our enemies. Those are the things that must be curbed.
The cures offered by the Skidelskys’ last chapter are (a) a basic citizens income (a monthly or annual stipend to all citizens — a concept we discussed in New Escapologist Issue Four and may discuss again) and (b) a reduction in the pressure to consume (which we always talk about, perhaps most directly in Issues One, Three, Five and Six). It is good to have our ideas confirmed by people who know the full history and current mechanics of what we’re all talking about.
The book also features a history of utopian thinking; a spirited if somewhat sobering critique of both ‘happiness economics’ and environmental activism in relation to economics; and some explanations for how capitalism might not be a terrible thing inherently but has gone somewhat haywire in a Promethean kind of way. Read it. It’s important. Escapology for society.