Reviewed by Mary Mellor
This book has a particular target audience in mind, the wealthy, overworked, overconsuming economic agent of modern capitalism. The authors want to convince that person to abandon the pursuit of money and the rat race and move to a more gentle form of life, a Good Life in the Aristotelian sense. It sometimes reads as if this is a very personal conversation. The authors (father and son) use ‘we’ and ‘our’ continually, meaning both the authors and the assumed reader. This is also a very male conversation, the male pronoun is used throughout. Women rarely appear and most certainly not the dilemmas of women’s work and lives that feminists have addressed. The main contrast is between leisure and paid work. The position of unpaid work is not addressed, although the authors do discuss the ‘bored housewife’ and the double working life of women briefly. Despite this, what the authors hope for is a new collective vision that will enable a ‘decent collective life’ (3). The writers draw on a Catholic social vision of a social market economy, composed of small scale independent agents in strong family relationships. They acknowledge that this may be seen as paternalistic.
The book starts from the failure of Keynes’ prediction that within a hundred years people would be working only a few hours. Instead, people are working long hours driven by either necessity or a life-style choice of overconsumption or workaholism. They see Keynes’ error as not realising that humans have an ‘Original Sin’ of insatiability. The authors argue that earlier societies had broadly Aristotelian views of wealth and its uses that put moral restraints on consumption and made commerce subservient to politics and contemplation. Modern capitalism, in contrast is degenerative, giving rise to a predatory plutocracy and moral decay. There is ‘no longer any moral, political or cultural constraint on individual pursuit of wealth’ (183). Modern economies have made a Faustian bargain with capitalism that once wealth was achieved the Good Life could commence, but have been trapped into a cycle of work and consumption. The hopes of Marx that societies would shake off the shackles of capitalism have not come true. For many of the better off, work has become life. The poor on the other hand, are not paid enough to cut down their working hours. Economics as a discipline is seen as complicit in this process through its concern with the efficient meeting of insatiable wants without questioning the nature of those wants or insatiability itself. In particular, the distinction between needs and wants is blurred, there is no basis for ‘enough’. Equally there is no distinction between use value and exchange value, in fact, the concept of use value has been lost.
Despite what could been seen as a common agenda, the green case for sustainability is rejected, not because the authors deny the validity of the green cause, but because they argue that even if natural resources were unlimited and there was no ecological problem, the argument for leading the Good Life would still stand. They reject all utilitarian arguments in favour of their ethical stand: the Good Life is an end in itself. A further chapter reviews the happiness agenda and its rejection of the idea that wealth creates contentment. The happiness arguments are rejected on the grounds that if happiness is the only aim, why not just give everyone a means of brain stimulation to produce the required result.
The pivots of the book are the elements of the Good Life the authors identify, which are a rather strange collection: health, security, respect, personality, friendship, harmony with nature, leisure. These are presented as ‘basic goods’, which seem to bear an affinity to ‘basic needs’. However they are not seen as a means to the end of the Good, but the Good itself ‘basic goods … are not just a means to, or capabilities for, a good life: they are the good life’ (148). Basic goods are seen as universal, final (ends in themselves), sui generis (not part of some other good) and indispensable.
Health is defined as the ‘full functioning of the body’ vitality, energy, alertness and ‘ruddy beauty’ (!) ‘happy obliviousness of one’s own body’, ‘young man’s [sic] vitality’ (154) . However, the idea of endless perfectibility of health (stopping ageing, cosmetic surgery, etc.) is rejected in favour of an idealist concept of ‘the body’s natural perfection’. This notion of health seems to confuse wellness with fitness, even beauty. Surely what is important is good treatment whatever the level of wellness or fitness. Many people are not lucky enough to be ‘happily oblivious’ of their body. It is rather alarming that bodily comfort such as a morphine drip is rejected as utilitarian and therefore not qualifying as a Good in these terms.
Security is equally confusing, defined as ‘an individual’s justified expectation that his [sic] life will continue more or less in its accustomed course undisturbed by war, crime, revolution or major social and economic upheavals’ (156). This must assume that the individual is already leading the Good Life not to want anything to change. Surely only the most privileged would prioritise this highly conservative notion of security.
The authors see the two sources of Respect in ‘modern bourgeois societies’ as ‘civil rights and personal achievement’. In the latter case ‘an individual must make something of his [sic] life … earn an ‘honest crust’’ (159). They do recognise that a more equal distribution of wealth and income is necessary – but they hasten to add ‘not … completely equal’ (159). It is the better off who have the power to determine the level of inequality as ‘Equality is founded on fraternity … not vice versa’ (p160). Hopefully the rich will be fraternal.
Personality involves autonomy – ‘spontaneity, individuality and spirit’ where ‘the individual is at liberty to unfurl, to be himself [sic]’ (160). The authors advocate a Catholic distributionist broadening of the property base, as ‘private property is an essential safeguard of personality’ (161-2). As they see the family as central to their social vision, it is unclear if women would have any independent property rights or autonomy.
Harmony with nature is promoted not for nature’s sake, or for future generations, but as a ‘universal need of the soul’ (140). Any utilitarian benefit to nature is incidental. The only green issue that is taken seriously is population growth because it will ‘diminish our [sic] quality of life’ (143). Population growth is treated as a bad in itself. Even if it were ecologically sustainable people would still be ‘stacked on top of one another like battery hens’ (143). However they duck how a decline in population is to be achieved.
Friendship is seen in terms of long term stable relationships, including the family. Rather alarmingly ‘autonomy and mobility’ are decried, even though autonomy is a key aspect of personality. It is probably here that women’s autonomy would be lost in this vision of the Good Life. Friendship on the basis of utility is also rejected ‘as it is a relationship only possible between people of virtue’ (164).
Leisure is defined as something done as an end in itself not as a means to something else. Enjoyable paid work would be leisure. However only certain types of ends are allowed. Watching telly and getting drunk are firmly rejected. Football or playing the guitar is OK. Presumably knitting is OK if done for its own sake but not if young Susie needs a jumper. Where does this leave housework which the authors identify as toil, that is, as ‘necessary activity’? Where in the Good Life is such necessary activity to take place?
In terms of a political economy for the Good Life, the authors reject unrestrained capitalism and state socialism in favour of a ‘non-capitalist, non-market form of private ownership’ such as the family farm or workshop (187). They advocate ‘non-coercive paternalism’, that is, using state powers to promote the basic goods (193). They advocate higher taxes and lower hours of work, including worksharing. To support their vision of property-based autonomy, they call for a basic income preferably distributed as a ‘capital endowment’ so that people can acquire capital assets and gain economic independence. This could be funded from capital taxes, profits from state owned (but privately managed) investment trusts, a Tobin tax or carbon taxes or permits. The necessity of education for leisure is acknowledged together with control of advertising and an end to free trade and hot money. They end with a quote from Keynes that for civilisation to change it is necessary to be ‘disobedient to the test of the accountant’s profit’ (218).
The authors recognise that the notion of a Good Life is very old (naturally the Greeks figure strongly) and has been associated with elites. Earlier societies they argue were not sufficiently developed to enable all but the most favoured to indulge themselves in leisure. Modern society has the potential to enable everyone to lead a Good Life. However, the kind of Good Life the authors imagine requires high levels of education and self confidence, which is normally associated with the more wealthy and privileged. The preface offers a cosy view of father and son spending a pleasant interlude in the Languedoc spring of 2011 contemplating the Good based on their ‘own intuitions, broadened by reading, travel and conversations’ (150) while the post-Crisis world was imploding.
While there is general criticism of modern capitalist economies the whole thrust of the book is individual/moral. There is no structural politics or critique. The authors do call for a collective vision but there is no politics of how this is to be achieved. The appeal is to the better off to withdraw from the workaholic/consumerist rat race not on the ethical grounds that they are consuming too much, but because they are not living the best life they could, that is the Good Life. The authors’ hope is that a social market may emerge whereby capitalism is tamed by moral/religious sentiments. They ask at the end of the book ‘Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself in pursuit of the common good? We doubt it’ (218). It is doubtful that such a benign market could emerge. Capitalism is a structural form based on inequality that must grow or die. What is needed is not an ethics of enough for the personal benefit of the better off, we need a politics of too much for the few and not enough for the many.
2 January 2013