Provocation #207. Leisure and economics.
Early economics was concerned with the well being of society, of all the people. This was limited because people acquiesced to the view that the population was divided between the rich and the poor and then into capitalists land owners, and the laborers. But there was still a vigorous discussion about how the product should be distributed among them. Smith, Ricardo, Coleridge, Mill and many others in the nineteenth century were involved in complex social relationships – dinners and clubs – that discussed theses issues. (Read Catherine Gallagher’s The Body Economic life, death and sensation in political economy and the Victorian Novel).
Jumping ahead to WW2, three emerged the view that the hope of technology was to eliminate drudgery and create leisure. Bad work should be done by machines. Women were to stay home (alone) with labor saving devices, the men wre to go to work to earn enough to buy the house to house the machines and their attendant wife. A living family evolved in a few decades into a machine of production and consumption. Tech was supposed to keep making this better, providing relief. What happened?
Some how the stuff produced that was supposed to produce leisure caused people working harder (in my childhood a working person, say a carpenter, could afford a house and to send children to college.) The extra, which should have relieved labor, was coopted by management and ownership. Economics seems to have abetted this process, or at least stood by seeing but ignoring, or blind to the emerging reality. Falling into the logic of pleasure and pain being a single dimension as an aid to computational approaches seems to have made very small minded thinkers of most. Economics mostly seem to have supported an anti-union attitude – keeping workers from organizing – but not at all critical of the organization of capital.
The life style of the increasingly rich has not emerged into a new civilization, but into corruption, alcohol, sex, status symbols – not into conversational salons and seminars. The elites have in fact de-educated themselves.
Aristotle was clear that a well managed estate produced a surplus, and the surplus should be used for creating leisure time, for what? – for the study of philosophy and participation in politics (very different from our slothful view of leisure.) Discussion of the purpose of leisure was shown to be discussable – but we have not done it.
Instead of discussing how better to distribute wealth we are abandoning the poor to marginal employment, unemployment, or climate catastrophe. Any idea of organizing society for the good of all is missing from most contemporary discussions.
Interesting to look at ways invented that led to increasing inequalities. Limited Liability is one. It removed from individuals the right to sue for damages, thus reducing their real ownership value of what they have purchased, because if it fails, the responsibility that should exist is vastly limited. This is an uncompensated taking to the advantage of capital. Imagine a group creating a limited liability corporation to build a large ship which unfortunately sinks in the harbor where it was just launched, and the resulting waves produce damage in the harbor way beyond the cost of the ship. The losers can’t sue for the full damages because of limited responsibility. Limited liability throughout a society, where no one is responsible for much, means there is no responsibility adequate to the dangers taken on by the institutions of the society.