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The weekend, making Saturday as well as Sunday a day of leisure, came even later, around the middle of the 20th century in most developed countries. Even Marx, sternest critic of the old utopians, had his moments, most notably in The German Ideology There, he and Engels looked forward to a society in which labour did not depend on the lash of monetary incentives:.

None of these writers, however, had a theory of economic growth. Neither was one to be found in the literature of classical economics. He argued that technological progress at a rate of two per cent per year would be sufficient to multiply our productive capacity nearly eightfold in the space of a century.

Allowing for a doubling of output per person, that would be consistent with a reduction of working hours to 15 hours a week or even less. K eynes himself had no grandchildren, but he was a contemporary of my own grandparents. It seemed to me when I first read his essay that there was a good chance that his vision might be realised in my lifetime.

The social democratic welfare state, supported by Keynesian macroeconomic management, had already smoothed many of the sharp edges of economic life. The ever-present threat that we might be reduced to poverty by unemployment, illness or old age had disappeared from the lives of most people in developed countries. Working hours were decreasing. A comfortable retirement at or before 65 had become a normal expectation. The idea of a lengthy and fairly leisurely university education was increasingly accepted, even if access to higher education was far from universal.

If one job was unsatisfying or boring, it was a simple matter to quit, take some time off and then find another. The enthusiastic consumerism of the s was repudiated in varying degrees by nearly everyone, a trend exemplified by the adoption of blue jeans, previously the cheap and durable everyday wear of unskilled workers. The idea that we could continue on a path of ever-growing material consumption appeared to be not merely unsatisfying but a recipe for ultimate catastrophe.

At least in the English-speaking world, the seemingly inevitable progress towards shorter working hours has halted. For many workers it has gone into reverse. The situation in Europe was, until recently, very different. Yet even here, and even before the advent of austerity, there were signs of a turnaround. The loi Aubry , the law which reduced the normal French working week to 35 hours, has been repeatedly weakened.

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Work-sharing in Germany was highly successful in reducing the impact of the global financial crisis, but that does not seem to have had much effect on German judgments about the desirability of more and harder work for other countries. Moreover, far from fading into irrelevance, the struggle to accumulate capital and maintain or increase consumption is more intense than ever. Instead of contracting, the values of the market have penetrated ever further into every aspect of our lives.


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During the decades leading up to the global financial crisis, the scope and scale of speculative markets grew beyond any conceivable bound. Avarice and usury, as Keynes called them, are worshipped on an unimaginable scale. Financial instruments with notional values in the trillions were routinely traded, creating immense wealth for some mostly participants in the trade while bringing ruin and destitution to others mostly far removed from the scene of the action.

Now that the bubble has burst, the burden of unsustainable debt left behind for both households and governments has ensured that the gods of the marketplace maintain their pre-eminence, even if their worship is much less enthusiastic than before. The first of these questions is easily answered. Social democracy must offer more than a lever to stabilise the economy.

The Sound of Economics

We need a vision of a genuinely better society. The central theoretical tenet of market liberalism is the efficient financial markets hypothesis. In the strong form that is most relevant to policy decisions, the hypothesis states that the prices determined in markets for financial assets such as shares, bonds and their various derivatives are the best possible estimates of the value of those assets. In the core ideology of market liberalism, the efficient markets hypothesis is combined with the claim that the best way to achieve prosperity for all is to let the rich get richer.

Taken together, the efficient markets hypothesis and the trickle down hypothesis lead us in the opposite direction to the one envisaged by Keynes. If these hypotheses are true, the mega-fortunes piled up in speculative financial markets are not merely justified: they are essential to achieve and maintain decent living standards for the rest of us. The investments that generate technological progress will, on this view, only be made if they are guided by financial markets driven by the desire to make unimaginable fortunes.

As long as market liberalism rules, there is no reason to expect progress towards a less money-driven society. The global financial crisis and the subsequent long recession have fatally discredited its ideas. Nevertheless, the reflexes and assumptions developed under market liberalism continue to dominate the thinking of politicians and opinion leaders.

In my book, Zombie Economics , I describe how these dead, or rather undead, ideas have risen from their graves to do yet more damage. Social democratic parties have failed to put up any serious resistance so far. Popular anger at the crisis has been channelled into right-wing tribalist movements such as the Tea Party in the US and Golden Dawn in Greece. First, Keynes considered only the developed world, implicitly assuming that the colonialist world order could be sustained indefinitely. Judging from his other writing, including his early work on the Indian economy, Keynes envisaged a gradual increase in living standards, under colonial tutelage, for the poor countries.

The idea that a post-scarcity society in Europe and its settler offshoots could coexist with mass poverty elsewhere seems incongruous now, but in , the European empires seemed destined to endure for a long time. The Indian National Congress had declared its goal of independence only the previous year, and the Statute of Westminster, establishing the legislative independence of the settler dominions, was a year in the future.

OFF THE CHAIN

How much further? To be more precise, how much technological progress would be needed for everyone to enjoy the average standard of living of Britain in when Keynes was writing by working only 15 hours a week? For the first time in history, our productive capacity is such that no one need be poor.

So, it seems we need to add another 60 years, or two generations, to his timescale. On the other hand, because developing countries are mostly adopting existing technology, the average world growth rate of income per person is around three per cent, not the two per cent proposed by Keynes. In that case, an eightfold increase would take only 70 years. So, taking the entire world into account only defers the estimated end of scarcity by 30 years, to — within the expected lifetime of my children.

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A billion or so people live in destitution, and billions more are poor by any reasonable standard. Nevertheless, for the first time in history, our productive capacity is such that no one need be poor. In fact, more people are rich, by any reasonable historical standard, than are poor.

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Even more strikingly, perhaps, more people are obese than are undernourished. And this is not true merely in terms of basic nutrition. This amount could be increased by replacing grain-fed beef with chicken and pork, a step that would also reduce carbon emissions. With another 50 years of technological progress and even a modest effort to aid the poorest onto the path of rapid growth already being followed by most of Asia, poverty could be eliminated.

A second problem to which Keynes pays only passing attention is that of housework. As a male academic born into a household staffed with domestic servants, he almost certainly did none himself. His discussion reflects this. These traditional tasks had not, of course, been eliminated by technological progress. Rather, they had been contracted out to others, typified by the charwoman in a song quoted by Keynes, whose hope for paradise was to do nothing for all eternity.

Some housework is enjoyable and fulfilling but much of it is drudgery. A central requirement for a post-scarcity society is that no one should have to spend a lot of time on the latter. By contrast, technological progress for the next 40 years or so was limited. Arguably, the only significant innovation in this period was the microwave oven. Time-use surveys suggest that the average woman in the UK spends around three hours a day on household work excluding childcare, of which more later and the average man spends about two hours.

Both of these numbers have declined over time, but only slowly. Market alternatives to most kinds of housework are available. Cooking can be replaced by eating out, washing and ironing can be sent out to a laundry, and low-paid workers can be hired to clean houses.

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A little less obviously, such a situation demands more time spent in paid work from those who want the money to buy market alternatives. We might be willing to support surfers in return for non-market contributions to society. Still, the time spent on housework has been falling, and there are good reasons to think that it can fall further, to the point where most housework is done by choice rather than necessity.

The rise of the internet and the advent of mobile telephony have drastically simplified a wide range of household chores, from banking and bill-paying to dealing with tradespeople. At the same time, the online world is changing shopping from a necessity to an optional extra, pursued only by those who enjoy it. It allows the requirements for a decent life to be met without any significant interaction with the culture of consumption, exemplified by the shopping mall. Childless himself, Keynes came from a social class in which child rearing was contracted out, to an extent unparalleled before or since.

Babies were handed to wet-nurses, cared for by nannies and governesses and then, from the age of eight or even younger, packed off to boarding schools. Even if the need for market work were to disappear altogether, parents of young children would not have much time to worry about the need to fill their leisure hours. Work is distributed unequally, and perversely, in other dimensions as well. And yet, in the English-speaking countries at least, this has not meant more leisure so much as more time in retirement, unemployment or otherwise involuntarily excluded from the labour force.

The result has been an inequality of leisure, the counterpart to the growing inequality of income.