Although living standards in the Western world are better than they have ever been, we still don't feel like we have 'enough'. Over the last five decades we have been socially conditioned to feel that there is always something lacking in our lives; a hole that can only be filled through consumption. This seemingly insatiable desire for more, for better and for bigger is reflected in the political obsession with 'growth' over sustainability and social justice; limiting our ability to realise the 'good life' for all. If we are to break this pattern we need to understand the idea that sometimes 'enough really is enough'.
The temporary adjustment
During the Great Depression John Maynard Keynes published his seminal paper on the “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, in which he suggested that the unparalleled economic crisis into which Britain had sunk was but a "temporary period of adjustment".
He prophesied that by 2030 income growth would come to a halt as the growth in technological efficiency would allow humankind to satiate its basic needs without having to work longer than several hours a day. This technology-driven and virtually work-free utopia was for Keynes the justification for capitalism which, whatever its moral or economic shortcomings, was the only economic model through which this utopia could be achieved.
More than 80 years on and Keynes’s vision of the ‘good life’ has hardly been realised. Although living standards in the developed Western world have indeed improved, technology has not reduced the number of hours most people work and nor has it benefitted people equally. If Frey and Osborne’s predictions are correct, then in as little as a decade half of jobs could be automated. Far from introducing an era of leisure, technological advances are eroding whole swathes of the labour market, causing the stagnation of medium-incomes and in many ways exacerbating inequality.
For Keynes’s idea of the ‘good life’ rested on the belief that there was some basic set of needs that, once satisfied, would enable (wo)man to live a fulfilled existence, no longer compelled to strive for more. He saw avarice and greed as central drivers of economic growth, but believed that once society was economically positioned to achieve the ‘good life’ then growth would reach its natural limit and such tendencies would fast dissipate.
The Economics of Enough
In ‘The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters’ Diane Coyle argues that we must recalibrate our thinking around the economy for the sake of future generations. She notes that the near collapse of the global banking system in 2008 highlighted just one of many economic challenges we currently face. Whilst continuously increasing production and consumption is not only environmentally unsustainable - particularly as the world’s expanding population puts greater and greater pressure on the earth’s resources – it is also exacerbating inequality, as economic prosperity disproportionately benefits the wealthiest few.
Yet in our relentless pursuit of economic growth, indicated by our reliance on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – a measure that counts all growth as good, irrespective of its social impact – we are ill-positioned to tackle these issues. As long as we pursue and value growth for its own sake, social and environmental concerns can and will be sacrificed to this end.
This fits in to a broader, growing discussion on the need for a new and more sustainable approach to the economy. While Coyle argues that this new approach means ensuring we leave posterity enough of an environmental, economic and societal legacy, Dan O’Neill and Rob Dietz (authors of Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources) suggest it means moving to an ‘economy of enough’ – instead of pursuing more jobs, more money and more growth we must instead strive toward enough.
As James Meek wrote with regard to the economic crisis: “The struggle we are engaged in now seems to be the struggle for Britain to be prosperous enough.
And back to reality…
But how realisable is this idea of an ‘economics of enough’ when the behaviour of most people, myself included, is conditioned to believe that more is not enough? We live in a society in which we are bombarded daily with messages urging us to spend more in order to be happy. Whilst it is hard to disagree with the general premise that we need to reign in the more predatory impulses of capitalism – namely, rampant consumerism and the draining of the earth’s resources – I am not convinced that we are, as a society, anywhere near close to occupying the right frame of mind from which to do so. Why?
A fundamental reason is the effectiveness of the advertising industry’s psychological manipulation of society, the success of which rests on eroding the idea of enough and encouraging material insatiability. To understand the roots of this manipulation look no further than the birth of the public relations industry in the early 20th century. Edward Bernays, the so-called ‘founder’ of PR was Freud’s nephew. Pioneering the use of psychology in US ‘public persuasion campaigns’, he devised a way of directing public opinion through tapping into people’s unconscious desires. He called this method the ‘engineering of consent’. When it came to selling a product this meant constructing an elaborate social fantasy around said product, one that promised to fulfil the purchasers real desires rather than merely serve its basic function.
For example, in 1929 Bernays orchestrated what would be an historic PR stunt and the first of its kind. Tasked with helping the tobacco company ‘Lucky Strike’ broaden its appeal to a female audience, he launched an effective media campaign that associated cigarettes with the women’s liberation movement, which branded cigarettes ‘Torches of Freedom’. In so doing, Bernays was able to overcome the powerful social taboo that forbade women from smoking in public and the habit was fast taken up with gusto.
Bernays set a precedent within advertising. Rather than selling products based purely on their use-value, advertisers thereafter began to sell products based on a fantasy that thereby created infinite demand. Imbued with some higher purpose and offering the possibility of freedom, of happiness or of eternal youth endless consumerism has been justified. So where the influence of Judeo-Christian tradition once upheld an ascetic model of ethics, one premised on sacrifice and the rejection of excess,
Where do we go from here?
Advertising is not the sole factor driving capitalist consumerism, but it plays a central role in moving the goal posts that indicate what enough is. And as the advertising industry continues to grow this demand-generation will likely only increase and the problems associated with burgeoning production and consumption only worsen. So, if we are going to begin to tackle our pressing economic issues then it seems we need to think seriously about this notion of ‘enough’. What does enough mean on an individual basis and what does it mean at a broader, societal level?
Perhaps a good starting point might be to identify what it is we really value as a society and then adjust our measure of economic prosperity accordingly. This might mean moving away from GDP as our sole measure of growth and finding an alternative – perhaps, as Hanauer and Beinhocker suggest, we could measure growth in terms of the rate at which new solutions to human problems become available? Or perhaps we need something more radical. Whatever it is, this is a conversation worth having and something the RSA will continue to explore over the course of its ‘Economy 2030’ project.