Brain Pickings

Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren: A Hopeful Vision for Post-Occupy Humanity circa 1930

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“The love of money as a possession — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life — will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity.”

Modern macroeconomics traces many of its central tenets to the work of British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946). Besides his seminal work on understanding the causes of business cycles and developing strategies for countering recessions and depressions, Keynes was also a champion of humanism and a sociocultural optimist at heart. Nowhere does this shine more brightly, and with more prescience, than in his 1930 essay, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (free PDF), in which Keynes sets out to “to disembarrass [himself] of short views and take wings into the future” by envisioning culture and society 100 years later, or in the near-present. His insights are, in retrospect, bittersweet — at once standing in stark contrast with the realities of the Occupy era and presenting a poignant reminder that our future is, indeed, still our choice.

Keynes speaks of “technological unemployment,” driven by the emergence of new technologies that displace human labor through more efficient modalities, which engenders the same sort of disillusionment and a general lack of purpose tragically common today:

To those who sweat for their daily bread leisure is a longed-for sweet — until they get it.

He offers this poetic illustration:

There is the traditional epitaph written for herself by the old charwoman:–

Don’t mourn for me, friends, don’t weep for me never,
For I’m going to do nothing for ever and ever.

This was her heaven. Like others who look forward to leisure, she conceived how nice it would be to spend her time listening-in-for there was another couplet which occurred in her poem:–

With psalms and sweet music the heavens’ll be ringing,
But I shall have nothing to do with the singing.

Yet it will only be for those who have to do with the singing that life will be tolerable and how few of us can sing!

Keynes goes on to reach into the heart of the economy of purpose, in which the existential value of finding your purpose and doing what you love far exceeds the economic value of making money, and the challenge of defining success through joy rather than through materiality:

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes to-day in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard — those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me — those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties — to solve the problem which has been set them.

Turning his gaze to the shifting value-system behind money-making, he presages the words of Jimi Hendrix:

There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession — as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life — will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

Keynes envisions a value shift from the “useful” to the “good”:

We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

He concludes by proposing four factors that would make this vision a reality, which ring all the more presciently true today, and circles right back to the essential lubricant, purpose:

The pace at which we can reach our destination of economic bliss will be governed by four things — our power to control population, our determination to avoid wars and civil dissensions, our willingness to entrust to science the direction of those matters which are properly the concern of science, and the rate of accumulation as fixed by the margin between our production and our consumption; of which the last will easily look after itself, given the first three.

Meanwhile there will be no harm in making mild preparations for our destiny, in encouraging, and experimenting in, the arts of life as well as the activities of purpose.

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