Over the last year I’ve taken to reading Jane Austen novels, which, having been written two centuries ago and noted by contemporaries for their realism, offer a revealing glimpse of life at the dawn of the industrial revolution. (That’s not why I read them though. I like their emotional nuance and wit. Did people really have such dynamic intellects and engage in such sophisticated repartee as she describes? If so, we as a species have become a lot stupider.)
Although the books describe the lives of the lower fringe of the landed gentry, material conditions were, by modern American standards, quite harsh. The rich rode the finest coaches — but how would your kidneys feel after a day traveling on unpaved roads in a horse-drawn coach with wooden wheels and no shock absorbers? How would you enjoy an English winter with only fireplaces for heat? In modern economic terms, in terms of the total value of goods and services consumed, even a country squire was quite poor. Yet, reading these novels, I am struck by a sense of the richness of their lives.
Throughout the books, there are scenes of revelry or what we might call “cultural life”: dances, plays, singing, reading aloud, piano playing, and so forth. Young people were not, as they are today, consumers of entertainment. The economic “service” of entertainment barely existed; instead, they created their own. They sang their own songs, played their own games, put on their own dramas, instead of purchasing these as services through iTunes or Netflix. After dinner, families adjourned to the piano parlor, not the TV room.
Over the last two centuries, technology has enabled more and more functions to enter the monetary realm. Each advance has enabled us to pay for something we once did for each other as part of an informal gift economy. Thus, the economy has grown and, according to the logic of economists, we have all become richer. But has the demise of the piano parlor really made us richer? Are children better off for paying to play online role-playing adventure games, rather than roaming the outdoors having real adventures for free? Are these new goods and services really new, or are they just a different way of meeting the same basic human need for play, fun, and spiritual nourishment?
In one sense, they are new. Certainly, in Jane Austen’s time, 3D computer animated films did not exist. Underneath that, however, are the functions of absorbing people in stories, exercising the imagination, and creating a shared cultural experience. These are not new functions, and it is debatable whether 3D movies do that any better than black-and-white movies, or minstrel’s ballads, or tribal storytelling. We might even infer, from the alienation and ennui of modern youth, that these new technologies fulfill these functions less well. When we become consumers and not producers of our entertainment, we suffer a depletion of what I call spiritual capital. Our creative capacities shrivel, and our lives shrink.
We pay today for things that no human being in Jane Austen’s time could have imagined paying for. In addition, many things that only the nobility purchased two hundred years ago have become consumer services for almost all of us. In former times, only the rich hired a cook or a governess; today, some two-thirds of all meals are prepared outside the home, in supermarket delis and restaurants, and we all pay, via taxes or tuition, for the services of child care and education.
Every time a child subscribes to World of Warcraft rather than playing cops and robbers outside, the economy grows. Every time you buy takeout rather than cooking for your family, the economy grows. Every time you put a child in day care rather than letting him play outdoors, the economy grows.
I don’t mean to imply that such choices are purely a matter of personal volition. We live among social institutions and cultural attitudes that pressure us to live a monetized life. What good does it do to send my children outside, when all the other kids are inside in front of a screen? The landscape of suburbia, the institution of the nuclear family, the disappearance of public space and street life, our alienation from our neighbors and the evaporation of community all push us further and further into the realm of goods and services. Just as peasants were forced off the land commons in the 17th century, so has the social and cultural commons shriveled in our own time.
When we view the expansion of the economy as a depletion of the commons, the inevitability of the end of economic growth becomes more obvious. Today we pay for almost everything. Few functions of life are left unmonetized. There is not much more room for the money realm to expand.
At the same time, there are newly emerging opportunities to shrink the money realm and reclaim lost parts of the commons. The internet, for example, and the ubiquity of media technology is enabling us once again to become producers and not just consumers of culture. When people produce their own videos and share them online instead of watching content produced by professionals in TV studios, they are actually shrinking the economy, in the same way that the economy shrinks when they take their kids out of day care and start a cooperative play group.
Economists’ logic says that when we start paying for things we once did for free, society is becoming better off because these functions are being carried out more efficiently. It is more efficient for a single child care professional to take care of ten toddlers than it is for the parents to do it themselves. They can get jobs instead, pay for the child care, and still have money left over. It is to their economic advantage; otherwise, says the economist, they wouldn’t choose child care to begin with. The economist believes that because someone has made a choice to enter into an economic transaction, that transaction must be to their advantage. Human beings seek to act in their economic best interest. Therefore, the more goods and services being exchanged, the better off we all are. That is the motivating ideology behind economic growth. Moreover, the money system itself cannot function without unending growth.
The depletion of the natural and social commons entails the end of growth. Already we see signs of its imminence, in the breakdown of ecosystems and society, and in the difficulty of achieving economic growth rates anywhere near those of the 1960’s. My work explores the nuts-and-bolts economics of the steady-state and even of degrowth. But I think that even those uninterested in economics feel the urge to reduce the role of money in their lives, to reclaim some of the functions lost to the realm of goods and services.We want our lives back. Some people reach that point after having achieved all the rewards that money promises, and feeling impoverished, not enriched, as a result, cut off from the connections to community and to nature that were nearly universal just two centuries ago. Others, especially in my generation and younger, see through the false promise of money without even having to go there. Unwilling or unable to muster the willpower and make the sacrifices necessary to get rich, neither do they have the knowledge, habits, or context to live a less monetized life. Therefore they hang out on the margins, awaiting the time when we reclaim the world.