John Buell

Fighting Secular Stagnation: Post Industrial Possibilities

In her recent book, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, Boston College economist Juliet Schor points out that both US and European historical experience suggests alternatives to the prolonged stagnation gripping modern capitalist economies. One major reason that GDP growth by itself does not produce enough jobs to sustain full employment is that productivity continually increases. We produce ever more goods with the same amount of labor. If demand fails to keep pace, workers must be laid off. Historically, advertising, loose credit, educational initiatives and tax policies have been used to keep demand rising, but shortening working hours and thus spreading necessary work more widely, has played a vital role, accounting for about half of the new jobs created in the US between 1870 and 1970.

It is probably unrealistic to ask or demand that workers suddenly begin working fewer hours for less pay. Nonetheless, workers as individuals or through unions of other collective action can request that future gains in productivity be taken in the form of fewer working hours for the same pay. Such demands do not threaten the profit potential of their employers. Hourly wages go up only as productivity increases, thus keeping unit labor costs the same. Indeed, in many cases unit labor costs decline as workers are more productive in their reduced hours on the job.

More free time need not be down time. It can be used for self-provisioning, making possible a less resource- intensive economy, more family time, for forging various forms of skill sharing and education enhancement schemes. In a postindustrial era labor within the household need not be back-breaking or monotonous. Indeed it can blend mental and physical in a way that modern workplaces routinely prevent. New modes of high tech home and community tools are becoming increasingly available. And shop less need not mean an end to shopping but rather a different kind, more attentive to durability or to the custom needs of the individual consumer. Such forms of production and consumption can both enhance quality of life and greatly reduce environmental stress.

These may seem visionary or un-American goals, but in fact the US led the world in the nineteenth century in pursuit of shorter hours in the interest of a fuller life. In addition, one could add that even John Maynard Keynes, who is often cited as the apostle of endless growth in consumption as the key to economic stability and social justice, argued as long ago as 1930 that material growth is not an end in itself but is a means to a higher quality of life. He argued the day will come when we can put aside the economic problem, scarcity: “Thus for the very 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 have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well … I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it today, and will map out a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.”

Where Keynes erred was in portraying this happy day as the end of the journey: “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair … Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight. ” Rather leisure must play an increasing role from the beginning as technology enhances productivity and quality in our material universe. Otherwise increasing spending creates its own new needs, and the light at the end of the tunnel is forever receding.

It would be easy—and wrong—to portray an agenda of shorter hours and home consumption as a-political. Though the goal of job growth and sustainability would be considerably advanced by Jeffrey Sach’s clearly political agenda, Schor’s also would add to political capital. Skills and self-confidence can be built within home production, especially necessary in a society where long- term unemployment is doing major damage. More time offers opportunities for political activism, and skill and product sharing arrangements can open opportunities for collaboration and discussion across ideological lines. Secondly, as time apart from the conventional economy is increasingly regarded as a right, free time itself can provide more space in which individuality and new rights claims may thrive. No one can say with any certainty how societies may respond to the worst disasters climate change may have in store, but my bet is that those that foster open- ended collaboration across ethnic and political lines will have the best shot at coping. Another world is possible, and the micropolitics of the workplace and the backyard can help us along the way.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2014

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