Here as elsewhere, the authors reveal an uncommon sensitivity to the abrasive impact of capitalist culture on human relationships. They prefer to focus on friendship rather than community as a nodule of the good life (claiming persuasively that “community” is too easily reified into a collective ideal that somehow transcends the welfare of its individual members). And they note the difficulties of sustaining friendship in a culture obsessed with mobility, autonomy and utility, where the speed-up is a way of life. “You need to rid your life of Leeches and replace them with Energizers,” says American lifestyle coach Robert Pagliarini. It is one of those quotations that, in its very banality and predictability, encapsulates the depth of our moral predicament. Free-market fundamentalists, the Skidelskys argue, “get things precisely backwards. It is not human beings who need adapting to the market; it is the market that needs adapting to human beings.” You cannot find a more succinct and compelling indictment of neoliberalism than that.
The Skidelskys’ alternative is modest and deeply humane, and involves no posturing or jargon. They are social democrats, not socialists, and they want to retrieve the ethical language of social democracy—on the assumption that if we start talking seriously about the good life again, we can begin re-creating the institutions to sustain it. They believe personal autonomy is one good among others, without giving it special preference. They believe that the cultivation of personality is a good as well, and that people need “a room behind the shop,” a protected place apart from commercial transactions to pursue that cultivation. They believe in the importance of property as a base for cultivating one’s tastes and ideals—one’s personality. But they like their property small; they are drawn to the traditions of Catholic personalism and distributionism—the localist communitarianism embraced by figures as diverse as G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day. They know, with William Morris, that the precondition for leisure is the reduction of toil. (That would include, for starters, the relaxing of demands for increased productivity, the slowing down of the speeding up.) They also know there are links between social Catholicism, the sociological liberalism of Tocqueville, and Burkean conservatism; with the thinkers in these traditions, they share an enthusiasm for mutual-aid societies and employee cooperatives—for voluntary associations that provide a meeting ground between the remote organization and the isolated individual. They might have mentioned the Protestant Social Gospel, and the need to recover and reassert it against the cult of prosperity that for several decades has commanded center stage in contemporary evangelicalism. An enlarged Protestant ethic—one that prizes commonwealth over wealth—could enrich their vision of the good life as well.
In the Skidelskys’ vision of the good society, noncoercive paternalism would be balanced by localism. The state would bear responsibility for promoting basic goods, would ensure that the fruits of productivity are shared more evenly, and would reduce the pressure to consume—perhaps through a progressive expenditure tax like the one proposed by the economist Robert Frank. This would restrain what he calls the “runaway spending at the top,” which belies the myth that the 1 percent is the “investing class” and has “spawned a luxury fever,” Frank writes, that “has us all in its grip.” To that same end—the dampening of consumption—the Skidelskys propose eliminating advertising as a deductible business expense. They are also refreshingly resistant to free-market globaloney. The good life, they make clear, is not (and cannot be) dependent on globalization: “Developed countries will have to rely more on domestic sources of production to satisfy their needs; developing market economies will need to abandon export-growth models that rely on ever-increasing consumption demand in developed countries.” Scaling back consumption means scaling down international trade. This is not an ascetic agenda—the charge so often leveled against critics of consumer culture, as if consumption is the only imaginable form of leisure. On the contrary: How Much Is Enough? is an effort to imagine possibilities for a satisfying life beyond market discipline.
The Skidelskys want to revive a more capacious sense of leisure, and they conclude their book by underscoring the material basis for it: a “long-term decrease in the demand for labor resulting from continuous improvements in labor productivity.” This has already happened, but the fruits of increased productivity have gone to CEOs and shareholders. Were those gains to be redirected to the workers themselves, the results would be startling: reductions in working hours, early retirements, experiments in work sharing, the thirty-five-hour week and the like. Who knows? People might even be happier.
This vision is timely, a crucial contribution to contemporary political debate. But what gives it arresting force is the commitment behind it. The Skidelskys deploy a tone of moral seriousness that few on the left seem willing to risk today—at least with respect to imagining the good life. Moral seriousness is always a tricky business; no one likes a scold. But after all the Skidelskys’ apt examples and patient arguments, they have established the authority to make this claim: “At the core of our system is a moral decay that is tolerated only because the cleansing of its Augean stables is too traumatic to contemplate.” How Much Is Enough? gets it right. Reading its bracing criticism and humane proposals, I felt a sense, however fleeting, of real happiness.