The following (with apologies to Faculty Lounge readers who may have already read it) is my comment (with added ‘references and further reading’) to Maxine Eichner’s post at Concurring Opinions, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Massive Shift of Hours from Families to Work:”
The cornucopia of conspicuous consumption promised by capitalism and the material and psychological insecurities intrinsic to the labor market, particularly in a nation with a fragile history of organized labor and a prevailing neoliberal ideology unabashedly hostile to organized labor as such, does indeed hold out both the carrot and stick to account for an obsession with work. And in a political and cultural climate in which those on the Right are motivated to dismantle the weakest type of existing welfare regimes in the northern hemisphere (i.e., its ‘liberal’ variant, which is outperformed on any number of criteria by its corporatist and social democratic counterparts) and the corresponding economic philosophy that justifies its existence, namely, Keynesian (let alone neo-Keynesian) welfare economics, nothing should surprise us about the dominant ideologies of work and leisure (in which these two activities are conceived in pathologically polar terms such that work has precious little of the connotations of leisure as part of eudaimonia or human flourishing on the one hand, and leisure is afflicted with passivity, mind-numbing entertainment, escape from reality, or feverish hedonism on the other). It is Keynesian economics that heretofore has softened the periodic blows endemic to capitalist economic cycles: its manias, crashes, and panics, and calls to mind Ian Shapiro’s lament that
“[t]he ambiguous moral status of Keynesianism and welfare economics has always inhered in the fact that they appeal to the short-term interests of the disadvantaged (such as unemployed workers and firms on the verge of bankruptcy during recessions) by ensuring subsistence, creating employment, and expanding credit, yet these policies are geared in the medium term to sustaining the system which generates those very disadvantages—hence the ironic force of Joan Robinson’s quip that the one thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited at all.”
The majority of those politically well-positioned to lead us out of our current economic malaise into an economic world significantly different from the capitalist one remain infatuated with the “aristocracy of capital” and unperturbed by the utter commercialization or commodification of all social relations. Economic power remains hostage to the prioritization of the welfare of the wealthiest as both a necessary and sufficient condition to satisfying the general welfare and the generalizable interests of the many. Material uncertainty and psychological insecurity are part and parcel, the bone and marrow, of labor markets determined by the terms and conditions of private investment and the deleterious effects of finance capitalism. The distorted and artificial needs and the individually and socially harmful desires generated by hyper-industrialized casino capitalism finds the masses in a state in which they feel an overwhelming need to be psychologically indemnified by the possession and consumption of as many goods and services as possible, in a socio-economic world in which conspicuous consumption exists side-by-side with recalcitrant pockets and regions afflicted with inexcusable relative and absolute poverty.
Even before the latest precipitous economic downturn, there was a growing consensus among political scientists about the need to account, in Robert Lane’s words, for the “combination of growing unhappiness and depression, interpersonal and institutional distrust, and weakened companionship in advanced market democracies, in which people are, with important exceptions, reasonably well-off.” Or, as the philosopher Daniel M. Haybron notes,
“The United States is by a wide margin, among the most affluent nations in human history, and many Americans enjoy unprecedented freedom to shape their lives—for those individuals, a great success in moral and economic terms. Yet no one ever accused us of ‘knowing how to live.’ This is perhaps because, arguably, we don’t. Surveys find an overwhelming majority of Americans reporting that Americans have badly placed priorities. And there is no evidence that Americans grew any happier over the recent decades that witnessed astonishing growth in material standards of living. Self-reported happiness has remained essentially flat, while rates of suicide, depression, and other pathologies have soared.”