Post-Scarcity Critical Theory

The Utopian has a fascinating excerpt from a discussion between Adorno and Horkheimer, luminaries of the Frankfurt School of critical theory which has deeply influenced the UK study of IR through people like Andrew Linklater. To pick up on a single point, they insist that ‘it is obvious that we could supply the entire world with goods and could then attempt to abolish work as a necessity for human beings’. This is a pretty important claim as it supports the idea that human beings no longer live in the ‘realm of necessity’ where possibilities for human beings are no longer set by nature or the development of technology. Rather, the only thing limiting us is the cage of illusion and mass deception which we have constructed for ourselves in the contemporary world. So according to this strand of thinking, transmitted I think by Marcuse to the New Left, is that those who want a better world should focus on the realm of culture and ideas rather than on purely economistic or technical questions.

The problem is I think this is incorrect, and provide a few reasons why in the Crooked Timber comments thread. To expand on those points:

1. The world mean GDP per capita is around $9-10k. That’s what each person would get if egalitarians won the day and everyone got an equal share of the world’s wealth. Obviously, it would represent a massive improvement from the perspective of the billions living on less than $2 a day, but living on $10k pa would take some adjustment for many people in the advanced industrial economies who have gotten used to expected more than essentials. Subtract from that figure the per capita cost of healthcare, education and other public goods.

2. Although nearly everyone could likely meet their essential needs, we still wouldn’t be able to abolish work.

3. Static comparisons are misleading. If incomes around the world were equalised the price of essential commodities like grain, fuel and cooking oil would rise due to inelasticities of demand. $10k would go less far. Indeed, this kind of demand-pull inflation is happening already due to the industrialisation of Asia.

4. Wealth might not be all that easy to redistribute (I think van Parijs talks about this in ‘Real Freedom for All’). Roads and other infrastructure can’t simply be redistributed to the world’s underdeveloped regions. Wealth tied up in human capital, trust, firm-specific knowledge and technology is not easy to transfer.

These points aren’t meant to be in support of a cynical point of view. Yes, we could indeed make the world significantly better and go a long way to remedying the worst forms of human misery at this stage of world history. But I think Adorno and Horkheimer, talking in the 1950s, jumped the gun by about 150 years. As they say, they know little of Asia. I think they, like many egalitarians since, under-appreciated the challenge of moving the whole world to a situation where meeting human needs and abolishing toil is within our grasp. That means that issues of material scarcity and distribution will remain with us for a very long time. It’s unjustified, therefore, to jettison a concern with such issues in favour of a focus on cultural and ideological formations.

In any case, the excerpt is fascinating, especially how they see nothing whatsoever of value in the USSR but are adamant that they cannot call for defence of Western civilisation: even though it represents in their view the most free and just society that has existed it seems they thought it could not achieve its own aspirations without criticism to highlight its many failings.

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Posted on November 9, 2011, in critical theory, development, inequality, theorists, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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