In the 1950s through the 1970s – that optimistic age – E.F. Schumacher proclaimed that the “problem of production” had been “solved.” Erich Fromm (below, one of the most underrated of 20th century thinkers) and others predicted, and called for, a guaranteed annual income. How ironic it was that our societies moved in the opposite direction. Work hours increased, and more recently, so did unemployment. Of course, there was guaranteed income of sorts, but it was reframed as temporary aid; TANF and unemployment insurance. The problem of production became the problem of consumption. George Bush called for us to do our patriotic duty at the mall. So fewer of us worked more, and bought more. But we bought more of the wrong things. We spent less on food as healthcare and education costs rose, while spending more on entertainment and other non-essentials.
Some of the ideas advocated in Fromm’s New Society may be making a comeback. According to the New York Times, a bill in the New York legislature is calling for a living wage, defined as $10 per hour. Los Angeles already has a measure in place requiring companies that receive subsidies to pay $10.42 with benefits, or over $11 without benefits. This may be a far cry from the society of leisure and guaranteed income envisioned by the optimists of mid-century, and perhaps they were misguided – the bloat that caused the inflation of the Carter is widely thought to be proof that they were. But maybe we can recover some of the optimism of that age. After all, it was hardly a time of unbounded enthusiasm, unlike today, it was the nuclear era of Mutually Assured Destruction – MAD.
The end of the century saw another proclamation, Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” While widely misunderstood – Fukuyama meant it in a Hegelian sense of the final synthesis from capitalism’s thesis and communism’s antithesis – it does represent a consensus on the merits of liberal democracy. And liberalism was exactly the ideology arguing for such quixotic ideas as a guaranteed annual income. So if we are living in the liberal consensus, why are even ideas like full employment and benefits, tepid compared to Fromm’s proposal, so difficult to conceive? Maybe Christmas can allow for a suspension of the scrooge-like pettiness of this era and a return of mid-century optimism.