Until very recently nearly everyone lived in abject poverty. Most people had barely enough food to survive. In 1651 the philosopher Thomas Hobbes depicted the life of man as poor, nasty, brutish, and short.1 Yet, a few centuries later a miracle had happened. Nowadays more people suffer from obesity than from hunger while the life expectancy in the poorest countries exceeds that of the Netherlands in 1750, the richest country in the world in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.
In 1516 Thomas More wrote his famous novel about a fictional island named Utopia. Life in Utopia was nearly as good as in the Garden Of Eden. The Utopians worked six hours per day and took whatever they needed. Utopia means nowhere but the name resembles the word eutopia which means a good place. The pun may have been intended by More. His book inspired writers and dreamers to think of a better world while leaving the hard work to entrepreneurs, labourers and engineers. Today many people have more than they need but still we work hard and feel insecure about the future.
Why is that? The answer lies within the dynamic of capitalism. The capitalist economy must grow. It is not enough that people just work and buy the products they need. They must work harder to buy more, otherwise businesses will go bankrupt, investors will lose money, and people will be unemployed and left without income. To forestall this disaster, we are made to believe that buying more stuff makes us happy.2
Capitalism brought us prosperity so most of us won’t ask questions like why are there still poor people or are there limits to our desires? It might feel like biting the hand that feeds us. And answers aren’t easy to come by. Alternatives to capitalism made people poor. Capitalism may have helped to reduce poverty more than anything else. But the dynamic of growth appears to be halting when people are going into debt to buy stuff.
Perhaps before long we live inside our own make-believe fairy tale virtual realities writing our own life’s stories. In that case we won’t need a lot of stuff any more. Finally there could be enough for everyone, and perhaps far more than that. Machines may do more jobs so more people might have more leisure time. That might happen because we ourselves may live inside such a virtual reality already. So in the future there may be no economy or even money but for now we may need a way to make the economy flourish without the need for growth in order to make this possible.
Featured image: Illustration for the first edition of Utopia by Thomas More.
1. Leviathan. Thomas Hobbes (1651).
2. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.