In this era of plenty (even in the midst of a pandemic), humanity faces a key question: How can we cope with excess without sinking into decline?
PARIS — Describing the great plague that ravaged the Périgord in 1585, French philosopher Michel de Montaigne makes this melancholy observation: "Generally, everyone gave up caring about life. Their purpose remained trapped in the vines."
As a result of lack of workers in the fields, we know what accompanied epidemics in the 16th century: famine. At that time, Montaigne, mayor of Bordeaux, fled the city, leaving public order in shambles. Plague, pillage and famine joined hands in a danse macabre.
Despite all the tragedies caused by COVID-19, the current situation is nowhere near as dramatic. The grapes are still being harvested and the mayor of Bordeaux has just announced police reinforcements. The shortages of flour and toilet paper feared in the first wave never happened, as global supply chains withstood the shock. And wages continue to be paid largely through unprecedented money generation.
In other words, a society can be brought to a standstill ... and still have its basic needs met. In the developed world, we now take it for granted that we can collectively survive without working too hard. But what caused this miracle? And what price do we pay for this strange bonanza?
We know what accompanied epidemics in the 16th century: famine.
For insight, it's worth reading La Crise de l'abondance ("The Crisis of Abundance"), a recent and well-researched essay by François-Xavier Oliveau. The author first dares to make the observation that after millennia of deprivation, we are now living in a period of immense material abundance. In the 16th century, he calculates, a meter of cloth cost the equivalent of a monthly minimum wage; in 1910, a tennis ball cost 50 euros.
There is now an abundance of leisure time. The working week, when you include periods of study and retirement, has dropped in France to about 15 hours a week, approaching Keynes" predictions. There is also an abundance of money. If the trillions in stimulus packages do not generate hyperinflation, it is because they compensate for a dizzying technological deflation. And there is even an abundance of energy sources, whenever we finally manage to master them. Solar radiation is a potential power source 5,000 times greater than humanity's needs.
So what do we have to complain about? Specifically, the undesirable side effects of excess. The reduction of working hours causes a drop in real wages. Money creation reinforces inequalities by creating asset bubbles. Overproduction leads to pollution and obesity. We are victims of our own success.
To think about the future, we remain prisoners of the paradigm of scarcity, fleeing ever further into consumption and futility, as if we had to make up for the time lost to labor by our ancestors, binge on Deliveroo and Netflix.
This notion of a "crisis of abundance" allows us to reconcile two arguments that are repetitively and sterilely opposed in the public debate. On the one hand, everything is fine and humanity has never been so prosperous: Thank you, Steven Pinker. On the other, everything is going badly — humanity is on the verge of self-destruction. Both are true. We are experiencing "La Grande Bouffe" on a planetary scale.
To extinguish this suicidal impulse, we must break with an epistemological obstacle inherited from the era of scarcity, namely the exclusive relationship between income and work. The solutions proposed by Oliveau all point in the same direction. Through environmental taxation, we must redistribute a carbon dividend. To make money creation fairer, we must put it directly into the pockets of citizens in the form of "helicopter money." Finally, to support the non-monetizable part of our activities, we must introduce a universal income.
Overproduction leads to pollution and obesity. We are victims of our own success.
The combination of these three instruments, each of which is the subject of lively academic debate today, would offer human beings a form of a "right to laziness," to use the visionary expression of Paul Lafargue. Basically, we must assume abundance by offering the ultimate luxury: satiety for all.
There is no question of questioning the mechanics of capital and competition. Quite the contrary. Oliveau's essay is fully in line with contemporary efforts to renew liberal doctrine, refuting both the obsession with efficiency and the temptation of decline. It is up to us to choose whether we allow abundance to plunge us into crisis, or whether, on the contrary, we use it as a tool to access the freedom we have long dreamed of.