Monday, December 27, 2010

Keynes on the "Psychology of Society"

My wife gave me a Kindle for Christmas.  The first thing I should say is that it is really great: my eyesight isn't what it once was, and I find it very easy to read..  The second is that I will continue to buy books at Vroman's (a Pasadena bookstore), because I want them to stay in business.  Third, I downloaded the Economic Consequences of the Peace, which I hadn't read in four or five years.  It has a section early on that really struck me:

Europe was so organized socially and economically as to secure the maximum accumulation of capital.  While there were some continuous improvements in the daily conditions of life of the mass of the population, Society was so framed to to throw a great part of the increased income into the control of the class least likely to consume it.  The new rich of the 19th century were not brought up to large expenditures, and preferred the power which investment gave them to the pleasures of immediate consumption.  In fact, it was precisely the inequality of the distribution of wealth which made possible those vast accumulations of fixed wealth and of capital improvements which distinguished that age from all others.  Herein lay, in fact, the main justification of the Capitalist System.  If the rich had spent their new wealth on their own enjoyments, the world long ago would have found such a regime intolerable.  But like bees they saved and accumulated, not less to the advantage of the whole community because they themselves held narrower ends in prospect.

The immense accumulations of fixed capital which, to the great benefit of mankind, were built up during the half century before the war [WWI], could never have come about in a Society where wealth was divided equitably.  The railways of the world, which that age built as a monument to posterity, were, not less than the Pyramids of Eqypt, the work of labor which was not free to consume in immediate enjoyment the full equivalent of its efforts.

Thus this remarkable system depended for its growth on a double bluff or deception.  On the one hand the laboring classes accepted from ignorance or powerlessness, or were compelled, perusade or cajoled by custom, convention, authority, and the well-established order of Society into accepting a situation in which they could call their own very little of the cake that they and Nature and the capitalists were co-operating to produce.  And on the other hand the capitalist classes were allowed to call the best part of the cake theirs and were theoretically free to consume it, on the tacit underlying condition that they consumed very little of it in practice.