The Affluent Society

In the May and June Socialist Standard we reviewed Galbraith’s book “The Affluent Society” in respect of his views on Marxism. We promised to review the book as a whole, but other subjects intervened. We have now been able to make good the omission.


Professor Galbraith’s book The Affluent Society (Hamish Hamilton. 25s.) is in refreshing contrast to the academic tradition of bourgeois economics. Not only does he raise questions never formulated in orthodox circles, but he also tries to answer them. His particular concern is with the nostrums, attitudes and values of politicians, pundits and businessmen. These ruling ideas are characterised by him as “The Conventional Wisdom.” What he calls ‘‘conventional wisdom,” we as Marxists would term aspects of the ideological super-structure of capitalism. Of “the conventional wisdom,” he says: —


. . . to some extent [it] has been professionalised. Individuals most notably the great television and radio commentators, make a profession of knowing and saying with elegance and unction what their audiences will find most acceptable. But in general, articulation of the conventional wisdom is a prerogative of academic, public or business position. . . .  It is one of the rewards of high academic rank, although such a rank is also a reward for expounding the conventional wisdom at a properly sophisticated level. (Page 9.)


He further states: —


The conventional wisdom having been made more or less identical with sound scholarship, its position is virtually impregnable. The sceptic is disqualified by his tendency to go brashly from the old to the new.


Professor Galbraith maintains that production has become the major preoccupation of American capitalism and to an ever increasing extent of Western capitalism, generally. It seems that the ruling ideas—“conventional wisdom’’—sees it as the alchemy for solving all social problems. His central theme can be stated in his own words:—


The ancient preoccupation of economic life—with equality, security and productivity, have now narrowed down to a preoccupation with productivity and production. Production has now become the solvent of the tensions once associated with inequality, and it has become the indispensable remedy for the discomforts, anxieties and privations associated with economic insecurity. (Page 93.)


Nevertheless, he thinks there are reasons for the preoccupation of conventional wisdom with ever greater production. If production is ever increasing, they argue, then a greater amount of goods can be distributed among the poor without any corresponding loss to the rich. This will also have the effect of giving a greater semblance of security to the mass of the people as well as taking off the edge of the demand for greater social equality.


People, notes Professor Galbraith, identify economic security with regular employment. The greater the employment, the higher is the level of production. Thus, increase of production is looked upon as the essential means of maintaining employment. In this way argues, “conventional wisdom,” security can be provided for the working population. High pressure advertising sales techniques and propaganda, called by them economic theory, is the dynamic for promotion of sales and increasing production.


Once in the more rarified climate of Victorian days, classical bourgeois economics taught the greater the supply of goods the less would be their marginal utility, that is the less urgent would be the desire of people to satisfy their wants. But the wheel has come full circle. Now the opposite is being taught, i.e. the greater the supply of wants the more urgent for people will their wants become. This refinement of economic sophistication has already been enshrined as “The Theory of Consumer Demand.”


The Sovereign Power
Bourgeois utility theory classically formulated the economic fiction that the consumer is the sovereign power of the economic realm. Via the operations of the market, it is he who is supposedly able to discriminate down to the most subtle nuances, his various wants. It is this subtle ability of consumers to assess the finest shades of the intensity of their desires in a given state of supply of goods which determines the marginal utility, i.e. the market price of the goods they buy. Production, we are solemnly informed, merely serves to gratify their whims.


Professor Galbraith notes that the range and multiplicity of goods offered for sale is not so much determined by the alleged “independent consumer” but rather as the outcome of high pressure publicity and sales techniques of firms engaged in production. In accordance with production for profit, capitalists seek to maximise profits by maximising production. Not only do the various lines of production seek to sell the greatest amount of goods possible, but they seek via advertising, to create wants and so, in the act of production, set up a demand for their products. We may add so far as the consumer being the sovereign power of the economy, he is not even a free subject in the world of consumer choice. The pervasive and persuasive power of ad-mass have seen to that. Not only has the modern wage worker no say in what he produces, he is having less and less say in what he consumes.


The author points out that ever greater production, and this means almost exclusively the products of private enterprise, is the “conventional wisdom’s” yardstick for measuring economic achievement. Whether the products are good, bad. or indifferent is no concern of the economist. In line with his “objective science,” he must remain on such matters, ethically neutral. Or as Professor Galbraith wryly puts it “The first step was to divorce economics from any judgment on the goods with which it was concerned.” It would thus appear that it is the occupation as well as the preoccupation of the economist to try to increase demand, so as to increase production, to further increase demand, to further increase production, ad infinitum—ad nauseam. The germ of a|l modern economic theory is to lower consumer resistance.
Production for Production’s Sake
Professor Galbraith sees the major preoccupation of the American set-up and elsewhere, as one of seeking to increase production regardless of what is being produced. Production for production’s sake it would appear has become the aimless dreary goal of American and Western capitalism. Such a goal he thinks can only end in social and political bankruptcy.


In one sense capitalism can be regarded as production for production’s sake. But here we must sharply differentiate from Professor Galbraith’s view, who sees it merely as an end in itself. True, capitalism is a system without conscious regulation or social purpose. It does not follow, however, that it is purposeless. While one of the essential conditions for commodity production is that commodities must possess use-value, the turning out of such is entirely subordinated to the aims of capitalist production production for profit. This is the restless, never-ending process of capital accumulation. Each act of production has its beginning and end for one purpose—production of surplus value i.e. unpaid labour. It is the expanded production of surplus value which initiates and regulates the expanded production of commodities. In this sense capitalist production can be regarded as production for production’s sake.


Professor Galbraith never discusses capitalism at this level of abstraction. It seems the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our social set up. but in our “conventional wisdom.” What is wrong, according to Professor Galbraith, is not the social system but the system of ideas. Not the inherent nature of capitalism but the inherent conservatism and inertia of social thinking. In that case, phrenology or psychology would appear to be more relevant to the studies of the problem of our times than economics.


Ideas and Class Interests
But whatever may be the sins of omission and commission of “conventional wisdom” at bottom it is the expression of private property relations and hence committed in some form or another to the defence and perpetuation of the status quo. An ideology cannot be treated like the alleged love of a man for a woman—“ as a thing past.” So while in his own mind the author may be clear as to what he is attacking he is unclear as to what it is that “conventional” wisdom is really defending.


In actual fact ideology and material class interests are inseparably connected. Because Professor Galbraith inverts social reality by making ideas conventional wisdom—the basis for his social analysis, instead of the economic soil from which they grow, his picture of extant society has an “Alice Through the Looking Glass” perspective. He wants society to be a national undertaking designed for human ends. It is “conventional wisdom” which prevents it. But he fails to come to grips with the substantial reality of the situation, by being unable to see that social production is not geared to social interests but private interests, i.e. owners of capital, and thus the objective source of conflict between the interests of a few and the needs of the whole of society. Conventional wisdom itself is a reflection of that conflict.


Professor Galbraith may flay “conventional wisdom” with invincible logic, but the final illogicality rests with him. He wants “the ruling ideas” to give up their preoccupation with increasing production, but the fact remains that the self expansion of capital, and hence expansion of production, is the basic law of capitalism’s existence. Nor is logic his strongest point when he reproves the “ruling ideas” for the reluctance to spend money on social reforms and the readiness to spend money on armaments. It is true both come out of profits, but social services are a “luxury” to be kept within bounds. Armaments are a necessity for the defence of capitalist interests.


Ideas and Logic
Professor Galbraith dwells on the aimlessness of a social set-up whose goal is production for the sake of production. What he ignores is the fact that the national allocation of productive resources towards social ends cannot be undertaken in a society where capital is the form of man’s domination over man. He comments acidly on, the nature of our social transactions, but he evades the crucial issue that the very nature of extant society compels the major social transaction to be a cash one and where the social scale is marked off in pounds, shillings and pence, or the equivalent currency and status and prestige values are part of the norms of social assessment. Indeed, in the country where Professor Galbraith lives, it has been said that to be a “failure” is the toughest thing on earth. Such are the set of values, inevitably reared in a set-up whose ruling injunction is — exploit or be exploited.


One can agree with the author that the thinking of “conventional wisdom” is riddled with contradictions, illusions, illogicality and pretensions. But disguised motivation is the heart of all ideologies. Yet the dilemma which Professor Galbraith sees is not as he thinks the dilemma of “conventional wisdom,” it is the dilemma of capitalist society. It is part of the social paradox that whatever the illogicality of conventional wisdom, thinking its basic assumptions are logically consistent with the requirements of class conditioned society. They may see the social reality “through a glass darkly,” but at least they see it. Professor Galbraith’s idealistic “glass” having no material backing to it. he fails to see reality, he only sees through it.
Nevertheless, it must not be thought that conventional wisdom is ideologically a closed shop. It is always absorbing new entrants into the Establishment. It has accommodated many heretics in the past, it will accommodate many more in the future. Keynes was once regarded by conventional wisdom as a heretic, says Professor Galbraith, when he formulated his “General Theory of Employment.” Now vide the author “Keynes . . . was also on his way to constructing a new body of ‘conventional wisdom,’ the obsolescence of some parts in its turn, is now well advanced.” It is true that the author tells us that the enemy of “conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events” (page 10). But never does he relate ideas to the economic realities and development of capitalism. Seeing ideas as Kantian “things in themselves.” he simply relates ideas to other ideas. It thus becomes the process of the puppy chasing its own tail.


Like most ideologues he does not see the conflict of ideas, including his own as in reality a conflict between the productive forces and the social relation within which they work, but as a struggle between progressive and non-progressive forces. In essence the social problems are not the obsolescence of ideas, but the obsolescence of a system which has outlived its social usefulness. Whether capitalism produces more or produces less from the standpoint of productive activity and human creative energies it will always remain a society materially and culturally impoverished. Not until productive sources and activity are freely and commonly shared in a classless society can the rational allocation of resources towards human ends become the ruling principle of social life.


Professor Galbraith has many telling things to say about capitalism. Yet in the end his own “brave new world ” is an American capitalism entrenched behind new lines of defence. He may think he is in hot pursuit of progress. No doubt if he runs hard enough he will catch the coat tails of the Fabians of the 1880’s. If he runs harder still he may come abreast of their notions of a reformed and more humane capitalism.


And so at the end. Professor Galbraith stands for capitalism. albeit a reformed capitalism. If asked then where his basic loyalties lay, in all honesty he would have to reply “on the side of ‘conventional wisdom’.”


Ted Wilmott