People for about the last century or so have looked forward to a future period of ‘abundance’. J.M.Keynes, for instance, suggested that before long, we will have to consider the problem of how to find things to do with all our free time. These predictions haven’t come true and there’s a reason – without revolution they can’t.
Let’s define “abundance” in labour-related terms: it’s the point at which people feel no need to do unpleasant work to acquire an income so as to purchase things (work that’s actually pleasant can be done for its own sake, but is then strictly speaking more like ‘play’).
How do we get there? Broadly speaking, the main route would surely be labour-saving technology – ways of getting things done in shorter and shorter periods of time. There might be other routes – like personal asceticism, for instance (I just stop wanting the things I would buy). Increases in output and efficiency are equivalent to labour-saving, since they allow the same product to be produced with less time.
As technology of this sort progresses, we would expect people to become, broadly speaking, ‘richer’ – being able to get more stuff, while keeping more leisure time. The ‘marginal utility’ of working goes down slowly, as people think ‘I’ve got pretty much what I need, actually – why should I work more?’
But. Problem. If some task that previously took a lot of labour now gets done quickly, there’s no need to employ the person who was previously doing it. They are, in fact, now out in the street. Their income is now very much reduced. They can’t buy the products that are now so easily and abundantly made (unless everyone gets hugely indebted – there’s absolutely no risk of that going horribly wrong…). Their marginal utility of working shoots up again – they desperately need to find a job.
This applies generally across the economy. What lowers the marginal utility of working (through labour saving), then raises it again (through unemployment). In proportion as we get better off, we get worse off. The result is one of two things. Either we artificially prolong scarcity by inventing endless new stupid jobs to do, and corresponding endless new things we ‘need’ to buy, or we approach a situation where we are so fantatically wealthy that a thousand times the goods needed to satisfy anyone’s desires are easily available…but no-one can buy them. Or to re-phrase, the goods exist but are all owned by capitalists who can’t use most of them. The rest of us sit around unemployed, scrabbling for a crumb. Of course, such a situation would actually produce a vast economic crisis first, because if nobody can buy goods there’s no profit on them, so they stop getting made.
Anyway, the point is – capitalism builds in scarcity. It’s a design feature. Under capitalism (abstracting away from welfare states and so forth) people can only get any access to the wealth that their ancestors have built up if other people are unhappy and desperate enough to work to buy the things that capitalists employ them to make. Under capitalism, technological improvements cannot be used rationally, but must be used to impoverish. They can only be used rationally with a (democratically, collaboratively) planned economy – indeed, that’s kind of the definition.
And not only is revolution necessary for abundance, it is, arguably, sufficient. That is – current global wealth could provide everybody with what many previous generations would have called ‘utter abundance’. Enough food, somewhere to live, security, sociability, culture, communications, transport, electricity. But that’s harder to be confident about, because abundance is partly psychological – if you desperately need a sports car to fill the void in your soul, then not having one will be ‘scarcity’. But on that we need only observe that billions and billions of pounds are spent every year to manufacture this kind of psychological scarcity through advertising.
In conclusion, capitalism is bad. Forward to the playful communist utopia!