I’ve had a subscription to The New Yorker for years now. It was a gift from my son, as he knew that I was a fan of long-form narrative nonfiction. I still am. Most stories are impossible to capture in a few sentences, let alone 140 characters.
The New Yorker still offers information and stories that I find worthwhile. Often lately, I find the urban, smarter-than-thou orientation of many of the writers somewhat off-putting. It seems like many of the issues taken up in each issue are often predictable, at least predictable in a liberal, elite sort of way.
In a recent issue (the one with the baseball umpire on the cover), Elizabeth Kolbert, a longtime writer for the magazine, wonders why all of us feel so busy and lacking for time. She takes up a short essay written in 1928 by noted economist, John Maynard Keynes.
The essay titled, “Economic Possiblities for Our Grandchildren,” finds Keynes imagining a world a century later. His prediction at the time was for a glorius increase in our “standard of life” in both the United States and Europe. He thought we would evolve to the point where no one would need to worry about making money. “Our grandchildren,” Keynes wrote, would work about three hours a day, believing even this amount to be greatly inflated and far more than was actually necessary.
Like our intellectuals and leaders today, he was deluded by technology’s promises that are never delivered. He couldn’t imagine a world without infinite growth and never-ending progress. Many know better today. Not Kolbert, however.
She wonders how Keynes could have gotten so much right in his forecast and yet be so “wrong about the future of leisure?” From there, she looks at a host of other writers, books, and research on leisure, some of it training a fresh orientation towards Keynes and his predictions.
I was reminded of another article from 2012, written by David Graeber in The Baffler, a publication that takes a distinctly different tack on questions than The New Yorker does. Graeber doesn’t view technology as a positive, or merely benign element.
Like Kolbert wondering where all the leisure promised by Keynes went, Graeber considers the failed promise of flying cars and all manner of supposed technological innovations, like what became of “force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now?” Like Keynes promised leisure, they’re nowhere to be found.
There’s a reason for this, which Kolbert doesn’t even come close to approaching. Graeber, however, hit the nail on the head, in my opinion. He posits that rather than technology unleashing a creative torrent that would lead to bigger and better things, and a utopian existence, we’ve instead become a nation of bureaucrats.
Graeber makes an interesting point in that the “final victory over the Soviet Union did not lead to the domination of the market, but, in fact, cemented the dominance of conservative managerial elites, corporate bureaucrats who use the pretext of short-term, competitive, bottom-line thinking to squelch anything likely to have revolutionary implications of any kind.” One of neoliberalism’s myriad failures.
According to Graeber that’s why we don’t have the leisure predicted by Keynes, or flying cars, for that matter.