Sunday, February 1, 2009

Enough Work (Sufficiency Part 2)

Thomas Princen's book The Logic of Sufficiency tries to develop some of the concepts we'll need in order to slip the stranglehold of the growth machine.  There's a critical element--a hard look at the rhetoric of efficiency and the political work it does--and a constructive one--figuring out how self-regulation at a social level might rein in fantasies of infinite consumption.

Among the ideas Princen offers is the concept of a 'working rationality."  Inspired by"the backward bending supply curve for labor," in which, traditionally, workers labored only as much as they wanted (rather than according to the demands of a time clock: hence the great old tradition of Saint Monday), Princen wants to break out of the straitjacket of "consumer sovereignty."  The idea, Princen argues

rejects the neat consumption-is-good/work-is-bad dichotomy..[and] allows individual consumption to follow work, not drive it.  It would be an economy where individuals optimize between work and consumption, where choice is, in the first instance, made by individuals themselves in the context of their broader commitments--family, neighborhood, nation.  A working rationality would, in short, build in limits in work and hence, limits in consumption.  It becomes one more step to make those limits congruent with ecological rationality. ... a working rationality puts a brake on excess throughput of material and energy ...that brake is released when workers specialize, resource groups exceed a manageable scale, and sovereign consumers rule (130).
It looks like the aim is to undo Adam Smith's division of labor, and return the figure of the self-employed artisan--be your own boss--to the center of the economy.  This resonates with other proposals to return the economy to a more human scale, although Princen is working on conceptual innovation rather than utopian blueprinting.

But this description, at least, sounds all too individualized: insufficiently sociological or political.  Choices are relational, and while there ways to steer individual choice--see the work in behavioral economics summarized in Sunstein and Thaler's book Nudge--the connection between policy and individual decisions is deeply problematic. 

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