Finding Plenitude in the New Economy

Juliet Schor has been one of the most articulate critics of American consumer culture over the last couple of decades. Her bestselling books have charted the rise, first, of the Overworked American and, then, of the Overspent American. Her work offers a persuasive exploration of the damaging work-and-spend cycle into which Western culture has fallen. We work too hard to buy things we don’t need because, if we don’t, there won’t be enough work for us all tomorrow.

At times, those earlier books offered clear glimpses of how to escape this pernicious trap. Her most recent book, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (Penguin Press, 2010), written in the wake of the worst financial recession in eighty years, elevates those glimpses to the role of a central vision for the transformation of the Western economy. Plenitude is a call to arms. It urges us to develop in a manner consistent with the ecological limits of a finite planet, to fashion an economics in which well-being and social connection play the leading roles, and to rebuild our economies from the bottom up with the “animal spirits” of human creativity.

As in earlier books, Schor’s diagnostic skills are clearly in evidence. But what distinguishes Plenitude from its predecessors, in my view, is the emphasis on vision. It’s a deliberately positive affirmation of the possibilities for economic renewal and offers a distinct road map for a new economy. There are gaps still, for sure, in this argument. Sometimes the evidence is more tenuous than we might want it to be or the claims require a fuller account of macroeconomic implications. But the overall vision is an intriguing one for the new emerging economic paradigm.

The concept of plenitude rests on four key principles. The first concerns a new allocation of time. Building on her early work on the overallocation of working time, Schor argues for a systemic reduction in hours worked in the formal economy. This reduction would have the effect of rendering formal economic output closer to levels that might be sustainable. It would also free up people’s time for social connection, for ecological restoration, and, in particular, for self-provisioning—making, growing, and doing things for oneself.

Self-provisioning represents the second principle of plenitude and is, perhaps, the most notable expansion of Schor’s new economic ideas from earlier work. Self-provisioning offers multiple benefits for those involved, she argues, including greater self-reliance, more resilient communities, better working conditions, and—perhaps surprisingly—improved productivity. One of the more contentious claims of Plenitude is that new information technologies have radically changed the economics of scale; smaller-scale activities are now better able to match supply with demand. In defense of this claim, Schor cites the rise of so-called Fab-Labs—very small-scale manufacturing facilities capable of fabricating any of the necessities of daily life and even, it appears, nearly able to replicate themselves.

If this idea has something akin to science fiction about it, the final two principles of plenitude are grounded firmly in much more traditionalist concepts of social organization. The principle of “true materialism” is an attempt to reconnect us to the material implications of our own consumption patterns. The preference of neoliberal market economies for overstretched supply chains has led to disconnected consumers who are aware of the price of everything and the value of nothing, distanced from the social and ecological impacts of production, and divorced from nature. This is a nice twist on the materialism debate. What we need, claims Schor, is not less, but more materialism. We need a positive way of reconnecting to our own materiality.

The final principle is a call to restore investment in social capital. Schor argues that we must consciously recreate strong social ties that reach beyond immediate family and friends. We must build social cohesion in our wider communities and create a sense of common purpose and identity. The primary resource for building social capital is the time freed up by the first principle. As people shift from formal employment to self-provisioning, volunteering, ecological restoration, and work in the community, they facilitate greater social cohesion. Likewise, greater cohesion itself becomes one of the key resources to achieve this transformation of working time. It’s a self-reinforcing, virtuous circle.

To restate Schor’s argument: we can solve unemployment, have more satisfying working lives, free up time for our families and our communities, reduce our impact on the environment, be more connected to nature, and be more efficient. We can make all of these changes at the same time simply by taking time progressively out of the formal economy and investing it in an expanding informal sector. This sounds almost too good to be true. My one concern with the book is that Schor may be claiming too much here. At the very least, I suspect there are a couple of tensions in her analysis that need to be teased out further. Let me try to explain.

It’s clearly seductive to suggest that the growth imperative on firms is misguided because the economies of scale have been reversed. If the claim for greater productivity at smaller scale were true, we should clearly encourage firms to be smaller, and to stay smaller because this makes them more productive not less. Setting aside, for the moment, the question of whether it actually is true, there remains another problem. If smaller firms were more productive, wouldn’t a shift from the formal to informal sector actually increase overall output, rather than reduce it and, in doing so, increase the scale of our impact on the environment? Schor wants the shift to smaller-scale production to work in favor not just of time and economic efficiency, but also of ecological conservation. Yet, to achieve this conservation, we would need resource efficiencies in the informal sector to not simply match, but significantly exceed anything that can be achieved in the formal economy. And, for all the futuristic appeal of the Fab-Lab, there doesn’t yet seem to be enough evidence to support this idea.

Might it not rather be the case, as I have argued in Prosperity without Growth, that the kinds of informal and semiformal activities that could form the kernel of this new economy are actually less productive in conventional economic terms? Their value lies less in their efficiency than in the quality and quantity of human time that goes into them. Rebuilding social ties is time consuming. Investing in preventive medicine, effective education, and social work—in short, an economy of care and connection—is labor intensive. But that is its distinct advantage. This economy offers more meaningful employment, creates better services, and provides the conditions that allow people truly to flourish.

I suppose what I’m expressing is a slight concern that, in seeking to keep economists happy with intimations of productivity, Schor has glossed over the potential tensions involved in creating this new economy. She fails to recognize it for what it is: a fundamental revolution in the way that we value people, time, and ecology. Not that this oversight detracts at all from my enjoyment of this book. Rather, it provides an intriguing point of difference between Schor’s view and my own, one that is at least partially open to empirical testing. It remains something to figure out as we go along. Above all, Plenitude is a brave, eloquent, and visionary call for a new economic paradigm—one that deserves to be widely heard.