Looking back on the affluent society

The bestseller The Affluent Society made economist John K Galbraith a household name in the USA. In his 1958 classic, Galbraith celebrated the spread of middle-class materialism and used this condition of affluence, rather than a state of scarcity, as grounds for interpreting, analysing and advising on national economic policy.

Mike Berry’s title The Affluent Society Revisited is a double entrendre: Berry, an Emeritus Professor at RMIT  University, has written the book not to take us on a journey back to the late 1950s nor to glorify Galbraith but to use Galbraith’s canny take on progress to explore our current economic demise. Many Americans, after experiencing the Great Recession following the 2008 global financial crisis, would need to revisit – almost like tourists – the the affluence Galbraith celebrated.

Galbraith’s premature belief in the equal distribution of affluence might strike you as peculiarly American. But remember in the same year that The Affluent Society came out, historian Russel Ward published his influential and controversial The Australian Legend.

History also made a mockery of Ward’s thesis – that of an Australian national identity based on bushmen and soldiers’ mateship, sense of a fair go, independence and egalitarianism – as Australian society grew more urbanised and more multicultural, and feminism challenged the notion of any singular collective identity, let alone a peculiarly masculine one.

Over the last fifty years, both affluence and equality have become contested terrains. Even as he seemingly stands on the side of affluence, Berry does wonder in an aside if Galbraith didn’t use ‘affluence’ partly tongue-in-cheek – say, pre-empting the more recent concept of affluenza. Galbraith had a keen sense of ‘enough’, imagining that material wellbeing not only should, but also ultimately would, express itself in more leisure, health, better education and a maintenance of the natural environment. Galbraith abhorred the tendency to overconsumption, to unnecessary consumption, wasteful advertising and production for its own sake.

Galbraith wrote provocative works in an easy-to-read style. They weren’t radical but they were controversial – poking at ‘conventional wisdom’, a phrase he coined.

Berry follows in his footsteps. Berry is well-versed in economics, especially relating to the global financial crisis – in 2008 he was leading a study on mortgage default in Australia when the crisis erupted. Most usefully for the general reader, Berry’s work as a social scientist centres on the social, philosophical and policy implications of Galbraith’s economic analyses.

From ‘down under’, Berry sympathetically situates Galbraith the American iconoclast and the institutional, behavioural and Keynesian economics he stood for, explaining the theoretical context of his ideas, the social trends he observed, his expectations and his warnings, and assessing the appropriateness of Galbraith’s policy proposals for the period since 1958, especially now that, in Berry’s words, ‘trickle down has shrunk while gushing up has prospered’.

Galbraith was a social commentator, an analyst and critic. Another phrase he coined was ‘private profit, public squalor’, to describe the cultural beginnings of the deplorable undermining of the public sector as a result of neoliberalism.

Galbraith believed in a significant public sector in ‘social balance’ with private sector investment and productivity, recognising that private firms as well as social harmony and welfare rely on public services. A critic of military adventurism and expenditure, he argued to devote more of the public purse to welfare and, in a complementary way, for an internationalism based on collaborative and respectful cooperation.

Galbraith’s idea of the ‘good society’ reserved a central role for a genuinely democratic state – supported by an active citizenry – to ensure educational, health and retirement benefits for all and to curtail the worst excesses of the financial sector. Berry argues that while the global financial crisis would not have surprised Galbraith – who was a firm believer in the necessity of state intervention to minimise impacts of crises, inflation and depression, and to save us from ‘the mumbo-jumbo world of money and banking’ – the vulnerability of capitalism to such shocks is not adequately embraced by Galbraith’s theory.

Galbraith deplored the uneven competition between small capital – small farmers and small entrepreneurs, whether in industry or commerce – and the growing corporate sector. He idealised the proper working of the market system in the activities of small capital in contrast to big capital’s re-jigging of the rules of the game in its favour, a development he referred to as the ‘planning system’. In a similar way Galbraith observed with great irritation that corporate power had an unhealthy sway on state policy and enabled considerable personal influence. Berry argues that:

The aloof persona of a Harvard academic and member of the east Coast intelligentsia was cover for a man who burned with a sense of injustice on behalf of the less fortunate of his fellow citizens and who also harbored a cynical disregard, bordering on contempt, for the pretensions of the rich and contented elites who controlled the heights of the economy, polity, and dominant culture.

Still, Galbraith was no socialist but rather a liberal-cum-social democrat. His ideal was freedom, freedom of opportunity, not solidarity. Berry concludes, then, that:

Like Keynes and other liberals he underestimated the reality of social class inequalities and overestimated the goodwill of honest, disinterested citizens … he was able … to diagnose the disease but not cure it.

Indeed, the real strength in Galbraith’s analysis seems to have been his willingness to compare empirical evidence to orthodox economics to show its multifarious weaknesses. Galbraith analysed economic activities as he observed them. At times he was capable of describing the bones, muscles and sinews of capitalism with forensic attention to its condition. Yet ultimately Galbraith agonised over that condition – our condition – not like a doctor but as an observer.

Anitra Nelson

Anitra Nelson is an honorary associate professor at RMIT University. Her publications include , Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities and Steering Sustainability in an Urbanizing World: Policy, Practice and Performance.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. “Galbraith celebrated the spread of middle-class materialism …”

    Ain’t that the very problem and total absurdity (as stated in the piece – so I’m more mulling over than adding) of expecting change in a Gailbraithian economic paradigm, that the middle classes might overthrow their own safely ensconsed social positions?

    That, and the humanist metaphysic attendant on “that (human) condition – our condition”, where the story is told from the point of view of a distant observer not actively involved in class struggle, coupled with the belief in some unexplained human goodness (“good society”)operant within current modes of production?

  2. Galbraith thought that, since the middle class increased after the war, this was an inevitable trajectory — what capitalism was on the way to delivering — all those in the working class (except that those who couldn’t or wouldn’t work) might become middle class. There’s no real class struggle in this view, almost all of you can be middle class! It’s a stirring reminder of 1950s and 1960s left liberalism — environmentally and culturally aware and a little bit ethical — in stark contrast to today’s liberal conservativism who pan everything but the mighty dollar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *