Utility vs Aesthetics



I had dinner in Moscow last night with a really smart Brit, who had come to Moscow to work in advertising eight years ago. In talking about the dining experience in Russia,he mentioned that many older Russians still regarded feeding yourself as a utility–maximum calories consumed in minimum time. I was reminded of a remark made by a biographer about eating with the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. It was an unpleasant experience he said, because Trotsky was so intent on scarfing down his dinner that he never paused to talk.

But if the Russians may rush through dinner, they will think nothing of spending three hours at the Bolshoi ballet, or three weeks reading “War and Peace”. In Trotsky’s utopian future, technology would take over all of the grunt work of society, leave the average man time to find his aesthetic muse.

Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body ‘will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

Of course this notion of the 15 hour week wasn’t just a Socialist fantasy, as Elizabeth Kolbert points out in the New Yorker this week.

To Keynes, the coming age of abundance, while welcome, would pose a new and in some ways even bigger challenge. With so little need for labor, people would have to figure out what to do with themselves: “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won.” The example offered by the idle rich was, he observed, “very depressing”; most of them had “failed disastrously” to find satisfying pastimes.

Now of course neither Trotsky nor Keynes’ view of the future came true. And in cities like Moscow and Los Angeles, working the 80 hour week to “get more things” is the assumed wisdom. The mistake of the old wise men was that they thought man would gladly trade consumption for leisure—that living a modest life, rich in the aesthetics of writing songs or painting our masterpiece—would be a worthy trade.
How wrong they were.

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One Response to Utility vs Aesthetics

  1. Fentex says:

    It’s a tricky proposition – relaxing and enjoying abundance. We do not have a mechanism for it.

    Right now it’s probably true to say not everyone needs work. We have sufficient ability to produce that not everyone need labour to contribute to a surplus.

    But what of it? We are not organized to work for others or to allocate with disregard to employment. How could you do it without asserting a persons lot in life? To require that some do not work seems inappropriate yet how would an economy balance absent supply and demand it’s wealth?

    There’s an olde plan that would have governments pay everyone a minimum wage, a carefully judged sum to live on regardless of circumstance or action. And then tax everyone according to their wealth on a simple sliding scale.

    Trivial administration, no isolation of people by employment status, no intrusion into peoples affairs through need of welfare.

    It seems to me the most likely method of running a country where there isn’t a job for everyone, and many economists claim we have the wealth to apply it now.

    Who would have the courage?

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