Idle Theory The Secondary Economy

The Rise and Fall of Consumer Culture

In Idle Theory, the primary economy generates idle time, and economic growth entails increasing social idleness. But the primary economy can only grow to a theoretical maximum of 100% or perfect idleness. So there is a top limit on growth in the primary economy.

As social idleness grows, the idle time that it generates creates the circumstances in which a secondary, luxury-producing economy or trading system can emerge. The secondary economy produces luxuries, amusements, toys, and the like. It corresponds with a neoclassical economy, in which individuals forego idle time in which to acquire desired goods and services. The secondary economy may emerge because it is forced into existence in a dragon economy, or through individual choice, or both. For the purposes of this essay, a secondary economy is taken to arise through free individual choice, rather than forced into existence within the special case of a dragon economy.

A secondary economy of this sort also roughly corresponds to consumer society. People make and exchange consumer goods of one sort or other - books, videos, art, music, fashion items and accessories, etc -. Unlike useful tools in the primary economy, these goods do not generate idle time. Instead, they use up idle time. They are goods that are acquired for the pleasure they give.

In the neoclassical economic approach to this sort of economic system, it was in the pleasure of their consumption that the utility of luxuries or consumer goods lay. And neoclassical economists attempted to measure this happiness or pleasure - as 'hedons' or 'utils'. But it could equally well be said that, quite apart from this pleasure, consumption takes time. Eating a box of chocolates may be a pleasurable experience, but it is also a time-consuming experience. So also is reading a book, or watching a movie, or playing a game of chess or football.

Idle Theory largely (and typically) discounts the psychological response that luxuries and amusements evoke, and instead considers the time that is spent on such consumption. It anyway seems an overstatement to assert that people simply seek 'pleasure' or 'happiness', particularly if they watch horror movies, read tear-jerker tragedies, or play shoot-'em-up computer games. It seems instead that people prefer being exercised by every variety of emotion, but generally avoid remaining in any single state for too long. i.e. they do not want to be sad all the time, or horrified all the time, or amused all the time.

Instead of seeking 'pleasure' or 'happiness', it might instead be suggested that people seek an equilibrium or balance of psychological states. And what people want at any time in their lives may simply reflect what is absent from it. In calm and peaceful societies, people may want to experience compensatory excitement and danger. In busy and anxious societies, they may want compensatory peace and calm. In conformist societies, they may want rebellion. And so on.

To the extent that modern Western economies are increasingly devoted to the production of luxuries and the provision of services, it would appear that the underlying idleness of such societies must be relatively high for so many consumer goods to have become available.

On the face of it, it would seem that, unlike a primary economy, a secondary economy is capable of unlimited growth. People could come to own unlimited quantities of luxuries, living in ever-expanding palaces, becoming materially richer and richer. There are, however, some fairly good reasons for supposing that secondary economies are not actually likely to continue indefinite growth.

In the first place, both the production and consumption of consumer goods require idle time. For example, a game of football requires the idle time in which to make a pitch, two goals, and a ball. And then the idle time is required to play the game. Making and selling footballs is part of the secondary economy. Playing football is - except with professional footballers - an idle time activity. And since consumer goods require time for their consumption, and there is a limited amount of idle time available to any individual, and therefore a limited number of consumer goods that any individual can consume in any period of idle time. And so there would appear to be a limit of satiation beyond which a secondary economy cannot grow. Beyond this point, sellers of consumer goods are likely to find that their goods go unsold.

Also, since both producers and consumers in the secondary economy are using idle time, this time has to be divided into production and consumption time. Or there is, as it is sometimes called, a 'work-life balance'. If people spend most of their time making consumer goods, they may have very little time to enjoy them. Conversely, if they spend little time making consumer goods, they may find that they have more time on their hands than they have consumer goods to occupy and amuse them.

In many ways, this balance should generally be found automatically. If it takes much of a day for someone to make a football, which only survives one game, then most of the time will be spent making footballs, and very little time playing football. But if it takes only a few minutes to make a football which will last 100 games, then very little time will be spent making footballs, and most of the time will be spent playing football. And since productivity in the secondary economy is likely to grow with productivity in the primary economy, then very likely football manufacturers in the secondary economy will learn how to produce increasingly long-lasting footballs in ever-decreasing amounts of time. So technological innovation in a secondary economy will result in ever higher quality consumer goods being produced in ever less time. The secondary economy will tend to shrink as a proportion of idle time. And this will free up more idle time for the consumption of new consumer goods other than footballs - e.g. cans of beer to drink between games. The more consumer goods that come on sale, the more time is necessary for their consumption. At satiation, hardly any work is done producing thousands of consumer goods, and most time consists of idle time in which such goods are enjoyed.

So the likelihood is that technological innovation in secondary economies will produce more and more consumer goods, and the idle time in which to enjoy them will expand until almost all idle time is devoted to consumption rather than production. And secondary economies will therefore tend to behave much like primary economies, first occupying most of idle time, and finally very little of it. The result, when both primary and secondary economies have dwindled into relative insignificance, will be a general condition of near complete idleness, and a plethora of consumer goods.

It might be thought that with jobs vanishing and the idle 'unemployed' multiplying, the price of labour must fall. But to the extent that people increasingly prefer leisure over work, it may well be that quite the opposite happens, and it will become increasingly difficult for employers to find employees. Employers may have to make work more appealing, playful, fun. In secondary economies, productive work will gradually begin to merge with play. And, in many ways, it ought to - because secondary economies ought to be playful, given that what they produce is entirely unnecessary. It is only the primary economy which must always remain a matter of profound seriousness, and strict discipline.

The graph below indicates roughly the process of expansion and contraction of economic systems. At first a primary economy occupies most of people's time, but as it grows, following an ideal long term growth curve, more and more idle time becomes available, and a secondary luxury-producing economy emerges which in turn occupies most people's idle time. But as this secondary economy becomes more productive, it also dwindles away. A 'tertiary' economy is some other (undefined) economy that may subsequently take the secondary economy's place.

Different consumer goods are likely to consume time at different rates. An inexpensive football may provide many hours, days, and even weeks of pleasure for a lot of people, using up a lot of idle time. A book may take several days to read. Most movies last an hour or two. An expensive glass of wine may be drunk in a few minutes. And, in general, objects like paintings and sculptures may make little or no demands on their owners' idle time. Indeed, they might only be noticed when they have gone missing.

This suggests that in busy societies, luxury goods are likely to come in the form of objects - paintings, sculptures, houses, gardens - which make little demand on their busy owners' time. If wealth has historically been regarded as material wealth, and a rich man generally lived in a palatial mansion filled with works of art, and wore fine clothes and jewellery, this was perhaps because in busy periods of human history, rich men were very often busy men as well, and so their wealth necessarily took this form.

But as social idleness increased, and rich people had more idle time to dispose of, the forms their wealth took would have begun to reflect this new-found idleness. The appearance of libraries, snooker tables, football fields, yachts and swimming pools, all suggest that their owners must have had the idle time in which to read books, play chess and snooker and football, and swim in their pools.

At the other end of the social scale, the poor would more likely spend what little money they had on consumer goods like footballs which would dispose of the maximum amount of idle time for the least expenditure. Hence all the kids kicking footballs around in backyards in third world countries.

Producers in the secondary economy would generally prefer that their customers buy consumer goods that used up as little idle time as possible for the highest price possible. Consumers, on the other hand, would generally prefer consumer goods that used the most idle time for the lowest price. And producers will also regularly seek to become monopolists, the sole suppliers of particular products. Thus only Leonardo da Vinci could produce Leonardo da Vinci paintings. So also Michelangelo, and every single other famous artist.

Such artists will regularly want to sell as many paintings or sculptures as they can for the least effort to themselves. A painting by Leonardo da Vinci such as the Mona Lisa is composed of layer after layer of near transparent paints, created over weeks, months, and perhaps even years. The 19th century impressionists, however, set out to create an impression of some scene with a few dabs or strokes of paint - i.e. with the least effort. If Leonardo da Vinci carried the Mona Lisa around with him for most of his life, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh produced some 40 masterpieces between them in about 6 weeks together in Arles at the end of the 19th century. Subsequent artists pushed the boundaries further, so that a painter like Picasso could dash off a cartoon in a half an hour. Abstract art, which depicted nothing at all, allowed artworks to be produced even faster. A documentary of Jackson Pollock suggested that he spent only than a few minutes dribbling paint to create one of his artworks. And a Mark Rothko painting certainly looks like it has been created in a few minutes, although it is said that he would gaze at them for hours. Other artists, who simply assembled found objects, took the process further, not even bothering to paint anything. And Andy Warhol's art consisted largely of reproductions of found objects - e.g. soup tin adverts. A movie might be regarded as an assemblage of multiple pictures, sold as a job lot. At 20 frames per second, a two hour movie will contain 144,000 images or artworks, and be shot in a few weeks on location. The history of modern art might be regarded as the history of the economics of art.

Fashion, especially rapidly changing fashion, offers another way for luxury producers to increase sales. If customers can be persuaded that their clothes/cars/home decor have become unfashionable almost as soon as they have bought them, then they will keep on buying new clothes and cars and home decorations. The downside of fashion-driven markets, however, must be that in the end everything becomes unfashionable. When the Beatles stormed America in the 1960s, they put a whole bunch of crooners and hairdressers out of business.

The entire secondary economy is, in many ways, driven by fickle desire. And this makes it highly volatile. There is nothing that says that people must eat chocolates, or read novels, or listen to music, or watch television, or play football. And there is no knowing when people may tire of one thing, and turn to another. There is no rigid and immutable set of possessions or activities which corresponds to a 'high standard of living'. While some idle individuals may never be able to have enough luxuries and amusements, others may wish to live lives with the minimum of possessions, finding their pleasures in conversation or in surfing. Anyone's 'standard of living' is, at root, defined by how much idle time they have at their disposal, to set to work - or not set to work - acquiring luxuries and amusements as they choose. A condition of idleness entails the ability to do nothing - and to do everything.

And if there is no single set of possessions which corresponds to a high 'standard of living', then there cannot be any national cultural "chosen way of life" to which all must adhere - drinking tea in England, wearing lederhosen in Germany, and watching cuckoo clocks in Switzerland. If a "chosen way of life" becomes compulsory, it ceases to be chosen in any meaningful sense: it becomes a compulsory game, and thus no game at all.

Fear of Freedom

In many ways, consumer society simply provides ways of disposing of - killing - idle time in one more or less pleasant way or other. Consumer society is for people who don't know what to do with their idle time. And it should be no particular surprise that this is so: busy traditional working society had little idle time, and so never developed a leisure culture. Traditional working society was centred around work, and the weekly sabbath day was itself structured around church services. It was in the church that parishioners beheld art and sculpture, and heard uplifting music and sermons, and watched ritual theatre. In traditional working society, the mediaeval church was art gallery and opera house and theatre and library and school, all rolled into one. And it offered a premonition of the world to come, the impending kingdom of heaven. It was a monopoly that could not be sustained as social idleness rose, and art and music and literature and philosophy and theatre spilled out of the church into the secular world.

But if the church had pointed to a distant future heaven (and hell), it did not attempt to describe what would be done on the playing fields of heaven. And so, as life became more idle, the church was unable to tell anyone what to do with their idle time. It was unprepared. And so the prospect of a general condition of idleness became fearsome.

And rather than hasten towards it, people began to draw back, and to attempt to stave off the inconceivable day. The ship of humanity, so long sailing towards the shores of heaven, was turned around, and rowed away from it. It became the primary political imperative of every society to retain traditional working society, to create full employment in wealth creation. Thus, in a colossal failure of nerve the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote:

"I think with dread of the adjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades ... must we not expect a general 'nervous breakdown'?" (Keynes, 1972a: 327) "There is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and abundance without a dread ... It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself ..." (Keynes, 1972a: 328). Denis. Research in Political Economy, 2002

However, it is in the inherent nature of primary economies that they will tend to approach perfect idleness, and it has been argued here that secondary luxury-producing economies are likely to subsequently follow almost exactly the same pattern of development. The likelihood, therefore, is that such economic systems peak in a condition of more or less complete social idleness. Any attempt to prevent this from happening will be an attempt to reverse the inherent logic of such economic systems, and will fail.

Nor is it at all clear that the habits and instincts of ordinary men - presumably to work for most of their lives - have been 'bred' into them, as Keynes supposed. If anything is bred into ordinary men and women, and into every single living creature, it is a habit and instinct of preferring idleness over work, without which living things could not have survived. Nor is it clear why there should be any sort of general 'nervous breakdown' in an age of leisure. After all, most people do not suffer nervous breakdowns at the prospect of an idle weekend, or a month long summer holiday, or a year's sabbatical, or retirement in old age. On the contrary, most people look forward to them, and find ways of quietly and unobtrusively entertaining themselves. Keynes himself was a wealthy, highly cultured man, with many interests, and a habit of staying in bed until noon. If he could manage to avoid 'nervous breakdown', why couldn't anyone else?

If there is any danger, it is that the transition from busy traditional working society to a leisure culture will be very sudden, and therefore shocking and disorienting. But most likely, left to itself, the transition will be gradual rather than sudden, allowing people to gradually adjust. It is, paradoxically, more likely that the transition will be sudden if attempts are made to completely stop it happening, by building a dam that will suddenly burst.

Beyond time-killing consumer society, it might be suggested, there is a yet-to-be-discovered leisure culture in which people begin to make use of idle time in hitherto unknown ways - and in some tertiary economy begin to make and trade entirely new goods.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: April 2007