We are at a fork in the road; or perhaps more accurately, at a roundabout with numerous roads that lead off in many directions, including back the way we came. Some of these roads are dead ends: infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible. Others are... well, perhaps the best word is unjust. The rich proceed smoothly, fat and happy in their air-conditioned carriages, while the poor have barely enough food to stagger along at the side of the road, shivering in the cold, sweating in the sun, their shoeless feet cut by sharp rocks.
Not even the best of these roads is ideal for everyone, but some are broader, smoother and (in every sense) fairer than others. So how did we get to this roundabout? Which road do we choose? How do we improve and maintain it?
How we got here
For almost all of recorded history, and as far as we know for all history before that, life was a competition for more or less scarce resources; and even when they weren't all that scarce, it was usually hard work to acquire and utilize them. Ploughing, sowing, reaping, milling, cooking: it was all work. Likewise cutting and dressing stone, felling trees, sawing them into planks. Or mining, smelting and casting or forging metals. And of course there were the bullies who simply took what they wanted, whether on a freelance basis as footpads, burglars and highwaymen, or on a grander scale: chieftains of tribes, feudal lords, kings, dictators.
Slowly, mankind invented machines. Watermills go back more than 2000 years; windmills arrived a very few hundred years later. Steam engines started to become important in the 18th century. By the 20th century, even farming was increasingly mechanized, though the farms surrounding the village in which I live were almost exclusively beast-worked until after World War Two: there were a few traction and stationary engines, but the first tractors did not arrive until after the war. Chain saws replaced bow saws: anyone who has tried both with have a very keen appreciation of the difference in effort required, which is rather more than it is easy to imagine. The common man was increasingly emancipated from a life of grinding toil. And stone axes gave way to bronze and steel swords, then to guns, then to tanks and missiles.
There has always been inequality. Tribes had their chiefs. Nations had their kings. And there were always priests. Artists and craftsmen, including writers and composers, were for the most part supported by a tiny upper crust. They lived at the expense of a patron or in the service of a religious body. It is unclear how (for example) the ancient Greek playwrights derived their income, but it is known that supporting the drama was a civic duty for the rich; one which might be undertaken either joyfully or grudgingly, but which had to be undertaken. Misers who failed to help others were always held in singular contempt throughout most of history.
The very idea of a middle class was slow to emerge: a class that neither lived off inherited wealth (often acquired by their ancestors via large-scale robbery) and the work of servants or slaves, nor was engaged in unremitting toil. You might trace it to the Renaissance, which was roughly contemporaneous with the rise of capitalism; or to the Age of Reason (often dated 1685-1815); or to the Romantic Movement which began in literary form (Goethe is normally held up as the first great light of romantic writing in the 1770s) and soon established itself in painting with painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner or for that matter Constable. There are those who would hold up Thomas Cole, 1801-1848, as an early Romantic, but his heavy religious symbolism sets him apart from the humanism and indeed paganism of later painters.
By the late 19th century, though, the middle class was large and growing. There was still hideous poverty, even in the richest countries in the world, but (the importance of this will become apparent later) there was now enough of a popular market for art of all kinds that painters, composers and the like could now be supported by popular sales instead of by individual rich patrons. In my own view, this is when the modern age began: when there was a significant middle class with enough money to patronize art and literature.
Even so, it would be another 100 years or so before anything resembling a post-scarcity economy emerged in even the richest countries. It still wasn't superabundance, but it was close enough for many practical purposes: a society rich enough to put a roof over just about everyone's head; to provide everyone with enough to eat; and to clad even the poorest in something better than rags. This was already in sight when in 1930 Keynes wrote Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. With today's increasing automation, his forecast of a 15-hour work week by 2030 is even more attainable than it was when he wrote it. What frustrated his vision?
Well, consumerism is one obvious candidate. In 1930 no-one could buy smartphones or wide-screen televisions. There is no doubt that such things add to the quality of many people's lives; though there are others who would suggest that they can also detract from quality of life. The real question is whether the extent to which they improve people's lives is outweighed by the time that is spent earning money to buy them, especially when many are willfully short lived: my daughter reckons she is doing well if she gets even two years out of her smartphones.
Another candidate is greed. Money for its own sake, coupled with the power than money brings, is far more important to some people than others. Many people -- the majority, I most strongly suspect -- are content with comfort. To be sure, it is perfectly normal to want more: I have seen it suggested that no matter how much or how little you have, about 15% more is commonly regarded as what would make a significant difference. But what you would like to have is (or should be) quite different from what you are willing to sell your soul for; if, indeed, you are willing to sell your soul at all. So what I am going to address here is lack of ambition; or perhaps, ambition for the wrong things.
Production and distribution