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Dr Peter Critchley The Stationary State of J.S.




Dr Peter Critchley

Critchley, P., 2004. The Stationary State of John Stuart Mill. [e-book] Available through: Academia
website <

Critchley, P., 2004. The Stationary State of John Stuart Mill. In : P. Critchley, The City of Reason vol 7
The Ecological Concept of the City. [e-book] Available through: Academia website


Dr Peter Critchley is a philosopher, writer and tutor with a first degree in the field of the
Social Sciences (History, Economics, Politics and Sociology) and a PhD in the field of
Philosophy, Ethics and Politics. Peter works in the tradition of Rational Freedom, a tradition
which sees freedom as a common endeavour in which the freedom of each individual is
conceived to be co-existent with the freedom of all. In elaborating this concept, Peter has
written extensively on a number of the key thinkers in this ‘rational’ tradition (Plato, Aristotle,
Aquinas, Dante, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Habermas). Peter is currently
engaged in an ambitious interdisciplinary research project entitled Being and Place. The
central theme of this research concerns the connection of place and identity through the
creation of forms of life which enable human and planetary flourishing in unison. Peter tutors
across the humanities and social sciences, from A level to postgraduate research. Peter
particularly welcomes interest from those not engaged in formal education, but who wish to
pursue a course of studies out of intellectual curiosity. Peter is committed to bringing
philosophy back to its Socratic roots in ethos, in the way of life of people. In this conception,
philosophy as self-knowledge is something that human beings do as a condition of living the
examined life. As we think, so shall we live. Living up to this philosophical commitment, Peter
offers tutoring services both to those in and out of formal education.

The subject range that Peter offers in his tutoring activities, as well as contact details, can be
seen at
The range of Peter’s research activity can be seen at

Peter sees his e-akademeia project as part of a global grassroots learning experience and
encourages students and learners to get in touch, whatever their learning need and level.

Dr Peter Critchley The Stationary State of J.S. Mill


‘By turning back to the founding fathers of our industrial civilisation – Science,
Democracy and Progress – we find that it was not their intention that it should
be a civilisation of numbers. Both Mill and Ricardo saw the rapid economic
development of their time must finally lead to an economically stable state in
which the population would have to be balanced against natural resources. If this
was not done, both economists foresaw that it would be impossible for industry
to make a profit – the converse of the conventional wisdom of our day’

Waller 1973: 132

‘When we fuse Mill’s insight with that of the modern ecologists, we have an
understanding of the way in which western society is going to change its form’.
‘Mill turns to the question of what society is for – to improve the lot of mankind.
In the burst of the age of technology with its accompanying vast increase in
population Mill saw that the problem of satisfying the human necessities was
not to be solved by technology alone’. ‘The decline of a philosophy based upon
human relationships left the peoples of the world defenceless before the advance
of industrialism. A renaissance of philosophy is essential if we are to overcome
the dehumanisation of unrestrained industrialism’

Waller 1973: 133 135 139

John Stuart Mill represented the high water mark of classical political
economy, applying the insights of Smith and Ricardo in the 19 th century. A free trade
liberal who extolled the virtues of market economics, Mill was also extremely critical
of the social and economic features of Victorian capitalism. This, in many respects, is
the more enduring part of Mill’s legacy. His thought is particularly relevant with
respect to the urban ills of overscale, excess and endless growth. Mill’s argument
presupposed the productive achievements of capitalism. To Mill, the economic
problem had been solved; the key question in the advanced capitalist economies was
no longer production but distribution. Mill therefore sought to place the emphasis
upon the end of the capitalist economy rather than the means. In the process, he

Dr Peter Critchley The Stationary State of J.S. Mill

rediscovered the Greek principle of limitation to define a stationary state in which

human growth replaces material growth. The emphasis is placed upon exploiting the
margins for freedom that capitalism has achieved for human self-realisation away
from the world of necessity. Mill’s stationary state defines a sense of scale, proportion
and balance.

Mill defends a classical notion of citizenship against the prevailing atomistic or

market model of politics. Mill sharply attacked the market conception of society as ‘a
society only held together by the relations and feelings arising out of pecuniary
interests’ (Mill 1985:120).

Against the egoistic and destructive forces which characterise market society, Mill
looked to transform existing social institutions so as to realise a more integrated
community. This integrated, harmonious community, overcoming the distinctions
which set individuals above, below and against each other, seemed a realistic
prospect. ‘Every step in political improvement renders it more so, by removing the
sources of opposition of interest, and levelling those inequalities of legal privilege
between individuals or classes, owing to which there are large portions of mankind
whose happiness is still practical to disregard’ (Mill 1985:V). The socially divisive,
iniquitous and destructive forms of differentiation were in the process of being
overcome by legislative improvement, individual prudence, fair opportunity,
education, extended participation in the political process. These advances would issue
in a stable, harmonious, progressive state.

With ‘moral and intellectual improvements’ maintaining population at a stable level

(Mill PPE II xiii), it would be possible to combine economic stagnation with the
fullest development of all individuals. Beyond a certain level necessary for existence,
economic growth loses its rationale and exhibits potentials for human growth. The
resolution of the economic problems, the satisfaction of needs rather than the endless
stimulation of wants, makes it possible to develop human capacities. This was Mill’s
ideal society: ‘It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary conclusion of capital
and population implies no stationary state of human improvement’ (Mill 1985:116).

Dr Peter Critchley The Stationary State of J.S. Mill

In the stationary state, socio-economic differentiation and class struggle would recede
along with the money grubbing and drudgery associated with market society. Instead,
society, resting on harmonious relations, would be characterised by the pursuit of
higher pleasures. The quality of the mode of life would continuously improve. Society
would be characterised by ‘a well-paid and affluent body of labourers; no enormous
fortunes, except what were earned and accumulated during a single life-time, but a
much larger body of persons than at present, not only exempt from the coarser toils,
but sufficient leisure, both physical and mental, from mechanical details, to cultivate
freely the graces of life, and afford examples of them to the classes less favourably
circumstanced for their growth’ (Mill 1985:115).

Leisure would mean space free from economic necessity to engage in creative activity
in developing one’s human capacities. In this harmonious, creative existence, beyond
the imperatives of greed, egoism and self-maximisation, parliament would cease to be
a meeting place of ‘the attorney’s of certain small knots and confederalities of men’
(‘The Rationale of Political Representation’, Westminster Review XXX July 1935)
individuals concerned only with their own particular interests, but would become a
gathering of classless individuals concerned with the general interest in a condition of
human solidarity. Mill thus projects a classless, egalitarian and solidaristic order
which has overcome hierarchical distinctions within the people, making it possible for
all individuals to emerge and act as citizens for the first time (PPE IV vii).

Mill acknowledges ‘the economical progress of society’ in terms of capital’s

population and the productive arts. ‘But in contemplating any progressive movement,
not in its nature unlimited, the mind is not satisfied with merely tracing the laws of the
movement; it cannot but ask the further question of what goal? Towards what ultimate
point is society tending by its industrial progress?’ (Mill 1985:111).
Mill’s question presumes that there is a point to economic development.
Adhering to a philosophical anthropology which is concerned with human growth,
there ought to be a point or an end so that material progress is inextricably connected
with human self-realisation. The problem, however, is that capitalism has severed this
connection and imposes structures and imperatives which inhibit rather than expand
the human ontology. Capitalism is, in Keynes’s words, ‘irreligious’. The system lacks
moral purpose and is nihilistic in being, literally, an endless growth, a growth without

Dr Peter Critchley The Stationary State of J.S. Mill

ends. Capital has to expand its values in order to accumulate the capital necessary for
the process to begin again. There is no end to this process other than further growth.
This endless growth derives from the capital system and its central dynamic of
accumulation. The capital system must continuously expand its values or die. This
imperative to expand colonises every aspect of society. The process is nihilistic,
without ends.

Arguing that ‘the increase in wealth is not boundless’, Mill examines the stationary
state as the ‘ultimate goal’ towards which all progress in wealth advances. For Mill,
the stationary state entails freedom from the imperatives of economic necessity and
the freedom to develop as a human being. He does not regard ‘the stationary state of
capital and wealth’ with the ‘unaffected aversion’ manifested towards it by the
political economists.

I am inclined to believe that it would be, on the whole, a very considerable

improvement on our present condition. I confess I am not charmed with the ideal
of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of
struggling to get on.

Mill 1985:113

The ‘trampling, crushing, elbowing and treading on each other’s heels’ which
characterises the form of personal interaction under capitalist relations represent
simply a necessary but disagreeable feature of the present phase of industrial progress.

But it is not a kind of social perfection which philanthropists to come will feel any
very eager desire to assist in realising .. the best state for human nature is that in
which, while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear
being thrust back, by the efforts of others to push themselves forward.

Mill 1985:1/4

Dr Peter Critchley The Stationary State of J.S. Mill

And this implies the abolition of the competitive, instrumental, exchange relations of
capital, an asocial order organised around private property and the pursuit of wealth,
with all of the external imperatives it imposes upon human relationships.
In arguing for the stationary state, Mill was arguing for the recovery of limits
as crucial to asserting human ends. Mill thus argued that the expansion of production
is a rational goal only in underdeveloped countries. In advanced countries, the crucial
economic problem is distribution rather than production. And this emphasises the
need for balance.

At a lesser stage of development, competition is justified. But whilst ‘the mere

increase of production and accumulation’ is sufficient to excite the ‘congratulations of
ordinary politicians’, Mill defines the ultimate end in terms of human development.
Limits of the endless expansion of the economy are designed with the purpose of
facilitating economic growth.

I know not why it should be a matter of congratulation that persons who are
already richer than any one needs to be, should have doubled their means of
consuming things which give little or no pleasure except as representative of
wealth… It is only in the backward countries of the world that increased
production is still an important object; in those most advance, what is
economically needed is a better distribution.

Mill 1985:114

Mill is particularly critical of the United States in this regard. In the 1848 edition of
the Principles of Political Economy, Mill condemns the US as a country where the
expansion of riches has led only to a population of ‘dollar hunters’ and a mode of life
‘devoted to dollar hunting’ (Mill 1985:114).

Mill’s proposals for limits integrate an aesthetic and an ecological purpose with the
anthropological purpose. Mill states that there is not much satisfaction in
contemplating the world in which there is nothing left to the spontaneous activity of

Dr Peter Critchley The Stationary State of J.S. Mill

With every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing
food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all
quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his
rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a
place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a
weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose that great portion
of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase in wealth
and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to
support a larger, but not a better or happier population, I sincerely hope, for the
sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before the
necessity compels them to it.

Mill 1985:116

Mill’s view is striking for its ecological sensibility, not merely in terms of
harmonising the relation of productive activity to nature. Mill goes further to argue
that the limitless expansion of production and population would have the inevitable
consequence of robbing the planet of its charm and beauty. The increasing wealth
would not make humanity any happier, quite the contrary.

Mill’s purposes are, of course, anthropological. Mill seeks the maximum development
of the human personality.

It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and

population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as
much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture and moral and social progress;
as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of its
being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on.

Mill 1985:116

Mill even speculates that ‘the industrial arts might be as earnestly and as successfully
cultivated’: ‘that instead of serving no purpose but the increase of wealth, industrial
improvements would produce their legitimate effect, that of abridging labour’ (Mill

Dr Peter Critchley The Stationary State of J.S. Mill

1985:116). Mill notes the paradox that mechanical inventions, rather than lightening
the day’s toil of the workers, ‘have enabled a greater population to live the same life
of drudgery and imprisonment, and an increased number of manufactures and others
to make fortunes’ (Mill 1985:116). For Mill, mechanical inventions ‘have not yet
begun to effect those great changes in human destiny, which it is in their nature and
futurity to accomplish’ (Mill 1985:116).

Mill concludes with a statement of human ends over technical and institutional means,
overcoming the inversion of capitalism.

Only when, in addition to just institutions, the increase of mankind shall be under
the deliberate guidance of judicious foresight, can the conquests made from the
powers of nature by the intellect and energy of scientific discovery become the
common property of the species, and the means of improving and elevating the
universal lot.
Mill 1985:116/7

Mill’s hope was that humanity would content itself with remaining stationary once
necessity had been overcome. Mill’s advice was not heeded. It could not be. Growth
for the sake of growth is not the result of conscious decision, a process capable of
being influenced by moral persuasion, but a systemic imperative structured around the
dynamic of accumulation.
Marx directly responded to Mill’s argument, resolving the paradox of mechanical
invention and human enslavement by reference to the systemic imperatives of the
capital system.

John Stuart Mill says in his Principles of Political Economy: ‘It is questionable if
all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human
being’. That is, however, by no means the aim of the application under capitalism.
Like every other instrument for increasing the productivity of labour, machinery is
intended to cheapen commodities and, by shortening the part of the working day
in which the worker works for himself, to lengthen the other part, the part he gives
to the capitalist for nothing. The machine is a means for producing surplus value.

Dr Peter Critchley The Stationary State of J.S. Mill

Marx 1976:492

Marx’s argument explains why predictions of the leisure society never materialise,
despite vast improvements in production technique and organisation. The purpose of
mechanical invention is not to reduce hours of labour but to expand the time given
over to the production of surplus value which contributes to the accumulation of

Mill argues the need for limits on anthropological, aesthetic, ecological and social
grounds’ Limitless growth is not a viable option in a world of limited resources, quite
apart from the destructive effect that constant increases beyond scale imposes in an
immediate sense. But the ability to impose limits implies the ability to impose human
ends upon the capital system; it implies the reappropriation of social power from the
state and capital.

Oppenheim has argued that there is a fundamental similarity between Mill and Marx
as regards ends. Both affirmed the rational conception of freedom as something which
is both individual and collective, as implying a unity between each and all. Both
shared ‘the same ultimate goal of society “in which the free development of each
would be the condition of the free development of all”’ (Oppenheim 1968:54).
Kaufman agrees with this comparison, arguing that ‘Mill’s ideal of the good life is
more like Marx’s conception of unalienated man than it is like Bentham’s happy man’
(Kaufman 1971:202). There are clear similarities between Mill’s stationary state and
Marx’s existential, life-affirming community beyond endless growth. Where Marx
and Mill part company is on the means to this end. The imposition of limits upon
growth and the concentration upon issues of distribution over production presumes
that human beings have gained control of their socio-economic environment. And this
implies the practical reappropriation of the social power alienated to capital.
Capitalism is a systemic determinism resting upon the central dynamic of private
accumulation. That dynamic controls all. The system does not respect conscious
human choice or ethical code; it does not respect limits, however rational these limits
may be from the perspective of human growth. Capital must expand its values or die.
Capital rests upon a systemic self-expansion. Morally and anthropologically, Mill is
correct to condemn the system of endless growth and he is correct to argue for limits.

Dr Peter Critchley The Stationary State of J.S. Mill

But to realise the principles that Mill affirmed require a conscious challenge to the
dynamic underlying the system of economic growth, the class relations and the
system of alienated production. Only with the assertion of conscious human control
over systemic alien control can human beings ensure the condition of the stationary