By Tim Hardy
The only thing that grows unchecked in nature is cancer – and even that has a limit: the death of the host.
Yet the only demand we hear from most of the political class is for a return to growth.
This will take sacrifice, we’re told. Our welfare, education and health – all these the market fundamentalist priests must slaughter.
But no matter how much misery these fanatics create, as the deaths mount up day by day as a result of coalition policy, there is no sign of a return of growth.
Even the most rabid critics of government intervention are now insisting on handouts. When Michael Heseltine warned “The market can’t deliver growth without government help” he was just joining a very long queue of well fed men in expensive suits who despise the welfare state, refuse to pay their share of taxes and yet demand special treatment and the lion’s share of the money raised from the labour of the rest of us.
The end goal has to be wealth creation. There are debates as to how wealth should be divided, but ultimately these are sterile until it is created in the first place.
The right are obsessed with a fantasy image of heroic wealth creators. Those who labour for these mythological figures must be made to work harder for longer hours and for less pay with fewer rights. Lives must be sacrificed in the name of growth.
“Wealth creation” is one of the big Tory lies. Trickle down wealth has always been a myth. The Tories have always been the party of grotesque inequality; unfortunately, Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition have also long been remarkably comfortable with the extremely rich.
You’d have to be an idiot to believe that a class that gains power from inequality is going to voluntarily renounce that influence and wealth after they’ve increased their share.
Growth, growth, growth. The only thing that matters is growth. A growth that delivers for the rich and someone else can worry about the poor later. An imagined growth that allows us to mortgage the future to make up the shortfall in the present because the rent is too damn high and wages have stagnated for decades.
But growth is not coming back. And nor should it.
Growth often fails to improve the lives of the most vulnerable. Indeed, as the example of Bangladesh shows, quality of life can improve dramatically without growth.
Economic growth since the 1970s has been poor; the country’s politics have been unremittingly wretched. Yet over the past 20 years, Bangladesh has made some of the biggest gains in the basic condition of people’s lives ever seen anywhere. Between 1990 and 2010 life expectancy rose by 10 years, from 59 to 69 (see chart 1). Bangladeshis now have a life expectancy four years longer than Indians, despite the Indians being, on average, twice as rich. Even more remarkably, the improvement in life expectancy has been as great among the poor as the rich.
Bangladesh has also made huge gains in education and health. More than 90% of girls enrolled in primary school in 2005, slightly more than boys. That was twice the female enrolment rate in 2000. Infant mortality has more than halved, from 97 deaths per thousand live births in 1990 to 37 per thousand in 2010 (see table). Over the same period child mortality fell by two-thirds and maternal mortality fell by three-quarters. It now stands at 194 deaths per 100,000 births. In 1990 women could expect to live a year less than men; now they can expect to live two years more.
The most dramatic period of improvement in human health in history is often taken to be that of late-19th-century Japan, during the remarkable modernisation of the Meiji transition. Bangladesh’s record on child and maternal mortality has been comparable in scale.
We have grown enough. We already have the means to feed and clothe the world and we fail to do so.
The problem is not one of growth it is one of distribution.
Growth, in the economic sense, is not about the the increase of social happiness and satisfaction of the basic needs of people, but about the expansion of the global volume of exchange value. Gross national products, the main indicator of growth, is not a measure of social welfare and pleasure, but a monetary measure.
Social happiness or unhappiness does not generally depend on the amount of money circulating in the economy, but rather depends on the distribution of wealth, and on the balance of cultural expectations and the availability of physical and semiotic goods.
Growth is a cultural concept, more than it is an evaluative economic criterion of social health and well being. It is linked to the modern conception of the future as infinite expansion.
(Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance)
There comes a point where even if there is no welfare safety net, even if you are lucky enough to find a job, it costs too much to go to work to make it worthwhile. There comes a point where you cannot squeeze any more rent out of those who cannot afford to buy a home. There comes a point where there the worker can no longer get credit to make up the shortfall between her salary and the cost of the things she makes.
The race to the bottom ends in misery for all. Jobs replaced by automation are not coming back.
We need a politics that accepts that full employment is no longer necessary or desirable.
Instead we have a political system where even those who have worked all their lives are regarded as a burden “sponging off the state” when they claim their retirement in old age.
Growth isn’t coming back and while they’ll use it as a flag of convenience to wage war on things that reduce their ability to profit from the labour of others, I suspect most Tories don’t believe it is coming back either.
There is a reason why they are passing legislation to deregulate private security, build a surveillance state and cleanse the poor from the capital.
We have a choice. We can continue to insist that we can grow forever. If we identify as being on the left, we can perhaps pretend to ourselves that, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, this will help those that are suffering and prevent ecological disaster.
Or we can accept that this is a path to ruin and that there are better, fairer, more sustainable ways to run a society.
For decades, society has atomised us, destroyed communities and turned us against each other, making us think we’re all competing for the same crumbs from the tables of the rich.
The powerful won’t help us. They are happy to see the world burn. They think their wealth will protect them.
Even if we have forgotten the compassion and solidarity that could unite us against the challenge we face, then on purely selfish grounds we need to recognise that we do not have the luxury of living in gated communities safe from flood waters. Some might get jobs as servants. Others as guards. But for the rest of us, stuck outside the walls, we need to recognise that calls for growth by the left are doing little more than helping the right justify their assault on hard-won rights.
We need to stop making sacrifices for a future that will never come. The future is over. The time for change is not later but now.