By Matt Trinder
WHY does capitalism claim to liberate the vast potential of human imagination and innovation without countenancing any challenge to itself whatsoever?
This is one of many paradoxes explored by anthropologist Jason Hickel in his latest book ‘Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World.’
It seems a particularly pertinent question in the week when the UK slipped into the worst recession in its history following the coronavirus lockdown.
Signs of discontent with a system that has held much of humanity in its grip for the last few hundred years are commonplace.
Hickel quotes a YouGov poll from 2015 which found that 64 per cent of British people believed capitalism to be unfair, with even 55 per cent of people in the US agreeing.
In light of these statistics, it’s perhaps surprising self-proclaimed socialists such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders failed to convert initial enthusiasm into electoral success on either side of the Atlantic.
I’d argue one of the problems with both leaders was that they failed to build on such discontent by proposing an alternative to the status quo which seemed credible.
However, Hickel’s vision of a post-capitalist degrowth future could be just what the left has been looking for.
What is degrowth economics? I remember once getting into a Twitter ‘debate’ with an individual who accused me of wanting to return humanity to a state resembling primitive cave dwellers when I dared to suggest it might be good idea.
This is a false dichotomy. Hickel demonstrates once and for all in his new book that there is no impossible choice to make between a continued embrace of ‘growthism’ (increasing Gross Domestic Product exponentially every year which has created massive inequalities and is triggering ecological collapse) or slamming the brake on growth and forcing the human race into unacceptable hardship.
This is because GDP growth has little to no automatic connection with increased living standards.
Cubans for example tend to live longer than Americans, despite GDP per capita being much higher in the US. Why? Hickel reveals it is because the vast majority of GDP growth in the world’s biggest economy is gobbled up by the richest one per cent, while most of the population struggles to afford privatized healthcare. In Cuba this is provided for free by a state which uses its limited resources carefully in a genuinely rational way.
How a state chooses to use the wealth generated by growth is therefore more important than continued growth itself.
Capitalism claims to be efficient and rational, but Hickel demonstrates that the total opposite is true by looking at the mobile phone industry.
It would be much more efficient and rational for our devices to be made to last as long as possible, but they are designed to fail after 18 months or so to drive sales. This is a total waste of labour and materials and encourages further damaging plunder of finite natural resources.
In the name of decoupling human progress from GDP altogether, degrowth calls for these deliberately wasteful industries in rich countries to be cut back, and others, such as public services, to be scaled up.
Hickel argues powerfully that such a needs-based approach would protect both people and planet while rendering the need for constant economic growth unnecessary.
What about jobs? Some see degrowth as a new form of austerity as scaling back some industries would result in jobs losses as inefficient labor is eradicated, but Hickel debunks this claim too.
He argues that a shorter working week would allow for jobs to be redistributed on the basis of need, with a jobs guarantee and stronger working rights contributing to an increase in people’s quality of life.
A workforce with more leverage can facilitate a redistribution of wealth downwards, some of which could be used to retrain people as the economy transitions to one based on genuine need, not profit.
A global minimum wage and debt cancellation would see the global South benefit from these changes, the least former imperial masters can do argues Hickel.
In many ways these ideas are not actually that radical. Indeed, Hickel calls this a rather familiar post-capitalist world, a far cry from the Stalinist metaphors that the Johnsons and Trumps of this world deploy when anyone dare to even question growthism.
Readers of Hickel’s book ‘The Divide’ (2017) might find the chapter in his latest creation on the birth of capitalism somewhat repetitive as it is largely borrowed from his earlier publication, but to me it feels like essential context that needs restating.
Hickel is clearly keen to avoid preaching to the converted and tempt those who have not yet dared to dream of a better world to join him. His careful extrapolation of all the key concepts needed to grasp his vision in clear, accessible language is what makes this book so powerful.
You do not need to know anything about capitalism, growthism, and degrowth to interface with ‘Less is More’. It would make the perfect read for anyone who is concerned about the direction we are heading in.
Hickel admits that’ll we need courage to break with old habits and change course, and he is honest about the fact that he doesn’t have all the answers, but “new sources of hope, new wellsprings of possibility” will help as he states.
This book is exactly that.
The first step on a new journey that we must take together, before it is too late.
‘Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World’, written by Jason Hickel and published by William Heinemann London, is available now.
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