Disagreeing with Corbyn about growth

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Corbyn & McDonnell at the Labour Conference, just after John’s (very growthist) Shadow Chancellor’s speech

I was always going to have to write this post eventually. It’s about an annoyingly difficult moral problem I’ve found myself faced with since September.

That month, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, two men I’d seriously consider sacrificing one of my lesser appendages to see put in power, became leader of the opposition and shadow chancellor. It was stupendously unexpected, and probably the best thing that’s happened this decade.

But it quickly raised a big, fat, inconvenient moral-strategic question: what do you do when the two people you’ve long considered the finest protectors of the public good in parliament end up leading the Labour Party – and, in addition to a vast array of stuff you completely agree with, end up doing, saying or standing for one thing you majorly don’t?

Do you start publically disagreeing them with them on the one and only issue that separates you? Or settle into the groove of loyally bigging them up in each and every way you can, and countering the fusillade of media hate and state-backed propaganda that’s being hurled at them? Unfortunately, when the contentious issue in question concerns the most important thing in human affairs, silence isn’t an option.

It all comes down to one word, one spectrum-straddling political obsession. Growth. Corbynomics is vastly better than anything we’ve seen voiced in the mainstream for generations, but it still relies on the idea that we need the economy to keep growing in order to achieve the usual shopping list of progressive objectives – and the idea that growth can go on forever.

I’ve been a loyal fan of Corbyn and McDonnell for a decade. And, on the whole, I think they’ve performing pretty well in their new roles – particularly John, who, rather than the crotchety far-left bruiser everyone seemed to be expecting, turned out to be a calm, persuasive, eminently reasonable-sounding media performer, arguably better at TV than Corbyn himself.

But as brilliantly radical, free-thinking and consensus-busting as they’ve been on everything from inequality and foreign policy to sexuality and gay rights over the past thirty years, they’re still resoundingly mainstream when it comes to growth. Like virtually all left-wingers, and practically everyone else, for that matter, they’ve unquestioningly accepted the idea that growth is good – that growth means progress, improvement, things getting better for everyone. Arguably the two most prominent, influential anti-capitalists in the Western world have been so mentally constrained by the growth-fixated logic of capitalism that they can’t imagine an economy without out – even a non-capitalist one.

I, on the other hand, am in a way-out-in-the-wilderness eco-socialist minority of about five, and believe the collective fixation with economic growth is an ecological catastrophe.

Endless growth is the logic of a cancer cell. A constantly expanding economy requires extracting and burning a constantly increasing amount of finite raw material – which means more pollution and resource consumption all the time, at an ever-accelerating rate.

In other words, in ever-shrinking amounts of time, we’re doing ever-increasing damage to our abused, tattered ecosystem – one we’ve already ravaged to the point of near-collapse just getting to where we are now.

It now just takes a few years for us to do the same environmental damage we once would’ve caused in a few decades – and if the growth obsession continues, we’ll soon be doing that same amount of harm in months, not years.

We’re well on the way to fatally undermining the planet’s capacity to support life, ushering in chronic resource depletion, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, soil erosion, and leaving us wobbling on the brink of a sixth mass extinction and potentially apocalyptic global warming.

And what do we have to show for it? A civilisation where a few hundred million live to planet-busting excess, while billions live in life-ruining poverty, and million starve and die in squalor every year.

I don’t just think endless growth is bad for the environment, though. I think it’s a physical impossibility. It sounds obvious, but it’s something that I think a stunning proportion of the population fails to grasp – the bigger the economy gets, the harder it becomes for it to get even bigger.

Conventional economics tells us that 3% growth a year is decent enough. 4-5% is better. 10% is probably too much too fast. And 0% is a catastrophe. But in 2016, British politicians would sell their grandmothers for 3% annual growth, so for now we’ll focus on that.

In 1950, when the global economy was much smaller than it is now, it only took about $150 billion (in today’s money) of extra economic output for it to grow by 3% a year. By 1973, thanks to the terrific growth spurt of the ‘50s and ‘60s, that had almost tripled to $420 billion. Fast-forward to 2010, and the magic figure had quadrupled again – to $1.6 trillion. At this rate, by 2030, we’ll need to be adding an extra $3 trillion every year to maintain an annual expansion of 3%. And that figure will keep growing and growing and growing.

So, the big question – where is that ever-increasing increase going to come from? The truth is, capitalism has been struggling on that front since the ‘70s. In the ’45-’69 period, now looked back on as capitalism’s “Golden Age”, it had been easy – post-war reconstruction, the massive military spending excused by the Cold War and the accelerating Western consumer religion fuelled one of the biggest, longest booms in economic history.

But by the ‘70s most people who could afford one had a television and a washing machine. Europe had pulled itself out of the wreckage of the Second World War. The Cold War rumbled on, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the stratospheric growth rates that had by then gone on for so long that many people naively began to see them as the norm. Really, the era where capitalism could grow by providing (Western) people with things they actually needed was over.

It was at this stage that the captains of big capitalism, who’d been relatively happy to lurk in the shadows and put up with cuddly welfare state politics during the boom years, stepped forward and brought about a drastic change of direction. The result was neoliberalism – half-conspiracy, half-revolution, seeing proponents of the most extreme, red-blooded type of capitalism sweep to power across the Western world.

In Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s US, the industrial economy that employed and sustained whole generations was decimated. Partly, it was to crush organised labour, which posed the biggest obstacle to their attempts to end large-scale public ownership and sell off huge chunks of the economy to the profit-seeking private sector. And partly it was a grand exercise in what’s sometimes grimly labelled capitalism’s creative destruction – bulldozing existing industry and infrastructure, in this case the manufacturing sector, so you can create more economic activity by putting something else in its place.

But it didn’t work. The massive growth of the now-all-conquering financial sector, millions of people brainwashed into buying useless tat and gadgets no-one really needs as part of an increasingly crazed consumer cult, the mass-privatisation of infrastructure and services in both the West and the former Eastern Bloc (a despicable but largely unnoticed crime against humanity that saw seven million premature deaths in ex-Soviet countries between 1990 and 1995) – none of it achieved the desired return to the constant expansion of ‘40s, ‘50s and ’60s.

Instead, the smooth, seemingly unstoppable ascent of capitalism’s post-war golden years has been replaced by a teeth-jarring bucking bronco ride – growth coming in manic fits and starts, punctuated by lulls and stagnations. When there is growth, it’s from financial bubbles, always socially useless, spectacularly risky and inevitably destined to crash and burn. They enrich a tiny, unscrupulous elite who were invariably staggeringly wealthy already, and usually cause huge social damage when they pop – it was the dotcom bubble, followed by the housing bubble, followed by the collateralised debt obligation bubble (incredibly reckless financial mumbo jumbo involving buying and selling responsibility for people’s debts) that triggered the great crisis of 2008, after all.

The Corbyn-type argument is that this sort of growth is very bad (which it obviously is) and that governments should go back to what they were doing in capitalism’s golden age – pursuing growth off the back of manufacturing, state investment in infrastructure and paying people decent wages.

That might work a bit better on the producing growth front for a little while, it might not, but before long that strategy would be faced with the same fundamental problems explored above – where’s the ever-increasing increase going to come from?

Personally, I’ve been convinced by academics like Robert Gordon who argue that economic growth probably is/was a one-shot phenomenon, a unique period in human history. Before 1750, there was practically no economic growth at all – and given how difficult it’s getting to achieve, it’s quite possible that by 2050 growth will have essentially stopped.

A lot of the factors that fuelled the past 250 years of expansion were things that could only happen once – industrialisation, the urbanisation of great swathes of the planet’s surface, the invention of revolutionary technologies. Originally, whole industries had to be created from nothing, whereas now we just tinker with them, improve what’s already there. Yes, we’re still inventing things, but they’re having far less drastic impacts on the way we live our lives than earlier breakthroughs – for all the fuss about the internet, the advent of computers has actually been far less revolutionary than the invention of the washing machine, which freed up billions of women who’d previously spent their lives doing the laundry to go out and work. Add that to the missing case of the ever-increasing increase, and you’ve got a recipe for a growthless future.

I think the left needs to realise that capitalism needs growth, but an equitable, sustainable, democratic economy and society doesn’t. Instead of growth, we need degrowth – neatly summarised a while back as the “equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human wellbeing and enhances ecological conditions”. In other words, the economy getting smaller, jettisoning the industries, goods and services that don’t meet genuine human needs, and concentrating on guaranteeing a respectable standard of security, stability and material comfort to everyone alive – while protecting the ecosystem we all rely on.

It’s something not on Corbyn or McDonnell’s radar, for sure, and for the foreseeable I’m going to have to put up with wholeheartedly supporting them and plenty of other leftists on every issue but one – the biggest one. That’s not going to stop me doing everything I can from getting them elected.

But they, and so many other left-wingers, are hugely intelligent, questioning people. Especially as the follies of growthism become more and more apparent as time goes on, I’m reasonably optimistic that, in time, they might come round.