Growth Outgrown

“A few months ago a lot of people thought the world was coming to an end. Now they’re dancing in the streets and going out to restaurants.” So a mutual fund strategist told the Times in mid-July 2009, midsummer, mid-crisis. Meanwhile we have a friend who works at a restaurant in Brooklyn—he hasn’t lost his job, but he makes two-thirds of what he did last year, and the restaurant’s owner has taken to gazing distractedly at the empty tables and scooting toward the door when someone reminds him he owes them money. The owner was always an alcoholic, but not like this.

The sense one gets from the news these days is that no one is sure what’s going on. Confusion reigns, the way it never quite did during the Bush era, when the enemies of humanity went out of their way to identify themselves. Partly the confusion results from how poorly, at how many removes, the stock market reflects the actual strength of the economy. And partly it results from the election of Obama (that night there actually was dancing in the streets), and the consequent turn toward policy. Under Bush, a straight neoliberal agenda was shoved at us and we could just say—not that it mattered—No; now we encounter the messy question of how to structure a Keynesian stimulus without bankrupting a nation whose debt is fast approaching its GDP. Under Bush, we had the overt suppression of global warming discourse and total obsequiousness toward the oil majors; now we wonder whether to support the worthy but inadequate Waxman-Markey Act, a plan to cap national CO2 emissions that recently passed the House by the narrowest of margins and is being voted on by the Senate this fall.

These confusions—the kind that come with the complexities of governance—are welcome, or at least would be, if we knew how to talk about them. But their context is missing. And that context is the impasse between our two main eco-concerns—the economic on the one hand, the ecological on the other. Our economic hopes, as we formulate them today, are predicated on “growth”; but growth as we know it is a disaster for the natural world and for our human prospects within it.

For now, contraction is better ecologically than growth, and lately we’ve gotten a taste of it. The World Bank predicted in June that global GDP will contract by 2.9 percent in 2009, a huge change from the roughly 2.5 percent average annual growth that has characterized the history of capitalism. In a very real way, this is a heartening number. A shrinking economy that depends on disposability can also deplete resources and wreck the climate, but nowhere near as quickly as a growing one. A smaller economy burns less oil, natural gas, coal, and wood; uses less metal and plastic; releases less carbon into the atmosphere. It also makes fewer investments in power plants and factories that will release carbon long into the future. GDP as currently measured is essentially a record of our consumption, and a decline in consumption is precisely what we need.

And yet a global recession presents problems even for the deepest ecologists. True, our lack of purchasing power has bought us some time with respect to global warming, peak oil, and a litany of other resource problems. But crises are always hardest on those without representation—and, within our current system, shared natural resources rank with the global poor as the most unrepresented things of all (animals are up there too). The tragedy of the commons, this is commonly called. Our society’s will to spend or lose money to preserve the environment is weak even during boom times; it weakens further during recessions, when it seems, on the face of it, that we confront a stark choice between one disenfranchised body and another, the human and the inhuman, the poor and the earth.

The choice will only come to seem more stark. Even as Goldman Sachs posts stellar profits, Nouriel Roubini predicts that US unemployment will reach 11 percent in 2010; the number for black Americans is already near 15 percent. And the champions of endless growth will wield these unemployment numbers as a cudgel against anyone who doubts the validity of rising GDP as a measure of national (and global) welfare—because look how plain it is! Growth has subsided, just temporarily, and people are suffering. To be anti-growth, therefore, is to be anti-people. Are you anti-people?

This is not a reasonable argument so much as a hostage situation. It’s like being asked, in deadly earnest, whether you’d prefer to have your house burned down or your children tortured. There’s a fairly obvious answer, which is a relief; but it’s possible to question the motives of people who seem so eager to burn your house down.

The dilemma is impossible to deal with from within the confines of the current progressive movement. Economic leftists brand talk of resource constraints as Malthusian scare-mongering and pastoral sentimentalism. Ecological leftists, right to point out the need for some people to consume less, are reluctant to acknowledge the need for other people to consume more. These often look like two separate lefts, as far apart as the two American coasts. Environmentalists rarely spend time reading Marx; Marx’s readers too often cling to Marx’s own focus on the internal contradictions of capitalism without incorporating into their analysis the external limits (of energy, resources, human population, and the stress an ecosystem can bear) that grow more apparent by the day. It’s astonishing how few lines Marx devotes, in all the pages of Capital, to the subject of coal—a substance as important to England’s industrial economy then as it is to China’s now.

Capitalism is a bet about tomorrow—and it’s always the same bet. Tomorrow will be “better” than today. More wealth will be created, more resources will be used, and, excepting recessions, the economy will continue growing forever. The bet takes the form of credit and investment—you lend or invest a sum today to get back a larger sum tomorrow, because tomorrow there will be more of everything (except oil, old-growth forest, et cetera). We must keep lending and borrowing, laying the same bet over and over—whether via consumer credit, corporate financialization, or governmental debt—no matter what hindrances present themselves; if we don’t, the system stalls and falls apart. No more growth, no more credit; no more credit, no more capital. By betting on growth we call it into being—for however long the wining streak can last. You can short everything but the system itself.

“The rational is always the rationality of an irrational,” is how Deleuze described this capitalist myopia. He went on to add: “Something that hasn’t been adequately discussed about Marx’s Capital is the extent to which he is fascinated by capitalist mechanisms, precisely because the system is demented, yet works very well.” To read Marx and his exegetes is to be beguiled (as they clearly are too) by the oddly thrilling single-mindedness of capital, in which the only goal is to go faster, to shave the time between transactions down to “the speed of thought,” as Marx writes. (Though surely that’s not the true limit—sometimes we think so slowly.) “As long as capital remains frozen in the form of finished product, it cannot be active as capital, it is negated capital,” Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, and we sympathize with poor capital, because we feel that way too: forced to stay put too long, we get antsy and stale, we start to feel worthless. No matter whose books we’ve read, we’re the children of capital; the love of speed is ingrained in us.

Against the rush of accelerating growth, what can the left counterpose? The monomaniacal logic of capital eventually produced a caroming worldwide system which, though orders of magnitude less robust, diverse, and adaptable than the natural world it remade, is still orders of magnitude more diverse, adaptable, and subtly counterbalanced than any vision a single human mind could entertain. Thus the enduring difficulty of answering the question What comes after capitalism? What would you replace it with?

What’s remarkable about the recent “end of the world” is how little has changed. We waited our whole lives—not just the Marxists among us, but all of us—for the kings of Wall Street and Midtown to be deposed. And then they grabbed their bonuses and got out, and what happened? Not much. Growth merely paused (though the transfer of wealth to the wealthy did not). In one sense, this is unsurprising; there was nothing so special about those finance guys, apart from their GMAT scores. Their skills were as fungible as those of factory workers or cover bands. Roll in the next batch.

The more substantial change has to start with us. It would be facile to recommend bringing the red (or economic) left together with the green (or ecological) left, when the task itself is bound to be such a hard one. But the development of some such synthesis has got to count as one of the main intellectual tasks of the coming years. Already the Monthly Review under John Bellamy Foster has taken some steps in this direction. And the field of what is sometimes called “energetics” offers an intellectual framework within which to contemplate labor, capital, and hydrocarbons all at once—since what is a worker, what is money, what is fuel, unless so much stored-up energy? Surely to use scarce petroleum to move overaccumulated capital (temporarily frozen in the form of commodities) across land and sea, while “redundant” labor sits around unemployed, is not the only sophisticated energy regime anybody could conceive of.

For years, dissident economists have proposed calculating GDP not only in terms of commodity production but also resource depletion: so many more plasma TVs is so much less oil; so much more cropland is so much less forest; and so on. From this vantage,
the historical GDP record of capitalism begins to look less proud, and “growth” comes to seem like anything but. An alternative future begins to suggest itself. It is a theoretical possibility, if not yet a political one, to relocalize industrial and food production, as well as work and leisure, and in this way diminish fossil fuel use. Such a program would likely raise the cost of labor in many localities—not an unwelcome side effect for the left. It would even be possible, in theory, to enjoy rising per capita GDP and diminishing global GDP at the same time, if—most taboo of all progressive programs—people wanted to venture a voluntary reproductive slowdown. (Is labor too cheap a commodity? Parents might consider making it more scarce.) These anyway are the sort of questions an eco-left—economic and ecological both—needs to take up.

Ultimately, the contradiction between our economic and ecological anxieties may only be resolvable by confronting the old political-economic problem of value: what is it, where does it come from, how do you get more of it? Obviously things with prices possess value—but so do bartered goods, public services, personal relationships, unremunerated collective enterprises, free time, and a livable future. It is no evil thing to want the average value of each individual life (as measured by the person living it) to increase year by year, or to want our society to grow more valuable to us over time. Growth and development are the mottos of life at large, only lately appropriated by capital. The fatal error has been to confound prices with values, and to assume that increased resource exploitation is identical with the growth of human or even economic values.

Perhaps the public spectacle of the worst crisis since the 1930s will spur, if not a revolution (ask even the fiercest Marxist and she will say, “The ideological conditions are unripe”), then a new way of thinking about ourselves, and our world. New York just enjoyed the most pleasant summer in recent memory, with temperate days and breezy nights that reminded you you were on an island; and yet that pleasantness was another confusion, a distraction, a patch of random noise within the ever clearer trend.

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