The Growth Fetish

As Britain spirals into chaos that has run out of words to describe it, Liz Truss disappears. In desperation at her party conference, she turned to one of the many phantoms in her head and coined an interesting concept: the antigrowth coalition. In the beleaguered Prime Minister’s head such a coalition spans an unlikely grouping of the “Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP, the militant unions, the vested interests dressed up as think tanks, the talking heads, the Brexit deniers and Extinction Rebellion”. It was no doubt an effort to coral those most hated entities into the minds of her audience. But extraordinarily stupid as it seems, Truss was drawing on a very rich seam of ideas in our society, that ‘growth’ – perpetual and indiscriminate and endless growth – is an undeniable good. Our shared mythology is that it is the source of wealth and the font of equality and that it is an essential human aspiration.

It doesn’t matter that none of this is true, so deeply embedded are these ideas in our psyche.

Yet as Matthias Schmelzer – the co-author of The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism – says: “the concept of growth has colonised our political imaginaries”.

Schmelzer writes:

“If growth makes for a good political soundbite – often articulated through tired metaphors like “rising tides” or “expanding pies” – a closer look reveals how disastrous its hegemony has been for modern societies. GDP is a flawed measure of human welfare that disregards diminishing stocks, equality and ecological destruction. There is now a broad consensus among experts that rising GDP does not by itself improve prosperity for all. Since the 1980s GDP growth in developed economies has been accompanied by stagnating levels of welfare, while the ecological costs of growth have been exacerbated. Truss’s argument that stagnating wages and dwindling funds for social services are due to low growth is a deception. UK household wealth tripled from 1995 to 2017. Yet most of that wealth has not trickled down, as Truss and her supporters claim it should, but has been captured by a small proportion of the population.”

Those of us on the green-left have been accused of advocating ‘green austerity’ – yet the truth is the opposite, as Schmelzer outlines:

“Truss’s call for growth is concealing a radical agenda of austerity: cutting taxes to improve international competitiveness, getting what she has called an “iron grip on the nation’s finances” by slashing public spending to create a “lean state”, and “economic reform” that tears up planning regulations and lowers social and ecological standards. Even if these policies would achieve “growth”, it would be a kind of economic expansion that curtails the prosperity of middle-income voters and further aggravates the ecological crisis. It might be GDP growth, but it will be experienced as public austerity and ecological destruction. As the campaign “Enough is Enough” rightly argued, following Truss’s statement, “what ‘grows’ for them” is “corporate profits, number of billionaires, wealth of the top 5 per cent”, and “what ‘grows’ for us” is “in-work poverty, monthly bills, housing costs, NHS waiting list, foodbank queues”. One could add fossil-fuel driven climate disaster.”

As climate catastrophe hits home and the old, failed tactics of the environmental movement are exposed, more and more people are questioning the notion of ‘perpetual and indiscriminate and endless growth’. A light has been switched on in the minds of many that the growth delusion, the growth fetish is a bitter hoax. As socio-ecological crisis meld and morph together from the abstract to the desperate, tangible other options and strategies are emerging.

While the anti-growth coalition is a fabricated enemy, there are many have been critiquing growth with the provocation of degrowth.

The real ‘degrowth coalition’ argues for basic needs to be met through a radical abundance that is not based on hyper-consumerism, but a ‘true prosperity’ for all.  We do this by (re) creating the commons, through social solidarity networks and by creating local and sharing economies that don’t depend on globalised, fossil-fuelled distribution chains.

If this seems an anathema to you it’s because we’ve all been conditioned – we have all internalised some ideas about the world that are just not true. The task is to ‘decolonise our political imaginaries’ and see other pathways.

The idea that perpetual growth is a source of social equality or generalised ‘wealth’ is patently false. The idea that infinite growth on a finite planet is feasible is demonstrably wrong. The idea that colonisation extraction and exploitation is sustainable has proven historically to be a failure and a moral travesty.

Everywhere the myths of growth are coming into contact with ecological reality. In Australia, Samuel Alexander (a Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, the University of Melbourne) explains his own epiphany (‘I’ve seriously tried to believe capitalism and the planet can coexist, but I’ve lost faith’):

“As the Productivity Commission confirmed this week, Australia’s economy has enjoyed uninterrupted growth for 28 years straight. Specifically, our output of goods and services last financial year grew by 2%. Economists obviously see the growth of a national economy as good news – but what is it doing to the Earth? Capitalism demands limitless economic growth, yet research shows that trajectory is incompatible with a finite planet. If capitalism is still the dominant economic system in 2050, current trends suggest our planetary ecosystems will be, at best, on the brink of collapse.”

All this we know and have known for a while. More recently we’re allowing ourselves to know this.

And into this debate steps our hapless leader with her deranged caricature of the forces allied against her. Her comments were in part an attempt at misdirection and face-saving (both which failed). But they were also an attempt to set the scene for the Public Order Bill that was passed in the Commons this week, described as ‘the most draconian legislation of the modern era’. At whatever point Truss is carried off into the political wilderness, and to whatever extent the Conservatives manage to stagger on, their legacy will be a deeply authoritarian surveillance state the likes of which we have not seen before. They know the coming battles ahead and they are prepared.

In narrating and shaping a debate about “growth” she is trying to articulate the rage directed at workers fighting for decent wages, protestors trying to defend a survivable planet and her political opposition. Her attempt to condense all opposition into a single ‘other’ has to be met by a coalition that sees common cause across many disparate battles and movements.

This is beyond critical.

Many scientists believe we are living through what they are calling ‘the sixth mass extinction’ – the largest loss of life on Earth since the time of the dinosaurs – and that it is being driven by humans. Only a week ago the WWF Living Planet report informed us that “Earth’s wildlife populations have plunged by an average of 69% in just under 50 years … as humans continue to clear forests, consume beyond the limits of the planet and pollute on an industrial scale.”

It barely made the headlines.

Instead people castigated two young women for a direct action that unleashed howls of derision and contempt.

Sometimes these ideas of habitat loss and decline – paradoxically – seem other-wordly. Facing the reality of everyday life, it’s difficult to care about the abstract notion of extinction. These realities don’t connect. There is no proximity.

It’s difficult to see but as Richard Seymour has written (On the eradication of species) we are more connected and interdependent than we imagine:

“Biodiversity is not just an asset from which humans gain. We have complex social and emotional relations with all non-human life. They are part of our make-up, metabolically and psychologically: we contain multitudes. Just as Freud showed that there is no self without the other, no ego without the representation of the personalities that have shaped us, it’s also true that there is no human without the nonhuman. The drive to dominate “nature” is, as the ecologist Murray Bookchin has pointed out, derivative of the drive to dominate other humans. What he called “the ecological principle of unity in diversity” is not, therefore, merely good conservationist sense. Biodiversity is not just instrumentally useful for human beings. It is constitutive of who and what we are. It is essential to the human cause, our collective thriving and freedom.”

What we in the West and Global North have begun to realise is that endless, perpetual and indiscriminate growth is incompatible with existence. Growth is not just a fetish, it’s a threat and a point of disinformation and propaganda. The need to ‘decolonise our political imaginaries’ and think straight is urgent. As George Monbiot has written (‘The PM’s vision of growth is part of the class war that is transferring power from Britain’s poorest people to its richest‘):

“Growth is used to crush our aspirations for a better life. You want higher wages? Sorry, that means discouraging foreign investment and therefore restraining growth. You want fair rents? You’re impeding circulation. A habitable planet, you say? You’re a voice of decline. Prosperity in a rich nation is much less about ongoing rates of growth than the distribution of power. This is why, in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, millions now depend on food banks. Almost everyone would be better off if we adopted an economy based on private sufficiency, public luxury, rather than Truss’s vision of private opulence, public squalor.”

The myths of eternal growth are exposed as lies and distortion.

Image credit: @debsmooth




Comments (12)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Good to see this. Well being could replace the concept of endless growth

    1. I think wellbeing and degrowth are sister concepts: possibly good cop bad cop of the same analysis

  2. Alastair McIntosh says:

    This set me looking up the use of “imaginary” as a noun, a growing trend in social science. Others may find this explainer useful:

    A question that repeatedly arises for me in discussions such as this, is how we are using and defining “capitalism”? We can all see what capitalism is writ large in plutocracy. But what about its lesser drivers in so many of us – everytime we shop for the cheapest deal, own property, or if we have savings or a pension invested in corporate shares, etc.?

    Does “degrowth” not challenge us to look within, as well as outwith? Or is that a version of victim blaming? I’d welcome seeing more consciousness and discussion around that question in the degrowth debate.

    1. Thanks Alastair. Good questions

      The best account of this dilemma is John Holloway’s in ‘Crack Capitalism’,

      He’s coming to speak in Glasgow soon:

      Professor John Holloway (Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico), ‘Hope in Hopeless Times’
      Tuesday, 15th November, 17.15-19.00, University of Glasgow, Room 407 Boyd Orr Lecture Theatre A.
      Hope lies in our richness, in the joy of our collective creativity. But that richness exists in the peculiar form of money. The fact that we relate to on another through money causes tremendous social pain and destruction and is dragging us through pandemics and war towards extinction. Richness against money: this battle will decide the future of humanity. If we cannot emancipate richness from money-capital-profit, there is probably no hope. Money seems invincible but the constant expansion of debt shows that its rule is fragile. The fictitious expansion of money through debt is driven by fear, fear of us, fear of the rabble. Money contains, but richness overflows.
      In this final part of his ground-breaking trilogy, published by Pluto Press, John Holloway expertly fuses anti-capitalism and anti-identitarianism, and brings hope into the critique of political economy and revolutionary theory, challenging us to find hope within ourselves and channel it into a dignified, revolutionary rage.
      John Holloway has published widely on Marxist theory, on the Zapatista movement and on the new forms of anti-capitalist struggle. His book Change the World without Taking Power has been translated into eleven languages and has stirred an international debate, and Crack Capitalism is a renowned classic. He is currently Professor of Sociology in the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla in Mexico

      1. Alastair McIntosh says:

        Well, that is interesting thanks.

        Keynes’ biographer Skidelsky makes
        telling reference to ‘Keynes’s sense that, at some level too deep to be captured
        by mathematics, “love of money” as an end, not a means, is the root of the
        world’s economic problems’.

        That sense of something deeper than mathematics leaves me with a sense of the magical, played out as the financial system that is faith-based. It works, only inasmuch as those with any agency in the matter have “con-fidence” – literally, “together with faith” – in it.

        Please forgive the theologian in me asking questions of the placement of faith.

      2. 221022 says:

        Re. John Holloway: Our [collective] creativity will be emancipated from its alienation in the form of money, by means of which all goods are made commensurable as commodities that can be bought and sold for extractable profit, only when those productive relations break down. The various ‘existential’ crises with which everyman and his dog are frightening us to the point of paralysis for political ends are just ‘symptoms’ of that breakdown. That breakdown and its symptoms can’t be arrested, despite the best efforts of bourgeois reformers. Only through chaos can a dancing star be born. Hope lies not in the richness of our collective creativity, but in its resilience and adaptability. Despair lies in our self-abandonment of that creativity to the passivity of victimhood and dependence.

        I was much impressed by John’s 2002 book, Change the World Without Taking Power, in which he contends that revolution resides not in the seizure of state apparatûs, but in our day-to-day acts of refusal to capitalism and its ideological expressions in society and culture, in what he calls ‘anti-power’ or ‘the scream’.

        Both Tariq Ali and Slavoj Žižek trace the genealogy of John’s outlook to the autonomous Marxism that emerged in Italy in the 1960s and ‘70s. In contrast to the centralised decision-making and hierarchical authority structures of national institutions, autonomous social movements involve people directly in decisions affecting their everyday lives, seeking to expand democracy and help individuals break free of political structures and cognitive, emotional, and practical behaviour patterns imposed from the outside. This requires the independence of social movements from political parties and their tribal agendas.

        Basically, John’s revolutionary perspective – and that of autonomism more generally – seeks to create a practical political alternative to authoritarianism in both its ‘left’ and ‘right’ iterations.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    If you had a cancerous growth or were growing obese, your medical doctor would not consider that a gain in health, but the reverse. We need a form of politics that uses measures of societal, ecosystem and environmental health that counterbalances yet complements human political will. In evolutionary as well as technological terms, increases in efficiency are far more important that growth (indeed, some species adapt and survive by getting smaller or restricting their own numbers). If pandemics have not recently shown the dangers of human monocultures, I fear they shortly will. Building a biocracy will be difficult and complicated, but not as difficult and complicated as the world we have built already, a human world with inbuilt instabilities that is sucking the life out of its environment base. Steering our way through its collapse will be a whole lot easier if we have a guiding vision of a viable future. #biocracynow

  4. Mark Bevis says:

    Mike joining the dots very well there.
    “‘I’ve seriously tried to believe capitalism and the planet can coexist, but I’ve lost faith’”
    says more than we realise, as it shows economics is a religion, an ideology based on faith and not on facts. Economics ignores externalities such as where the energy comes from, and the pollution that is produced. Little do most realise that economy is energy. A recent report showed the UK has an EROEI (energy return on energy invested, that is, the energy cost of getting energy out of the ground) of 6:1.

    Farming is 5:1, hunter-gathering is 2-3:1. Modern technological society requires 14:1.
    We are in the catabolic stage of collapse, where society eats itself. We are in effect cannibalising what remains to create some resemblance of continuity. A practical example might be all the unrepaired potholes in the existing roads, which are created faster than they can be repaired, and yet massive new road building still goes on.

    Umair Hague writes a good article about why the current government will keep failing
    but links it to brexit rather than energy, so he’s only part way there.

    Degrowth is no longer optional. 270 years of overshoot is coming home to roost and bite homo sapiens in the ass.
    The predicament is that no government of any stripe can sell that to a restless, starving and angry populace that was and is promised more than it’s mathematically possible to achieve.
    Interestingly Macron in France shoved the Overton Window a little recently, saying the age of abundance is over – his energy cap of a mere 6% still provoking mass demos and running battles with half-hearted riot police.

    Alastair McIntosh in the comments asks
    “Does “degrowth” not challenge us to look within, as well as outwith? Or is that a version of victim blaming? ”
    That’s making me think; a good question indeed.
    There is the superficial level, for those of us with any privilege left, such as can I turn down the heating and just wear more jumpers; or only cook 2 meals a day instead of 3; or do I drive a bit less this month; I can certainly stop flying but will I?
    This is quite easy and not that onerous for anyone that actually thinks about it (as apposed to reacting with outrage at the loss of privilege – to quote John Kenneth Galbraith: “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material portion of their privilege.”)

    For example the Don’t Pay campaign, to cancel energy company DDs this month – I can’t join because I’ve never paid energy bills by DD anyway, just pay what I use each month in cash at the post office. So it’s not actually that onerous a request for a lot of individuals to do, even if it threatens the loss of hundreds of millions of quid each month to the energy retailers.

    On the other hand.
    I look at what DepherUK ( does in my neighbourhood and realise that for millions of people in the UK, these questions are no longer valid, because they no longer have those resources to argue about in the first place. Austerity is now known to have caused 330,000 excess deaths. For those surviving and living with austerity, degrowth is no longer a question.
    In other words, is degrowth, like electric cars and plastic straw replacement, merely a feelgood talking point for those who still have choices?

    I’m not saying thats right or wrong, just an answer the question throws up.

    To rephrase
    In energy terms then, and resources, societal degrowth is no longer an option.
    Another example of the predicament we are in I saw recently was one article (from the neo-liberal end of the Overton Window) suggesting NATO countries start building more weapons, and building more factories to make more weapons, because we’ve given so much stock to Ukraine. In the same week, articles appeared showing European countries had shuttered half their steel and alumunium plants due to energy shortages, mostly caused by global warming – heatwaves reducing water levels in German rivers so that deliveries can’t be made and nuclear power plants in France shut down; drought reducing hydro levels in Norway so they produce less energy, etc.
    So regardless of whether that’s right or wrong to make those weapons factories, or any other kind of factories, ecological constraints are reducing societal options.
    The rate of increase of growth will decline fairly rapidly now, then it will actually start going negative.
    To quote Not Energy Blind on twitter:
    “We are going to shed complexity. The only question is whether we’ll do it in an organised fashion or while kicking and screaming.”

    I like this quote Mike mentions in the comments about John Holloway
    ‘If we cannot emancipate richness from money-capital-profit, there is probably no hope. Money seems invincible but the constant expansion of debt shows that its rule is fragile.’
    Bit like the meme ‘some people are so poor all they have is money’.

    Sounds like something to listen to. I’m all for abolishing money as a concept.

  5. Wul says:

    It appears that “Growth, Growth, Growth” requires a lot of other things to “Shrink, Shrink, Shrink”:

    The number of species on our planet, democracy, green spaces, our mental and physical health, our kid’s future opportunity, the resilience of public institutions, trust in government, freedom of assembly and protest, our civil rights, unionised workforces, happiness, our social security, optimism for the future, safety from poverty…..

    Some might see these other things as important. I know I do. Is there an “Anti Shrink Coalition”? Can I join it?

  6. Alex McCulloch says:

    This seems as unarguable as it is unpalatable and inconvenient.
    It is very much a health issue that requires diagnosis, explanation and acceptance to stimulate alternative lifestyle choices that could reverse decline and a return to well-being.
    Whereas a Doctor’s input can shock someone out of denial and into action and alternate choices how can we change unhealthy Western economic habits?
    Maybe a small country somewhere can have the courage to do it a different way to incrementally move to different systems, different goals and understanding of richness and inspire change on a wider scale? A country that has the opportunity to start afresh and allocates its resources to delivering shared public, community and environmental necessities, comforts and luxuries for the many that weans us away from wasteful duplication and damaging, unsustainable individual habits of consumption

    Is this the real life, or is it just fantasy?!

    No substances were taken in the course of writing the above – it just came oot ma heid!

  7. John Wood says:

    ‘Growth’ is a word that generally has positive connotations. The opposite after all is ‘decline’. We like to see children, animals, plants, health, happiness (etc) grow.

    It has been co-opted to mean a very specific thing – the growth of the wealth and power of the already wealthiest. These are then assumed to mean growth for all, which they transparently do not. ‘Trickle-down’ economics is a vicious lie. Wealth can only ‘trickle down’ if it has been sucked up in the first place. And every effort is made to ensure as little as possible leaks back to ordinary people and planet. This has always generally made use of technology: with the industrial revolution, people become mere human resources, either producers or consumers, we only serve to increase the wealth of the richest. Reducing costs means reducing the number and wages of employees as much as possible and replacing them with machines – from the spinning jenny to the modern craze for ‘artificial intelligence’. Our value as consumers is also limited: increasingly we are seen as mere competition – the richest, after all, want to consume everything. So humans are simply an obstacle to their idea of growth. We are told the planet is ‘overpopulated’ .

    The idea of demand-led capitalism has been another lie – demand is created by psychological manipulation, by instilling in people a sense of inadequacy and scarcity. ‘Growth’ in this context is the promise of jam tomorrow if we do as we are told and allow ourselves to become slaves to debt. But people are losing faith in ‘jam tomorrow’; so we must be coerced into debt dependency. ‘You’ll own nothing’ say the World Economic Forum, but they do not explain how that will make us happy.

    So those who oppose this agenda, which is destroying us all, and the planet we depend on, have found ourselves buying into this false definition of ‘growth’. We talk of ‘de-growth’, or ‘Less’. But these terms are not attractive. In fact they are counterproductive. Who really wants ‘decline’ – however well ‘managed’?

    I suggest we re-adopt and redefine the word ‘growth’. We might do better to talk of ‘real growth’ as opposed to ‘fake growth’ – because the economists’ definition actually means destruction of our lives, bodies, life-support systems, happiness, health, and even of the 1% themselves, if they could but see that. No matter how sophisticated their technology it cannot save them from the power of the universe.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      In biological terms, organisms can suffer from malignant growths; population booms (or blooms) of one species may herald catastrophes for ecosystems; the unchecked growth of invasive species may also prove disastrous for other forms of life.
      The natural meanings of the word are clear. The problem lies in the falsities, contrivances and planetary-unrealistic ideological propaganda of profitarian economics. I think most people know what a cancerous growth is. Why, when some are choking on surfeit, should ‘less is more’ not appeal to some? It might appeal to those nostalgics harking back after (possibly imaginary) simpler times. Do people want the British Empire to grow or shrink? Inflation is a form of growth; is it popular?

      But overall, I think the best policy must involve clear-eyed presentation of evidence, models, science and not get stuck in a bloom of euphemisms and neologisms. I understand that mainstream economics already took a beating with its successive failures and student strikes. People will generally understand what is meant by ‘growth fetish’.

      However, I think you misrepresent what many opponents are calling for, which is an overall increase in public, common wealth, such as access to digital goods, public spaces and healthy nature. Degrowth applies more to unnecessary, environmentally degrading and polluting materialism, and duplicatory, inefficient and wasteful private accumulations. Growth can still apply to forests, public libraries, urban greenery and parks. Global idea communism spreads wealth across the world. But yes, in terms of life on Earth, rather than a speciesist view that privileges humans, at this level of damage and consumption and threat, the world is overpopulated by humans, the only species known to have threatened Armageddon, currently rampaging through the Anthropocene and wrecking the climatic balances that planetary life has adapted to.

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