(Originally published at Steady-State Manchester.)
In July the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic appeared to be waning in Britain. A cross party group of Members of Parliament, led by the sole Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, wrote a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the term used for the finance minister, often abbreviated to just “Chancellor”) to propose a “post-growth recovery”. The letter made a number of suggestions that are standard ecological economic policy proposals, common in the post-growth, degrowth and steady state networks. In summary, the MPs argued that a green recovery needed to prioritise well-being above economic growth. They congratulated the Chancellor on the enormous expenditure already made to support individuals and businesses when the economy was mostly closed down in the second quarter of 2020, arguing that it shows it is possible to prioritise well-being above economic performance. They also note the phenomenon of “secular stagnation”, that the trend in the rate of GDP growth across advanced economies has been declining since well before before the great financial crash of 2008. They argue for a reorientation away from the pursuit of growth towards what they call the well-being economy.
The parliamentary group that wrote the letter is the All Party Group on the Limits to Growth. It is supported by the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), based at the University of Sussex. Leading advocate of “prosperity without growth”, Tim Jackson is the director of CUSP and advisor to this parliamentary group. The group’s approach is clear on the impossibility of continued growth, drawing, for example, on Jackson’s review of the Meadows et al. Limits to Growth work from the 1970s, which accurately modelled the likely trajectory of the world system under business as usual, emphasising the resource and energy shocks from the rising costs of extraction. As a cross-party group the group has to present its arguments in a way that appeals to those, still working within the ideology and assumptions of the dominant paradigm, who might be open to exploring their limits and alternatives. However, it is still legitimate to ask whether the package of proposals made by the group is adequate to the combined economic, social resource and ecological crises that beset us all. Having done that, I will take a wider perspective on the main policy responses, not just to Covid-19 but to the global conjuncture of multiple crises. One way to do that is to critically examine each of the proposals made in the group’s letter to the Chancellor.
the adoption of new measures of societal wellbeing to replace the inappropriate reliance on the GDP as a measure of social progress;
Alternative measures could be useful in identifying areas for policy emphasis and needed reform and intervention. However, there are already a variety of measures of societal and community well-being available to government. Fundamentally, it is not the measurement of economic and social outcomes that drives the incessant material expansion of production and consumption. GDP is a social construction, an artificial abstraction that has a material force in defining expansion as a priority. Yet, in itself, it is not what drives its own expansion: to understand what does we have to look elsewhere.
a commitment to join the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) partnership;
This could have some limited benefits by making an ideological and policy statement of intention and through sharing good practice with other States that are trying to re-orientate their economies towards a well-being agenda. Again, though, it does not address the nub of the problem.
the full integration of wellbeing measures into central and local government decision-making processes, and in particular into the Treasury Green Book; and
the development of a Wellbeing Budget which aligns Government spending with the needs of a sustainable and inclusive Wellbeing Economy;
This would be helpful in guiding government spending and policy in a variety of spheres toward the pursuit of community well-being. However, It is questionable as to how transformational this would actually be. Again, as I will argue, this is not where the key determinants of the destruction of communities and ecosystems lies. The proposal is a way of mitigating some of that damage but not a means to ending it.
the establishment of a formal inquiry into ways in which it may be possible to reduce the ‘growth dependency’ of the UK economy;
This could be interesting insofar as it would bring the many analyses and arguments about the nature of growth and its pursuit more into public discourse. However, its impact would very much depend on the membership of the inquiry team, the evidence it reviewed and the way in which it was then received and acted on by government. The last Labour government commissioned a report from its Sustainable Development Commission into “Prosperity Without Growth”. The report was written by the ecological economist Tim Jackson. It later grew into his influential book of the same title, now in its improved second edition. In the prologue (pp. xxvi-xxix) to that edition, Jackson describes the way the report was received, just at the time the government was hosting a G20 event concerned with the restoration and promotion of GDP growth. The Prime Minister himself was incandescent with anger, the report was sidelined and the Commission that produced it was abolished by the next, Conservative, government in 2010. It was bad timing but it seems unlikely that a government that was explicitly trying to “kick-start growth” would have paid heed to this report. Why should we expect a new inquiry and report to enjoy a different fate?
a commitment to explore ways and means to extend the Government’s ability to finance social investment through deficit spending or direct money creation;
This is very much a post-Keynesian idea, that the government has great scope for either borrowing or printing money in order to finance needed areas of expenditure. Debate rages on which mechanism to utilise (to simplify, the choice is between borrowing via the printing of bonds, the creation of money, either by the Treasury or by the Central Bank, or by raising the money through taxation). There are two problems with this. Firstly, a massive expansion of expenditure, even on the green economy, puts money into the pockets of citizens. What they then spend it on is not under the government’s control and in an political-economic system that remains substantially the same, this is likely to include high energy goods. In Keynesian terms, the multiplier isn’t selective: it doesn’t care about the climate. Only if these measures are accompanied by things like diminishing energy and materials caps, and progressive, but carbon and materials-orientated taxation, is there any hope of avoiding this problem. Secondly, while the government has a potentially large “fiscal space”, or flexibility to spend without having to immediately recoup the money, ultimately it does have to do so. To argue otherwise is to confuse money with value. And that requirement to realise greater exchange value from the economy is a potent driver of material expansion – which is broadly speaking what GDP growth is. Actually, much of that value capture has an international dimension whereby the labour of people in the fields and factories of the global South is paid at local prices but the products are sold at profit in the global North, at the prices operative there: a massive global capture of value and a driver of continued labour and ecological exploitation worldwide.
the urgent development of a precautionary ‘post growth’ strategy for the UK.
This proposal gets closer to the heart of the problem. Enshrining the precautionary principle in government strategy cannot come soon enough given the multiple threats to human and ecological well-being. It could potentially go beyond mere recommendations to change the way things are measured, or to increase spending in certain areas. Instead, it could offer a strategic framework for re-orientating towards a viable economy and society. However, that would assume the neutralisation of the interest groups that rely on continued material (and financial) economic expansion. It calls into question the essence of capitalism. So again, while hopeful that this could help shift the dominant paradigm, I am intellectually pessimistic.
There must be some way out of here
The above example of a well-meaning political intervention is, in effect, a microcosm of the present conjuncture. A global pandemic, itself the result of the ever expanding capitalist mode of accumulation, requires a prioritisation of health and well-being. This leads to a massive reduction in economic activity, crudely manifest as work and spending, threatening the livelihoods and well-being of swathes of the population. Mismanagement by governments that have disinvested from public health and welfare, prioritising private capital accumulation, jettisoning the precautionary principle, has exacerbated this crisis. This crisis in the health-economy-wellbeing nexus is situated within a series of wider and deeper crises of planetary and ecological systems, in effect a veritable “pancrisis”, including
- carbon pollution – global warming;
- ecosystem encroachment and edge-convolution – biodiversity reduction
- resource exhaustion and peak extraction leading to profitability reduction and extraction frontier expansion;
- and internal contradictions of capitalism – secular stagnation and financial crises.
These wider crises have no satisfactory exit within the terms of reference of the current capitalist world system.
There are three main responses to this conjuncture, at least the variety of responses being implemented and imposed can be analysed in terms of these three “ideal types”: inevitably a variety of hybrid forms are apparent in reality.
The first type is an intensification of what has been called the neoliberal capitalist model – a continuation of business as usual. So when the right wing British government is faced with the need to test for the virus and to trace the contacts of those infected, it gives enormous contracts to the large outsourcing firms such as Serco rather than to the public health teams based in local government that know their communities and understand epidemiology. Faced with a housing crisis, the result of land speculation, the inward investment by footloose capital in the housing stock, and previous waves of privatisation of public housing, it proposes to further reduce the already weak democratic scrutiny of planning decisions, which will mean further cycles of speculative development and capital concentration in land and housing. Internationally this kind of thinking is manifest in the application of market models to carbon reduction and to forests, which in both cases will have the opposite effect, allowing polluters to continue polluting and converting wild and commons ecosystems to commodities). At its most extreme, this orientation can be seen in the current far right Brazilian government responding to the collapse in global commodity prices by facilitating the further conversion of wild landscape to farmland, with disastrous consequences for the global climate, biodiversity and the people who live in and rely on the forests.
The second type involves a return to the Keynesian and social democratic approach of mitigating the tendencies of capitalism without fundamentally challenging it. The various Green New Deal proposals exemplify this, using government investment to stimulate desired sectors and thereby to restore the process of value creation and hence the revenues of households, firms and government. Similar are neo-Keynesian demands to respond to the Covid crisis, by using the powers of government to borrow and defer repayment indefinitely, or to create money by fiat, and so re-stimulate economic activity. These interventions could be successful, in their own terms, in the short term. But they are doomed to long term failure in a capitalist system that has run out of road for its continual expansion into new markets, new sources of resources, and new reserves of hitherto unexploited labour, while it faces contradictions manifest in the long term decline in profitability, over-production and under-consumption, and the shocks to its supply chains from inexorably rising extraction costs and an inevitable series of ecological and geopolitical shocks. What is more, this model, by failing to problematise the crisis of ever increasing extraction-production-consumption-pollution, instead has no answer to the likelihood that its policy prescriptions will intensify that process rather than mitigate it.
That leaves the third option, that of equitable frugality, variously understood under headings such as the Simpler Way, Degrowth or Post-Development. This is the least popular solution type but the only one that is proportionate to both the scale and nature of the problem. It tends to be ambiguous, or rather divided, in terms of the orientation of its proponents to the dominant capitalist system, with some voices continuing to think that a benign capitalism is possible (usually confusing the existence of private enterprise in a market for exchange with capitalism as a system of endless and expansive capital accumulation resting on expropriation and exploitation). More pragmatically it suffers from its relative under-development, most obviously in not having an understandable policy package to offer to the political debate. However, there are straws in the wind, with these ideas, once entirely marginal, beginning to enter into mainstream discourse and even appearing, still in hybrid form, in policy prescription and even in some government initiatives. It remains doubtful that they will achieve anything like the scale of popular, let alone elite, acceptance in time to avert the nightmare scenario of simultaneous collapse in multiple ecological, planetary and human provisioning systems. Yet we have to continue to act as if this is a possibility, continuing to work, however hard it may be, for a complete change in political, economic priorities, and more than that, a change of system towards one of necessary but frugal production for human need and no more, coupled with the re-affirmation of the joys of a simpler, slower and cooperative way of living as communities.
Returning to the All Party Group on the Limits to Growth, and practical politics, the task is to promote enactable short-range policies that take us towards a post-growth future. These need to be transformational in effect, setting in motion a set of changes, institutional, ideological and material. It is difficult to identify the best options to start such a sequence in motion, since there are many dimensions of uncertainty, and only a fool can predict the future. However, concepts such as ripple-effects, slow-fuse change, stake-holder analysis, non-reformist reforms, transitional demands, and leverage points, can all help to clarify the terrain for action. The reader can consult a list of potential policy innovations, stratified by governmental level. An example of how to think about the immediate Covid-19 crisis transformationally can be found in this piece by the author.
 Edge-convolution is used here as concise way of referring to the increase in the ecological edge between wild ecosystems and human-dominated ones, which, together with industrial agriculture is the source of new zoonoses (pathogens of animal origin). See Wallace, R. (2020). Dead epidemiologists: On the origins of covid-19. Monthly Review Press.