Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The illusion of degrowth: Part II

I read Jason Hickel reply to my post on degrowth carefully, and I think that I can report some progress in the sense that, on some issues, Jason and I seem to agree.

In his reply Jason acknowledges that, if the present distribution of global income and thus absolute poverty of a quarter of humankind, is not to be maintained, and the overall GDP must not increase, then a significant reduction of Western incomes is inevitable. This was exactly what I stated in my original post.

But Jason does not believe that the reduction of rich countries’ incomes is  a big deal because people in Costa Rica are happy with an income level only one-fifth of the United States, and West European countries are no less prosperous and happy despite the fact that their per capita incomes are 40 percent lower than American. In other words, we can reduce Western incomes a lot and change the type of goods being produced (universal health care and nationalized housing instead of cars and airplanes) without major loss of welfare. Perhaps even with a gain as the new economy would make people work less and lead more interesting lives. For good measure, Jason would also cancel all debts, and (it seems) abolish all lending and fractional banking.

I do not think that this program is illogical. It is just so enormous, outside of anything that we normally can expect to implement, that it verges, I am afraid, on absurdity. It is simply impossible to put in practice, not only in democracies, but probably in North Korea either. I do not want to be impolite or insulting, but I think that only Kampuchea came up with anything similar. Many countries have lost large fractions of their overall income through wars or civil strife, but none has impoverished itself voluntarily. If put to test in real life, rather than at conferences and blogs, Jason’s program would receive support from almost no one.  

Capitalist societies, after several centuries of exposure to market ideology and way of life, are structured in such a way that populations have fully accepted, and reaffirm in their daily lives, the objectives that make capitalism thrive. We want more and newer “stuff” every year. The ideology of commodification and commercialization has never been stronger: it is as present in the UK and the United States as in China, Nigeria, Congo, Russia or Brazil. We are not only working for a wage, we are cheerfully renting our homes and cars for money, networking at our children’s birthdays, and having kids who beat each other to grab a new model of smart phone or shoes. In other words, we have global capitalism with a population that has internalized the objectives needed for capitalism to reproduce itself and to expand, by requiring an ever greater amount of saving, investment and output.

It is irrelevant whether I like or dislike this situation (as Jason seems to believe). It is just that I observe how the world functions while Jason appears to me to live in an unreal world. If he looked at the real world he would have seen that up to 50 immigrants from Sudan are often found squeezed in the tiny electric compartments of French trains while crossing the border in order to live better lives and buy more “stuff”; he would have noticed that people, as they will doubtlessly do on this Thanksgiving too, get up at 4 in the morning to line up in front of Walmart’s and engage in fistfights so that they can buy the new model of “stuff”; he would have noticed that professors at many, and probably his own, universities fight endless battles over 1 or 2 percent salary increases; he would have noticed that families go into debt just to show off with a new model of a car etc. etc.

So his program may in words be accepted by those who would have travelled 10,000 miles to attend the conference where the program is presented; who would use AC while sitting in the conference hall and eat meat during the conferences meals, but they too would not vote for it.  

For if the proponents of such a program really believed in it, they should start (or should have already started) a political movement that would promise to implement it and save the planet. They should explicitly promise continuous annual income declines of several percentage points, lower wages, pensions and social transfers, a work week of 20 hours or fewer, closure of most gas stations and many airports, home production of key food items, picketing of factories that work longer hours or supermarkets that sell meat. They should put this program on their flag and see how many people will vote for it.

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