On Tim Jackson’s Post Growth: Life after Capitalism

This review was first published in The Weekend Australian.

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With the Budget Bingo cards now mouldering in the trash, and the budget itself now mouldering in the memory, it’s worth reflecting that the ideological character of an era has less to do with the disagreements between political parties than with the assumptions they share. And the assumption at the heart of the Coalition’s budget, and at the heart of Labor’s budget reply, is that economic growth is A Good Thing. Growth, to be sure, is the guiding star of economic management in our era, bringing together both ‘sides’ of politics in Australia and elsewhere. Even many Greens are now reconciled to capitalism’s ‘growth imperative’, spruiking for policies that would ‘decouple’ growth from its negative environmental effects. The Green New Deal currently finding favour in the US and some parts of Europe rests largely on this principle.

The ecological economist Tim Jackson is sympathetic to the New Dealers’ politics, but he doubts that their means are consistent with their ends. In Post Growth, he argues that ‘green growth’ policies both underestimate the challenge of climate change and reproduce the economic logic that brought us to this perilous juncture. Even allowing for some decoupling and more technologically efficient production, the basic contradiction between infinite growth and a finite planet is now so stark that a broad downscaling of production and consumption is an existential necessity. In her speech at the UN, Greta Thunberg referred to ‘fairy tales of eternal economic growth’. For Jackson, economic growth is a ‘fairy tale … with a very bad ending’.

Jackson has made this argument before, in his 2009 book Prosperity Without Growth, which began life as a report to the UK Government’s Sustainable Development Commission. The report was ignored by the politicians, but taken up by many environmental activists, who regarded it as an important corrective to the growth-centred thinking on both left and right. Though lighter on the economics, Post Growth reprises many of the themes introduced in the earlier book, including the nature and effects of consumerism, the imbalance within the present system between individualism and social solidarity, and the thin definition of ‘prosperity’ that ties human beings’ personal ‘growth’ to its economic counterpart. Above all, it argues that human flourishing is not just compatible with economic ‘degrowth’ but a potential corollary of it – what economists might call an ‘externality’.

As one of the founders of ecological economics, Herman Daly, was fond of saying, degrowth is ‘a slogan in search of a program’; and while Jackson’s work has proven important in its diagnosis of the ‘growth fetish’ (as Australia’s own Clive Hamilton has called it), its prescriptions are often insubstantial and confused. As an interdisciplinary field, ecological economics is able to break free from the emphases of mainstream analysis, and a good thing too. But the risk it runs in doing so is that it ceases to be analytically coherent, and so it proves in Jackson’s case. At its worst, Post Growth is a crazy salad of saccharine platitudes, stringy reasoning and thin slices of political theory. Moving backwards and forwards through the centuries, and skipping from one political tradition to another, it reminded me at times of Bill and Ted zipping through history in their time machine, kidnapping key historical figures to use in their college history report. At one point neoliberalism’s philosopher of choice John Locke is called upon to justify opposition to the capitalist state, which is rather like calling on Peter Dutton to open a conference on multiculturalism.

One particularly unconvincing aspect of the book is the way in which individual thinkers’ ideas are set against their personal lives in a way that illustrates, or affects to illustrate, the strength or weakness of those ideas. For example, the fact that John Stuart Mill suffered an agonising depression is taken as an implicit critique of his utilitarian philosophy and the ‘pleasure calculus’ at its core. (‘Beyond the greatest happiness of the greatest number, his own experience seems to suggest, lies a much more sophisticated, a much more radiant, a much more human terrain.’) Meanwhile, Ludwig Boltzmann’s death, and the grief that attended it, is taken as evidence of how love soars free of the physical universe he helped to describe through his work on entropy. Here, as elsewhere, Jackson relies on his inspiration to do the arguing, with results that border on silliness.

The determination to couch these arguments in individual terms is, I think, telling. Channelling Robert Kennedy’s remark that GDP measures everything ‘except that which makes life worthwhile’, Jackson wants to say that economic growth is less important than our ‘spiritual’ growth. But in making his case, he tends to overemphasise the importance of individual behaviour in the battle against environmental degradation. Turning to the question of consumer demand, Jackson takes consumerism as a behavioural phenomenon to be overcome at the individual level, as opposed to an inescapable feature of a system geared towards commodification and profit. The problem, however, is that ‘personal growth’ is as embedded a feature of neoliberalism as Apple phones and McDonalds hamburgers. A lot of ‘affluenza’ literature (again, the phrase is Hamilton’s) seems to me to miss this point, and to end up trying to reengineer a symptom of the disease into a cure for it.

That Jackson’s analysis of capitalism often lacks depth is clear from his remarks about COVID-19, the response to which he characterises as a sudden outbreak of radical social democracy. But the response to COVID was no such thing. It was a socialisation of capitalism’s losses, no different in principle from the bailout of the banks after the Global Debt Crisis of 2008. Capitalism wasn’t rejected; it was nationalised, on the understanding that Life, the Universe and Everything would return to ‘normal’ once the pandemic (an ‘exogenous shock’) had been sent packing. Yes, it caused a few commentators to point out how delusional many aspects of capitalism are; but Jackson’s characterisation of this moment as a rolling symposium on capitalism’s future takes the wish for the reality.

The wish is an important one. We should be thinking about the limits of capitalism, and looking forward to an alternative dispensation in which human flourishing is set within an equitable and sustainable economic model. But this book, like others from the ‘degrowther’ fold, is founded on too thin an idea of the system in which, for the moment, we remain stuck. At this stage, we don’t need sermons on greed and spirituality; we need clear ideas on how to move forward.

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Tim Jackson, Post Growth: Life after Capitalism

Polity; $30.95; 256pp