As our current economic model continues to drive us relentlessly towards the precipice of cataclysmic environmental destruction. While simultaneously forcing us to contemplate a ‘lost decade’ of stagnate high unemployment, reduction in the social wage and mass poverty. People are increasingly questioning the logic of a system based upon growth and the boom and bust cycle. For many in the environmental movement and the left generally ‘zero growth economics‘ or ‘steady state economics‘ seems to provide the solutions.
However, to see growth as the problem is to buy into a fallacy which lies at the heart of economics. Moreover, in misdiagnosing the problem, those that take aim at economic growth, also provide a cure which is unimplementable. I do not propose that the solution is more of the same old growth mantra. We must recognise instead that growth and anti-growth are two sides of the same coin. The advocates of ‘zero-growth’ suggest we flick the coin from heads to tails in order to discover the solution. When the problem is the coin itself. Or more accurately capital in all its forms. To limit issues of political economy to growth / anti-growth is to accept the paradigm of economics: that exchange-value – determining value through relation to other things – is the only measure of value. Basing their thought on the fallacy of exchange-value the proponents of ‘zero-growth’ close off the opportunity of actual meaningful change which we desperately need.
Economists like to pretend that they are scientists, belonging on the same exalted ground as mathematicians and physicists. Needing a veil of legitimacy they canonize numbers, as Joseph Stiglitz points out Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (the total exchange-value contained within an economy) in being easy to calculate has become a “fixation of economists.” In doing so economics has become a tool of legitimisation of capitalism rather then a science of any kind. As Stiglitz points out GDP is a fallacious measure of wealth as “you can increase GDP by despoiling the environment, by depleting scarce natural resources, by borrowing from abroad – but this kind of growth is not sustainable”.
This leads to a strange situation in which governments’ economic successes are scrutinised by economists in terms of their ability to increase GDP , which is based upon growth in total exchange-value (which is given physical form as capital). It is unsurprising that “there is no alternative” when economic success is measured in this way. As it would be strange for capitalism to be less successful at increasing capital than other systems, such as socialism. In effect economists are limited to telling us that capitalism is better at being capitalism than anything else. The game is clearly rigged, it’s like having a competition to find who are superior athletes: footballers or F1 drivers, and then proceeding to judge the contest only on ability to drive a car fast. The left must refuse to play this rigged game. Rather than trying argue that alternatives to capitalism can lead to the same levels of growth as capitalism does, we should simply ask growth of what? Obviously capitalism will lead to more growth of capital but socialism will lead to more growth of the social.
The advocates of ‘zero-growth’ are unfortunately missing this point too, it is not the level of growth which matters but rather the growth of ‘what’. There is another measure of value which is just as old as exchange-value: use-value – the ability of something to satisfy, directly or indirectly a human desire. This qualitative measure of value was coined by Marx but importantly does not rest upon the discredited ‘labour theory of value‘.
Under capitalism competition means that the aim of production must be to increase exchange-value and thus profit. Overall increases in exchange-value or growth in GDP are achieved through increases in efficiency, which result in a reduction of productive inputs (labour, capital, material, energy, etc.) for a given amount of output. This then means that either more of that given product can be produced or if there is no market requirement for an increase in that particular product then labour can correspondingly be reduced, through making workers redundant, thus devaluing labour across the economy and increasing profit .
Yet as outlined by GA Cohen if the aim of production is to increase use-value then gains in efficiency would alternatively be used for an equivalent reduction in toil (activity which is unappealing) and the extension of leisure (freedom from unappealing activity). Under such a system gains in efficiency would be used to achieve a continual improvement in poor quality work, so to reduce toil where possible and extending leisure time to compensate for any remaining necessary toil.
In regards to ecological destruction a system based around use-value would be both directly and indirectly beneficial. Firstly assuming it is a human desire to maintain ones environment, the value of ecologically destructive products such as fossil fuels would be massively devalued as environmental damage would no longer be externalised. Secondly if production were aimed towards producing use-value then significantly less production would be necessary. As Cohen explains it is “the business of the automotive industry to make money, not cars. That is, indeed, why it makes so many cars. It might make fewer if its goal were not making money but say, providing people with efficient and inoffensive means of transport.”
Obviously, focusing on use-value would lead to radically lower growth in GDP, but it should not concern us at what level that growth is. With externalities internalised by use-value, exchange-value growth would simply be irrelevant. Yet by emphasising the level of exchange-value growth, ‘zero-growth’ advocates are both reinforcing the fetisihisation of exchange-value and failing to highlight a fundamental critique of capitalism as such is reactionary. Capitalism without exchange-value growth is simply not possible, while envisioning post capitalist society in terms of exchange-value is undesirable if not futile.
If capitalism is the society of exchange-value then socialism is the society of use-value, or in other-words while the aim of capitalism is the maximisation of profit, socialism is the fulfillment of desire through sustainable and fulfilling work and increased leisure time. We need to shift the debate away from exchange-value to use-value. This new focus would mean an economy which continual uses efficiency to increase leisure and decreases toil. Capitalism is now proving a fetter to human productive development of use-value, Terry Eagleton points out the irony of capitalism is that it generates a surplus of such magnitude that it could massively increase leisure but it creates this surplus in such a way that it “demands constant accumulation and expansion and thus constant labour”.
Our slogan should not be ‘no growth!’ but rather ‘Growth for their profits No! Growth in fulfillment of our desires Yes!