An Article From the Harvard Business Review
by Umair Haque
You know the alien cults that announce to their followers that next year, on October 28th, at precisely 4:05 pm, the master race will arrive, and save humanity? Of course, the aliens never arrive. But that doesn’t stop the cult from believing. It only strengthens their belief.
If, as I’d bet you do, you’re head-shakingly familiar with said cults, allow me to ask you a question.
Has capitalism failed? Or, if you like, is it failing? Let me be clear. I don’t mean: is capitalism useless, awful, worthless? I do mean: is capitalism failing at being the best possible means of organizing human work, life, and play?
Imagine a country called CapitalismStan. Imagine that country’s proud emblem was a great invisible hand. In every town square, its flag flew proudly. Prices were its idols; markets were its temples; products its litanies; and all knew what the great hand stood for: the undying ideals of competition, self-reliance, riches. A man’s worth was his wealth; the measure of people’s time was how much they earned; together, millions worked, hour after painstaking hour, on what they called “innovation”; good works divinely ordained by their titans; the markets.
Yet something was wrong in CapitalismStan. That very society was foundering. Its middle class was collapsing. It had already had a lost decade; and was starting on another. Its young had become a lost generation, desperately seeking opportunity. Median incomes had stagnated for decades. The economy spun headlong into a great recession; and then it “recovered”; but during the “recovery”, the richest 1% captured 95% of the gains. Millions faced chronic unemployment and poverty. Social mobility was low and decreasing. Life expectancy was dropping.
In short, life in CapitalismStan was getting shorter, nastier, unhappier, and harder. Meanwhile, other rich nations—notably those which did not worship the invisible hand so completely, totally, obediently, and unflappably—had prospered.
Does CapitalismStan’s story sound a little bit like America’s to you?
Now, allow me to rebut myself.
Maybe what’s practiced in the USA isn’t capitalism at all. It seems to be a toxic admixture of capitalism for the poor, who are ruthlessly whittled down, in brutal Darwinian contests; and socialism for the rich, for whom there appears to be no limit to bailouts, subsidies, and privileges. It’s a lethal cocktail of cronyism for the powerful; and endless struggle for the powerless. It’s neither fish nor fowl; but a chimera.
So what is this system that is faltering, precisely, if it’s not quite capitalism?
I’d call it “growthism.” It’s not just a system or a set of institutions. It’s a mindset; an ideology; a set of cherished beliefs. And one that’s hardened into dogma. A dogma which is palpably failing; but can’t be dislodged—because it’s become an article of faith, the central belief of a cult, whose priests and acolytes threaten mysterious, terrible, divine revenge whenever their authority is questioned.
Growthism says: growth must be achieved at all costs. When growth is achieved; societies are said to be successful; when it is not, they are said to be failing.
Growthism is willing to sacrifice everything for more growth. Even the very rights which enlightened societies once held to be inalienable. Are you concerned about the rise in extrajudicial mass spying, drone strikes, private security guards, military contractors, or even just the analytics that provide detailed information on what you say, do, and search to both the government and private companies? Too bad! Those are our growth industries, and woe to whatever or whoever stands in their way. Who cares about freedom of speech and assembly or the right to privacy when what we really need is good, growth-creating jobs? Jobs like becoming butlers and maids (or coaches, consultants, and “service-providers”) to the super-rich, who can purchase the “right” not to be frisked, stopped, or surveiled. Heaven forbid people protest. Why, that might hurt growth!
Growthism, then, is antithetical to democracy. Basic political and human rights, from the perspective of a growthist, are niggling sources of inefficiency that must be erased, rubbed out, sanded down. They are sources of social friction and tension that make people less productive workers and that encourage them to do things like wonder, question, agitate, challenge, defy, rebel, and think. Dammit! We don’t want a citizenry! We want a workforce.
Growthism contends that growth is the point; the alpha and omega; the sole purpose of all human effort—and therefore, all human effort must be directed towards growth.
That is the great mistake growthism makes. But growth is not an end. It is a means. A means to, at best, expanding eudaimonia; the capacity to……read more