Life after Capitalism, by Tim Jackson
The author draws on a wide range of sources including: artists, economists, historians, scientists, philosophers and politicians. He delivers a damning condemnation of the impact of capitalism on human society. The analysis is stark: no matter what politicians may wish for, there are limits to growth, and if we are to avoid a global climate catastrophe radical change is needed.
The book opens with a speech given by Robert Kennedy at the start of his campaign for the democratic nomination in 1968. In this speech Kennedy questioned the use and relevance of GDP saying that…
“it measures everything except that which makes life worth living” (p. 7)
Western society is focused on us spending more and more on the things we like such as good food and drink, comfortable clothes that make us feel better, endless material goods, property, and jetting off to faraway places for leisure. Meanwhile our schools, hospitals, transport, and energy infrastructure have been run down, with those who work to there being pushed to their limits to do ever more. Government and opposition both claim that the only way to pay essential workers more or to afford greater investment in our infrastructure is to grow our economy. So government as we can see is currently pressing people to work longer hours to produce more goods and services that we don’t really want or need, to generate the tax revenue to pay for the essential services that we do really need. This constant drive for growth in GDP is not only damaging the health of the planet, it is also bad for our own physical health and well-being. It is rarely acknowledged that obesity is linked to economic growth.
“Living well is not just about having more we could live better with less.”
John Stuart Mill (p. 50)
The book tackles head on why the global economy cannot keep growing. Reagan’s claim that the very idea of limits is economically illiterate, is debunked. Depressingly though this continues to be the mantra expressed across parliament, with both major parties advocating that growth (or green growth) will solve all our economic problems and save the planet too.
“ignoring or rewriting the rules won’t work”
Hannah Arendt wrote that
“Capitalism has eroded the distinction between work and labour” (p. 120)
It has done this so well that I hadn’t realised that there was a distinction. It took the pandemic to shine a light on Labour as referring to those who maintain the conditions for life. Roles such as housework, parenting, caring for the elderly, often unpaid or poorly paid but vital for society. Jobs under valued for decades done by people who often couldn’t afford to feed themselves properly. Work is the effort that allows us to build a durable human world with vision, creation, creativity to endure beyond our individual life span.
Keynes offered the hope that
“Within a couple of generations there will come a time when the struggle for subsistence would be over and we would devote our energies to non economic purposes”
The neo-liberal elite would have none of that, driving government to prioritise competition over cooperation, profit over wages, quantity over quality, today’s consumption over tomorrow’s security. Using commodification and consumption to keep GDP growing, with permanence and longevity seen as a threat to growth.
There is a lovely section in which the author recalls being invited into the treasury to discuss an earlier work “Prosperity without Growth” with a senior advisor to the chancellor. Having carefully set out the case for an economy without growth, he was asked just one question.
“What would it be like for treasury officials to turn up at a G7 meeting knowing that UK GDP had slipped down the world rankings” (p. 150)
Never mind that the planet is burning, or that war and famine will cause unimaginable consequences, the treasury prioritises maintaining our position as one of the world’s leading economies!
So what can we do in the face of a government which has no interest in planning how to transform our economy so that we are ready for the post growth world. There is it seems little alternative but to follow the examples of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and so many others along the road to direct action. Direct action as I mentioned in an earlier article is a sign that our parliament is neither representative of nor accountable to the people.
“Maybe we have not yet travelled far enough along the road to democracy, when wealth is the ticket to political power, can we truly call this democracy? (p.162)”
There is though a far greater challenge, that of how we change our behaviour as individuals and collectively.
Our capitalist society has encouraged us to work all hours to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need. Our cravings drive demand so that the already wealthy can accumulate ever more wealth. This of course is nothing new. Throughout history the poor have been robbed and oppressed by those with wealth. Many in the ancient world, from Aristotle and the Buddha to St Augustine, sought to help their followers break free from the control that our cravings have over us. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu summed it up as
“To know enough’s enough is enough to know” (p.181)
There was so much in this book that I didn’t know about, people that I had never heard of. Listening to Kennedy’s speech in Kansas, gave me so much regret for a world he never had the chance to build.
Time is not on our side, in this country progressive parties need an electoral alliance so that we have a real choice at the next election. In this volume Tim Jackson has set out a manifesto that surely they can all agree on to transform society …
To counter the devastating loss of species.
To protect the integrity of soils and rivers, lakes and oceans.
To unravel the damaging impact of inequality.
To deliver essential workers from the precarity of work.
To counter the obscenity of rent seeking behaviours.
To free humanity from the materialistic scourge of consumerism.
To protect the most vulnerable.
To strengthen health systems and improve social care.
To counter obesity.
To create education systems fit for purpose and accessible to all.
To privilege durability over wasteful convenience.
To develop craft.
To support creativity.
To build a society in which people to collaborate in the creation of a durable meaningful human world.(p.148)
Like the next pandemic, the post growth world is coming whether we like it or not, it would be much better if we were prepared for it.