Are Advanced Economies Mature Enough to Handle No Growth?

Economists occasionally point out that societies generally move to the right during periods of sustained low growth and economic stress. Yet left-leaning advocates of low or even no growth policies rarely acknowledge the conflict between their antipathy towards growth and the sort of social values they like to see prevail. While some “the end of growth is nigh” types are simply expressing doubt that 20th century rates of increase can be attained in an era of resource scarcity, others see a low-growth future as attractive, even virtuous, with smaller, more autonomous, more cohesive communities.

Perhaps they should be careful what they wish for. Robert Shiller, in Parallels to 1937 at Project Syndicate (hat tip David L), argues for easing up on sanctions against Russia because low growth might have spurred the conflict in the first place. Although his article focuses on the risks of the conflict in Eastern Europe devolving into war, his reasoning has broader implications.

Shiller warns:

The other term that suddenly became prominent around 1937 was “underconsumptionism” – the theory that fearful people may want to save too much for difficult times ahead. Moreover, the amount of saving that people desire exceeds the available investment opportunities. As a result, the desire to save will not add to aggregate saving to start new businesses, construct and sell new buildings, and so forth. Though investors may bid up prices of existing capital assets, their attempts to save only slow down the economy.

“Secular stagnation” and “underconsumptionism” are terms that betray an underlying pessimism, which, by discouraging spending, not only reinforces a weak economy, but also generates anger, intolerance, and a potential for violence.

In his magnum opus The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Benjamin M. Friedman showed many examples of declining economic growth giving rise – with variable and sometimes long lags – to intolerance, aggressive nationalism, and war. He concluded that, “The value of a rising standard of living lies not just in the concrete improvements it brings to how individuals live but in how it shapes the social, political, and ultimately the moral character of a people.”

Some will doubt the importance of economic growth. Maybe, many say, we are too ambitious and ought to enjoy a higher quality of life with more leisure. Maybe they are right.
But the real issue is self-esteem and the social-comparison processes that psychologist Leon Festinger observed as a universal human trait. Though many will deny it, we are always comparing ourselves with others, and hoping to climb the social ladder. People will never be happy with newfound opportunities for leisure if it seems to signal their failure relative to others.

The hope that economic growth promotes peace and tolerance is based on people’s tendency to compare themselves not just to others in the present, but also to the what they remember of people – including themselves – in the past. According to Friedman, “Obviously nothing can enable the majority of the population to be better off than everyone else. But not only is it possible for most people to be better off than they used to be, that is precisely what economic growth means.”

Mind you, prior to the Industrial Revolution, very low growth was the norm. But that also meant that, absent war, pestilence, natural disasters, and famine, societies were stable. Ancient Egypt lasted for nearly 3000 years. In pre-modern Europe, peasants did not have much in the way of career options. Ideas like the Great Chain of Being and upward mobility in the afterlife legitimized the social order. And even though lack of modern hygiene and medical treatments meant lifespans were short, yeoman farmers who had access to pastureland could fare well. As Yasha Levine wrote in 2010, describing the research of economist Michael Perelman:

One thing that the historical record makes obviously clear is that Adam Smith and his laissez-faire buddies were a bunch of closet-case statists, who needed brutal government policies to whip the English peasantry into a good capitalistic workforce willing to accept wage slavery…

Yep, despite what you might have learned, the transition to a capitalistic society did not happen naturally or smoothly. See, English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in shitty, dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of landowning capitalists. And for good reason, too. Using Adam Smith’s own estimates of factory wages being paid at the time in Scotland, a factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?…

Faced with a peasantry that didn’t feel like playing the role of slave, philosophers, economists, politicians, moralists and leading business figures began advocating for government action. Over time, they enacted a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support…

Perelman outlines the many different policies through which peasants were forced off the land—from the enactment of so-called Game Laws that prohibited peasants from hunting, to the destruction of the peasant productivity by fencing the commons into smaller lots—but by far the most interesting parts of the book are where you get to read Adam Smith’s proto-capitalist colleagues complaining and whining about how peasants are too independent and comfortable to be properly exploited, and trying to figure out how to force them to accept a life of wage slavery.

This pamphlet from the time captures the general attitude towards successful, self-sufficient peasant farmers:

The possession of a cow or two, with a hog, and a few geese, naturally exalts the peasant. . . . In sauntering after his cattle, he acquires a habit of indolence. Quarter, half, and occasionally whole days, are imperceptibly lost. Day labour becomes disgusting; the aversion in- creases by indulgence. And at length the sale of a half-fed calf, or hog, furnishes the means of adding intemperance to idleness.

Daniel Defoe, the novelist and trader, noted that in the Scottish Highlands “people were extremely well furnished with provisions. … venison exceedingly plentiful, and at all seasons, young or old, which they kill with their guns whenever they find it.’’

Readers might argue that Levine and Perelman contradict the argument made by Friedman and Shiller, that people can get on quite well if there is no growth, provided they have easy access to the necessities. However, in addition to having some surplus on a material level (as demonstrated by ample loafing time), the English pre-modern peasants also had a stable, and hence fairly secure social order.

By contrast, for ordinary people, capitalism necessitates selling one’s labor as a condition of survival. That puts workers at the tail end of the whipsaws of the marketplace.

The comparatively short period of influential unions and resulting strong labor bargaining power ameliorated those risks and produced roughly two generations of relative stability and middle class prosperity. But even that period sat in a frame of a never-quite-mature, ever-morphing social order that we’ve been indoctrinated to see as every bit as normal as the Elizabethans saw the Great Chain of Being. Most of us have deeply internalized a belief that our system is largely meritocratic and rewards personal responsibility, hard work, and adaptability. For society as a whole, those value promote individualism, status competition, and weak community ties.

Creating this modern culture took generations and entailed tremendous dislocation and stress. The proto-industrialists who drove the transformation recognized the need for a new ideology to legitimate their power and justify the workings of capitalism, and it permeates our social arrangements.

From what I can tell, the proponents of a no-growth future have sorely neglected the doctrinal side of their program. If they are right about where we are headed, they need to heed Shiller’s warning. The inertial path is that reactionaries take charge.

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  1. Petey

    French austerity (forced by the insane Euro framework, of course,) equals President Marine Le Pen.

    A non-insubstantial number of Greeks are running around wearing swastikas and beating up immigrants.

    Back in the US, the fallout from the Bank Panic of 2008 quite directly birthed the Tea Party.

    This ain’t rocket science.

    1. lakewoebegoner

      “French austerity (forced by the insane Euro framework, of course,) equals President Marine Le Pen.”

      add when you have a free-trade/migration zone between a high-wage country like France and developing countries like Romania and de facto free trade between France and China, French workers get the losing end of the stick.

      1. Bobito

        That’s nonsense. Unskilled Romanians aren’t taking jobs away from French workers. They are competing for the worst sorts of temporary, off the books, employment. Europe is very far from being a free migration zone. There are lots of obstacles put up but the principal one is and will always be language. Unless you speak good French you aren’t going to get more than crap employment in France. It’s not like moving from Alabama to North Carolina, and not just because the French don’t know beans about barbecue.

        1. jonboinAR

          If working people refuse to do “crap jobs” until they pay well, and if there isn’t an immigrant or other surplus labor pool for employers to draw from, then the offered wages and benefits packages go up, and PRESTO!, they become “good jobs”.

        2. Justicia

          The losers in this wage race to the bottom are the North African immigrants (Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian) and others from Francophone Africa who now must compete with East European migrants for the “crap employment.” This makes the worker neighborhoods in the banlieue fertile recruiting grounds for militant Islam.

      2. Pelham

        What, exactly, does Marine Le Pen stand for? I know in a vague way that she’s anti-immigration. But I’ve seen very little about her or the National Front that doesn’t smack of caricature.

        Perhaps the caricature is essentially on the mark. But perhaps it isn’t.

  2. wbgonne

    Another great essay!

    We have to figure out how to create stable societies without the frenetic economic “growth” that now demands we feed human beings and the planet itself into its gaping maw. As you suggest, it won’t be easy to devise sustainable, humanistic systems. But since the alternative is self-annihilation, maybe we can find a way. Waking up to the reality of anthropogenic global warming would be a good place to start because all the lessons and all the challenges are right there.

  3. Banger

    Once again, excellent, timely and well written essay, Yves.

    While historical precedent is useful there are aspects of contemporary post-modern society that are utterly unique and impossible to predict. First, very quickly, there are studies that show that people are less motivated by material well-being than satisfaction once basic needs are met so the no- or slow- growth society is theoretically possible and, indeed, preferable to the high-growth society because it gives time for other pursuits–of course much of this depends on how you regard non-nose-to-the-grindstone-pursuits–Protestant ethic and all that.

    The other thing is that the move to the right, in the U.S., started long before the U.S. political economy began to sputter after the first dot com bubble burst. One can say that growth was pretty good from 1978 (when the public began, in earnest, to reject the New Deal) until the early 2000s yet the move to the right was constant and dramatic.

    The problem with no-growth is that without strong social capital, at this point in history, it would tend to cause severe psychological rather than just physical stress. People’s conceptual frameworks depend on economic growth–there reason for being is predicated on the products they buy and the status those products signify. In any non-humanist and viciously competitive society that dishonors connection and honors independence and selfish behavior stress, hierarchy, status needs are extremely important. Thus my “solution” to our future is to move towards a society that honors connection, love, relaxation, and conviviality would allow people to settle into a “downshifted” lifestyle. Our way of life is stunningly wasteful mainly due to highly absurd status needs. For example, the trend towards ridiculously large and expensive weddings, overly large and luxurious houses extravagant handbags, shoes, electronic toys and so on exist because people lack a convivial culture to live in that values and accept them just the way they are (cue Mr. Rogers).

    Whether we like it or not this is the only viable path to take. Structurally we are headed, at best, for slow growth and stagnation particularly once the bubbles begin to pop when they outlive their usefulness. By necessity we need to stop using carbon energy and, since the authorities are actively discouraging the use of both alternative fuels and energy conservation methods, low or no growth may be the only way to avoid catastrophe over climate change. Climate change is so profoundly threatening to the status-quo that it is almost impossible to bring up the subject anywhere these days so that people have no clue about the risks we are taking because 98% of the population does not understand non-linear phase-oriented change or systems theory because our educational system seems unable to move out of a 19th century mind-set. But we are in danger of coming to some very dramatic positive feedback loops and we flat-out refuse to look at it in part because we have trained ourselves not to look at inconvenient truths of any kind whether it is science of simply facts that disrupt the idea of American Exceptionalism–and this is true across cultural and political divisions in the USA.

    1. Gabriel

      Great comments from Banger and others above.

      My addition – We may be moving to a no-growth society without knowing it – from level incomes and/or climate warming. We better be preparing Americans for that eventuality.

      A no- or slow-growth economy will have a lot of shifts. For example, one industry, advertising, may come to be seen as superfluous if not harmful to the economy. There may be other such industries or occupations that will be affected.

      Given such large possible shifts, we better be prepared as a nation to take care of the people affected by such dissolving or unnecessary industries and jobs. What can we do to help them shift to a low- or no-growth economy and future?

      We really lost the ball in the US on globalization. Let’s give some very serious thought to a no-growth future. Let’s help those who may be affected.

    2. Gabriel

      Oh, and I forgot to mention that the financial services sector will also be endangered by a slow- or no-growth economy. No growth, no need for Wall Street.

      So a slow- or no-growth economy will solve that problem.

      1. Jim

        Yves stated in her essay that: “though many will deny it we are always comparing ourselves with others, and hoping to climb the social ladder, People will never be happy with newfound opportunities for leisure if it seems to signal their failure relative to others.”

        Banger in response stated in part that: “People’s conceptual framework depends on economic growth…Thus my “solution ” to our future is to move towards a society that honors connection, love, relaxation, and conviviality which would allow peoples to settle into a downshifted lifestyle.”

        Yves, in her comment, seems to recognize the importance of the vertical in human life and in society. (especially in terms of all of our respective drives for status recognition). It is even possible to argue that the vertical (at least in childhood is almost monarchical)–the way in which a child always looks up to its mother before it learns to walk and the way children experience fathers and grandparents as being “up there.”

        It would be a huge conceptual step forward if the classical left could begin to pay attention to such vertical tensions which permeate our society. But such thinking is presently considered taboo-it is only acceptable to rattle on endlessly on the horizontal, and on the already failed project of attempting to turn resentment into a positive emotion.

        Banger wants a society that honors connection and love but is at a loss to lay out concrete steps to move toward such values. But again it just might be the case that we need to pay more attention to the vertical–to the dramas of ascent and fall– which make up so much of our existence. Is it conceivable that we could move from a society of acquisition to one of giving by exploring old and new types of ascetic behavior which often seem to mobilize emotions which activate people to bring out their own virtuosity and consequently gain recognition. Is it also the case that such internal energy tends to be self-reinforcing and once released is largely not subject to any limits imposed from without?

        Would it be possible or even worthwhile for the Left to move from a retributive metaphysics to an endorsement of a more open culture of ambition and self-shaping that recognizes we cannot govern others properly without first being able to govern ourselves?

        1. Banger

          I have outlined steps over the years–no one wants to listen though–we prefer to complain.

          In brief, connection means creating community where you can. It’s an attitude not a program or a policy. This can be done by working on being less selfish–that process I call “spirituality.”

          1. Jim

            “This can be done by working on being less selfish–that process I call “spirituality”.”

            I agree with you that what seems most important is a change in attitude. But if this type of perspective is to be a key part of the cultural dimension of a new politics doesn’t the “working on” part have to be spelled out specifically.

            For myself, a key aspect of spirituality are specific types of practices or repetitions that may enable someone, for example, to observe his or her own mental habits/passions more clearly.

            And such practices then become a foundation for the governing of self–which to my mind, taken the nature of our culture, is an ascetic pursuit–perhaps eventually leading to a type of mental secession from the current culture.

            Certainly there are many different types of ethical experimentation–but is it possible or even a good idea to make such practices part of a new politics?

            From my perspective, part of the reason for the fatigue being articulated on the blog is the realization that we have yet to begin to articulate the concrete acts needed to be performed in order to recruit enough people to bring a goal within practical social reach.

            Would/ could or should a program of practices for governing oneself be a part of a cultural recruitment message for a new politics?


            1. just bill

              Capitalism works by creating losers. The number of losers can be reduced by worker organization, by government activism and investment, and by progressive taxation. In America we have never allowed any of these to go to far. When organized labor was at its height of power, it created little more than a privileged caste of screw turners and did little or nothing for those ignored by industrial unionism. On the tax front we had progressive rates until 1986, but they were undermined by loopholes you could drive an ocean liner through.

              The problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do to counterbalance the cancerous growth of the money power. The problem is that the politicians are a toadying class that is in on the game, as are the so called executives, most of the academics, nearly all the journalists, and others whose job it is to create the appearance of a democratic society.

              Perhaps the most serious problem of all is the 24-7 drumbeat of propaganda, which continues to proclaim how ours is the greatest country in the world’s history, with its subtext reminding all the losers that they have no one to blame but themselves. Until relatively recently there was just enough opportunity created by so called economic growth to sell this message to a vast majority. Without the growth the propaganda is going to have to be reinforced by guns and clubs. Anyone who believes otherwise is simply dreaming.

              1. Jim


                Why does the economic sphere, by itself, possess apparently exceptional powers to bring about effects and side effects than do other spheres (cultural, legal, political etc.)?

                Why, for example, is the cultural sphere (as implied in your comment above) always put in the role of a superstructure only determined by an economic base?

                Why is the State, the legal system, the educational system etc. always demoted to a secondary status?

                Is such an anti-idealist hierarchy of reality realistic?

                1. Oregoncharles

                  Marx called it Materialism; anthropologists call it Functionalism. Both say that survival functions ultimately dictate, or at least limit, cultural ones. Livelihood comes first, then ideology.

                  1. Jim


                    The reason i raise these questions is because i believe that what is known as the Left in the advanced industrialized world has largely failed (it has become a part of the status quo) and is out of ideas for different types of mobilization and recruitment.

                    And in addition it continues to advocate strategies and tactics which failed miserably in the 20th century–yet these ideas still have a hold within our minds.

                    Consequently I’m on a, perhaps, quixotic quest for a new politics of mobilization and recruitment which as a first step involves a questioning of all key “Left” assumptions–of which materialism, i believe, is one of the most pernicious and possibly misleading.

                    I’m hoping that such questioning of fundamental assumptions will eventually create a social space that will allow new schemas of politicization to come into existence.

                    The great irony of the present political moment is that what remains of progressive/left thinking continues to berate the oligarchs for not learning from past mistakes when it refuses to have the courage to question its own fundamental assumptions, strategies and tactics.

                    1. Adrienne

                      “Consequently I’m on a, perhaps, quixotic quest for a new politics of mobilization and recruitment which as a first step involves a questioning of all key “Left” assumptions–of which materialism, i believe, is one of the most pernicious and possibly misleading.

                      I’m hoping that such questioning of fundamental assumptions will eventually create a social space that will allow new schemas of politicization to come into existence.”

                      Could you expand? What are your ideas/inspiration/influences in this space? Many thanks.

        2. jrs

          I don’t see why people can assume to speak for everyone’s values on leisure versus status. I’d rather have leisure than status.

          1. Nathanael

            I think what we have to do is twofold:
            (1) encourage status-seeking to be directed in harmless directions: i.e. not power and not money. It’s fine if you want to become the most famous basketball player.
            (2) harshly punish power-seeking for status or money-seeking for status

          2. Jim


            You don’t have any need for social recognition?

            Are your blog posts in any way tied into the desire for social recognition?


            1. JTFaraday

              Maybe they’re just having a conversation.

              While sociality and status seeking may both fall into the broad category of “social recognition,” they are not the same thing.

  4. MikeNY

    Thought-provoking post, and I can see the social logic of pushing for growth.

    On the other hand, since the top 10% of the population controls something like 90% of the wealth, there’s a strong argument to be made that redistribution also improves the prospects of the vast majority of the population, getting you to the same goal. I add the observation that we need redistribution simply because the current distribution is patently unjust. As Simone Weil says, it is always a question of tilting the balance toward the oppressed…

    In the long run, we’d need a greater sense of brotherhood, equality and social cohesion to manage an environment of no growth. Perhaps that will be forced upon us by they paroxysms of the environment, or by resource constraints. Or not. But if faster growth is not an option, what then? The only peaceful answer seems to be to change the way we think.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      I think that’s why we need some sort of GDP sharing.

      GDP sharing (or some thing similar) will foster brotherhood and weaken individualism.

      Thus GDP sharing first (or wealth tax, or anything to reduce wealth inequality) and subsequently, we are able to take on no-growth.

      We don’t want no-growth first and then hope for GDP sharing later.

      1. Skippy


        Understand your premise wrt GDP tho’ we might want to change that cobbled together bit of kit, due the insidious nature of its agency. Herman Daly’s Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) would be a move in the right direction methinks. That and although I disagree with some of that mobs rear view mirror dream time, he does make some parallel salient points about the currant market based ethos that non free market doctrinaire sorts do.

        ” Let us start with economic theory on the level of the individual. Has the ideology of the homo oeconomicus outlived the model upon which it was originally based? People concede that Smith or Hayek were partially mistaken, yet their credo is very much alive.

        Daly: I would add one more aspect: Their ontological picture of man is flawed. Instead of conceiving of human beings as atomistic independent individuals that are connected through the nexus of the market and keen to maximize their own benefit and pleasure, we should really think of man as being constituted by the relationships with others. We are not only externally related to others, we are internally related to them as well. When you ask me: ‘Who are you?’ I would define myself as a husband, son, father, citizen, friend, or member. And in a more physical sense, I would be an air-breather and a water-drinker and a food-eater. The quality of these relationships by which we are constituted determines our welfare far more than the amount of commodities we consume. Economists nod at that criticism of their model and then just go back to doing what they have always been doing.”

        skippy… Just wish some of the non doctrinaires would bone up on accounting and financial systems i.e. as this is where he fails is in his lack of knowlage, about accounting and financial systems. Largely because he falls for the same criticism he calls out others for… viewing it from an atomistic angle and not its actual state e.g. contracts. Like Born pointed out, contracts have to be regulated to give them hardness, rather than say money having hardness imo…

        1. psychohistorian

          I would posit that it is population growth that is the driver. Until we can agree to population control as a species we are the virus in the petri dish that is our world that is out of control.

          Will or the ability to use it?

          1. skippy

            Well history is chocker block with the agency behind breading programs… more surplus [whilst on up tick of curve] and more soldiers than the other mobs.

            skippy… today its all about the multiplier base[+] strap-ons .

    2. Oregoncharles

      The fundamental driver of “pushing for growth” is that without it, the economy is a zero-sum game – that the Kochs’ gain is everybody else’s loss. It’s a desperate cover-up of the need for redistribution.
      There are also technical reasons for it: as the system is now designed, no growth = collapse and destitution. It isn’t perfectly clear to me where in the system that comes from; one factor is certainly interest. A steady state economy would have little credit – and no Wall St. for nc to write about. Devoutly to be wished.

      Truth is, the economy is a zero-sum game NOW, and it’s past time more people woke up to that.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        I will give a simple example of negative growth that will be good for all.

        If you run a café now and sell soda at say, $2.00 a can, but decide you will sell fresh juice grown organically in your backyard (thus not counted in the GDP) for $1.00 a glass, you will have subtract $1.00 for every can you substitute.

        Negative GDP growth!

        Better health!

        Tough choice?


        1. Jack King

          BUT…organically grown juice could command a price of $3.00/glass. Are you going to forgo that profit?

      2. jonboinAR

        It’s a desperate cover-up of the need for redistribution.

        This is an important point. We'd need growth a lot less if we shared a lot more. Maybe that's what they did in the old days, but that could be a rose-colored glasses view.

  5. ptup

    Great. And now we have all just learned that our local police departments are armed better than the first arriving squadrons in Iraq.

    Watch what you say in public. wait………….

    1. Art Eclectic

      Frankly, I’m not normally a member of the tin-foil-hat brigade, but it’s hard not to notice that our local police departments have become well trained and armed just in time for a period of civil unrest brought on by lack of jobs and a corrupt political system that exists to service the needs of capital owners.

      If there are indeed no coincidences, that’s a frightening thought.

      Growth cannot occur without a citizenry with disposable cash to spend. Most of what we’re calling growth is not actually growth, it’s not being achieved from new customers or new products, it’s being achieved by internal cutting and efficiencies.

      1. jrs

        Also at a time of ecological collapse. Of course the lousy economy is here right now and ecological collapse is only to some degree here right now (droughts, hurricanes, climate change), but they may very well be planning for it.

      2. Oregoncharles

        Of course it’s no coincidence; do you think our overlords are completely dense? They know better than anyone what they’re doing to us, and they expect resistance.
        I wish they were more correct about that.

        1. Nathanael

          Actually, our overlords are completely dense. More accurately, they have tunnel-vision: they are smart in a very limited domain, and grossly ignorant outside it.

  6. mike

    Read the works of William Ophuls on the organizational demands for governing scarce resources, particularly his Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity from about three decades back. Or as one of my students named it on an essay test, The Politics of Scare City. Which it is and will likely be.

  7. Carla

    Yves, thank you for a profoundly important piece. I hope it will be picked up elsewhere.

    My mother was 18 in 1929. While understanding well the brutality of the 1930s Depression, she also expressed many times a nostalgia for those years because, she told me, “We were all in it together, and we all helped each other.” In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, she missed that sense of community. Of course, my mom wasn’t stupid: she knew perfectly well that rich individuals survived and even thrived during the 30s, but she also knew most of them were smart enough not to flaunt their wealth at the time. She started out teaching piano for 50 cents a lesson in the early 30s while attending Juilliard. On this, she supported herself in NYC, and sent 10 cents of each dollar earned home to her widowed mother in Ohio to help support the rest of the family.

    Sometimes she remarked how extraordinary it was that even during the Depression, ordinary people were able to scrape up 50 cents a week to pay for a piano lesson. Was she relatively privileged? I guess you would say so. I believe she owned three dresses at that time.

    P.S. My mother, her mother and her maternal grandfather were all Georgists.

      1. jrs

        Not much different than my family’s story, who got through the depression barely (there was some skimping on basic needs I get the feeling) owning a restaurant. Someone still ate out.

        1. digi_owl

          Even at the bottom of the depression, things didn’t come to a out and out halt. But compared to the roaring 20s, the 30s would be seen as a standstill.

          That is similar to the speed blindness you develop on the highway, and only notice when you take a offramp and find yourself with a much lower speed limit. For a while, you feel like you are going nowhere.

          Or perhaps you can compare it to a drug addiction. When coming down the world gets to gray and boring that your first wish is to get high again.

          Humanity in essence suck at finding the empirical normal. If inputs stay in a certain state long enough, we somehow automatically accept it as normal rather than off kilter.

        2. ambrit

          My parents remember the Depression as exactly that, depressing. They were children in Greater London. It was so bad that one of my grandfathers marched and, yes, fought in the streets during the General Strike of 1927. There was of Mosleys British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. My grandfathers were not day labourers. One was a First Mate in the Merchant Marine and the other was a Master Mason, the builder kind, although the other kind is also possible. In England at least, both struggled to get by. My mother mentioned that their back yard, in a townhouse row, was one big vegetable garden. They had to do this to insure a decent diet. How many people here can imagine having to grow a garden out of necessity?
          The comment about the three dresses tickled my fancy. I remember getting new clothes for Christmas and birthday presents. This was handled as a big deal by my parents. (I still do my clothes shopping at thrifts and second hand shops.) So are we moulded by our Fates.

          1. craazyman

            I can’t believe my comment got eaten — even after all this time I’m still unprepared for technology.

            If the population falls faster then growth, then it’s higher growth per person! People should keep that in mind while calculating. Or else they risk “ED” — Editorial Dysfunction. hoho. ED occurs when the reader doesn’t experience the full thrust of the author’s argument, which results from limp logic and flaccid phrasings (not necessarily both at once though).

            Thrift stores here are tough because the selection isn’t so hot and prices are often very high. Let’s say you wanted a 42 regular suit made in Loro Piana wool (or at least wool from a sheep) that you could wear to an office and look like an Alpha Male. That’s hit or miss at most places here. Now say you want shoes. I mean good shoes, like something made in Northampton England. You want them to fit. That’s a lot of thrift store shopping.

            That’s why Men’s Wearhouse is a go-to backup place. Joseph Aboud or Jack Victor suits. they’ll do fine, tailored right. If the thrift stores fill up with better selection, that’s fine too, But right now, the cost of thrift store shopping — including subway and bus fares — is probably higher than just going to Men’s Wearhouse. The capitalists have won in New York. There’s no doubt about it. But if the population falls, any of us still here might get richer on a relative basis.

            1. Yves Smith Post author

              You need to discover eBay! It works well IF you have manufacturers that have consistent sizing and if you are sure you know what cuts of jackets and colors work for you.

              There is one designer from the 1980s and 1990s I shop when I have time (not often, mind you, plus I hardly need new clothes as a blogger) and I know the variables that work (which colors, how long the jacket has to be). I pretty much only look for jackets and coats, since I wear everything over black pants or skirts (my answer to a man’s uniform).

              So if you have found any makers who are similarly reliable for you (your Joseph Abboud and Jack Victor, and any others where you like the cut) have a go on eBay.

              1. Skippy

                Black slacks and skirts…. C – suite / boardroom “Habits” lool~

                skippy… austere and severe, yet, troublingly inciting, some men reduced to boyhood all over again…

      2. jonboinAR

        Wonderful story about your mother’s experience, Carla. I’m glad she had the good sense to make it through those hard times while getting an education. My (now deceased) mom described her family’s dealing with the depression as them all sticking together, living under one roof, sharing the small amounts that each was, hit or miss, able to bring in. I’ve tried something like that with my family. My wife and I have a fairly large house that we share with my daughter and son-in-law and their kids, trying to help them make it. I work. My wife works. My daughter works part time while going to school. It’s both a wonderful blessing to spend so much time with those you love and A TOTAL FRIGGIN’ HEADACHE!! LOL!

  8. abynormal

    Appreciate the Weave Yves…
    “Perelman outlines the many different policies through which peasants were forced off the land—from the enactment of so-called Game Laws that prohibited peasants from hunting…”

    Today, community farms are being dozed and its illegal to harvest rainwater in some states…we’re doomed.

  9. RN

    There is some subtle distinction to be made between three different variables – (1) low growth, (2) guarantee of minimum living wages and (3) perceptible inequailities in terms of income / wealth.
    I think low growth per se, does not matter as long as it does not translate into the other two

    1. ambrit

      I’m not so sanguine. So far, the elites have managed to make a period of reasonable growth, 1970s to today overall, one that produced perceptible inequality. How are they going to handle bad times?

  10. Ulysses

    “The inertial path is that reactionaries take charge.” This is why waiting for the right moment to fight back hard is always a losing strategy. Patience is a virtue only up to a certain point. I was very heartened to see people from all across the political spectrum denounce the militarization of local police that the Ferguson situation revealed. Yet I fear that in this, as in so many instances, the Republicrat duopoly will get away with the minimum of window-dressing required to run out the clock until the outrage dies down.

    In all honesty many of us, who are from families that have benefitted from this elitist system, could probably survive even more severe Orwellian stomping to the curb than we have already. There is a great temptation to retreat to one’s own little organic garden and try to weather the storm. We need to resist that temptation and organize ourselves to agitate, and to create alternatives to the current nightmare.
    “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
    –Frederick Douglass, 1857

    1. bruno marr

      Now that is thoughtful, forward thinking post. There is no safe haven, no retreat possible. We find a way to hang together or . . . (See B, Franklin).

    2. Calgacus

      @ Ulysses: Hear, hear. A lot of defeatism recently in the Teachout article and here. Often disguised as “realism” and “pragmatism”. But that is the attitude that oligarchs love in their subjects.

    3. WordisMorphing

      [“There is a great temptation to retreat to one’s own little organic garden and try to weather the storm. We need to resist that temptation and organize ourselves to agitate, and to create alternatives to the current nightmare.”]

      The irony is that the “alternative to the current nightmare” will [ultimately] involve most everyone getting their own little organic garden…
      However, you are right in implying how cowardly a retreat it would be should it remain unsupplemented by participation in a wise transformation of the political system…

      Needless to say though, your F. Douglass quote is very pertinent, and we should all heed it well.

      1. jrs

        A garden is going to be redistributed to me? Really though the point I’m making is everyone is unlikely to have one until land is redistributed.

        1. WorldisMorphing

          By [ultimately] I meant in the long run…

          Indeed, a land redistribution would be a good start to a wise transformation of the political system.

  11. Asher Miller

    I think the argument put forward here is a bit of a red herring. What many of us who warn about the end of growth believe is that while there are a great many questions about how we MANAGE contraction, the “if” or “should” question is largely irrelevant.

    “From what I can tell, the proponents of a no-growth future have sorely neglected the doctrinal side of their program. If they are right about where we are headed, they need to heed Shiller’s warning. The inertial path is that reactionaries take charge.”

    I wholeheartedly agree that we need to think hard and clear about the socio-political consequences of contraction collapse (where things will fall on that spectrum makes a big difference of course). Frankly, only second to the long term effects of climate change, a dark future of xenophobia, resource wars, and genocide is what keeps me up at night.

    So, we desperately need to have this conversation. I do think that promoting and modeling living in an ecologically appropriate scale are key — both because that is inevitably how we are going to need to live and because, if done right, these can offer an alternative value/world view to embrace. It would help if people understood that, ultimately, economic contraction (at least in terms of the current form of economic activity) is non-negotiable.

    1. ciwood

      Do you mind if I borrow your comment for all my future students?

      “It would help if people understood that, ultimately, economic contraction (at least in terms of the current form of economic activity) is non-negotiable.”

  12. HorizontalCat

    I think piece skips over one of the primary reasons that de-growth will be difficult. In pre-Industrial times, many communities shared a Commons, often more than one, from which its members could derive their sustenance. (See the work of Elinor Ostrom if you are unfamiliar with the concept, or start here.)

    Over time, they enacted a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support…

    In other words, wealthy men with weapons (feudal lords and later, agents the Market State) enclosed and otherwise stole the common wealth from the people. Restoring the concept of the Commons in Law, and restoring common pool resources to the Commons is an essential element of any strategy that will see our civilization survive.

    1. Ulysses

      Excellent point! Our wannabe lords and ladies of the emerging neo-feudal elite understand this, which is why they are busy destroying public education and libraries, community gardens, etc. They want us to have to come hat in hand to the manor house to beg for our sustenance. IMHO neo-feudal elites are at least as bad, if not worse, than the hereditary nobles of the old regime. At least some of the latter took a paternalist interest in the well-being of the people who lived in their realms. You won’t see David Koch feeling any shame that homeless people are starving, and dying of exposure in the city where he lives. Yet I’m sure he swells with pride when he sees his name on the theater at Lincoln Center, where other wealthy people can see it too.

      1. Adrienne

        “Our wannabe lords and ladies of the emerging neo-feudal elite understand this, which is why they are busy destroying public education and libraries, community gardens, etc. They want us to have to come hat in hand to the manor house to beg for our sustenance.”


    2. optimader

      “In pre-Industrial times, many communities shared a Commons,”

      There were also extraordinarily higher levels of violence

  13. Nate Hagens

    I agree there are many rooting for no growth without recognition of societal stability issues. The clear and present danger from declining benefits from fossil fuels (oil break even extraction costs for majors going from $10 to over $100 in last 12 years) is poverty – wider and deeper. Historically, people will want to hear simple stories of how that will be improved. The simple story is that fossil fuel extraction costs are to blame – the necessary response is a) that (more) people understand this and b) we change our lifestyles to better adapt to ‘less each year’ rather than more. This is not a wish, its a reality. Already since 2002 95% of Americans have less income (i.e. only the top 5% are making more). For most in OECD growth is already over. Talking about it is dangerous Yves, but necessary.

    The time to voluntarily leave the growth trajectory was 30-40 years ago. Now it’s leaving us. Sticking our heads in the sand is just ‘reactionary-lite’

    1. jonboinAR

      I believe we are adapting already to living with less, probably not adapting quickly enough, however. As I said above, my wife, myself, my son-in-law, daughter, and kids now share a roof. We’ve adapted to not being able to afford as much living space. I live in a rural community where it’s nearly a matter of honor or virility or something for men to drive humungous pickups. Yet I see more and more people in those modern econo-putt-putts that get such great mileage. Again, though, not enough, surely, to avoid an eventual oil shortage by a long shot.

      My sense, when times start to get hard, is that hoarding tends to increase, making times even harder for many. The only thing I think that might help us through true economic contraction without great tribulation is a spirit of sharing. That’s hard to foster under any… er,… uhh,… zeitgeist?, but especially ours which deliberately features so much the individual. So, sharing it is! Let’s increase sharing. How do we start?

  14. stephen

    I’m not sure I buy the premise. When the Tea Party rose, they were matched by the Occupy movement. In the Great Depression, the USA turned left (the New Deal). Spain went left in 1931. Even the NAZI party only got 33% of the vote in the final election they contested (November 1932), versus 36% for the left (Social Democrats and Communist combined).

      1. Nathanael

        See, that’s always the problem. The established noblemen tend to back the fascists. The fascists are in the long run bad for the noblemen, but the noblemen are idiots and don’t see this.

        1. jonboinAR

          The hippies tend to more directly oppose the noblemen perhaps, at least initially, while the fascists go first after the hippies, thereby, in the beginning, disarming the noblemen.

        2. digi_owl

          The fascists are about (their) social order, to hell with law etc.

          By this i mean that they have some set belief in how humans are to behave, and if you don’t you are unfit and unworthy. If big money backs them in this, they leave big money alone. But if not they will cut them down just as savagely as they go after any other “deviants”.

          In other words, fascists can be bother economic liberal and economic conservative. But they are first and foremost social conservatives. But conservatives with a solid streak of “might makes right”.

  15. Petey

    “My mother was 18 in 1929. While understanding well the brutality of the 1930s Depression, she also expressed many times a nostalgia for those years because, she told me, “We were all in it together, and we all helped each other.”

    I’d posit this was a highly unusual and highly contingent reaction to the full discrediting of the 12 year rule of the Republican party and laissez-faire by late 1932 / early 1933 crucially along with a new lefty populist President loudly willing to attack bankers and wealthy, reactionary interests while simultaneously promoting a “we’re all in it together” mentality.

    Most other 1930’s depression nations didn’t experience that highly contingent reaction, and thus didn’t experience the same “we’re all in it together” mentality that held supermajority sway in the US. Similarly, we don’t see this mentality in the US in the post-2008 depression.

  16. fresno dan

    There has been growth. But it the 0.1% siphon off 99% of it, there can never be enough “growth” to take care of the 99%.

    Now I do not dismiss those who leery of the government distributing income, wealth, resources. After all, they are doing that now (our “industrial policy of “free trade” – hows that working out for ya???), and it seems to me that they have made damn sure that their cronies and campaign contributors do not actually face the vaunted “free” market, which if profit if you are wealthy but all loss if you are poor. But people who are concerned about redistribution need to be challenged with facts, and the facts are that everything from patents, trademarks, trade policy, “free” trade, tax breaks, and on and on, is for the benefit of the wealthy.
    As I said, we have had growth – the reality is that the vast majority of it does not trickle down. I do not believe the rich are rich because it is God’s will. I think the predominant cause is K street lobbyists.
    But we will never get anywhere if we keep saying the problem is a lack of growth – if a man is drowning and you throw a bucket of water on him, your not solving the problem….

    1. economicminor

      I agree that the system is a mess. Redistributing the wealth is a small part of the problem as I see it Even the new slow growth being written about has been fueled by more debt. More debt when incomes to repay the debt we already had wasn’t there. Now we have more debt and even less income in comparison to the debt pyramid. So government, people and corporations all borrow to fill in the blanks. This is like a drug addict who shoots up more and more heroine to get clean.

      All this about redistributing wealth and having happy healthy communities is magical thinking at this point. The people of the US do not want to deal with our problems. We just want to blame the other party or the other race or the other gender or just something/someone else and never admit our inadequacies or about our own greed and hubris.

      When the pyramid of debt starts to collapse, and it will, as it has to because it can not possibly be repaid. Much of the wealth written about is leveraged. Much of it will just disappear. Many of our icons will just disappear too.

      Occupy, Ferguson and the Tea Party are all similar in that they represent distrust of a government that has no respect for the people that government was suppose to serve and protect.

      Maybe some how our society can get back to Peace and Harmony from here but as leveraged corporate consolidation has become almost monopolistic when the debt structure starts collapsing, what happens to these mega corporations with debts they can’t repay?

      1. Nathanael

        The “safe and comfy” way of eliminating the debt is basically to print money to pay it off. This results in inflation, which wipes out the fortunes of the rich. Works OK. Obviously the rich hate it and would prefer grinding, awful, life-destroying deflation.

        1. economicminor

          BUT we can’t print money under the current system without creating more debt… You first need to get rid of the FED and the debt based monetary system.. and good luck with that too!

  17. Cassiodorus

    Of course, “the economy” doesn’t exist separately from the world at large. Historical economies are not all the same because time moves in one direction, and so of course “growth” in our economy can’t be compared to “growth” in the economy of 18th century England.

    In the three centuries which separate us from them, the capitalist world-system has moved significantly to exhaust the world of the qualities (‘resources’) it has which can be appropriated. Moreover, technological progress in this era has not erected a new regime of easy, cheap resource appropriation to renew the vitality of the system. Please see the writings of Jason W. Moore on this matter.

    The reason why capitalist systems of all eras must “grow or die” is that said systems must all keep the working class afloat while creating the utopia of endless profit for the corporate ruling classes. No growth or zero growth means that one of these goals must be sacrificed to maintain progress toward the other goal.

    Capitalism today has been able to stay afloat despite four decades of declining global economic growth because it’s been able to cannibalize the massive growth that occurred during the Golden Age of Capitalism (1948-1971), because technical progress in the current period has instituted some limited amount of growth of its own (through for instance the Internet), and because it’s been able to move economic crises to other locations within the global economy. David Harvey has a lot of material on this last detail.

    The point of “degrowth” advocacy is not to advocate low or negative growth with all other things remaining the same. The point of “degrowth” advocacy is to explore a way to create an economy that serves human need rather than having to work first to service corporate bottom lines, and THEN and ONLY THEN to get out of the “growth” business before the world is completely exhausted of its potentials.

    1. Banger

      Good comment–capitalism is in its destructive stage now–resting on its laurels without caring at all for what follows–thus it is up to those of us who reject TINA to move the debate beyond capitalism, growth and “jobs.”

      1. Ulysses

        Yes, but this is a lot easier for someone to contemplate with savings in the bank, and a nice little pleasure farm in the Berkshire Hills, than it is for a school bus-driver in Queens barely able to afford school clothes for her kids.

        When I hear affluent “sustainability” advocates brag about eating only eggs from free-range chickens and supporting local farmers, I think that they are mostly fooling themselves. What they are doing has to be part of a much larger lifestyle change that not only respects the environment, but also the people who now work or shop at Wal-Mart. Letting our working class brothers and sisters wither and die from not so benign neglect is an effective, yet extremely inhumane, way to reduce our carbon footprint.

        Pawtucket, Rhode Island is a great example of what I’m talking about. Hasbro Toys used to make a lot of crap that nobody needed there. Now they make the same crap in China. It would probably be ecologically better for all of us if they just ceased to exist altogether. Yet I know personally many families there who were thrown out of a stable, secure life in manufacturing and now struggle to survive on crappy, inconsistent service-sector wages. They are all desperately trying to “re-train” in bait-and-switch schemes that give them degrees in “marketing” so as to better compete against other college graduates for a job stocking shelves at Home Depot, if they get that lucky.

        Not all of us can “follow our passion” and make a living writing about charming B&Bs in rural Scotland, or whatever. I’ll start taking my Sierra Club friends and relatives a lot more seriously– when I see them working as hard to stop union-busting as they do to protect the pristine environment on Block Island, where they have their multi-million dollar “cottages,” with nary a poor person in sight.

        A post-industrial, greener future will only work if we recover enough resources, from the kleptocrats who now hoard them, to build a better world for all. The simplest, most direct way to do this is to radically increase labor’s share of the global wealth. This means radical, international solidarity amongst workers to break the stranglehold of kleptocratic power.

        1. wbgonne

          IMO, there is no hope until labor and the Progressive Left merge. When Reagan got working class whites it was all over.

  18. Ignacio

    The unavoidable Great Deflationary era means we will see a rapid expansion of war and violence all over the world because humans fail to coordinate at greater scale than small tribe (lack of sufficient social evolution), and when society is conducted in a zero sum paradigm capital will always create conflict to keep the population in check (and even if the population got control, the beast would probably out of control).

    Yet the “cannot do math properly” crew of “addicted to growth” (and credit) cannot give a real solutions because a decoupling of nominal growth and consumption/waste and environment destruction has yet to happen even in the most developed nations, at a global scale.

    Either way we are fucked because humanity is composed by a majority of morons! The solution would have to come from coordinated (not centralized!) redistribution of resources in a fair and socially just way, but that’s currently an utopia so violence it will be.

    1. Nathanael

      “Either way we are fucked because humanity is composed by a majority of morons”

      This was pointed out as early as H G Wells, at least, who proposed changing the way people think. A problem still not solved.

  19. EmilianoZ

    We need to be fair to the Enclosure process. There is such a thing as the Tragedy of the Commons. It exists, you can observe it everyday with the office refrigerator or microwave. It’s maddening! It might well be that the land was being degraded by common use.

      1. Nate Hagens

        No, it wasn’t ‘debunked. There are many examples of effectively managed commons as Lin pointed out, but its the UNmanaged commons (oceans, biosphere, other species) that are the major problem, and for which tragedy still looms.

        1. Lambert Strether

          Well, that’s debunking, because the point is that common pool resources can be effectively managed and that is, as it were, a Comedy of the Commons, with a happy ending, not a Tragedy. See NC posts on the work of Elinor Ostrom on Common Pool Resources, which is not so much a debunking of Hardin’s thesis as a thorough stomping of it, here, here, and here.

      2. James Levy

        Historian chiming in here: the commons were administered collectively for hundreds of years without being degraded in the way any resource is today under capitalism. It wasn’t always fun living under the communal pressure not to screw up the common resources of the community (unless you found being thrown into the pillory or getting the snot beaten out of you fun). But we must remember that these communities believed that the commons were theirs, and their children’s, in a way the office fridge is not. Two centuries of conditioning have removed from most of us the ability to imagine what communal ownership was like. But there is no historical evidence that the common lands of Medieval and Early Modern Europe were constantly or systematically degraded and abused.

    1. backwardsevolution

      “It might well be that the land was being degraded by common use.”

      Yeah, that’s why they did it, to preserve the land. Riiiiiight! You need to read some history.

    1. Min

      Communities are your friends. Something that was understood even on the American frontier. You didn’t raise your barn by yourself.

    2. ambrit

      You are part of a group. The group is not a part of you. Simple hierarchy that has survived the test of time.

      1. impermanence

        The point of the group is to nullify individuality, particularly natural rights. Individuals within groups [leaders] co-opt the power of the group for their own interests thereby creating the various mechanisms which facilitate wealth and power accumulation.

        1. Skippy

          You really need to back up that kind of gross generalization with some facts, natural rights don’t count btw.

          skippy… economics is not a valid source imo.

            1. Skippy

              “Look out the nearest window.”

              Is that the low brow confirmation seeking definition of observer bias?

              “Most people are prepared to admit that we are influenced by our cultures in ways that we don’t understand. As a proverb puts it, the hardest thing for a fish to see is water. Part of the “water” of Victorian culture was an assumption of European superiority. Darwin was progressive for his time but even he was repelled by the “savages” of Tierra del Fuego. When Victorians attempted to view racial and cultural diversity through the new lens of evolutionary theory, some argued that the different races are different species, with Africans closer to the apes. Others argued that we are all one species but that cultural evolution runs along a single track, from savagery to civilization, so that the humane thing to do was make everyone else more like Europeans. Only in retrospect can we look back and see that not only are these theories wrong, but they don’t even follow straightforwardly from evolutionary theory.

              What is the water of our culture? I would like to nominate individualism. Individualism is the belief that individuals are somehow a privileged level of the biological hierarchy; that explanations framed in terms of individual action are somehow more “fundamental” than explanations framed in terms of social action; that individual self-interest is a grand explanatory principle that can explain all aspects of humanity. For many people, these beliefs seem like common sense. Water always does.

              It wasn’t always that way. Consider the following passage from the social psychologist Daniel Wegner:

              Social commentators once found it very useful to analyze the behavior of groups by the same expedient used in analyzing the behavior of individuals. The group, like the person, was assumed to be sentient, to have a form of mental activity that guides action. Rousseau (1767) and Hegel (1807) were the early architects of this form of analysis, and it became so widely used in the 19th and early 20th centuries that almost every early social theorist we now recognize as a contributor to modern social psychology held a similar view.

              Even in Darwin’s time, the Russian naturalist and social theorist Peter Kropotkin accused evolutionary theory of being biased by the individualism of British culture, which made competition seem more commonsensical than mutual aid. Even so, Wegner’s passage documents that something happened in the middle of the 20th century that made our culture even more individualistic than it was before. Margaret Thatcher’s notorious quip in 1987 that “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” would have boggled the minds of the Victorians!

              Against this background, when evolutionists rejected group selection in favor of “the theory of individual selection” in the 1960’s (see T&R IV), they were just swimming with the other fish. At roughly the same time, a position known as “methodological individualism” became dominant in the social sciences and radical individualism became the dominant position in economics. These parallel events did not take place because scientists were talking to each other across disciplines and changing their views in a coordinated fashion. Much as scientists might like to think otherwise, their formal theories were simply reflecting a larger cultural sea change.

              What exactly was this sea change? I would love to know the answer to this question and urge historians of culture and science to study it, or to contact me if they already have. Nazi Germany and the cold war with Communism probably had something to do with it. With Ayn Rand there was a direct connection, since she came from Russia and had a zeal for free-market economics that rivaled religious fundamentalism, as I recount in a chapter of Evolution for Everyone titled “Ayn Rand: Religious Zealot.” Another factor might have been the allure of reductionism; the belief that lower-level explanations are somehow more fundamental than higher-level explanations.” – David Sloan Wilson

              skippy… pro tip… humans are not atomistic…

  20. jgordon

    “From what I can tell, the proponents of a no-growth future have sorely neglected the doctrinal side of their program.”

    Let me put this in the proper frame: the negative growth future is already baked into the cake. Debating social theories about whether growth is good or bad isn’t an especially useful activity. Discussing strategies for managing degrowth intelligently, with as little pain for everyone as possible, would be productive and worthwhile.

    Additionally, to correct a misconception, the technologies and knowledge are currently available to allow degrowth while at the same time increasing people’s quality of life, if we chose to go that route. But the past few years of limitless fossil fuel energies have made people generally incurious about that kind of thing. And they’ve mistaken their incuriosity about alternatives with a lack of choice in their current living arrangement. But their are ways of living that would allow the planet earth to support 7 billion people sustainably, or 10 billion, or 20 billion for that matter. But the way we’re going about things now, extinction is in the offing.

    Regardless, the most fantastic and impressive technology to come out of the twentieth century, the technology that will aid and preserve mankind in the generations ahead, should their be generations ahead, is the knowledge and techniques we’ve developed to farm the land while building, rather than destroying, soil and soil fertility. Their near time extinction of most of humanity could possibly avoided, or at least largely mitigated, if such techniques were more widespread.

    1. Banger

      Your point about technology is often missing from this sort of debate. We do have the technology to do as you say but it has been actively suppressed by the elites and the more orthodox academics who are skeptical of anything not at hand or published in mainstream journals and media.

    2. backwardsevolution

      jgordon – “But their are ways of living that would allow the planet earth to support 7 billion people sustainably, or 10 billion, or 20 billion for that matter.”

      Do you want to go there? Because what happens when we get to 20 billion? Whoops! For crying out loud, is there never a point where people say “enough”? Can we actually have some dialogue about reducing the population WHILE we improve technology?

  21. Left in Wisconsin

    Isn’t the key difference for peasants then compared to now that back then a peasant could live a decent life out of commodified capitalism, whereas that seems impossible now? And wouldn’t a guaranteed basic income recreate that possibility? If we truly had such a thing, I could envision millions of Americans getting off the treadmill. I’m not convinced that most people really crave more than good food, shelter and conviviality. Many (most?) are on the treadmill because they don’t have even these, or at least not in any way that is stably guaranteed.

    1. susan the other

      Yes, I think so. For the last 4 or 5 decades the joke has been, Yes you are free in America – free to starve to death.

  22. Min

    In industrialized societies, economic growth has allowed those who are able to do so to skim off the top, while leaving enough for those on the bottom to improve their lot. When growth has slowed, those on the bottom have suffered, leading to social and political unrest. If, because of environmental limits, slow growth is the future, we have to learn how to deal with that. One scenario is a return to feudal or caste societies, which is unappealing.

    However, for the past 30 to 40 years, in the US and other advanced economies economic growth on the top has coexisted with stagnation on the bottom. That is not ideal, but it does mean that many or most people have learned to live with slow economic growth. The people who will have to adjust to a slow growth future are those on the top.

    1. Garrett Pace

      PS: “But that also meant that, absent war, pestilence, natural disasters, and famine, societies were stable.”

      Modern societies have done a lot to reduce the possibility of those things, with uneven results. Dealing with some types of instability, they have introduced other kinds.

    2. Nathanael

      Egypt was actually super-stable even during the periods when its government wasn’t.

      Three harvests a year helps. A lot. Egypt was, in material terms, far richer than anywhere else in the entire world.

  23. Ignacio

    There are left-wing alternatives that assume that economic growth can decouple from physic growth. I have seen many, lots of comments in this blog that are sympathetic to decoupling ideas and indicate that many want a change to “sustainable growth” in which “wealth” can be created by reducing our dependence on fossil or nuclear fuels, by improving the management of wastes, and by developing more environmentally-friendly industrial and agricultural practices. You can create a lot of economic wealth by arbitrarily setting higher values to these activities. At last, economy is arbitration. Some of this stuff has been started but it is still in its infancy and we aren’t yet taxing pollution enough (or more positively, pricing clean water/atmosphere high).

    So there musn’t be a conflict between economic growth and antipathy against physical growth. You can go beyond and value economically human well being, not as the number of things you can buy or possess but with new definitions on the living standards that include health, lack of stress, and values other than physical posessions. Overconsumptiom, overpossession and stress should be taxed much much higher.

    Some of this is occuring and one od the consequences of the crisis is that many have changed their mind on how they measure their prosperity.

  24. Jack King

    The one percenters will be OK with no growth. But just like people who are just now emerging from poverty in countries like China and the Asia Tigers, the middle class in this country will want and expect their standard of living to continue to expand….as it has for the past 200 years.

    1. Banger

      I believe that expectation has considerably lessened in the past few years. What replaces it will be interesting to see.

  25. Steven

    I could throw out so many clichés it would fill terabytes. But how about this one: Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
    Albert Einstein
    That’s what you are doing when you attempt to solve social problems created by the immense pools of ‘hot money’ free to roam the world looking for ‘the next big thing’ (or in Lloyd Blankfein’s words “doing God’s work”). For those who already have more money than they could spend in several lifetimes, “doing God’s work” is not the name of the game. It is accumulating ever more money so your power and social status will not be overwhelmed by the exponential increase of the monetary fortunes of those beneath you who have paid more attention to ‘the score’ in the money game.

    Their biggest impediment to immediately increasing their ‘score’ is not the sustainability of the ‘chessboard’ on which their Great Games are played out but the viability of any opponent in the game with the potential to hold down their score. So long as they or their agents are in charge of world affairs, their great monetary wealth will (in fact MUST, fiduciary responsibility and all) be used ‘to win’, whatever that entails. The problem for people with more money than they need at the moment is finding people who have less than they need. That is why the world must be kept poor at all costs, the possibilities of advances in science and technology notwithstanding.

    War is the best guarantee for insuring that general poverty persists or is restored when the best efforts of the Money Power fail to insure the economic possibilities of modern technology are sabotaged. That’s what Frederick Soddy meant here: “Capitalism-starting out to rebuild the world with the inanimate power, of which human “sweat of the brow” is merely an insignificant bye-product, and ending by turning that power to the destruction of what it has created.”

  26. Jim Haygood

    ‘A factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours.’

    This sounds mythical to me. It implies that living standards could be the same without specialization, mechanization, automation.

    Sure, we could all make our own soap, our own shoes, our own clothes, our own beer. And live in adorable thatched huts at the edge of the forest …

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You need to read Perelman’s book. It is quite clear that peasants in pre-industrial England and Scotland did very little work and had lots of leisure. Tons of writings at the time deploring that.

      I studied the history of that period in depth in college. It is unquestionable that living standards and incomes fell among the working classes in the first generation or two after industrialization began. You forget that 1. The early factories could have been very inefficient (we didn’t get Taylorism till a century plus later), 2. Steps in the supply chain, with the profits to each exceeding any benefit of greater efficiency, which leads to 3. Whatever benefits of greater efficiency there were in the early industrial era accrued entirely to the rentiers, and consisted in large measure of the exploitation of labor.

      1. Vatch

        Here’s a link to booksellers who have or are able to get people a copy of The Invention of Capitalism:

        Or use your public library. Even if it isn’t in your library’s collection, your librarians can get the book by inter-library loan. Many people don’t realize that their local library has access to hundreds of thousands of books that aren’t visible on the shelves.

      2. Jack King

        “It is quite clear that peasants in pre-industrial England and Scotland did very little work and had lots of leisure.”

        Interesting…how did they survive?

        1. Vatch

          I think they were very busy when they had to plant their crops, and a few months later at harvesting time, but in between, they really did have some leisure.

          1. Ulysses

            There’s no need to over-romanticize here. Medieval peasants and townsfolk enjoyed a considerable amount of leisure time, yes. Yet even on a day where a lot of time was spent dancing around the Maypole, drinking ale and otherwise cavorting, there was still work to be done. Weaving, sewing, repairing farm implements, shoeing horses, storing mead in the cellar, etc. Winter months meant less outdoor work, but also shorter rations.

            There are still a few peasant farmers left in parts of France and Italy. Hanging out in the southern Italian countryside I definitely did appreciate the much slower, pre-modern pace of life!!

            1. James Levy

              We have to keep in mind that the period right before the Industrial Revolution (say the mid-1730s on) was reaping the fruits of an agricultural revolution in better seeds and improved rotation systems, plus an unusual positive turn in the weather after the end of the “mini ice age” that had preceded this time. Also, the population explosion that one would have expected lagged considerably and didn’t really manifest itself until the 1790s (which is when Malthus noticed it). So if you were an English rural inhabitant you experienced rising wages, more abundant food, and a stronger bargaining position for about two generations before things started to go south in the 1790s (which led to the Speenhamland System that Polanyi found so important). Luckily for the early Capitalists, they cashed in on the excess population in the countryside looking for any kind of work.

            2. Nathanael

              FWIW, nomads (herders) generally had even more leisure time than farmers. Hunter-gatherers have even *more* leisure time — they work a couple of hours a day.

              Both were shoved out of most of the world by the rapacious demands for land of the farmers, who were having bazillions of children thanks to all the calories they were eating.

              It all gets back to population. The larger-birth-rate group seems to win (evolution in action) until it overruns its food source and collapses (standard boom-bust cycle in ecology)…

      3. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Jarrod Diamond wrote something similar – post-Agricultural Revolution, people got sicker and shorter.

        So, hunter-gatherers lost a bit in becoming farmers.

        And farmers lost a little more in becoming workers.


      4. optimader

        It was also more violent:

        “..That’s another whole subject by itself; the reason I mention it here is that I was surprised by the general conviction, in the New York audience for the panel, that violence is increasing in America and that violence levels are higher today than they were in the past. To the contrary, looking at homicide rates, the rates in medieval and early modern Europe were five to 10 times as high as they are in modern America. We’re significantly higher than contemporary Europe and Japan (who watch American “violent” television shows, by the way)–a little above five per 100,000 in the United States today, compared to about one per 100,000 in Europe and Japan–but we still live in the most peaceful era in the history of the West, at least where private violence is concerned. Indeed, there’s so little criminal violence in America compared to the historic past that people, looking around for some explanation for school shootings, etc., see the Three Stooges bopping each other on TV and think that must be the explanation…”

    2. Steven

      You’ve forgotten the old Marxian ‘surplus value’ thing, though this is an interesting twist. Assume a pair of shoes could be made by state of the art machinery of the time at a cost of 30 seconds of human labor. So under the Marxian scheme of things the capitalist could squeeze 2 hours, 59 minutes and 30 seconds of surplus value out of his ‘laboring cattle’. But what if because the laboring cattle had forgotten how to shod itself the shoe manufacturer now had a monopoly and could add on another 2 (8, 10, 18 hour) days of ‘surplus value’ that weren’t there before the invention of all the labor-saving shoe-making equipment? (think fast foods)

      1. Steven

        To which let me add, “to error is human; to screw up big time it takes a machine – and big mistakes are easier to catch” (or in English, I think I would prefer the machine-made shoes).

    3. Oregoncharles

      Village cultures included far more specialization than is implied in that quote – for instance, there would have been a village shoemaker. He (they – usually a family) would also have had some land.

    4. Hobbes

      Sounds mythical to me, too. Perhaps it’s true that the average medieval Man had leisure time, but the average Woman? no. For starters, most women during this period spent most of their child bearing years either pregnant, breast-feeding, miscarrying, or burying a still-born. In point of fact, though, life was brutal for both sexes; those complaints about the peasants’s laziness were made by the elite class (who else had access to literacy?) in order to reinforce the social order and to “naturalize” it.

    1. Rz wood

      Pardon, Pepsi, but right off in that link comes the desolation: “It had been one of the chief heresies of the Middle Ages, but after it had finally been wiped out in Montaillou between 1318 and 1324 it disappeared completely from French territory.” Pardon if this was your meta-message.
      And this “nature” of lawnorder (mowing the grass) is a virulent vomitus that we are more than semi-conscious of (re: lockdown nation). The rentier classes squishing their lessees of life and limb seem to be satisfied that less life and more squishing is a fine balance. They have a way of organizing their exceptional ism, of finding recruits thirsting for blood droppings. And woe to our heresies of capitalist squids and their minions.
      Us’ns need to surge toward a resistance that has a density of might as well of the rightness we are sure of.

      1. Pepsi

        The crusades against various heresies in southern France and Italy seemed to be more about power consolidation of temporal lords, but I’m no expert, I’ve only started to read about them.

        But, no, I wasn’t making a point about that, the book is just a really great reference to a way of life that’s no longer permitted.

        1. JerseyJeffersonian

          A very interesting book: Robert Briffault – The Troubadours. Music, interaction between Moorish Spain & Provence, the Albigensian Crusades. All this & much more.

        2. Min

          The Albigensians were extremely dualistic, believing that everything earthly was bad, including sex. The crusade against them happened when a lot of noble women were converting and refusing to have sex with their husbands. (The husbands could probably have little trouble getting sex elsewhere, but there was a problem with getting heirs.)

  27. LifelongLib

    To EmilianoZ (not sure this is going to end up in the right place), at my office people are delegated to take care of the “common” micrwave and refridgerator. They stay clean.

    The historical commons lasted a long time, and they were not a free-for-all, but areas whose usage was regulated by well-understood tradition.

  28. Walt Guthrie

    Yasha Levine writes, “Perelman outlines the many different policies through which peasants were forced off the land . . .”
    For a twentieth-century equivalent please see Michael Pollan’s “Omnivores Dilemma,” (pp. 47-56). Pollan writes, “Beginning with the populist revolt of the 1890s, farmers had made common cause with the labor movement, working together to check the power of corporations.” Farmers were a refractory population for both Washington and Wall Street. So farm policies were changed under Nixon and Earl Butz “that would loose ‘a plague of cheap corn’ on the nation,” force farm consolidation and radically reduce the number of farmers.

  29. susan the other

    Thank you for such good food for thought, Yves. I’m always inclined to say Just chuck capitalism and go New Environmentalism. Which in my mind will be socialism with an ideology incorporating and going beyond human societies. A new ideology will work when it benefits a certain threshold of converts. Capitalism dished out enough money to keep itself alive for centuries. Capitalism was a money making machine. It was a money factory. Think about it. Capitalism made lots of money. Clever. But it cannot do that now because the planet is exhausted. The benefits of becoming keepers of the planet need to be made clear and jobs doing that stuff, I could think up at least a hundred just sitting here now, need to be rewarded. Money is not the thing. Money is just the reward for doing the thing. Environmentalism can print money too. No sweat. It is taking the idea of money to the next step since right now the whole idea of money and value is locked inside a half-baked ideology of profit, which is – ta da! – money itself. We all seem to know that the profits we have taken have led to our undoing lately and have become the opposite of profit – huge indebtedness to the environment and each other.

    1. Jack King

      “Capitalism made lots of money. Clever. But it cannot do that now because the planet is exhausted. ”

      Not really. Note the following resource base:

      Aluminum 1070 years
      Copper 740
      Iron 890
      Lead 610
      Nickel 530
      Silver 730
      Tin 760
      Zinc 730

      Source: Limits To Growth: The 30 year Update; p. 105

      1. Rosario

        Three immediate problems:

        A) I hope that list (and source) is accurate.
        B) 1070 years is a fixed amount of time.
        C) We don’t just need metals to survive.

        This is not sustainable thinking. That is the whole point of the slow growth/no growth crowd, right or wrong.

        1. Jack King

          Looking centuries into the future we will be pulling rocks off the moon and asteroids. The list was not meant to be exhaustive but rather illustrative. As far as energy sources, peak oil keeps getting pushed back as we find new exotic ways of extracting it. But eventually as supplies diminish the price will be so high that only the very wealthy could afford it. That will spur new technologies that will replace it. In reality, when looking back at the stream of time, the fossil fuel era will just be barely a blip on the radar.

      2. JerseyJeffersonian

        Those metals mean nothing without the energy sources to extract, refine, & value add to those initial processes. Sure you have thought that part through are we? How about the often neglected environmental externalities of air & water pollution, & toxic byproducts? Factored all of that in there, too?

  30. Larry

    Perhaps it’s because I’m reading one of his books, but I’m going to bring up points of Michael Hudson here.

    1. The United States has experienced tremendous productivity growth since the industrial revolution. Workers no longer share in the fruits of these gains. Instead we toil ever more to increasingly service debt, which is eating away at the productivity gains we have made. In addition, capitalists have aligned the State to defeat labor, further assuring under compensation for work done. Gailbrath thought we would be living a life of very high leisure by this time. We are not and that is a shame. There is no reason so many people should work so much.

    2. Our growth models are ultimately flawed and need to be reoriented if we’re simply to survive. We cannot continue to outstrip the needs of nature. Feckless building and production at the cost of damaging and expiring closed source resources will do us well in the here and now with growth, but completely undermine us in the not so distant future. It’s nice that we have grass in deserts, but is that really the best use of water?

    3. People who are wishing for a low or slow growth model are really just wishing for a change in how our system runs now. We know we work too much and pay far too much in debt service. We need to change those things, and naturally see economic slow down due to run off of constrained supplies to be the way to do that. We need to reimagine what economic growth is if we’re to persist in a sane world.

  31. Jon Doe

    This article is chocked with so much truth. Capitalism fosters values that go against the very laws that we create to build strong and healthy communities. The problem that I see is that people are afraid to create a better system because they fear failure and think that our industry tycoons know what is best for us. We have created a culture of passive acceptance of whatever we are handed. We have to shed our fear and begin developing a better kind of civilization, one that takes our environment into account. Unfettered capitalism will not only destroy this planet but also our spirits.

    1. Ulysses

      “We have to shed our fear and begin developing a better kind of civilization,” Very well said!

      Yet how can we imagine that better civilization? In the 19th and early 20th centuries there were lots of good writers producing utopian fiction. Nowadays? Not so much. At least, according to Adam Sternbergh:

      “Many serious contemporary authors have tackled dystopia: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and so on. But the closest thing we have to a contemporary Utopian novel is what we could call the retropia: books like Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (about a funky throwback Oakland record store) or Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (about 1970s Brooklyn) that fondly recall a bygone era, by way of illustrating what we’ve lost since — “the lost glories of a vanished world,” as Chabon puts it. Lethem’s more recent Dissident Gardens is also concerned with utopia, but mostly in so far as it gently needles the revolutionaries of yesteryear.

      The reasons for a complete lack of serious Utopias are self-evident: How would you even pull one off? The very notion of a straight-faced Utopia seems inherently naïve, and jarringly at odds with a current cultural mood that mixes meta-ennui with ironic remove. As a writer, how do you begin to imagine a perfect world? And how would you seriously champion it, without being laughed at, culturally excommunicated, or written off as some sort of wannabe cult leader? Intriguingly, the sharp-eyed novelist/futurist Cory Doctorow is working on a novel titled, simply, Utopia, even as we speak — though further investigation (basically, a nosy email to Doctorow) reveals that the work in progress is a something closer to a dystopian vision of “a post-scarcity society.”
      It seems like most Utopian thinking these days is coming from hi-tech hucksters hawking their wares:
      “In fact, there exists no more essential example of pure, uncut Utopian magical thinking than a typical 30-second Jony Ive spiel on an ad for a new iPad. (“When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical…”)”

      1. economicminor

        Shed our Fear? It isn’t fear but dogma. We have planned and regulated and taxed ourselves into this and our government who is suppose to represent the people represents those who have enough money to fund not only campaigns but sell the ideology of growth, which benefits themselves. Changing this system is like trying to fight windmills with wooden swords from the back of a lame camel.

        1. Jon Doe

          I agree that the phantom commodity known as money has taken disproportionate influence over our governments. I think an important step to transitioning to a better civilization is doing away with it.

      2. Jon Doe

        Very good point, I think an important first step to building a better world might be not calling it Utopia. We do not know if Utopia exists. What we do know is that this global civilization that is our own is in many ways similar to a machine; perhaps we cannot build the “final” machine but we can use the flaws of this machine to carefully and methodically build a better one. And if we build enough better machines over time, we will eventually at best have a world better in all ways than our current one or at worst have a world whose flaws are much more acceptable.

      3. lambert strether

        Ulysses: Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time. A completely serious utopia, and a very good novel, to boot. Highly recommended.

        1. Oregoncharles

          Yes. Piercy is a favorite of mine. Have you seen “He, She, It”? More of a dystopia, really. written in the 90’s, it’s set in our near future. It’s prophecy for the Middle East is hair raising – and looks more likely every day.

  32. Oregoncharles

    The end of growth isn’t optional; it’s probably already here. It’s also the title of a crucial book by Richard Heinberg – there’s a lot in there about finance, too, that would fit well on these pages.

    So we’re going to have to figure out how to deal with it equitably. Fatalism isn’t an option. For that reason, it’s a bit shocking to post an article on the subject without mentioning Herman Daly and CASSE:
    That’s where people are thinking about it.

    There’s also the Transition Towns movement – try a search; it’s a moving target I can’t keep up with, dealing with the same challenge on a direct, local, permacultural level.

  33. abynormal

    revamped ‘Hair’ song…

    The Age Of Austerity

    We’re at the dawning of an age of austerity
    Age of austerity

    When our credit cards are all maxed out
    And real estate has gone a’bust
    Then Sam cranks up his printing press
    He thinks
    He must.

    We’re at the dawning of an age of austerity
    Age of austerity

    Ever rising fearful voices
    Growing lists of lousy choices
    Anger and misunderstandings
    In a world of faux misbrandings
    Endless phony estimations
    To save trashed out reputations

    Watch the pain spread, Watch the pain spread out
    The pain spread out.
    Watch the pain spread, Watch the pain spread out
    The pain spread out.
    Watch the pain spread, Watch the pain spread out
    The pain
    Spread out!
    ~Michael Silverstein

  34. TG

    How did peasants get forced to become wage slaves? Ultimately it’s all about demographics.

    As Benjamin Franklin wrote even before Malthus, when there is plenty of land and few people, farmers can just work for themselves and live off the land. When there is little land relative to people, rentiers and plantation owners dominate and most workers are forced into wage slavery. Because nobody beats the law of supply and demand.

    After the black death cut the population of europe and held it there, the peasantry did great – the standard of living was better than most workers in ‘modern’ third world countries. And landed estates with indifferent management went bankrupt.

    That’s why the rich want populations to keep growing – because they need too many people and too few resources to keep their profits high, and in the long run, even to keep their status as being rich.

    But ‘liberals’ have been brainwashed into believing that talking about demographics is ‘racism’. And the elites in Iran are banning contraception and igniting a new population explosion, half the population of India is chronically malnourished and wealthy billionaires say that is great (‘people are the ultimate resource’, and so on and so forth, the rich get a free pass to breed us as if we were cattle, and drive the world into the most dismal wage-slavery. So it’s really our fault for not having the moral courage to face reality and stand up to their propaganda and slander.

  35. WordisMorphing

    Jeremy Grantham, Chief Investment Strategist of GMO Capital In his 2Q 2010 letter.
    Failure to Appreciate the Impossibility of Sustained Compound Growth:

    [“I briefly referred to our lack of numeracy as a species, and I would like to look at one aspect of this in greater detail: our inability to understand and internalize the effects of compound growth. This incapacity has played a large role in our willingness to ignore the effects of our compounding growth in demand on limited resources. Four years ago I was talking to a group of super quants, mostly PhDs in mathematics, about finance and the environment. I used the growth rate of the global economy back then – 4.5% for two years, back to back – and I argued that it was the growth rate to which we now aspired. To point to the ludicrous unsustainability of this compound growth I suggested that we imagine the Ancient Egyptians (an example I had offered in my July 2008 Letter) whose gods, pharaohs, language, and general culture lasted for well over 3,000 years. Starting with only a cubic meter of physical possessions (to make calculations easy), I asked how much physical wealth they would have had 3,000 years later at 4.5% compounded growth. Now, these were trained mathematicians, so I teased them: “Come on, make a guess. Internalize the general idea. You know it’s a very big number.” And the answers came back: “Miles deep around the planet,” “No, it’s much bigger than that, from here to the moon.” Big quantities to be sure, but no one came close. In fact, not one of these potential experts came within one billionth of 1% of the actual number, which is approximately 1057, a number so vast that it could not be squeezed into a billion of our Solar Systems. Go on, check it. If trained mathematicians get it so wrong, how can an ordinary specimen of Homo Sapiens have a clue? Well, he doesn’t. So, I then went on. “Let’s try 1% compound growth in either their wealth or their population,” (for comparison, 1% since Malthus’ time is less than the population growth in England). In 3,000 years the original population of Egypt – let’s say 3 million – would have been multiplied 9 trillion times! There would be nowhere to park the people, let alone the wealth. Even at a lowly 0.1% compound growth, their population or wealth would have multiplied by 20 times, or about 10 times more than actually happened. And this 0.1% rate is probably the highest compound growth that could be maintained for a few thousand years, and even that rate would sometimes break the system. The bottom line really, though, is that no compound growth can be sustainable. Yet, how far this reality is from the way we live today, with our unrealistic levels of expectations and, above all, the optimistic outcomes that are simply assumed by our leaders. Now no one, in round numbers, wants to buy into the implication that we must rescale our collective growth ambitions.
    I was once invited to a monthly discussion held by a very diverse, very smart group, at which it slowly dawned on my jet-lagged brain that I was expected to contribute. So finally, in desperation, I gave my first-ever “running out of everything” harangue (off topic as usual). Not one solitary soul agreed. What they did agree on was that the human mind is – unlike resources – infinite and, consequently, the intellectual cavalry would always ride to the rescue. I was too tired to argue that the infinite brains present in Mayan civilization after Mayan civilization could not stop them from imploding as weather (mainly) moved against them. Many other civilizations, despite being armed with the same brains as we have, bit the dust or just faded away after the misuse of their resources. This faith in the human brain is just human exceptionalism and is not justified either by our past disasters, the accumulated damage we have done to the planet, or the frozen-in-the-headlights response we are showing right now in the face of the distant locomotive quite rapidly approaching and, thoughtfully enough, whistling loudly.”]

  36. Jim Shannon

    Population is the driver of modern day economics. Population determines the size of the “Market” necessary to provide those goods and services!
    Americans are driven by capitalists who have created an insatiable want for more of everything. Needs are too frequenlty easily attained by the 10% who already own everything worth owning, and tell the rest of us how to think and what to believe!
    Clearly the corruption of the Financial Markets have destroyed our collective futures as millions lost jobs and the ability to cunsume. Underconsumptionism is now the last card of destruction being played by Corporations who sit on $Trillions in cash or use that cash to buy back the stock already owned by the 10%, or merge to eliminate even more jobs. Governments sit and do nothing as the people suffer! All economic data coming from government is pure fiction.
    Wall Street’s stealing from main street with no push back by the electorate is a national and world wide tradegy.

    1. psychohistorian

      I agree with your emphasis on population growth.
      This is one of the key elements of association to “economic” growth.

      Because the Western world is ruled by Xtianity, there can be no discussion nor social policy relating to population control. It was a door slammed shut back in the early 1970’s when serious “Future Studies” were also stopped in the Western world.

      I think this helped feed the crazy we have now. We all just don’t have enough faith…..grin

  37. gordon

    I thought that inadequate growth and the consequential impoverishment led to Leftish movements. Americans might remember the New Deal, which got FDR re-elected twice. It must have been popular. The Russian Revolution isn’t regarded generally as a right-wng phenomenon, nor is the French Revolution. Immiseration in Germany caused by WWI led to widespread Marxist revolts and the Social Democratic proclamation of a Republic.

    To my mind, lurches to the Right in circumstances of falling living standards and impoverishment arise from a fear of that growing Left influence. They are in the nature of a counter-revolution. There are quite a few examples in Latin America – I suppose Chile is the classic. Perhaps the best-known is the German Nazi Party, which succeeded in capturing power in the aftermath of the Great Depression after bitter street fights with Socialists, a very successful propaganda campaign and doing a deal with the Army. There are examples of failed counter-revolutions too, of course, like the Austro-Prussian attempt to reverse the French Revolution (1792) and the US/European support of the anti-Bolshevik “Whites” in revolutionary Russia.

    So I can’t entirely agree that as Yves concludes “The inertial path is that reactionaries take charge”. I think the “inertial path” is that there is a Leftward movement which may or may not be overwhelmed by the Right.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      If you look at historical examples, the leftist threat during the Depression in the US is an anomaly and was in large measure successful due to the fresh example of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. That made it way more credible and scary to TPTB.

      1. Nathanael

        I don’t see it as an anomaly at all, and I’ve looked at a lot of history.

        A little less than half the time, the left-wingers succeed in massacring the upper classes and redistributing the wealth. (After that, usually some of them turn out to be not-so-left-wing and hijack the revolution as a new upper class, but still — from the point of view of the upper classes, the left-wing threat was real.)

        What is an anomaly (in the US in the 1930s) is the upper classes actually recognizing the threat and making efforts to appease it. Usually they have their heads in the sand until their heads are chopped off.

        1. gordon

          Perhaps what is really worrying Yves is the weakness of the Left in both the US and Europe. There have been plenty of spontaneous Leftish demonstrations in both places (I’m thinking of Greece, Spain, Italy to some extent, and the Occupy movement), but no effective political organisation. Where established parties have tried to capture this feeling (eg. Obama’s 2008 campaign, Hollande), they have garnered votes but failed to fulfil their promises – or at least failed to act as many expected them to do.

          On both sides of the Atlantic, the Left as an organised movement seems to have been in retreat since the 1970s. I’m not going to try to explain that in a blog comment, even if I thought I could. We have all seen the result; a triumphant Right dominating all major parties, becoming more and more confident in suppressing or manipulating news and discourse, sometimes frankly suppressing free speech, violently repressing spontaneous and disorganised opposition, swelling the ranks of all kinds of police, militarising political discourse, using race politics freely to divide and confuse the opposition, reinterpreting history, and so on. To readers of economic/finance oriented blogs, the abandonment of National goals defined in terms of popular welfare or prosperity in favour of National goals defined in terms of victory over ill-defined, shadowy but always-threatening and “foreign” enemies must seem most strange and sinister.

          1. wbgonne

            I am moderately optimistic that the American Left is on the verge and may awaken under the next president, whether it is a Republican or Hillary Clinton. While history has shown what a mistake it was, many people placed their hopes in Obama and Obama hijacked the emergent Leftist energy (leaving the Tea Party to fill the vaccuum). I think people continue to awaken more and more, yet we are still in the baffled-handwringing stage, not quite sure what has gone wrong or what can be done. The anger is rising though and the next president won’t have confusion or mass delusion to confound a people who are beginning to see through the lies and the tricks. That’s my mildly optimistic take.

  38. Rosario

    I enjoyed the essay and find it truthful, but do we agree that our problem is one of ideology not application, policy, politics? I don’t see this as a left versus right problem so much as an intellectual deadlock. The left can’t define itself any more than the right can. Take away most of the boorishness and ignorance of the Tea Party and you get the same amount of directionless angst as OWS despite broader “political” support. Remove the “Vanguardism” (I don’t know a better term for celebrity leftist/Marxist/Anarchist academic support) of OWS and you get a different flavor of ignorance and boorishness from the Tea Party with a nod from “class conscious” politicians. Of course, reactionaries (the 1%, whatever), will try to maintain their power at all costs, but what is interesting is the ideological system does all the work for them. The global elite have learned a great deal from the European imperial struggles of the twentieth century, most importantly, your operating ideology cannot appear to be an ideology. Most disturbingly, this model operates best the more politicians, capitalists, the elite contradict themselves intellectually (see ISIS, Ukraine, post-2008 economics, Neo-Imperialism, on and on). No one knows what target to shoot at or even if there is a target. I’m betting the revolution, if it comes, will be a great cerebral revolution. Physical coercion is already at its limit but the mind is being kept dormant by fear and sadly the hope that the answer will be just around the corner. Our work is set out for us, we just have to pick up our tools.

    1. economicminor

      “I’m betting the revolution, if it comes, will be a great cerebral revolution. Physical coercion is already at its limit but the mind is being kept dormant by fear and sadly the hope that the answer will be just around the corner.”

      The elites have the best marketers and psychologists to devise their dogma to keep the masses under their influence and now a large army made up of local and state police who have taken their training. The mind of the majority is kept distracted by Gladiator Sports and high fructose corn syrup and fed garbage that they have neither the time nor intellect to unravel. I personally do not expect a cerebral revolution. Maybe the age of Aquarius is finally dawning and I just haven’t seen the light yet.

      And hope is always just around the corner isn’t it… Along with fear of everything from drought, inflation, terrorism, radiation from Fukishima, war with Ukraine and ISIS.

      1. Nathanael

        If there’s one thing I know about marketing, it’s that people adapt to it; it doesn’t have the same effect later that it did to start with. This is a generational thing.

        The elites are morons. They are losing. They don’t even recognize that they’re losing, which is the real problem.

        One problem is that they’ve drunk their own Kool-Aid — they believe the lies which their parents and grandparents were trying to sell to the masses. A historical example: Louis XVI’s generation actually seemed to believe in the divine right of kings, while Louis XIII would never have believed such nonsense (though he happily spread the propaganda).

  39. RanDomino

    Capitalism demands infinite growth, because investment requires new sources of land, labor, technology, etc. When these are used up, investment becomes impossible, and capitalism falls apart.

  40. Nathanael

    “From what I can tell, the proponents of a no-growth future have sorely neglected the doctrinal side of their program.”

    Sigh. I’ve been doing my bit to spread the sensible doctrines. It’s hard to break the mental grip of old doctrines, though.

  41. bob goodwin

    Entering the end of the dialog to avoid seeming trollish.

    One thing that differentiates ideologies is your set of assumptions that you use to frame your life, expectations and observations. Tech folks tend to see opportunities, liberal arts folks tend to see failures. There are lots of both.

    But the key factor 1800-2000 that differentiates us from the past is massive increase in wealth per capita across the globe (bursty and unfair growth, but massive) 8X in the 19th century 10X in the 20th century.

    What I do not understand is the common assumption that growth In wealth will stop, and that growth in population will continue. My analysis shows the opposite in both cases, because our ability to harvest energy seems not to be naturally bounded either by resources or technology. I know we are in a period of transition, but I am looking long term. Similarly I see none of the factors that drove population growth persisting (offspring as a store of wealth), and this is pretty consistently demonstrated with global patterns. I am hesitant to proclaim a prediction, but am puzzled by the near universal perception on both counts within popular culture (but clearly not perceived universally amongst engineering types)

    1. ambrit

      As one who has the knack of tripping over the wires that open the trapdoor to Moderationland, I would say; look for your comment to show up on your screen with the words “Your comment is in moderation” at the head. If your comment just disappears, it has been eaten by the bloggland boogeyman.

  42. Felix FitzRoy

    Surprised to see the Easterlin Paradox ignored by Yves (and Ben Friedman and most comments): growth in rich countries does NOT raise average happiness or life satisfaction , although rich people are somewhat happier than poor . But when basic needs have been met, income alone has very small influence on LS.
    The problem is that when growth slows down, unemployment rises, and unemployment is one of the biggest causes of unhappiness. So work sharing and the state as employer of last resort, or perhaps an adequate basic income for all to remove the hardship and stress of unemployment, and pressure to accept lousy jobs, are needed to remove the harm from a reduction in material growth, which is needed to avert environmental and climate catastrophe – both also neglected by Friedman.

  43. wrybread


    But the real issue is self-esteem and the social-comparison processes that psychologist Leon Festinger observed as a universal human trait….

    People can get used to anything, as a city of New Haven, CT zoning commissioner once pronounced in response to my neighbors’ apprehensions about development and increased traffic on our narrow road. But — the cost of “getting used to anything” is always some diminution of the spirit. Yves is quite right to wonder at what tipping point the tradeoff results in a society that abandons initiative and optimistic economic activity … and I wonder whether, at least for the current era, that point has actually passed us by.

    1. bob goodwin

      Did you read the article you linked? It is gobbledygook. His argument is essentially that it takes infrastructure and technology to harvest energy, so therefore it cannot happen without making things worse, so it won’t happen. The argument would have been equally valid 100 and 200 years ago, and have been wrong.

      I am not stating that I know the future, and can predict technologies and trends. But I know that a lot of arguments are circular and tendentious, and it puzzles me that they are so widely accepted as obvious.

  44. thom

    [“My mother was 18 in 1929. While understanding well the brutality of the 1930s Depression, she also expressed many times a nostalgia for those years because, she told me, “We were all in it together, and we all helped each other.”]

    My mother was eight in 1929 in a small Firelands (near Lake Erie) Ohio town. Starting in the 90s she started to bemoan the increasingly crass, alienated, dyshumanity of people and politics, especially in the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Rice/Rove illegal regime. She would say “During the Depression, we cared for each other, we looked out for each other…” shaking her head.

    Were she alive today she would be seething at Obama, trashing him worse than she did Bush and Reagan. She would have enthusiastically backed him in 2008 as I did, but would damn sure have voted for a write-in in 2012 in disgust. Her final acts in her final months 2004-2005 were to finally ditch the Lutheran church for the more gentle and logical Presbyterians (debts rather than trespasses) and to picket Halliburton in Dallas.

  45. thom

    What an excellent essay it is, that judgement reinforced by the extraordinary conversations which it prompted. This is an example of what called “conversation circuits” in my dissertation as opposed to human-free terms like threads and trackbacks etc. The conversations involve genuine sharing of knowledges and evidence new understandings and Euekas. One example for me from the “physicist conversation with an economist” link is that I never really thought of power plants as ‘energy consuming’ but of course they are, the term ‘power plant” is a distraction, despite the smokestacks, making one think it/they are just sending power out rather than consuming vast amounts of raw materials and power in the process of producing the power to be set out. There needs to be a different word but one escapes meat the moment. Maybe CO2 plants? Many others, this essay and the conversation circuits have really enriched my knowledges and understanding. No tacky judgemental flame — the Internet at its best.

  46. MaroonBulldog

    America’s mature economy is advanced enough to handle no growth; the Pentagon, the NSA, and DHS have the operations plans and orders on the shelf, ready to go in case of need to maintain order.

    Remember: the NSA can capture all the information that you create or store in a computer, or that the Internet routers or telecommunications switches record about you. And your cell phones, tablets, have cameras. Your new TV set is will capture information, too. So the NSA doesn’t just get your words. They’ve got pictures.

    Americans are already living in a goldfish bowl. Or Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.

    So there’s no need to worry about things breaking down in America. The worst that can happen here is we will all be living in a fully networked and automated surveillance state that supports a military government.

    There will be no need to worry about physical coercion. We know how they plan to deal with sedition, too. If someone gets too far out of line, the bankers will just cancel that person’s electronic account number, until the person starves to death, or comes around. Simple.

    It’s as though someone in authority read NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR as though its title were WHAT IS TO BE DONE.

    Tea, anyone?

  47. thom

    Jeremy Bentham is described in Wikpaeida as a “philosopher and social theorist” — I think the term “fascist” would also apply lol

    1. MaroonBulldog

      I wouldn’t call Jeremy Bentham a fascist; that might be anachronistic. I’d just call him a utilitarian who had an unfortunate influence of John Stuart Mill.

  48. thom

    The business about canceling a bank account is already active economic/financial policy. The Cyprus banking crisis was bailed out NOT by their Fed equivalent but by reducing persons bank accounts by an arbitrary percentage to cover the banker’s overdrafts (lol). The policy is official but as yet unused in New Zealand and the UK and Fed have been in talks and have something on paper to, in effect, do the Cyprus Solution in the event of another 2007-08. That means, of course that the so-called “living wills” of the banks in case of liquidity crises — that the banks are resisting doing anyway — are worthless and that plans are already afoot to do the Cyprus Solution writ large.

    1. MaroonBulldog

      Yes, they have the tool alread and their is no limit to their imagination of the things they might do with it.

  49. J Bookly

    This was a great article. One comment: If the regular jobs-and-buying-things economy has stopped working for you, you probably don’t have the time or money to debate growth issues. You have to find an alternative before you end up living in your car or under the bridge. People invent new things when they truly need something new. Then others come along and help name the new things (urban homesteading, reluctant entrepreneurs, half farmer/half X, etc.) After that come the blog posts and the articles, and then the serious papers. The actors at each step are personally farther away from the crisis; it might even be possible to end up thinking it’s just a policy preference that’s under consideration, rather than the survival of our system or our country or our species. IMO It would help if the hands-on people and the theoretical people were talking back and forth much more than they seem to be doing.

  50. Roland

    It’s not “low growth” that caused the right-wing political shift witnessed in 20th cent. Euro countries, classically in Germany of the interwar period.

    It wasn’t “low growth” per se that caused the shift. The shift was associated with the disclassment of petty bourgeois and landed peasants during Germany’s transition to a modern bourgeois state.

    Disclassed petty bourgeois and peasants usually shift to the political right, to reaction and revanchism. This is not difficult to understand, and very easy for a left winger to explain.

    In a fully-developed capitalist society, nobody wants to be a proletarian. You would have to be crazy to want to be a proletarian in a society dominated by the bourgeoisie. Under capitalism, proles have nothing and are worth next-to-nothing.

    I mean, is any hard-pressed petty bourgeois store owner or student-debt-crushed petty bourgeois professional ever going to dance around in the streets, crying out joyously, “Yay! My substance has been devoured by bigger bourgeois! I’m so happy now to be a prole completely disenfranchised and without capital! I’m so personally fulfilled! I’m so proud of myself and my community!”

    Of course not.

    The disclassment of small farmers and petty bourgeois is something normal and to be expected under capitalism. Marx was all over it. As capitalism develops and matures, most of the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry get transformed into proletarians. Their merit, their credentials, their enterprise, all become irrelevant. If they don’t control enough capital, nothing else matters. They become proles–period.

    But the members of a class whose culture revolves around notions of merit, self-sacrifice, and hard-won accumulation cannot easily accomodate themselves to their disclassed status. They cannot reconcile themselves to becoming proles. Remember that the petty bourgeois despise proletarians even more than do their bigger counterparts. The proletarians, in a capitalist society, are viewed merely as failed, defective, rejected bourgeois, therefore worthy of subjection, and who deserve to suffer. The merit-obsessed petty bourgeois, even when shorn of capital and a de facto proletarian, is culturally incapable of acknowledging that fact.

    A disclassed petty bourgeois often becomes what one could call a self-hating proletarian. The disclassed petty bourgeois would rather treat herself or himself as mentally ill, and take medication, sooner than accept a proletarian status. The disclassed petty bourgeois will adopt a pathetic faith in personal improvement and accept a narrative of personal failure, sooner than accept a proletarian status. They will pop Prozac and watch motivational videos on an endless loop, sooner than look in a mirror and admit, “While I am of respectable petty bourgeois origin, I have become a Proletarian in a mature capitalist society.”

    The petty bourgeoisie were always the class most culturally and psychologically committed to the modern nation-state projects of the 19th and 20th centuries. They invested much of their efforts in the development of those communities, and they benefited a great deal from them. No matter what the country, the biggest nationalists are usually found among the petty bourgeoisie. The bigger bourgeois, on the other hand, were more deeply loyal to their own capital, regardless of where it may have been invested.

    So when the petty bourgeois finds himself or herself amidst a deteriorating, or perhaps even defeated, nation-state, when they find their susbstance devoured by the bigger bourgeois, when they see the money debased and their own debts spiralling, when they see the falling-apart of everything they ever thought was good or right or decent, they don’t just shrug and say, “Well, I guess I’m a prole now. Okay!”

    They are NOT okay with this.

    Instead the disclassed petty bourgeois recoils in outrage and disgust. They want to turn the clock back to a better time. Politcally, their spirit is one of Reaction. Nationally, their spirit will become one of Revanche. And they will look for those whom to blame for what they see as the Betrayal of their class and of their community.

    The petty bourgeoisie are, as a class, very well-disciplined. The petty bourgeois are fond of order and of system, and they strive to deserve their status within that order and within those systems. The petty bourgeois are also fond of personal liberty, but they have never felt as easily and naturally entitled to it as the members of such classes as the bourgeoisie or old aristocracy. The petty bourgeois, unlike the big bourgeois, can sacrifice much personal freedom for the sake of the task at hand.

    Briefly, that’s the recipe for the right-wing politics of the disclassed petty bourgeoisie. Angry, hard-pressed, indebted petty bourgeois, unable to accept their incipient proletarian status, wanting to restore what they think of as a right and decent order of things. When the disclassed petty bourgeois rise in anger, a lot of people can get killed.

    But this is not some sort of indefinite continuous result of “low growth.” The attempt to link right-wing reaction to any generalized period of low investment returns, is something that one expect to find being argued by the typical history-hating bourgeois econometrician. The feeble theory says more about them than about anything else.

    The disclassment of the petty bourgeoisie is not an indefinite process ever associated with “low growth,” but is rather a phase which takes place for a while in history. There are only so many petty bourgeois to get disclassed, and the generations which follow were never petty bourgeois in the first place and therefore will not exhibit the social and cultural characteristics of their forebears. It’s a spasm of reaction which punctuates the history of capitalist development.

  51. Pelham

    I know the paradigm is that people want to prosper relative to others, but I’ve never observed this in anyone I’ve known over many years. Mainly, I think, people want some security in the lives and meaningful work. And — this much I believe is on the mark — they would like their children to do at least as well or better.

    But this rabid — or even mild — competition with the neighbors just has not been evident at all. Would anyone here admit to it? Perhaps this idea feeds into our worst suspicions about anonymous others that seldom pans out when we really get to know someone. And, conveniently, it contributes to the further atomization of society.

  52. Fiver

    Not only can developed countries ‘handle’ no growth – we could create something so much better than what we have now with half the ‘economic’ activity if we desired it.

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