Economic Growth: A Short History of a Controversial Idea

By Gareth Dale, who teaches at Brunel University. He publishes occasionally in The Ecologist. This article includes passages from previously published texts, including ‘The tide is rising, don’t rock the boat!’ Economic growth and the legitimation of inequality (2018), Seventeenth century origins of the growth paradigm (2017), and The growth paradigm: A critique (2012). Originally published at openDemocracy

The politics of economic growth are complex and contested as never before. In rich countries, rates of GDP growth have declined, decade after decade since the 1960s. The 2008 crash was deep, and the post-crisis recovery has been slow. This poses problems for governments, given that their ‘performance legitimacy’ requires some degree of popular approval of their perceived success in charting a growth path that satisfies the citizenry’s demand for goods and services. Where growth is low and governments choose to respond with austerity programmes, these bring additional misery and hardship — including tens of thousands of premature deaths in Britain alone.

In the same decades, growth scepticism has thrived. It takes two main forms: one highlights the impact of infinite growth on finite resources and on the natural environment. Recognition of the dangers of climate breakdown has transformed this debate – while mainstream opinion retains the traditional faith in growth, now refashioned as ‘green growth‘, the heretics are rallying to ‘degrowth‘.

The other emphasises the disconnect between growth and social well-being. The days are long gone when growth was seen as the fast track to general prosperity, as normal and natural as sunrise. It is well established that the relationship between growth and well-being is partial at best. Such a correlation does exist, but weakens after a certain point — roughly speaking when per capita GDP exceeds $15,000. At higher levels, the translation of growth into improvements in health and well-being is tenuous. Other variables, notably levels of equality, are critical.

In combination, these developments have motivated the ‘Beyond GDP‘ agenda. Whether for reasons of growth scepticism or out of concern that if GDP growth remains slack governments’ performance legitimacy will suffer too, political leaders, civil servants and academics — among them Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacinda Ardern, Gus O’Donnell, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen — are promoting alternative yardsticks.

To assess these debates it helps to dig into the history and morphology of the ‘growth paradigm’ — the belief that economic growth is good, imperative, essentially limitless, and the principal remedy for a litany of social problems – and ask the following: when and how did this paradigm originate?

From Rain Dance to Nasdaq

One response was offered in 1960 by Elias Canetti. In quasi-Nietzschean vein, he invoked a transhistorical ‘will to grow’. Humans are always striving for more. Whether the parent monitoring her child’s weight or the state official seeking to augment her power, or the community expanding its population, we all want growth. The desire to accumulate goods, the drive for economic growth, the wish for prosperity – they are all innate to human social being. Humans in groups are driven to seek increase: of their numbers, of the conditions of production, and of the products they require and desire. The very earliest homo sapiens sought the enlargement of their “own horde through a plentiful supply of children.” And later, in the age of modern industrial production, the growth drive came into its own.

“If there is now one faith, it is faith in production, the modern frenzy of increase; and all the peoples of the world are succumbing to it one after the other. … Every factory is a unit serving the same cult. What is new is the acceleration of the process. What in former days was generation and increase of expectancy, directed towards rain or corn, … has today become production itself.” A straight line runs from the rain dance to the Nasdaq.

But this is to confuse the wiring of our current economy with the wiring of the human brain. Canetti’s ‘will to grow’ doesn’t withstand scrutiny. The diverse behaviours he describes can’t be reduced to a single logic. The ‘will’ behind creating babies is quite unlike the will to accumulate acreage or gold. And the latter is relatively recent. For much of the human story, societies were nomadic or semi-nomadic, and organised in immediate-return systems. Stashes of food were set aside to tide the group over for days or weeks, but long-term storage was impractical. The accumulation of possessions would hamper mobility. The measures that such societies used to reduce the risks of scarcity centred not on accumulating stores of goods but on knowledge of the environment, and interpersonal relationships (borrowing, sharing, and so on). The moral economy of sharing necessitates a muscular egalitarianism that is undermined by the accumulation of property.

Logics of accumulation — and, in the loosest sense, growth — were not initiated until the Neolithic revolution. Its technological and institutional transformations included settled agriculture and storage, class division, states, warfare and territoriality, and, later, the invention of money. Population growth joined with class exploitation and interstate competition to expand the sway of agrarian empires. Farmers enlarged the ploughlands, scholars penned proposals for improving the organisation of agriculture or trade, merchants amassed wealth, and rulers, seeking to enlarge population and tribute, extended their domains. Only now — in the post-Neolithic age — did gold achieve its fetish quality as the source and symbol of power.

Scour the documents from ancient civilisations and you’ll find tales of competition for territory and the accumulation of property, but nothing that resembles the modern growth paradigm. No conception of ‘an economy’ that can grow, still less of one that tends to the infinite. And you’ll find little, if any, notion of linear historical progress. Instead, cyclical cosmologies prevailed. A partial exception is the fourteenth century polymath, Ibn Khaldun. He developed a sophisticated analysis of growth dynamics. But his ideas weren’t widely adopted, and his theory is cyclical: it describes negative feedback mechanisms that ensure any economic upticks will necessarily hit barriers and retreat.

When, then, did the modern growth paradigm originate — and why?

Petty’s Arithmetic

The evolution of the growth paradigm was integrally connected to the capitalist system and its colonial thrusts. The basic link between the growth drive and capitalism is transparent. The latter is a system of competitive accumulation. The former, in suggesting that the system is natural and brings benefit also to the ‘99%’, provides ideological cover in that growth serves as an idealised and democratised redescription of capital accumulation. But there’s more to it than that. The capitalist transition was to a system of generalised commodity production, in which formal ‘productive’ economic activity takes the shape of commodities interacting through the price mechanism, in a regularised manner. If earlier political-economic thought had construed its subject as the affairs of the royal household, during the capitalist transition a new model emerged, with an interconnected market field posited as essentially outside the state.

In seventeenth-century England, just as the universe was being re-imagined by Newton et al as a machine determined by lawful regularities, the idea that economic behaviour follows natural lawsbecame commonplace. By the close of the following century, Richard Cantillon had presented the market system as self-equilibrating, a machine that functions in a law-like manner; Quesnay’s Tableau had depicted the economic system as a unified process of reproduction; Adam Smith had theorised the dynamics of economic growth; and philosophers (such as William Paley) had developed the creed that steady economic growth legitimates the social system and renders system-critical demands unnecessary and dangerous.

The same centuries experienced a revolution in statistics. In the England of 1600, the growth paradigm could scarcely have existed. No one knew the nation’s income, or even its territory or population. By 1700 all these had been calculated, at least in some rough measure, and as new data arrived England’s ‘material progress’ could be charted. Simultaneously, the usage of ‘growth’ had extended from the natural and concrete toward abstract phenomena: the growth of England’s colonies in Virginia and Barbados, the ‘growth of trade,’ and suchlike.

But the capitalist transition revolutionised much more than the formal economy and economic concepts. As land came to be regarded as a commodity-like object, the idea — found to some degree in antiquity — that nature exists to serve the purposes of landowners and is fundamentally external to human beings, gained definition. The early-modern regimes of abstract social labour and abstract social nature (i.e. the constitution of labour and nature as commodities) were sustained by the scientific revolution, and also by the construction of capitalist time. Over centuries, time became flattened into an abstract, infinite and divisible continuum, one that permitted economic life to be re-imagined as subject to continuous growth and cultivation. Morality was upended, too, most significantly in the discarding of the age-old proscriptions against acquisitiveness.

The more that economic activity came to be marshalled behind the imperatives of capital accumulation, the more it became subject to regimes of ‘improvement’ and quantification. In Jacobean and Cromwellian England, these practices and discourses proliferated. Agrarian-capitalist improvement was fuelled by scientific discoveries. These, in turn, were spurred on by the navigational and martial demands of explorers, freebooters and conquerors. European settlers in the New World not only exterminated and subjugated ‘new’ peoples, but turned to objectifying and cataloguing them, drawing comparisons with their own kind and ‘improving’ them. ‘Improvement’ and its theologically-intoxicated transplantation to colonial locations generated new data and new demands for detailed knowledge. How profitable is this tract of land, and its denizens? How can they be made more profitable? Answering such questions was enabled by modern accounting techniques, with their sharper definition of such abstractions as profit and capital.

No surprise, then, that the first statistically rigorous accounting of the wealth of a country (as distinct from, say, a royal household) was conducted by a capitalist on a colonial mission. William Petty planted quantification at the heart of scientific economics, crafted to the purposes of English merchants and empire, and gaining ideological force from the sheen of objectivity with which economic statistics — or ‘political arithmetic’ as he termed it — comes coated. In his work the conquest of nature and the idea of nature as a machine, and of the economy as a productive engine, blended to produce a new concept of wealth as “resources and the productive power to harness them” in contrast to the mercantilist concept, centred on the accumulation of bullion.

Colonisation of the New World contributed powerfully to capital accumulation in Western Europe, but it also spurred Europe’s philosophers to elaborate a racialised progress ideology. The question of what to make of the peoples encountered in the Americas, and what implications followed from their property arrangements, stimulated a new reading of the human story: a narrative of social progress. From the vantage point of the colonialists, if ‘they’ were at the primitive stage, had ‘we’ once occupied it too?

Centred on a mythical ladder that climbs up from barbarism to civilisation, the progress idea hammered the diversity of human populations into a single temporal-economic chain. By indexing the richer and higher-tech nations (and ‘races’) as history’s vanguard, it justified their bossing of the rest. It was a manifesto that drummed out capital’s rhythms, and later found new forms as ‘modernisation theory,’ ‘the development project,’ and so forth, articulated through a grammar of ‘growth.’ Through its marriage to progress and development, in the belief that social advance requires a steady upward ratchet in national income, growth gained its ideological heft.

The Globalisation of an Ideology

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the consolidation and globalisation of capitalist relations was accompanied by the growth paradigm. The first half of the twentieth century saw its definition sharpen. A pronounced shift occurred from a rather vague sense — long prevalent — that government should preside over economic ‘improvement’ and ‘material progress’ to an urgent conviction that promoting growth is a matter of national priority. Factors behind the shift included intensified geopolitical rivalry, and the increasing ‘muscularity’ of states, with their expanded bureaucratic apparatuses, surveillance systems and welfare provision, as well as the segue from the age of empires to that of nation states, a shift that helped consolidate the discourse of the ‘national economy.’ In many countries the expansion of suffrage was an additional factor: rights were extended and an infrastructure and ideology of national belonging was constructed with the aim of incorporating the lower orders as citizens into the body politic. With the Great Depression, restoring growth became an urgent project of states, and provided the context for the national income accounting that eventually led to GDP.

The acme of the growth paradigm was reached in the mid twentieth century. Growth was firmly established everywhere: in the state-capitalist economies of the ‘Second World,’ the market economies of the West, and the postcolonial world too. It became part of the economic-cultural furniture, and played a decisive part in binding ‘civil society’ into capitalist hegemonic structures — with social democratic parties and trade unions crucial binding agents. It came to be seen as the key metric of national progress and as a magic wand to achieve all sorts of goals: to abolish the danger of returning to depression, to sweeten class antagonisms, to reduce the gap between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, to carve a path to international recognition, and so on. There was a military angle too. For the Cold War rivals, growth promised geopolitical success. “If we lack a first-rate growing economy,” cautioned JFK on the campaign trail, “we cannot maintain a first-rate defense.” The greater the rate of growth, it was universally supposed, the lesser the economic, social and political challenges, and the more secure the regime.

The growth paradigm, I suggest, is a form of fetishistic consciousness. It functions as commodity fetishism at one remove. Growth, although the result of social relations among people, assumes the veneer of objective necessity. The growth paradigm elides the exploitative process of accumulation, portraying it instead as a process in the general interest. As Mike Kidron and Elana Gluckstein note, as a system of competition “capitalism depends on the growth of capital; as a class system it depends on obscuring the sources of that growth.”

For a long time, GDP growth was widely assumed to be the route to prosperity. Since then, cracks have appeared. In the rich world, we are beginning to realise that continuous GDP growth leads not simply to wealth and wellbeing, but to environmental collapse and barbecued grandchildren. But growth is not its own cause. GDP mirrors the power structure and form of value of capitalist society, but it doesn’t define the system’s core goal. That goal is the competitive accumulation of capital, and the accounting principles that guide it are those at the level of the firm, not the state. Put differently, the relentless increase in global resource throughput and environmental despoliation is not principally the result of states aspiring to a metric – higher GDP – but of industrial and financial firms, driven by market competition to expand turnover, develop new products, and increase profits and interest.

If the above analysis is correct, insofar as critical debates on growth focus solely on GDP while being coy about capital, they are enacting a form of displacement.

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  1. Abi

    In writing a dissertation in 2014 I read Alchian’s theory of the firm where he said cooperation is what fosters a peaceful condition for growth to occur, where as competition does the opposite. I’ve lived by that idea since, at least for us here in Lagos we have a chance to build a more cooperative and less competitive society

  2. Sound of the Suburbs

    If we were actually pursuing growth things would be a lot better.

    The current goal is making money (capital accumulation).

    What is this GDP thing anyway?

    In the 1930s, they pondered over where all that wealth had gone to in 1929 and realised inflating asset prices doesn’t create real wealth, they came up with the GDP measure to track real wealth creation in the economy.

    The transfer of existing assets, like stocks and real estate, doesn’t create real wealth and therefore does not add to GDP. The real wealth creation in the economy is measured by GDP.

    Inflated asset prices aren’t real wealth, and this can disappear almost over-night, as it did in 1929 and 2008.

    The economics of globalisation precedes the GDP measure when they thought inflating asset prices created real wealth.

    Real wealth creation involves real work, producing new goods and services in the economy.

    We need an economics that focuses on GDP to grow GDP.

    Neoclassical economics makes you think you are creating real wealth by inflating asset prices and we have been faffing about doing that.

    The new scientific economics of globalisation = 1920’s neoclassical economics with some complex maths on top.

  3. Jos Oskam

    “…Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between its costs and return, and between the short and the long term. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what…”

    This is not by me, but by the creator of the GDP formula, Simon Kuznets. GDP is a very poor indicator for many reasons, even apart from those mentioned above. Borrowing money and squandering it adds to GDP while the resulting debt is ignored. Extracting and burning fossil fuels adds to GDP while the future depletion is ignored. Stripmining and deforesting nature adds to GDP while… you get my drift. To paraphrase Bastiat, the growth in GDP that is seen tends to mask decline in areas like nature and wellbeing that are not seen.

    It is tragic to see politicians and pundits thoughtlessly raving about a few tenths of a percent change in GDP while never seeming to realize how poorly this represents things that are really important to humanity.

    When will people stop worshipping at the GDP altar?

    1. Steve Ruis

      I might add that someone said back in the 60’s that “growth for growth’s sake is the philosophy of a cancer cell.”

      1. Ian Perkins

        BrainyQuote attributes it (“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”) to Edward Abbey, who also came out with “Society is like a stew. If you don’t stir it up every once in a while then a layer of scum floats to the top.”
        Thank you.

      2. John Wright

        A variation on the theme, from

        “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

        “Attributed to Kenneth Boulding in: United States. Congress. House (1973) Energy reorganization act of 1973: Hearings, Ninety-third Congress, first session, on H.R. 11510. p. 248”

  4. The Rev Kev

    Where the author says ‘For much of the human story, societies were nomadic or semi-nomadic, and organized in immediate-return systems.’ that is not entirely true that. Here I am thinking of the early Bantu in their expansion in Africa. Their wealth for them were in their cattle herds which being mobile, made possible the expansion of the Bantu down eastern Africa and into Southern Africa. These were long-term investments and Bantu society evolved to take care of these herds as they expanded. Your wealth in that society was in how many cattle you had.
    I suppose when you think about it, the paradigm of growth works – to an extent – when there are more lands to discover, more continents to be opened up, more frontiers to be discovered. But all of that ran out a century ago and so with no more new resources to be found to be exploited, we have now reached the point where where we have come up hard against the natural limits of this planet. And yet, our economies still use the same mode of operating when we lived in an ever-expanding world. We are far beyond the point where we should have evolved into a closed-loop economy.

      1. The Rev Kev

        More than that. For example. A young man could only really use cattle to be the dowry that he would need to attract a bride so cattle was a sign of his wealth. The status came with it. Cattle shaped their society immensely. Their villages were huge rings where the cattle would be locked in of a night and were called kraals. The people were so familiar with their cattle that a herdsman at a glance of a herd of several hundred cattle would be able to tell straight away if one were missing. It was a fascinating society.

      2. Off The Street

        On Wall Street, people used to ask Where are the client’s yachts?

        As a sign of the times, now they can ask Where are the client’s cattle, or hats?

    1. Dan

      The statement “For much of the human story, societies were nomadic or semi-nomadic, and organized in immediate-return systems” is absolutely true. Please see the book “Limited Wants, Unlimited Means” for a good primer. It includes an excerpt from Marshall Sahlins’ “The Original Affluent Society” – a great introduction to hunter-gatherer societies. There is also a wonderful comparison of immediate return and delayed return societies as exemplified in the Hadza people, and the problems that arise once an immediate return society begins to settle, even minimally.

      The Bantu evolved later and are agro-pastoralists, not foragers. The Hadza have persisted as foragers even after contact with the Bantu and other groups. They have also repeatedly resisted government and missionary efforts to introduce farming and Christianity. The Hadza are perhaps the best example of how human beings lived on earth for over 99% of our existence, that being in a largely cooperative, egalitarian manner, devoid of concepts such as wealth.

    2. Abi

      Bantu people were not cattle herders, west central and much of Southern Africa is basically forest, there’s no way in this world anyone could move herds this way; it’s our northern brothers and sisters that are cattle herders. That being said, culturally we (Bantu) generally moved to set up new families/villages that’s how we spread not through some farming technique, that’s false

  5. Ignacio

    When I comment with someone, my wife for instance, about the need to get rid of GDP growth as the main political objective and think of small well being objectives I tipically receive commiseration in their eyes: “Yes Nacho, you are right, go and rest for a while”

    1. animalogic

      “I tipically receive commiseration in their eyes”
      Its the burden of being right in the world of wrong.

  6. Steven B kurtz

    As usual, scale is ignored. In my (still living) 94 year old mother’s lifetime, human population quadrupled. In large mammals, this is sometimes called “plague phase.” Add a (minimally) tenfold increase in technological leverage in converting finite resources into infrastructure, food, transportation, consumable goods and services, and the increasingly rapid decline of the ecosphere is hardly a surprise. Dematerialization of the economy is a myth! And don’t expect money printing or cyber tokens as solutions. They are simply power tools to access real stuff.

  7. Wukchumni

    One of the drivers of growth in the UK in the late 18th century that was missing, was money. It reached a crisis stage in 1797.

    A chronic shortage of coins, silver specie in particular.

    Then, the freebooters came to the rescue!

    Silver 8 Reales coins plundered from the Spanish were reworked into being coins of the British realm & many other outposts in the colonies.

    The first effort was pretty weak, all that was done was they were counterstamped with a small portrait of King George III upon the countenance of King Charles IIII, which led to this ditty:

    “In order to enable the Spanish Dollar to pass, the head of a fool was struck on the neck of an ass.”

  8. Wukchumni

    A couple of drivers of growth showed up both around the same time, the Haber Bosch process that allowed for pretty much unlimited food resources, and worldwide fiat money, which also had no limits to production.

    We’ve quadrupled the world’s population since these 2 events.

    1. Ian Perkins

      The Haber-Bosch process allowed for a vast, but in no way unlimited, expansion of production.
      Fiat money can be produced in unlimited amounts, but, according to both common sense and MMT, actual production also has actual limits.

      1. Wukchumni

        Setting the world free from first gold and then silver restraints (the last silver coins issued for circulation in the 1st world was in 1969) allowed for a as much as you’d like fiat economy, beyond limits and also risk. (for now, that is)

        For what it’s worth, there has never been an instance of hyperinflation in the cyber money age.

        1. Wukchumni

          Whoops, my bad. Germany issued silver 5 Mark coins for use in circulation until 1974, forgot about that.

        2. Ian Perkins

          As much wood, steel and cement, or as many doctors, teachers and entertainers as you’d like, without limits, just because money can be printed without limits?

          1. Wukchumni

            Money is only the lubricant, the ball bearings if you will. It has no agency over where it goes, other than in a tight circle.

          2. Oregoncharles

            It’s a fundamental issue: money is an abstraction that can increase without limits; the real world, the real economy, is not. MMT does address that, but I think it’s a root source of the persistent inflation that plagued the economy until rather recently. Apparently the Fed, or somebody, can stop it if they wish. However, I think that that history is one reason for the resistance to MMT – it sounds like a formula for more inflation. Since it hasn’t actually been tried as a policy (the Pentagon’s limitless funds are really just corruption), we won’t know for sure until it’s tried. There always seems to be a lot that the economists don’t know or won’t admit.

  9. Thuto

    Politicians don’t have the analytical tools to pick apart the “constant growth” argument so they default to trumpeting it as a cure for all social ills (no doubt with encouragement from mainstream economists). On the other end of the spectrum, the growth story seduces ordinary people because they’re told their share of the spoils, courtesy of the trickling down effect, will lead them to a “better life”. As such, nothing short of a massive ideological decolonization effort is needed to strip growth of the superhero status it enjoys in contemporary economic discourse.

    1. Norb

      The only positive hope is that enough people take it upon themselves to rise to the occasion. People who have freed themselves from the tyranny of the current economic system need to be examples for others to follow. Those that can, must change their lifestyles. They indirectly become leaders by example.

      There is a spiritual component in this transformation that has not really surfaced yet, but feels like it is stirring under the surface. There is so much denial going on that something will burst forth. What form that takes is anyones guess, but most people are just looking for leadership when pressed.

      Instead of the neoliberal message of selfish pursuits lead to a better life, the message of self-sacrifice and service to something greater resonates with most people. Instead of being just lip-service or propaganda, this sentiment must be channeled into concrete policies and actions- beginning with oneself.

      Underlying all this is the need for peace. The Big Lie of growth pales in comparison to the Big Lie of perpetual war. Both lies reinforce each other.

      How to explain the conflict between capitalists and well, all the rest, other than a spiritual war. Where does one place ones faith? Violent and selfish Nationalism will not suffice.

      Strength in humility instead of conquest is the dividing line. The decolonization of the human mind must be followed by an awareness and consciousness that the world is here to live in, not conquer. That is an enormous shift in human action and consciousness- those that live this ideal must be valued and emulated.

      The attempt must be made- is being made.

  10. Carolinian

    The growth paradigm, I suggest, is a form of fetishistic consciousness.

    Elsewhere today Lambert talks about religion as Marx’s “opiate of the people” but there are many versions of that drug and our secular overlords seem to have replaced the Bible with other unquestioned assumptions, many of them economic. Perhaps at some point rationality has its limits and illusions of some kind of are necessary to make the engine go. The problem unfortunately is that the current engineers seem to believe those illusions themselves and follow them blindly. They are addicts too. Is it time to “just say no”?

  11. lyman alpha blob

    Good essay. The author gets the the heart of it with this –

    The evolution of the growth paradigm was integrally connected to the capitalist system and its colonial thrusts. The basic link between the growth drive and capitalism is transparent. The latter is a system of competitive accumulation. The former, in suggesting that the system is natural and brings benefit also to the ‘99%’, provides ideological cover in that growth serves as an idealised and democratised redescription of capital accumulation.

    – where the theory of growth is an attempt to rationalize the greed of the few who really like playing capitalist at the expense of everyone else. How about they get their jollies playing Monopoly and leave the rest of us alone?

    I’ll just leave this here, a beautiful tune by one of my favorite bands, Old Crow Medicine Show. Four minutes that will make you feel better after reading of all the nastiness in the world, and very apropos to this article –

    Ain’t It Enough?

    1. hemeantwell

      I agree with the thrust of your comment but

      is an attempt to rationalize the greed of the few who really like playing capitalist at the expense of everyone else.

      As noxious as their displays of wealth are, and as much as it’s possible to make a case that pathological narcissism infuses the system, the motive to accumulate to compete with rivals, current and future, is central. It’s politically useful to attack the way that this motive draws others into its van, i.e. to make them personally despicable. But it might be worthwhile to consider how much the accumulation motive is embodied as a kind of social contract in the firm’s organization. I imagine that individual capitalists say to themselves “I’ve made my pile, time to sail away in my yacht,” but the firm and those who will stay on want to keep things going.

  12. rod

    . The moral economy of sharing necessitates a muscular egalitarianism that is undermined by the accumulation of property.
    this really stuck out to me.
    and I can’t really identify why, however I couldn’t stop thinking about the growing proliferation of plastic while reading the article…

  13. David J.

    Back in the early 80s, the professor for whom I was a grad assistant frequently urged me to read Canetti’s “Crowds and Power.” It’s a powerful and useful book. Well-written and accessible and full of thought-provoking ideas. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to ponder social relations.

    In this case, Dale seems to use Canetti’s book as a kind of straw-man entry to his real topic:an intro to his discussion of growth/degrowth. I guess you gotta start somewhere? Maybe he should have simply directly referenced Canetti on his notion of “feast crowds” (pg 62 of my edition of Crowds and Power.)

    The above comments by Sound of the Suburbs and Joe Oskam are incisive, imo. The essence of the matter boils down to developing a more rigorous distinction (and understanding) of the difference between productive economic activity and non-productive economic activity. Hudson is really good on this.

    1. Wukchumni

      Go back further and Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd from 1896 ages well, because human motives don’t change much…

      “The masses have never thirsted after truth. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”

      “A crowd thinks in images, and the image itself calls up a series of other images, having no logical connection with the first…A crowd scarcely distinguishes between the subjective and the objective. It accepts as real the images invoked in its mind, though they most often have only a very distant relation with the observed facts….Crowds being only capable of thinking in images are only to be impressed by images.”

      “We see, then, that the disappearance of the conscious personality, the predominance of the unconscious personality, the turning by means of suggestion and contagion of feelings and ideas in an identical direction, the tendency to immediately transform the suggested ideas into acts; these, we see, are the principal characteristics of the individual forming part of a crowd. He is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.”

      1. JEHR

        As I read these quoted words it is hard not to think of the crowds that surround Trump on his so-called “rallies” for his base. One cannot but help ask, Why is anyone listening to this man? Ans: “He is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.”

      2. Norb

        What makes the masses the masses is that they are followers. This is a double edged sword the elite exploit relentlessly- that is what makes them the elite. They hold the power, and desire, to manipulate the masses through narrative and image. These stories and images make the world and human experience comprehensible. When corruption sinks in, that whole group is doomed to eventual failure if a self-correcting mechanism is not present. Leaders/elite and masses both fail.

        It is very self-serving for the elite to blame the masses when the “illusions” stop working their magic. Have the elite ever “thirsted after truth” either? Truth meaning a universal truth applicable to all, or the Truth embodied in a personal view as apposed to a public view? Such Truths tend to obfuscate the drive for personal power, which doesn’t sit well within groups of people let alone groups of differing cultural or ethnic experiences.

        Manipulation of the masses is not the problem, it is manipulation to what end that is the issue. In that respect, the elite leadership should take more responsibility and bear a greater portion of blame for failure- for in fact, they are driving the whole process.

        In a nutshell, this is the failure of the current human situation. A greedy elite incapable or unwilling to use the powers at hand to bring about a fair and equatable world. It is just too easy for them to continue their deceitful manipulations and blame hapless or trusting victims.

        Another way is for the elite leadership to listen to the people/masses and take their needs and desires into account when molding public opinion. Such an elite will foster the population’s wellbeing, not fear them or treat them as a mob. That process makes the elite leadership legitimate.

        The most stupid leadership is one that fails to change course when the images and narratives moving its society are failing. The whole society becomes weak and ineffective on multiple levels.

        At some point, the factional fighting must stop. It seems inevitable that human society will rebalance itself to manageable levels. The question becomes how violent that transition will be.

      3. hemeantwell

        LeBon writes of crowds as though there is a complete discontinuity between a person’s thought and behavior when they are in a crowd and when they are not. That’s nonsense, a cocktail party generalization. I’ve been in plenty of political crowds and the remarkable transformation he purports was not evident. Le Bon was a rank conservative and his analysis reflected his detestation of the French left, fueled by his experience of the Commune. He’s writing in a way that helps justify the massacres that concluded it.

  14. Ian Perkins

    I often wondered about this fetishisation of growth in GDP (I’m in my sixties now), when in developed countries it seemed to have as many negatives as positives.
    Then I realised that capital, in its most general sense, doesn’t invest in the hope of getting its money back, but in the hope of its money back plus some more. The only way that can carry on for very long is through growth.
    I’m not an economist, but that explanation really rang true for me.

    1. notabanktoadie

      Usury based finance REQUIRES growth to pay the interest.

      Why then government privileges for private credit creation?

      1. nothing but the truth


        by infinite growth they actually mean infinite growth of debt, which is required for the current financial system to survive.

  15. Susan the other`

    Just Thank You. Thank You tons. I will remember the name Gareth Dale and The Ecologist. And the reference to the (unexplained) runaway condition of human economics as “Capitalist Time” v. (of course) real time. Because as we have learned here at NC “financial time goes much faster than real time.” And etc. This essay was wonderful, and now we have an outline of why that is true.

  16. John Wright

    From the text:

    “roughly speaking when per capita GDP exceeds $15,000. At higher levels, the translation of growth into improvements in health and well-being is tenuous.”

    The implications of this statement are large, for it multiplies out to a US GDP of 330E6 x 15E3 = 4.95 Trillion or about ONE FOURTH of the current USA economic output (19.39 trillion in 2017).

    Forget the Green New Deal, shrink economic output by 3/4 in the USA while drastically lowering inequality to share the shrunken economic pie and one should observe a large positive effect on future climate change while having a reasonable USA citizen well-being,.

  17. S N Tekur

    There is considerable debate on GDP growth rates in developing countries (India). There is anxiety to catch up with the developed countries leading to accelerated development plans -this is beneficial for reducing unemployment and improving the living conditions of a vast majority of people. However, the impact on the environment could be severe as any development work involves chopping trees, and causing damage to the natural habitat of endangered species. Striking a balance is difficult.
    This is really a very complex issue and a conscious attempt to restrict the GDP needs to be lauded- if it ever happens!

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