Notes from Catherine Rowett, former Green Party MEP for East of England and deputy coordinator of the Eastern Region Green Party*(UK). Biographical reflections on life as an MEP. Longer reflections and discussions on issues relating to policy, the good life, justice, equality, anti-austerity economics and the future of the planet. This is also a forum for exchanging ideas on how to tread lightly on the planet and avoid supporting exploitation and corrupt practices. Here we go...

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Response to the "Philosopher Kings?" lecture by Andy Haldane at UEA on Tuesday 17th Feb 2015

I start by displaying a slide of William Blake's "Laocoon annotated". William Blake is my flavour of the month, and if you don't like what I have to say here you can amuse yourself by deciphering the slogans that Blake has inscribed all over the page, round his engraving of the famous Hellenistic sculpture known as the Laocoon Group.  Blake's work is from 1820, and he is reflecting on (among other things) the devastating effect of the industrial revolution on the quality of life and on the life of the imagination. In the light of the graphs that we have been shown about the growth in GDP from the same period, this forms a good background to thinking about what we might have gained or lost from the change from a period of no-growth to a period of growth, that has continued from Blake's time to now.
Among the slogans that Blake has inscribed here, you will find (for instance)
Where any view of money exists art cannot be carried on, but war only; Art is the tree of life, science is the tree of death; The eternal body of man is the imagination.

I have four main points to make briefly in response to Andy Haldane's analysis of what has facilitated growth in productivity and the rise in living standards since the Industrial Revolution. They fall under the following headings:

  1. What's wrong with a flat economy, with no growth in GDP?
  2. If there has been any increase in achievements in the best and most valuable things known to mankind, has this been due to the growth in GDP and the material prosperity or has it been due to the good conditions that facilitated that growth?
  3. Is there a problem about growth on a finite planet with finite resources? Does growth depend upon mining those resources and depleting the supply to a limit beyond which not just growth but life itself will be unsustainable?

1.   What's wrong with a flat economy? 

As Andy Haldane strikingly showed us, from time immemorial for thousands of years of human civilisation, there was no economic growth. The graphs were flat from prehistoric times, throughout all the great civilisations of the past, both in Europe and elsewhere, and right through the Middle Ages. Year on year growth in GDP, or in per capita productivity, is a peculiar feature of the last three hundred years. In the ancient thinkers whose economic and political thought I study, there is no concept of growth and no ambition to build any such thing into the proposals for improving society or establishing the ideal city-state or republic, with a view to enabling people to live life that is as good as it can ever be. Whether they are seeking to establish a society with slaves, in which only the privileged classes can live freely and well (as in Aristotle), or a society without slavery and with equality for women, in which all can realise their best ambitions (as in Plato) increasing productivity or raising living standards or disposable incomes is not part of the picture. This is not because they did not think about economic issues. They did, but they did not take any interest in growing the economy.
So why should we think much hangs on it?
The Ancients were more interested in developing a society in which autonomy, decision-making, agency and intellectual enquiry were the goals of human life, and they were trying to provide the institutions that would allow those things to flourish. They did not envisage that additional material resources or more work in production were the main requirements for that. Indeed one might think that driving the work force to focus more on production and less on action and thought is likely to detract from achievements one might make if the people have more leisure to take part in the life of the mind, and time to devote to becoming autonomous responsible decision-making human beings. An obsession with acquisition of more stuff for the sake of accumulating wealth is an attitude the ancient Greeks associated with a certain kind of enslavement, characteristic of foreign monarchies who made their people into slaves, and thought only of how much gold they might be able to get from extending their empire to enslave yet more. And as Andy Haldane pointed out, increasing the productivity is associated with increasing inequality in wealth and education and all other aspects of life, which leads to instability and social unrest, or dependency.
Perhaps we might be glad that there has been an improvement in the material quality of life, at least superficially, in terms of sanitation, housing, transport, heating and a number of other creature comforts, which make a return to the mediaeval or ancient conditions unattractive. But is there any reason to think that *further* growth will make things better, or that without further growth things will not be as good as now? If we flat line from now, and maintain current standards of health and housing and infrastructure (or preferably the standards that we had before the decline in infrastructure investment undertaken in the name of "austerity") and went on for thousands of years like this without further rises in living standards, what would be so bad about that exactly?
Furthermore, supposing that the rise in living standards has indeed been facilitated by growth, we must ask whether it has led to greater happiness and well-being, and greater achievements that we might be proud of, in a broader sense than just material comforts? Up to what point, if at all, is increased material prosperity accompanied by becoming better at being human and doing the kind of things that have real worth? If we start to associate worth with monetary worth, have we not lost track of what human achievements are most admirable?
Several studies have shown that beyond a certain point, increases in wealth do not correlate well with increases in well-being, whether that is measured as subjective feelings of contentment/happiness, or in other measures of well-being such as safety, security and achievement. In fact, people with much lower incomes and standards of living often turn out to enjoy a better sense of quality of life than those in developed countries. More significant is the fact that no matter what the absolute level of wealth, well-being and happiness correlates more directly with equal distribution of wealth and standards of living, rather that inequality. And as Haldane has shown in his presentation, growth tends to be associated with increasing inequality, and his analysis of what leads to growth and its effects on different groups in society confirms that this is highly likely to be a causal link, and not just random association of two effects of something else. Growth brings inequality, and inequality brings unrest and a range of serious social ills that themselves inhibit productivity and growth. There is a self-destructive motif in the pursuit of growth, even before we turn to the environmental issues.

2.   If there has been any increase in achievements in the best and most valuable things known to mankind, has this been due to the growth in GDP and the material prosperity or has it been due to the good conditions that facilitated that growth

As far as I can see, there has not been a massive increase in great achievements in art, imagination, literature, architecture, philosophy or morality over the period in which we have seen a growth in productivity and living standards. Granted there have been some impressive achievements, but compared with the incredible flowering of spectacular achievements in Europe in the Renaissance and in the Middle Ages, in the Greco-Roman world in the classical period, in Egypt and the Euphrates valley back into the mists of time, in India and in China way into the distant past, has the period of industrialised growth been matched by any significant growth in artistic or intellectual achievements. Has this been what we might call a period of civilisation, to be proud of? All of those magnificent civilisations of the past seem to overshadow the achievements in the period of the railways and the iron bridges and the telephones and aircraft and space travel, not because these more recent things are not impressive, but because they are achievements of a different kind. The technological gains have mostly been in ways to overpower and suppress nature and the human spirit of spontaneous creativity, in the interests of efficiency, utility and productivity, while the achievements of the classical ages were ways to celebrate nature and pour out the human artistic imagination in joy at its own creativity. It is not clear that this is an improvement in providing more of the things that are of genuine lasting value. And it is not clear that it is accompanied by any improvement in our attitude to our fellow citizens.
But supposing, for the sake of argument, that things have got better, and that among the good things have been some really splendid things of which mankind might be proud, we should ask now whether this has been because of a growth in GDP and in material prosperity, or due to something else? What I have in mind is the convincing evidence that Andy Haldane showed in his presentation, that the factors that allowed innovation and development in science and technology to occur started before the period of growth. Literacy, for example, lays the foundation for a wave of innovation. Growth is a result of a situation in which literacy improved, education improved, the arts were sponsored, learning from the ancient world was recovered, enquiry flourished in the monasteries and in schools and the newly founded universities, and scientific enquiry was increasingly pursued and valued. But these things happened before the period of rapid growth in GDP, and are not a consequence of it, as Haldane showed. That these conditions facilitated innovation and growth is plausible. But is it not also plausible that they are the things that have made life better, if life has got better. That is, we should be delighted with a world in which the arts, literacy, science and free enquiry are possible. This is a good world. But it is valuable in itself, not for the growth that followed, which did not so much add to these improvements as depend upon them. We should do well to check which thing we think has enabled us to live well: is it the arrival of education and open minded discovery, or is it the material resources that we then used that education to develop? My answer would be that it is the former, and we shall be no worse off, in the things that really matter, if we stop chasing the latter. Perhaps we might be better off, in fact?
Haldane spoke of the importance of what he called "human capital" which is the citizens of our state. He is obviously right that it makes good economic sense to nurture one's citizen body, to keep them healthy, well-educated and able-bodied, and to ensure that structures are such that this valuable resource does not go to waste, sitting in front of a TV screen with nothing to do, and no way of getting to where there is something to do. Human capital is as important to a capitalist system as other kinds of expensive and high value capital, and this provides a reason even from within such a system to halt the damaging effects that arise from the unbridled pursuit of growth in a free market economy without controls or redistribution, such as the increasing inequality and poverty that we are seeing now in the UK.
But the very idea of "human capital" is alienating. We are invited to think of citizens as a resource to be exploited. Idle citizens and uneducated citizens are seen as a "waste", a "drain on the society", like unoccupied buildings or uncultivated fields. This instrumental way of thinking is far removed from the idea of human beings as having a potential for their own self-fulfilment, or of measuring the worth of a society in history by its achievements in justice and freedom, knowledge, literature, art and music and other fine things that will be remembered with admiration and not disgust. For this purpose, human beings, including the poor, are not just stuff to be educated enough to be profitable so as not to be a loss-making enterprise, but beings with the capacity to take a part in the creative cooperative endeavour that is a civilised society. If they have become just stuff in the minds of those who exploit them, then that is already a failure. And since no one is made happy by discovering that they are valued like a slave, to be exploited if they bring in a profit and discarded if not, this attitude is a direct source of unrest and de-motivation.
This is one of the reasons why the introduction of impact criteria in the REF is alienating to researchers who value their inquiries for the intrinsic importance of the knowledge they deliver. To find that the researchers are a capital investment whose worth is to be measured for its contribution to gross domestic product and marketable exports from which the in terms of how much the research has added to the GDP, and whether this represents a good return for the pennies invested in the researchers' time.

3. Is there a problem about growth on a finite planet with finite resources? Does growth depend upon mining those resources and depleting the supply to a limit beyond which not just growth but life itself will be unsustainable?

Some thinkers have suggested that there is a problem in pursuing a policy designed to promote growth because the resources of the planet are finite. Perhaps we need a no-growth economy if we are to live within the resources of our finite home. 
I suspect that this is accidentally true of our post-industrial world, because the increase in per-capita productivity was due to mechanical extraction of resources, fossil-fuel-based power and transport, and other technology-based improvements, that allowed the same number of people to produce more with less effort. But there seems to me to be no necessary connection between growth in production and denuding the planet of resources. 
If we're talking about per-capita growth, of course it will automatically slow if improvements in health and welfare lead to population growth, while the overall production stays the same. So one would need to increase production to match the population growth, even to stay on the level. But does the productivity need to consume finite resources, other than human resources which are increasing anyway? Cultural production such as literature and performance art do not intrinsically require any non-renewable stuff. Traditional products such as wool, paper, linen and wood are produced from resources that are not exhausted but regenerate in the natural cycle, and in the process contribute to maintaining the balance of nature. Similarly there are plentiful energy resources that are not finite and will never run short. The argument against growth therefore should not be made on the basis that long term growth is harmful to the planet due to depleting finite resources, since this seems as though it is a contingent result of our current industrial practices, lifestyles and technologies. What this shows is that if we are to continue living well, we need to reassess what kinds of technologies, farming practices, forestry practices and industries we promote, if we are to feed an maintain a healthy long-lived society. We should not move away from the old methods of growing sustainable crops on a well-maintained soil with a healthy bio-system that regenerates naturally. We need increased government control of the built infrastructure and transport systems, and institutions that support sustainable practices. This can't be done by free market systems.
But let us suppose that in this ideal world we can achieve a successful balance between needs and resources that could be sustainable indefinitely and needs no non-renewable materials: is there then any reason to think that we must also add growth? If so, for whose benefit? Who says we need growth? And why? Is this not just an unexamined assumption that is driving an outdated political ideology, leading to a permanent sense of dissatisfaction with the good things that we have, and a constant expectation of more? It isn't so much that growth is impossible, or unattainable, or unsustainable. It's that it is basically irrelevant, and that while we go on measuring that as if it were a proxy for what is worth having, we are all the time missing what we most need and want. 

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