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How to Stop A Cancerous Economy

Juan C. Ordonez Feb 17, 2007

Growth Fetish
By Clive Hamilton
Pluto Press, 2003

It’s the reigning economic and political orthodoxy, a faith embraced by the right, social democrats and communists. The view that economic growth is good and always to be desired. It is also a false religion, according to Clive Hamilton, the Executive Director of the public interest think tank, The Australia Institute. In his book Growth Fetish, Hamilton sets forth a compelling and radical critique of the ideology of economic growth and its real-world manifestation, consumer society, and attempts to lay the groundwork for a postgrowth society.

Some time ago, economic growth stopped improving the well-being of the inhabitants of the developed world, where overconsumption and waste, rather than deprivation, are the norm. While many economists assume that “more economic growth improves social well-being, and that more income improves individual well-being,” those who have bothered to test the assumption – usually non-economists – have found otherwise.

Drawing on various studies, Hamilton concludes that once a nation achieves a certain level of material well-being (perhaps around $10,000 per capita), there ceases to be any correlation between additional income and self-satisfaction. It is not further happiness, but rather growing levels of depression, obesity, stress, overwork and alienation that are the hallmarks of consumer society.

Indeed, consumer capitalism cannot survive without dissatisfaction, Hamilton argues, for if people were satisfied, what would impel further growth? So dissatisfaction must be manufactured; that is the “indispensable role of the advertising industry.” Contrary to the idealized neoliberal view, we do not live in a world in which rational economic beings with pre-existing preferences choose from available options to satisfy those preferences, but one in which the massive resources and creative talent of the advertising industry constantly create new “needs.”

It is not only neoliberalism that comes under attack. Hamilton takes particular aim at the Third Way proponents, foremost Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. With the end of the Cold War, the so-called establishment Left embraced the gospel that the purpose of government is to increase economic growth and that private markets are the best way to achieve it, and thus embraced neoliberalism.

While the Third Way, that “postmodern opium of the people,” was assisting in the triumphal ascendancy of neoliberalism, a true radical critique began emanating from some environmentalists.

They reject one of the principal tenets of growth fetishism, the commoditized view of the world, wherein the sole function of the natural world is to provide material to satisfy human desire, and which, consequently, fictitiously removes humanity from its own ecology. It is to environmentalism where the left must turn in order to escape the chimera of growth fetishism.

Hamilton concludes by suggesting policy measures to jumpstart the “transition to a post-growth society,” such as reducing work hours and mandating that businesses adhere to ecological sustainability. While many of his suggestions seem sensible and could serve as a core of a new political program for the developed world’s Left, they are presented only in abbreviated form. Also, it is not altogether clear that legislative measures are the first step toward a fundamental societal transformation, which more likely would begin with the consolidation of a social movement that rejects consumerism and commodification. Nevertheless, Hamilton’s work constitutes an important contribution in the debate on how to move beyond consumer society before it collapses under its own weight.