BLUEPRINT FOR THE NEW LEFT
Fissures have erupted across the monoliths of both major political parties, disrupting the duopoly. On the left, the Democrats have divided between late-20th century neoliberals and early-21st century progressives. But what is a progressive, especially from an economic standpoint? For too long we’ve bemoaned capitalism’s evils without providing structural remedies or replacements. These dispatches provide a framework for position-taking on the New Left.
DISPATCH TWO: GDP AND GROWTH
After WWII, the U.S. experienced an unprecedented explosion of economic growth which hyper-accelerated peoples’ standard of living within merely a generation or two. This incredible rise in quality of life and middle-class wealth by the end of the twentieth century ingrained upon the American psyche an unreal expectation for constant, phenomenal growth, ever-improving income, and increasing ownership of consumer goods and property over the course of successive generations.
The American expectation for unceasing economic improvements, while impressive, is unfortunately extremely unrealistic, and, in its worst incarnations, pathologically delusional. Most economists agree booms in economic expansion are the exception rather than the rule, especially for mature, financialized and monopolistic capitalist systems. As the U.S. continues to become more and more corporatized, concentration of wealth and the biased policy-making it results in undoubtedly exacerbate the problem of long-term stagnation, but it would still be unrealistic to expect that, even if all of these issues were magically “fixed,” the U.S. would regenerate to a state of regularized economic expansion.
In fact, forecasting the U.S.’s future growth suggests that for those in the bottom 99 percent of income distribution, consumption per capita may fall below 0.5 percent per year for an “extended number of decades,” according to the American economist Robert J. Gordon. Factoring into these abysmal calculations is not only lack of investment in lower classes and infrastructure, but also major political issues that should be familiar to most: demography and an aging populace, deteriorating quality of education, wealth inequality, globalization, climate crisis and failure to switch to renewable energy sources, consumer and government debt.
The “problem” of slow-growing GDPs, GNIs, or whatever you might like to call it, is a matter which is not exactly firmly rooted in the less-flexible principles of capitalism and political-economy, but rather in the psyche of First World citizens. There are few things we fetishize more in the constellation of our financial hopes than the notion of familial wealth rising over time. How familiar—even contemptibly so, for their triteness—are the virtual slogans of, “I work so my children can have a better life than I did,” or “We are ensuring the prosperity of the coming generation,” the implication not being that they will somehow enjoy greater intangible benefits, such as knowledge or freedom, but rather greater knowledge of financial security, greater freedom of purchasing power. This mindset somehow provides us with a palliative, a mystical answer to some question of destiny, even if only in a material sense.
Belief in such palliatives isn’t evil, nor even really narrowly self-serving, but it does represent a grave deficiency in the edifice of our reasoning. Namely, the formulation that betterment = growth. This equation, in its most basic form, is practically inimical to human nature, fused to the concept of optimism as one of the primary drivers of humanity’s enduring qualities.
However, growth itself has completely altered the dynamic between human beings and the constraints of the planet, if not the natural universe in its entirety. To put it simply, we now know we can grow so much as a species that we can destroy ourselves. Thus enters the concept of sustainability—but there is another concept, mostly overlooked but gaining attention as our ecological crisis intensifies, that of diminishment, or “degrowth” as it is more tastefully put by economists, which must, for a time, be part and parcel of all dialogues concerning sustainability.
Degrowth is a vital economic movement for achieving not only a rebalancing of ecological systems, but also a rebalancing of economic and humanistic justice. The bedrock atop which all global capitalism has been built upon is empire, the basic mechanism used, to this day, in order to grow the economies of some nations to monstrous proportions at the expense of other nations’ monstrous impoverishment. The excess of First World economies is not used to expand human necessities, but rather the lavish lifestyles we’ve becoming indecently addicted to, and, like good addicts, we forsake all other considerations, including the well-being of those around us, in the pursuit of our drug—for which our appetites can never be satiated.
Our lifestyles, our excesses, both individual and societal, are the direct cause of empire, as well as the suffering empires produce. We can clearly see from our present vantage that in the near-future we will be forced to ask ourselves a fundamental question: necessities or excess?
Pain and loss are indeed coming for us all, even if in unequal measure. Will we force the natural world to cure us of our addictions, or will we do so on our own terms?