Enough with economic growth

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In life, three things are certain: death, taxes and pandemics. The arrival of a pandemic like COVID-19 was eventually inevitable, but understanding the particular degree of risk it will pose to human life is dependent not just on the super-virus itself but the economic system underpinning it.

How it will spread, how governments will respond, and how resilient we will be on recovery forces us to interrogate the particular strain of capitalism we’re living under. Neoliberalism, a system designed to reify and facilitate capital’s search for new frontiers and opportunities to generate profits, has forcibly bound our lives in a complex and deeply interconnected web of networks: trade, material and digital.

Three things are certain: death, taxes and pandemics

Where the flow of capital reigns, the solidity of government is compromised. To make production networks more efficient, people flock into ever-tighter cities at disturbing proximities. To cut costs, local businesses import from abroad, developing closer relationships with their suppliers on the other side of the world than the business next door. The very social networks that define human life are being compressed and distorted, and the systems we rely on for support are becoming increasingly transient and fragile. The precarious performance of our lives has normalised these changes, all through the simple justification of two disturbingly powerful words: economic growth.

Human life as we know it is thus a product of our blinded persistence to keep growing, which can only be achieved through ever-higher productivity or ever-expanding opportunities for capital. The latest product of this search, the gig economy, has in the last decade redefined the frontiers of productivity. It has forced production into previously protected spheres: commodifying the home, our dating lives, our spare time. It has begged us to make every last hour of our day productive and every part of ourselves monetised, filtering through to our very psyche. We are pushing ourselves harder than ever, with those most in need pressed to commodify themselves in novel ways. Where seemingly expanding opportunity and choice burdens all spheres of life, the human race has been made more vulnerable to when these no longer exist. The very foundation holding up Neoliberalism – the promise of improvement – begins to collapse when improvement is curtailed by crisis. Where growth stops being possible, a system constructed around growth has little left.

The holes that years of austerity have left are about to come compoundingly obvious. The mistake of making our workforce more flexible and productive through 0-hour contracts and encouraged self-employment is about to become clear as those working in increasingly precarious working conditions will be unable to work and earn. The on-demand economy, reliant on consumers demanding constantly and instantly, will be among the first to slow down, hitting the workers reliant on shift work hard. Those over-demanded in shifts, such as nurses and care-workers, will become over-stretched and more susceptible to being run-down themselves. It’s lose-lose for the precarious workers that hold up the economy: either over-worked to exhaustion, or under-worked, unpaid and insecure.

Woefully underpaid for their system-sustaining work, the Neoliberal system is not designed to sustain them. In periods of crisis this becomes critically apparent, where those left behind by growth are more likely to contract illness, be more at risk of mortality, and have no choice but to rely on underfunded public health services. Where middle class professions can carry out their work remotely, working class professions are at the front line of services, their bodies physically exerted on everyday. Valued as a vessel of both life and work, a worker’s body becomes even more valuable and thus vulnerable to the impacts of a virus.

Yet, pandemics can stimulate periods of change. The Black Death brought the end of Feudalism, when workers became too scarce to tend the land, surging their power and ending the rule of the seemingly infallible gentry. COVID-19, which has spread into a pandemic through the interconnectedness demanded by economic growth, and made millions more vulnerable through the system set up to enable it, must make us reflect.

Pandemics can stimulate periods of change

Economic growth’s main mechanism is Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a metric which normalises growth as a natural and neutral component for the economy. GDP must thus be the first thing we target, as if we can alter our metrics our belief systems will follow. How we measure the success of an economy determines what we perceive as success, thus the steps that governments take to ensure this success. This is our chance to redefine what this looks like away from growth and towards a stable system that provides opportunities and support for all.

I’m currently working on designing this metric, which aims to promote inclusive, equal and sustainable policies to actively serve the interests of a country’s citizens. My indicator, the Global Integration and Individual Potential (GIIP) metric, not only promotes these interests but asks citizens to participate in such metrics. Opening up one of the four defining factors – perception of individuals – to the public, will enable engagement and transparency with the economy, a concept that has grown to be mistrusted.

This is your chance to participate in such change, and spur an alternative into action. Set to launch in August 2020, the GIIP is about to become a tool for governments to use. I’m asking you to spare 5 minutes of your time to take a part in this change, for a better future for all of us.

Fill out the survey here.

One thought on “Enough with economic growth

  • Follow the Guardian and encourage readers to share the article via Twitter, email or WhatsApp. This is a brilliant article, imo, and well presented. I want to share it. No option to. Please look into that.

    Discovered Palatinate again this year and found all good reads. Thank you. Please keep up this excellent journalistic standard.

    Very useful source of (reliable) Durham (city) news. Again thank you.

    Reply

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