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June 7, 2012

The infallibility of growth??

We shouldn’t worry, though, over the exact date when the human limits imposed by the Christian restraints of the Middle Ages were first abandoned. There were earlier classical, pre-Christian ones, certainly; you will be on pretty solid ground arguing that the Renaissance in the Italian city states, especially Florence, Milan and Venice, had produced merchants, bankers, manufacturers, princes, condottiere and artists who had thrown off most “medieval” restraints in both the personal and public economic realm. It is true, fragments of restraints remained, and historian Perry Miller made his name tracing their declining importance at the hands of a vigorous capitalism in 17th century New England. Yet decade by decade throughout the 19th and 20th century, as the material wealth of society has grown, economists have become preoccupied with maintaining high economic growth rates, because, as critics from Marx to Keynes to David Harvey have pointed out, when the growth rate drops below 3% the system is in trouble. While the Great Depression of the 1930’s set off much probing of the value system behind capitalism, from both the left and the right, the dramatic disappearance of growth and the deprivations of World War II only intensified its pursuit during the “golden days” of 1945-1973, until high inflation and the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970’s re-introduced the idea of “limits,” of restraints. These new restraints, if you stop to think about it, fell chiefly upon the income side, on labor and the unions, not on profits and the upper levels of management, although business never ceased its complaints about the restraints imposed by OSHA, the FDA, the FCC, the SEC, the EPA. Restraints on the free flow of capital and goods were bad, and the free trade and globalization that resulted when they were lifted were good – very good. With inflation subdued even under the wildest of boom times in the late 1990’s, only the fiercest of the inflation hawks at the Fed, the most serious environmentalists, and those concerned with stopping Global Warming, now talked openly of limits.

In the wake of the great financial wreckage caused by the hubris of Wall Street, and the lack of sufficient growth in an economy which has not fully recovered from the Great Recession of 2008-2009, there is once again a great hunger for unrestrained growth as the frenzy for domestic oil and gas drilling shows, yet it is deeply shadowed by the voices of those saying that the nature of that growth, and perhaps the growth itself, cannot take place in the old channels. Nature, and perhaps human nature, can’t withstand capitalism as we’ve known it.

As I’ve said previously, sustained growth is a physical impossibility. We create castles in our minds, but reality beckons forth with great and nearing fury.

“But now, three-quarters of a century later, we are no longer talking about theoretical alternatives to corporate rule. We are talking with practical urgency about an obvious need. Now the two great aims of industrialism – replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hand of a small plutocracy – seem close to fulfillment. At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses, and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on ‘defense’ of the ‘American dream,’ can for long disguise this failure.”

“Turn back,” it says in breathless echoes as we breeze across the edge of an abyss.

From → Economics, WTF?

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