Post-growth: an economist meditates

Review of Post Growth: Life after Capitalism. Polity 2021.

by Tim Jackson

Book cover, Post Growth from the publisher's website.

ISBN 9 781509 54529

The economist Tim Jackson is well known as a leading advocate of an alternative to the dominant growth-orientated economic policy. He wrote the report to the UK government, Prosperity Without Growth (2009), later published in book form (2011) and now in its second edition (2017). It’s an important resource for all of us trying to explore and promote the possibility of a society whose material basis does not have to keep expanding: post-growth or degrowth. He has produced numerous papers mostly based on macro-economic modelling of the consequences and policy options for a post-growth economy. In the two book versions of Prosperity Without Growth, Jackson asked whether doing away with growth means doing away with the capitalist system.

For many people, growth and capitalism go together. Growth is functional for capitalism. Capitalism demands growth. The idea of doing without growth is tantamount to doing away with capitalism, in this view. [Second edition p. 561].

He concluded that while a post-growth economy would not be compatible with “casino capitalism”, it could be compatible with other variants. His discussion was rather impaired by a somewhat simplistic definition of capitalism, limiting it to the private ownership of the means of production, rather than considering it as a system in which capital in its chameleon forms is continually accumulated, expanded, as a result of expropriation (Marx’s primitive accumulation – Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession) and exploitation (expropriation of surplus value from the labour process). Instead he followed Baumol in contrasting private with State ownership of the means of production, although he notes that this breaks down when “State capitalism” comes into the picture.

Jackson’s new book has a subtitle that refers explicitly to this question of capitalism. If anything, in this new book, Jackson seems to be yet more critical of capitalism. However, the reader will not find here a critical political economy that analyses the dominant system and its contradictions, together with the options for its replacement and the vulnerable leverage points in that system for activists and movements to address themselves to.

Instead the book is very much a personal and philosophical essay wherein the author seeks and takes inspiration from an eclectic group of figures, including Rosa Luxemburg, Robert Kennedy, Wangari Maathai, Hannah Arendt and Emily Dickenson, who have in various ways gone against the grain of the dominant system and its associated world-view. I suppose whether this enterprise is judged as successful will depend on the resonance that these paths of exploration have for the reader, not just the choice of those figures but the selections from their works and the sense Tim Jackson makes of them. For me, notwithstanding the fulsome praise cited from twenty notables, mostly with pedigree in post-growth, or at least sustainability circles, the resonance was not generally there. It will be for others.

If you are looking for a path from the madness of the current system to an alternative, then this book is not for you. Tim Jackson gives some pointers but I found it too idiosyncratic, and curiously, given that it is ultimately about systems, too personal and introspective. We all need to look inward and reflect on values, on what’s important in life, and find ways of detaching that from the imperatives of the encompassing, dominant system. The pandemic (referred to in several places) has helped many of us to do that, with more time out and more time alone and at home. Yet somehow, Jackson’s reflections didn’t take me any further. Maybe because I read too much Thoreau (Tim cites the Civil Disobedience essay but not Walden), listened to too much demanding music, and was lucky enough to get a good ecological grounding as a youth, the rather Buddhist talk of mental “flow” (with no less than 10 index entries) and anti-materialistic values weren’t much of a revelation for me. I suppose I was looking for something else.

There are some macroeconomic sections, and these are not unhelpful, but this is ground that Tim has covered extensively elsewhere, in research articles and blog pieces and his previous book. For example, there is discussion of the reduction of labour productivity in capitalist economies, which has, it is commonly supposed (and Jackson concurs) led to increased inequality. He sees a distinction between a high technology “fast” sector and a human orientated, “slow” sector, where, for example the jobs in caring are. This second sector, which cannot be made “more productive” is where he sees the hope for a reformed economy that doesn’t continue to destroy the basis for life. But the macroeconomist doesn’t offer us an analysis of how this might be arranged and under what kind of systemic arrangements.

My final disappointment was that, in a book that surprisingly dwelt little on global inequalities and the transfer of resources, wealth and value from South to North, there was a repeated use of the pronoun “we” when describing tendencies of the system. It is not all of “us” that are destroying the planet and stealing people’s livelihoods. It is a system, operated by those in power, economically and politically, who relentlessly extract, exploit and exterminate and will continue to do so …. until they are stopped.

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