Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Capitalism on the Rebound

If you’ve been through a tough break up, there is a chance that ‘going on the rebound’ will do you wonders. It may be the perfect remedy for regaining self-confidence, eliminating unwanted anxiety, and forming some sort of base to start enjoying life again.
On the other hand, this could prove to be a hazardous and volatile method of therapy: it may bring out the worst in you, there’s a very real possibility it could do you far more harm than good, and whatever benefits may come of it could probably be gained by other means anyway. And to compound these issues, the impact you may have on those caught up in your self-involved behaviour may be rather harmful, perhaps even exploitative. You may just begin to break a few too many hearts.
Whether it works out for you or not, what’s for certain is that as a long-term strategy this behaviour is disastrous. Play around like this for too long and any increase in emotional wellbeing that may initially have occurred will begin to plateau, perhaps even begin to decline, while the casualties of broken hearts continue to pile up.
Now if you haven’t guessed already, I’m not, in fact, a proficient relationship counsellor (and I’m not even speaking from much experience…). So my simplistic psychological analysis may be a little off the mark. Nevertheless, this thinking has led me to wonder whether this behaviour (and the likely consequences) offers a surprisingly accurate metaphor for those of global capitalism (at least in its current form) and the drive for economic growth. I should probably try to explain what I mean…
First of all, it’s clear that this capitalism has, in many parts of the world brought around some huge benefits. In the Western world, we generally have secure food supplies, good access to healthcare, and a decent amount of leisure time relative to one or two centuries ago (or much of the developing world in the present day). More recently, the opening up to free trade and kick starting of industrial production has brought similar levels of wealth to countries like Singapore and South Korea.
On the flipside to the economic progress we’ve made is that it’s certainly not brought out the best in us. This relentless pursuit of growth has locked us into the on-going practice of exploiting the people and resources of less developed countries, while within our own countries an uncomfortable, unnatural culture has emerged with individualism and materialism at its core. And on top of this we can’t possibly know if there was a way we could have achieved our prosperity without these adverse effects.
These undesirable side effects of capitalism are where the parallels with risky post-break-up behaviour start to become more clear.
Equally worrying is the fact that in many countries capitalist economic programmes, often in the form of ‘shock therapy’, haven’t worked out at all as planned (for example in Chile, Russia, and Iraq post-Saddam; see Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’). Even when on paper these programmes achieve the economic growth they were aiming for, all too frequently the wealth ends up concentrated in the hands of an opportunistic few, and it shows little sign of it trickling down to those at the bottom who are at the heart of the problem.
So again these hazards resemble those of post-break-up rebounding, which may too either fail entirely as a strategy, or succeed only in satisfying a select few body parts (not including the heart).
Moving back to those parts of the world where the outcomes of capitalism have been more positive, in these countries we are now in a fantastic position to live prosperous lives, but the usefulness of economic growth in increasing our happiness has surely ceased. In another words, once people’s basic nutritional and health needs are met and sufficient leisure time obtained, capitalism seems to have little to offer us: instead it serves only to perpetuate the exploitation of people and planet and accelerate the deterioration of society.
Overall it seems that, although both capitalism and post-break-up rebound may well bring some benefits, they are risky, volatile, inevitably exploitative, and hopeless in the long-term.
The graph shown below (from ‘Prosperity without growth’ by the UK Sustainable Development Commission) gives empirical evidence of the initial, but subsequently diminishing benefits of economic growth. It can be seen, for example, that there are countries with half the GDP per capita of the USA whose people are equally happy, and that generally once a country reaches a certain level of wealth any additional growth has a negligible effect upon peoples happiness. In fact, arguably, the eternal sense of dissatisfaction required to drive consumption and maintain growth eventually leads to a decline in life satisfaction.

Yet increases in GDP invariably lead to increases in resource use and pollution emissions, which in turn leads to increasing exploitation as more powerful countries feed on the cheap labour and natural resources of those less well off, and millions (perhaps billions) of lives are disrupted by the environmental damage caused by this resource use.
May be my drawing parallels between post break-up behaviour and economic institutions is worthless, but the motives for scrapping the doctrine of economic growth seem flawless, even though putting this into practice is a truly daunting task. And in any case, environmental constraints will force us to abandon this doctrine eventually anyway, which begs the obvious question ‘what the hell are we waiting for?
Unfortunately, metaphorically speaking, most of civilisation seems to have become dangerously addicted to sleeping around, rather than searching for a stable life partner.

See ‘Development Economics’, at MRUniversity.com’ for a discussion of many of the arguments revolving around the various approaches to tackling poverty with economic programmes (albeit, with a bias towards free-trade and privatisation, and in my opinion far too little discussion of environmental limits).
In contrast, ‘Prosperity without growth’ by the UK Sustainable Development Commission is focused on our urgent need to drop the doctrine of growth.