Neoliberalism, the consensus much of the developed (and increasingly the developing) world operates under, is a four pronged ideology: perpetual growth, aided by biting austerity, resulting in rampant inequality, all of which is fuelled by insatiable consumption. There have been a recent slew of articles claiming that the Greens are absolutely bonkers to be against this apparent panacea, and would therefore unleash mayhem from Dundee to Dover if elected. At no point have I seen a genuine attempt to understand why the Greens don't like growth, nor have I seen it coherently explained just why growth is worth obsessing over. Perhaps we should start by looking at how it's been working out for us recently.
Since Thatcher took office those lacking 3 or more publicly defined necessities (dubbed as the 'democratic' measure of poverty) has tripled, inequality has risen by a third (as measured by the Gini index), and wages have consistently lagged behind living costs, yet GDP per head is supposed to have nearly doubled in this time. Looking at the past 5 years specifically, things get bleaker still; over a million using food banks per year, at least 1.4 million zero-hours contracts , almost a third of all children are living in poverty, nearly 50,000 people dying simply because they couldn't heat their home and we have burgeoning private debt (all still happening under economic growth- strange).
Growth seems utterly unable to solve our societal problems, opting instead to create a whole host of its own. For the last few decades it has managed only to transfer wealth and power into the hands of a few, with its inevitable cure of 'austerity' seemingly only making things worse. Studies suggest that this Parliament has overseen quite a deliberate shift of wealth from the poor to the rich, with the wealth of the richest 1,000 Britons doubling over the past 10 years whilst the poorest 10% have lost out more than any other group.
Globally, much the same picture emerges. It is no surprise that the world's poorest 50% have seen a $750 billion drop in wealth whilst the richest 80 people in the world have seen theirs rise by $600 billion: these top 80 have a combined wealth of almost $2 trillion. IMF imposed 'structural adjustment programs' follow the neoliberal rule book by requiring countries to 'balance their books' before they can receive loans from the international loaning system, meaning, for many, drastic cuts to vital services leading to untold poverty and suffering, all in the name of growth.
In their ground breaking book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show us how crime rates, mental health problems, social cohesion, drug abuse, education, social mobility and levels of trust are all worse in more unequal countries. They highlight that growth does lead to better prosperity for all, but only up until a point. It is something that is desperately needed for developing countries, but it has long past the point of usefulness for developed countries like ourselves. What we now need is redistribution of the enormous wealth we have created, something the growth mantra consistently stops us from doing.
It's wreaking havoc with our planet too. The scramble for what's left of some of our natural resources has already started, with some countries having to import water to be able to sate its residents thirst, prices for various commodities rising and political conflict becoming more common. Global biodiversity is down by almost a third since 1970, global temperatures are rising ever closer to the ominous 2 degrees point, and more than three-quarters of the world's population consume more than they are able to produce. Some estimates put us at needing 3-5 planets to sustain our lifestyles in the UK, a truly sobering statistic.
It really should come as no surprise that infinite growth on a finite world would end in tears but apparently we're still struggling to get our heads around it. It is a paradox of Orwellian proportions that those that point out that perpetual growth coupled with dwindling resources and rising emissions will not end well are branded as 'naïve', whilst those that ignore the looming disaster are the pragmatists. If growth is no longer able to solve our problems, if it seems unable to produce anything other than massive inequality which comes with its own society-destroying baggage, and it's also threatening to destroy our planet, just why on earth are we hooked on it?
Memes are the cultural equivalent of genes, ideas, concepts and theories that vie for our attention, with those successful reproducing and 'infecting' our minds. One of the proponents of the theory, Susan Blackmore, highlights that at times memes can replicate in spite of being detrimental to their human hosts (think suicide cults). Neoliberalism, obsession with 'growth' above all else, has become one of the most prolific memes of our time, one that has set us on a crash course with extinction.
Our obsession with growth is at the heart of the problems facing us as a society: we cannot hope to build a better future unless we extract ourselves from it. Yet solutions are possible. A focus on the redistribution of the truly enormous wealth at the top of society that our growth priests have been distracting us from would be a great start, as highlighted by Queen's lecturer John Barry. He argues for the need to focus on ecological efficiency, sharing and public services, and a recognition of the contribution of more than just money to our lives. The $2 trillion in the hands of a few is testament to the fact that the money we need is there, we don't need more, it's just in the wrong hands. We needn't sacrifice welfare claimants, the disabled and our young people's futures on the altar of 'the economy', we need only look to the wealthy robbing us blind to realise how we can finance a better society.
If we could replace this growth meme with another, the idea that human, animal and environmental wellbeing are the goal, and that growth is not always the best way to achieve this, we could save ourselves. The question is, can we do this before it's too late?