Excerpted from podcast found at: https://www.thetaxcast.com/degrowth-liberation-from-growthism-114/
The Taxcast, transcript for the September 2021 edition: Degrowth and liberation from ‘growthism.’
Naomi: “…. I’m really happy to speak with Jason Hickel today, Economic anthropologist and author of The Divide, and Less Is More. We’re going to talk about degrowth, and liberating ourselves from ‘growthism’, as Jason puts it. Hi Jason, thanks for being here!”
Jason: “Yeah thanks very much, Naomi. It’s good to join you.”
Naomi: “Let’s start with how do you explain de-growth to people?”
Jason: “Yeah, let’s think about like, what is the positive vision that we actually want to achieve? You know, we need to reconstruct our economy in such a way that it meets the needs of all people at a high standard, ending poverty and ensuring good lives for all, while at the same time remaining within planetary boundaries. Right? So the simple point made by de-growth scholarship is that in order for rich nations to achieve this goal, which we can all agree is sensible, they need to abandon aggregate economic growth as an objective and actively scale down excess resource use and energy use, simply because they’re vastly in excess of sustainable levels, and they’re the ones that are overwhelmingly driving ecological breakdown. So, that’s a reality we have to confront and we have to confront it urgently, you know, given the stakes of the ecological crisis. So in terms of like a simple definition, we would just say that de-growth is a planned reduction of energy and resource use in rich countries or in imperialist nations, designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way. Okay? And the key bit here is that ecological economists argue that this can be done in a way that improves people’s lives. Okay? So this is totally different from a recession. A recession is what happens when a growth-addicted economy stops growing – things fall apart, and people get hurt. Degrowth is a process of liberating ourselves from the growth imperative so that we can improve people’s lives within ecological boundaries.
So what does this look like in practice? Uh, well, so the key thing is to recognise that right now, we assume that all sectors of the economy should grow all the time, regardless of whether or not we actually need them. And it doesn’t take much to realise that this is clearly an irrational way to approach the economy. Instead, we should have an honest conversation about what sectors we actually need to expand or improve – things like, you know, renewable energy, public transportation, regenerative farming, things like that. And what sectors are clearly destructive and socially less necessary, and should be actively scaled down. So, production of SUVs, private jets, industrial beef, you know, advertising, fast fashion, the military industrial complex, the practice of planned obsolescence whereby corporations make products that are designed to need replacement after a short period of time to increase product turnover, etc, etc. All of these forms of production can be scaled down without any negative impacts on people’s lives. In fact, we’d be better off without them! Except for the fact that, of course, as you scale down unnecessary forms of production, the economy needs less labour, right? And so immediately you’ll say, what about unemployment? But ecological economics has a very clear response to this, which is simply to say, as we need less labour, then shorten the working week and share necessary labour more evenly, thus ensuring effectively full employment, right? And taking the question of unemployment off the table entirely. And at the same time you expand public services so that everyone has access to the goods they need to live well, and distribute income and wealth more fairly with policies like living wages, minimum income, you know, maximum income, wealth taxes and things like that. Right? So the bottom line becomes basically we should seek to organise the economy around meeting human needs rather than around servicing elite consumption and capital accumulation. And that requires a pretty dramatic shift from sort of the status quo of our economic system.”
Naomi: “Yes, it really does mean a dramatic shift, and we’ve seen during the pandemic, supposedly impossible, unthinkable expenditure on social needs has happened with things like furlough, supporting workers to stay at home and all that sort of thing. So people know now that it can be done, you know, the sky didn’t fall in! Um yes, so job sharing, more time for people to do other things and to care for others, universal basic income, universal basic services. There’s so many good things degrowth opens out for us isn’t there?”
Jason: “Yeah, I think that’s, uh, I think that this is, this is a powerful realisation that people are coming to, right, and the truth is we’ve known that this was possible for a long time. Um, you know, it’s a basic tennet of modern monetary theory. The idea is that any state with a sovereign currency can simply issue that currency to mobilise resources and labour around meeting specific needs. Okay? So the only limitation to this is the question of inflation. But MMT, modern monetary theory, points out that inflation risks can be managed quite easily, simply by taxing excess money back out of the economy when necessary, so taxing the rich or taxing specific industries, things like that, in order to reduce aggregate demand, right? So, it’s a very elegant theory and is true to real life, like people that control the money supply and control public spending understand this about how the economy works, it’s just that most of us ordinary people don’t, ok? So this is an extremely powerful reality. It means that when it comes to things like public services, renewable energy, regenerative farming, ecosystem restoration, all the things that we know we need to do to establish a just and regenerative economy, there’s no shortage of money for these things.
Ok? We can issue currency to fund these kinds of projects directly, and we can use a public job guarantee, funded by the same mechanism to mobilise the necessary labour around these projects, basically giving people the opportunity to train for and participate in the most important collective project of our generation, with a real living wage, thus also raising wages across the board. Ok? So, you know, modern monetary theory, MMT plus a public job guarantee can be an extraordinarily powerful tool for achieving the social and ecological goals that we want in a very short period of time. Right? So this is liberating because we’ve been fed this false narrative that if we want even the most basic decent public services, we first need economic growth, right? What modern monetary theory reveals is that this is not an accurate picture. This picture makes it seem as though we have to depend on capitalists and on those who accumulate wealth, right – the rich should be taxed in order to have the most basic rudiments of a civilised society? When in reality we can fund public services directly and we should use tax, tax the rich purely as an instrument for reducing inequality, right, recognising inequality is corrosive, and we need to get rid of it, and to reduce the consumption of the rich for ecological reasons and to control inflation, right? Those are the purposes of taxation and we should be clear on that. The public services we can fund directly and this is, this is a liberating realisation for any progressive movement.”
Naomi: “Yeah, absolutely. And one of the 4 r’s of tax – repricing – is so crucial to responsibly and fairly price damaging activities out of the market. And it’s amazing isn’t it that we’re still using GDP growth as a measure, and right from the start it wasn’t intended to be an indicator of progress, I mean it counts only commodity prices and exchange, yet leaves out care, and we know without care economies can’t function. And GDP measures don’t build in the value of nature, or the loss that the damage we’re doing inflicts. I mean, living through a Capitalist era has got us onto one track and we seem stuck on it, we can’t seem to get ourselves off that track.”
Jason: ”Yeah, and this is an important point to realise is that when people think of capitalism, they’ll often say, oh, that sounds fine, indeed, it sounds natural simply because capitalism is just about markets and trade. Ok? This is not true – markets and trade clearly existed long before capitalism, thousands of years before capitalism. Capitalism is only about 500 years old, it’s a new system. It arose, concomitant with the enclosure movement in Europe, mass enslavement of Africans and indigenous people and European colonisation, right? It emerged from that historical process of appropriation, and expansion. And it continues in that spirit today, we have to recognise what capitalism is. It’s distinguished by processes of appropriation, elite accumulation, and perpetual expansion. And so we have to decide whether that is a system that we really want to keep around, or if we can imagine, you know, saner alternatives to it. And I think that it’s clear that we can, it’s clear that we can organise the economy and we can have a post-capitalist eco-social economy that meets people’s human needs, people’s needs at a high standard within ecological limits, and improve people’s lives. Except for the fact that it will be, you know, against the interests of an elite class that benefit prodigiously from the status quo. So there’s a political obstacle there, which is that this is going to require a struggle against elite interests. But that’s true of every struggle for social justice that we have ever fought in all of human history. So there’s nothing new about that! We just have to be clear about what’s at stake.”
Naomi: “Yeah, it’s easy to forget that Capitalism is relatively new. And yes, we’re all so conditioned into thinking GDP is vital for our wellbeing, and it’s not! And this goes to the heart of the misunderstandings we have about our economies, and ultimately Capitalism – you know, we might not like its excesses but we still believe that only Capitalism and higher GDP can deliver better lives. I heard you recently demonstrating, and it was really fascinating, how nations pursuing GDP growth doesn’t actually make life any better for ordinary people, after a certain point. Can you talk us through that?”
Jason: “Yeah so, the key thing to understand is that rich countries don’t need more growth to achieve improved social outcomes, ok? Now in poor countries you know, growth may be necessary because we actually have to increase sovereign economic capacity to produce the things that are necessary for people to live well. In rich countries that’s not an issue, there’s effectively a surplus and overcapacity problem, right, overproduction problem. So past a certain point, the correlation between growth and human wellbeing totally breaks down.
And this is very clear in the empirical record. And it should not be surprising. After all, growth means an increase in aggregate commodity production. And there’s no reason to believe that an increase in aggregate commodity production should necessarily have a positive causal impact on human welfare. Right? I mean, this should be clear to any observer. It all depends on what we’re producing, and how income is distributed, right? So, are we producing military hardware, or are we producing vaccines, right? Is income distributed to the rich, or is it distributed to the working class, etc, etc. Right? Like this is what matters. So yeah, so looking at the USA is a good example. This is the most advanced capitalist economy and so this is sort of the objective that all capitalist economies are trying to achieve, like that level of commodification, one of the richest countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita. But look, Spain beats the USA in terms of social indicators, including a life expectancy that is five years longer, ok, with 55% less GDP per capita. Portugal outperforms the US with 66% less. And these are not just two outliers, there are dozens of similar examples of countries that achieve strong social outcomes that exceed that of the US but with significantly less GDP per capita. So the question is how, you know, how is this achieved. And the answer is that it’s achieved quite simply by distributing income more fairly, producing things that people actually need and not things that are designed solely for elite consumption, and ensuring universal access to high quality public services.
And the evidence is clear that when it comes to human wellbeing and improving social indicators, that’s what matters – fairness, livelihoods, and access to public services. The literature could not be clearer on that. So if we compare the US to Spain or Portugal, it becomes clear that a huge portion of US economic activity, of US productive activity is basically organised around things that do not actually contribute to human wellbeing at all, things like production of SUVs, planned obsolescence, um, you know, military expansion and so on. Right. So, um, we can think of that as basically ecological damage without gain, and that’s irrational, right? It’s like, this is a deeply inefficient, irrational way to run an economy. And it’s socially irrational too, in that, you know, this chunk of the economy requires an extraordinary amount of human labour. Take fast fashion, for example, millions of people’s lives are poured into extracting and producing and selling clothes that are designed to be used a few times and then discarded, which has an ecological cost, but clearly also a social cost. It’s a waste of human lives, a waste of human talent, a waste of, of humanity in general, I suppose. So, so that’s what I mean by a waste, right? A significant portion ofbproductive capacity in rich countries is effectively damage without gain.”
Naomi: “Yes, yes. In terms of global fairness and redistribution, we haven’t talked about reparational justice for the global South, not just the crimes of empire and slavery that they’re still bearing the consequences of on an ongoing basis, but also the climate crisis, which is impacting the poorest parts of the world the most. There’s so many injustices heaped upon historic injustices.”
Jason: “Yeah. Yeah, I mean obviously this is a big question.”
Jason: “I think that what’s really important for people to understand is that the ecological crisis is being driven overwhelmingly by excess resource use and energy use in rich countries. Ok? And this is very clear in the empirical record. We had a study that came out in the Lancet last year demonstrating that the global North is responsible for 92% of emissions in excess of the planetary boundary. Right? So 92% of the emissions that are actively now causing climate breakdown have been generated by the global North, in the process of their enrichment. Ok? So this is clearly a process of atmospheric colonisation where the fair shares, fair access to our planetary commons, our atmosphere, has been appropriated by a few nations for their excess production and consumption. Ok? That’s important to recognise. This is true also in terms of resource use. So, high income nations we know are responsible for the vast majority of excess resource use. They use in the region of four times over the sustainable boundary, right? What that means is that, to put this more simply, if all nations of the world were to consume like rich countries do, then we would need four planets to sustain that kind of production and consumption. This is clearly not feasible. And the crucial thing about this is to realise that the damage caused by this, by excess emissions and excess resource use disproportionately harm poor countries.
So the global South is where the majority of climate damages happen. It’s where the majority of climate change related deaths are occurring, and that’s despite the fact that they have contributed almost nothing to the problem, and in most cases are still well within their fair shares of the planetary boundary for emissions. Ok? So that’s a deep injustice. In terms of resource use, we have to recognise that the high levels of resource use in rich countries are overwhelmingly appropriated from the global South, right? Just look around at the things that we have in our lives, everything from our clothes, to our food, to our tech gadgets, the materials and labour involved in the production of these things, that production happens overwhelmingly in the global South, right? So that’s where the damage occurs. So, the damage associated with beef consumption in Britain, or in Europe, or the USA – that is outsourced to Brazil and India, you know, where deforestation is happening for the sake of cattle feed and so on. Or take the cosmetic industry in Britain, the damage from that happens in Indonesia where deforestation is happening for Palm oil plantations, which are in British cosmetics, things like that, so, the damage happens elsewhere, and we need to be clear about that. And this is important because in the global North, we have this tendency to speak of the ecological crisis as primarily a problem of technology, whereas in the global South social movements recognise that it is primarily a problem of colonisation.
And in response, they call for decolonisation and global justice. And this is almost entirely absent from our discourse, and that’s a problem. So in 2010, thousands of social movements and across the global south came together in Cochabamba in Bolivia and signed, what’s known as the people’s agreement of Cochabamba. And I urge listeners to look this up.
It stands as one of the most important documents on climate and ecology ever drafted, and they are clear in this document that what we confront is a crisis of atmospheric and ecological colonisation, and they call clearly for decolonisation in response to that, calling for rich nations to reduce their use of energy and resources, um, to liberate the global south from forms of extractivism and a future of catastrophic climate breakdown. Right? So this was, this was written in 2010. They do not use the word de-growth, but the principles are all there. De-growth is a demand from the global South – rich countries need to degrow in order that we can all thrive on this planet, right? And, and, and this needs to be part of our thinking in the global North, urgently.”
Naomi: “Yes, absolutely. Um, I wanted to ask you about what policies in your view people like me and other tax justice activists, economic justice activists should be focusing on the most, transformational policies rather than just tweaks to a bad system?”
Jason: “Yeah, I spend a lot of my time thinking about tax evasion, right? Which obviously is a big problem in Britain and other OECD countries, but is overwhelmingly a problem that affects global South countries. It’s a crime that’s perpetrated by multinational companies who basically produce things in the global South, but then effectively siphon profits out of those countries, you know, illicitly through the trade system so that they’re not taxed in the global South where the production actually happens and that drains the global South from an extraordinary amount of finance and resource that could be used for development and poverty alleviation and improving sovereign industrial capacity and so on. We have to, again, expand our calls for tax justice beyond just the UK to recognise this as a global problem, with overwhelmingly destructive impacts for the South. But I think that in addition to that I would say that to avoid thinking of tax reform as simply a matter of tweaking an otherwise bad system, I really think that the insights – again, and I sound like a broken record here – the insights from MMT are essential – Modern Monetary Theory – to recognising that we need to change the way we think about tax altogether, to stop thinking of it as something that, we basically need rich people to be around so that we can tax them to do the things that we want, to recognise that money can and should be a public good, that we can spend directly into the economy to accomplish the things we want directly.
Right? And taxation should by contrast be used as a way to reduce elite consumption, reduce inequality, and manage inflationary risks, thus achieving the goals of an eco-social economy. Tax can be a crucial tool toward that end, but we have to change the way we think about it.
We have to realise this fundamental fact, and once we do, then we have a lot of hope. And that fact is that the ecological crisis will not, and cannot be stopped by the environmentalist movement alone. Okay? Because they do not have the political power that’s required to achieve the kinds of fundamental economic changes that we need, right? That can only be accomplished if the environmentalist movement creates strong, lasting alliances with the labour movements and with working class formations, because that’s where sort of additional agency for political change can be found. Like Extinction Rebellion can shut down bridges and roads in Central London. And that can be very effective at drawing attention to problems and changing public discourse. But in alliance with the labour movement and working class formations, they would be able to be much more persuasive because they have the power of the general strike. And that’s powerful. But to get there requires, requires a shift in the way that unions think. Right now, unions are focused you know, on improving livelihoods and employment and so on. And that’s good but they’re under the assumption that we need additional growth in order to do that – basically, grow the GDP and hope that some trickles down to employment and wages. This is an apolitical and problematic way of thinking about the interests of the working class. We need a more direct political approach, recognising that we solve the social problem or the problem of working class misery, right by, by demanding living wages, demanding a shorter working week, demanding a public job guarantee, taking the question of unemployment off the table entirely, unemployment should no longer be a question that we confront, and needn’t be.
At the same time, we expand public services to ensure that everybody has access to the goods they need to live a decent dignified life. These should be our core social demands, effectively a demand for a social guarantee. So we need to back that demand with the unions and in return, once we have that demand in place, they will be free to back you know, the ecological demands that we put forward, that we know are necessary, right? We can have each other’s backs as it were. Now, the crucial thing here is that these alliances do not come easily. They don’t come automatically. They require work, they require organising.”
Naomi: “Yes indeed! You’ve been listening to Jason Hickel on the Taxcast, the Tax Justice Network podcast. There’s a lot more that Jason talked to me about on how we get to a post- growth world, which I couldn’t fit in here so I’ll make the full conversation available soon…”
Excerpted from podcast found at: https://www.thetaxcast.com/rethinking-economies-115/
The Taxcast, transcript October 2021
Naomi: “… In the previous edition 114 of the Taxcast I spoke with economic anthropologist Jason Hickel on degrowth and liberating ourselves from ‘growthism.’ As I said then, the rest of the conversation is too good to miss and so this month here’s part two on the urgent need to rethink our economies, and how we do that:”
Naomi: “Jason, the purpose of economies should be to serve people. And usually, what serves ordinary people also respects the natural boundaries of the planet. But we’re often looking at our economies through a prism that’s being held up to our eyes by private interests, which really isn’t helpful. Can we talk about where we place ‘value?’ I mean it’s amazing isn’t it that that most countries in the world are still measuring the usefulness and success of their economies through GDP growth? I mean it’s not a good indicator of progress, on any level really is it?”
Jason: “Yeah. So I think that the first thing is to understand what GDP growth actually is. People have this tendency to assume that it’s like a metric of value or of livelihoods or a provisioning, or wellbeing more broadly, but in fact it is not those things and it was never intended to be used this way. GDP growth actually has a very narrow, specific definition. It is an increase in aggregate commodity production as measured in terms of prices. Okay? And by commodity production here I mean the production of things that are bought and sold on the market for money, and nothing else. So things without a price are not counted here. So right off the bat, it’s clear that GDP measures just a small part of our economy, basically the capitalist sector, okay, the sort of market sector. So it leaves out a whole lot of value, including the value that people get from subsistence farming, which many people in the world do, commons, you know, sharing, anything that we do for ourselves, our own domestic maintenance and so on. Care is a big one, right? Like if you care for your own children, and if you cook dinner for your family and care for your elderly parents etc, that’s a huge amount of value that keeps our society functioning, keeps our economy afloat, and yet that’s not at all counted in GDP. It’s only counted when you buy those services on the market right? So if you go to a restaurant, or pay a nanny or send your parents to a private care home or something like that. So, this illustrates how what we’re measuring in terms of GDP is simply the commodity sector of the economy. It also leaves out all of the value of nature, ok, which is represented as zero until it’s commodified and also, and this is a big one, it leaves out the value of public services, right? So the actual value that we get from you know, a universal healthcare system or a universal education system, etc, that is valued at zero in the national accounts if it’s accessed for free by users. Okay? It’s represented only in terms of the costs involved in producing it, not the actual product itself. The product itself only counts as valuable in the national accounts if it’s privatised, okay?! So if we were to privatise the NHS, then GDP would go up because suddenly the cost of healthcare is going to rise, uh ‘cause it’s now a commodity, ok? So, so it leaves out a lot. But perhaps more importantly, it does not count the, the social and ecological costs that are involved with commodity production. Right? So for example, if you tear down a forest and sell the timber to Ikea for furniture, then GDP goes up but it doesn’t count the cost of losing that forest as a sink for carbon, or as a habitat for species or as a future resource for humans to use. Okay? Or if you, again, if you privatise the NHS, then GDP goes up, but it doesn’t count the cost of losing access to our most precious healthcare service, which is essential to our lives. Okay. And so on and so forth. So it’s a very problematic measure, actually. And in fact even the person who invented this measure, a guy named Simon Kuznets, warned that we should never use it as an indicator of social progress. Right? He actually stood up and said to US Congress, the welfare of a nation cannot be inferred from a measure of national accounts or GDP. Uh, he said calls for more growth should specify growth of what and for what purpose. Okay? So we should think again more rationally about what things we actually want to expand, what things clearly need to be reduced, ok? I mean, we’ve totally neglected Kuznets’s warning. And we are so far away from his wisdom on this. Instead we just pursue aggregate commodity expansion as if that’s the only thing that matters, and we try to fit reality into that. So that’s a problem and we need to think more clearly about what we want our economy to do.”
Naomi: “Yes. It’s all part of that kind of madness isn’t it? I’ve covered before on the Taxcast how women’s work’s got to be the biggest unrecognised subsidy to the global economy of all, I mean everything would collapse without it, but it’s not valued, or even counted sometimes. So, we know – and we can easily prove this – that nations pursuing GDP growth don’t actually make life any better for ordinary people after a certain point. You’ve described how Portugal has a relatively low GDP per capita rate, but it’s a much happier country for people to live than the United States which has a much higher rate, because it redistributes more – redistribution being one of the 4 rs of tax justice. I heard you explaining recently how the United States could have higher levels of human welfare with 66% less GDP per capita, if they distributed income more fairly. I know some countries have dropped GDP measures in favour of better indicators, can you tell me a bit about countries that are measuring these things better?”
Jason: “Yeah, so there are several alternatives to GDP that have been developed by ecological economists and others. One of the most prominent is one called the Genuine Progress Indicator or GPI. Now GPI is interesting because, uh, it’s quite simple actually, basically it starts with GDP and then it adds value of things that are excluded from GDP and then it subtracts social and ecological costs of commodity production. Right? So the idea here is that like, let’s try to correct GDP for its shortcomings. And it’s interesting because if politicians were focused on maximising GPI, then what they’d be doing effectively would be trying to find ways to improve social outcomes while minimising ecological costs. And that would clearly be a better way to be running the economy, better, more rational and more ecologically coherent way to be running the economy.
So that’s one approach, you know, to sort of supplement it with another single indicator. But the problem with single indicators is that they always obscure things that are within them. Okay? So maybe a more reasonable approach is to use some kind of dashboard of a range of different indicators of things that we want to be watching, and things that we want to achieve or improve directly, right? So if we want to improve wages, or health outcomes or bio-diversity, and if we want to reduce emissions, and deforestation, etc, etc, let’s have those things front and centre and have targets on those things and pursue them directly right? Rather than assuming as we presently do that, simply by increasing the GDP it’s somehow magically going to solve our social and ecological problems when in fact, of course it does not!
Right? So it makes more sense to sort of have in front of us what we want to be watching and pursuing.
Now I think the key thing to recognise here is that regardless of what we measure, as long as we have a capitalist economy, then it’s going to be organised around commodity production and increasing commodity production. And this is where de-growth becomes so powerful because it’s not enough to just measure something differently, we actually have to pay attention to the deeper structural drivers of ecological breakdown, which is the growth imperative in the economy and do things to liberate ourselves from that. Right? So let’s throw off the shackles of growthism so that we can be free to pursue the objectives that we actually want to pursue.”
Naomi: “Right. But on the other hand, we do need some kinds of growth, don’t we? Uh, growth in things like education, healthcare, free time, forms of exchange, sustainable homes, you know, caring for each other?”
Jason: “Yeah. So these things, you mention you want to improve things like education, healthcare, free time, etc, etc, you know, decent homes. Yes, clearly we want to improve those. Now I would question whether we would want to refer to this in the language of growth, because let’s say we expand the public healthcare system or the public education system. Okay? Let’s take education because higher education was partly privatised in this country. If you were to bring public education back into the non-commodity space, right, if you make it again a public good that is free at the point of use, then this will reduce GDP, okay? So, we’re expanding public access to public education, but GDP is going down so in fact, this is not growth as such. We have to be clear on what growth is. You know, when we talk about growth, we have to understand that we’re talking about an increase in commodity production. So, expanding free time and the public housing stock – that might not be in the interest of economic growth and that’s okay! In fact it might even lead a reduction in GDP and again that’s ok because what actually matters here is that we’re improving livelihoods and provisioning and access to good lives. Right? So I think that’s the way we should think about it. I mean, the problem with the word growth it’s been so heavily co-opted by capital, and it’s a problem, right? Because it’s, you know, the term sounds so good, so positive, like, you know, plants grow, children grow, we grow in maturity, things like that. And so it’s become a kind of ideological term where, you know, capital gets us to buy into supporting the project of continual commodity production expansion just because this term sounds so positive. So yeah, if we want to improve healthcare and free time, let’s talk about improving those things, but I don’t think growth is the right word to use here, certainly not economic growth or GDP growth. So, and certainly, you know, we may want to expand production of bicycles, but do we want to expand production of bicycles exponentially forever, which is what growth is about? It’s not clear to me that we do, right? There’s clearly a point at which additional bicycles that we don’t need become a problem. So here again, we should be clear about what we actually want to achieve and toward what end. I think that’s really crucial.”
Naomi: “Yeah. Thanks for that, yeah. That really makes sense to me, yeah, we have to be so careful about words. There’s another term as well that’s used a lot in the UK by the current government, and that’s ‘levelling up’. That’s really problematic as well isn’t it? There’s no question that some people are struggling and don’t have the things they need for a happy and dignified life and that’s got to change, but nobody’s talking about levelling down. I mean, we know the superrich are the ones most damaging the planet by a huge margin, and we know as well people in wealthier nations are disproportionately causing the most damage. So how far does this go beyond reducing things like private jets? I just wonder what your thoughts are on that?”
Jason: “Yeah. So there’s quite a lot to say here. Let me start by saying this, the discourse of levelling up, you’re right, is problematic. And I think it’s problematic in two key respects. The first is that it assumes that the rich have accumulated their income and wealth in some kind of vacuum, right? When in reality, that kind of accumulation always derives from processes of exploitation of labour and nature. So in the process of accumulation there’s the production of poverty and deprivation, right? So these are two sides of the same coin, that’s important. So, from this perspective, this vision of everybody becoming, I’m not really sure what the vision is, really everyone becoming millionaires, I’m not sure!! Um, it’s clearly incoherent because that’s not how capitalism works, right?!
The second thing is that we know that the rich are overwhelmingly responsible for the emissions and resource use that are presently driving ecological breakdown and so that level of consumption clearly cannot be universalised, so that’s an ecologically incoherent vision. So what’s the alternative? We basically need to pursue strategies of justice and convergence, okay? So the idea would be, we have to dramatically curtail the consumption and accumulation of the rich, which is what de-growth explicitly proposes, okay, while allocating resources in a way that ensures everybody has access to the goods and services required for a decent and dignified life. This is not rocket science, and it does not require additional growth. What it requires is justice. And I think we have to be clear about that.”
Naomi: “Right yes, ok, strategies of justice and convergence. OK.”
Jason: “Yeah. I want to pick up on something that was implicit in your question, which is the question of consumption, and actually, aside from the consumption of the rich, which clearly has to be curtailed, I don’t know if consumption is the right lens with which to address the problem we face, because it makes it into a question of individual responsibility, when in reality this is the question of our economic system, right? The structure of our economic system. In other words, the system of production. So when we talk about capitalism, it is a system of production that is organised around perpetual expansion, perpetual production of commodities. And then when you have this kind of overproduction which is what we experience, then you have to find a way to mop all of that up in order to prevent devaluation of products and assets, okay? So, and the way you do that is you advertise aggressively, you design products to break down to increase turnover. You dismantle public services so that people have no choice but to buy private alternatives. And you can see this in the way that like public transportation systems are in many cases dismantled in favour of the automobile industry, in favour of fossil fuels and so on. Right? So people become victims of this system, okay? So when we talk about reducing consumption, that’s not adequate because it doesn’t target the structural drivers of the problem which is the system of production. We need a system that is not organised or dependent on perpetually increasing production so as to liberate people from the necessity of perpetual consumption, okay? And this is core to the de-growth argument, which is simply to say this – the environmentalist movement so far has tended to focus on consumption, which has a limited appeal in terms of the kind of political movements you can mobilise with this because certainly working class people cannot get on board of a movement that is about reducing consumption, because they don’t have enough, right? And for middle-class people it’s just about, this comes across as guilt and guilt is limited in terms of the kind of politics you can produce from it. But when we have a lens of ‘let’s recognise the fact that our lives and our planet and our economy are captured by Capital, and organised around elite accumulation, let us find ways to throw off that vice grip and organise the economy in more just and ecological ways’ – that’s a vision people can get on board with, whether they’re working class or middle-class, simply by recognising what the stakes are. And so I think that’s what de-growth adds to this conversation, is to think more structurally about the economy.”
Naomi: “Yes, and that brings us to taxation. The 4 rs – revenue raising, representation and of course repricing and redistribution, perhaps the most important aspects of tax which are often less understood:”
Jason: “Yeah. So, okay. So let me address the question of tax. I’m on board with those who argue that tax should not be regarded primarily as a tool for raising revenues. Modern Monetary Theory, MMT have done a really good job of fleshing that argument out. Rather it should be regarded as a tool for accomplishing specific social and ecological goals, right? And it’s a very powerful tool. So we need to use taxation to tax the rich, to constrain their consumption, okay, to bring resource use down and energy use down. And we need to use taxation to reduce inequality. Like those are the key objectives here, because inequality is corrosive and corrupts our democracies and makes people unhappy and miserable, etc.
In addition to that, we can also tax certain damaging products to reduce the production of those things. Okay? So we can use taxation toward that end as well. But when it comes to that dimension, I think we have to be aware that that tax can be a blunt and sometimes problematic tool. So, you know, if we’re taxing things like cigarettes and sugar then maybe that’s fine, but if we’re taxing carbon or resources, then this might end up pricing certain key goods out of reach of the poor. And here, think about like the Gilets Jaunes, okay? And how what was effectively a carbon tax in France ended up hurting the poor, you know, harming the poor most and disrupted any political consensus around that policy. So, that –“
Naomi: “Yeah, that was a classic example of how not to use repricing through taxation, yes!”
Jason: “Exactly. So it’s crucial that we ensure that we do this kind of thing in a just and equitable way. You know, I think that we have to bring in concepts from like the literature on rationing, like a rationing framework is maybe more powerful here and more just, you know, first ensure that everyone has access to what they need, and then tax additional unnecessary consumption, okay? So like a good example here is – take flights. We know that we have to dramatically scale down the commercial airline industry by reducing the number of flights. Now, if you just use tax for that, what that means is that basically the working class, and certainly the poor will never have access to a flight ever again, okay? It’s barely affordable to most people now! And so then you’ve got a situation where only the rich have the privilege of flying, which is clearly not fair. So, a better approach would be to say, you know, everybody gets, let’s start with say one flight a year or one flight every two years at a sort of regular rate, and then any flights in addition to that are taxed at an exponentially increasing rate to the point where they’re unaffordable, even for the rich, right? So to me, this is a more just way of thinking about it, like tax, you know, taxation can be an important tool, but only when framed within a kind of just rationing framework, that has to be a core principle.
The insights from MMT, Modern Monetary Theory are essential to recognising that we need to change the way we think about tax altogether, to recognise that money can and should be a public good that we can spend directly into the economy to accomplish the things we want directly. Right? And taxation should be used as a way to reduce elite consumption, reduce inequality and manage inflationary risks, thus achieving the goals of an eco-social economy. Tax can be a crucial tool toward that end, but we have to change the way we think about it.
Naomi: “Right. I’ve got a final question for you then. I want to ask you what gives you hope for the future? I mean what gives me hope is that I feel like we’re seeing a generational shift in power happening in a lot of countries around the world, there’s some incredible organising by younger people who are perhaps less afraid of change, and the fact they’ve grown up without the old certainties previous generations thought they had. I mean, I’m all for sort of positive discrimination for 20 plus year olds into Parliaments, I find things like the Care Manifesto very inspiring as a set of ideas for the future, I’ve recently read Rutger Bregman’s book ‘Humankind: a hopeful history’, there’s a lot of real sensible ways forward there, what gives you hope?”
Jason: “Yeah, I, I love those ideas that you just expressed and yes, I think that bringing young people into the process of governance and political activism is really essential. If the environmentalist movement creates strong, lasting alliances with the labour movements and with working class formations, that’s where our hope lies.
This struggle requires also alliances with the global south where the ecological damage bites hardest, where imperialism bites hardest. What we are talking about here is transforming not just the UK economy, but the way the global economy operates. This is a global ecological crisis, and has to do with the way the global economy works. And this requires mobilisation on the scale of the anti-colonial movement. That movement already exists. It’s there. What we need to be doing is coming alongside it, uniting in a kind of internationalist movement for fundamental transformation. That’s what is going to bring about the change we need.”
Naomi: “You’ve been listening to economic anthropologist Jason Hickel. author of The Divide, and Less Is More. That’s it from the Taxcast for now. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next month.”