The madness of capital

World leaders remain wedded to economic metrics that say little about the well-being of humans and the environment.

Witnesses to climate change warn
Governments subsidise the fossil fuel industry to the tune of about $2tn a year, writes Hickel [EPA]

Last month the Associated Press reported that the income gap in the United States broke a new record in 2012, with the 1 percent grabbing a greater share of total household wealth than ever before in history.

This news follows on the heels of the fact that the 1 percent not only captured all of the income gains during the first two years of the economic recovery, but also stole a portion of the already-existing incomes of the bottom 99 percent, causing median household income to decline despite overall economic growth.

The American people have not been silent in the face of this injustice. The fall of 2011 brought the biggest protest movement that the nation had seen in decades, with countless sit-ins, rallies, marches, and petitions across the country. How did the government respond to this unprecedented wave of democratic expression?  First they curtailed our freedom of speech and used “counterterrorism” units – in collusion with Wall Street banks – to coordinate military force against us. Then they proceeded to do exactly the opposite of what we asked.

Our voices have been heard loud and clear. Yet the US elite, and the political class that serves them, have moved in the past few years to siphon not less of our nation’s collective wealth, but more. 

What is so interesting about this continuing heist is that it has been so brazen. There has been little attempt to hide behind the usual justifications. Why? Because no one really believes them anymore. We all know that trickle-down economics is a farce. We know that outrageous CEO salaries are not only unnecessary but actively wasteful. We know that raising minimum wages does not cause unemployment. We know that the bank bailout was an inside job, and, after the Citizens United ruling, we can all see how our political system has been captured by corporate interests. 

These are now open secrets. The game is rigged, and we know it. 

False consciousness

In a well-known passage from Capital, Marx summarises his theory of false consciousness in the following phrase: “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es”. In English: “They do not know it, but they are doing it”. His claim here is that ideology relies on a sort of collective naivete; that people accept a set of illusions that obscure how the system really works. According to Marx, capitalism persists because of this false consciousness. 

UN: Extremely likely global warming man-made

But our culture today is much more cynical than this. Slavoj Zizek suggests that a more accurate twist on Marx’s words might read: “They know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” Zizek means for this to describe the general population, but it seems to me that it more accurately describes our economic and political elites. No one has any illusions about how destructive their pursuit of profit has become. Yet they show no signs of changing course.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the debate about climate change. We have known the math for a long time. We know that we have to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius if we want to avoid catastrophe. To keep from tipping over this threshold, we can only emit another 300 gigatons of carbon globally. Yet right now the world’s proven oil and gas reserves contain about 2,700 gigatons. That’s how much the 1 percent are presently planning to burn. If we continue at our present rate of consumption, we will blow through our allotment in about 15 years.

There are a number of very vocal people who deny the science behind climate change despite the overwhelming evidence at hand. Yet far more dangerous, and far more illustrative of the cynicism of our times, are those leaders and policymakers who accept the science but nonetheless have no plans to do anything about it. We’ve watched climate summit after climate summit spin by – Copenhagen, Cancun, Durban, Doha – without any binding plan of action. 

In fact, our governments are doing exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. Instead of investing seriously in alternative energies, they are subsidising the global fossil fuel industry to the tune of nearly $2tn per year. We have been watching Arctic sea ice melt with astonishing speed, but instead of recognising this for the disaster that it is, states and corporations are rushing to extract the fossil fuels that are becoming accessible as a result. 

There is a certain madness to our present age. The 1 percent is so devoted to serving the imperatives of capital that they are willing to sacrifice all basic reason. As John Lennon once so famously put it, “our society is being run by maniacs for maniacal ends”.

Gross domestic product mania

Behind the madness of the 1 percent in the face of climate change lies another open secret that they are unwilling to face: the contradictions of economic growth. Since the recession began, we have been bombarded with the message that we need to rev the global economy back up to at least 3 percent growth in gross domestic product (GDP) per year. Anything less, and economists tell us we’re in a crisis. But what is this indicator that has come to occupy such a central place in our operating system? What does it measure?

To imagine that we can continue on this trajectory indefinitely is to disavow the most obvious truths about our planet’s material limits.

Introduced only in the late 1940s by American economists, GDP measures the total market value of all of the natural resources and human labour turned into commodities and sold for money. So if you cut down a forest and sell the timber, GDP goes up. But GDP includes no cost accounting. It does not measure the cost of losing the forest as a future resource, as a home for endangered species, or as a sinkhole for carbon dioxide. In other words, GDP tells a story that reflects only a very narrow set of interests.

As long as we continue churning nature and humans into products, and as long as we do this more each year than the one before, then, according to the world’s most dominant measure of success, we’re doing well.

But, as David Korten has put it, using GDP as the standard of economic well-being “makes no more sense than taking the rapid expansion of one’s girth as an indicator of improved personal health”. It’s a shallow measurement, and it doesn’t measure the right things. Not only does it leave out what is bad, it also leaves out much of what is good. When you take care of your elderly parents, when you grow your own food in a community garden, when you set aside land as a biodiversity preserve – none of this contributes to GDP.

We know that there is something wrong with the logic of this arbitrary measure. Yet our entire political system is organised around it, obsessed with increasing GDP growth each year in perpetuity. Even at only 3 percent, that means finding more than $2tn worth of new investments every year. Consider the sheer scale of the production and consumption that this requires. Each year we have to add the equivalent of the size of the entire global economy of 1970 just to be able to say that we’re “progressing”.

To imagine that we can continue on this trajectory indefinitely is to disavow the most obvious truths about our planet’s material limits. 

Yet this model holds such sway among policymakers that even the most supposedly progressive and compassionate factions uphold it, as we can see in the case of the international development community. The UN high-level panel for the new Millennium Development Goals, for instance, has called on the world’s governments to eradicate global poverty by 2030. This is a noble goal indeed, but the means by which the panel hopes to get there – namely, through economic growth – relies on some very scary mathematics. 

Assuming the existing ratio between GDP growth and the income growth of the poorest, eradicating poverty with this strategy would require that we increase global production and consumption by more than 12 times. And that’s using a poverty line of $1.25 per day, which is really more like a starvation line. A more realistic poverty line is about $5 per day. But in order to accomplish even this most basic feat we would need to increase global production and consumption by 175 times

Even if this were physically possible, what would the consequences look like?  Economist David Woodward has pointed out: “There is simply no way this can be achieved without triggering truly catastrophic climate change – which, apart from anything else, would obliterate any potential gains from poverty reduction.” 

Willful self-delusion

The growth paradigm – the code at the heart of our system that calls for constant expansion and constant accumulation – is so riddled with contradictions that it beggars belief. During the height of modernist optimism in the 1950s we might have explained devotion to this model as a kind of false consciousness. But today, given what we have come to know, we can only describe it as madness – a sort of willful self-delusion. 

The radical position is to imagine that we can carry on as we are … Yet, as George Orwell knew so well, ‘to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’.

Ultimately, the persistence of this reality – which has been fabricated by elites – relies on the willingness of populations to buy into it. We are now seeing signs all over the world that this consent is straining to breaking point, that people have grown weary of the mad logic of capital and are eager to push their imaginations beyond the limits that have been set for them. 

Will this be enough?  We must make it so. We need to find each other. We need to abolish our fear. We need to believe that something else is possible.

There are sparks of hope out there. A number of countries have already begun to reject the dominant economic paradigm. Ecuador’s new, path-breaking National Development Plan, for example, refuses the tired call to rev up growth and exploit people and nature in favor of an economy based on the principles of sharing, commons, and bien vivir, or “good living”.

In the West, the New Economics Foundation has outlined policies for a zero-growth economy, something even Keynes knew we would someday have to achieve. There is also a growing movement to abolish GDP and replace it with a more realistic indicator, such as GPI, which allows economists to account for resource depletion, carbon dioxide emissions, and income distribution when measuring economic well-being. 

Imagine: What if we elected politicians on the basis of their plans to maximize bien vivir or improve GPI?

This is not a radical position. On the contrary, the radical position is to imagine that we can carry on as we are. It’s a simple point, really. Yet, as George Orwell knew so well, “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle”. 

Dr Jason Hickel lectures at the London School of Economics and serves as an adviser to /The Rules. He has contributed political critique and analysis to various magazines, including Le Monde Diplomatique, Foreign Policy in Focus, The Africa Report, and Monthly Review. He is currently working on a new book titled The Development Delusion: Why Aid Misses the Point about Poverty. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jasonhickel