Getting Real About Growth

As we approach the federal election, witnessing the implosion of the Middle East and the emergence of a supposed new Cold War in Europe; as evidence of environmental change cannot be denied and climate catastrophe seems ever closer; as the number of refugees across the globe reaches an incredible scale and fascist responses are everywhere to be seen in the West; and as we face a new world of radically insecure work in under- and unemployment in neoliberal high-tech economies, when growth may no longer mean jobs, we might ask: are any of our political parties facing reality?

Australia lives in a bubble: practically and in terms of our mindset. We haven’t experienced the Global Financial Crisis in the obvious ways that so many other countries have, and we are a long way from witnessing the full force of the consequences of Western-led wars and the effects of climate change in displaced peoples and refugees. Distance is an aspect of this, while less harsh forms of economic management and elements still of a welfare state buffer some individuals and communities from the ill winds of economic crisis and a deepening neoliberalisation of economy and society.

We clearly have some elements of our parliamentary system, and our parties of the ‘Left’, to thank for some of this. Remnant elements of social democracy in Labor and feisty Greens and Independents in recent years have worked hard to contain the structural consequences, social and environmental, of the economic system bequeathed to us now over a generation ago. Unionists do indispensable work in attempting to protect work conditions and push back against the inhumanity of closures and ‘structural adjustment’, which mean loss and dislocation for families and whole communities.

But so many of us also inhabit this bubble in a blind, wilful, or perhaps fanciful fashion, preferring not to see how the extreme traumas experienced in other places today relate to us, or that they are already with us incipiently and moving closer to our door. Whether it is taking responsibility for the consequences of the wars we have participated in, for example ‘boat people’, or getting to grips with those wars in prospect in our own region, or the even more difficult to see structures and assumptions underpinning our ‘way of life’ and presaging social and environmental consequences we don’t want to hear about, our bubble and hype keep us swaddled, babes in a big bad world. We may not be as ignorant as our American cousins, but we’re close.

Australia isn’t very political, the election-watching public might be surprised to hear. I mean this in the sense of a comparison with some European or South American countries, or even Britain. Because we tell ourselves we have it so good, we don’t need to get serious. It’s a laugh for anyone who knows that the original description of Australia as ‘the lucky country’ wasn’t meant literally, which is how it is usually used today. It was ironic: a criticism of our lazy, now further dumbed-down, and anti-intellectual culture (culturally ‘philistine’ in the days it was coined). Dumbed down further through educational policies that focus almost entirely on ‘outcomes’, skills and jobs, rather than, well, education, which involves the whole person, understanding and interpretation; and through an actually―we should face it―largely anti-intellectual media.

Australians do know about fear, which is another way of avoiding coming to grips with what is happening in the world. Part of not taking responsibility is being able to be led by fear. Our politicians, even those who might protect workers and families on social-democratic grounds, are of course prone to playing the fear card, or at least that is strongly the case today. It is using the privilege of parliament often to just outright lie when the end is seen as more important than the means: re-election, or muddying the waters to facilitate some other agenda, or shaping a constituency.

The parties are arrayed before us. The Turnbull trajectory is encapsulated in the notions of ‘growth’ and ‘innovation’. A high-tech culture and economy sit at the centre of Turnbull’s pitch and assumptions of what will make for a comfortable (wealthy) Australia, although innovation doesn’t sound relaxed, and here he means to signal a distinct break with the old Howard decrepitude. This is Turnbull’s vision, and neoliberal freedom―of both the economic and subjective kind―will be the means. Far from a laissez-faire attitude to the market, neoliberal governance through the state will step in to foster start-ups in this digital age. Interestingly, just when you thought there was nothing left to hand over to the ‘market’ (which here means actual capitalists), neoliberalisation of the universities will go a step further, in the sense of giving money they might otherwise have gained for R & D direct to industry itself!

But is Turnbull’s trajectory for real? Is this the kind of future we actually want―does he really think he can make us happy in pursuing this path, and what kind of a society does it prefigure? Second, will his stated program actually deliver? To the ordinary punter, growth is equated with jobs; indeed political parties of both stripes endlessly tell us that there is a necessary relation between the two. Yes, growth is core to the Liberal-Coalition way, as it is to neoliberalism per se as the management structure of globalisation, yet there is plenty of evidence that the high-tech route eviscerates the kinds of industries that provide large-scale jobs. Indeed, three articles in this issue of Arena Magazine take up the theme of the 80/20, or 60/40, society, and the forms of social redundancy and precarity prevalent in the age of the cyborg. It will be pleasant for those creatives who manage to get and hold jobs in the core digital industries―there just won’t be that many, and you’d better keep being ‘innovative’ if you want to keep your livelihood. It’s probably best not to be blind to this reality.

The Labor trajectory, unfortunately, is the same as that of the Liberals in relation to growth, and to neoliberal management of the economy, although the desire for jobs goes deeper and one might assume is a real aim of politicians coming out of the labour movement. Whereas the Liberals’ aim might better be seen as wealth creation, with a sideline in the occasional job, at least with Labor growth is meant to create jobs and give working people a chance. But again, is this for real? Has Labor really got its head screwed on here? Does it know what kind of society is in train and will jobs ensue anyway? Are there countervailing tendencies in a certain corruption of Labor ideals (representation of and solidarity with the people, for two), and why can’t it take a broader view?

Labor is trapped—trapped by its own now outdated, if well-meaning traditions, or perhaps it is only ideology now, focused on ‘jobs’ and growing out of the growth and productivist underpinnings of the political-economic frameworks of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unfortunately, this is like saying it is trapped by its ‘leftness’, as other socialist streams are too, unable to mount an adequate critique of contemporary scientific technologies and what they will mean for social life, yet caught deep in the very structures that now undo the values they appear to hold. If growth may be de-coupled from jobs, and/or growth is restricted in some places in the context of the fall-out still from the GFC, ‘jobs’—as occupations slotted into the capitalist machine—are ghost jobs. Whether Spain or Greece or the United States, or the Australia here now and still coming, a new insecurity is abroad, with consequences in political reaction and extremism. Really it is time for a discussion that moves beyond ‘jobs’ and assumptions and dreams of growth, and asks what people really value in their lives, and how best to get there, with a clear-eyed view of the rocky road ahead.

Finally, there are the Greens, the only party to explicitly state reservations about growth, and to attack elements of neoliberal orthodoxy. They are joined by elements of the Labor Party in a common hope that a social-democratic state might still be possible, if only the right choices at the level of government and policy are made. Jobs for the Greens appear to be a logical, less existentially important, element of their framework. As they have broadened their policy ambit and electoral appeal—indeed learnt that, for the planet to survive, human communities require special care too—jobs have emerged as an important consideration. But they will be healthy jobs, and green jobs, or jobs from which people will have to transition as a new economy takes shape―jobs on condition that they do not counter the overarching, obviously basic proposition that without a functioning biosphere, there are no jobs.

Yet even the Greens are ambiguous on the question of growth. There are limits to the Earth’s ‘finite resources’, to quote their policy platform, yet there is a strong message that new technologies will make growth, at some level, clean or carbon neutral. The implication is out there that green capitalism, and carried also in the digital revolution, will allow growth as we have known it over the last 200 years or so to continue. Again, is this for real? Let’s be entirely upfront about what is possible. How will society and culture have to change if our growth expectations have to ratchet down? For surely they will, if we are honest about the challenges facing us now and into the future. And will life be ‘just the same, only more modest’, or will we face complex questions about how communities are arranged in space and time (including the implications of the network for embodied sociality), and about how they relate to nature and to the state (whatever form it might take), if we wish to still have relatively complex societies? And how will we justify what is right, so that an ethics is made possible for subjective life and communal commitment?

Growth is perhaps the central question as we come to face both environmental and social upheaval. We have grown on a world scale to a point where population alone generates growth expectations in excess of what is possible any longer. This is apparent even in ‘low’ population countries like our own, which was founded at a traumatic cost to Indigenous cultures on migration and population growth. Economic growth when conceived in an entirely open-ended fashion, joined culturally to a specific notion of progress, meanwhile places impossible pressures on resources―metals, water, energy—such that our climate and the environment more generally are so distorted that the possibility of a decent life for all is threatened.

This more significant set of concerns than our political parties seem at present to be able to handle points to the need to consider ‘growth’ in new ways. This is not merely a call for the slowing down of capitalist growth but for recognition that, over 200 years, growth took the form of a commodity economy that placed the economy at the forefront of social and political organisation. Its management, to the detriment of other questions as to what life might be and what might bring contentment and joy, has become a complete preoccupation, especially since the late twentieth century. With neoliberal globalisation powered and its agents subjectively shaped by the new technological order, commodity production has pushed the assault on nature to another plane.

In other words, the challenge to growth that is needed is one that questions the deep assumptions in the way we think about ourselves and what is possible, given what has come to be taken for granted over the last 200 years. From this standpoint, our parties and politicians are failing us.

Alison Caddick

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