The corporate cheerleaders of the last stages of the dying unlimited-growth economy still argue that “growth” is necessary for a healthy economy. The role of growth in our economic culture seemed secure, until the cracks in its foundation grew ominous. Now it’s a big question.
As the argument goes, capital growth spurs technological innovation, which will allow people to work less and enjoy life more. A happy prospect – as I remember it from the 1960s. Industrial technology certainly has reduced the amount of labor needed as a component of production. So much can be produced with so much less labor than before industrial and office operations were automated.
Is All “Growth” Good?
But what are the benefits of labor-saving industrial technology for people? Who works less and enjoys life more today? Not even the capitalists, but of course they are driven not by need but by desire. The rest of us mostly work more for less pay, just to make ends meet, if that. All the benefits of efficiency have gone to the power elites. Their concerted efforts since the 1950s have destroyed the unions. So, little leverage remains for paying workers a living wage. People don’t work less – if they have a job – they just earn less for the work they do and usually work more.
One result of less and less labor needed per unit of production is that more and more gets produced. But since less and less labor is needed, fewer and fewer jobs are available for workers. The quantity of goods produced grows right past the need for them to be consumed. As population grows, there are more people looking for work. But there are not more jobs. Unemployment and poverty result from overproduction when workers have a smaller and smaller role in the economy. More and more workers, regardless of education, find little meaningful employment. Many become trapped as “wage slaves” in jobs with below-subsistence buying power. This is worsened by the ability of capital to seek the lowest wage labor internationally, while most workers must find jobs where they live.
Overproduction causes pressures for people to over-consume. Many of the goods produced are not really needed – they result from manufactured wants. Less understood is the fact that many people, being under-employed or unemployed, cannot buy them anyway. The consequent loss of demand for goods is a drag on production, further weakening the demand for labor. But behavioral manipulation through marketing can be very effective in spurring consumption, as long as buyers have money. So, with depressed wages, heavily marketed easier credit availability has encouraged many to consume “beyond their means,” especially for food and rent.
A Crisis Delayed
At the dawn of the “age of automation,” back in the 1960s, enthusiasts promoted the myth that people would need to work less and have more leisure time. But many feared that factory automation and office automation would take away jobs. The great economic expansion of the 1960s through the 1980s generated more jobs and the impact of automation was dampened and delayed. The dot-com boom of the 1990s further delayed the impact of computer-aided design, production, and middle-management functions on jobs. Capital increasingly outsourced the labor it needed to China and other low-wage nations.
But as more of the well paid manufacturing and technical jobs were lost to automation and to international outsourcing, wages continued to be depressed. Left to its own devices, capital finds ways to reproduce itself. As buying power was lost due to lower wages, consumer credit and second mortgage requirements were loosened and these forms of debt were heavily promoted. Consumption was increasingly driven by debt rather than income.
As corporate lobbying took over Washington, business tax loopholes proliferated. With loss of revenue, government debt soared too, right along with consumer debt. Without new economic growth and rising wages, debt service becomes an increasing burden. While the corporate economy grew, wages continued to flat-line or decline, leaving worker-consumers in an ever-growing squeeze.
The march of labor-reducing technology is always assumed to be inevitable and good. Yet, with “free markets” in labor and with capital able to move globally to find the cheapest labor, a severe imbalance occurs.
Half truths are sometimes just false. For the claims of a comfortable life with fewer hours of work to be realized, the entire organization of the economy would have to be revised. Money would have to circulate much more freely among all the people. The means of distributing income and wealth would have to be altered so that not all of the benefits of increased productivity go to the top 1%.
The Time is Now
What the growth cheerleaders ignore is that we have reached a tipping point where the power of capital over labor has caused extremely depressed wages and high unemployment-underemployment. So, consumer demand is depressed. That in turn discourages investment in production – corporations are now sitting on huge piles of cash, afraid to invest without consumer demand. Well, corporations need production of a lot of the objects of artificially created ‘wants’ that marketing has generated in order to boost sales and profits. But workers have lost the necessary buying power. It’s a dead end.
As a society, we can no longer afford to produce all that stuff the remaining middle class workers keep in a storage locker because there is no more room in the garage. We need appropriate production of the objects needed in a post-growth stable ecological economy. That will in fact require a complete overhaul of the organization of the economy.
The inevitability of economic progress, whether in the predictions of Karl Marx or the vision of Adam Smith, is and always has been an ideological flaw in the thinking of those who have a particular interest in economic history. Anything is possible and some possibilities are far more problematic than others. The old assumptions must go. Only an ecological economy can work now. How we can make that happen remains to be seen.