The globalized corporate economy of perpetual growth already produces too much and has done so for a long time. In the process, it excludes more and more people from participating in that production. That means growing numbers of people do not have the income to consume what industry produces.
Certainly, something has to give.
Not only is its pattern of distribution increasingly dysfunctional, so is its relationship with society and citizens alike. No economy can thrive when the deep disparity of extreme wealth and widespread poverty continue to worsen, eliminating the consumers it needs.
Evermore complex and automated technology of production could go on in the abstract. But it cannot in the real world where people need incomes to buy what they need, if not all that is produced. As industrial production excludes more and more workers, fewer and fewer people have incomes capable of sustaining levels of consumption needed to subsist, no less levels demanded by productive capacity and growth.
Economism Then and Now
Economism is simply the placement of economic interests and goals above all else in the formation of societal or political policies. Today, the global corporate extractive economy of endless growth dominates politics and society as it ignores the tipping points of chaos in multiple subsystems of the Earth System. These subsystems—the biosphere, lithosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere—are spinning out of balance and amplifying the instability of the whole Earth System. Under these conditions, the very core assumptions and practices of the global economy lose credibility as well as viability.
From the industrial revolution on, the culture of industrial civilization has assumed that the well-being of humanity depends fundamentally on the perpetuation of the corporate economy of growth. However, if the purpose of an economy is to assure the material basis for sustaining society within its environment, then unfortunately, the global corporate economy has failed.
The presumptive economic means to sustain society have become ends in themselves. Demands of the corporate economy override and corrupt societal values, goals, and relationships, in the name of “progress.” If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it is that the political cheerleaders of “reopening the economy” are willing to sacrifice the people’s health to assure continued profits from business as usual.
Current assumptions about a rising “data economy” are premature at best. Data-driven “smart” products distributed throughout the “internet of things” will have no market when international labor outsourcing and automation eliminate most consumer’s jobs. Recent short-term techno-trends will not be determine the place of data in the coming decades. Parallel concepts about the “information economy” show similar ambiguity of relevance.
The real underlying economic question is not really an economic question at all. It is the societal question: how can humans actually transform our social relations to operate economies that harmonize with ecosystems and climate where we live, while adapting to dwindling resources. We have clearly crossed some of those limits already.
Replacing Economism with Ecological-Community Culture
Significant depopulation seems inevitable in this context, so the character and usefulness of “big data” will radically change. The collapse of industrial agriculture is soon to follow extreme climate chaos, forcing starvation, migration, and war upon millions. No matter how quickly we replace big agribusiness with restorative and regenerative farming—no easy task—multiple threats will compromise various global food supply chains, mostly because of climate-caused crop failures. Meanwhile, “disaster capitalism” gobbles up ownership of distressed properties and replaces small businesses, making ecological communities ever more difficult to establish.
The big question of distribution will be, “Can we produce enough locally and regionally of what we really need to distribute it equitably to survive?” To accomplish that will require re-embedding economics within the parameters of community sovereignty and bending economic theory to fit the needs of humanity, not its blind assumptions of endless economic growth.
3 thoughts on “The End of Economism”
Best of luck with the book!
You rhetorically ask, “if the purpose of an economy is to assure the material basis for sustaining society within its environment”; I would answer that such concerns have never been more than a sideshow. The modern economy is an analogue of what happens if you have a few yeast cells in water and dump in a great big bag of sugar. Exponential growth, then die-off from diminishing energy input and accumulating waste products.
Like you, I see significant depopulation as inevitable. (We’re well over carrying capacity even with the massive daily fossil-fuel inputs we currently enjoy, let alone without them.) Those of us with any compassion are looking for the soft landing scenario, but it’s hard to see how we can pull that off. Especially when so many of us [cf. COVID-19 and “opening the economy”] seem to like the yeast narrative better. There’s a cliff ahead, so floor it!
Dave, thanks for the thoughtful comment. Sorry for the slow response. I’ve been busy submitting the book to publishers. Look for excerpts and related material on TheHopefulRealist.com in the coming weeks.
I’m afraid we agree on the cliff ahead. The big question for me is how and to what extent we can “soften” the landing that looks very hard from this vantage point. The opportunities to intervene in the trajectory of the New Great Transformation remain small until massive social mobilization can overcome massive political obstacles.
“We live in interesting times.” Onward!