All of this changes how we think of GDP growth. We have been trained to see exponentially rising GDP as a proxy for human progress. But it’s not quite so simple. We need to retrain our eyes. It’s like looking at one of those pictures that seems like an ordinary two-dimensional pattern, but when you change your focus and look more deeply then suddenly a new three-dimensional image comes into view. A more holistic way of thinking about growth is to recognise that it is broadly equivalent to the rate at which our economy is metabolising the living world. This is not a problem, in and of itself; but past a certain point – which, as we will see, rich nations have long since surpassed – it becomes extremely destructive. Under capitalism, the rate of growth is the rate at which nature is being commodified and roped into circuits of accumulation. That we have come to rely on this as our primary indicator of progress reveals the extent to which we have come to see the world from the perspective of capital rather than from the perspective of life. Indeed, there is a bitter irony to the fact that we have been persuaded to use the word ‘growth’ to describe what has now become primarily a process of breakdown.
We can see this acceleration reflected in the breathtaking speed at which GDP has shot up over the past century. But it would be a mistake to see this growth as driven by fossil fuels and technology. It has been facilitated by fossil fuels and technology, yes; but we have to ask ourselves: what is the deeper motivation, as it were, that propels capitalist growth?
“Capitalism can no more be ‘persuaded’ to limit growth than a human being can be ‘persuaded’ to stop breathing.”
The point here is that the Industrial Revolution – and Europe’s industrial growth – did not emerge ex nihilo. It hinged on commodities that were produced by slaves, on lands stolen from colonised peoples, and processed in factories staffed by European peasants who had been forcibly dispossessed by enclosure. We tend to think of these as separate processes, but they all operated with the same underlying logic. Enclosure was a process of internal colonisation, and colonisation was a process of enclosure. Europe’s peasants were dispossessed from their lands just as Indigenous Americans were (although, notably, the latter were treated much worse, excluded from the realm of rights, and even humanity, altogether). And the slave trade is nothing if not the enclosure and colonisation of bodies – bodies that were appropriated for the sake of surplus accumulation just as land was, and treated as property in the same way.
It might be tempting to downplay these moments of violence as mere aberrations in the history of capitalism. But they are not. They are the foundations of it. Growth has always relied on processes of colonisation.
Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.
We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.
Western economies, particularly that of the United States, have been built in a very calculated manner on gratification, addiction, and unnecessary spending. We spend to cheer ourselves up, to reward ourselves, to celebrate, to fix problems, to elevate our status, and to alleviate boredom.
David Cain, Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed
“The fact we can sit down and eat a piece of chicken without thinking about the horrendous conditions under which chickens are bred is a sign of the dangers of capitalism. How capitalism has colonized our minds.” — Angela Davis