James Corville, the campaign strategist for Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, supposedly used the phrase “The economy, stupid!” to keep his team ‘on message’. Since then it has become a truism of political commentators at election time – that the dominant issue is always the economy. This dominance of the economy in political thinking has been around for a long while, but, like a cancer, it has grown. Now it dominates everything, and is causing all manner of problems. Two of these problems are particularly serious: imminent climate / environmental breakdown and rising social inequality. And whilst the former is potentially the more serious of the two, the latter is the cause of the anger and social discontent that gave rise to the Brexit vote and the election of popularist politicians like Donald Trump.
There is much I could say against our dominant economic model, but I will restrict myself to its most insidious feature – economic growth and the accumulation of wealth as the end goal and raison d’être of all economic activity. I say insidious because this goal appears as the saving angel of all our woes and problems, as the solution to all our ills. But this particular angel’s glittering clothing covers a malevolent devil, an evil that is not only goading us to slowly destroy the environment upon which human society depends, but is directly eroding the very structures of human society through the promotion of inequality. The pursuit of wealth has become so accepted as not just an aim, but the aim of human activity, that to question it appears to fly in the face of common sense. But question it we must. We need to replace this common sense with some good sense.
Naomi Klein has coined the phrase extractivism to describe our economic attitude to the planet Earth. Certainly since the dawn of the industrial revolution, this attitude towards our natural environment has been one of a resource to exploited. Not only has our planet been viewed as one vast store of raw material to be extracted and used for the generation of wealth, it has also been used as a vast sink into which all the waste from our economic activity can be dumped. Dumped free of cost. A cost that has been neatly bracketed out of our economic calculations as an ‘externality’, as something we can ignore. Unfortunately for us, these ‘externalities’ are now making their presence known. Out of sight can only remain out of mind for so long. Thanks to the gradual build up of these ‘externalities’, principally (but by no means exclusively) carbon in the atmosphere, we now face a climate breakdown that potentially threatens the very future of human life. Our planet is biting back.
This generation of wealth is usually defended as being necessary, as the only way to acquire the money that can be spent to alleviate poverty, provide essential public services, and to generally improve the quality of human life. Yes, the argument goes, the owners of industry and multinational corporations are the immediate recipients of this wealth, but due to the ‘trickle-down effect’ everyone benefits. The main problem with this defence is, quite simply, that it’s false. The evidence says something different. Across the world, particularly in the richer countries, inequality is rising. As national economies grow, the rich seem to get progressively and proportionally richer. And even though there is generally a slight rise in the wealth of the least well off, this has not been accompanied by an increase in happiness or wellbeing. What it has been accompanied by is an increase in mental and physical illness. The gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in rich countries, the levels of relative poverty, is by far the biggest cause of a whole range health issues.
But the effects of this increasing wealth gap are broader and deeper than the levels of recordable ill-health. It is also causing an incipient growth in social discontent and anger. People have been led to believe that the wealth being accumulated by the ‘elites’, by the leaders of business and industry, by the leaders of corporations and governments, will trickle down and make their lives better. But these improvements are not happening. People are feeling let down, cheated out what they believe to be theirs. Public services are being cut. Traditional jobs are disappearing. Yet rather than blame our economic system, the economic model that is actually producing this rise in inequality, people are blaming those people who the rich are setting up as scapegoats: foreign workers, immigrants, the bureaucrats of the European Union. Rather than challenge our dominant, cancerous economic model, people vote instead for Brexit and Donald Trump in the vain hope of a solution to their ills.
It is, however, too simplistic to blame the Trump-Brexit supporters for a failure to see the true cause of their discontent. And however tempting it might be, it is also too simplistic to blame the wealthy owners of business and the politicians that champion the pursuit of growth – they are, after all, only doing what they have been brought up to believe is just common sense. And simply blaming people only fans the flames of social discontent. No, what is needed, and needed as a matter of extreme urgency, is a public debate and critique of our dominant economic model. Alternative models, ones that truly meet the needs of all, ones that respect the limits imposed on them by our planet, need presenting to the public by as many politicians on the left as possible. We need to be encouraged to exercise some good sense, rather than just accept what we take to be common sense.