Coda: The Myth of Growth
The goal of Survivor, now in its 37th season, is to manipulate and scheme against other participants until only one winner is left. Its longevity exemplifies the American dogma of unlimited economic growth, which teaches that all must be free to achieve their potential through independent, meritorious (and if not, then creatively dishonest) action. Its relentless logic, however, turns nature into a resource and objectifies humans into individual rather than social animals. All motivation becomes self-interest, and – this is critical – no winners can exist without losers to compare themselves to.
For libertarians, simplistic faith in “the market” mirrors the fundamentalist’s faith in scriptural authority. In this story, the greatest sins are not violence but personal laziness (the crime of the Puritan) and social intrusion (the nightmare of the Opportunist.) Activist government, by taxing the privileged to sustain the needy, calls this faith into question: if everyone, even the poor, is entitled to basic human rights and dignity, then no one is automatically among the elect. If even the children of the homeless deserve care, nutrition and decent schooling, then students at the Georgetown Preparatory School are really not that special after all.
But we are talking about a belief system. Libertarianism is merely the extreme version of the creed of the individual who should be free to build, buy, steal or waste whatever he wants. True adherents of this theology then argue against all evidence that the “rising boat” of generalized wealth may possibly lift the less deserving along with the rich. On the other hand, as J.M. Keynes argued, capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men, for the nastiest of reasons, will somehow work for everyone’s benefit. And such beliefs inevitably lead to a world of euphemisms, such as terms like “productivity” hiding the truth of “increased unemployment.”
A hundred and fifty years before recent Supreme Court decisions, the myth of growth enshrined the idea that abstract concepts devoted solely to accumulating capital – corporations – have all the rights of persons, plus limited liability and the freedom to externalize costs. Who are the gods of this theology? Corporations are immortal. They can reside in many places simultaneously, transform themselves at will and do virtually whatever they choose, but they can’t be punished (or in practical terms, taxed).
Corporate headquarters, like medieval religious shrines, are housed in America’s tallest buildings. Americans express our aspiration to greatness through the metaphors of size, speed, height, expansion, acceleration and constant action. Our uniquely American term “manifest destiny” has always implied both territorial expansion and cultural influence. We outrun the competition and climb out of ignorance, up the rungs of the ladder of evolution. Great music “uplifts” us. The greater grows by “rising” out of the lesser. Many books on American history utilize this phallic language: The Rise of American Civilization, The Rise of the Common Man and The Rise of the City. Even in slang, both intoxication and euphoria are “highs,” psychologically depressed individuals are “down” and bad news is a “downer.”
Counter-arguments produce anxiety, because we perceive them as attacks upon the faith itself. If one grows from wet/dark/feminine to dry/light/masculine, then appeals to sustainability become entwined with threats to masculinity itself. Male identity converges with the imperative to grow; everything is bound up in “potential” and “potency.” Bigger is not simply better, but the only alternative to “smaller,” as “hero” is to “loser.” Jimmy Carter suggested mild limits to growth and was destroyed politically for the attempt. Studying his fate, Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes, Obama and Trump have promised to limits government, even as they increased its size.
The belief that the imperative of growth (as quarterly profits) trumps life itself underlies all corporate and most government policies and leads to the conservative mental gyrations of attacking big government while praising its responsibility to support the private sector through subsidies, infrastructure and military intervention – all forms of externalizing costs. The result is an economy, wrote James Hillman, that is “…the God we nourish with actual human blood.”
The holy text of this theology, the Gross Domestic Product, symbolizes the pathology of growth in four ways. First, it counts all economic activity as valuable, such as the $20 billion we annually spend on divorce lawyers, or cleaning up after a hurricane, and never distinguishes between textbooks and porn magazines. It includes every possible aspect of a person’s death from lung cancer – medical, hospital, pharmaceutical, legal and funereal – as well as the land purchasing, growing, transporting, packaging, marketing and eventual disposal of tobacco products, and the defense of their producers from class-action lawsuits. Increased gas expenditures add to the GDP without a corresponding subtraction for the toll fossil fuels take on the thermostatic and buffering functions of the atmosphere. Luxury buying by the rich covers up a lack of necessary buying by the poor.
So the GDP actually disguises suffering. The ultimate example is war: exceptionally costly, energy-intensive, requiring lengthy cleanup and long-term medical bills. By adding to the GDP, however, it builds an artificial sense of economic health. And for the last sixty years, preparation for war (the Defense Department and all related expenditures in the Energy Department and Homeland Security as well as veteran’s benefits and proportional percentages of interest payments of the national debt) has accounted for well over half of the nation’s annual budgets and similar percentages of the GDP.
Second, judging profitability on quarterly stock reports rather than on long-term sustainability leads to the maximization of short-term strategies (such as investing in the SUV rather than in energy-efficient cars) at the cost of long-term losses. It also leads to outright, deliberate lying about those long-term effects, from “healthy” cigarettes and mercury-laden dental fillings to death-trap cars and global warming.
Third, the GDP is so wildly inaccurate – because it completely ignores the massive underground economy of drugs, prostitution, gambling and crime (blue- or white-collar) – that it has nothing really practical to indicate about the economy anyway.
Fourth, it discounts and ignores the actual, natural economy. As Robert F. Kennedy said, it “measures everything…except for that which makes life worthwhile.” Most crucial life-supporting functions take place not through the market, but through social processes and voluntary activities (families and churches) or through completely natural processes (the cooling and cleansing functions of trees, etc). None register in the GDP until something damages them and people have to buy substitutes in the market. In this mad calculus, fuel conservation, stable marriages, children who exercise and eat healthy foods and world peace are threats to the economy.
Many “progressives” are also unaware of the pervasiveness of this story. Clearly, recession hurts the poor most. But we reveal ignorance of our myths when we demand larger shares of an ever-expanding economic pie, or lament “underdevelopment” in other nations. Growth, whether inequitable or sustainable, leads inevitably to the terrifying vision of seven billion people each driving their own SUV.
Eastern wisdom teaches that we can never satisfy the soul’s hunger with material food alone. Yet self-improvement and growth are such bedrock American values that, by the 1970s, they were, once again, models for the spiritual life. Hillman argued that the first assumption of the “therapeutic culture” is that emotional maturity entails a progressive differentiation of self from others, especially family. American psychology mirrors its economics: the heroic, isolated ego in a hostile world.
For a significant segment of the population, “inner growth” replaced the old ideal of the democratic citizen. Well-meaning people, more American than they knew, spoke of what they could get from life, rather than, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, what they could give to it. Spiritual growth became another version of the pursuit of happiness, now defined by “heightened awareness” and “peak” experiences. “Feeling good,” wrote psychologist Lesley Hazleton, became “no longer simply a right, but a social and personal duty.” And the economy offered the material symbols that gave evidence – proof, in Puritan terms – of spiritual “growth.”
This idea takes its energy from two older ones: life-long initiation, and biological maturation. But it has split off from the natural and indigenous worlds in its unexamined assumptions. All living things die and return to Earth, but a “growing” person, by definition, cannot. Initiation absolutely requires the death of something that has grown past its prime. And worse, since the myth of growth (material or spiritual) is essentially a personal story, it narcissistically assumes the unlimited objectification and exploitation of others for the ultimate aggrandizement of the Self.
Gary Snyder points out that we find unlimited growth in neither nature nor culture, but only in the cancer cell, which multiplies until it destroys its host. The miracle of reproduction serves death instead of life. Growth inevitably evokes its opposite. The body produces anti-bodies, which destroy the invasion of grandiosity. There is no more basic ecological rule. Natural growth only occurs within a broader cycle that also includes decay.
But when growth, potency, happiness, pressure to be in a good mood, to “have a nice day,” to be “high” are hopelessly intertwined with consumer goodies, not having them means a drop into shame and depression, from the Hero to the Victim. In the real world of limited resources, growth is a Ponzi scheme in which our great-grandchildren subsidize the childish and narcissistic fantasies of those who call themselves libertarians.