Politics Without Creativity Is Not Political

Prosperity without growth is possible and inevitable, argues British economist Tim Jackson. He talked with Martin Eiermann about the difficulty of radical change, labor politics and the long shadow of Karl Marx.

The European: You have written that “questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. But question it we must.” Why is there such a strong stigma attached to the rejection of growth?
Jackson: There are several reasons. One is the functional dependency on growth. So the idea of questioning growth is deeply problematic because the stability of the economic system depends on its ability to produce growth. But there are other factors as well. Socially and psychologically we have aligned our sense of progress with growth. Progress means having more, “better” becomes “bigger”. And we can delve even deeper into that psychology: The way we deal with existential anxieties and mortality, the way we think about the existence or non-existence of transcendental realities.

The European: When did that psychology come into existence? For much of human history, economic activity was not intimately tied to the idea of growth.
Jackson: That’s a very interesting question that I cannot fully answer. I have written on that topic in the past, and my sense is that our idea of progress derives somewhat from the ideas of the Enlightenment. In the 18th century, you see the emergence of the science of rational discovery and the project of improving man’s condition. And that was accompanied by shifts in religiosity and spirituality. By the time the Enlightenment met Darwin in the middle of the 19th century, established religion had become secularized at least in the protestant countries. That was a very potent mix in which our sense of spiritual progress disappeared.

The European: We began to think of our lives as finite existences?
Jackson: Right, the idea of the immortal soul lost its influence. That obviously placed a huge importance on our physical existence. So progress came to be framed within the context of those finite existences: Future generations deserved better lives, they deserved more than we had. We secularized the original idea of the progress of the soul. And in the process, it became very much tied to material possessions.

The European: The reason I am asking is that the evolution of our idea of progress overlaps very much with the rise of modern capitalism. You have argued that the definition of capitalism could be reduced to the private ownership of the means of production. But I wonder whether we could have a system without growth that would be recognizably capitalist.
Jackson: It’s an open question whether we could have a capitalist economy without growth. In some sense I think it’s possible. We could organize markets in such a way as to make growth superfluous. But the reality is that the capitalism we have inherited has a logic and institutions that are predicated on the idea of growth. At the very least, we would need a major reform of capitalism to overcome that dependency.

The European: We started by talking about economic growth and ended up with the idea of progress of the soul. How is our understanding of the world around us enhanced by a combination of natural sciences, social sciences and humanities?
Jackson: The sustainability of economics cannot be answered fully by economic or political discourse. It can’t be answered, either, simply by ecological or technological science. To understand the ecological crisis, we have to understand the nature of our economy. The nature of the society in which we live. And how people feel, behave, dream and aspire in that society. How we strive for meaning and purpose in our lives. And what progress consists in for us. These are big questions. They demand insights from psychology, sociology, anthropology and even philosophy.

The European: One well-known phrase in policy-making is that “there are no alternatives”. Have we reduced the scope of what is politically feasible and realistic to the point where alternatives are really rather limited?
Jackson: Absolutely not. I believe the phrase originated with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It’s a sign of the paucity of our imagination. There are always alternatives. Existing power structures obviously constrain us; but that does not change the fact that we can think about different modes of organizing society. The idea that alternatives don’t exist is simply a hegemonic device used by the established forces of power to protect themselves against change.

The European: So politics becomes an exercise in creativity?
Jackson: It has to be. That idea goes back all the way to Aristotle: A politics devoid of creativity is not political.

The European: You have said that your initial aim with the book “Prosperity Without Growth” was to influence policy-making. Has that aim morphed into a more ambitious critique of politics and economics?
Jackson: The original aim was two-fold. One, a genuine inquiry into the state of the arguments about growth and sustainability. Two, to inform clear policy on a sustainable economy. What came out of the inquiry for me was a profound understanding of the need for structural changes that go to the heart of economics. The critique of politics followed from that.

The European: What is the role of individual agency within the context of creative change?
Jackson: The relationship between agency and structures is obviously a big question and forms a part of many sociological debates. It is abundantly clear that individuals and communities can make radically different choices about how to live their lives. In many ways, they are quite successful at it. And through living differently, these people can create a new sense of identity for themselves. They develop a richer sense of purpose and of their relationship to the world. When you study that empirically, you find that these people are measurably happier.

The European: Yet that happiness comes at a price: We lose the stability and security of the status quo.
Jackson: The message of happiness is tempered by the tensions that arise when the desires bump against social realities. When you decide to walk or bike in a car-dominated society, that becomes a strain. The physical infrastructures around us make those radical choices harder, even for people who are very dedicated. But it also goes beyond the physical world and leads us back to the importance of psychology: What are the norms of a given society? What codes are we expected to follow?

The European: Change is uncomfortable.
Jackson: It requires us to engage in a dialogue about power, about who we are and who we want to be in the world. For example: We are confronted with the question of what is defined as success: A big car? Material wealth? If we reject those norms, we have to accept the potential loss of social standing that comes with it. That is the paradox of transformation: People desire change but they are hesitant to pursue it because of the potential pitfalls and structural constraints. So for me the lesson is that agency is insufficient by itself in the context of mainstream change. I find it critically important that we reshape the framework itself.

The European: One of your arguments proposes that an increase in productivity should translate into a reduction of work hours. Yet anything from our welfare state financing to the stability of the labor market to our tax system is built on the idea that we work more – especially as the demographic pyramid changes –, and that we work towards a gradual increase in output, spending, real wages, and so on.
Jackson: I don’t think that a discussion of labor can be divorced from those other debates and from questions about systemic stability. But I increasingly believe that we really have to reconsider our approach to productivity itself. We are caught in a productivity trap. While it generates wealth, productivity also generates unemployment.

The European: We tend to value output rather than the purpose of work?
Jackson: We should consider the content of the activity itself. Doctors, nurses, or caretakers provide important social and human services. If you are caught in a mindset where you try to decrease input and maximize output, then you are devaluing these services.

The European: Do you think that the welfare state could be partially replaced by a system of volunteer work, as Roberto Unger suggests?
Jackson: It’s a dangerous concept. Here in Great Britain, we have a political ideology of minimal state interference in the live of the individual. And that is now combined with politics of austerity that tries to cut down social and welfare services, health care and education. So you have a strong tendency towards the privatization of services: They are taken out of the responsibility of the state and left to the private market. But that creates a two-tier society. An increasingly small number of people benefit from the pursuit of productivity while the rest are thrown to the wolves and left to fight for themselves without a good safety net. It creates a society that becomes dependent on the availability of volunteer services.

The European: That’s a very pessimistic description. We might also say that it reforms and emancipates Rousseau’s social contract: Rather than being guarded and administered by the state, welfare services are integrated into civil society.
Jackson: I think it is good to increase the flexibility of our working lives to allow people to engage in volunteer activity. But that would have to coincide with severe readjustments of the economic structure. We would have to think about the idea of a basic citizen’s income that would provide the economic security that prevents the two-tier society. And we would also come to rely on a different political ideology. The idea that the proceeds from productive work return to the individual is something that makes a real sense of shared social security difficult to achieve. In the US, that ideology has been taken to its extreme.

The European: Isn’t that the great struggle of the Left? We want to find a way to engender modes of empathy without abandoning the demands of liberalism.
Jackson: The idea that the individual has a right to the fruits of his or her labor and to the fruits of the earth is a social construct that emerged with capitalism. It has some very positive connotations in Enlightenment ideas about freedom, and specifically in the idea that we can free ourselves from entrenched hierarchies and structures that were using resources at the expense of others. We moved from feudal hierarchies to market-oriented entrepreneurialism and individualism. But that development also shifted the balance of power inappropriately towards the individual without engendering a sense of shared responsibility to balance it. Think about the financial crisis: We granted private capitalists the right to reap the rewards of risky strategies that led to financial collapse. The costs of those risky strategies were borne almost entirely by taxpayers. That imbalance has allowed powerful elites to enrich themselves at the expense of society. Shifting those structures is a very prudential thing to do from a government perspective.

The European: Still, we are left with the question of what such a structure might look like…
Jackson: We don’t quite know. It would do more to align rights with responsibilities. It would place less emphasis on private ownership over the returns of public assets. It would encourage investments into public goods. It has company structures that code social and ecological returns into the structure itself. It focuses on bridging the sharing gap between the individual and the community.

The European: There’s a lot of Marx in that statement. First came feudalism, then came capitalism, then we threw off the shackles. How would your idea differ from the very illiberal manifestations that grew out of Marxism?
Jackson: It is explicitly post-Marxist and post-capitalist. The Marxist critique of capitalism was probably right in many of its elements but wrong in its outcomes. The idea that the alternative to the market is simply state control fell foul for several reasons: Totalitarian states are suffocated by a large bureaucracy that surrounds the state. And they encouraged the animal spirits that Adam Smith originally regarded as the basis of capitalism. The idea of rights and responsibilities got lost in the process: People didn’t enjoy many rights and didn’t really care about the things that they were supposed to own collectively. I don’t want to return to that.

The European: So this is another attempt at pursuing a Third Way, but without the focus on growth?
Jackson: At any point in history you are a product of ideas and systems that came before you. I would argue that both capitalism and communism have failed as systems of social organization. There is a vacancy right now that demands new ideas. And if we are successful, we will achieve a genuinely different fusion of ideas.

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