We have fetishized economics. Tomáš Sedláček

Zero-Growth Economics

The history of economics is a history towards abstraction. The future belongs to those who satisfy not only material needs but emotional desires and communal interests.

The most difficult thing to do, when one tries to think so long into the future, is to realize that most of the global problems we face now will be absolutely irrelevant a century from today. This is a common feature of human history: We tend to over-estimate the importance of the present. Western civilization has since the days of the Old Testament propagated the idea that we are living in the end times at this very moment. But if we look beyond the hot topics of the day, and if we assume that the current problems are solvable, this is my phantasy for a utopian economic future.

The economy of the future will be defined by abstract demand. In this economy, most money will be made on demand creation, not on supply. Companies will become more like nation-states: Their interests and marketing campaigns will replace the “common interest” as the driving force behind the creation of demand. Most economic activity will not be concerned with matter but with pure abstraction to an extent that is unimaginable today. These demands will seem extremely absurd from today’s perspective.

The economy, and indeed most of our lives, will shift from a material world into a virtual world. Meeting basic needs and energy supply will be irrelevant, and what we today call the “entertainment industry” (although these two words sound like oxymoron) will become a grandfather and forbearer of the new economy.

The future is non-material

From today’s perspective, it will look like our bodies become detached, almost as if our soul moves into the non-material world. This sounds less absurd if you try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who lived a century ago and try to analyze today’s economy from their perspective. Think how today’s world must have looked to someone in the 1910s: The one companion that we have at our side, that we sleep with, eat with, work with, play with, talk to, and listen to for instructions – in other words, our most intimate bed-mate and our gateway to the abstract world of the World Wide Web – is a cell phone.

Another trend towards abstraction will be from things, to thinks, to non-thinks. The history of mankind has since its beginnings been marked by the shift from material to pure abstraction. Plato was right: mind conquers matter. That trend will continue. First, it was important to control the source of things (hunting, gathering, fertile soil, later mining). After that, it was key to control strategic locations and trading crossroads. Latter on, one-size-fits-all mass manufacture connected with mechanical specialization (where the aim was and still is to hit the middle of the normal distribution in a given target group) was the biggest source of wealth creation. Then came the age of thinks, where smart lawyers, economists, consultants, programmers et cetera made a lot of money. Now comes the age of not only non-things, but also, and mainly, non-thinks. It will be time for artists and emotions. The next age might also be described as the Age of the Child.

A child is playful, emotional, not serious, adventurous, observant to new things, creative, and educable. A child dances, wages no wars but engages in local petty-fights only. But a child is also irresponsible and loves his or her phantasy worlds. We are now entering this world.

Today, we stand at the crossroads of the time-space collapse, thanks to the advent of an abstract information stream called “the internet”. Positions still matter: Companies like Google now occupy the nodes and entry gates of the network, and there will be “wars” over network positions in the future. Trade wars will be focused on artistic qualities (is something cool or beautiful?), on customization and individualization, and on free access. Even today, Google does not really produce or sell anything to individual customers. To the contrary: It sells customers, their desires and their attention to mutual advantage. Also notice that the World Wide Web has almost no weight; it exists in the virtual and unreal realm. This, I think, foreshadows the economic habitat of the future.

Zero-growth economics

On a material level, the economy will be stagnant. It will not grow but will be stable and fair – thus achieving everything which materialist economies could ever dream to achieve. However, it is within our nature to cultivate discontent. So we will create new desires. We won’t demand more supply but more demand for its own sake. Creating new demands and desires in a saturated and resource-finite planet will call for immense “industrialization” of phantasy of art connected with high religion. Most respected will be those who can create and manage ethically sound desires in others.

The drive towards abstraction will feature in other areas of economic policy as well. Currencies will become even more abstract. They will become directly linked to emotions like trust and mistrust, for emotions will be among the few things that will still be perceived as “real”: As sparse connections between the old material world and the new world of abstraction.

In the majority of cases, today’s ideas about property ownership will vanish. Most material properties will be controlled through rent-like schemes. Payments will happen as continual transaction processes, not as a series of one-off payments. When I am enjoying myself at the expense of others, money will flow out (today, this is called “labor”). When I bring joy to others, I will be on the receiving end of money flows.

Spontaneous and voluntary “private” insurance schemes (no insurance is really “private”) will reach high levels and will become reminiscent of communism. Risk will be collectively owned, and private responsibility will become largely symbolic. People will not view each other in terms of nations, casts or social structures anymore. The only dividing line will be the ability to enjoy different strata of abstractions.

As a field of study, economics will no longer matter. Today’s psychology will be considered a forerunner and will replace economic analysis. The macro-economy will be stabilized on a global level. Planetary regions in need of aid will be able to enjoy something like a global “Marshall Plan”.

Everyone knows the fantasy world of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”: The elves lived a high life in a low-tech world. Their economy was stagnant from the perspective of growth –indeed, they did not produce many new things at all. Most things of value were inherited from the past. Yet their quality of life was much superior to that of the people of Mordor, whose material GDP was growing tremendously. The elves lived in their dreams, stories, tales, and myths. Their economy was treading lightly and immaterially and they did not require high technology to flourish. The question for us is: Will we become more like elves, or more like the people of Mordor?

Read more in this debate: Ben Scott, George Friedman, George Bekey.

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