BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
Growth Fetish, by Clive Hamilton
, May 17, 2003
Growth Fetish by Clive Hamilton
Allen & Unwin
Available from News Weekly Books for $24.95 plus p&h
Reviewed by Peter Westmore
Growth Fetish is a broad-ranging book. It is not just an attack on free market capitalism, the doctrine that the working of a free market provides the optimal conditions for economic and social improvement of society.
Equally, it is a critique of the economic programs of the British Labour Party of Tony Blair (and by implication, the ALP) for having accepted economic growth as desirable, and more broadly, on the idea that economic growth itself is good.
In fact, the final chapter is titled "The post-growth society", and envisages that the future of society will be found in a conscious rejection of the idea that economic growth is good, because the price imposed (on people, families and society) is unacceptably high.
The author, Clive Hamilton, is head of the Australia Institute, a think tank which has taken on the task of developing a coherent and practical alternative to that of the Marxist left, which was intellectually discredited by the failure of communism, following the collapse of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s.
There is much in this book which is deeply thought-provoking: his concern about the growth of inequality between "haves" and 'have-nots", the ideology of globalism, disregard for the role of the home maker, and damage to the environment in modern industrial states.
It raises the important point that increasing wealth does not equate to increased happiness, and argues that an ideology of economic growth has adverse social consequences, with a collapse of community values, disregard for the environment and other problems.
Yet these concerns are not new. Over 200 years ago, Oliver Goldsmith penned the memorable words,
"Ill fares the land,
to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates
and men decay."
A similar concern preoccupied J.M. Keynes, whose greatest work was written in response to unbridled free market capitalism, with its extremes of wealth and poverty, and violent shifts in the economic cycle, which contributed to the rise of communism in the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s; and E.F. Schumacher, whose book, Small is Beautiful (1973), was subtitled, "A study of economics as if people mattered".
Yet the experience of the 20th century, taken overall, is that economic growth is a necessary - though not sufficient - condition for a reduction of poverty within a society.
It may be unpopular to say so in some quarters, but the evidence clearly shows that in developed countries like Australia, the air is cleaner, water ways are purer, and infectious diseases are rarer, than at any time in our history.
This is demonstrated by the air and water quality testing conducted every day by independent public agencies; and by increasing life expectancy and declining infant mortality, both good indicators of public health.
It has been possible to achieve these results only because part of the increase in national wealth has been devoted to improving the environment and public health.
In fact, the countries where life expectancy and public health have declined in recent years have been those which have suffered economic decline or collapse, such as Russia and parts of Africa.
The problem in modern societies is not growth, as Clive Hamilton suggests, but the distribution of wealth. He points out that a significant number of Australians have opted-out of the rat-race, and have chosen what he calls "downshifting", where "downshifters are opting out of excessive consumerism, choosing to have more leisure and balance in their schedules, a slower pace of life, more time with their kids, more meaningful work, and daily lives that line up squarely with their deepest values."
Again, this trend is not new: in a more radical form it was adopted by the hippie generation in the 1960s. In its current form, it is an option only for a section of the well-to-do middle and upper classes.
The deeper problem, in a society such as Australia, is seen in the 30 per cent of men, in their years of family formation, who need - but cannot obtain - full-time work, the 30 per cent of school leavers who suffer long-term unemployment, and the almost universal problem of young couples who now need two full-time incomes to buy a home - a problem which did not exist thirty or forty years ago, despite the huge growth in both the economy, and per capita output, over that period.
The role of government is to regulate the economy in the interests of all, particularly those without economic power.
The main problem of the last 20 years is that governments have abandoned that role, in the naïve belief that the "invisible hand" of the free market would do it for them.
What is needed today is the adoption of sound policies which can address these serious social problems.