There is much to like about this book – from the quirky title to the cover quote by Noam Chomsky, “Right on target and badly needed”, to the opening quote, “All great truths begin as blasphemies”, by George Bernard Shaw and to the final closing line by the author, “Nothing is inevitable and no power is invincible”. So after a session of reading very ho-hum works that I couldn’t recommend anyone buy, I was happy to dig into this economics made-easy and action made possible new book from Australia.
When I was in Brazil for the world Social Forum two years ago, a scholar there asked me to recommend Canadian books about identity politics. Growth Fetish is about “our” perverted sense of identity. By that I mean, we, the affluent citizens of the minority world, increasingly interpret our personal identity through our economic wealth and possessions. We also judge political success by the amount of economic growth a government promises or actually realizes. We live in a giant shopping mall with little heed to the shrinking of the commons outside our TV world. The commons of universal institutions from health to postal service to water to education dwindle away while we buy cheap factory food and more gadgets.
Hamilton says that growth fetishism and its handmaiden, neoliberalism, undermine democracy; that social democracy is being superseded by market totalitarianism. He writes at length about how we measure wellbeing as an economic condition but if we look at other factors including space, recreation, health and education facilities, holidays and working hours, happiness is a much more complex condition. Life is more than stuff. He points to evidence that once we have the basics of a dignified life, getting more wealth does not create more happiness. He also reminds us that the economic structure and policies that maximize growth come at the expense of measures to improve the lot of the residual poor. He also addresses the inability of the left to think beyond the social injustice of the situation of the poor to understand that our whole system is untenable even if many of us are comfortable.
One solution to empty consumerism would be to change the way we measure our lives.
I find some of his statements on work difficult. On one hand he floats the idea of the end of work, the joy of voluntarism, and the information age computer whizzes, but fails to mention that to most people, including those in the minority world, where driving a vehicle and retail clerking are the most common jobs, a job is still work, not well paid and not protected. In the majority world where gruelling work like carrying cement and crushing rock is done by 80 pound women and farmers and farm labourers toil long hours, heavy work is the grinding reality of life. Hamilton recognizes voluntary and unpaid work, like housework, childcare and community service. He even makes an effort to understand feminist analysis of this work without, however, referring to the two leading feminist thinkers on this subject, Maria Mies and Marilyn Waring. For most of the world’s people, work is what we do to survive.