29 August 2022

Limits to Growth? Limitless Growth?

This year sadly celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth. It's taken fifty years for the ruthless exploitation of the Earth to come to the top of the political agenda of urgent issues. Climate change is staring us in the face, yet the inertia, the prevarication, the dragging of feet continue. Given the enormity of the threat to human living on the planet, the inevitable geopolitical upheaval, whence the resistance? The culprits are soon found: the large corporations that generate profits at the expense of environmental degradation down through multiple levels to the normal greed of individuals making money in any way possible without regard to the environment. The source of the problem seems to be human beings themselves and their shortcomings, and the solution seems to lie in the collective political actions of responsible, enlightened democratic subjects to agitate for and force through environmentally friendly measures of all kinds to achieve sustainability for the human species to survive.

But what of the limits to growth and the disregard thereof? The limits reside in the 'obvious' finiteness of the planet and all it provides by way of resources to exploit and consume. Hence, for instance, the concern with explosive population growth, the loss of habitat for animal species, the population pressure on the Earth to produce enough food, and so on. And the limitlessness? At first glance, and so we are often told, it lies in an incessant drive of human beings to want to improve their standard of living by consuming more and more, in lock-step with the drive of corporations to generate even larger profits ad infinitum. Hence the usual left critique of capitalism, its insatiable thirst for profit whilst keeping wage-growth to an acceptable level, whose acceptability amounts to not eating into capital's profitability. Insofar, both capitalists and workers, employers as well as employees have a vested interest in endless economic growth to raise the general material standard of living. It's called 'lifting millions out of poverty'.

Capitalism itself, however, is an 'it', not a human being, albeit borne and practised by human beings as a very simple principle of social, sociating movement. As a first approximation this can be formulated as the principle of movement from money to more money: money capital is advanced with the aim of making more money. The human being who undertakes this enterprise is called the capitalist, who is simply the character-mask of capital as this principle of social movement. The capitalist need not be a single human being; it may be a collective, called a firm, company or corporation.

The formula, 'movement from money to more money', is inadequate as long as it remains unknown what money itself is, paradoxically, even when everyone well understands what money is. To ask what something is, is to ask for its essence, its whatness. What is money? Its whatness lies in its being a form of value and, more particularly, a form of thingified value, for, after all, it is some kind of thing, whether it be a bit of precious metal, a piece of state-issued paper, an electronic bit-string in a computer or the electronic bit-string entry in a block-chain ledger. As a form of thingified value money shows itself in a certain 'look' as valuable, and hence as desirable. It seems to embody within itself the power of exchange-value, the power to exchange for other valuable things. The value-form is highly Protean, highly mutable, assuming many guises from commodities via means of production, wages and interest through to parcels of land. Capital itself is nothing other than this movement of thingified value through its forms to generate more thingified value, a surplus that is usually measured as an amount of money appearing on a balance sheet. Only if the bottom line is positive has the circuit of capital succeeded in generating a profit and the principle of movement been fulfilled. The advanced thingified value must accumulate, must valorize to be successful. This is an absolute condition of survival of individual circuits of thingified value in its endless simple circular movement. The accumulation of thingified value on a social or global scale has no inherent limit: its principle of accumulative movement is limitless.

Thingified value shows its face only through its various looks, its various forms, but these looks do not show themselves as such, not as forms of thingified value. It is only by asking what thingified value itself is and what its principle of movement is that the secret of the circular movement of thingified value in limitless accumulation is revealed. Otherwise we remain clueless; the very medium of thingified value in which economic and social activity takes place everywhere remains invisible, disguised in various guises, and hence the source of the heedless infringement of the limits to growth imposed by the finite Earth itself is misidentified.

In particular, the culprits who do not heed the limits to growth are misidentified. They are, indeed, we ourselves, we human beings, but we human beings as the wearers of character-masks, as the bearers of roles in a gainful game that is only the surface appearance of the deeper lying accumulative movement of thingified value as a whole. Through this misidentification, multiple deluding inversions in thinking are generated. One of these is the character-mask of the consumer in the gainful game. The consumer is generally conceived as the human being who needs to consume certain goods and services to support a material standard of living ranging from luxurious down to below the poverty line. The needs themselves are relative to the customary usages of a way of life. 

But there is also the inverted view of the consumer as the player in the gainful game whose role it is to enable thingified value to turn over and accumulate. Hence total social capital can accumulate only if the consumers play their part in 'supporting the economy' by consuming to the hilt of their disposable income. This is an entirely formal role played in the formal, augmentative movement of thingified value through its various forms back to money-form. As a formal social movement, the limitless accumulation of capital is wholly indifferent to its content. As a simple, formal principle, it is also senseless. Consumers fulfil their role in the valorization of thingified value simply by consuming what seems desirable or needful to support their standard of living. For the formal principle of valorizing value, it is entirely indifferent whether the consumption is beneficial or harmful, e.g. whether consumers ruin or enhance their health through consumption.

Ditto for the Earth: it is entirely indifferent to the formal principle of movement of valorizing value whether the environment is degraded or not. Hence the formal principle is indifferent, in particular, to climate change. Yet, even today after having insinuated itself over centuries, the sociating medium of thingified value itself remains invisible in its various guises, and also our roles in this alienating gainful game in which we unknowingly thingify ourselves as well as allowing the Earth itself to be subsumed under a form of thingified value called ground-rent. Insofar as we remain blind to thingified value, captive to its fetishized power, and its principle of limitless accumulative movement, we are fighting windmills.

Challenging the principle of limitless accumulation of thingified value as the underlying principle of sociating movement in globalized society ultimately demands of us that we challenge the deludedness of the human subject, that is, that we challenge the illusoriness of the metaphysics of subjectivity. A pivot to an alternative way of thinking is required.

If, instead of being individualized subjects, we are all life-long players in interplays of mutual estimation and esteem, then there are no limits to growth in how we can benefit and care for each other, preferably — but not necessarily — without the mediation of thingified value. Mutual esteem and care are able to turn the inverted world generated by the cold and indifferent principle of limitless accumulation of thingified value right side up.

Further reading: Social Ontology of Whoness

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