The Technological Sources of Anti-Growth Politics

The anti-growth youth movement is coming, and the global Western elite isn’t ready. True, the slightest deviation in the policy debate from the once-ironclad bipartisan economic growth consensus is still enough to send waves of dismay through the established order. Many pro-growth figures in positions of socioeconomic significance are old enough to remember when most of the world’s population was arrayed against free-market capitalism, and even those who do not always agree that economic expansion is axiomatically good tend to look back on international communism as a disaster for the human race.

At the same time, even some of the most dogmatic pro-market champions nurse a deeply informed understanding that a flourishing society freely ordered by markets is at least in a political sense extraordinarily fragile. Consider Jonah Goldberg’s insistence that “suicide” awaits a West that fails to respectfully steward “the miracle” of growth-oriented market liberalism. Goldberg recently reaffirmed in his personal newsletter that “the world of liberal democratic capitalism is unnatural,” a relatively new environment of our own creation that continuously cuts against our old premodern “instinct for solidarity.” Politics, on this view, is always at risk of succumbing to “romantic fantasies of what man’s life in a state of nature was really like”—therefore putting us at risk of being told to “get in line for your share.”

This inherent precariousness or vulnerability of markets means that even relatively mild attacks on growth as the market-driven principle of flourishing can swiftly usher in cataclysm. Growth, the established liberals say, is the proper principle because it allows markets to produce unequal distributions of property, a hallmark of our hard-to-achieve balance between order and freedom. Equality as the principle—the socialist line—produces far too much order and far too little freedom. “This is why,” Goldberg explains, “all socialist systems that do not work within the constraints of a liberal democratic framework of the rule of law inevitably descend into tyrannies.”

Insofar as young Westerners look to socialism the way established free-market liberals think they do, as a political weapon against economic inequality, the Western elite faces an alarming but familiar challenge, one that requires nothing more of them than an even more strenuous and exacting restatement of correct ideas than usual.

Such would appear to be the case concerning Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has won fast fame lecturing Davos Man on the evils of growth in the context of climate. “Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope,” she recently told an audience so elite that it included (inevitably) Bono. “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” Of course, in reality, the best way to reduce world emissions would be to focus mercilessly on reversing industrialization in China (4.7 percent emissions growth in 2018) and India (6.3 percent). After all, if the very future of the human race is at stake, why not rally around the old utilitarian idea that a relative few living today must suffer for the benefit of the vast majority still to come? But Thunberg insists “most emissions are caused by a few people, the very rich people, who are here in Davos,” a telling sign that the Western elite’s exploitation of growth is seen as more of a crisis than the East’s overwhelming share of world emissions. “They,” she concludes, not the world’s most populous, highest-emitting regimes, “need to put their economic goals aside to safeguard the living conditions of humankind in the future.”

Pro-growthers would like to believe this talk is not much more than the product of overheated virtue-signaling from generations of adults. In fact, the root cause is not the triumph of climate memes but the defeat of the pro-growth meme under digital conditions. Digital life has formed young souls much more powerfully than their bourgeois bohemian parents. The outsized power of smartphones, the consolidation and retrenchment of once-boom industries in “knowledge work,” the concentration of tech power in the hands of a miniscule few, and the stagnation of wages, to name just a few hallmarks of life in the digital age, have shaped the West’s young to perceive the growth evangel as fake news, a poor measure of human flourishing and future prospects.

Politically, their common sense is to seek agency and identity by gravitating toward policies that reject growth as a goal. The teen rallies that have popped up around Europe in solidarity with Thunberg should be understood in this way, not as the predictable manifestation of trendy rebellion pro-growthers might hope. The youth’s laser-beam climate focus on the West’s elite beneficiaries of economic growth shows that, today, an anti-growth agenda makes intuitive sense and holds an intuitive appeal for younger Westerners—whether the purpose for such a policy is climate, justice, or anything else.

Growth is only being demonized because it has been disenchanted. As Goldberg has it, the new anti-growth Westerners “think socialism is a good thing that can do no wrong,” to the point that “socialism is just their word for fixing what’s wrong with the world.” Yet the rise of socialism as one of several movements de-privileging economic growth, including movements on the right, can only be profitably understood as a kind of political content that has arisen as the result of a dramatic change in the social and technological context of Western life.

Digital technology has wrenched the West away from what seemed to be its socioeconomic end state—late-modern post-industrial market neoliberalism—and into quite different waters. Technological advancement became so synonymous in the establishment mind with the West’s putative socioeconomic end state that elites simply could not imagine that digital tech might take away the context of our social environment in a way that made both the neoliberal system and its elite increasingly obsolete. And that is just what happened.

Specifically, the shift triggered a clear and powerful change in the way Westerners perceived growth-driven market liberalism and assessed the strength of its alternatives. Before the digital revolution began to set in, the mental and social context around the end state system encouraged Westerners to perceive growth-driven markets as delivering products ever more delightfully conducive to our entertainment, expression, enlightenment, and perhaps especially our emancipation. “Critiques” of the end state were attacks on those four experiences—attempts to persuade Westerners that, in fact, fun, creativity, curiosity, and freedom were bad, not good, or at least dangerously problematic. These arguments were made, by some of the most significant social theorists of the late 20th century, but the inescapable context they were leveled within ensured that they were not broadly persuasive at all.

Then digital tech changed the context in which Westerners processed the reality of growth-driven markets. Two things happened abruptly. On the production side, automation, algorithms, and artificial intelligence began reorganizing value and activity around identity and memory and away from fantasy and imagination, the wellsprings of end state productivity. On the consumption side, the massive glut of toys, opinions, news, games, and lifestyle choices unleashed by teched-up market liberalism revealed in a new way how much of the post-industrial output of the West was inessential or not worth choosing, whether measured in time spent, effort put forth, or payoff obtained.

In this new socioeconomic context, entertainment has swiftly grown more hollow, trivial, and forgettable; expression has grown more disposable, higher-risk, and lower-reward; enlightenment has grown more fractured, marginal, recondite, and ineffective; and emancipation has become more decadent, shallow, theatrical, and marginal in its returns. The contextual change wrought by digital caused Westerners—especially younger ones coming of age at the time—to perceive that, when it came to economics, the pre-digital social compact had been overthrown. Computers, not humans, held sway over the logic of productive growth; under such conditions, the bargain of labor and reward established in the pre-digital economy no longer reliably applied. The new personal and social environment is making it considerably less attractive and fulfilling to throw one’s life force into either production or consumption in the way people did in the pre-digital marketplace.  

Within this context, critiques of the Western end state are now different in kind from what they were in the pre-digital age. Today, the criticism is not a learned expert effort to persuade us that the goods of the end state economy are bad. Criticism now begins from a wholly different perceptual situation, one saturated with and shaped by the inescapable everyday-ness of the new digital environment. Here failed expert efforts to persuade have been replaced by a spreading common knowledge of the deepening futility, vanity, or emptiness of the economic activity considered most pleasurable, rewarding, or choice-worthy in the pre-digital end state. Insofar as growth best delivered its obsolescing goods, growth itself is obsolescing as a “value” or policy.

Herein lies a far different challenge to the growth orthodoxy of elite market liberals than the one they have been accustomed to. Greta Thunberg and other late heirs to the “resistance” ethos of would-be revolutionary heroes, urging that we go back to the garden, may well squeeze some nostalgic ideological juice out of the old attack that growth is bad for us. The deeper and more powerful threat to the Davos elite, however, is the development under digital conditions of a common-sense judgment that growth is not nearly as relevant to us as a measure of well-being and flourishing as perhaps it once was.   

A West where growth is neither hero nor villain, neither a fragile treasure nor a harmful menace, still has much to concern itself with about the onrushing present and the future to come. But if the West’s globalized elite refuses to recognize how the ground of the most powerful critique of its crowning economic system has changed, peoples—and nations—will take matters increasingly into their own hands.