Australia: an unhappy country

Towards a post-growth society
Clive Hamilton

For the great majority of people in rich countries the human condition is no longer dominated by an ever-present need to provide for survival and to accumulate assets to guard against lean times. The defining struggle is no longer between proletarians and capitalists about how to divide the surplus of the production process; today it is about how to live a genuine life in a social structure that manufactures 'individuality' and celebrates superficiality.

The early economists wrote about solving the economic problem, that is, providing for a reasonable level of material comfort and security for the population. For the great majority of people in rich countries the economic problem has been solved. But before history had allowed time for people to decide what to do next, the marketers filled the vacuum of consciousness with their message of consumption. Although most people intuitively understand that their condition is determined above all by a need to find fulfilment in a social environment that puts income before purpose, they act as if there is nothing wrong because they know not what else to do. The vision of a post-growth society answers the question of what to do next.

The conjunction of Western society's preoccupation with economic growth and the manifest failure of higher incomes to improve wellbeing is the great contradiction of modern capitalism. Refusal to recognise the contradiction is the reason for the decline of the political Left. By implicitly conceding that more growth is the measure of success, the Left found it increasingly difficult to argue that various forms of socialism could outperform 'turbo-capitalism' on its own territory.

This is why the politics of the Third Way feel false: despite its claims to inclusiveness and community building, these things have been made contingent on the need to promote economic growth. A genuine critique of consumer capitalism, and the plethora of troubles associated with it, must be based firstly on a rejection of the growth fetish.

When people on the Left consider possible alternatives to neoliberalism, they are conditioned to think in terms of rival structures of ownership and the organisation of production. Thus classical socialists advocated workers' cooperatives or communes, 20th century communists created state enterprises along with soviets and collective farms, and social democrats have defined their philosophy as a judicious mix of public and private ownership.

Supporters of capitalism, and especially its purified neoliberal form, identify private ownership of the means of production as the defining feature of the system. The terminology speaks for itself. Capitalism is so called because the motivating force of production and social organisation is ownership of private capital; socialism is so called because it is centred on social ownership of the means of production.

Political philosophies whose competing claims have defined the history of the world for the last two centuries have been at one in identifying the central social problem - how to produce and distribute material wealth. But now that in rich countries the economic problem has been solved, the axis of political debate and social change must move away from the production sphere and the forms of ownership of the means of production.

The word eudemonia was used by Aristotle to capture the idea of happiness or wellbeing arising from the full realisation of human potential. I adopt the term 'eudemonism' as a short-hand expression for the political philosophy of a post-growth society. Eudemonism concerns not just a system of ethics but also a political ideology that argues for an organisation of society that promotes the full realisation of human potential through, in the first instance, proper appreciation of the sources of wellbeing.

While the eudemonism represents a profound challenge to capitalism as we know it, it cannot be characterised as socialist. It reaffirms a necessary role for public ownership, but it does not propose any expropriation of private property. It is, however, anti-capitalist in the sense that it argues that society and governments should no longer cede special significance to the objectives or moral claims of the owners of capital. For the most part, capitalism itself has answered the demands that inspired 19th century socialism - the demands for an end to exploitation at work, for an end to widespread poverty, for social justice, and for representative democracy.

But attainment of these goals has only brought deeper sources of social unease -manipulation by marketers, obsessive materialism, environmental degradation, endemic alienation, and loneliness. In short, just as women sacrificed liberation in the pursuit of equality, in the marketing society, we seek fulfilment but settle for abundance. Prisoners of plenty, we have the freedom to consume instead of the freedom to find our place in the world.

The post-growth society envisaged here does share something fundamental with socialism. As Andre Gorz has observed, 'Socialism may ... be understood as the positive response to the disintegration of social bonds ensuing from the commodity and competitive relations characteristic of capitalism'. Eudemonism too is motivated by an understanding of the corrosive effects of capitalism on social bonds, but it differs in two respects.

First, it attributes this erosion of social bonds not so much to the depredations of the capital-worker relationship but to the social disintegration associated with excessive consumption in the marketing society.

Second, the problem of capitalism is not only the disintegration of social bonds but also the loss of self that characterises the marketing society. We need to recover the security and integration of pre-modern societies, societies in which, in Gorz's words, 'the unity of work and life, of society and community, of the individual and the collective, of culture and politics, of economy and morality, is re-established; in which the functional requirements of the system coincide with the aims of everyone, and the meaning of each person's life coincides with the meaning of History'.

The price of abundance has been the disintegration of community and the disintegration of self. Reintegration can now occur at a higher level, in conditions that permit the flowering of individual and collective potential unconstrained by material want, political oppression and primitive beliefs. The 'aims of everyone' have not changed in essence over the centuries, but they have been pursued in increasingly false and futile ways.

Eudemonism, then, is a political and social system whose functional requirements are consistent with the need for people to find fulfilment in their lives. Such a society will engender and reflect a historic transformation of consciousness, one consistent with the process of individualisation.

In contrast with the historical trend, in which economic considerations have invaded and come to dominate more and more aspects of life and social organisation, eudemonism will see the displacement of economic rationality by other forms of rationality, so that the former is confined to a smaller and smaller domain - indeed, to the domain where it properly belongs.

Eudemonism will see the flourishing of the rationality of community over that of self-interest and the spread of the ecological rationality of intrinsic value in place of the instrumental exploitation of the natural world. True sustainability will become possible in a society that has gone beyond economic growth and ever-increasing consumption. Not only will the pressure of consumption be diminished, but governments will be less inclined to abandon policies that are essential to sustainability because of pressure from business.

The principal claim of business - that it is essential to improving the growth rate - will evaporate. In no sense does this mean that we must revert to 'primitive lifestyles'. There is no reason why we could not continue to benefit from the enormous creativity of humanity. But we could use that creativity to tread more lightly on Earth, to develop new ways of protecting the environment, and to live richer lives in our communities at the same time.

As the emphasis on consumption and paid work is wound back, new space will be opened up for cultural, educational and community work and for participation in meaningful leisure. Not only would more time be available for these activities; their value will also be increased once the leviathan of the market is reduced to its proper size.

This will augur a deeper transformation, a move away from activities carried out for instrumental reasons - the production of goods and services destined for the market - towards activities that are valuable in themselves. We will benefit from these activities as much from the doing of them as from the outputs generated. In this way, much more of people's daily activity will be fulfilling in itself and provide the opportunity for growth of character.

This type of activity, which is currently classed as unproductive, will be understood to be productive because it produces the self and reproduces community, and the value of these activities will be apparent from their manifest contribution to the wellbeing of all.

In the new dispensation, the function of government will be reoriented so that it provides sustenance to life-affirming activities outside the market. Indeed, the function of the state will change radically - from one devoted principally to providing the conditions demanded by the economy (and especially global financial markets) and correcting 'market failures', to one devoted to protecting and enhancing the 'life-communities' that are the true source of human wellbeing.

One of the central functions of the state will be to redistribute income generated in the money economy to the household economy, in order to sustain the activities carried out in this realm, including parenting and caring for the sick and elderly. Among the transforming consequences of the rebalancing of time will be to even up the emphasis attached to unpaid as opposed to paid work. For, although women have increasingly achieved equality in the arena of paid work, the fact that unpaid work in the household remains predominantly the domain of women has kept it in the dismissive shadow of the economy.

Greater equality in the domestic sphere remains a desirable goal, and greater value attached to household and community work will facilitate the process. As long as political structures cede pre-eminence to the economy, those activities that lie outside the economy are less attractive and less socially valuable. When the household sphere resumes its proper place and is given its due, men will be more attracted to it and both women and men will feel validated by their dedication to it.

In general, the world of the market economy is dominated by masculine values and male consciousness - competitiveness, hierarchy, instrumental rationality, the accumulation of status through display, and appropriation of the external world. The household is dominated by female values and forms of consciousness - intuitive appreciation, collaborative structures, empathy and caring. A rebalancing of these worlds will allow for a realignment of these values and forms of consciousness and permit the healthy expression of male and female values in both women and men.

One of the many benefits of this eudemonistic program is that it will encourage a reinvigoration of democracy. People are demoralised and marginalised from the political process. Daily they are told that the economy is too complex and important to be ruled by the ignorant masses and that decisions must be left to experts who understand the intricacies of the system. There is, however, deep disquiet about leaving it to the experts, not least because the experts have been promising bliss for a long time, generating a growing and disturbing cynicism. Yet, as long as the economy remains paramount, there is no alternative but to leave it to the experts.

When the economy is cut down to size - the size justified by its contribution to wellbeing - people will feel their voice counts once again and they will be freed to participate in democratic processes at every level, including the international level. In these circumstances, we can expect a flowering of civic culture, in which political ideas - for decades suppressed by the market's intolerance of the unorthodox - can once again be debated around the dinner tables and in the bars of every town.


Clive Hamilton is executive director of The Australia Institute, a public interest think tank. This is an edited extract from his new book, Growth Fetish, published by Allen & Unwin in April 2003. For more information and orders, go to Allen & Unwin.


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Suggested citation
Hamilton, Clive, 'Australia: an unhappy country', Evatt Journal, Vol. 3, No. 3, May 2003.<http://evatt.org.au/news/australia-unhappy-country.html>