So at long last the British economy is growing again. We are all supposed to be delighted.
It will mean more money, more jobs. The Government has already gone up in the opinion polls as a result, so lots of people really do believe that economic growth is the one thing that matters above all else. Politicians know this, and expect that at election-time the state of the economy will be far and away the most important consideration in the way people vote.
In other words we are treating the economy as a god. It is the one thing which has the power to give us what we need. It is therefore the one thing to which, above all else, we must give whatever is demanded.
The welfare cuts, the lack of flood defences, the huge payments to financiers and the demonising of immigrants are all necessary for the sake of the economy. Because economic growth will solve our problems we create new problems at the behest of the economy. This is worship. The economy has become our god.
It’s a complete delusion, a more absurd myth than the ancient Greeks or Aztecs ever believed about their gods. Economic growth simply means more money is changing hands. Whether it is going to people who need it, and whether the extra jobs are doing something that needs doing, are other questions which will be answered in other ways. What makes economic growth seem attractive to the ruling classes is that it seems possible to spend more on priorities without increasing taxes.
So it deliberately turns a blind eye to the obvious fact that many of our problems are caused by unequal distribution of wealth, not by overall shortage. Wealth is not a zero-sum game; it is possible for the total amount of wealth to increase or decrease. However what matters about wealth is that it brings power, and power definitely is a zero-sum game. The more power you have, the less others have. For the ultra-rich to have an ever-increasing proportion of the wealth means they have ever-increasing power, leaving the rest of us with less.
Some gods are more benign than others. Most gods first get worshipped because they seem benign, but may turn nasty later on. The god of Christianity, for example, seemed very benign in the second century, offering hope for the world and new life in Christ – at least, according to the texts which have survived and not deemed heretical. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, on the other hand, the threat of hell was a dominant theme, causing people to be afraid of God.
Similarly with the economy. Immediately after the Second World War economic growth was needed. The Government organised people to meet other people’s needs: build houses, grow food. Economic growth was a way of measuring their success by counting how much money was changing hands. Now, however, the determination to maintain economic growth is counter-productive. It obliges us to work harder, produce things which nobody needs, market them, sell them and make profits, simply in order to keep the economy growing. The Government plays every trick in the book to make the size of the economy as big as possible. We are busier than ever, and constantly being urged to be busier still. The mantra of ‘hard-working families’ drills it into us: the purpose of human life is to work hard. Never mind the quality of the work we are doing. Never mind whether it needs doing at all. How hard we are working will be judged on the basis of how much money changes hands.
The economy has turned from a benign god into an oppressive god. Our environmental destruction – climate change, extinctions of species, land erosion, pollution – all tell us that our industrial activities are doing increasing harm. We need to reduce the amount we produce and consume. If we did, the vast majority of us would breathe a sigh of relief, relax, and enjoy life more; but the economy demands otherwise.
The most oppressive feature of the economy is that it has no brake. It doesn’t believe in stopping. Production and consumption must increase and increase, without limit, for ever. Because this is completely impossible, it creates demands which cannot be met. Theory comes into conflict with reality; and as long as we are governed by people who are totally committed to economic growth, we are heading for wars over resources.
What’s the alternative? All the world’s major religions have more stable, sustainable accounts of how we should live. There is no such thing as ‘the Christian account’ because Christianity has varied immensely over the centuries. All I can do is describe my version. It fits the belief, held by some but not all New Testament scholars, that the Kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus was an appeal to certain themes in the Old Testament, best expressed in Deuteronomy.
According to this view, God has designed the world to be good for us. We and other forms of life have evolved in such a way that we can meet each other’s needs. What goes wrong is the inequalities of power and wealth, so that some people deprive others. To live well is to avoid such inequalities, and to value and explore the richness of the world given to us. The more we value it and feel gratitude for it, the less we will itch to accumulate more and more, or change it into something else. Progress is not about economics growth, but about morality. For our lives to be better and happier, we need to grow in our ability to care for each other and value the natural environment.
The god of economic growth tells us not to do this. It tells us that, whatever state we are in now, next year we must be in a different state. It tells us that we must always strive after more physical things, more money.