Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

Post Growth – Life after Capitalism

Post Growth cover thumbnail

Jackson, T. (2021). Post Growth: Life After Capitalism. United Kingdom: Wiley.

Whilst the degrowth/post-growth literature, by definition, confronts the hegemony of growthism, it sometimes fights shy of directly challenging capitalism. But as the subtitle of Tim Jackson’s latest book makes clear, Post Growth does not suffer from any such coyness. In the second chapter- Who Killed Capitalism? – Jackson asserts that capitalism, which is dependent on endless economic growth, has been foundering for some 50 years and that the high economic growth of the post war years may only have been possible due the fossil fuel boom. The premise of Jackson’s argument is not only that the continued pursuit of economic growth in advanced economies is undesirable but also that it is simply not there to be had.

In Post Growth Jackson advances the same arguments against capitalism and economic growth that he presented in his previous book, Prosperity Without Growth, but with a more philosophical, even somewhat discursive, approach. There are frequent references to people who have influenced Jackson’s own thinking – sometimes accompanied by quite lengthy journeys into their stories. For example the book opens and closes in the company of Robert Kennedy (amongst others) whose prescient grasp of the dangers of a polity dependent on economic growth clearly profoundly affected Jackson’s own intellectual development.

Another example is the story of Lynn Margulis which bookends the fifth chapter – Economics as Storytelling. In that chapter Jackson relates how one of the most powerful metaphors in both economics and the natural sciences – that of competition and the ‘survival of the fittest’ – was shaped by Darwin under the influence of 19th century industrial capitalism and then economists themselves took credence from Darwin’s theory. The natural science and economic versions of this metaphor were (are) mutually reinforcing. But Lynn Margulis was a natural scientist whose life’s work on bacteria took her down a different path from Darwin. There she revealed that symbiosis and cooperation are just as significant in the evolution of life on earth as is competition. Her seminal paper published in 1967 – On the Origins of Mitosing Cells – was pretty much ignored for 10 years, but a subsequent book – Symbiosis in Cell Evolution – has since become a classic of 20th century science. Jackson says: “It revealed that our dominant metaphor for nature, one drawn from the social environment of early capitalism and assimilated thoughtlessly into economics, was fundamentally mistaken. Struggle may be inevitable. But our response to it is not. We are not confined to the naïve and painful prison of relentless competition for life.” Margulis’ work heralded a major course correction for Darwinian evolutionary theory. But economic theory, it seems, like an overburdened oil supertanker, does not so easily alter course in light of new information, however compelling.

Post Growth is full of revealing stories and metaphors like these, setting it apart from all other degrowth/post-growth literature that I have read so far. Jackson binds the stories together in a narrative which takes us to a place where we can imagine a new polity: where work is valued as an avenue for achieving some of our most profoundly satisfying life experiences; where we invest in nature, care and creativity; where we write off iniquitous debt. Jackson is pessimistic about the establishment’s willingness or ability to change without extraordinary pressure and is a strong advocate of civil disobedience to facilitate just and democratic change. This is a deeply personal but very readable book which facilitates deeper thinking and analyses around the profound systemic problems with capitalism and the urgent need for advanced economies to embrace a post growth future. I highly recommend it.