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Vulgar Materialism: The Madness of Growth and the Casino

by Ulrike Herrmann Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 at 6:04 AM

Renouncing on growth or tolerating a shriveling economy is hard. Greece is a shocking example. Many people cut down the last trees because they could not afford heating oil. Nature is the first victim in an economic crisis. Whole generations are traumatized.


By Ulrike Herrmann

[This article “Wachsinn Wachstum” published 12/21/2012 is translated from the German on the Internet, Ulrike Herrmann is an economics editor at taz. In 2010, Westend published her book “Hurrah, we can pay. The Self-Deceit of the Middle Class” (Hurra, wir durfen zahlen. Der Selbstbetrug der Mittleschicht.]

Jesus was not a capitalist. Modern capitalism first arose 1800 years after Jesus’ birth. Nevertheless Christmas has long been a symbol of the abundance produced by this capitalism.

The German environmental ministry has counted how many objects the average German citizen owns. They are 10,000. At least half of these things are never used but frittered away to the limit polluting the environment – first in production and then as waste.


A simple solution presses. Everyone should only buy half as much. This would be liberation, not renunciation. The plunder that is never tackled would be gone at last. Our capitalist economy would obviously not grow any more but shrivel. Why doesn’t this happen? The environment would be rescued.

This is not simple as the Euro crisis shows. One way out was recommended in unison to the crisis countries: generate growth! Political conflict only rages over the question how this growth can be best produced. Chancellor Merkel demands austerity programs while the French president emphasizes economic assistance. But everyone agrees: there must be a boom in the Euro zone. I have also commented repeatedly that the crisis countries need growth. Many readers sent letters that pointed out: the world is finite and the economy cannot grow infinitely.

That is true. However renouncing on growth or even tolerating a shriveling economy is hard. Greece is a shocking example. Many people cut down the last trees because they could not afford any heating oil. Nature is the first victim in an economic crisis.

It is hardly conceivable that crisis countries will remain democracies when unemployment is at 20 percent and youth unemployment is at 50 percent. Insecurity and lack of perspective is the worst. Poverty is not the worst that can happen though it is terrible. Whole generations are traumatized and may turn to a supposed rescuer if new jobs do not arise soon.

Thus capitalism, functions differently than the advertising suggests. The commodities that we consume and give as gifts on Christmas are not central. The products are only expedients for a higher goal. The ultimate goals are the jobs. We work so others can work. Only the one who works has income, security and acknowledgment. In his book “The Affluent Society,” (1958) the economist John Kenneth Galbraith referred to a strange phenomenon. In an economic crisis, there is never regret that many goods do not arise because the factories are not used to full capacity. No one worries over this loss in material wealth. The declining quantity of goods does not matter. Instead there is only criticism about the jobs that are eliminated in the crisis. We seemingly consume to death but this is a false perception. We produce to death. The goal is full employment, not full consumption.


Employees are not the only ones urging growth. Savers and investors also want to see profits. Every German does not have assets as the latest German Poverty- and Wealth report shows. The bottom half of the population has nothing. That the top half accelerates even greater panic hardly means the economy could collapse. The Euro crisis has not come to Germany but real estate is frantically bought.

The commodity becomes a fetish. Different from what Karl Marx thought, security is central, not practical value or exchange value. We produce and invest so an unknown future can be controlled.


Thus the task appears insoluble. We must bid farewell to growth if we do not want our environment to be completely ruined. Still every economic collapse triggers existential fears.

This dilemma can only be overcome if society no longer insists every individual is alone responsible for his or her security – by getting hold of a job or “private provisions.” Both force growth. Thus the environment is rescued by the right social- and fiscal policy, not by environmental policy.

What must happen so citizens feel secure? “Security” is an ambivalent concept in rich societies like Germany. Obviously avoiding death from starvation is the main challenge. Hartz IV recipients also have enough to eat. Nevertheless the middle class falls into panic as soon as it imagines it could be counted as poor. The middle class knows it will then lose its dignity, be despised and treated like a child.

People only feel secure when no one can crash them – since poor and rich are not so far apart. Environmental care is only possible with that security, as worldwide comparative studies confirm. The egalitarian Scandinavians lead the way while the polarized US is far behind. How wealth is distributed is important for pollution control, not how rich a society is. It may be surprising but high taxes for top earners are active environmental care. This recalls Jesus who emphasized again and again to his disciples that riches do not create security. As he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not pile up treasures on earth where moth and rust devour.” Jesus did not know capitalism. Still his commands are current and burning issues if we want to survive. High taxes for top earners are active environmental care.


Duff McDuffee, “If capitalism is sociopathic, how should we make a living,” December 19, 2012

Donella Meadows Institute, “Life Beyond Growth”
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