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Growth Criticism and Reduced Working Hours

by Heinz- J. Bontrup Sunday, Sep. 18, 2016 at 9:54 AM

Today's growth critics speak of the necessity of a post-growth society, a "renunciation society" or at least of a "green" capitalist model... A political transformation process is necessary. The economist John Maynard Keynes dreamt of a time when his grandchildren would only have 15hr wk.


By Heinz-J. Bontrup

[This introduction to Heinz-J. Bontrup's "Noch Chancen fur Wachstum und Beschaftigung?," (2016) is translated abridged from the German on the Internet.]


Criticism of capitalist profit-driven growth is vital. The limits to resources and growth were shown for the first time in the 1972 report of the Club of Rome. Regarding climate change, today's growth critics speak of the necessity of a post-growth society, a "renunciation-society" or at least a "green" capitalism model. Meanwhile, 1.6 earths would be necessary because humanity exploits natural resources faster than the earth can generate them (cf. recent accounts of Earth Overshoot Day).

Growth-critics note the promise "growth equals prosperity" is believed and experienced less and less. Growth does not automatically mean more prosperity and happiness for people. "These doubts on the meaning of growth were under girded by findings of the relatively new academic discipline "Happiness Research: (cf. Thierbach, P. "On the Way to a General theory of Happiness," 2010). From a certain GDP- and income level, no increased individual well-being appears (Reuter, N., 2013). The problem here is that there is no uniform definable level of social growth and income. Individually different feelings of happiness are not interpersonally comparable.

Moreover, personal income is distributed very unequally. Lower income sectors and the unemployed want to "grow" and consume more. In many regards, they feel a material (economic) deficiency and inequality that makes people unhappy, as an international study of economists confirms. At the end, quality of life suffers when the chasm between the rich and the rest of the population grows.

With growth, the essential question should be raised: Is future growth still possible in the old-industrialized and catch-up political economies with decreasing economic and technical potentials of growth? A legitimate growth-skepticism can be recognized that was predicted long ago by the great economists David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes. "Ricardo's forecast of the long-term fall of the profit rate argues with the Malthusian prediction that an unrestricted demographic growth will surpass the load capacity of the earth some time or other and growth will hit natural limits. The accuracy of this reflection seems more plausible today than during the first 170 years of industrial-capitalist growth when natural resources were seemingly inexhaustible, the ecological consciousness was underdeveloped at best and the world population amounted to less than a third of the current population. "Marx' labor market explanation of the falling profit rate sets in the center the shift between capital mass (constant capital) and labor deployment (variable capital) producing profit. Surplus value falls in relation to the capital mass and thus the profit rate falls…" (Zinn, K.G.).

Obviously, there are social growth possibilities regarding public consumption and public investments in vital necessities (infrastructure, education, health and energy supply). Such a sensible growth implies a resource consumption with rebound effects. Therefore the hasty demand for a "way beyond the one-sided orientation in economic growth and competitiveness is realistic," as the political scientist Ulrich Brand, member of the Enquete commission "Growth, Prosperity, and Quality of Life" of the German Bundestag, formulated in an article "Prosperity instead of Higher GDP" for the Frankfurter Rundschau (8/31/2014). The questions to be answered include a) what cannot grow anymore and b) who should decide under the conditions of the "capitalist wolf law," competition, what should still grow?

So a paradoxical alliance was forged again and again between capital and labor… Nearly everyone likes renewables but no one wants to pay for them, according to the motto "Wash me, but don't get me wet."

In Greece, half of the youths are unemployed. A misery-economy brings a dangerous de-democratization. A care of the environment rightly demanded by environmentalists falls by the wayside. In the crisis, no one wants to pay any more in the declining or merely stagnating economy.

Growth alone, any purely quantitative growth, is not an alternative anymore environmentally for solving the problems on the labor market (cf. chapters 6 & 7) and in the state- and social budgets (cf. Bontrup, H-J., The Discredited State. Alternatives to State Indebtedness and Debt Brakes, 2012) or for fighting poverty. The real growth in Germany's recent past (since the reunification) is completely overrated and misinterpreted economically. The gross domestic product as a growth indicator is a false prosperity measure…

Consumption among economic subjects was and is not equally distributed. Growth criticism is only possible with the distribution question. The solution lies in a more just, market-referring primary distribution and in a secondary state distribution through a fiscal- and social spending policy (cf. chapter 5). Very simply, the income and wealth of the upper classes come from the lower classes… The just solution is prosperity for everyone.

Redistribution from top to bottom must be joined with a collective reduction of working hours and growth that is oriented socially and ecologically. However, both cannot be realized with a liberalized market under one-sided profit orientations. Only suboptimal social results are possible without state regulated interventions in the markets (commodity-, financial- and labor markets). Turning away from a one-sided neoliberal (market radical) political orientation that relies on liberalized markets and courting corporations (cf. Attac Austria, Break Corporate Power. From the Rule of Capital to Good Life for All, Vienna, 2016) is imperative like turning from labor to capital incomes (profits, interests, rents and leases) and a weak state. All this can only succeed when an economic democracy is attained and the one-sided monolog of capital owners in the economy is broken.

A political transformation process is necessary. "The promises of the `social market economy' should be realized in the reality practiced every day. The legitimate inheritance and further development of the social market economy is a socialist market economy with corporate governance, economic democracy, the participation of employees and a macro-economic structural policy with revitalized institutions and instruments within a coherent political mix of monetary- and fiscal-policy" (cf. Kruger, S, Sozialismus 4/2016).


We produce more and more with fewer and fewer workers. Increased productivity has led to exorbitant wealth multiplication for owners of capital. Only an overdue reduction of working hours with full compensation offers a way out from the long-lasting misery of mass unemployment. The theme De-growth (growth withdrawal or post-growth) is fit for entertainment pages and for economic reflection under realistic conditions.

"… Renouncing on productivity-driven growth is social romanticism that proves cynical to the unemployed, precarious workers and the poor. When an economy does not grow but shrivels irrespective of the economic system, a misery-economy inevitably arises, as Greece shows. At the end, the care of the environment, rightly demanded so vehemently by growth-critics, has only a marginal chance of realization or internalization."

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