A post-growth society is the best antidote against Trump’s ideology

Earth with stock market information superimposed

Lorenzo Fioramonti

Professor Lorenzo Fioramonti
Full Professor of Political Economy, University of Pretoria

23 February 2017 

Lorenzo Fioramonti is the author of a new book The World After GDP: Economics, Politics and International Relations in the Post-Growth Era, which will be presented at Gross Domestic Problem: Measuring what matters on Tuesday 18th April, 2pm-4:30pm. Free event: Registration essential.

Trump is the false solution

The election of Donald Trump may have come as a cold shower, but it was to be expected in a world that is increasingly frustrated with a profit-obsessed globalized economy. Not only have jobs been lost and inequalities increased, but the exploitation of natural resources and the conflicts it fuels have triggered a massive exodus of refugees and economic migrants, which is threatening to tear entire societies apart. Wealth has amassed at the top, in ever-fewer hands, with a bottom of the pyramid fighting for the crumbs.

Against this backdrop, Trump’s promise of protectionism has found appeal among many people marginalized by neoliberal globalization, not only in America but in many European countries too. The paradox is that Trump himself is a staunch capitalist, who has massively benefited from the globalized economy he claims to oppose. In the case of Brexit, too, it is unclear whether the secession from the European Union is driven by a genuine concern about the social impacts of an ultra-competitive single market or, more likely, a desire to re-affirm the supremacy of British financial capitalism globally, a traditional form of domination that has often been challenged by EU regulations.

Why we need to move beyond growth

While the popular sentiments that gave rise to both Trump and Brexit are understandable, the solutions offered are damaging to the very people whose interests they claim to promote. Yes, we need to challenge economic globalization, but not to build walls and segregate societies: we must do it to achieve human and ecological wellbeing.

This is only possible if we recognize that our obsession with economic growth is the source of the many tensions our societies currently face. Our model of growth, as dictated by its chief indicator, the gross domestic product (GDP), has portrayed globalized markets as the driving force of prosperity. The reason why Wall Street has become so powerful is because we have accepted that financial markets are best at creating growth. The 2008 collapse was a wake-up call, but apparently not loud enough if we consider that both Obama and Trump have filled their governments with investment bankers.

GDP growth pushes for increasing production at all costs, even when this means harder conditions for workers and families. It destroys informal economic systems, which are a critical safety net for many people, and replaces them with formal market activities, which benefit a few. It creates incentives for economies of scale, thus leading to the supremacy of big corporations at the expense of small businesses. It favours competition against cooperation, portrays the exploitation of nature as progress and reduces citizens to mere consumers, thus disempowering them politically.

By moving beyond growth, we can address many people’s demand for change, while escaping the anachronistic and dangerously simplistic solutions represented by Trump.

The promise of a wellbeing economy

The good news is that the international community is ready to shift to a post-GDP idea of prosperity, thus turning the global economy upside down. The Sustainable Development Goals ratified by the UN offer an entry point to change the ‘rules of the game’, as well as the many calls made by institutions, scientists and progressive companies to shift to a new system of accounting centred on wellbeing rather than growth.

From a wellbeing perspective, global trade bears more costs than gains, because of its impacts on the environment and society. We should rather pursue regional trade systems, empowering communities to build equitable and sustainable local economies, within countries and across borders. Large industries are anything but efficient or even profitable: they are responsible for more damage to society and the environment than the revenues they generate. Renewable energy becomes a no brainer: profitable, cheap and empowering, while fossil fuels are inefficient, expensive and damaging.

Why Scotland

In many ways, Scotland has begun to experiment with a post-growth development model. New indicators of prosperity have been proposed and the 2014 referendum helped revitalize participation in local communities, as well as volunteering. As a regional economy, it believes in local production and consumption while supporting integration across borders. Its development policies are crafted for inclusivity and sustainability. Health and education are cornerstones of its human development approach.

In GDP terms, Scotland many be small. But in terms of wellbeing it should be seen a leading voice in the world. This is another important impact of a post-growth governance system: wasteful, polluting and unequal ‘big countries’ would be seen as more backward and underdeveloped than efficient and sustainable regional economies like Scotland. There is no better way to shunt Trump.