Last week Boris Johnson presented the third annual Margaret Thatcher Lecture, a speech that’s got him a fair amount of attention. Johnson attracts attention, it’s fair to say, but this time it wasn’t the hair or the jokes, or a stunt gone wrong. For a change, it was the Mayor of London’s politics that made the headlines. Newspaper editors weren’t sure what to run with – the shameless elitism, the defence of greed, or the suggestion that 16% of the population are too stupid to succeed in life? The line that jumped out to me was this one:
“I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”
There are a raft of contradictions about equality in Boris’ speech, but others have covered those. I wanted to mention the envy.
Envy, you may remember, is something we’re warned about in the Ten Commandments. You’d think that, of all the wildly creative forms of human wickedness, there might have been something more serious than envy to take a place in the top ten. But where there is envy, there is no goodwill. Not in either direction. It is a poison to society.
Envy is corrosive. It draws us away from what we have and towards what we can’t have. It breeds dissatisfaction and discontent, unhappiness and low self-esteem. It’s also divisive, pushing a wedge between the haves and the have-nots, eroding trust and increasing suspicion.
Living in envy is no way to live, but being envied is hardly as wonderful as the advertisers imply either. People are jealous and predisposed to find fault, to pull you down and highlight your hypocrisies. (See the gossip magazines at any supermarket checkout for evidence.) We hate the people we envy. Why would we want to be hated?
So why does Mr Johnson think envy is a good thing? This is where I get particularly mad. He believes that envy is ‘a valuable spur to economic activity.’ Yep, social discord and personal unhappiness is not just acceptable, but a good thing, because it leads to economic growth. What an inhuman philosophy growth economics can be.
It’s strange. We look down on previous generations that were oppressed by religious hierarchies, or who gave up their freedoms for nationalist pipe dreams or a dead-end ideology. But we live in a society where people have to be kept miserable in order to drive economic growth, and we hardly notice. Future generations will pity us.
As Mike Konczal wrote recently in the New Inquiry, “in neoliberal society markets don’t serve the pre-existing needs of subjects; subjects are fabricated to serve the market. The subject’s purpose in life becomes synonymous with the facilitation of economic growth.”
And that’s why postgrowth economics isn’t just about sustainability. It’s bigger than that. It’s about what it means to be human, what a good life is, what we’re here on earth for in the first place. ‘More economic activity’ is a hollow and meaningless concept on its own. It’s not a fit ambition for a country, or for us a species. We can do better than that.
And no, no and thrice no, that does not mean communism. That would be a return to past failures. We’re not going to fix 21st century problems with 20th century dogma, neither Marx’s nor Thatcher’s – thank you Boris, you can sit down now. We will learn from the past, but the way we put things together will be new, of necessity untested and iterative, because the world is not the same today as it was.
Boris Johnson still gets the headlines, but the future does not belong to him and his futile politics of greed. It belongs to those working on how to make economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and human welfare into convergent goals. If you’re working on ways to move us beyond our blind allegiance to growth, you’re engaged in one of the most important projects of our age.