The inequality fostered in modern markets is well documented and has been denoted and analyzed ad nauseam by experts and students alike. Despite the existing flaws, the general principle has been that capitalism, adopted across the world to create global trade routes and financial systems, provides a greater overall benefit for more than engaging in protectionist tendencies that look inward to solve problems. Look no further than Brexit, which in it’s current form is estimated to cost £66bn annually and slash the GDP of the UK by 9.5% over the next 15 years. But voters clearly indicated a willingness to sacrifice national economic growth for increased sovereignty in policy and trade decisions, and to opt for economic measures that prioritize UK organizations over international competitors for funds (a row over deciding to fund the NHS over paying to access the EU market in the Brexit campaign was a primary example of this nationalist focus).
Voters have, throughout the world, categorically demonstrated a desire to act against the grander self-interest of nations – but not necessarily of themselves. Physical and financial insecurity have combined with an increasing sense of marginalization and resulted in two outcomes: a loss of faith in experts who deal in amalgamations and predictive modelling (and thereby are seen as not understanding the plight of the single family), and a desire to sacrifice growth and future prosperity to live in a more equitable state. An essay penned in Foreign Policy Magazine by Anand Menon and Camilla MacDonald recently outlined that in the case of Brexit, equity referred to the prioritization of co-nationals and tackling wealth inequality in Britain, as well as reducing household debt levels and stabilizing regional housing markets. Border security was also of chief concern, with the physical safety of individuals and families in urban areas seen as an existential-level threat.
This focus upon the strength of community and identity are values shared by another movement – the modern environmental movement. Although distinctions can be clearly drawn about individual policy decisions, both movements are guided by the notion that a better world is not a more prosperous one for the masses, but rather a more equitable one for the individual. Both movements illustrate that low unemployment figures and raucously raising interest rates provides little respite or impact for individuals facing growing health care and housing costs. Both movements speak of having had “enough” – one to a perceived or existing repression, the other to the consumption of a finite resource base – and demand collective action from the masses to instigate change.
Leaders of the environmental movement often call for “the end of growth” – a principle that the current system (of infinite growth using finite resources) exists to enrich the elites of today at the cost of the masses, that this cost directly impacts the future livelihood and security of individuals, and that communities must use their voice to protect their best interests in a system that benefits from their silence. But how heavily do the ideas underpinning the theory that growth is at it’s end align with those underpinning modern populism?
There are three foundational ideas behind why growth is unsustainable in the current climate: depletion of finite resources, environmental degradation and increasing levels of debt. In each of these three, parallels can be drawn – the notion of depleting a finite volume of resources is similar to that of sovereignty. Both rely upon messaging that current levels of growth and migration are unsustainable and, if continued, will directly result in negative impacts. Both paint grim scenes of carnage, with droughts and crime abound. And both foster a deep anti-elitist sentiment – one directed at large corporations emphasizing profitability over the health of citizens, the other at governments for letting in potentially dangerous individuals in favour of cheap labour.
The idea of a degrading environment is similar to the concept of the real cost of economic progress. Every politician or business leader touting innovation and growth is viewed as the enemy, given that they typically do not outline the tangible cost of prosperity: disruption and degradation. The costs are the jobs of individuals who no longer possess the skills deemed valuable by the market, the natural environments whose value cannot be directly calculated and are thus paved over. Often touted as the primary objective, growth too often sees externalities and hardship fall not upon spreadsheets, but on families and homes. As for increasing levels of debt, no direct parallel is needed. Crushing household and national debt is a tangible impact felt by everyone, whether it be money borrowed to make car payments or natural systems destroyed whose absence will be noted – but not within the next fiscal year.
Occasionally, politicians manage to embody both sides – left-leaning populists in the vein of American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Dutch politician Jesse Klaver often speak to rising inequality and a need to create a “better” world. And in there, a possibility exists that rising populism may actually signify a shift in modern societies towards more thoughtful growth and consumption wherein individuals are prioritized. If growth can be designed to be more inclusive overall, it stands to reason that less of it would be required to foster the same net results. Then maybe, at long last, someone can finally give some money to the NHS.