Belief in growth is over,

so what’s the next big thing ?

Contribution to the Global Economic Symposium, Autumn 2013

One of the characteristics that makes human groups unlike animals is that they are held together by beliefs. This intersubjectivity is what enables government, the capacity to regulate violence by command of collective will, and the projection of a shared past and future.

For centuries, humanities found meanings for itself via a detour outside society — in a transcendent, exterior pole of meaning that we commonly call the divine. Modernity is the moment when societies dared to question this.

Without in any way preventing anyone from believing in God, modernity frames its collective action in terms of beliefs that are internal to humanity. One example, in the European 19th century : the idea of human progress.

From about the middle of the 20th century, some societies have given meaning to their collective action in terms of growth, which has been a collective, stable value across the whole society.

One might object that growth existed before the middle of the 20th century, and of course this is true, as an economic phenomenon. But it is false in terms of government policy and social beliefs. Only for the past half-century have societies governed themselves democratically by virtue of their common belief in growth. And for decades, this idea of growth as a concept for collective projection through time functioned well — for example, in Europe.

And yet in some societies the belief in growth seems now to be in crisis.
When a distant observer comes to consider the history of humanity between 1800 and 2100, he or she will retain, not single wars or other political shifts, but the fact that in the space of three centuries, humanity managed to surpass long-standing threats: malnutrition, child mortality, infectious epidemics, discomforts of all kinds.

Growth, in that perspective, will appear to be, not an enduring program that lies forever before humanity, but a moment. As with the invention of writing, there are societies “before” growth and there are others that come after it. Growth is a phase in human history — a transitional moment that only happens once. This does not mean that after the key moment, growth per capita will stop. But the greater part is over, and the thing itself has left the center-stage of our preoccupations. We continue to improve our daily lives, but the fundamental leaps forward have occurred.

Societies like those in Europe, which encountered the growth moment early on, now find themselves at a dangerous but fascinating turning-point in their history. In disarray, they continue to ask “growth” to serve as the belief that gives their societies meaning, even though it is perfectly obvious that the phase which this belief describes lies behind us.

This emptiness generates enormous doubt, questions, worry. We are talking about societies that are literally on the cusp of finding themselves with nothing to believe in. Nothing to project through time. Moreover, they’ve invested a lot in growth, in terms of operational social function — to take just one example, growth is the keystone of their states’ budgetary architecture.

Put in other words, there are two ways to look at the crisis that has been taking shape since 2007. Either it is an economic crisis : growth is slowing. Or else it is a crisis of economics — a breakdown in a key faculty of our economic discourse : its ability to propose a theory that projects us into time.

The challenge that lies ahead is triple, and it calls for three kinds of action.

Firstly, the world at present is interconnected, and different visions of the world coexist in close proximity. The challenge is to create conditions for harmonious coexistence between societies that are fully immersed in their growth phase — who continue to place growth at the heart of their collective beliefs — and societies for whom growth is, on the contrary, problematic — both as an experience and as a belief.

The second challenge, which faces societies located after the moment of growth, is the challenge of formulating clusters of meaning that can recreate a minimum level of collective belief. Without it, society’s very existence is threatened. We may sketch out some possible directions here — for although we don’t know what, exactly, will come after growth, we do know that the next belief system will need to comply with a certain number of constraints integral to modernity.

For example, from a philosophical point of view, the concept of growth is a compromise between modern and pre-modern — and in fact this compromise is what constitutes its strength as a belief structure. Growth is modern, because it calls for the transformation of the world; it is pre-modern, because it is wholly focused on a single statistic, which zig-zags across society like a flash of transcendence. Here an entire program of research is needed, to seek a body of meaning that is absolutely modern, and in no way linked to the transcendent. Perhaps, in fact, it is only now that these societies will enter totally into modernity: until this point, our modernity has advanced while benefiting substantially from the pre-modern.

The third challenge exists in the immediate short term, until such time as the second challenge can be resolved. It faces societies where there is not yet a replacement for belief in growth. People could find themselves without any overall collective belief — a truly nihilist moment, whose consequences and manifestations are unknowable. Perhaps it will be important in the short term to save, temporarily, the idea of growth in the eyes of the public.

We may need to be attentive to proposals of growth that are termed sustainable, or responsible, or supportable. We will find no solution there in the long term, but perhaps it will be a way to gain a little time, avoid a moment of pure nihilism, engineer a gentler transition between growth and the next big idea.

We must respond swiftly to this need to plug the gaps, for clearly the worst scenario of all problem would be a sudden loss of pressure, a brutal cessation of belief. Modernity has experienced one such moment : the loss of belief in the concept of “progress” in Europe, at the beginning of the 20th century — with what consequences, we know.

Jérôme Batout

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