Why we're losing our faith in economic growth

But we could develop a renewed humanism

October 17, 2018
Signs of failure
Signs of failure

“Economic growth is the religion of the modern world.” So begins Daniel Cohen, an economics professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, in his analysis of the morose state of western democracies. For this is a religion whose god has become remote, unreliable—and perhaps soon to be declared dead.

The book draws on a range of economists and sociologists to illustrate why such faith is becoming harder to maintain. Growth has been declining in developed economies since the 1970s, and wages have slowed for most western workers. Digital technologies are replacing workers, not making them more productive. Employers are responding to the slowdown in growth by flogging their staff harder, a policy subject to diminishing returns. The impossibility of completely separating economic activity from environmental impacts, meanwhile, places absolute constraints on future growth.

The author likens the resulting mood to the “spiritual angst” that haunted many European intellectuals in the 17th century, as they struggled to adjust to the idea that the presence of God was unnecessary in a scientifically defined Universe. In our own bewildering times, Cohen argues, the rise of a politics of xenophobia and the scapegoating of outsiders comes as little surprise.

He proposes that we adjust to our new reality by rediscovering the political project of the Enlightenment, as it was before becoming dominated by the economic logic of the industrial revolution. This means returning to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and redefining our model of individual freedom from a consumer one back once more to a citizen-based model.

This is a compact book, whose easy-reading style could easily obscure the profundity of its argument. Daniel Cohen’s ultimately hopeful message is that the waning of the religion of growth could create the space for a renewed humanism.

The Infinite Desire for Growth by Daniel Cohen, translated by Jane Marie Todd (Princeton University Press, £20)