Tag Archives: Durer

Capital:On Growth and its Discontents

In Capital, Thomas Piketty argues, based on analysis of available historical records, that global growth rates prior to the 18th Century CE were probably in the order of 0%-0.2% GDP per annum. Between 1700 and 2012, he calculates, global growth rates were, on average, 0.8% GDP with significantly higher rates (up to 3.5%) in the middle of the 20th Century.

Picketty argues that a growth rate in the order of 1% ‘implies major social change’ since material circumstances – and therewith power and property relations – shift dramatically from generation to generation at these rates of growth.

He, moreover, argues that the spectacularly high growth rates of the 20th century are associated with two phenomena – the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed in the two world wars and the technological catch-up of formerly colonised areas previously asset stripped for resources (agricultural products, minerals, slave labour). He questions, with I think good reason,that such growth can be sustained outwith periods of regeneration and with a level technological playing field.

Given his focus on income and wealth, he is less engaged, I think, with the enormous injection of ‘low cost’ energy which fossil fuel exploitation enabled this growth, the ultimate ecological costs of which have never been incorporated into the ‘pricing model’. We have grown ‘wealthy’ by accumulating debts, not to banks or sovereign funds, but to future generations and vulnerable populations – debts which, given our mortality, cannot be foreclosed on and on which we will probably default.

Piketty fractionates growth into two components – population growth and productivity growth. The material and technological benefits of the latter enable the former. For a while, in the 19th and 20th centuries, more and more of us produced faster and faster. As a consequence, each generation lived in a different world, with different expectations, from that of their parents. Coal, oil and gas drove massive social change and the dominant market mechanism, capitalism, required constant innovation and repackaging to attract the interest and appetite of each succeeding generation. Instability and change is the essence of modernity and was fuelled almost exclusively by burning fossil hydrocarbons which cannot be renewed in ‘human’ timescales.

I was interested, reading John Berger’s essays on Durer, Caravaggio and others in Portraits, to reflect the shifts in emphasis in European art in the early modern period just preceding the take-off in growth rates. Artists like Durer and Michelangelo looked backwards to the world of their fathers or to classical ideals – were mannerist and idealist – modelling the present on the past whilst incorporating technological and craft development (including a burgeoning self-awareness) into their practice.

Later or more Northern (proto-capitalist?) artists focus on the real person and his or her material possessions – Caravaggio’s Madonna del Palafreniere really is/ is really Maddalena di Paolo Antognetti in contemporary (17th century) clothes, Mrs. Arnolfini’s green woollen dress is state-of-the-art and Willem Claesz. Heda’s ondbijtjes are straight from the kitchen the night before – it’s now stuff, it’s new stuff – and from there it picks up the pace.

Art and ideas about individual autonomy and material prosperity (and their associated political institutions) in Europe precede the invention of the steam engine, maybe inform the desire to build such a device which decouples the proprietor from the vagaries of climate, location, weather – but it is not until we start burning coal on an industrial scale that the inter-generational upheaval which we call ‘growth’ takes off.

Still – we are here today. We know what we know. We have created what we have created, discovered what we have discovered, dug up (and burned or smelted) what we have dug up. Murdered, maimed, exploited and enslaved. We are where we are. It is what it is. Unjust. Unfair. Unwise.

Sometimes we have thought it magnificent (sometimes I have) – though perhaps that is no more than youthful boastfulness after an outrageous party. “Man, I was SO drunk last night! We trashed the place!”

There are issues, for me, of climate justice, of inter-generational justice, of personal responsibility – all of which, understandably, I’d like to avoid if I could. Who wouldn’t…faced with the scale of the problem, faced with the magnitude of the debts and the ease with which some can evade our creditors?

Art and economics. Sustainability.

I make marks. I have a sense that I should be doing more to sustain us. I desperately want to type ‘we’ rather than ‘I’…’we should be doing more’…but I have no right to. And more to the point I am not sure who/what ‘us’ is in the sentence – mark-making creatures, the conversation, the human race, life on earth? The cockroaches will outlive us here no matter what. I have no desire to live on Mars (or for my grandchildren to)…so it must be something to do with the conversation here on earth, which includes, in the marks, in the notation: all of us, cockroaches, unicorns, the duck-billed platypus, the great auk. As science elucidates the probable physical but not the cultural or ecological effects of the fossil-fuel bubble, I have ceased to believe the conversation can be sustained with growth rates in excess of 1%. The ecological damage is too great, the inter-generational churn too excessive. We need to slow down, stop changing so fast, growing so fast. Just be. And the fossil fuels need to stay in the ground.

Ed Miliband, former leader of the UK Labour Party, penned an article for a recent London Review of Books (Vol. 38, No.3). He too quoted Piketty, and a number of other sources, to argue that increasing inequality – the economic dynamic, ongoing since 1980, whereby the rich get richer and the poor get progressively poorer – is not only ‘unfair’ (which he correctly says is a bad thing) but that it is also ‘bad for growth’ This is a short-sighted political argument pandering, still, to what is believed to be acceptable to the ‘electorate’. It is a junkie’s argument.

In the individualistic culture which has cascaded (rather than evolved) through the inter-generational chaos of the last 300 years, it is hard to say unfair is ‘unfair’. ‘Life isn’t fair’ – etcetera, etcetera. But, unless community, cohesion, fairness, collective and inter-generational responsibility dominates the discourse, the mechanics of growth will tear us apart, atomise us, first socially and then, perhaps, physically.

The question is – therefore – what marks will best sustain ‘us’?