The Fetishism of Economic Growth

03/11/2015 02:29 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

Capitalism and Communism shared one important principle in common: an almost religious devotion to economic growth. If a five-year plan didn't produce the expected "great leap forward," Communist officials fudged the figures. If a capitalist economy dipped into recession, economists tried to put the best face on the resulting "creative destruction," arguing that it would prepare the ground for even greater growth in the future. Both capitalists and Communists treated natural resources as mere inputs to create larger and larger outputs.

Communism has largely collapsed, and the environmental movement has challenged the religion of growth at all costs, but the global economy continues to revolve around measures such as gross domestic product (GDP). The international financial institutions are all committed to growth. Political leaders, if they can't produce a rising arrow on the graphs, worry that voters will take their revenge at the polls. Consumers expect bigger and better (or smaller and faster) things to buy every season.

Ryszard Zoltaniecki is a sociologist who has also worked in the Polish foreign ministry, where he served as the ambassador to Greece. When I met him in 1990, we talked about a number of big-picture issues, like the confrontation between Byzantine and Western modes of thinking and the intellectual bankruptcy of "third ways." It was not long into our August 2013 interview in an outdoor café in Warsaw that we began to address these larger questions, like the European financial crisis. The economic setback, he pointed out, marked the end of an era.

"The few decades of well-being, of economic boom, created a situation in which all needs could be satisfied, if not directly then through loans and credits," Zoltaniecki said. "To continue this development -- to build better schools, better hospitals, better health care, better infrastructure -- you should have 5- to 7-percent GDP growth at minimum. The rest you can get through loans. But what growth rate did we have during the recession? One to 2 percent? The country that has even 3-percent growth is happy. This demanding attitude, which we've gotten used to, is the source of the present crisis. Politicians think they should listen to and respond to these demands. They promise that tomorrow will be better. Here in Europe, for decades, every generation could be perfectly sure that the next generation would be better off than the previous one. But that's over."

This era of easy growth might be over -- for the industrialized world, at least -- but the assumptions that have gone along with this era continue to maintain their hold. The global economy remains increasingly dependent on financial instruments that have become ever more removed from the production of actual goods and services.

"Nobody has learned anything from the present crisis, which is much deeper than what economists say," Zoltaniecki continued. "Once again they return to the same virtual money, the same mistakes, the same false consciousness. The politicians provide new promises to the people. They say that it's just a matter of one or two years, and then again we'll enter paradise. No."

The world is "trapped in the fetishism of economic growth," Zoltaniecki maintained, and we have to instead "learn to live with zero." Such a commitment to zero growth will also require a transformation of the international system. "The only way is to start is to open a debate with the participation of all subjects -- banks, NGOs, states -- to create new structures," Zoltaniecki concluded. "To save our civilization, perhaps we have to go through a peaceful revolution to change everything. But those who are the most influential and who maintain control are not willing to do this. They are satisfied. From Citibank's perspective, everything is fine. It's just a cycle. The breakdown was a coincidence."

The Interview

What struck me when we talked in 1990 was your analysis of the division between the Byzantine and the West.

Byzantine civilization is best represented by Russia, and before that by the Soviet Union. Russia -- under the tsars or the Soviets or now -- always existed in two worlds, in Asia and Europe. The two tendencies were clashing inside the system, from the time of the first Westernization of Russia, from Peter the Great, who was the first to introduce European elements into Russia. Then, in the second half of the 19th century came the development of industry and the Western sense of ideologies. Then, of course, came the break with the West under the Bolsheviks, and the takeover of Asian tendencies. The old empire, after it collapsed, was recreated in a pathological form as a new empire.

The second wave of this process came at the beginning of the 1990s, in the late Gorbachev period, and then under Yeltsin. There was a research project during the Yeltsin period that polled a random sample of teenagers. They were asked what they would like to be in the future. The majority of girls said, "Prostitute." Well, for them that meant money, cosmetics, good clothes. The majority of boys said, "Mafioso." Now you see Mr. Putin rebuilding the empire slowly but with some success, trying to combine harmonically both tendencies, Europe and Russian. So this dynamic is still there, and nothing has changed.

You also said that there was a clash here in Poland as well between the Western and the Byzantine.

Not any longer. The major problem in Poland is the collapse of social capital. Now we have two political philosophies, and they each want their own state. They can't cooperate in the same state. It's part of our historical process. In the 19th century, when European and also American societies were maturing, creating themselves and finding their distinctive identities, Poland had no state. The state was in our imagination. The real state, since we were partitioned, was a state usurped.

For a short period between the two wars, we had an independent state. Then came World War II, and we were occupied again. After that, our state was usurped yet again, this time by the Communists. So what was the result of all this, philosophically? If we have two competing ideologies, when one wins and takes over government, it understands this process as the consequence of democratic governance. But the other ideology sees this as the usurpation of government. It doesn't see a real state. That's what you observe now. The supporters of Mr. Kaczynski don't think we have a real Polish state right now. And when they ruled the country, the opposition thought the same thing.

You also identified a certain Jacobin tendency in Solidarity early on.

Well, yes, Jacobinism is still here.

Where would you locate Jacobinism today?

All those who are dissatisfied, who feel betrayed, whose hopes were not fulfilled. It's also the result of the few decades of Communism. They think that they deserve to have secure jobs, and if they have such jobs, the rest should be provided by the state or some other institution. Someone should provide the goods to satisfy their needs.

What do you think will happen with this impulse for security, politically?

Look at what's happening in Europe, even in the United States. People are frustrated. They demand more. That's the question not of this country or of any other particular country. It's a certain archetype of Western culture, which we joined. It's based on the principle of total participation and total consumption. The few decades of well-being, of economic boom, created a situation in which all needs could be satisfied, if not directly then through loans and credits. To continue this development -- to build better schools, better hospitals, better health care, better infrastructure -- you should have 5- to 7-percent GDP growth at minimum. The rest you can get through loans.

But what growth rate did we have during the recession? One to 2 percent? The country that has even 3-percent growth is happy. This demanding attitude, which we've gotten used to, is the source of the present crisis. Politicians think they should listen to and respond to these demands. They promise that tomorrow will be better.

Here in Europe, for decades, every generation could be perfectly sure that the next generation would be better off than the previous one. But that's over.

That's the case in the United States too.

Right now, Poland is getting a large amount of money from the EU, which will last at least until 2020. We invest this money in infrastructure. But later on, when this money will be stopped -- and it will be stopped -- then the question will be how to maintain this infrastructure. Spain, Portugal -- they invested a lot in infrastructure but not in the real economy.

The real economy being?

I'm very primitive in this definition. I learned that money is the attribute of the product. Now money has nothing to do with the product. It's virtual. You make money without any industry.

Like financial services.

Some of these products -- I don't even understand what they are. I don't understand my minister of finance. It's a very strange jargon. Perhaps it's on purpose that they speak a language that people don't understand. The only way to repair the situation is to return to the real economy.

Manufacturing? Agriculture?

Services as well, but in a new way, not in the 19th-century way. It's a different kind of manufacturing.

Behind your analysis, I hear a deep critique of growth economics.

We have to learn how to live with zero. We are trapped in the fetishism of economic growth. If the United States has zero real growth, taking into account inflation and debt payments, what does that mean? In the collective perception it's a tragedy, but it just means that the level is identical with the previous year. That's fantastic.

It's one of the shared characteristics of capitalism and Communism. They were both slavishly devoted to GDP growth.

We have to liberate ourselves from that way of thinking.

Is there any political formation in this country that supports that idea?

When I used to talk this way, there was silence. There would be no comments from journalists on radio or from people in public meetings. They couldn't understand what I was talking about. But now more people are talking a similar way. There's simply no other way out of this situation.

The parties that sometimes talk this way are environmental parties.

Yes, but they are the anti-globalists, and I'm not an anti-globalist. I'm not against the market economy. I'm a liberal. But to preserve our civilization, we must find a way out. Otherwise, this civilization will collapse. We Poles witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism, which were supposed to be eternal. We witnessed the election of a Polish pope. Perhaps we will also witness the collapse of this civilization.

You expect this in your lifetime?

I am afraid so. Nobody has learned anything from the present crisis, which is much deeper than what economists say. Once again they return to the same virtual money, the same mistakes, the same false consciousness. The politicians provide new promises to the people. They say that it's just a matter of one or two years, and then again we'll enter paradise. No.

People talk about Schumpeter and economic cycles, that we're simply down in this cycle, and we'll eventually come back up.

This is misleading optimism. It used to be like that when the economy was based on something real. Now it's based on financial operations.

Some people call it casino capitalism.

Yes, this is casino capitalism. So perhaps we have to look for a new development, a new relationship between international subjects. International conventions are based on the principle that the major subject of international relations is the state: the Vienna Convention, the UN, the EU. Still, the state is subject. Now we have big corporations. Compare the budget of Bulgaria and the budget of Exxon. These corporations act outside the system of international law. They destroyed the Gulf of Mexico. In the best case, the president of the United States may call the president of BP and ask politely for reparations. But there is no mechanism forcing the president of BP to do anything. Yes, there are civil court cases, but their lawyers can get them off.

Most people, when faced with the dire prospects of your predictions or the expectation that this virtual economy will continue uncontrolled, respond that the only force that can intervene is the state.

It's only the state, still, that can do anything. But we are living in a banking civilization. Because of this gap between economic needs and economic possibilities, everything is coming under the control of banks. Perhaps there is something we should do to control the banks other than to impose bureaucratic rules. We have these strange entities called rating industries. If they say a country earns a "B" instead of "A," everything collapses in that country -- in Spain, for example. These are the real movers.

I asked you whether you saw any political forces on the horizon here in Poland, and you basically said no.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.