Autonomy and Will-to-Growth

The grotesque absurdity of relentless economic “development”: after two centuries, the planet reels under the onslaught of previously inconceivable catastrophes—most disastrously, global warming and deadly, perennial nuclear wastes.  Yet, restlessly insatiable, the profit-addicted Juggernaut remains in perpetual-motion—devouring entire ecosystems as it plunders resources and carves out new markets.  Indeed, such unremitting economic activity, as John Stuart Mill warned 150 years ago, could end up destroying the entire world.

Karl Marx emphasized the inevitable volatility of business (boom-slump) cycles: the over-extension of business credit invariably leads to overproduction, periodic recessions, and rising unemployment —wherein millions of people predictably lose their “jobs.”  Yet at the same time, an overlooked outcome of such economic recessions—at least in the consumption-driven U.S. today–is a quieter, less-busy social environment.  Daily life slows down, traffic volume decreases, and superfluous consumption precipitously drops.  The local strip-mall project is put on hold.  People stay “home” (or rather, learn the painful but necessary truths about so-called home “ownership”).   If “health” (sic) insurance becomes unaffordable, people may actively learn to prevent serious illness through more sensible habits (especially dietary).  If cable TV becomes financially out-of-reach, individuals may choose to use their newly available time for active self-cultivation—perhaps discovering for the first time great art, literature and music, reading classic philosophy, and/or engaging in meditative self-awareness—to mention only a few such self-directed activities.

The 19th century anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon—and, in our own time, such radical theorists as Ivan Illich–extolled the free(self-directed) growth–whether intellectual, aesthetic, “spiritual”—made possible by “under-employment.” In the Sixties, radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse, scorning an outmoded Calvinist work-fetishism (the performance principle) heralded the emergence of a new aesthetic ethos.  Surely today, one may question the desirability of an 8-10 hour workday as such—enslaved by the profit-imperatives of those who own the production-system?

What is required is a defiant spirit of self-sufficiency (autarky): a mocking disdain for material “comforts,” a prideful willingness to “do without”—and considerable ingenuity (preferably in a low-cost, rural setting).  Learning time-honored remedies for transient ailments; perhaps learning to grow one’s own food; using public resources like libraries and state parks; and, of above all, enjoying contemplative simplicity, quiet open spaces–and the sheer exhilaration of feeling unchained!

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.