Growing Pains

Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 7

Mbabane, pop. circa 100,000, is the capital of the tiny landlocked Kingdom of Eswatini, formerly Swaziland. The city is vibrant, cosmopolitan and growing, but most Swazis rely on subsistence farming, while the domestic economy remains rooted in a history of extractivism dating back to British rule, which ended in 1968. Our guest on this episode grew up in Swaziland. As the child of foreign aid workers, he witnessed the postcolonial predicament first-hand, and that experience helped shape his scholarship on democracy, the global economy and the politics of ecology.

Photo by Jacek Sopotnicki via

Given a real choice, people around the world would take a shorter work week over bigger salaries, consume less to live more and seek mutual flourishing rather than plunder their natural resources. The problem is, says anthropologist Jason Hickel, the idea of a “degrowth” economy has never been on the ballot. Instead, the core tenet of capitalism — insatiable expansion — is holding humanity, and democratic ideals, hostage. The stakes can’t be higher, he argues: if we don’t fix that, we won’t save the planet.

When Hickel moved to the United States to attend college, he confronted like never before the stark inequalities between rich and poor countries. But his research has led him to reject the conventional wisdom that more growth in the global economy would put countries like Eswatini, where he grew up, and the United States, where his family is from, on equal footing. A rising tide will not raise all boats, but rather sink the most rickety. Instead, Hickel says, the developed world must slow rapacious growth and the imperatives of classical economic ideology. Only this way, he argues, can we end the destructive pattern of resource extraction from global South to North and avert a looming ecological collapse.

So where does democracy come in? For one, democratic principles can’t survive in a world where societies fall apart, forests become deserts and human migrations destabilize even the safest havens. But perhaps more important, the flipside is also true, according to Hickel: We need a worldwide democratic movement to wrest concentrated power and wealth from elite minorities, restore the commons and allow a human-centered economy to flourish.

About our guest

Jason Hickel is an economic anthropologist specializing in global inequality, political economy, post-development and ecology. He is a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, as well as a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a the International Inequalities Institute of the London School of Economics. Hickel also serves on the advisory board of the Green New Deal for Europe. He writes regularly for The Guardian and is the author of three books, most recently Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (Penguin, 2020). Follow him on Twitter @jasonhickel.

This episode was recorded in February and posted on March 16, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guest

Less is More offers a pathway to a post-capitalist world that overthrows the philosophy of domination and extraction in favor of reciprocity and regeneration. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean eradicating the free market, but putting markets in their proper place.

Hickel’s earlier book, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and Its Solutions (Penguin, 2018) tracks the evolution of global inequality, challenging the narrative that more development and foreign aid in the solution to poverty.

In Democracy as Death: The Moral Order of Anti-Liberal Politics in South Africa (University of California Press, 2015), Hickel argues that the complex of Western democracy, liberalism and capitalism doesn’t translate well cross-culturally. In his fieldwork in conservative South African townships, he found that Enlightenment assumptions about “equality” tended to threaten the hyperlocal moral order of mutual obligation and support.

Read some of his recent popular essays on the relationship between lifespans and progressive policies; on poverty; on the climate; and more.

From around the web

Economists all over the world use GDP, or gross domestic product, as their primary measure of national wellbeing. But GDP does not take into account important variables that measure real human flourishing, Amit Kapoor and Bibek Debroy write in the Harvard Business Review.

According to a recent Brookings Institution report, the reforms of the “Washington Consensus” that Hickel finds problematic were only successful in sub-Saharan Africa — and only where accompanied by investments in a country’s social safety net, education and public health.

The so-called Green New Deal is a set of progressive policies meant to curb ecological damage resulting from relentless economic growth. But according to Hickel, the policy package as usually envisioned doesn’t do enough to abandon growth as an objective.

In February, G20 leaders met to discuss the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. With developing countries hit especially hard, advocacy groups have asked richer nations to ease off debt collection and end austerity measures imposed on the global South. Could this mark a sea change in how the developed world addresses global inequality? Let us know what you think!


A transcript of this episode is available here.


Submitted by Keith Lohmeyer (not verified) on

While I don't pretend to have a crystal ball, I believe innovation and growth will be our environmental salvation. I look forward to revolutions in food production, space exploration and ultra green energy. I do believe we can do better with income inequality. A 90-percent tax bracket for the wealthy would get the job done. Everyone should have the opportunity to succeed but everyone has to contribute. Human nature is not suited for Utopia, humans need to have a purpose to thrive.

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