Neoliberalism’s GDP Hoax and its Costly Consequences: Time for a different ‘Development’ paradigm?

Neoliberalism Capitalism

It is true that economic growth – meaning rising GDP – is one of the key indicators of rising prosperity in a society though as the Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz also reminds that “Maximising GDP is not same as maximising wellbeing” puts to question the merit of overemphasis that are often put to GDP as the marker of ‘development’ in societies.

On the presidential campaign trail on March 18, 1968, the then presidential candidate Robert Kennedy said at the Kansas University that “Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, [that]….counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage, special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them…. the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl,… counts napalm and nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…. [but] does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future.”

Robert Kennedy who dreamt of a less materialistic and a more compassionate America, where people would count less the GDP and aim more the wellbeing of all people did not go very far. GDP’s nexus of vested interest saw in Robert Kennedy a threat and thus made sure that he did not live long to materialize his ideas.

Robert Kennedy was murdered on June 6, 1968, and with his death, died the possibility of a different America. With his death, the GDP and its patrons, the nexus of vested interest reasserted themselves not just in the US but across the globe, which since have been inflicting on societies, its ugly consequences.

In 2013, speaking on the topic “Towards an Ethical Economy’ the Irish President Michael Higgins said in reference to the neoliberalism’s GDP hoax that thrives through a mix of crony capitalism and consumerism and materialism, that, “The current state of the European economy, with its high levels of unemployment, poverty and increasing inequality, is a source of concern, anxiety and even moral outrage for many of our fellow citizens.”

Neoliberalism’s predatory effects in developing countries are far more devastating. For example, say in the case of Bangladesh, the so-called “Unnoyon”, a local term for ‘development’ that relies on deregulated, state patronaged private sector led economic growth where the GDP and not wellbeing of people has become the key marker of progress has indeed boosted economic growth but at the same time, promoted gross inequality, increased vulgar consumerism, and materialism among the moneyed and damaged the environment beyond repair. Furthermore, in Bangladesh, neoliberalism’s GDP led economic growth that has spawned a nexus of vested interest between the ruling political elites and the business community has since stifled democracy, dented accountability in the government where corruption and abuse of human rights have become a normal such that neoliberalism’s growth strategy looks, at least in case of Bangladesh, more like a license for legalised loot, plunder, and abuse.

Indeed, from Latin America to Africa and to Asia, neoliberalism’s GDP hoax has made rich richer and poor poorer where governments have become either more authoritarian or in countries where elections are still the means of forming governments produce “rotating plundering governments”.

So where do we go from here? To answer this question, we may need to deal with the fundamental issue of our notion of ‘development’. Do we view ‘development’’ as a GDP maximisation exercise or do we see ‘development’ as a holistic goal – a pathway to increase wellbeing of all people and more importantly, build happy societies? Then the next obvious question would be – what makes societies happy?

Happy Society

In mid-eighties, I as a consultant of an international aid giving agency visited Vanuatu, a tiny South Pacific archipelago of 82 islands which had a population of 200000. I was there to assess this newly independent country’s (Vanuatu gained independence from Britain in 1980) ‘development’ needs and prospects. Like most developing countries Vanuatu was also very eager to ‘develop’.

As is normal in such appraisal missions, I met with and consulted many people, that included both senior government officials and the business community who were mostly expats. Through these consultations, I was trying my best to figure out a ‘development’ scenario for Vanuatu.

However, during the mission, a Vanuatu colleague told me “Mr. Khan if you wish to understand our society and our development needs more accurately, you need go to the villages and interact with the community, in their own environment”.

I took this colleague’s advice seriously and went to one of the outer islands to spend some time with the community. While I was there, I was invited to join the community in one of their Kava drinking sessions where, I was told that most community leaders would be present.

Kava is a milky drink which is extracted fresh from the roots of a certain plant and is drunk in a dried cocoanut shell. Unlike alcohol which intoxicates people, Kava produces a numbing feeling.

Traditionally, Kava is drunk mostly in the evening, preferably closer to the beach where community members – men only – sit in a circle and drink the milky stuff. One cardinal rule of Kava drinking is – no talk, one must stay completely silent and meditate, reflect, and listen to the sounds of the nature. A Kava session goes for about an hour or so where four/five drinks in a cocoanut shell are consumed.

I joined one such Kava session. The session was held near a beach. This was a moonlit night, everyone was seated in a circle, drinking and no one was talking. As we drank, we listened to the sounds of the ocean breaking on the beach, songs of the night birds and occasional howls of wild animals in the distance. It was a surreal moment. The session went for about an hour. Then towards the end, couple of guys went to a nearby creek, caught some fish, made a small campfire, grilled the fish, and roasted cassava for dinner and we all ate them. Then someone took out a guitar and started playing the guitar and started singing, everyone joining.

Here I was, an international consultant, sitting in a remote village in one of the ‘poorest’ countries of the world, Vanuatu trying to assess their development needs and prospects and witnessing and soaking up every bit of this incredibly surreal moment where people looked perfectly happy and in harmony with each other, that made me reflect seriously and I asked myself, “If development is about happiness, these people are already very happy, what the f…ck am I doing here.”

Being among a group of people who looked so happy and content with so little made me feel completely out of touch and ill-educated and ignorant of the true meaning of the idea of ‘development’.

Centuries ago, Gautama Buddha defined a “happy society”, in terms of (quoted in Prakrit, Bhudda’s language), ‘bahujanahitaya bahujanasukaya lokanukampaya’, meaning that a happy society is one where, “Each work and live for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, in compassion for the nature.”

Similarly, Islam’s stress on the principles of Insaaf (justness) in governance and ‘Sokr’ and ‘Sabr’in lifestyle – being content and happy with little – direct people to the pathways to building societies that are spiritually uplifting, morally rich, socially just and environmentally nourished – a framework for happiness.

Hinduism (and not ‘Hindutva’ – current Indian government’s Hindu nationalism) which stresses the importance of simple living and high thinking underpin pursuit of a lifestyle which is conserving and of high moral values, the gateways to reach nirvana or happiness.

Similarly, Aristotle argued that the virtues of “justice” that guarantee equity and social harmony help making people “happy” and “live well.”

In other words, if we wish to escape neoliberalism’s GDP hoax and its costly consequences and intend to journey to a “happy society”, we need to re-orient our notion of ‘development’ from economic to social, from superfluity to substantive, from consumerism and materialism to conserving and from self to community.

Some countries such as Bhutan has made the conscious decision to dump GDP and adopted Gross National Happiness (GNH) – “sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; conservation of the environment; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance” – as its marker of progress and since organized their society and their pathway to ‘development’ accordingly and seemingly successfully, a shift that may have also conveyed to the world a key message that alternatives are possible.

The author of the article is a professor (Adjunct) at the School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia and a retired senior policy manager of the United Nations. The author can be reached at [email protected].

Note: This article is a slightly amended version of the original published in the South Asia Journal dated 19/02/2023

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