In danish we have an idiom which literally means “to create oneself” 1 but in daily use means being childish, losing one’s head or simply being mad. With a modern view on human nature this seems to be non-sensical. Do we not create ourselves constantly—isn’t that the meaning of life? In times where the greatest political challenge by many is believed to be the ”creation” of “economic growth,” and where “personal identity” is a product we create out of nothing in order to sell ourselves on the job market or in the social life, a negative answer to this question seems to contradict every tenet of common sense. But then again, isn’t it mad to think that we actually “create” our own selves ex nihilo—or anything at all for that matter? Answering questions such as these are important for understanding and countering the prevalent ideology of growth, or productivism.
One (traditional) explanation for the power of the ideology of economic growth, is that branding and commercialism make us believe that we need to consume in order to achieve happiness, and that this is simply how modern capitalism works. Of course, this explains one side of the equation, but basic ethical, or even metaphysical beliefs also seem to be at stake here. The thing is that the traditional psychological and economic explanations only focus on the “object”-side, while forgetting the “subject,” the existential side, that has to do with values and meaning. Being aware of this is crucial when criticizing current economic models and ideologies of growth. For example, banking reforms might be a very good idea, mitigating the worst consequences of financial speculation, but it doesn’t get at the ethical or metaphysical roots of the problem. To be more precise, we need to ask: What is this ideology of productivity or productivism? and what is the spiritually driving force behind its constant demand for the “creation” of growth?
According to Wikipedia, productivism can be defined as “the belief that measurable economic productivity and growth is the purpose of human organization (e.g., work), and that ‘more production is necessarily good’” 2. The word production, however, stems from the latin pro-ducere, which literally means to lead or bring forth (as in agricultural production). As such, in itself production seems to be an ethically neutral activity. So how does production become an ideology? And how is it that we experience economic growth as an ethical demand? Maybe it has to do with values of human creativity. The idea of productivity does not by itself imply an idea of creativity. But since the renaissance the meaning of production seems to have shifted into also having the sense of “bringing into being” 3—perhaps due to the development of humanism in early modernity. 4 At any rate, modern productivism seems to be driven by a metaphysical belief in humankind as the sovereign creator of ”the good.” In its extreme, this unfolds as the Nietzschean Übermensch that overcomes meaninglessness by an original creative act—an ”active nihilism” creating value ex nihilo, out of nothing. 5. So when we produce something (in the modern sense), we (often) falsely believe that we have also created something, e.g. by mixing our “labour with the earth” (pace Locke), which again gives an (equally false) sense of ownership. What is ethically important here is that this belief in production as a creative act seems to demand constant proof in the form of economic growth.
Again, the problem with the current economic crisis and productivism in general is not simply something like a moral problem of ”greed” etc., nor just a matter of a crisis in traditional “Western” capitalism. The problem is the basic belief that humanity owns the ability to create ex nihilo. In this sense, productivism is also at the heart of, e.g., today’s China, and though its consequences are (probably) preferable to the dominant versions, the celebrated (in Europe at least) ideal of a “green,” sustainable growth, even if the idea of sustainable energy seems to contradict the idea of human creativity. Still, it is the prevalent demand for growth, that proves “green growth”-ideology to be productivism in new bottles.
Theologically speaking, what makes production into a purportedly ethical demand, an -ism, is that we take ourselves to be God: Using what we think to be our ability to create is an attempt to prove that we might actually be “gods”. The inability to present such “proof” inevitably leads to those feelings of inferiority that are bound to rise when humanity recognizes that it might not be god(s) after all. But then we just have to produce more!—and so the ideal of constant growth is established. All this of course means that productivism is an expression of sin as such. As Jacques Ellul notes in his commentary on Ecclesiastes,
All the evils, and I choose my words carefully, all the evils of the world stem from our taking ourselves to be the Creator. Some, as warriors, transform the planet through their flashing conquests. Others, as dictators, shape a society. But the image always remains the same: a hand that molds a shapeless hunk of clay. We give glory to the creator of a state, a new order, or an empire, but also to the scientist who takes himself for the Creator—even though he inevitably ends up with the atomic bomb. Every time you take yourself to be a creator (even as an artist!), you become a destroyer, an annihilator. 6
Such a distinct no to the idea of human creativity—a no that seems inevitable, however—if we want to counter productivism—might disturb those who believe humankind to be God’s co-author in creation (the view of Berdyaev and others) and thus celebrate, e.g., “the artist” as having a certain religious edge. This no is just one side of the story, however. In his treatise on anthropology, Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) wrote that,
[...]man was brought into the world last after the creation, not being rejected to the last as worthless, but as one whom it behoved to be king over his subjects at his very birth. And as a good host does not bring his guest to his house before the preparation of his feast[...]—in the same manner the rich and munificent Entertainer of our nature, when He had decked the habitation with beauties of every kind, and prepared this great and varied banquet, then introduced man, assigning to him as his task not the acquiring of what was not there, but the enjoyment of the things which were there. 7
According to Gregory, humankind participates in the corporeal as well as the spiritual part of creation in order that we might enjoy God by means of the latter and ”the good things of earth” by the former. This also means that it is not only the job of the Church to reflect the grace of God in its own life, but also to communicate it to the rest of creation as such. This notion stands in sharp contrast with the belief that we are able to sovereignly determine good and evil – the heart of the original fall in Gen. 3. The latter is what leads to the ethics of productivism. Still (and this is the other side of the story), for Gregory the fact that human beings are created in the image of God means that we have a god-derived inventiveness, by means of what he calls “conception” (epinoia), i.e. the ability to form thoughts, ideas, language etc.: All benefits to human life has been achieved by conception, Gregory notes (even the Biblical prophets used this ability to communicate divine revelations):
[...]whatever discovery has been made in human life, conducive to any useful purposes of peace or war, came to us from no other quarter but from an intelligence conceiving and discovering according to our several requirements; and that intelligence is a gift of God. It is to God, then, that we owe all that intelligence supplies to us. 8
If this is true, criticizing productivism does not mean that we should choose passivity over activity and inventiveness. Similarly, Ellul continues in the above quote by noting that,
Every human work created in silence, discretion, and humility (in the image of the Creator, who works incognito!) is positive, useful, and life-giving. Every work of power, in which a person takes himself for a creator, becomes a work of emptiness that produces emptiness. 9
Again, this does not mean that we create things out of nothing, but that we have the ability to use and (re)form what we have been given, i.e. to produce in the original sense (where pro-ducere means to lead or bring forth). But as soon as we try to take ownership of creativity, it becomes empty. Recognizing this should naturally lead to skepticism towards the idea of intellectual property and perhaps property in general. The same is the case in relation to personal identity being something which we have, to a large degree, been given (by our social and historical context, and ultimately by God), but which we nevertheless have the responsibility of using to the benefit of others (and ourselves).
What we need is a bit of realism: By simply acknowledging that production is nothing more than production, and not creation, at least some of the force is taken out of productivism on the subject-side. This is a crucial element to bring when participating in movements such as Occupy, which usually targets productivism on secular premises, by aiming at the economic, object-side of the equation.
- “At skabe sig”. Might be translatable as “to carve out oneself”? ↩
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Productivism ↩
- http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=produce ↩
- See, e.g., Michael Oakeshott’s discussion of the (modern) idea of the state as an “enterprise association” in Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (Clarendon Press: 1975) ↩
- Hence David Bentley Hart states correctly about Nietzsche that the ”the active and creative force of will he praised may be really a mythic aggrandizement of entrepeneurial ingenuity and initiative” (D.B. Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 435), and so the philosophy of active nihilism is ultra-bourgeois ↩
- Jacques Ellul, Reason for Being, p. 281 ↩
- De Opificio Homini, On the Making of Man, NPNF, p. 390 ↩
- Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book ↩
- Reason for Being, p. 281 ↩