Kenneth Clarke’s “Civilisation” is one of the great docuseries of the 20th century. It displays the quite incredible array of culture that humanity has created from antiquity to the turn of the 20th century. For all its faults (it was undoubtedly a documentary of its time), it details something quite obvious about the most affluent civilisations in history: all had prosperous and highly dynamic economies.
As culture demanded economic growth to flourish, so too do modern societies. Indeed, to go a step further, democratic societies, in particular, are dependent on economic growth for their survival. Economic crises (or periods of very low or negative growth) often lead to severe societal problems caused by high unemployment, inflation, etc.
The financial crash of 2008 was no different to this: populism was a defining feature of the 2010s, and the bursting of the US housing bubble in 2007 precipitated financial crises and recessions across the world. For many, the 2010’s were a lost decade, where GDP per capita (particularly in Europe) stagnated.
Yet, if the recent increased valuation of Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) is anything to go by, it is usually not the richest that suffer under tough economic conditions. In times of growth, inequality matters less as everyone benefits, but when inequality grows and the economy does not, problems start to occur.
The difference between now and 2008 is that we are at a higher watermark of populism and unrest. Unlike 2008, when there had been significant period of sustained growth since the early 1990’s, there is no public goodwill towards government. On top of the frustration that many felt in the wake of 2008, COVID and the inflation of food and energy costs have further exacerbated economic stresses – indeed, we are starting to see widespread strikes in this country alone. Western governments need to act to find a way to improve growth and deliver for their electorates or face the consequences of failing to provide for their societies for more than a decade.
While populism is often caused by economic shocks, it just as often has political results. We are seeing this across the democratic world: institutions are becoming weaker, and democracy is starting to look fragile. Brazil and the US are recent pertinent examples, but there are sadly many others.
So, without trying to sound like Liz Truss (who herself has been guilty of undermining institutions), the mission for governments everywhere is to find a path for growth. This is no easy feat and, particularly as we need to take action on the growing climate crisis, there needs to be a plan for how growth can be created without harming the environment.
Nonetheless, growth needs to be achieved, otherwise democracies could find themselves in quite some trouble.