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Danny Dorling’s Slowdown

Tara van Dijk

July 6, 2022

Contrary to the doom and gloom of many recent books trying to capture the zeitgeist, in his recent volume, Slowdown: The End of the Great Acceleration, Danny Dorling offers us a glass-half-full outlook of a near future of, well, stagnation. The great stabilization heralds much positive change if we choose to accept, rather than fight it. He supports these bold claims with 27 timelines (illustrated by Kirsten McClure) that describe and forecast the tempo and trajectory of changes that he asserts portend global economic stagnation. The timelines are impressive, and the method for generating them certainly counts as an important contribution to the fields of social statistics and policy analysis. But the timelines cannot speak for themselves and the empirical argument Dorling attempts is uncredible and his normative claim counterrevolutionary.

Dorling, the University of Oxford Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography (a position, ironically enough, that David Harvey previously held) begins with the counterintuitive assertion that humanity has entered the age of slowdown. The only two current exceptions to this rule are temperature and CO2 levels. Don’t worry though, because as more of us “get with the program” and realize that less consumption means less debt and more free time, then these two potentially catastrophic outliers will also decelerate in time for us to avoid the worse consequences of climate change. In between the first and last chapters, which consist of Dorling’s thoughts about human nature, mostly our penchant to worry, are those covering how population growth, debt, technological innovation, and the economy are slowing down as well as chapters covering how this imminent stagnation bodes well for geopolitics, the economy, and our lives in general. The cherry on top: No political action is required of his readers for everything to work out for the best.

If this sounds too good to be true, you are right to be skeptical. Dorling (an expert social statistician and demographer) wades into economics, history, finance, culture, technology, politics, and human evolution without acquainting himself with the theoretical and conceptual frameworks or methodological debates within these fields. This naivety (or arrogance?) makes for several eyebrow-raising moments. Here I will only go over those in the chapter on debt. Dorling defines debt “as the opposite of wealth” and asserts that money supply increases are tied mostly to population growth. He extrapolates from student debt and car loans in the United States to decelerating rates of global debt becoming the new norm. Arguments that disrupt his narrative are notably absent. Such as: 1) how the established discrepancy between compound interest that causes debt to increase exponentially and economies that typically develop in a series of S-curves requires political interventions to avoid periods of debt-deflation, 2) how banks create money via debt and 3) how increased monetization effects the supply and demand of money. These omissions call into question the veracity and motive behind focusing on student and car loans issued in the United States while excluding the mass of private and public debt and compounding interest. They render Dorling an unreliable narrator who, ironically, should have paused before jumping from sector and country specific data to heralding universal financial stagnation.

Raging debates on modernity, modernization, and capitalism are also noticeably absent. Here Dorling opts for the easier path of presenting the slowdown as an objective fact that, alas, some perverse types insist upon misperceiving. But “don’t worry,” his timelines can disabuse the skeptical of our errors. This detour around intellectual debates allows Dorling to evade the thorny situation social scientists, who uncritically use the language of the Anthropocene, find themselves in when asked: Why not Capitalocene? Talking in terms of humanity, an abstraction, rather than industrialization, global capital and class, depoliticizes climate change thus obscuring the main obstacles that must be confronted. While this same concern clearly applies to Slowdown, it is not addressed, not even in passing. Same for the intense and ongoing debates over what constitutes progress, why this changes, nor the role of political economy in either of these. Indeed, you will find no theory in Slowdown. Dorling neither explains why this particular set of timelines constitute the slowdown, nor how (or if) he discerned between individual slowdowns determined by political economy, thus subject to collective efforts, from those that are not.

Moving on to how the slowdown will be good “for us,” Dorling assures that already existing forms of social democracy (Finland being his favorite model) can reap the benefits of the slowdown. In other words, this transition can be technocratically managed. Neither novel political thinking, nor practice is required. The standard of living will stabilize and become less unequal without class struggle. Here Dorling neglects to delve into how and why stagnation will lead the owners of the means of modern life to spontaneously become democratic socialists, along with the rest of us, within a universalized Finland-like governance model. Instead, he harps on the refrain that elites will eventually become less stupid, the ultra-rich less greedy, and the rest of us less concerned with consumption. This effectively turns collective problems and political-economic contradictions into a set of bureaucratic challenges that can be well or poorly managed. As such, Slowdown harkens the triumphant restoration of the currently demoralized professional and managerial class, which is, by definition, a counterrevolutionary project. Capital and capitalist dominated states would happily comply with stagnation for the many, hence the growing support for universal basic income.

Dorling, like most putatively left-leaning professors, puts forth an ideological fantasy that does not touch, even acknowledge, the de facto dictatorships of capital in society and of the capitalist class in the state. The real problem for him is that policy makers have yet to realize that the slowdown is already here and that it heralds positive possibilities for all. He offers yet another justification for ignoring, rather than confronting, questions of political economy. The Slowdown’s anchoring assumption, hidden in plain sight, is the false choice between neoliberal capitalism that believes, wrongly, that economic growth and technological change will save us and a Finland-type managed capitalist stagnation. Capitalism either way. But there is a third political option: the dictatorship of the proletariat overcoming the dictatorship of capital and its notions of freedom, equality, and sustainability. Why couldn’t that end up being good for us and the planet?

In the last instance, Slowdown is a hastily built vehicle for showcasing his timelines that ends up disclosing ongoing political complacency and a geographical imagination stuck in capitalist realism. The hopeful storyline of “don‘t worry” because the other experts and elites will eventually pull their heads out their backsides and we will all realize that “less is more” is a rehash of his Population 10 Billion that in Slowdown beggars belief.

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