I’ve been having a lot of fun reading the works of the big-government anarchist David Graeber. Superficially he embodies everything I most loathe, yet actually I like his writing. One reason is that he’s completely unpretentious. He lays out what he believes with perfect clarity and no mystifying tricks. This is very unusual for someone on today’s extreme left, especially when that someone is a professor of social science with a considerable academic reputation. So, if for some reason you’ve been swallowing some toxic swill like Deleuze and Guattari, to cleanse the palate, try a swig of Graeber.

One thing that makes Graeber somewhat unlike most of today’s left and very much like the left of the 1930s is his powerful conviction that capitalism cannot possibly last much longer. He suggests different reasons for this belief on different occasions, but here I just want to look at a single sentence:

“There is good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism will no longer exist: for the simple reason that (as many have pointed out) it’s impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet” (page 31 in Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination, not dated but probably 2011).

Here I’m not going to look at the intended meaning of this sentence in the context of Graeber’s overall political outlook (I’ll do that sometime) but I’m just going to comment on its figurative and rhetorical aspect as a typical cliché of today’s left.

Walking in Chicago’s Loop a couple of weeks ago, I was stopped by a pleasant young woman who asked me to sign something for Greenpeace. I said, apologetically, that she was wasting her time on me because I am opposed to Greenpeace. She donned a maternal frown of concern and asked why, and I responded: “Because I’m evil” (though with the twinkling smile of a rough diamond, and if I’d had a mustache I would have tweaked it roguishly; the English accent always counts for something too; in England my voice betrays me as a prole, but over here the natives can’t tell me from Hugh Grant).

So, I had to explain about how we need economic growth to industrialize the poorer half of the world so that millions of third-world babies can be rescued from heartrending deaths and how Greenpeace is among the enemies of economic growth and therefore of human happiness. And I threw in a few of my best lines, like the way wind farms mangle and rip apart the poor little bodies of millions of innocent birds and bats, and I can’t understand how anyone can defend such a horrible practice. (Nor could she, for a few seconds) I was heavily bundled up against Chicago’s global warming (10 degrees below zero Fahrenheit), and she probably couldn’t see that I was nearly four times her age. So this was working, trust me, it really was.

Then she asked, no doubt rhetorically, whether we could go on indefinitely expanding aggregate real incomes, whether we could do this, as she put it, infinitely. I was trapped by my damnable candor, and in all honesty I had to say: “Yes indefinitely, yes infinitely.” So now I was the escapee from the psych ward and that was that. Another lamb lost to the wilderness.

Back to Graeber’s sentence. If we look at this sentence, we see that it relies on the metaphor of physical quantities. Perpetual growth forever (strictly redundant, but I think the redundancy works well as a bit of prose) on a finite planet. We immediately think of something physically expanding forever within a fixed perimeter. Obviously, this is impossible, at least in Euclid’s world, and Euclid has to be good enough for this, I think.

The metaphor hides a simple mistake. Economic growth—growth of incomes—need not be growth of physical mass. For example, my iPhone is much smaller than an old-fashioned telephone, and even smaller than a telephone-plus-camera-plus-music-player-plus-computer. It is less massive yet more valuable.

A Ferrari 458 Italia sports car weighs 3,274 lbs. A Ford F-150 pickup truck weighs 4,013 lbs. So the mass of the Ford is more than a fifth greater than the mass of the Ferrari. But the Ferrari will cost you around $250,000 while you can pick up the pickup for around $25,000. The Ferrari has ten times the value of the more massive Ford.

Since something smaller can have more value than something bigger, economic growth does not always mean accumulating more and more physical stuff. Growth may sometimes coincide with reducing the amount of physical stuff. A CD is less massive than a vinyl LP, and any number of downloadable tracks account for no mass at all in the hands of the listener. Yet the progression from LP to CD to online song is an example of economic growth. As people move from books made of paper to e-books, there is a reduction in the assembly, storage, and transportation of physical stuff. Yet this is an example of economic growth.

It’s not a novel phenomenon. Observers of the early factory system noted that, compared with domestic production, it uses less of certain kinds of equipment and supplies. Take a hundred weavers out of their homes and put them side by side in a factory, and they don’t need as much backup equipment or stocks of yarn or even auxiliary labor as they all did in aggregate when they were working separately. This isn’t the whole story, of course, but it’s one reason why the factories could be more economical than the scattered domestic system. In this case, economic growth means getting the same output with less equipment.

Economic growth is not accumulation of more and more physical stuff. It primarily consists of the re-arrangement of physical stuff in new ways. Matter-energy can’t be created or destroyed, but only re-arranged. Human activity can convert matter into energy, but the amount of matter lost in this way is minute. What producers are doing under capitalism is not to add bulk but to re-arrange the existing bulk in ways more suited to human gratification. And if we’re worried about sheer bulk, several tons of cosmic dust land on the Earth every day (or even every hour, as most of the relevant scientists say), so the sheer bulk of the planet is always growing, do what we will.

At times, a reduction in the amount of physical stuff being used in production can be a form of economic growth. And it seems reasonable that these times would get more frequent once a lot of basic infrastructure has been built.

Economic growth also means more free time, more leisure. People have far more free time than they did a hundred years ago. People choose to take some of the gains of economic growth in shorter working hours and some in more stuff (where ‘more stuff’ means stuff affording greater satisfaction of wants). The proportions are determined by people themselves, not by something else such as ‘the system’. In my judgment, income statistics would be more accurate if they included the amounts of free time, but in practice this doesn’t matter much as people always choose to take most of the gains of economic growth in goods other than leisure, rather than sharply reducing their working hours. We just have to bear in mind that the gain in human well-being from economic growth measured by national income statistics is usually understated: we have to add something for the bonus of shorter working hours.

Is it possible to maintain perpetual growth forever on a finite planet? Well, it can’t go on forever, because as the sun very slowly gets hotter, in 3.75 billion years from now, the oceans will boil away and we’ll be dead or gone. Even before that, since our galaxy, the Milky Way, is colliding with another galaxy, Andromeda, death by cosmic accident seems likely, not to mention more ordinary catastrophes like an asteroid hit, which can easily happen at any time (Our only hope there would be SDI; thank you, Ronald Reagan). And the next glaciation presents a problem, though per capita growth might go on, close to the equator, if we can reduce population by 96 percent.

But with those qualifications, yes, it’s perfectly possible to maintain perpetual growth forever on a finite planet. Just as there will always be new songs to be sung, new stories to be told, new discoveries, new achievements, new debates, new adventures, new worlds of imagination and experience, so there will always be new ways to re-arrange the material structure of capital to make it ever more adaptable to human gratification and therefore human happiness. And that is all that we mean by economic growth. Capitalism could last forever and economic growth could go on, somewhere, until the heat death of the universe, with everyone getting richer indefinitely. There is no contradiction, and what “many have pointed out” is, as so very often, quite wrong.

Actually, I think that we’ll probably evolve beyond capitalism within the free market economy. But that’s a story for another day.