The myth of growth relies on the essential claim that we are incomparably wealthier now than our ancestors a thousand years ago. Every macroeconomics textbook opens on this claim, supported by a curve of GDP growth through centuries, assuming without argument nor discussion that wealth is an objective concept whose universal definition would eventually be reached by a Lakota, San bushman or Lombard farmer working from first principles. Perhaps the result is correct in some specific sense (e.g. energy expenditure), but the lack of discussion is extremely grating.
Of course, our current model of wealth is fairly globalized, so it does seem that all cultures indeed are - and always were? - playing on the same field of achievements. But this prompts the question of whether one civilization didn't simply impose its scale of values upon others over the past few centuries. The clever trickery of the economic mythology is making us believe that conversion is possible between all scales, that money and exchange are just a passive (non-destructive, non-creative) measurement of an underlying pan-human concept of raw worth.
So here I am to try and ask: is there such a thing as wealth that could indeed be growing?
On one hand, we certainly have access to an ocean of products far beyond what could have been manufactured in the first millenium BCE. On the other hand, the value of almost all of these products seems dramatically conventional and arbitrary: why should I be considered vastly richer when wearing Nikes and a Vuitton bag than lederhosen or a boubou? Our ability to generate services and culture, entertain ourselves, and satisfy most of our needs past immediate survival is not indissociably tied to our industrial capabilities. How, then, is a life spent purchasing factory-made goods any wealthier, in an absolute sense, than a life spent hunting and gathering?
At a glance, one can imagine three reasonable bases for a universal notion of wealth:
Of these three, I believe only the third one holds under scrutiny.
1) Food is of course tied to a universal imperative: survival. How many lives you can sustain is the original historical basis for economic discourse. Metrics of agricultural productivity, and of urbanization (reflecting how much agriculture can support other activities), are still how current economists extend notions such as GDP into the far past. Resource and energy extraction and consumption are the most plausible way of defining, from an objective physical point of view, what our current economic system is striving to maximize.
The problem is it gives the impression that low material productivity (let alone hunting-gathering) necessarily entails poverty, when 2/3 of European GDP comes from the service economy. We could easily reconceptualize many "archaic" cultures as having a high productivity of semi-material or immaterial goods (services, culture, sociabilization with humans and non-humans) for which we *now* pay far higher prices than most material goods. Young urban couples tend to spend a significant fraction of their income on nurseries, and that expenditure counts into our countries' GDP; should we assign the same worth to the time spent childrearing in pastoralist families? Should we use the current selling price of Australian Aboriginal paintings or Benin bronzes to estimate these civilizations' production of wealth?
2) Time or labor may have appeared, in the 19th century, as the natural extension of food-wealth in an industrial context: a task that requires hundreds of hours of work is expensive, and a machine that can spare the labor of fifty men will increase wealth or capital by as much. But it does not work well as a foundation for absolute value. My computer can do billions of additions in the time I would need to do one addition, but what are those additions worth? Does owning a laptop make me billions of time richer than someone who can only add with an abacus?
Time is, in fact, a good measure of *conditional* wealth: once you have decided what your goals are (what has value, what must be achieved), all that is left is the computation of optimal means, i.e. saving time and labor. But this cannot tell us anything about which goals to labor toward, about which results are valuable or not. Therefore, it does not give us any way of ranking civilizations with different aims.
3) Hence, we are down to coercion, i.e. wealth as getting others to do what you want. Superficially, this looks like labor. But coercion is a zero-sum game, so it is not clear that there can be meaningful growth of total wealth.
Even if our tools of coercion are much more powerful than in the past, you cannot go back and coerce our dead ancestors, so there is no obvious comparison across time. Perhaps a few of us have become much wealthier, in the sense that they can coerce many more people than the kings and merchants of old, while the rest of us are actually much poorer in relative terms? In addition, past labor, spent in cathedrals or saved factories, could be seen as objective fact, independent of current events. Coercion is an arms race, always renegotiated.
This may sound like a reduction of the economic notion of wealth to the political notion of power. Indeed, I would be inclined to think that wealth is a particular kind of power: the impersonal transferable type. Personal reputation and authority are not really things you can transfer to others, while money or weapons are, so the latter qualify as wealth.
It does imply that the only absolute kind of wealth is military: no matter what the current wealth system is, you can be on top of it if you have better means of violence.
Still, it would be naive to ignore the more relative and flexible cultural means of coercion. The stabler path to remaining wealthy is to impose on others your understanding of what wealth is. I highly doubt that there is a universal human need for Ikea furniture and twelve flavors of industrial hummus at the local supermarket. But once the playing field has been decided -- industrial goods, services, culture, innovation, research citations, digital operations -- the people who made that decision tend to end up at the top of whichever scale they choose. It is almost miraculous how inequality can rely on subsequent acceptance by the very people it relegates to lower rungs (say, non-Western researchers accepting that publishing in "top" English-language journals is their criterion of success, despite huge systemic biases against them).
In past centuries, food-wealth and labor-wealth must have appeared as reliable indicators of objective worth, because they were direct correlates of weapon-wealth, the most obvious deciding factor of where Europe and the US now stand in the world. In that respect, and probably that respect alone, we can say with absolute certainty that we are rich beyond our ancestors' wildest dreams.