In a nutshell, Winnicott is dealing specifically with the objects -- such as a soft toy or a piece of blanket -- that infants adopt as a substitute for the illusion that the maternal care they receive is something they have created themselves. Although, in health, the original object will be abandoned as the child matures, the potential space occupied by the transitional object is perpetually refilled in the manipulation of toys in imaginative play and eventually in the cultural creativity of adults. A little reflection will reveal that we live surrounded by our transitional objects -- things that we have significant relationships with.
Illusion -- and disillusionment -- plays a central role in Winnicott's analysis. For Winnicott, illusion isn't mere error but is the cornerstone of creative engagement with the external world. The dark side of illusion, though, is that illusions can also serve as defense mechanisms to repress anxieties rather than face the threats that generate those anxieties. Illusions are thus both paradoxical and ambiguous.
"The Growth Illusion: How Economic Growth Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many and Endangered the Planet" is the title of a 1992 book by Richard Douthwaite. The "illusion" in the title doesn't allude to Winnicott's analysis of the transitional object but maybe it should.
One of the distinguishing features of economic growth is that it never means what critics think it means. Critics of growth invariably misunderstand growth. This is inevitable because economic growth always means something other than what it has been defined to mean. Critics of economic growth "mistake an output variable for an instrument," they don't realize that "economic measurements incorporate quality... and not just quantity" etc., etc.
Actually the misconception of economic growth by its critics is more fundamental than that. Critics do not understand that economic growth always means something else. It always refers to something that is undefined and ultimately undefinable. Economic growth is an illusion in the Winnicottian sense. More concretely, it is an illusion that substitutes for an illusion that substitutes for an illusion (and so on ad infinitum). It's teddy bears all the way down!
Admittedly this game can be played both ways. "Degrowth doesn't mean what you think it means," said every advocate of degrowth ever. But who is listening? The "growth cult" -- hat tip to Maurice Stans, Director of the Bureau of the Budget, 1959 -- has the upper hand.
In a fascinating article, Manuel Rivera investigated the extent to which critiques of, and alternatives to growth fail to translate from academic and popular topicality to parliamentary political discourse.
Our first finding is as trivial as it is striking. While the committee of enquiry [on ‘Growth, Well-being, and Quality of Life’], despite its enormous tensions and ultimate inability to produce substantial consensus, had agreed on economic growth never being an end itself, but only a means toward other political ends, the analyzed documents state the opposite: Out of 1095 phrases that establish a growth related purpose or hierarchical purpose-agency ratio, 92% do so by evoking growth as an end in itself.In other words, pay no attention what we say 92% of the time, "it's only a means to an end and not an end in itself." The historical perspective that Rivera brings to the analysis, especially from Matthias Schmelzer's historical analysis of the growth paradigm, suggests an unspoken and unmentionable 'political unconscious' to that dogma of growth as an end in itself. At the historical moment when the growth paradigm became hegemonic, economic growth was promoted particularly as a bulwark against political pressure for income redistribution:
What was banished was of course not redistribution per se (which continued to operate) but the unresisted debate about redistribution, which would lead to social unrest. The formula was (and is): The more economic growth is possible, the less redistribution is needed.It is tempting to conclude, as Rivera does, that a way to re-activate a democratic discourse about growth, its discontents and its alternatives, would be to focus on redistribution. I'm not sure it is that simple. The debate about redistribution was displaced half a century ago by the "transitional object" of growth. The world we inhabit now is quite different politically, socially and environmentally. I would nominate reparation, rather than redistribution, as what the world needs now.
No, I don't know exactly what "reparation" means in the context of global climate change. But at least I know what it doesn't mean, which is more than conventional economists can say about their desiccated concept of economic growth.