Can degrowth save the planet?

The idea of degrowth recognises capitalism’s destructive nature, argues Martin Empson, but ends up looking for solutions within capitalism rather than looking to overthrow it

In September 2019 Greta Thunberg made a powerful speech to a UN climate meeting: “We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth”, she said.

Her attack draw the wrath of mainstream commentators, but for many environmental activists it went to the heart of their concerns. “You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet” is a popular slogan that emphasises the idea that capitalist growth is surpassing planetary boundaries.

Growth is central to how capitalists view their economy. The short-lived Prime Minister of Britain Liz Truss blamed an imaginary, grouping of trade unionists, environmentalists, “remainers” and labour activists for forming an “anti-growth coalition” which supposedly brought down her government.

Commentators have fretted about low rates of growth in the economy of just over 2 per cent a year.

The obsession with growth arises out of the nature of the capitalist economy, which is based on constant expansion of the means of production. Karl Marx described this process as “accumulation for the sake of accumulation”. But as the American Marxist John Bellamy Foster has said, “Accumulation of capital is accompanied by the accumulation of catastrophe.”

One response to this is “degrowth”, whose proponents argue that we need to reduce sections of the economy that are destructive. Degrowth is not a monolithic set of ideas. There are many different academics, commentators and activists who all have slightly different emphases. But degrowth is increasingly part of political discussions within the environmental movement, academic economics and to a lesser extent sections of the labour movement.

As Marxists we share with degrowth activists a hatred of a capitalist system that destroys our world in the interests of profit. We are on the same side as degrowthers who argue for an economy that is less destructive and more equitable. But a major flaw of degrowth theory is that while it is anti-capitalist, it is a reformist strategy that cannot stop capitalism’s destruction.

Growth

To understand this, let us look at growth itself. Capitalism’s driving force is the capitalist’s desire to maximise profits. In Marx’s Capital, he placed this drive in the context of a system with two great divisions—that between the bosses and the workers, and competition between the capitalists themselves.

Capitalists pay their workers less in wages than the value the workers create. The extra the capitalist steals from the workers is called “surplus value”. Marx argued that the capitalist is “compelled” to reinvest this surplus back into the means of production because they are in competition with their rivals. They do this to develop new technologies, improve or purchase new machinery and so on.

The capitalists are stuck on a treadmill of production. Innovation is driven not by a desire to solve human need, but to make profits. We only have to look at how industry constantly offers us new clothing, phones or cars, each superseding the previous model despite offering little difference.

Marx’s understanding of the compulsion at the heart of capitalist production is one of the great insights of Capital. It is shared by some degrowth thinkers.

Jason Hickel, whose recent book Less is More is a good introduction to left degrowth ideas, argues that “Capitalism is fundamentally dependent on growth… Growth is a structural imperative—an iron law”. The authors of the book The Case for Degrowth make their debt to Marx’s ideas even more explicit: “Unlike other human economies, capitalist ones depend on growth. In order to thrive amid market competition, those who have money must invest it, make more money, and expand production.”

This logic of capitalist production explains the ruling class’ obsession with growth and their inability to act against the system and stop its destruction.

The meaning of degrowth

Degrowthers share socialists’ understanding of the consequence of unrestrained accumulation and our desire for something better. Hickel argues we need the “planned reduction of excess energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way.”

Socialists would agree with most of the things degrowth theorists argue for. We need less fossil fuels, arms manufacturing and advertising, at the same time as we need more schools, hospitals, public transport and renewable energy.

These reforms do not directly challenge the logic of capitalism, or indeed its growth imperative. For instance while it is possible to conceive of capitalism without the advertising industry it would still be capitalism.

The best degrowth theorists understand this and argue for the phasing out of capitalism, often involve calling for workers’ cooperatives or community owned businesses.

Such ideas have a long history on the left. Some degrowthers even quote a slogan of the anarchist influenced IWW union, aiming to “build a new world in the shell of the old”.

Capitalism can tolerate some non-profits or workers’ cooperatives. Cooperatives are still going to be battered by the storms of capitalist crisis. Ultimately, they cannot escape the logic of the market—however well meaning their collective owners might be.

But there are other problems with degrowth. In the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis the dominant response from the global ruling class was to cut expenditure on public services, impose wage restraint and expand neoliberalism. This would, they hoped, restore growth rates.

So it is natural that many workers might see degrowth as a manifestation of “green austerity”. In the Global South activists have often challenged degrowth by arguing that they need economic development and growth to give their populations opportunities that have only been available in the North.

While the majority of degrowth writers understand that the historical development of capitalism has left the Global South undeveloped and under resourced, a small minority have used language referring to “frugal living” or “creating beautifully poor spaces”. This is not attractive to people who have faced austerity or already lack access to basic services like sanitation or health-care.

Secondly, because degrowth theory relies on the idea of natural limits, it can lead to a right-wing interpretation that sees ecological issues as being solely down to “too many people”. This was very much part of the earliest, and very influential, approach to growth made by the Club of Rome in the 1972 report “The Limits to Growth”.

Marxism’s alternative

The most important criticism of degrowth is that it is a reformist strategy seeking to win changes within capitalism.

Revolutionaries understand that capitalists will try to stop any challenge to their ability to maximise profits. The fossil fuel industry has been protected for decades, even as awareness of climate change has grown.

Any serious challenge to the interests of big business will provoke a violent backlash.

Consider the reforms proposed by Salvador Allende’s government in Chile in the 1970s. These were met with a brutal response. In 1973, General Pinochet led a coup and installed military rule, murdering Allende and thousands of activists.

The state is a set of institutions and “armed bodies of men” which protects the class interests of the rich.

Degrowth theorists do not offer a way to challenge the capitalist state. They have no argument for how we can end capitalism—nor do they have a sense of the power within capitalism to change the world—the working class.

Marx saw workers as the “gravediggers” of capitalism. Because of their centrality to production, they have the power to overthrow the system and smash the capitalist state. But through their struggles, workers can also create institutions that form the basis for a new way of organising society.

Every time workers fight back we see a glimpse of this power. The recent strikes in Britain have shown how workers have the power to shut down the economy. Mass strikes in France saw energy workers organise to ensure that hospitals did not lose power during their strikes.

Revolutions magnify this experience ten thousand times. In situations where millions of workers are rebelling they are forced to go beyond simply organising strikes to take on questions like the distribution of food, the maintenance of power and the need to protect strikes from the bosses and the right wing.

During the Russian Revolution, revolutionary workers organised “councils” in their factories and workplaces. These councils started from the need to organise the struggle but quickly took over the running of workplaces.

Networking these councils into “Soviets” through the election of delegates created citywide, then countrywide, bodies that represented the interests of workers and coordinated the revolution. This was the basis for an alternative, socialist, society.

The revolutionary struggle itself creates the basis of a rationally organised economy.

Workers’ councils take on the running of individual factories, but can then coordinate production across sectors and economies.

Mass democracy is central to this process. In the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871, workers insisted that their representatives were paid the average workers’ wage and could be instantly recalled.

In a socialist society, we would collectively make decisions about what was needed, and how to produce it sustainably.

We might “grow” parts of the economy—by building more schools, hospitals and housing for instance, but also “degrow” other parts of the economy like mining operations—and even abolish major industries like advertising and arms manufacturing.

We could also respond to needs, such as those caused by a changing environment, or the emergence of new diseases. These decisions would take place through a mass democratic process, not the whims of capitalists trying to make more profits.

We should welcome the way degrowth theorists have generalised an anti-capitalist critique in the environmental movement.

But we also have to be clear that this is not enough. We should fight alongside them, engage with the debates while all the time pushing for a revolutionary strategy.

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