The Problem With Degrowth

Matt Huber



“Degrowth is even making inroads on the socialist left. Two years ago the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in New York City published an article, “Degrowth and Revolutionary Organizing.” A major book, The Future Is Degrowth, was favorably reviewed in Democratic Socialists of America’s journal Socialist Forum. In Japan, the ecological Marxist Kohei Saito has sold five hundred thousand copies of a book laying out a case for degrowth communism (the volume, titled Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto, will be released in an English translation early next year).”

“now one of the oldest journals on the socialist left, the Monthly Review — its first issue in 1949 included “Why Socialism?” by Albert Einstein — has fully embraced degrowth. It’s latest issue is entitled “Planned Degrowth: Ecosocialism and Sustainable Human Development” and features many of the most prominent degrowth proponents, such as Jason Hickel and Matthias Schmelzer”

“The issue also includes a long introduction by the long-standing ecological Marxist John Bellamy Foster. As usual for a Foster essay, there is much thought provoking and worth agreeing with in it”

“But ultimately, like much of the degrowth movement, it needlessly shackles its vision of a socialist future to a program of aggregate reduction”

“we want to shift to an economy that prioritizes ecological sustainability and provisioning human needs”

“We want an economy that produces for “use value” against capitalism’s focus on profit and exchange value”

“solving the ecological crisis requires a shift away from the anarchy of the market under capitalism and toward planning”

“Most of our ecological problems are rooted in fixed infrastructure investments — housing, transportation, the electricity grid — that the market is uniquely bad at provisioning. Restructuring such systems requires planning”

“Traditionally, Marxists argued that the relations of private ownership and the profit motive inhibit or “fetter” the full development of the productive forces, and only a transition to socialism can allow us to fully develop the productive forces”

“Nearly all degrowth proposals have some call for “aggregate” reductions of “energy use” or “material throughput.””

“What Engels actually calls for in the cited passages from Anti-Dühring is for society to take full social control (planning) over the social relation to nature, as opposed to capitalism, which cedes it to anarchic markets”

“More to the point, the climate crisis actually fits Marx’s “fettering thesis” quite well. It is entirely clear that solving climate change requires massive development of the productive forces — productive forces that capital is specifically reluctant to invest in”

“For example, prominent modeling from Princeton University suggests that zeroing emissions by 2050 will require, among other things, 80 to120 million heat pumps, up to five times an increase in electricity transmission capacity, 250 large nuclear reactors (or 3,800 small ones), and the development of whole new industry — carbon capture and sequestration — from scratch”

“This is why socialists argue that it will require a massive social effort of public investment and planning to accomplish this”

“even if we look beyond the ecological crisis, at the core of the socialist project is the aim to abolish class itself and the widespread poverty that afflicts humans all over the planet”

“Imagine what it would take to give the entire planet public housing, public transit, reliable electricity, and modern water-sewage services. Now imagine trying to achieve this while also shrinking aggregate material resource use. To say the least, this sounds like a difficult task”

“it would be quite sad to build a socialist movement capable of seizing the means of production only to prohibit from the outset the further development of the productive forces”

“Socialism is not stasis. What about fusion power? Curing cancer? We still have so much left to accomplish as a species that capitalism might be holding us back from”

“Foster equates degrowth with “net-zero capital formation,” invokes something called an “Earth-system budget,” and claims, “[c]ontinued growth would occur in some areas of the economy, made possible by reductions elsewhere.” Whereas governments must balance budgets in monetary terms, degrowthers rely on equally abstract quantitative concepts like “material throughput.””

“Overall, a quantitative commitment to “net zero capital formation” would usher in an austerity mindset throughout all of society, where all increases must be balanced out”

“It is one thing to advance a strategic critique of degrowth: In a capitalist system defined by deprivation, who will support a program centering reduction? But its other problem is that it seeks to place de facto constraints on our future political programs. The point of socialism, however, is to unleash human potential from the shackles of capitalism and its market imperatives”

“Foster’s essay contains many other strange claims — including the suggestion that “labor itself might be substituted for fossil-fuel energy,” a proposal that would condemn us to a more labor-intensive economy of drudgery — but at its core, Foster’s degrowth socialism is yet another attempt to dress up post-1960s environmental ideology in Marxist clothing”

“Planning the surplus with ecological goals in mind is something that capitalism is uniquely bad at. Socialism can do better”

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