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Growth and De-growth: What should ecosocialists say?



By John Molyneux

December 18,2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Global Ecosocialist Network — Throughout most of the existence of the labour and socialist movement the dominant position in the movement has been to favour economic growth.

Time out of number trade union and labour or social democratic conferences have passed resolutions calling for governments to adopt policies of economic growth. ‘Go for growth!’ has been a recurring slogan. The justification has always been simple: economic growth is essential to maintain and create jobs (which ‘our members’ or ‘our people’ need and want) and is the most favourable set of circumstances for raising the living standards of ordinary people which, again, is what our people want. And for the vast majority of mainstream, ie reformist, social democratic politicians and trade union officials, unwilling to contemplate any sort of challenge to capitalism, jobs and increased living standards were pretty much the limit of their aspirations.

Hence the attraction for the ‘mainstream’ of the labour movement of Keynesianism. Faced with economic crisis, recession, cutbacks and austerity a belief in the economics of John Maynard Keynes – an expansion of public spending to stimulate the economy on the basis of ‘deficit financing’ – enabled them to blame all these undoubted evils not on capitalism as such but on the wrong policies of the government due either to stupidity or an ‘ideological’ commitment to monetarism, neo-liberalism and the free market; a problem that could be corrected by the election of an alternative (social democratic) government which would restore economic growth.

Left criticism of this approach came mainly from left reformists such as Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn and various Communist Parties who argued that it did not go far enough and proposed what were often called ‘alternative economic strategies’ which also argued for economic growth within a capitalist framework but achieved through a greater injection of public ownership (nationalisation) and state planning.

Further to the left stood the Marxist and revolutionary socialist critique which questioned the idea of a left government working on the basis of capitalism.  The revolutionary Marxist critique generally maintained that the contradictions inherent in capitalism – tendency to overproduction, tendency of the rate of profit to decline etc – made recurring economic crises inevitable and sustained economic growth impossible. The achievement of the latter it was argued required the overthrow of capitalism, through workers’ revolution, and transition to democratically planned socialist economy. In this perspective the idea of economic growth as such was not challenged although, of course, it was argued that economic growth would be made to serve very different purposes – social need not private profit, welfare not warfare, schools, hospitals, housing and culture not capital accumulation and luxury consumption.

The advocacy of economic growth was also linked in the thinking of many on the left with the need for economic ‘development’ in what was called the Third World , now the Global South, to end the scourges of extreme poverty and so- called dependency. Indeed for many self described Marxists in, or in solidarity with, the countries of the  Global South , economic development  came to be seen as not only a prerequisite of socialism but also as virtually identical to it. This in turn was associated with the argument, shared by Stalinists and many Trotskyists alike, that the high rates of industrial growth achieved by the Soviet Union in the 1930s through to the 1950s were proof of its socialist or, at least, non-capitalist character. Trotsky himself described, ‘the economic successes of the soviet regime… [as ] the experimental proof … of the practicability of socialist methods’  [Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, London, 1967, p.1] and argued that ‘Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not in the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface – not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electrification.’  [Trotsky, as above, p.8].

Finally, socialist commitment to economic growth could be seen as deeply embedded in the idea central to Marxist historical materialism of a dialectic of the forces and relations of production. According to the Marxist theory of history the fundamental driving force in human history was the development of the forces of production which conditioned or shaped the social relations of production.  Then:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. [Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Capitalist Production, 1859].

Thus socialism came to be identified with the further development of the forces of production, no longer fettered by capitalist relations of production.

This identification was further cemented by the fact that in so far as there was criticism of this ‘growth’ model , it seemed to come from anti-socialist right wing of the environmental movement and to be associated with two ideas that were [rightly] anathema to socialists: a) the reactionary and potentially racist notion of overpopulation as a driver of the environmental crisis; b) the related proposition that what is required to save the planet is a reduction in consumption by the mass of the population.

The question now, as we face up to the implications of the anthropocene, is has the imminence of catastrophic climate change and of numerous other threats to the biosphere changed all this? Are socialists and, especially, those of us who would identify as ecosocialists now obliged to see continued, never mind ‘endless’, economic growth as a threat to human survival and  a goal that has to be abandoned and ‘de-growth’ as an aim or even slogan that should be adopted?

There are two obvious Marxist responses to these questions which do not require any substantial rethinking of the Marxist paradigm.  The first is that, regardless of the past statements or practice of various socialists, it not socialism but capitalism which is really committed to endless economic growth. Moreover, the commitment is not just, or even primarily, ideological. It is neither a prejudice nor a mindset but, as Marx demonstrated in Capital, a material drive inherent in capitalist relations of production imposed on each capitalist unit, be it corner shop or multinational corporation or capitalist state, by the relentless logic of competition. Capitalism and capitalist governments can no more renounce growth than a crocodile can go vegetarian. On those occasions where cyclical recession or some external catastrophe  (such as the Covid pandemic) imposes a period of de- growth on capitalism it is a catastrophe from which the system strains every nerve and sinew to escape regardless of the long term consequences for humanity or nature.  The second reply is that there are some sectors of the economy, some forces of production which socialists would certainly want to ‘de-grow’ or eliminate entirely e.g. the fossil fuels industry, the car industry, the arms industry, perhaps the advertising industry, but other sectors which we would want to greatly expand eg production of renewable energy, education, health care, public transport and so on.

These answers, in themselves, seem valid to me but they leave open the question of whether a sustainable future requires economic de-growth overall and on a global scale.

Before answering that question, and in order to answer it, we have to we have to step back a moment and ask what do we mean by economic growth and by the development of the productive forces and also what do we understand by a socialist society.

The meaning of ‘growth’

At first sight it might seem that the meaning of economic growth is obvious: more and more production of more and more ‘things’ or ‘stuff’. Thus writing in The New Internationalist, Giorgios Kallis, a prominent advocate of ‘degrowth’ argues

The Left has to liberate itself from the imaginary of growth. Perpetual growth is an absurd idea (consider the absurdity of this: if the Egyptians had started with one cubic metre of stuff and grew it by 4.5% per year, by the end of their 3,000-year civilization, they would have occupied 2.5 billion solar systems.). Even if we could substitute capitalist growth, with a nicer, angelic socialist growth, why would we want to occupy 2.5 billion solar systems with it? (Giorgios Kallis, ‘The Left should embrace degrowth, The New Internationalist, 5 November 2015)

You would have thought that Kallis might have asked himself how it is, if his argument is sound, that after not three but five thousand years Egypt, which started with much more than one cubic metre of stuff, has not even filled up Egypt – it remains mostly empty desert – let alone billions of solar systems. In fact economic growth doesn’t mean making more or bigger ‘stuff’ at all.  What drives capitalism to grow, what compels it to grow, is not a relentless desire to produce stuff but a relentless desire to produce profits. The production of a new generation of computers constitutes huge growth for Microsoft and for the US economy but a decrease not an increase in physical size. A boom in the production and sale of luxury Rolex watches constitutes a very considerable amount of economic growth but adds next to nothing in terms of quantity of ‘stuff’.

The best known measure of growth is GDP (Gross Domestic Product) but despite its name this is not a measure of physical product but of monetary value i.e. the market value of all the final goods and services produced in a specific time period. The OECD defines GDP as “an aggregate measure of production equal to the sum of the gross values added of all resident and institutional units engaged in production and services (plus any taxes, and minus any subsidies, on products not included in the value of their outputs)”. An IMF publication states that, “GDP measures the monetary value of final goods and services—that are bought by the final user—produced in a country in a given period of time (say a quarter or a year)”. There are various technical debates about how accurate a measure GDP is, but whether the choice is ‘GDP (nominal) per capita’ or ‘GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP)’ or ‘GNP (Gross National Product)’ or ‘GNI (Gross National Income)’ the fact remains that all these concepts are measures of monetary value not physical production.

It might be objected that even if this is technically true there is nonetheless, in practice, a general link between economic growth and growth in physical production and here the key point is that it is physical production, not monetary value, that damages the environment. Actually any consistent link or correlation is hard to establish. According to the World Bank the following are the ten countries with the highest per capita GDP

Cayman Islands
United Arab Emirates

Of these only the US is a significant maker of ‘things’. And some on the list e.g. Macau and the Cayman Islands, we can assume actually produce next to nothing. Ireland is another example of the same point. In 2015 Ireland announced a 26.3% rise in GDP, later revised to an extraordinary 34.4% in July 2016 by the Irish Central Statistics Office. But these figures had nothing to do with increased production and simply marked the distortion of Irish economic data by tax-driven accounting flows. Paul Krugman famously called this ‘leprechaun’ economics but he also said this was a feature of all tax havens.  (Paul Krugman (28 January 2020). “Opinion”New York Times. Retrieved 28 January 2020. Now, I’ve coined a few economic phrases I’m proud of: “leprechaun economics” for the distortion of statistics caused by multinational corporations in search of tax havens, .. [.])

This conceptual decoupling of ‘growth’ from physical production does not, however, let capitalist growth off the hook. The point about capitalist growth is that it is a compulsion, enforced by competition on every capitalist company (including all the most environmentally damaging e.g. ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Toyota, Volkswagen, Boeing ) and every capitalist state (including those who doing the most harm to the planet as a whole such as the US, China, Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia and so on. Given the crucial role played by fossil fuel and automotive capital within contemporary capitalism it is indeed unavoidable that capitalist economic growth will continue to drive climate change and other environmental damage but this does not mean that it is possible to draw such conclusion from ‘growth’ as such, as an abstraction.  I shall return to the matter of growth under socialism shortly but first let us consider the question of the forces of production.

Just as some people (Giorgos Kallis?) think of economic growth as making more stuff,  so some people think of the productive forces as just machines and technology , but this was not Marx’s view. In The Poverty of Philosophy Marx wrote that ‘of all the instruments of production the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself’.(Karl Marx, Cited in D. McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx.  p.38) and he was clearly right because machines have to be made by people and then require human labour/workers to set them in motion. Moreover, the level of scientific knowledge and skill of the makers i.e. of the society is a major factor in determining what machines can be made and how productive they are. Therefore the productive forces should be thought of as the general capacity of society to produce goods and services, which will therefore also include natural resources.  In The Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx insisted that nature as well as labour was a source of wealth and in Capital  he referred to the worker and the soil as the two ultimate sources of wealth  [Capital, Vol 1 p.475],stating also that ‘As the earth is his [‘man’s’-JM ] original larder, so too it is his original tool house…The earth itself is an instrument of labour.’ [Capital, p.175].

If the productive forces constitute society’s general capacity to produce then their development or advance need not necessarily result in more production of things at all but might equally result in producing the same amount in less time. Marx, himself, put a lot of emphasis on this economy of labour time as he saw it has having the potential to free human beings from necessary labour, reduce the working week and enhance human freedom.

Real economy – savings – consists in the saving of working time…but this saving is identical with the development of productivity…To economise on labour time means to increase the amount of free time, i.e, the time for the complete development of the individual, which again reacts as the greatest productive force on the productive force of labour. (Karl Marx,  The Grundrisse, cited in D.McLellan, Marx’s Grundrisse, MacMillian, London 1971, p.148)

From this it follows that the development of the productive forces is not an inherent threat to the environment even if their development within capitalist economic, social and political relations most certainly is.

Growth and socialism

Any discussion of growth under socialism depends, in the first place, on one’s conception of socialism. In the dominant view, by which I mean dominant in the mainstream media and in the academic world and to some extent on the left, the main characteristics of a socialist country or state are seen as:

  1. A regime which describes itself as socialist
  2. State ownership of the major means of production
  3. Central i.e. state planning of the economy.

The dominance of this view in academy is testified to by the prevalence of the phrase ‘actually existing socialism’ in academic discourse, especially when referring to the former ‘communist’ countries of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe etc. If we set aside the criterion of self description as not meriting serious consideration since  it would yield a most unlikely list of suspects – the People’s Republic of Congo, Ethiopia under the Military Junta (1974-87, which includes the great famine), Pol Pot’s Cambodia,  Burma (1962- 88) and many others – we are left with state ownership and state planning.

Giorgos Kallis- I will use him as a foil again – is sarcastic on this:

Whereas degrowth is incompatible with capitalism, degrowth rejects also the illusion of a so-called ‘socialist growth’, whereby a rationally, centrally planned economy somehow magically will bring technological developments that will allow a reasonable growth without impinging upon the ecological conditions.

There is an obvious ‘logical’ reply to Kallis’s sarcasm that, without any resort to magic, a rationally planned economy would be able to allow a reasonable growth without ecological damage precisely by virtue of being rationally planned. But to this Kallis could equally obviously retort that whatever the logic the actual experience of growth in state planned economies such as the Soviet Union,China, Eastern Europe, North Korea etc has been very far from ecologically satisfactory or sustainable and Kallis would be right. This raises the question of why? Why have centrally planned economies not been able to avoid ecologically damaging growth? Was it the mindset of the regimes? [This, it should be remembered, is the reason given by ‘moderate’ greens for the behaviour of western capitalist governments and economies].

I would suggest that were two fundamental structural defects shared by the State planned economies we are talking about. The first is that the state apparatuses i.e. those who did the planning, were not subject to any kind of democratic control but were run by unaccountable materially privileged and often downright tyrannical bureaucracies. The second is that the planning we are discussing was done on a nationally limited basis in a situation of competition with other nation states, both free market and state planned, within the framework of global capitalism and the world market. Thus, in the most important case, the Soviet Union was engaged in a long running economic/ military competition with the United States (which it eventually lost) while also competing with China (and vice versa).  In these circumstances the various state bureaucracies inevitably sacrificed the natural environment to considerations of economic growth which they deemed- rightly- to be essential to their power and survival, just as did the US government or ExxonMobil.

But in my view this is not ‘actually existing socialism’ at all – personally I would call it state capitalism. At any rate the concept or vision of socialism that concerns me when it comes to discussing the issue of growth or degrowth is quite different. It is the concept, outlined by Marx and Engels, of socialism as the self –emancipation of the working class which begins, as stated in The Communist Manifesto with the proletariat raising itself to be ruling class and then using ‘its political supremacy to wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie and to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e. of the proletariat organised as the ruling class’. 

This first stage of socialism or workers’ power then inaugurates a process of gradual transition to a completely classless fully socialist or communist society which is simultaneously and in parallel a process of spreading the revolution from its initial base in one country to the rest of the world.

[There is, of course, a long standing debate in the socialist movement about the possibility of constructing a socialist society in one country. But the terms of that debate have been fundamentally transformed by climate change. Whatever the possibility of holding at bay the pressures of world capitalism within the boundaries of single state, be it Russia, China, Cuba or wherever, there can be no possibility of resolving the threat of climate change in one country. If socialist transformation were to begin in Brazil or South Africa, in Egypt or China the headlong descent into climate chaos would proceed virtually unabated as long as the US, Russia, India, the EU and the rest of the world continued on its present course.]

Assuming the process of spreading the revolution develops reasonably successfully, and it will either move forward and gather momentum or be thrown backwards, then a point will be reached where planned production for human need not profit predominates in the world. Until that point production decisions will unavoidably remain heavily conditioned by the necessities of survival in a hostile world. The early Soviet State, for example, had no choice unless it was willing to surrender and be completely crushed but to undertake massive military expenditure. But once that moment is reached and socialism has come to be internationally dominant the concept of ‘growth’ as we know it at present will rapidly cease to apply.

As we showed above the compulsion to grow under capitalism is a compulsion to make profits and accumulate capital not to produce goods and ‘economic growth’, whether expressed in GDP, GNI or other form, is a measure of increased monetary value not increased physical production. It follows that as production becomes more and more for social need, involving, for example, the expansion of free services such as education, health, transport, housing so the measurement of monetary value becomes increasingly irrelevant.  In any pre-capitalist, so-called underdeveloped society, where the large majority of the population were peasant farmers and the bulk of production was for subsistence with only a small surplus product being offered for exchange the major part of total social production was carried on below the level of monetary measurement. In primitive communist foraging society which, let us remember, preceded class society and the invention of money for hundreds of thousands of years, economic growth in the contemporary sense was completely meaningless. There was, however, a very slow but real development of the productive forces as in the improvement of stone tools and the invention of pottery (approximately 30,000 years ago) without opening up a metabolic rift with nature. With 7 billion people on the planet it is obviously impossible to return to foraging as a mode of production or to the level of productive forces of the middle ages without even steam power or serious medicine, never mind the telephone and the internet. Our goal must be to move towards the equality, classlessness, disalienation and harmonious sustainable relationship with nature of primitive communism on the basis of an enormously higher level of the productive forces.

In terms of what should be expected, indeed required, of socialist governments from the get go I think it pretty much corresponds to what ecosocialists demand at present:

  • Rapid reduction of carbon emissions, nationally and internationally, to zero by 2030 (not 2050);
  • The elimination as quickly as possible of all dependence on and use of fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal – plus an immediate halt to further exploration; leave it in the ground! Rapid transition to renewable sources of energy.
  • Free regular and expanded public transport
  • The extensive retrofitting of homes
  • Massive reduction in dependence on beef and cattle farming
  • Massive programmes of aforestation

But note even this very limited programme involves both degrowth and growth of different sectors of the productive forces. Reduction to zero of the fossil fuel industries which must be complemented by expanded production of wind turbines, solar panels etc. Reduction and, eventually, elimination of the car industry but more production of buses and trains and more production of ecologically sustainable housing. Less beef production but more growing of vegetables and more planting of trees.

Moreover, the same dichotomy would apply to other aspects of the programme of any really socialist government: enormously less, transitioning to zero, military and arms production but more hospitals, schools and higher education; less building of expensive hotels and luxury apartment blocks but more building of public housing; less advertising, more theatres and arts centres; less (no) production of single use plastics and unneeded goods, more resources devoted to youth work and care of elderly; and so on almost indefinitely.  This is a necessary complexity that cannot be covered by the simple call for degrowth.

In particular we should also challenge the idea, implicit in the arguments of many ‘degrowthers’, especially those that favour population control , that all human activity, indeed all human existence, is inherently damaging to nature. In a future fully developed international socialist society a huge amount of human productive activity would be devoted to healing the rift with nature and ensuring the continued existence of a natural environment conducive to human survival. For example it may be perfectly feasible to develop new carbon free forms of transport which allow rapid eco-friendly travel over water and thus make it possible to enormously reduce or eliminate air travel; alternatively it may be possible to render flying non- ecologically harmful. All this is speculation, of course, and contingent on solving the immediate problems of climate change, ecological destruction and exploitation, oppression and war which now constitute an increasingly short term threat to survival; nevertheless it points again to a complexity that rules out blanket calls for degrowth or diminution of the productive forces.

What should ecosocialists say now?

What we say now on this question is connected to who we see as our primary audience which in turn is linked to the question of our strategy for change. There is undoubtedly a wing of the environmental movement which sees itself as directly addressing governments, corporate CEOs and other ruling class figures in order to persuade them to change their ways. To call on such people to degrow their economies or their companies is utterly utopian. One might as well ask pigs to fly or BP to become Beyond Petroleum. And, in my opinion, this is a vain strategy in general, not just in terms of degrowth. But, of course, there is a case for making demands of our rulers that we know they won’t concede if such demands are an aid to mass mobilization at the base.

And there are indeed layers of people who might, I stress might, be attracted to the idea and the slogan of degrowth. These might include school students, mobilized so effectively by Greta Thunberg, college and university students and some of the young professionals moved to direct action by Extinction Rebellion i.e. layers for whom immediate economic considerations do not loom very large. Now I am very far from dismissing such people – they are important in themselves and for the environmental movement as a whole and we should absolutely be engaged with them – but they are not, in my view, our primary audience or the touchstone of ecosocialist politics. That should be the mass of working class people and of the oppressed internationally and especially in the Global South. Why? Because these and only these are the people with the potential power to challenge capitalism and effect real system change.

But in terms of mobilising such people, whether they are located in Los Angeles or Liverpool, Sao Paulo or Soweto, the concept or slogan of degrowth will be a non-starter. To demand degrowth under capitalism is to demand more unemployment, more poverty and more suffering for the mass of people. A mass movement cannot be built on this basis and it will not only alienate working people but will also reinforce the right wing, anti-socialist strand in the environmental movement who believe the solution to climate change is to reduce the consumption of ordinary people through mechanisms such as carbon taxes and are often, as with the Green Party here in Ireland, willing to implement such policies in coalition with conservative neo-liberal parties. It will completely undermine the idea of a ‘just transition’. And while doing this damage it will not even bring about actual degrowth because that is incompatible with capitalism. To advocate degrowth under socialism is scientifically wrong, as I argued above, and will, as far as the mass of people are concerned, only confuse the issue. It is more likely to put them off socialism than it is to bring about a movement for real climate action.

But rejecting the slogan of degrowth does not mean we can revert to, or continue with, the old practice of calling for growth in general, even socialist growth. What ecosocialists should do now, therefore, is spell out exactly which sectors/forms of industry we need to degrow and eliminate – fossil fuels, cars, arms, factory farming, single use plastics, most advertising etc – while explaining  that this must be combined with huge numbers of decent green jobs, better health, education and welfare and a better quality of life for the vast majority.

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