Degrowth and socialism: Notes on some critical junctures
First published at Monthly Review.
The dialogue, or controversy, depending on how one looks at it, between advocates of degrowth and socialism over the past years has brought about a partial convergence expressed in recent synthesis-seeking contributions.1 At the same time, salient differences between the two currents, highly heterogeneous within themselves, still persist. These pertain to their imaginaries on how to overcome capitalism and what to replace it with, which can easily be seen even in the respective nomenclatures they employ, namely a postcapitalist future of degrowth versus socialism.
From a certain viewpoint, capitalism can be seen as generalized commodity production where individual production units make independent decisions regarding what and how much to produce, which combination of inputs and technologies to employ, how to organize the production process, and so forth. As individual productive units have no choice but to relate to the rest of the picture through their products, value serves as the common ground where commodities are equated in terms of the quantity of abstract labor they contain, and where emerging profit differentials give cues on the rate and direction of new investment. The pursuit of profit constitutes the regulating principle, and production at the aggregate level is regulated as each excessive expansion or contraction sets in motion forces that counteract the deviation.
Exploitation, reification of social relations, commodity fetishism, as well as an intensifying disruption of the metabolic relationship with nonhuman natures are integral parts of the (re)production process outlined above in a nutshell. They all exist in embryonic form in the individual production unit in the form of surplus value extraction, or exploitation of labor. Thus, a systemic alternative to capitalism must arise upon different social relations, and offer a set of mechanisms and processes to regulate and coordinate the complex and interdependent set of activities to reproduce life in its various dimensions.
Planning is one such alternative with a long history of theoretical discussions as well as practical applications at different scales. Until recently, however, the degrowth literature had been keeping a clear distance from the idea of planning. Instead, the transformation ahead used to be outlined in terms of what one of the sources of inspiration for degrowth, André Gorz, called “non-reformist reforms,” today manifested in proposals such as the provision of universal basic income, reduced working hours, public finance, reclaiming and expanding the realm of the commons and sharing, localizing production, and so on.2 The question of their compatibility with accumulation-driven commodity production aside, these reforms do not even remotely offer an alternative to the coordinating role of markets in production.
Planning as a radically different way of organizing and coordinating production and social reproduction has rarely been engaged with in past degrowth literature. This has been changing with more radical degrowth thinkers increasingly taking up the question of planning explicitly. In what follows, we focus on matters pertaining to planning which constitute, in our opinion, critical nodes of the discussion.
Planned production and living standards
Most degrowth thinkers agree that growth, as both a fact and a concept, is brought about by capitalism.3 It is even acknowledged that growth is not the driver, but an outcome, the “surface appearance or ‘fetish’ of an underlying process: capital accumulation.”4 One would then expect that the challenge to it and the imaginary of an alternative society would be based on the negation of capitalism as a mode of production. Yet instead, growth remains the focal point of the discussion.
The emphasis on growth as an aggregate phenomenon that emerged only with industrial capitalism and turned into an unquestionable economic paradigm following the Second World War is not trivial. It implies that growth as we know it is capitalist growth, or actually accumulation of capital, constituted in processes of exploitation and expropriation peculiar to capitalism, measured by indicators designed by and for capitalist societies. Why should we then be so concerned with growth as such from the viewpoint of a socialist (or postcapitalist) society? The degrowth position is that it mesmerizes and captivates individual and social imaginaries, political movements, parties, and projects, including that of socialism: “Growth is the child of capitalism, but the child outdid the parent, with the pursuit of growth surviving the abolition of capitalist relations in socialist countries.”5
The transplantation of growth from its capitalist historical context into a socialist future, and thereby the problematization of growth as such—which supposedly transcends social relations upon which societies are founded—can be justified only under one condition: if all growth, regardless of the underlying relations of humans to both humans and nonhuman natures, can be seen as homogeneous, or at least alike to a significant degree. This is precisely what Giorgos Kallis puts forward: “socialist growth cannot be sustainable, because no economic growth can be ecologically sustainable. Growth in the material standard of living requires growth in the extraction of materials. This is unavoidably damaging to the environment and ultimately undermines the conditions of production and reproduction.”6
The logical conclusion of this argument is that all human activity involving extraction, transformation, and use of materials—that is, all human reproduction—is in direct conflict with the environment as the former unavoidably damages the latter. This is a reversion to crude materialism founded on the oppositional binary of nature and society. According to Kallis, this conflict becomes unsustainable if material living standards keep growing. Growth, however, is still understood in its meaning in the capitalist context, representing a process of accumulation.
The qualitative difference between socialism and capitalism as two distinct modes of production is highly relevant here. The primary function of production under socialism is to provide all citizens with use values to satisfy a universal standard of basic needs (essentials), which determines the length of the necessary working day. This comprises not only shelter, basic food items, clean water supply, health care, education, and accessible public transport, but also child and elder care, parks and recreation, basic cultural and informational services, (possibly) ecological restoration activities, and the like.
Once any such set of essential needs is determined socially and mediated politically, the number of total (direct and indirect) labor hours socially necessary to produce these essentials can be easily calculated with the help of input-output data for a given set of technologies and labor processes. This total amount could then be distributed across the working-age population, taking social and political preferences, disabilities, and the principle of work rotation into account. This constitutes the realm of necessity or sphere of heteronomy, which constitutes the baseline labor required from each citizen in order to reproduce a universally granted, decent standard of living for all. It is, at the same time, the basis for the conviviality of an egalitarian society without struggle for essentials.
Note that each worker directly gets their share of labor-time after the deduction of the common funds for other social necessities (contingency planning, disaster preparedness, planned investment in scientific research and technological advance, and so forth). They can use their remaining labor-time funds to acquire products beyond immediate essentials, which implies working an additional number of hours, informed in turn by the labor time socially necessary to produce their additional demand. By implication, exchange (though not commodity exchange) could occur via digital labor certificates. The demand for essentials would be relatively stable over time, while the relationship between the supply of and demand for more personal, customized items could be easily tracked by an online network connecting all stores, alerting planning agencies in case of a change or imbalances.
Planned control of matter and energy use
What is at stake in planning is not abstract, alienated labor measured by monetary categories peculiar to capitalism, but labor producing use values in conscious, voluntary, and planned rotation. This is one of the distinctive features of socialism vis-à-vis diverse social imaginaries, which do not clearly aim to abolish capitalist commodity production. It is substantially different from demanding tax cuts (or tax raises for the rich), universal basic income, or constraints to commodification from an alienated, sublime authority. There is no ambiguity resulting from mystified categories of production and distribution (value and price; wage, interest, rent, and profit; productive and unproductive sectors; and so on).
The process of planning could be steered by a structure of nested councils, which connect various collective bodies from lower to higher levels of overview, where workers actively shape and validate diverse spatial and sectoral aspects of the overall plan. The aggregate use of energy and matter at any given time can be managed by constraints determined in a recursive fashion comprising bottom-up and top-down feedback mechanisms. These constraints would result from political processes of deliberation in the light of the scientific knowledge of the fullest possible range of consequences of our decisions, the pursuit of the precautionary principle (since such knowledge is characterized by uncertainties), the complexity of ecosystems, and the multiplicity of the evaluation criteria employed.7
In socialist planning, the fact that social labor will no longer be wasted in branches such as marketing and advertising, consulting, and financial services; accumulation strategies such as planned obsolescence and food waste will cease to exist; ecologically destructive industries (production of fossil fuels, arms, private jets, sport utility vehicles, and so forth) will be massively scaled down or curtailed entirely, combined with the complete abolition of unemployment and participation of all working citizens in producing and providing essentials discussed above, implies that the labor time associated with the realm of necessity will be significantly less than eight hours a day.
Depending on how narrowly or broadly the category of “essentials” is defined, its share in the sphere of production is roughly in the interval of 45 to 70 percent, with significant variation across countries.8 Thus, a direct implication of conscious steering of production is a significant reduction in the throughput of matter and energy associated with the cessation or phasing out of the activities mentioned above. This is a desired and expected outcome common to imaginaries of degrowth and socialism. A line of demarcation, however, persists when it comes to the question of institutionalizing degrowth: “Growth in the material standard of living means, well, growth in the use of materials (and energy). Whether the economy that produces such growth is capitalist, precapitalist, or socialist makes no difference.”9
We believe that a substantially higher amount of free time and the social and communal organization of reproductive labor, combined with the universal access to essential products in the broad sense (high-quality health, education, public transport, cultural and informational services, and parks and recreation facilities, in addition to other material aspects of life), do constitute a growth in the material standard of living for the vast majority of the global population. This is the instance where degrowth advocates, by adopting a notion of growth indifferent to the social form of organization, blur the relationship between quantity and quality, or perhaps, suppress the question of quality and reduce the discussion to the quantitative dimension.
The argument here is not that a socialist society would produce more of everything, and yet still not be ecologically destructive due to its qualitative distinction. The degrowth literature itself clearly argues that the question is not “more or less?” but rather “more of what and less of what?” Furthermore, it is beyond doubt that in some parts of the world most production activities need to be massively expanded to ensure a decent living standard, while in some other places, it is a question of modifying the scale, direction, and composition of production. In any event, however, it entails abolishing the capitalist mode of production in favor of a social formation where social (re)production is planned and steered consciously by empowered workers and citizens themselves. As admitted by its advocates, degrowth is a project tailored for the Global North where an imperial mode of living prevails. It is not a desirable and viable path for the Global South.10
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s reading of economic questions from a thermodynamic perspective, according to which all economic processes are irreversible and entropic, is a cornerstone of degrowth thought. Natural processes move in a definite direction and involve qualitative change insofar as all kinds of energy are gradually transformed into heat, and heat dissipates until it cannot be used.11 The question of whether the universe is finite and isolated or not, or whether the earth is a closed or an isolated system, is interesting in its own right and has significant implications on the interpretation of the entropy law in this context.12
It is worth noting that a Nobel laureate chemist, Frederick Soddy, first wrote about entropy in economics in 1926. Yet another Nobel laureate physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, pointed out that life is negative-entropy in 1944. Life is an action against entropy. It is organizing against disorder. The famous mathematician and engineer, Claude Shannon, discovered in 1948 that information, too, is a form of negative entropy. That is, information is an order out of disorder, conveying a message. As human bipedalism acts against gravity, our living, thinking, and communicating are against entropy, too.
To our current knowledge, the law of entropy, just like the law of gravity, is true for the observable universe. It has been valid for 13.8 billion years, the entire history of the universe, and will probably remain so in the future. Regardless of social formations and modes of production we adopt, the universe will keep moving toward disorder. One can surely make use of the entropy law to raise an ecological objection to the argument that there is no real limit to compound capitalist growth. However, as Georgescu-Roegen himself underlined, “the crucial error consists in not seeing that not only growth, but also a zero-growth state, nay, even a declining state which does not converge toward annihilation cannot exist forever in a finite environment.”13 No mode of production has a privileged position under a strict consideration of the entropy law.
This is why using the entropy card actually diverts attention from the real political task of exposing the capitalist mode of production in its totality—and not a transhistorical notion of growth as such—as the root cause of social, economic and ecological grievances. The application of a universal and transhistorical physics law to a given historical period as the definitive constraint is not helpful. We agree that biophysical indicators are crucial and must be taken into account in the planned production of use values. However, when it comes to the assumption that there are significant limits to diversify energy resources and increase energy return on (energy) investment in a sustainable way, why fall into such dismay?14 Why rule out the tapping of enormous energy flux to the earth’s surface at higher efficiency rates compared to photosynthesis or current technologies?
Our species was able to discover Albert Einstein’s energy-matter equation, why should it not be capable of applying it or other discoveries in different ways? A socialist society that can put its potential in use consciously, where research and the development of productive forces is not led by the profit motive but purposeful and deliberative decisions of direct producers, would certainly not count on future technologies to solve current social and ecological problems, but also not assume away the possibility and give up the pursuit of such advancement.
Beyond dichotomies: Planning and empowerment
As Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan admit in one of the most comprehensive and profound representations of degrowth, “the reality of planning itself—its primary actors, whether it is centralized or decentralized, participatory or imposed—is rarely engaged with [by degrowth thinkers].”15 This almost deliberate avoidance of the planning question can be partially attributed to the widespread reluctance of directly confronting capitalism as a mode of production. In a contribution to Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, a foundational text in this literature, this reluctance is attributed to three factors: first, the insistence of influential degrowth thinkers such as Serge Latouche on not taking capitalism as the principal object of critique; second, the importance attached by degrowth to voluntary association, decentralized and horizontal self-organization; and third, a tactical avoidance of the historical baggage that comes along with explicit anticapitalism and socialism.16
The same reluctance is remarkable when it comes to the questions of organization, use of force, and revolution. This is an important deficiency in the case for degrowth that cannot be overlooked. Be it with respect to the energy infrastructure and use, throughput, or making autonomous decisions on the size and composition of social product, all the aforementioned transitions at stake presuppose a substantial shift in power relations that entail (but are not confined to) the ownership of the means of production. The degrowth literature advocates a variety of strategies such as non-reformist reforms, nowtopias, counterhegemonic actions (blockades, interstitial spaces, and so on) that can coexist in a symbiotic way. The question of organization and the monopoly of the state over use of force is, however, neglected for the most part.17 Means of resistance and struggle, and “non-reformist reforms” under capitalism, are usually connected with the discussion of institutions and social processes belonging to a postcapitalist future, while the question of revolution is comfortably circumvented.
There is thus a tension between the growing interest in planning and socialism on the part of degrowth thinkers on the one hand, and the reluctance to contemplate a clear rupture with capitalism, and discuss planning as the central pillar of an alternative to the market mechanism on the other.18 We elaborate on three domains that pertain to this tension and stand out as running themes in the degrowth literature: localization, autonomy, and deliberation. We argue that degrowth thinkers draw attention to crucial issues, but their analyses usually remain one-sided and fail to tackle the totality of capitalism as a mode of production and, by implication, to offer a systemic alternative.
(Re)localization: Avoiding one-sidedness
(Re)localization of production is one of the fundamental principles of degrowth, defined as a “trajectory where the throughput (energy, materials and waste flows) of an economy decreases while welfare, or well-being, improves.”19 This implies meeting local needs by local production, or shorter production-trade-consumption circuits.20 What is at stake here is, arguably, more than the mere reduction of energy and waste associated with trade resulting from specialization and division of labor. It is connected to the equally important emphasis degrowth puts on decentralized structures and horizontal organization, which are assumed to be more compatible with local, small-scale production.
The first issue here is the problematization of scale rather than the underlying social relations. Instead of asking what set of class, property, and power relations give rise to unwarranted hierarchies attributed to large-scale organization, the latter is taken to be self-constituted. It is, however, worth remembering Murray Bookchin’s call for caution when it comes to presuming a direct relationship between scale and hierarchy: “Decentralism, small-scale communities, local autonomy, even mutual aid and communalism are not intrinsically ecological or emancipatory. Few societies were more decentralized than European feudalism, which in fact was structured around small-scale communities, mutual aid, and the communal use of land. Local autonomy was highly prized and autarchy formed the economic key to feudal communities. Yet few societies were more hierarchical.”21 Any given set of simple or complex technologies, small- or large-scale organizations, or local, regional, national, and even global structures, unspecified for social context and content, is necessarily either oppressive and exploitative on the one hand, or emancipatory on the other.
The second question that arises from a potentially extensive localization of production is that of the productivity loss associated with diminishing scale. Although this might be welcomed by degrowth thinkers at large since productivity and large-scale production are grasped as intrinsically related to the mindset of capital accumulation, we insist on distinguishing labor productivity from various notions of efficiency defined by criteria peculiar to capital accumulation. Socialism embraces an intended increase of labor productivity, and the development of productive forces in general.22 A reduction in labor productivity conflicts with another central objective of both the degrowth and socialist imaginary, namely, the shortening of the workday necessary for the reproduction of life.
The latter was discussed by Marx as the realm of necessity upon which the true realm of freedom can arise, and as the sphere of heteronomy, which cannot be abolished in any social formation, but can be organized “with the maximum efficiency and the least expenditure of effort and resources” in order to assure “the programmed and planned production of everything necessary to individual and social life.”23 According to Gorz and another pioneer of degrowth, Ivan Illich, the utmost expansion of the sphere of autonomy is conditioned by the use of complex tools and advanced technologies in the sphere of heteronomy.24 It is striking that this clear emphasis of two of the most influential degrowth pioneers escapes the attention of contemporary degrowth advocates.
Once the matter is grasped in terms of this dual conception of labor, and the intrinsic relationship between necessity and freedom, it becomes clear that what matters is the social relations of production that condition the character, quality, and relative importance of the two spheres. The main issue with the emphasis laid on localization is not the economic, geographical, or administrative scale. It is rather the one-sidedness of the argument in most of its forms.
Localness can only become an emancipatory virtue if it is nested in a broader, interwoven structure that is regulated and coordinated by collective bodies of workers. Interdependence of localities under socialism would not imply a power asymmetry or hierarchy between them, which is characteristic of capitalism, but rather represent the source of their collective power. For instance, anticipated disruptions in food production and projected shifts in agricultural practices due to the planetary crisis would not be met by local self-sufficiency under socialism, but rather, by a condensation of coordination at higher levels of planning, where a more global picture is available. The same can be said for the expansion and scaling up of agroecological food systems, ecological restoration, and earthcare labor.
The caveats raised above by no means imply that localization or localness has no place in socialism. We believe that socialism is not characterized by a mere replacement of the private ownership of means of production by social ownership and the abolition of the law of value in favor of planned production. It also entails the empowerment of workers and citizens, whose labor is constitutive of production, social reproduction, and environment-making.25 Such empowerment enhances the autonomy of direct producers to the maximum extent possible, yet does so without disregarding the necessity to integrate autonomous localities into a broader, harmonious, and coherent plan at various scales.
Autonomy: Whither capitalism?
Related to the emphasis on localization in degrowth thought is the centrality of the concept of autonomy.26 The link between the two spheres is rooted in the commitment to the notion that as the scale of economic activity grows, the ability to self-govern diminishes. Gorz, who coined the term décroissance in 1972, argues that what matters is not the hierarchical structure of the production process as such, but the elements that render such hierarchy necessary, namely, the scale of productive units, their interdependence, and the technical, social and regional division of labor that follows. Similarly, Illich argues that autonomy and self-governance without the mediation of experts presupposes small-scale systems and simple technologies.27 Large-scale social structures and big technologies are in conflict with autonomy and self-governance.
Following Cornelius Castoriadis and Latouche, the degrowth literature associates autonomy with the awareness on the part of the people, who they themselves make their own laws and history, rather than certain external authorities (such as God, the Church, and markets).28 In Latouche’s view, the “economy” as an ostensibly autonomous sphere with its own laws and tendencies, and particularly the imaginaries of growth and development (and not capitalism as such), is the main source of disruption.29 Thus, only by emancipating themselves from the addictive imaginary of growth and productivism and practicing conscious self-limitation can people set norms, rules, and values, and thereby establish autonomy and democracy.30
Local experiences of self-organization and self-governance are valuable and instructive. However, the pursuit of autonomy as a revolutionary practice in a capitalist context has its limits. True autonomy, in its own right, is not possible as the sphere of autonomy is bound up and thus conditioned by the very forces from which it claims to be autonomous.31 If capital and the state are grasped as static, hierarchical, and oppressive entities rather than relations, and if the conflictual processes that are both effector and outcome of these relations are not directly targeted and abolished, the best that can be achieved is a suppression of the negative outcomes. Yet that which is repressed returns.32
Autonomy from the state and capital (as a social relation) presumes the persistence of the latter two. As such, the project of autonomy affirms the hegemony of capital through its limited and partial negation, and thereby becomes part and parcel of this hegemony. This is not to reject or underrate the invaluable experiences of La Vía Campesina, the EZLN, or the autonomous Kurdish administration in Rojava, and the like. All these experiences are characterized by idiosyncrasies and contain crucial lessons that are worth learning from in their own right. All of them, however, share the common ground of being surrounded, or even besieged, by the social, economic, and military forces from which they aim to be autonomous. Avoiding market relations and commodification (partial decommodification without abolishing commodity production) does not imply abolishing the relations of production. Thus, the question of the totality of capitalism as a mode of production, including its historically specific state form, can perhaps be suppressed, but not avoided for good.
A maximum possible degree of self-management and autonomy (at diverse scales) is a desired and necessary feature of a socialist society. What the “self” is autonomous from is substantially different, though. It is not the juggernaut of capital accumulation, not the social relation of capital that leaks into and bundles up all dimensions of being and life, but rather higher and more central levels of coordination, planning, and management. The very existence of the latter is a taboo for most degrowth thinkers, as it is associated with hierarchical structures that are presumed to undermine autonomy. The integration of lower and local units into a nested structure of councils and planning instances, however, does not necessarily negate or suppress the local or its autonomy.
The local and the central presuppose each other to operate effectively and harmoniously: on the one hand, in the absence of structures that oversee the overall system making use of all available information, local units can fall into dissonance, and the resulting disturbances can threaten the whole system. On the other hand, sacrificing workers’ self-management starting with the workplace level and imposing a purely centralized decision-making process not only risks the system by reducing its flexibility and adaptive capacity, but also surrenders the very political content of socialism.33 The political process of self-constitution and self-management, also referred to as deliberation in the degrowth literature, thus requires both autonomous and integrated, local and central instances simultaneously.
Deliberation: The collective worker reappropriating general intellect
Deliberation stands for the notion that decisions, including in the environmental context, are made through social institutions and processes that involve participation by all potentially affected parties. Above all, this deliberative process implies that needs, desires, and valuations are not taken as a given, but brought about by a social process of negotiation that is constitutive of subjectivity. In other words, deliberation and self-management are not mere means, but also ends in themselves. A further advantage of such a process is to reveal diverging or conflicting valuations pertaining to different dimensions of the environment and social product. This is essential according to degrowth thinkers, since there is no single scale by which various values and qualities can be measured, expressed, or calibrated. Use-value incommensurability necessitates multiple evaluation criteria in combination with the existing scientific knowledge.34
A shortcoming of the discussions around deliberation in degrowth literature is that they remain unclear as to how (or whether) the class-based power relations will be transformed or abolished. It is ambiguous whether the contentious and negotiated terrain of the institutions of democratic decision mechanisms will still be based on clashing class interests or mere “individuals” and “affected parties” who are willing to participate. This is crucial since this process itself is actually the forming of organizational means and the empowerment of the masses for participation. Questions of deliberation and planning crucially depend on whether or not a rupture with existing power and property relations has taken place (or is envisioned), and what the means of this rupture were.
One such experience of self-organization was the soviets and workers councils that formed in class struggle as the means of taking over social production in the period leading up to the October Revolution. The collective worker (Gesamtarbeiter), producing different parts of the total social production, united in the councils and soviets, formed higher coordination institutions, and delegated the control over production to central councils and planning. This system of delegation was different from planning through top-down control. Central planning did not exclude local initiatives, negotiations, and deliberation. Furthermore, it was not perceived as a purely technical question about numbers, or designated as the area of expertise of learned scholars.35
For a constructive discussion with degrowth thinkers leaning toward deliberative planning, we would like to point to the Soviet experience as an assembly of collective workers, planning across scales, unifying different segments of working people (manufacturing, logistics, engineers, scientists, and so on) beyond their partial class interests—that is, as an attempt to unify the proletariat as a whole in controlling social (re)production. With all its shortcomings, as well as strengths and achievements (the latter are usually neglected, if not dismissed, by most degrowth thinkers), this history is rife with lessons for those pondering planning as a systemic alternative to capitalist commodity production.
A century later, the reach of the collective worker had expanded significantly. So did the knowledge pertaining to the totality of social (re)production. Data are extracted not only in the production process, but also other circuits of the cycle, from production to consumption and to daily life in the form of data extractivism and consumer profiling. This, once divorced from its capitalist form, enhances our ability to contemplate an alternative society. Most importantly, workers as a whole can reappropriate the production process and its knowledge. This implies the reappropriation of the general intellect produced by the collective worker and their self-organizations (soviets, assemblies, councils, and the like).
With respect to the crucial problem of ecological boundaries—and questions of scale and biophysical limits—scientific knowledge stands out as a central pillar. It is true that in our capitalist societies, science can at times be glorified as the ultimate judge and employed to shepherd people, and at other times, be totally disregarded as it pleases capital accumulation. However, emerging currents such as science communication, public understanding of science, open science, citizen science, and free software movements do represent an alternative in embryonic form. Environmental decisions, and by implication, production decisions, need to be informed by science, but remain primarily social and political processes. The deliberation process must involve assemblies of collective labor, united councils representing the (re)production of life, including science workers as well as others who now possess knowledge of socialized production.
What is referred to as deliberation in the degrowth literature is, by all means, a central tenet of empowerment of workers. Coexistence and clashes of partial interests, the political processes through which such interests and valuations (of the social product, environmental impacts, and the like) are mediated, and how agencies are constructed and enabled, must be discussed and explored in practice by real movements. Yet equally important are structures and processes that will oversee the viability and facilitate adaptation of the overall system in case of sharp conflicts and possible obstruction, as was in the case of propertied peasantry in the aftermath of 1917 and 1949. Issues correctly identified as crucial (autonomy and deliberation) by degrowth were not missing in practical experiences of twentieth-century socialist planning. That there were significant shortcomings and mistakes is beyond doubt. This, however, should not be an excuse to take a distance from socialism, but rather an opportunity to learn from it.
An alternative egalitarian society cannot be the design of the intellect. It must be based on existing, real movements and conflicts, and result from the premises now in existence. Degrowth identifies and feeds off of various movements and practices, autonomous spaces, and laboratories that build people’s power and counterhegemony—all of which are very valuable. Yet, what it lacks is a clearly revolutionary vision and commitment to tackle the capitalist mode of production in its totality. Although it is not the subject of this piece, degrowth remains ambiguous as to the questions of organization, the use of force, and the revolutionary moment of rupture. Regarding the mechanisms and processes of planning to displace capitalist commodity production, it shies away from confronting the need to ground and complement local, autonomous instances with larger-scale, central ones. It fetishizes growth, transplants it from its capitalist context, and hence fails to grasp qualitative differences between capitalism and socialism as distinct modes of production.
All this does not mean that socialism and degrowth are absolutely incompatible. There are, however, important discrepancies in means and ends, which are worth debating. We hope that this piece contributes to such consideration and discourse.
Güney Işıkara is a Clinical Assistant Professor at New York University, Liberal Studies. Özgür Narin is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ordu University in Ordu, Türkiye.
- Michael Löwy, “Ecosocialism and/or Degrowth?,” Climate and Capitalism, October 8, 2020; Michael Löwy, Bengi Akbulut, Sabrina Fernandes, and Giorgos Kallis, “For an Ecosocialist Degrowth,” Monthly Review 73, no. 11 (April 2022): 56–58; Jason Hickel and Samuel Miller-McDonald, “Ecosocialism is the Horizon, Degrowth is the Way: A Review of Less Is More and an Interview with Jason Hickel,” The Trouble (blog), February 11, 2021; Paul Murphy and Jess Spear, “The Necessity of Ecosocialist Degrowth,” Global Ecosocialist Network, June 4, 2022; Timothée Parrique and Giorgos Kallis, “Socialism without Growth,” Brave New Europe (blog), February 10, 2021.
- André Gorz, Strategies for Labor (Boston: Beacon, 1967); Ekaterina Chertkovskaya, Alexander Paulsson, and Stefania Barca, Towards a Political Economy of Degrowth (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019); Jason Hickel, Less Is More (London: Windmill Books, 2020); Giorgos Kallis, Degrowth (Newcastle: Agenda, 2018); Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa, and Federico Demaria, The Case for Degrowth (Cambridge: Polity, 2020).
- Hickel, Less Is More; Matthias Schmelzer, The Hegemony of Growth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
- Kallis, Degrowth, 73.
- Kallis, Degrowth, 73.
- Giorgos Kallis, “Socialism without Growth,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 30, no. 2 (2017), 190.
- Planning for Entropy, “Democratic Economic Planning, Social Metabolism and the Environment,” Science & Society 86, no. 2 (2022): 291–313.
- These figures include the production of means of production necessary to produce the essentials. Details can be found in Güney Işıkara, “The Weight of Essentials in Economic Activity,” Review of Radical Political Economics 53, no. 1 (2021): 95–115.
- Giorgos Kallis “Capitalism, Socialism, Degrowth: A Rejoinder,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 30, no. 2 (2019), 267.
- Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan, The Future Is Degrowth (New York: Verso, 2022), 25.
- Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, “Energy and Economic Myths,” Southern Economic Journal 41, no. 3 (1975): 347–81.
- David Schwartzman, “The Limits to Entropy,” Science & Society 72, no. 1 (2008): 43–62.
- Georgescu-Roegen, “Energy and Economic Myths,” 367.
- Kallis, Degrowth, 80.
- Schmelzer, Vetter, and Vansintjan, The Future Is Degrowth, 295.
- Diego Andreucci and Terrence McDonough, “Capitalism,” in Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, eds. Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis (New York: Routledge, 2015), 59–62.
- Schmelzer, Vetter, and Vansintjan, The Future Is Degrowth, 276.
- Cédric Durand, Elena Hofferberth, and Matthias Schmelzer, “Planning beyond Growth,” Political Economy Working Paper 2023/1, January 25, 2023; Parrique and Kallis, “Socialism without Growth”; Löwy et al., “For an Ecosocialist Degrowth”; Schmelzer, Vetter, and Vansintjan, The Future Is Degrowth.
- Kallis, Degrowth, 9.
- Serge Latouche, Farewell to Growth (Cambridge: Polity, 2009), 37–38; Kallis, Degrowth, 119.
- Murray Bookchin, “Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology,” Green Perspectives, no. 4–5 (Summer 1987).
- Although the term productive forces is usually reduced to technology and productivity, its content is broader than that. See Güney Işıkara and Özgür Narin, “The Potentials and Limits of Computing Technologies for Socialist Planning,” Science & Society 86, no. 2 (2022): 269–90 for a discussion of productive forces.
- Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 959; André Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class (London: Pluto, 1997), 94–104, 97.
- Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class, 96.
- Işıkara and Narin, “The Potentials and Limits of Computing Technologies for Socialist Planning.”
- D’Alisa, Demaria, and Kallis, Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era.
- Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class, 30. Similarly, Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (New York: Harper and Row, 1973).
- Kallis, Degrowth, 5.
- Latouche, Farewell to Growth.
- Bengi Akbulut, “Degrowth,” Rethinking Marxism 33, no. 1 (2021), 101; Schmelzer, Vetter, and Vansintjan, The Future Is Degrowth, 203–4.
- Steffen Böhm, Ana C. Dinerstein, and André Spicer, “(Im)possibilities of Autonomy,” Social Movement Studies 9, no. 1 (2010): 17–32.
- Özgür Narin, “Otonomi Üzerine Değiniler [Some Thoughts on Autonomy]” in Karşı İşgal, eds. Deniz Gürler and Ayşegül Sandıkçıoğlu Gürler (Istanbul: Siyah Beyaz Yayınları, 2016), 227–39.
- Işıkara and Narin, “The Potentials and Limits of Computing Technologies for Socialist Planning,” 285.
- Planning for Entropy, “Democratic Economic Planning.”
- The fate of planning in the USSR is not in scope of this article. It is a world-historic event of abolishing (not avoiding) capitalist relations of production and property, and an unprecedented experience of planning of social production in a large territory. However, neither did the bottom-up dynamism of workers’ and peasants’ assemblies persist, nor could the antagonism between intellectual and manual labor be eliminated. Most people hence perceive planning as a technocratic process “and as a distant way of managing resources and alienating people’s life.” Durand, Hofferberth, and Schmelzer, “Planning beyond Growth.”