Saturday, June 03, 2023

Kallis, Paulson, D'Alisa & Demaria - The Case for Degrowth

The Case for Degrowth is an attempt at an engaging and straightforward, no nonsense, guide to "degrowth" for the environmentalist and left movements. Unfortunately, among the plethora of books about degrowth that have been published recently, it is the least convincing and offers little that is new to the reader. As a first look at degrowth it would probably be of use, particularly for readers who want something accessible, but even here I think it is limited because it doesn't offer a believable strategy for challenging capitalism.

In the preface the authors highlight that the book has come together in its final stages during the Covid pandemic and the reality of Covid shines through the book - not just because it is another demonstration of the failure of a capitalist system, but because Covid also offered a myriad of examples of how people around the world offered support, solidarity and community organising to protect themselves and their health. The authors then make the case for degrowth which they say means:

facing the fundamental challenge of managing political economies without growth during and after the pandemic: how to demobilise parts of the capitalist economy while securing the provisioning of basic goods and services, experimenting with resource-light ways of enjoying ourselves and finding positive meanings in life. 


takes organising and a confluence of alliances and circumstances to ensure that it won't be the environment and workers who pay the bill [for degrowth] but those who profited most from the growth that preceded this disaster.

I will return to these words later in this review, as I think they are indicative of the problem with the book's approach. Capitalism is a system based on endless growth. This growth arises out of the two great rifts in capitalist society - that between the exploiters and exploited and the competition between the capitalists themselves. The exploitation of labour by the capitalists results in surplus value, which the capitalists must reinvest in their production process, because they need to constantly stay ahead of their competitors. This drive for growth sees the constant accumulation of wealth: "Moses and the Prophets" as Marx said. I emphasise this, because it is also the understanding of growth used by the authors of this piece:

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. Capitalism without growth is plausible; in a stagnant, even shrinking, economy, some companies and individuals could continue to profit. But this is hardly a desirable or stable scenario. 

Thus capitalism is a system based on growth, and the problem for activists is that the system itself organises to protect this ambition. Challenges to the capitalist desire for accumulation either within sectors (eg attempts to reduce the fossil fuel industry), across the whole thing - eg by the revolutionary transformation of society or even to reduce profits (such as by increasing taxes) are met by resistance. The capitalist state is not a neutral force, rather it is a set of institutions and organisations dedicated to protecting the interests of the capitalists. Thus the challenge for degrowth proponents is not demonstrating the threat from a system based on endless growth, or evening winning the argument (as the authors here do well) that we need to degrow parts of the economy. It is actually that we have to show how we can build social forces that can win the changes we need while defeating the counter-forces that protect capitalism. 

The strategy outlined by the authors here is essentially to create spaces of communal relations that are not based on growth and by doing so win wider and wider parts of the economy to a degrowth principle. But the capitalists do not like growth simply because they are greedy. They are compelled to do so, because of the nature of their system. Take the example of Allende's reforming government in Chile in 1973. There mild reforms provoked Chile's capitalists to support a military coup against the regime. The mild reforms on offer threatened very little of Chile's growth, but they were enough of a danger to see General Pinochet, with the tacit backing of the CIA and Margaret Thatcher, slaughter Allende and thousands of his supporters and introduce a neoliberal regime designed to maximise growth in the interests of the rich. How do the authors' propose to deal with such threats - we are not really offered strategies. Instead we are told to "demobilise parts of the economy" by building networks of solidarity and communal living - I've nothing against that. But it will not be enough to defeat capitalism and its destruction of our world. In fact the vision offered here feels distinctly Utopian:

As collective bodies and minds change, the personal becomes political. An individual's voluntary shift from a weekend spent shopping abroad to one picking olives with friends in a community grove, from an evening watching TV to one playing with neighborhood children, may not directly slow the global growth machine, nor revert climate change. However, new habits alter the ways we develop human potential day by day, thereby influencing environments through which family, neighbors, students, colleagues and others continually develop their potentials. Producing new kinds of people and relationships is fundamental to any cultural transformation and great transition.

Socialists argue for revolution not for the sake of revolution, but because a socialist society will be based on networks of workplace and community democratic organisations that will arise out of the struggle itself. In doing so, those mass revolutionary movements create the social and economic forces that are capable of defeating the capitalist state. The authors' recognise that the strategy of degrowth they outline is not necessarily attratcive to those with the least. They quote Beatriz Rodriguez-Labajos, "In parts of Africa, Latin American and many other regions of the Global South, including poor and marginalised communities in Northern countries, the term degrowth is not appealing and does not match people's demands." 

This is because those with very little urgently need more - and that requires a strategy of working out how to rest wealth and power from the rich and equally distribute and control it democratically. That can only come from mass movements based on the power of organised workers. This essentially is the argument I put in my book Socialism or Extinction. Arguing for revolutionary may seem hard work - but it is the concrete strategy needed to defeat capitalism and create a sustainable, just world.

Related Reviews

Hickel - Less is More: How Degrowth will save the World
Foster - Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution
Schmelzer, Vetter & Vansintjan - The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism

No comments: