Written by Timothée Parrique and Giorgos Kallis and first published at Brave New Europe
Notable (eco)socialists have recently criticized the idea of degrowth 1. Here we want to argue that such criticism is misplaced. Growth is a problem over and above capitalism. A sustainable eco-socialism should reject any association with the ideology and terminology of growth. 21st century socialists should start thinking how we can plan for societies that prosper without growth. Like it not, growth is bound to come to an end, the question is how; and whether this will happen soon or too late to avert planetary disasters.
Any form of endless growth is ecologically unsustainable
The typical socialist response to degrowth is that it is capitalism, and capitalist growth, that are the problem, not economic growth. But here’s the thing: no economic growth can be sustainable. An increase in material living standards will require, well, more materials. This is independent of whether the economy at stake is capitalist, socialist, anarchist, or primitive.
Growth in the material standard of living requires growth in the extraction of materials and the excretion of pollution (growth in the standard of living in general does not; we discuss this below). Result: as of today – and very likely tomorrow as well – economic growth strongly correlates with energy and material use, at the global level which is the only one that shows the full picture in a globalised economy.
Leading Marxist theorist David Harvey calls the idea of compound growth the madness of economic reason, and the most lethal of capitalism’s lethal contradictions (which makes us wonder why would socialists spend their time trying to salvage this madness). To see how mad it is, consider the following.
An innocent 3% growth each year, means a doubling of the economy every 24 years, some ten times bigger by the end of the century, quickly growing to an infinite size. Substitute the economy with whatever you like (‘energy’, ‘water’, ‘bicycles’, ‘massages’). The idea of infinity is pure madness, full stop. It is the generalisation of the logic of individual capitalists who expect to pocket their 3-5% return every year, rain or shine. But it is not something that a society can sustain for long.
Some socialists dream of a Fully Automated Luxury Communism where new technologies enable the absolute decoupling of economic output from the environment. So far, this has not happened, not even close, and there are doubts as to whether the future holds better prospects. Like it or not, economies too have to obey the laws of physics.
For example, thermodynamics tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed but only transformed, and that its quality moves inexorably towards a less usable or useful state. This means there is no silver-bullet technology that can make an increase in the material standard of living immaterial – economy is fundamentally embedded within ecology.
Of course, certain activities are more nature-intensive than others; and so potentially these could grow for a longer period without disrupting the biosphere. For example, fossil fuels are more disruptive than solar energy. But that does not mean solar energy opens the door to boundless growth. A better organisation of production and new technologies can increase productivity and lead to a relative decoupling with less resources used per product – e.g. more efficient solar panels.
But if the quantity of solar panels increases at a compound rate without limit, it will, one day, start to put pressure on either resource availability or lead to ecological damage. In other words, nothing material can be infinite, regardless of whether the economy is capitalist, socialist, or anything else in between.
Furthermore, it is one thing to decarbonise with renewable energies an energy system at its current size, or one fifth of it (a reduction in energy use which studies show is feasible with existing sufficiency and efficiency measures), and another to decarbonise a system that has grown ten times bigger by the end of the century (remember 3% growth per year).
Our suggestion: democratic socialist planning would have to consider the constraining requirement of a degrowth use of energy and materials. This is not too much of a problem because, as we will soon argue, many of the activities that are heavy in energy and materials today do not need to exist under socialism.
There is too much superfluous activity under capitalism, which serves nothing else but the need of capitalists to extract surplus value and make profits. The goal instead should be socialism without growth, a sustainable socialism – an economic system that manages to satisfy the needs of its people without clinging to capitalist ideas of constant expansion and without of course overshooting planetary limits.
Growth requires accumulation and accumulation comes with exploitation
There is another problem. In the same way that economic growth is facing ecological limits, it is also facing social ones. Capitalists make a profit exploiting wage earners (surplus value in Marxist terms), and also exploiting the unpaid work of an array of people, especially women doing unpaid care and housework, who ensure the socio-natural reproduction of the work force for free.
Capital also relies on ‘free gifts of nature’ (free only from its perspective), which alongside unpaid care and housework keep the price of means of production and labour power cheap, allowing capital to squeeze surplus value. In effect, economic growth under capitalism often occurs at the expense of the social fabric, as it relies on systematic exploitation and cost shifting.
By not accounting for reproduction factors, such as rest, affection, caring, security, and the providing of sustenance, production can too easily lead to their depletion. For example, working full-time leaves little time for activities that are unpaid such as those which are key for social reproduction. As production increases, it will stretch the capacity for a society to reproduce its livelihood.
Continued unabated, this accumulation via social deterioration comes to erode factors of reproduction that are crucial for all forms of production. Like a snake biting its own tail, economic growth is limited because it is inevitably based on the unsustainable exploitation of reproductive labour and ecosystem provisioning.
If socialism means the end of exploitation, it also means the end of endless accumulation. Again: this is socialism without growth. A genuine socialist economy would not exploit the work or resources of other economies; it would share care work evenly, rotate unpleasant tasks and compensate care workers with their dues for their reproductive work. With no one – humans and non-humans – being exploited, the economy would simply produce the goods and services it needs, channelling productivity gains into more free time.
Some socialists try to square the circle here, when they argue that socialism would be able to both end exploitation, and grow the economy as much or even more than capitalism. Sorry, but this is pure fantasy. If socialist production has to pay for the true labour time of producers, and for the true time necessary for ecosystems to recover and recuperate, or if human labour time has to be expended instead of ‘free gifts of nature’ that will be left unexploited, then there will be less surplus, and less surplus can only mean less growth of output.
A genuine socialism will also be democratic, one would like to think. True democracy slows things down (those participating in the assemblies of their local cooperatives know what we’re talking about). Again to think that all this slowing down will lead to acceleration and not deceleration of production is truly wishful thinking.
Use values do not grow
The good news is that we can have prosperity without growth. In fact, it has been shown empirically that the main indicators of living standards, including well-being, health, and education, cease to increase after a certain threshold of output is reached – some call it the Well-being Turning Point. For example, Portugal has significantly better social outcomes than the United States, with 65% less GDP per capita. This is because welfare depends on the satisfaction of actual use values, expressing human needs, and not on the endless accumulation of money.
Socialists know this well: GDP is not a measure of use values, but one of exchange values. The indicator does not distinguish between desirable and undesirable activities. On top of that, it ignores all that is non-monetary (including nature and unpaid work), neglects the value of intangible wealth, and does not account for inequality. What GDP measures is the welfare of capitalism, not people.
Of course, the provision of certain useful goods and services must increase and should increase under socialism. However, let us not talk about “growth” for improvements in things like health, mobility, or education. These are not quantitative goals but qualitative ones. Children might need a freer and more holistic, polytechnic education. This requires a finite number of school buildings, teachers, and pens. Patients may need more human contact and care by their doctors; what they need is not an infinitely increasing compound rate of care, but just enough to feel better. People who do not have bikes need one bike – not a yearly increase of 3% in the production of bikes, forever.
The point is that use values do not grow at a compound rate. Fundamental human needs like subsistence, protection, freedom, or identity can all be understood as thresholds of sufficiency: enough food to be healthy, enough living space to be happy, enough means of mobility to feel free, etc. The story of endless consumption to match endless needs is a capitalist discourse, created precisely to legitimate accumulation for the elite.
And this is the central argument of degrowth: standards of living can improve without growth by redistributing and sharing wealth, doing away with artificial desires and the superfluous goods and appropriation of our time destined to the making of profit, and by shifting from valuing material goods to valuing relations. There is already enough for everyone to have a decent share – if the pie cannot grow, then it is time to share it more evenly.
Conclusions: Degrowth is as anti-capitalist as it gets
The ideology of growth has become the powerhouse of modern capitalism and we do not understand why some socialists are reluctant to join the battle against a phenomenon that is socially divisive and ecologically unsustainable. A socialism without growth but with well-being. Socialism and degrowth are two of the most powerful concepts we have to criticise capitalism and open-up different futures.
As is evident by now, we do use the C-word, a lot. Certain Marxist commentators have accused degrowth of never explicitly questioning capitalism. Phillips (2015) depicts degrowth as a “small-scale steady-state capitalism.” The degrowth project some would think resembles the film Downsizing (2017), where exuberant consumerism is made environmentally possible by shrinking people down to a few centimetres.
So, let us be clear: degrowth is not miniature capitalism with tiny corporations, tiny speculative financial instruments, and tiny free trade agreements. It is not austerity within capitalism. It is an alternative system of provision altogether – not just smaller and slower, but different.
You may ask why focus on growth and not just capitalism? Well, try to compare the occurrence of “economic growth” versus “capital accumulation” in the news. As Gareth Dale has forcefully argued, economic growth is the ideology that has turned the specific interest of capital to grow (for returns, and for keeping social peace) into a generalized social objective assimilated by the population.
This is not an ideology that will go away by refusing to confront it or beautifying it with nice adjectives. The fact that this ideology survived even the end of capitalism (or at least of a certain type of capitalism) in ex-socialist regimes should give pause for thought. Socialists who defend growth must also think twice whether they are redwashing capital, redressing the dreams that capitalism sells as socialist dreams.
Growth is the child of capitalism, but the child grew up and took over the head of the family. Capitalism’s interest in accumulation is promoted and legitimised through – and in the name of – “growth.” The critique of growth is the most fundamental critique of capitalism – one that criticises not only the means capitalism uses but the very ends it sells. This makes degrowth and (eco)socialism natural allies, not adversaries.
1 Most recently, “Ecosocialism and/or Degrowth?” by Michael Löwy (Oct. 2020), the “IMT theses on the climate crisis” published on the website In Defence of Marxism (Jun. 2020), and the lecture in “Degrowth and neo-Malthusianism: A socialist response” (Oct. 2020) by Olivia Rickson. And ‘How much stuff is just enough’ by Leigh Phillips at the Monde Diplomatique (https://mondediplo.com/2021/02/11degrowth).
Giorgos Kallis is an environmental scientist working on ecological economics, political ecology, and water policy. He teaches political ecology and ecological economics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and recently co-edited the book “The Case for Degrowth”
Timothée Parrique holds a PhD in economics from the Centre d’Études et de Recherches sur le Développement (University of Clermont Auvergne, France) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm University, Sweden)