An End to Growth? Beyond the productivist bias of the historical left

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  • user warning: Table 'cache_views_data' is marked as crashed and should be repaired query: UPDATE cache_views_data SET data = 'a:3:{s:6:\"result\";a:2:{i:0;O:8:\"stdClass\":5:{s:3:\"nid\";s:4:\"7934\";s:10:\"node_title\";s:86:\"Divorce .. Undermining the family? ( WSM pamphlet from 1st Divorce Referendum in 1986)\";s:21:\"node_revisions_teaser\";s:955:\"<p><img alt=\"\" src=\"/sites/default/files/divorce-cover1986.png\" style=\"width: 356px; height: 428px; border-width: 1px; border-style: solid; margin: 3px; float: right;\" />This pamphlet was produced by the Workers Solidarity Movement in the weeks before the 1986 referendum on whether or not to remove the constitutional ban on divorce. The vote was lost by a margin of almost 2:1, with 935,843 (63.48%) voting to keep the ban and 538,279 (36.52%) to remove it. A second referendum in 1995 saw the ban finally scrapped, with a result of 818,842 (50.28%) to 809,728 (49.72%).</p>\r\n<p>Alone on the far left, the WSM was heavily involved in this campaign and had two members elected to the National Executive of the Divorce Action Group. At the time they described their motivation as being to &ldquo;increase personal freedoms&rdquo; and &ldquo;challenge the power of the Catholic bishops&rdquo;. &nbsp;Read the full text of the pamphlet in the article.</p>\r\n\";s:21:\"node_revisions_format\";s:1:\"2\";s:7:\"_random\";s:20:\"0.021472333950430467\";}i:1;O:8:\"stdClass\":5:{s:3:\"nid\";s:4:\"8460\";s:10:\"node_title\";s:29:\"Common Threads Issue 1 - 2016\";s:21:\"node_revisions_teaser\";s:1699:\"<div>\r\n <img alt=\"\" src=\"/sites/default/files/Common%20Threads%20cover.jpg\" style=\"width: 300px; height: 425px; float: right;\" />The first edition of the new magazine from the Workers Solidarity Movement, Common Threads.</div>\r\n<div>\r\n &nbsp;</div>\r\n<div>\r\n <u><strong>Contents:</strong></u></div>\r\n<div>\r\n 1. <a href=\"http://www.wsm.ie/c/city-ireland-eco-transport-struggle\">A City in Common: The Radical Potential of Ireland&#39;s Eco-Transport Struggles</a></div>\r\n<div>\r\n <div>\r\n 2.&nbsp;<a href=\"http://www.wsm.ie/c/political-personal-pro-choice-ireland\">The political and personal landscape of choice in Ireland</a></div>\r\n <div>\r\n 3.&nbsp;<a href=\"http://www.wsm.ie/c/water-charge-history-ireland-rebellion\">From apathy to rebellion: the water war in Ireland</a></div>\r\n <div>\r\n 4. <a href=\"http://www.wsm.ie/c/border-crisis-migration-europe-interview\">Border Crisis: Migration and Europe</a></div>\r\n <div>\r\n 5.&nbsp;<a href=\"http://www.wsm.ie/c/marriage-equality-referendum-victory-ireland\">Yes Equality?</a></div>\r\n <div>\r\n 6.&nbsp;<a href=\"http://www.wsm.ie/c/domination-capitalism-economic-crises\">Domination, Capitalism, and Economic Cris</a>es</div>\r\n <div>\r\n 7.&nbsp;<a href=\"http://www.wsm.ie/c/introduction-anarchism-2016\">What Is Anarchism</a>?</div>\r\n <div>\r\n 8.&nbsp;<a href=\"http://www.wsm.ie/c/interview-belfast-co-operatives-2016\">Interview: Belfast Co-operatives</a></div>\r\n <div>\r\n 9.&nbsp;<a href=\"http://www.wsm.ie/c/howto-organise-meeting\">Notes on organising meetings</a></div>\r\n</div>\r\n<div>\r\n &nbsp;</div>\r\n<div>\r\n [<a href=\"http://www.wsm.ie/sites/default/files/CommonThreadsIssue1.pdf\">Download, print and distribute the PDF</a>]</div>\r\n<div>\r\n &nbsp;</div>\r\n\";s:21:\"node_revisions_format\";s:1:\"2\";s:7:\"_random\";s:19:\"0.03409512809859135\";}}s:10:\"total_rows\";i:73;s:5:\"pager\";a:5:{s:9:\"use_pager\";s:1:\"0\";s:14:\"items_per_page\";i:2;s:7:\"element\";i:0;s:6:\"offset\";i:1;s:12:\"current_page\";i:0;}}', created = 1565434725, expire = 1565435025, headers = '', serialized = 1 WHERE cid = 'Random_PDF:block_1:results:d701b49486a84d4cd29efe1b1fbdd8e3' in /var/www/public/includes/cache.inc on line 112.
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Capitalism is making you fat. Capitalism is also destroying the environment. These two things are more closely connected than you might think. Not all growth is good. Certainly the growth of people’s waistlines and indexes of body fat have lead scientists and health professionals to warn of a global obesity epidemic. 65% of the world’s population now live in countries where being overweight kills more people than being underweight. Worldwide obesity has nearly doubled since 1980 and 1.4 billion adults over 20 are now overweight.

The notion of an obesity epidemic has been around for a few decades now and has traditionally been most associated with the world’s global superpower, the USA. But the first thing we need to note about current statistics is that they very clearly indicate that this is definitely not a “first world problem”. Today the country with the highest levels of obesity is not the USA, but it’s much poorer next door neighbour Mexico.
 
Opinion is divided on the causes of the epidemic, however there is some interesting recent science around the role of refined sugars, particularly high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and the combination of added fats and sugars in processed food as regards the suppression of the body’s natural appetite control system. The simplified version is that our appetite is controlled by hormones, including leptin which signals we are “full” and ghrelin that we want more. 
 
It appears that refined sugars and HFCS interfere with the normal hormonal response to rising blood glucose and interfere with the action of the “fullness” hormone leptin, encouraging overeating. Similarly recent tests on mice that provided “as much as you can eat” feeders with fat or sugar alongside ordinary food, found that when either were available on their own the mice did not overeat. But when a mixture of fat and sugar together was available, the mice overate to become obese. The greatest overeating was produced with a roughly 50/50 mix, which not-so-coincidentally is similar to the kind of proportions of added fats and sugars found in many processed foods. Again the mechanism appears to be the interference with the normal interaction of the appetite balancing hormones.
 
So why does contemporary food science have such a strong emphasis on producing processed foods that “hack” our bodies’ natural satiety process in order to encourage us to overeat? Simply put, because in the capitalist system, individual food producing enterprises are driven to sell as much of their particular product as possible, regardless of whether this meets human needs or represents an efficient use of resources available for all sectors of production. The more the McDonald’s of the world can convince us to “go large” (and thus become so), the more sales they make and the more profit they make.
 
So fat is not only a feminist issue, but also a capitalist issue. And who says capitalist issue, also says class issue, and this in fact is visible both in the statistics and the street. It is not the richest sections of society that are most at risk from the obesity trend, but the poorest. In fact in countries with the most extreme inequalities between rich and poor, such as in the USA, you can virtually read people’s income bracket from their size. Within Europe the latest figures from the WHO are that the countries with the highest figures for overweight 11-year olds are Greece (33%),  Portugal (32%), Ireland and Spain (both 30%).
 
To a reader of the German tabloid Bild, that fact that the PIGS are the Eurozone’s most overweight countries is yet one more confirmation of the widely-held view in the core countries that the economic problems of Ireland and our peripheral brethren is due to an excess of greed and a lack of industriousness and protestant work ethic. But to anyone experiencing the troika-imposed yoke of austerity, the connection between poor nutrition and poverty is painfully clear. Keeping the children fed on a vanishing family budget means going for the cheapest food, which is also the most processed and most fattening. Patronising millionaire celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver notwithstanding, this is an economic issue, not an education one. This mismatch between a moralising discourse on individual sinfulness (greed, sloth) as the source of the problem and, on the contrary, a more materialist focus on the economic pressures on people to take the cheapest and worst options, is one we will be looking at again in the ecological debate.
 
Profiting from the planet
 
The logic of selling more and more food and drink, well beyond the limits of natural appetite and nutritional needs, is the same logic that drives all capitalist business. Overall the way to increase profits is to sell more units. Overall this means an ever-increasing consumption of natural resources, and the associated increased carbon and other pollutant release. Or at least that is what has happened so far. The life and death question is whether this trend of ever-increasing capitalist growth will and must necessarily, lead to an ever-increasing use of scarce and non-renewable resources, or not.
 
Counter-tendencies are proposed - the shift from manufacturing to service industries and production of immaterial products like software, music, books and other cultural or informational products. Optimists point to the figures for amount of CO2 released per $ of GDP. For many developed countries the rates of increase of CO2 have been lower than the rate of increase of GDP for the last decades. For them, this is a sign that rising fuel and other commodity prices will lead market forces to incentivise the shift to more efficient technologies that will allow for global GDP growth without increased CO2 emission. 
 
On this last point, the overall global figures give little grounds for optimism. Since 2000 global GDP growth and global C02 emission growth have increased in lockstep. The apparent declining energy density (CO2 per $ GDP) of Western countries can be accounted for by the offshoring of production to the emergent countries as well as the failure to account for shipping and air freight CO2 for international transport in national CO2 figures. Currently the bald fact remains, the demand for more jobs and growth is a demand for more release of climate change gases.
 
Leaving aside the energy question, what about the impact of the shift to service and “immaterial” products on natural resource usage? Certainly Apple makes its money by selling physical objects - iPads, iPhones and iMacs - but Google still makes its money mostly through selling search services and advertising - immaterial products, surely? Well, quite apart from the physical demands of housing and equipping its human workforce, anybody who thinks that Google is not a physical-based business should consider paying the electric bill for their gigantic server farms for a month. The “non-physical” nature of software and internet services companies like Google or Facebook, has been greatly exaggerated. 
 
What’s more, the internet and digitisation revolution itself, is making earning a return on cultural products like books, musical recordings, films, etc, increasingly problematic, pushing the industries back towards “bums on seats” real-world event entertainment to stem the steady loss of earnings to free file-sharing. While the rise of digitally-copiable products definitely means battles over intellectual property will be a major battleground in the 21st century, the trend does not eliminate the material impact of increased consumption, in and of itself.
 
The final question is whether or not increased profit can be made from “moving up the value chain” - i.e. shifting fewer units at a higher profit per unit. Certainly there are successful companies out there making good profits from selling premium products. Couldn’t that model be extended to the economy as whole? 
 
To understand why this can’t happen, we need to know that the price of a product is related to its cost of production and that costs of production are based on wages. In any individual enterprise the costs of production are split between wages and the materials from suppliers the employees need to either work on, with or in. But if we look at the suppliers of these materials, we find, in turn, that their costs are wages and inputs. 
 
And if you follow the chain of inputs down through the suppliers, you eventually get to the primary industries where the costs are the wages of the people who extract (or grow) the primary materials directly from the earth’s natural resources. The earth does not get paid - this is important in terms of the environmental effects. There may be payment of rent to state or private land owners, but that’s another story. Price is downwards limited by cost and cost ultimately comes from wages.
 
For an enterprise in a given industry the price per unit of your product is set by your competitors based on costs of production and the average rate of profit for that industry. Costs are based on inputs and wages. If the price of inputs goes down, then they go down for all the competitors in that industry and, thanks to competition, that cost-saving will be passed on as a price-drop in the product without giving any particular enterprise an advantage over its rivals. Instead an individual enterprise can gain a temporary individual advantage by reducing the wage bill or labour time per unit, say by 10%. 
 
That firm can then do one of two things to realise its advantage into extra profit. Either it can go smaller by reducing its workforce by 10% and making more profit on selling the same amount of units as before. Or it can go larger, either, in the rare case that there’s a supply shortage that allows the market to grow at the same price, by selling 10% more units at the same price (assuming the cost of the extra inputs doesn’t outweigh the labour savings), or by dropping the price of the product enough to undersell the competition and take market share off them, while still making a profit. 
 
In the long term, given uncertainties, risks and the balance of probabilities, competition means that firms that take the going smaller strategy lose out to firms that take the go large strategy. In other words, the dynamics of the system are that overall more profits require more units.
 
The next piece of the jigsaw is, if efficiency and technology can reduce the amount of materials used in each unit of product enough to counteract the relentless drive to produce and consume more units of stuff? In other words, is environmentally sustainable growth (more units but less materials and energy) possible in a capitalist system? 
 
The answer is again no. But this time the reason comes not from a single cause but is the combined effect of a number of different factors taken together. First is the fact that natural resources are taken from the earth “for free”, rent aside. Second is the asymmetry of the effects of competitive cost reduction between reducing input costs and labour costs which mean that unit productivity advances faster in labour than materials overall. Thirdly is the fact of physical limits to reduction in materials used per unit, for that particular thing to have the necessary strength and substance to fulfill its useful purpose. Finally there is the necessity to rehire labour made redundant in one branch of industry in new employments, if total social investment capital is to keep growing. 
 
All of these elements together mean that for the system as a whole the tendency is for the continual increase in the number of units being produced to result in an increase in the total energy and materials being used also. 
 
So capitalism requires the production of more and more stuff in the service of its drive for profit. But maybe this is a good thing? The ideology that “more production is necessarily good” is called productivism. The basic idea behind productivism is that whatever is bought and consumed must be satisfying some human need or desire, and if poverty still exists then clearly the need is to produce yet more. The underlying assumption then is that capitalism is a perfectly transparent medium for conveying human desire. If people are becoming more and more obese, it must be because they want to get fat. As the American satirist H.L. Mencken once wryly observed, “There is always an easy solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong.” Productivism clearly ticks all three boxes, but the reason why it is wrong deserves more explanation than a glib analogy. 
 
If obesity is one way of looking at the relationship between human needs and capital, then hunger is the flipside. As a recent report said “Every year, we waste or lose 1.3 billion metric tons of food – one-third of the world’s annual food production.[...] alongside this massive wastage and loss, 840 million people experience chronic hunger on a daily basis”. 
 
The fact is that the global economy has produced more than enough food to eliminate world hunger and malnutrition since the 1950s. Global poverty is not due to an absolute lack of production, but unfairness in the distribution of natural resources and the results of production. Not only that, but available resources are misallocated to producing outputs that maximise profit, not human utility. The examples of this mis-allocation are legion and can be found on the website of any development or global justice organisation, so we will not start a laundry list here.
 
Techno-optimists and Techno-pessimists
 
Before we look in detail at the various responses to the environmental crisis by different left-wing and ecologist tendencies, it is useful to sketch out a broad binary on this question. Broadly speaking we can divide responses to the challenge of overcoming the crisis into technological optimists and technological pessimists. As an introduction to doing so, we need to look at the legacy of the 19th century writer on political economy, Thomas Robert Malthus. 
 
In the ongoing debates you will often hear the accusation of “Malthusian” or “Neo-Malthusian” being bandied about, often directed at techno-pessimists by their opponents. Which begs the question, what is Malthusianism and why does it have such a negative connotation for so many people?
 
The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was an English protestant clergyman who became most famous for publishing a pamphlet entitled “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798. That the year of its publication coincided with the United Irishmen uprising no doubt contributed to the popularity of its message. The message was simple, that improvements in agricultural productivity progressed in an arithmetic (linear) fashion, but the population of the poor, left to its own devices, progressed geometrically (exponentially) until crises of famine, plague and war, reduced the population to sustainable levels. This political message that famine was “the hand of providence”, god’s will, balancing the books, was later the ideological justification for the UK parliament inflicting the famine upon Ireland. As such, Malthus’s name deservedly ranks up alongside Cromwell’s in the annals of ignominy in Anglo-Irish relations. That historical sore point aside, Malthus was the first to raise the question of a problematic relationship between natural resources and expanding demand in political economy. Given that the general topic, broadly speaking, is one that needs addressing seriously in the 21st century, over-hasty castigations of opponents as “Malthusians” can sometimes be the logical fallacy of argumentum ad odium - the dismissal of an argument by associating it with a well-know hate figure.
 
Malthus’ original argument related specifically to crises of overpopulation, and certainly, up until recently, there were plenty of environmental catastrophist voices warning of the impending doom of the planet due to overpopulation. However the statistics in the last decades have shown that the rate of population increase is slowing to the extent that a population peak of around 9 billion is predicted later this century. Now the accuracy of those predictions can be argued with, but the raw fact of the rate of population increase declining in recent decades, gives the lie to the basic Malthusian population thesis. 
 
Technological optimists extend this positive news to all of the current environmental issues we are currently faced with. Our current problems with carbon release, freshwater use, topsoil loss, and so on, are simply technical problems and will be solved by human ingenuity and technological fixes in the future. 
 
The techno-optimist position has an important subdivision into market fundamentalists and state interventionist versions. Market fundamentalists get a lot of coverage in the mainstream media, not so much because their arguments have intellectual merit - mostly they are vacuous - but because they conveniently justify government inaction, particularly regarding anything that might cost actual money. The state interventionist wing of the techno-optimist tendency, however, accept that currently markets are failing to manage environmental issues, so see the need for some government action to steer or “nudge” industry and finance in the direction of “sustainable growth” or a newer, greener capitalism.
 
By contrast technological pessimists do not believe that there are technological fixes that will make a green capitalism possible without radical social transformation. Techno-pessimists are themselves subdivided into two camps. One of which believes either that there are no technological fixes to capitalist growth because technology itself is the problem or that the overuse of natural resources is, as Malthus proposed, somehow innate to the human species, left to its own devices. The other camp does not fully share these beliefs, but what defines them as a pole apart is poorly defined. 
 
It is a core proposition of this article that this lack of definition represents a historic failure by the left to build a properly anti-capitalist and egalitarian alternative to the “sustainable growth” illusions of the techno-optimists.
 
But if we reject both the “technology is the solution” position of the techno-optimists and the “technology is the problem” counter from the anti-civ wing of the techno-pessimists, it is because we insist that the environmental problems caused by capitalist growth are not a technical problem, but a political-economic one.
 
Degrowth and other alternatives
 
In 1972 a small think tank, the Club of Rome, published a report “The Limits to Growth” on the problems of endless economic growth in the context of limited natural resources. Coming just a year before the 1973 oil crisis, the timeliness of the report and the grim conclusions it reached, created a sensation, eventually selling over 12 million copies in numerous translations. Unsurprisingly establishment figures lined up to criticise the report, it’s model, it’s computer, it’s personnel, and just about everything else you could think of. A juvenile prophecy of doom was the expert opinion of most of the great and the good. The nascent ecological movement, however, took the warnings of the report more seriously. Rightfully so in view of the fact that a recent review of the reports predictions, over 30 years on, reveals that whatever the limits of its model, its predictions remain remarkably close to what has really happened in the decades since its publication.
 
For the sake of simplicity we will divide those ecological tendencies who took the message of “The Limits to Growth” seriously into four main families, the partisans of sustainable growth, post-growth, degrowth and deep ecology/deep green resistance. Of these four tendencies we really only want to look closely at the post-growth and degrowth ones here. The notion of sustainable growth, or green capitalism, we dismiss out of hand for the reasons already given above. Similarly the primitivist fantasies of de-industrialisation, renunciation of agriculture and return to hunter-gatherer living, and the mass extinction of 6 out of 7 billion of humanity it entails, has already been adequately dealt with elsewhere.
 
Post-growth is a collection of tendencies that see the need to move beyond the existing capitalist model of growth, especially as measured by GDP, on a broadly liberal and utilitarian basis. A fairly heterogeneous tendency it takes inspiration from a variety of sources, whether the ‘zero growth’ advocacy responding to the 1972 “Limits” report, the Transition Town and other ‘peak oil’ inspired movements, environmental economics, books like “The Spirit Level” pushing to turn the pendulum back against increasing inequality, and so on. 
 
In theory the Degrowth tendency would consider itself the more “radical”, explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist wing, but in practice there is much organisational cross-over between the two tendencies. Many of the groups in the post-growth network would use the degrowth moniker and lists of organisations in the two tendencies indicate quite a lot of crossover. 
 
Nonetheless degrowth has a specific point of origin, in France, a particular ideological genealogy and identifiable leading thinkers, such as Serge Latouche or Jacques Grinevald. The latter translated into French the most influential book of Romanian-American heterodox economist, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a one-time protegé of Joseph Schumpeter. Originally entitled “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process”, Grinevald gave his translation the French title “La Décroissance: entropie-écologie-économie” from which the Décroissance (degrowth) tendency takes its name. Georgescu-Roegen’s idea was to apply the physics of thermodynamics to economics, in contrast to the supposedly Newtonian paradigm he alleged conventional neoclassical economics was based on.
 
The basic problems with the degrowth approach are summed up most succinctly in the recent position paper on environmentalism by the French anarchist organisation, the Coordination des Groupes Anarchistes (CGA).
If we share the foundational analysis of Georgescu-Roegen that says that the global economy has a level of utilisation of natural resources beyond their speed of regeneration, we think that degrowth is an imperfect concept as it does not allow the exclusion of authoritarian social models nor of explicitly the institution and development of social structures and socially useful economic activities. The concept of degrowth says nothing about the political organisation that it presupposes. Hence certain ecologists can from their wishes call for a sort of ecologist "dictatorship" supposed to enforce a respect for the environment. More generally, the concept of degrowth could also be called for by people carrying a racist, theocratic or fascist vision of society. 
 
Currently the internal contradictions of capitalism and the apparent absence of a credible revolutionary perspective cause most of the ecologist discourses and movements to oscillate between two poles, each as utopian as the other: "sustainable development" (more correctly, sustainable growth) and degrowth without an exit from capitalism. Ultimately if the capitalist system aims for growth for growth's sake, it is no more pertinent to counter it with an "alternative" consisting of degrowth for degrowth's sake.
 
The challenge is rather to bring back the level of global production under the limit of the renewal rate of natural resources, all while guaranteeing equal access to the goods and services produced. Thus, the fundamental question to ask ourselves to have a hope of overcoming the ecological crisis is to know who decides what is produced, and the way it is produced. 
 
The necessary lowering of the level of production thus imposes on humanity the need to take up the challenge of direct democracy, as only populations and not private actors in competition with each other, will really have the interest of overcoming the ecological crisis. But this equally involves taking up the challenge of equality as the only way to reduce the level of production without injuring anyone is to cover people's needs in an egalitarian way.
 
Thus, rather than degrowth, we demand the socialization of production and decision-making power in society to at last rationalize the economy and meet our needs in accordance with available resources.
Despite the propensity to quote Marx of leading degrowth intellectuals like Serge Latouche, it remains founded on Georgescu-Roegen’s dubious thermodynamical economics which is a theory supposedly valid for all societies, past, present and future. In other words, the historical specificity of capitalism’s relations of production are made to fade into the background and thus become eternalised. Like a mirror-image of the productivist ideology, degrowth sees capitalism as a transparent medium through which human desires pass untransformed, to produce “overconsumption” directly, without any role for capital’s drive for self-valorisation. 
 
In this vein, degrowth becomes just the latest sophisticated spin on the same old Malthusian techno-pessimism. However, we should of course not mistake the positions of its leading intellectuals or its philosophical genealogy, for the motivations of all of its partisans and activists, or the whole content of the movement itself. As we have already seen, in practice the relations with post-growth and other growth-critical tendencies tend to be more cooperative than competitive. As the CGA go on to say, if there are indeed within the degrowth movement many authoritarian and statist proto-parties and publications, there exist also more libertarian tendencies too.
 
But as the CGA point out, by divorcing the technical challenge of reconciling human production with sustainable resource usage, from the political-economic question of decision-making power over production, distribution, consumption, leads once more down the well-worn dead-end path of merely “political” solutions that aspire to use state power to force a different logic on capitalism than the one proper to it. Such solutions are not only authoritarian, but they are also utopian in the sense that there is no historical force with the power to deprive the capitalist class, and behind it capital, of control over society, other than the mass power of the proletariat. And there is no way to mobilise that, other than through the struggle for a more egalitarian society. 
 
If those at the bottom of the income hierarchy are already struggling to survive materially, then any struggle that aims to reduce production without first reducing inequality has no more chance of our support than of turkeys voting for Christmas.
 
 
The Keynesian Left and the Growth Pact
We noted above that the historical and contemporary left have, with some exceptions, been notable by their failure to seriously engage with either environmental issues or the environmentalist/ecologist movement. At first sight this failure is puzzling. One of the core reference points for the left is the work of Marx, and with it the notion of capitalism as an inherently self-contradictory system whose very growth will lead it to crisis. 
 
From this starting point it would be natural to assume that most of the Marxian left would find itself in the opposing camp to the techno-optimists, with their “revisionist” (to use the orthodox Marxist jargon) ideas of technological and political reforms that can perpetuate capital’s endless “sustainable” growth. And yet, historically, the opposite has been the case. Socialists in general and Marxists in particular have tended to be the most enthusiastic technological optimists of all. What are the reasons for this perverse result?
 
The first and most obvious explanation is the appeal of the Keynesian era, preceding the current neoliberal one, which to today’s battered, demoralised and increasingly diminishing left, now looks like a recent “golden age” when unions had power, the welfare state was being expanded instead of dismantled, real wages were rising and left political parties had thousands of members and some clout. 
 
To the retro-left then, whatever their internal self-mythologising as bolshevik or other revolutionary socialists, the raising of social-democratic demands of the Keynesian type, as an alternative to neoliberal austerity, seems the easiest path back to relevance. Indeed we could say that the “Spirit of ‘45” nostalgic project of reconstructing the 20th century socialist movement in today’s era, more or less defines the 21st century retro-left. A project, it should be said in passing, all the more doomed for lacking any analysis of how and why the 20th century socialist movement failed.
 
Ironically, one of the main reasons for the failure of the movement, whether of 2nd, 3rd or 4th/etc International tendency, was its “historic compromise” with the Keynesian growth pact. The end of the Second World War left the original imperialist powers of Europe devastated and divided between an American and a Soviet sector. Minds concentrated by the loss of China to the Maoists, the US deviated from the normal relationship of empires to their new colonial possessions and embarked on a project of reconstructing industrial production and markets in Western Europe, rather than see the Iron Curtain extend to the Atlantic. 
 
Both the social-democratic parties of the 2nd International, and the pro-Moscow official Communists of the 3rd adopted the strategy of supporting this capitalist and industrial reconstruction. Keynesian policies of full employment and welfarism laid the supports for this cross-class collaboration for a capitalist growth that promised to yield increased living standards for workers in the old imperialist countries of Western Europe (even if the more limited trickle-down benefits for post-colonial countries, made the Keynesian “golden age” still one of underdevelopment and emigration for Ireland, lest we forget...). And on the whole the rest of the ultra-left, lacking the mass implantation in the working class that the social-democrats and Stalinists then still had, had little choice but to tag along with the populist linking of capitalist economic growth with real income growth for workers.
 
Since the political and economic crises and social upheavals of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, the neoliberal restructuring of the world economy has effectively ended the link between capitalist growth and rising real wages for Western workers. Although not a uniform story across all countries - Germany has not suffered the de-industrialisation of the UK, for example; The effects of global relocation of production and trade flows, were masked by the increase of financialisation and credit. A masking effect that has since been severely impacted since the 2008 crisis.
 
The crisis has not been good for the left. After the last decades of reassuring itself that they were keeping the revolutionary flame alive for the day when the neoliberal deferral of economic crisis could no longer be maintained, when the working classes would flock once more to their red banner, the more or less complete absence of any significant re-appearance of the class struggle, has left them directionless, demoralised, and rapidly shrinking in numbers. 
 
Apart from the usual hunting of scapegoats to blame (feminists, apparently - who knew?), the left’s knee-jerk reaction is to try and form left unity projects to reconstruct the workers movements of the “good old days” of the Keynesian era. As such the public propaganda of the electoral left consists mainly of monotonously banging the drum for “Jobs and Growth!” like the Duracell bunny, in the hopes that this will bring the masses back to the fold.
 
So much for nostalgia for the Keynesian productivity pact and electoral opportunism. But it should be said that the technological utopianism of the left actually predates the Keynesian era by a long chalk. From Lenin’s famous dictum that “socialism is soviet power plus electrification”, to well before that, orthodox Marxism saw capitalism’s industrial growth as essentially positive. According to their teleological theory of history, historical materialism, the historic mission of capitalism is to develop the productive forces (technology, infrastructure) to provide the material basis for socialism and communism. 
 
According to this theory the inner contradictions of capital would eventually manifest itself in a contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production (capitalist private property and profit, the markets, etc). But there was never any sense that the inner contradiction of capitalism could come from within the development of the forces of production itself. That capitalism could develop the forces of production to the point where they would threaten to extinguish the environmental preconditions for human life and civilisation itself, was never part of the orthodoxy. 
 
Consequently, even before the Keynesian era, pre-Bolshevik Marxist social-democracy of the Second International was unabashedly techno-optimistic. So much so, that the first major heresy from within its ranks, that of Eduard Bernstein, was the idea that capitalist growth would gradually transform the economy into a workers paradise of its own accord. 
 
Naturally the more devoted Marxists within German social-democracy at the time, like Kautsky, Luxemburg recognised the liquidationist implications of this idea. With such a optimistic prognosis for capitalism itself, the need for any explicitly anti-capitalist ideology such as Marxism, or even socialism more generally, would become null and void for the “pragmatic” and reformist tendencies within the party and labour movement more generally. Such indeed has been the historical tendency within Social-democratic and Labour parties across the West. Consequently the reaction to the Bernsteinian heresy, which defined a Marxist “orthodoxy”, emphasised the absolute necessity of Marxism as a theory of the immanent crisis of capitalism. 
 
While there were variations on the exact nature of the crisis theory, the main centre of gravity was, and remains, the so-called Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall or LTRPF. The problems with this crisis theory are much too involved and far too boring for non-Marx nerds to go into here, but the point regarding the techno-optimism bias is that this still frames the immanent contradiction of capital as being between its relations of production (dominated by the search for profit) and the development of the forces of production. 
 
That is, there is no innate problem with the development of the forces of production itself, which is still seen, as an unmitigated positive. A symptom of this is the continued marginalisation from the Marxist mainstream of those techno-sceptic and anti-productivist tendencies emerging from the radicalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which criticised the capitalist development of technology as internal to the class struggle and the contradictions of capitalism. Tendencies such as the Situationists, the Italian operaists and autonomists, the post-Bordigists inspired by the work of Jacques Cammatte, and so on. 
 
Another cause of the contemporary left’s bias towards techno-optimism we need to consider is the psychological filtering effects of its current sectarian condition of being separated from the class. Except in certain countries, this condition is common to all left, ultra-left, anarchist and ecological groups. Consequently each tends to attract recruits whose cultural and personal preferences predispose them to one or another type of politics. 
 
People predisposed to be technological optimists gravitate more towards the left, particularly the retro-left, and those with techno-pessimist tendencies more towards the environmental or ecologist movements. The result is that dialogue between left and ecologist activists tends to be obstructed by not just differences in political and philosophical starting points, but also personality differences and cultural preferences. 
 
As much as some people may dismiss such differences as “unpolitical”, in fact they need to be recognised and allowances made for them. That is, if any productive engagement is to be had. Otherwise the result will be a sterile process of talking at, rather than to, the other side, with assimilationist calls (“unity means you unite with us, on our terms”) alternating with outright hostility. 
 
An end to growth?
When we raise the question of an end to growth there is a deliberate ambiguity in the sense of “end”. On the one hand there is end in the sense of putting a stop to capitalist growth, or more specifically, the accumulation of capital. On the other there is end in the sense of ‘ends and means’, of the goals of a process. The second core proposition of this article that it is impossible to talk of the first sense without simultaneously addressing the second.
 
If we want an end to capitalism’s endless expansion of production consuming non-renewable resources, then we have to radically transform our economic and social structure to serve different goals. The question then is, is such a transformation compatible with retaining inequality? We have already discussed above the utopian character of any project for radical change which cannot be shown to be in the interests of the great majority. Capitalism keeps the great majority in material precarity, to force us to sell the bulk of our time to its valorisation process. 
 
Otherwise who wouldn’t choose to work 2 days a week and spend the rest of the time with family, friends and kids? Keynes’ vision that by the 21st century we would alll be working 4-hour days or less, just shows his lack of understanding of capitalism as a system where capital’s needs override those of people. Given the perpetual reproduction of relative material and  time poverty, backed up by the threat of the absolute poverty of unemployment, working class people are well aware that a general reduction of social production, without an even greater reduction, or elimination, of economic inequality, would push those at the bottom of the income ladder underneath the threshold of survival. The struggle to reduce overproduction has to begin with the struggle for economic equality and control over production to make it serve human needs directly, without the mediation of profit and capital.
 
For libertarian communists then, we need to strive to undo the damage of the productivist bias of the historical left that has left the anti-capitalist movement divided into leftists and ecologists. We need to work towards the recomposition of an antagonist movement that is both anti-capitalist and anti-productivist without being anti-humanist. To do so we need to be in dialogue with both camps; On the one hand challenging the fetishism of the forces of production and productivist biases amongst the socialists, on the other pushing back against misanthropic tendencies and the mystification of capital’s role in the crisis of unsustainable production. 
 
Above all that dialogue needs to start from a position of openness rather than arrogance, one that accepts that given the scale of the problem, no-one can claim to have all the answers from the outset. To find answers that work for us, we need a dialogue that accepts difference with mutual respect and a presumption of good faith on the part of all participants. Capitalism’s destruction of our environment is not a problem we will need to deal with at some time in the future, it is already here and we need to start dealing with it now.
 
 
 
References:
 
WHO on childhood obesity in the PIGS - as reported in the Independent
http://www.independent.ie/world-news/deadly-diet-and-no-exercise-makes-obesity-the-new-norm-across-europe-warns-world-health-organisation-30037916.html
 
List of countries by energy intensity - tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) per 1 million $ equivalent
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_energy_intensity
 
Trading Economics: CO2 Emissions (Kg per PPP Dollar of GDP) in Ireland
http://www.tradingeconomics.com/ireland/co2-emissions-kg-per-ppp-dollar-of-gdp-wb-data.html
 
Our Finite World: Is it really possible to decouple GDP Growth from Energy Growth?
http://ourfiniteworld.com/2011/11/15/is-it-really-possible-to-decouple-gdp-growth-from-energy-growth/
 
José Graziano Da Silva, Achim Steiner, "Waste Not, Want Not", Project Syndicate
http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/on-the-massive-costs-of-food-wastage-and-loss-by-jose-graziano-da-silva-and-achim-steiner
 
Hans Rosling, Global Population Growth, Box by box
http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_on_global_population_growth
 

This article is from issue 9 of the Irish Anarchist Review - Summer 2014

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