Should socialists support degrowth?

degrowth-posterby Don Fitz

The question is not should we advocate reducing production within capitalist society but rather: How do we best relate to those struggles that are already occurring?  Activists across the globe are challenging economic expansion which threatens the survival of humanity.  It has never been more urgent to provide a vision of a new society that can pull these efforts together.

Climate change is justifiably the focus of concern in the early 21st century.  The Earth is approaching the level of 450 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon, a level which must be averted if humans are to avoid a cataclysmic turning point when climate change will loop into itself and increase even without additional industrial activity.

Yet corporate politicians shriek blindly that the only solution to economic crisis is increasing production.  This, despite crises in species extinction, toxins and depletion of oil and other resources. [1]  Even though industrial growth is destroying the biology of existence, progressives often throw up a variety of objections to opposing economic expansion:

  1. Reducing production would supposedly worsen the lives of working people.
  2. The degrowth movement began with bourgeois liberals.
  3. Since degrowth cannot occur within capitalism, discussing it should wait until “after the revolution.”
  4. The concept of producing less is too abstract to build a movement around.
  5. An anti-growth movement would easily be co-opted.

Each of these deserves attention.

1. Does lowering production mean a worse quality of life?

Most economic writers, even socialist ones, still seem to believe that there is a strong connection between production and consumption.  Enormous changes during the twentieth century profoundly weakened the bond between them.

In 1880, Frederick Engels wrote:

“The possibility of securing for every member of society, by socialized production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties—this possibility is now for the first time here, but it is here.” (Emphasis in original) [2]

But capitalism would not stop expanding merely because it had the potential to meet human needs.  Between 1913 and 2005, America’s GDP grew 300 fold. [3]

How did corporations manage to continue an enormous increase in production well after reaching the ability to meet human needs?  In 1929, President Herbert Hoover’s Committee on Recent Economic Changes announced its conceptual breakthrough: Capitalism could be saved via the manufacture of artificial needs.  The era of planned obsolescence was born.  [4]

Modern Western existence rests atop a mountain of commodities that play no role whatsoever in making our lives better but do threaten the biology of our existence. [5]  Fabricated desires for electronic gadgets and in-style fashions create massive waste.  But consumer choices are barely the tip of the iceberg of unnecessary and destructive production.

No one eats bombs for breakfast, and Americans never get to vote on the unending stream of wars and military bases which pervade the globe.  This accounts for up to 15% of the US GDP. [6]

The vast majority of economic waste occurs during production processes over which workers and consumers have little to no control.  The simultaneous growth of starvation and obesity is the hallmark of a food industry where the production of a speck of nutritious food is dwarfed by the gargantuan resources devoted to chemicalizing, processing, packaging, preserving, transporting, marketing, sugarizing, genetically modifying, discarding from grocery shelves and convincing people that they need to eat meat three times a day.

It is similar with medicine.  Why does Cuba spend 4% of what the US does for each citizen’s health care when both have the same life expectancy of 78.0 years? It is much more than the 30% overhead of insurance companies.  It is also because of the huge amount of over-treatment by a profit-driven industry, under-treating patients whose illnesses get worse, creation of illnesses and treatments, exposure of patients to contagion through over-hospitalization and disease-oriented instead of prevention-oriented research. [7]

Capitalism is now producing an ever greater quantity of things while a decreasing proportion of what is produced is actually useful.  This means that it is now possible to (1) increase the manufacture of necessary goods, and simultaneously (2) decrease the total volume of production.

2. Babies, bathwater and bourgeois liberalism

It is not unusual for the degrowth movement to be rejected because it is based in the liberal ideology of personal life style changes.  But people can make an observation that is brilliant even if their overall world view isn’t.  Pointing to the philosophical weaknesses of those advocating degrowth does not disprove their concept that the economy must shrink.

Fracking, tar sands extraction, and deep sea oil drilling are inherently dangerous — they are not dangerous only when done for profit.  Workers control of production will not prevent the expansion of land use from causing species extinction.  Nor will it render uranium non-deadly.

Hostility towards obvious truths espoused by liberal authors is very different from Marx’s approach to Hegel.  As Engels wrote, “That the Hegelian system did not solve the problem it propounded is here immaterial.  Its epoch-making merit was that it propounded the problem.” [8]  If Marx had refused to learn from Hegel because of his idealism, Marx never would have turned Hegel on his head to conceptualize dialectical materialism.

Even more to the point is Engels’ treatment of “the three great Utopians” (Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen) in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.  Engels praises the contributions of each, paying particular homage to Owen:

“Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen.   He forced through in 1819, after five years’ fighting, the first law limiting the hours of labor of women and children in factories.  He was president of the first Congress at which all the Trade Unions of England united in a single great trade association.”[9]

Before delving into scientific socialism, Engels rakes all three across the coals, explaining that “To all of these socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer the world by virtue of its own power.” [10]  Engels held onto their goal of socialism while throwing out their method of utopian idealism.

3. Waiting until “after the revolution”

In contrast to those who fail to recognize the need to reduce the total volume of production, John Bellamy Foster suffers no confusion about the need not merely to slow down but to reverse the trends of capitalism. [11]  His quarrel is not with the goal of reducing the enormous waste of capitalism but with the pathetic inability of “green technology” to accomplish this, and even more so, the failure of “degrowth” theorists to come to grips with the relentless drive for capital to expand.

But Foster could be used to support either of two answers to the critical question: “Should we work to lower production while living in capitalist society?”  On one hand, his title “Capitalism and degrowth: An impossibility theorem” can be interpreted as implying “No, it is diversionary to work for what obviously cannot be obtained” (a sustained decrease in the mass of production over an extended period of time within capitalism).  On the other hand, he advocates a “co-revolutionary movement” which would synthesize struggles of labor, anti-imperialism, social domination and ecology (anti-growth).

Ever since the beginning of the labor movement, capitalists have sought to divide workers by ethnicity and gender.  Despite enormous advances, it is not possible to eliminate either racism or sexism within a mode of production that feeds on maximizing profit.  But it would be hard to find progressives who would abstain from these struggles because they cannot be won until “after the revolution.”  Quite the opposite: A social movement changes consciousness and the new awareness of oppression plants the seeds for fully overcoming it in a post-capitalist society.

Similarly with imperialism.  One of the greatest consciousness-altering epochs in US history was opposition to the Vietnam War.  Though a mass movement forced an end to that war, US imperialism was hardly abolished.  Lenin explained in great detail how capitalism without imperialism would have been an impossibility theorem—imperialism had become the epoch of capitalism when finance capital reigned supreme.  Indeed, Lenin railed against those socialists who saw imperialism as a bad policy of one group of parliamentarians.  He thoroughly denounced Kautsky for suggesting that “imperialism is not modern capitalism.  It is only one of the forms of policy of modern capitalism.” [12]

Imperialism is economic growth uncorked.  Lenin saw that the merging of finance and industrial capital pushed the economic system beyond its national boundaries and forced it into other countries to increase the rate of accumulation:

“The more capitalism develops, the more the need for raw materials arises, the more bitter competition becomes, and the more feverishly the hunt for raw materials proceeds all over the world, the more desperate becomes the struggle for the acquisition of colonies. “[13]

To state the obvious: Lenin did not use his understanding of the inherent link between capitalism and imperialism to conclude that it was pointless to oppose imperialism as long as capitalism existed.  The ravages of wanton growth are leading an entire generation of environmental activists to see the intrinsically destructive nature of capitalism.

Imperialism and economic growth are both manifestations of the same phenomenon—the irresistible urge of capitalism to expand after basic needs have been met.  Refusal to oppose growth makes no more sense than refusal to oppose imperialism.  If “attainability” within capitalist society were a litmus test for supporting a movement, then virtually all progressive movements would be a waste of time.

4. Motion against growth is not an abstraction

European fur traders documented some of the first resistance to growth in North Americans.  They were quite annoyed with Native Americans who would trap only the amount needed to purchase goods such as knives and cooking pots.  Then they would stop trapping.

Fast forward several centuries.  The brilliant movie Story of Stuff mirrors the massive awareness that life is not made better by throw-away junk and never-ending style changes.

Hostility is intense toward the extractive industries.  At the core of accumulating capital is ripping trees off the land, minerals from beneath the surface, and water from everywhere.  Recent decades have seen opposition grow as fast as growth itself, whether to save the last 5% of US redwoods or to protect indigenous lands in South America and Asia.

Realization that tar sands extraction may create the tipping point for climate change has led thousands into the streets opposing the Alberta pipelines.  Many more thousands have marched, often fought and not infrequently died in battles in the global South to protect their land and communities from mining gold, silver, diamonds, and coltan, to mention a very few.

Industrial processes require water.  Manufacture of a single car requires 350,000 liters.  Water is now being pumped out of aquifers at 15 times the rate it soaks into them.  Lakes are being drained and/or hopelessly contaminated. [14]

There is indeed a strong connection between imperialism and the growth economy.  Imperialism and wasteful production are two sides of a corporate economy that is compelled to grow, regardless of what individual stockholders and politicians desire.  Global domination is the way that corporations obtain materials to produce mountains of useless and destructive junk.  Marching against endless wars to corner the market on raw materials means marching (consciously or unconsciously) against economic growth.

5. Making the connections

Foster very effectively demonstrates the fallacies of Latouche, who “tries to draw a distinction between the degrowth project and the socialist critique of capitalism.” [15]  Degrowth theory is weakened every time one of its advocates seeks to show that shrinking the economy is compatible with a market economy.  This was certainly true of Herman Daly, a major prophet of the theory of a steady-state economy. [16]

Does this liberalism of many supporters make the concept of shrinking the economy in any way unique?  In fact, capitalism has massive experience corrupting liberation movements.  Twisting idealistic desires to improve the environment into behavior that contributes to environmental destruction is no exception.

Anyone who has ever challenged an incinerator, landfill, toxic manufacture or extraction industry has confronted the danger of stagnating in the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) mentality.  Politicians are quick to suggest that victims can save themselves by backing efforts to dump the toxic threat on some other community with less power.  The critical factor becomes consciousness-linking: explaining that the social and ecological destruction dictated by the economics of growth cannot be resolved by pushing the problem off to another location or to future generations.

The struggle for a shorter workday is an integral part of any effort to shrink production.  But capitalism has long since figured out how to transform it into a tool for maintaining or even increasing production.  Liberals often argue that being at the job for fewer hours can invigorate workers to produce the same amount in less time.  Speeding up an assembly line or putting 20 students in a class instead of 15 both increase the rate of exploitation.

Even if bosses were to grant the same pay for fewer hours of work (such as “30 for 40”) they could cut social wages (free parks and roads, education, Social Security, Medicare).  And/or they could increase the rate of inflation, diminishing what workers could buy with that pay.  Most important, they could increase the rate of planned obsolescence, thereby decreasing the durability of goods and forcing more purchases.  Corporate countermeasures illustrate that the same process (fewer hours of work) can have opposite effects, depending on whether it is part of a movement that accepts capitalism or is part of a revolutionary project to replace it.

That capitalism could only grant a reduction of production in the most negative way does not make this demand distinctive.  It verifies the desire of capitalism to transform any movement into its opposite.  The central issue is how to keep a worthwhile goal from being perverted by capitalism.  This can be accomplished only if the movement expands its focus from a particular struggle into a universal struggle for human liberation.

There is nothing that strikes to the heart of capitalism more than confronting its primal urge to grow.  A failure to identify the culprit as capitalist growth is the major limitation of liberal movements to halt climate change, protect biodiversity, guard communities from toxins and preserve natural resources.  Rather than being dismissive toward ongoing struggles against growth, socialists should enthusiastically participate and point to their anti-capitalist essence.

It makes no sense to abstain from ongoing challenges to growth with a claim that anti-growth cannot begin tomorrow.  Today’s anti-extraction (i.e., anti-growth) conflicts are the most intense they have ever been.  If those who stand back from supporting them claim that they wish to build a new society, the society that they would create would be one whose economy grew and grew until it made human existence impossible.

Many who participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement were well aware that the problem is not just opportunities denied the 99% but the active destruction of the planet by the 1%.  The great strength of socialists is their grasp of the unique power of labor to create a new society.  A movement which merged the enthusiasm of Occupy, the workplace strength of labor, and the understanding that reducing production is essential for preserving human life would be a powerful movement indeed.

Don Fitz produces Green Time TV in conjunction with KNLC-TV in St. Louis and is active in the Greens/Green Party USA.  He can be contacted at


1. For a discussion of the way Karl Marx approached soil depletion, see John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009).

2. Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Selected Works, Vol. 3, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970).  In his footnote (p. 149), Engels attributes this abundance to the 386% growth of production in England between 1814 and 1875.

3. Robert Bryce, Gusher of Lies (New York: Public Affairs, 2008).

4. J. Kaplan, The gospel of consumption: And the better future we left behind. Orion Magazine, May/June, 2008.



7. Don Fitz, Eight Reasons US Healthcare Costs 96% More than Cuba’s—With the Same Results. (December 9, 2010).

8. Engels,  Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 130

9. Ibid, 125.

10. Ibid, 126.

11. John Bellamy Foster, Capitalism and degrowth: An impossibility theorem. Monthly Review, 62 (8), January 2011, 26–33.

12. V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (in Selected Works, Vol. 1, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970). 740.

13. Ibid, 732

14. Sam Bozzo,  Blue gold: World water wars. Purpleturtle Films. (PBS Home Video, 2008).

15. Foster, Capitalism and degrowth.

16. Herman Daly, Economics in a full world, Scientific American, 293 (3), September 2005,100–107.

Posted in Capitalism, Featured, Movement Building

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Jeff White
3 years 1 month ago
Under capitalism working people are always forced to pay the price for reduced economic growth, as I have stated above. That doesn’t justify your assumption that I believe “expanding production is necessary to improve the quality of life of working people”, or your insinuation in the last paragraph that your critics are just a bunch of unreconstructed productivists. Inasmuch as reduced economic growth, or recession, under capitalism does not lead to improvements in the quality of life of working people, it is quite fallacious to place struggles around degrowth per se into the same category as struggles against imperialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental insanity, low wages, etc. – all of which are struggles for reforms that actually can make life easier for the oppressed under capitalism, and that ought to be supported vigorously by socialists. We can rightly celebrate when gays win the right to marry, or trade unions negotiate improved wages and benefits, but who gives a cheer when the capitalist economy goes into recession and the local factory shuts down? Degrowth is also different from those other issues in another way: Economic growth or contraction is largely out of the control of the masters of the economy or… Read more »
Don Fitz
3 years 1 month ago
C&C, I would like to thank everyone for feedback and say that I agree with many of the criticisms. My main disagreement is that they apply to the article I wrote for C&C. A careful re-reading of that article would find that almost all were covered. One criticism that was not addressed in the article was use of the word “degrowth,” which can have some negative connotations. The original title was “Reducing Production,” which Ian asked me to change and put in the word “Degrowth.” I agreed, which, in hindsight might have not been a good idea since it invites debate over words rather than concepts. Criticisms do not seem to take into account the opening statement that conflicts over expanding production are already occurring and the issue is how to pull them together with a theoretical understanding. “Reduce production!” may not be a rallying slogan, but “Stop the Keystone Pipeline!” is. They are equivalent – even if many are reluctant to admit it. Calling for a halt to fossil fuel extraction while supporting industrial expansion is absurd. Running through many of the criticisms seems to be an unstated assumption that expanding production is necessary to improve the quality of… Read more »
3 years 1 month ago
I would understand the “degrowth” challenge if it was expressed by a current of activists here in Ontario that we could engage with. I concede that Don is addressing a reality that I have not encountered and do not fully understand. The only time “degrowth” has been advocated in my hearing was when a Green Party candidate turned it sharply against the Third World, asking that it forgo hopes of emerging from poverty in order to save the world. Not much common ground here! Will poor and developing countries will voluntarily surrender hopes of change in order to permit us in rich countries to preserve a little longer our unsustainable economies? This is morally unjustifiable and completely unrealistic. The way forward is for countries with a strong technological base to provide poor countries with assistance in developing along an economically sustainable path. Will this involve “growth”? Well, it depends on how you measure it, but supporting small farmers, building schools, health centres, and internet hook-ups, and providing the associated means of transportation certainly does involve the production of goods. Simon is right to bring into the discussion the Cochabamba agreement. The strong point of that agreement was to combine the… Read more »
Jeff White
3 years 1 month ago
Don Fitz’s argument runs up against the inescapable truth that when a capitalist economy stops growing or shrinks, the working class suffers. Everybody knows this, because we have seen it happen in the last five years. Even when the economy’s rate of growth declines – let alone when output shrinks in absolute terms – the bosses and their governments impose harsh austerity measures on the lower classes in order to preserve – and grow – their own disproportionate share of the wealth that is still created by declining rates of social production. Thus Fitz stumbles badly on the very first of his five enumerated theses – the one where he proposes (by misreading Engels) that capitalism has the ability to shrink production while at the same time preserving, if not enhancing, the quality of life of the workers. His fourth enumerated thesis, that “motion against growth is not an abstraction” is similarly misconceived. “Degrowth” as an agitational slogan is a non-starter. One need only look at the photograph above of the poster that reads, “Celebrate the planet and shrink the economy – vote De-growth” to see an example of how not to motivate an economically struggling working class to take… Read more »
Simon Butler
3 years 1 month ago
@Nicole It’s true that there is an important debate between liberal degrowthers and ecosocialists to be had. But I read Don’s article as an argument urging that in these debates ecosocialists shouldn’t rush to counterpose degrowth with radical social change either. John Bellamy Foster talks of degrowth under capitalism as an “impossibility theorum” because capitalism is a grow-or-die system. That’s an important starting point (as are the caveats Bookchin puts on any discussion about growth that I referred to above). But at the same time, I think it too sweeping to say “The solution is not a ‘de-growth’ of our existing economies, but real democracy … ” because sharply reducing the material flows through the economy (ecologists often call this ‘throughput’) is an absolute necessity if we are to reach a sustainable relationship with nature. That is, we need degrowth and democracy …or more precisely, we need real democracy to overcome capitalism’s treadmill of production. A strength of the Cochabamba People’s agreement is that it included a critique of growth as part of its radical call for action. It said: “The capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition, progress and limitless growth. This regime of production and… Read more »
3 years 1 month ago
I agree with John Ridell that Don’s argument is not clear. There is a fundamental contraction at the heart of the “de-growth” argument and movement. Those who argue that we can still have a capitalist mode of production on a global scale ( e.g imperialism ) based on private property and the private ownership of the means of production live in cuckoo-land if they think that capitalism’s destructive drive for the maximalisation of profit will ever be compatible with “de-growth”. Either you take the view that capitalism can be “tamed” and can meet the needs of people without causing irreversible damage to the planet for our survival, or you don’t. I don’t. Capitalism has no moral or conscience. But it is an economic model/system which run by the few who own the land and have the financial resources to enslave the rest of us to work though wages and credit for their benefit. It is therefore in our hands and in our power to change this system through democratic means -as far as possible, but by other means, if need be – to take over the land and organise production in more co-operative ways to meet the needs of the… Read more »
3 years 1 month ago
In enumerating possible objections to “degrowth”, Don, you miss the obvious: the prevalence of poverty. A lot could be said on this point, but — in a nutshell — this is why many climate change activists talk of “climate justice.” I have heard “degrowth” interpreted by knowledgeable activists as an appeal to poor nations to accept their poverty and cease attempts to overcome it. This is probably not your view, Don, but one must certainly be clear about this. Even in the rich imperialist countries, working people face often near-desperate economic pressures. “Degrowth” can appear to be an appeal to them to get by with even less. Certainly, their lives would be richer without dependency on individually owned automobiles and 50-mile commutes, but the way things are organized now, there is no other way for them to live. An appeal to universal belt-tightening, in these conditions, has no moral validity and sounds suspiciously like what we hear from the government. Again, I don’t think this is your view, but a response to this objection doesn’t jump out at me from your article. You say there are current struggles that should be supported as expressions of a “degrowth” approach. But what… Read more »
Simon Butler
3 years 1 month ago

Really excellent article Don. It’s true that many leftists are uneasy about, if not plain hostile to, tackling the issue of growth. This classic piece from Murray Bookchin approaches the issue from the other side, a critique of liberal views about growth & ecology. I think this article complements it nicely.

Some quotes from Bookchin …

“Calling for ‘limits to growth’ is merely the first step toward bringing the magnitude of our environmental problems under public purview. Unless growth is traced to its basic source-competition in a grow-or-die market society-the demand for controlling growth is meaningless as well as unattainable.”

“To take growth out of its proper social context is to distort and privatize the problem. It is inaccurate and unfair to coerce people into believing that they are personally responsible for present-day ecological dangers because they consume too much or proliferate too readily.”

“Public concern for the environment cannot be addressed by placing the blame on growth without spelling out the causes of growth. Nor can an explanation be exhausted by citing ‘consumerism’ while ignoring the sinister role played by rival producers in shaping public taste and guiding public purchasing power.”