8 Responses

  1. Jeff White March 28, 2013 at 4:16 pm |

    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 their governments – otherwise, why would we ever have recessions? They can pass laws giving rights to women, they can end an imperialist war if they choose, but the capitalist economy is beyond their laws and their legislatures. It is anarchic, swinging from growth to recession, from crisis to crisis, driven only by the insatiable quest for profit. Stopping the Keystone pipeline would be a great step forward for the environmental movement, but don’t presume that capital will not be able to find other ways to expand production. Like a game of whack-a-mole, you can claim a victory for degrowth here, but growth comes back in two other places over there.

    This debate reminds me very much of the debates we often have here with the populationists. The latter want to argue for population reduction right now, under capitalism, as if it’s some kind of progressive reform that deserves our active support as socialists. It’s not: we know from experience that population reduction under capitalism is brutal and oppressive, and furthermore, that it does nothing to advance the cause of social transformation away from capitalism, or the healing of the planet. In the same way, economic degrowth is not a “reform” of capitalism, but a recipe for immiseration of the working classes.

  2. Don Fitz March 28, 2013 at 9:55 am |

    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 life of working people. If readers believe that, they should state it openly. This belief is amazing, since I am sure that C&C readers are well aware that for the last several decades production has been expanding with the added wealth going to the 1%. Expanded production has brought a worse quality of life for the 99% who experience increased sickness from toxins and more suffering from climate change.

    The article does not misquote Engels. The point is that production does NOT need to expand. Wealth needs to be redistributed. When comparing Cuban life expectancy favorably to that in the US, the article clearly states that reduction of squandering in the sickness industry – and not reduction of medical care to the world’s poor – is what is necessary.

    It is disappointing that multiple critics repeat the obvious truth that a sustained lowering of production simultaneous with an improvement in the quality of life is unlikely to occur under capitalism. As the article repeats: the same is true for ending racism, sexism, imperialism, injustice at work, inadequate wages, and environmental insanity. Saying “Don’t struggle for that which cannot be won under capitalism!” is equivalent to saying “Don’t struggle!”

    Similarly, just because some people make an argument poorly is no justification for throwing out the baby with the bathwater. An example not used in the article is that many feminists have no interest in class struggle and advocate only confronting male dominance. This no more provides justification for abstaining from efforts to win gender equality than the existence of non-class struggle degrowth theories justifies abstaining from efforts to reduce wasteful and destructive production.

    When criticizing Kautsky, Lenin never implied that people should not confront imperialism. Socialists should jump into anti-imperialists struggles to help people understand that imperialism is the logical consequence of capitalism. In the 21st century, socialists should enthusiastically participate in resistance to extraction industries, pull them together in a general struggle against extraction/growth, and explain that this requires building a new world.

    I worry that some critics read things into the article that were not there and actively ignored things that were there. I double-worry that this could be because socialists come from a tradition of demanding an increase in the mass of production, and, now that that mass is much more than necessary to satisfy human needs, many socialists find it impossible to respond to the climate crisis with a paradigm shift.

    Don Fitz

  3. John Riddell March 27, 2013 at 12:38 pm |

    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 criticism of capitalist destructive production and “consumerism” with the call for the rich countries to pay their climate debt — in other words, for “climate justice.”

    This provides a good foundation on which to engage with degrowth advocates.

  4. Jeff White March 27, 2013 at 5:14 am |

    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 even a limited electoral first step away from capitalist politics. It’s one thing to incorporate concepts of growth and de-growth into theoretical discussions about ecology, socialism, the relationship of humanity to nature, etc., and indeed it is very necessary to include them in our understanding. But to inscribe Economic De-growth on the banner of ecosocialism as some kind of battle-cry shows about as much tactical sense as going to a demonstration and chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, privately owned automobiles have got to go!”

  5. Simon Butler March 26, 2013 at 11:05 pm |

    @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 consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities.”

    The conference’s working group on the structural causes of climate change concluded similarly: “The capitalist system has imposed on us an ideology of Progress and unlimited growth. This regime of production and consumption is guided by the search for maximum gain, forgetting completely the implications of an infinite growth pattern on a finite planet. This pattern of development has separated human beings from nature, establishing a rationale of domination over nature and leading to the destruction of nature.”

    The ecosocialist vision of change should include an economic system that ceases to grow, once human needs are met. John’s concern with how liberal advocates of degrowth ignore poverty, class, imperialism and history is very important. But I think the People’s Agreement is a good template for how ecosocialists can approach the ecologial consequences of capitalism’s drive to limitless growth in a useful way, which marks it out from the liberal variants.

    For instance, the people’s agreement also says: “The model we support is not a model of limitless and destructive development. All countries need to produce the goods and services necessary to satisfy the fundamental needs of their populations, but by no means can they continue to follow the path of development that has led the richest countries to have an ecological footprint five times bigger than what the planet is able to support.”

    It’s also useful to break down the issue of “degrowth” in concrete terms. That is, an ecosocialist look at degrowth strategies would have to include dramatic growth in some material things — healthcare, public transport, renewable energy, permaculture etc — and dramatic growth in non-material things: human solidarity, free time, worker control over the products of labour etc

  6. Nicole March 26, 2013 at 2:01 pm |

    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 majority.

    What eco-socialist – and hopefully all greens one day !? – should argue is it is imperialism which is destroying the planet’s resources and the root cause of Climate Change.

    Even if the capitalist class understood ( and many probably do ) that the depletion of our precious resources and the warming of the planet are a threat to their survival, there is nothing they can do about it now without committing hara-kiri.

    “Responsible capitalism ” ? come again Ed Milliband ! That would be like expecting a leopard to change its spots. It is social-democratic non-sense.

    The solution is not a “de-growth” of our existing economies, but real democracy, from the bottom up, a fair redistribution of the land and new, more co-operative means of organising a sustainable way of producing what the majority of our people on planet Earth need to achieve a decent standard of living and comfort.

    Since a nuclear 3rd World War between the superpowers such as the USA and China would wipe us all ( so, not a ” solution ” ! ) and given that a return to fascism on a big scale is not what the vast majority of people from our Western societies will tolerate anymore ( we’ve leant our lessons from Nazism ), may be we have reached the last stage of imperialism as anticipated by Lenin after all.

    It is therefore up to us to lay the foundations for a new Manifesto for future generations. We have to be prepared for the inevitable next global financial meltdown.

    I believe that is exactly what this important debate now taking place between the “de-growthers ” and eco-socialists is fundamentally about.

  7. John Riddell March 26, 2013 at 12:42 pm |

    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 are they?

    Take the tar sands, for example. Yes, one can argue for shutting down the tar sands as part of a universal strategy for degrowth. What advantage does this have over the way it is being argued now, that is, around issues of climate change, pollution, environmental destruction, and indigenous sovereignty?

    Should we be demonstrating against Keystone XL on the grounds that building it would cause economic growth? Hmm, that gives me pause.

  8. Simon Butler March 25, 2013 at 9:04 pm |

    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. http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/planet/planet.html

    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.”

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