Capitalism and Degrowth—An Impossibility Theorem

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John Bellamy Foster on the movement to halt capitalist growth, without halting capitalism…

According to the Web site of the European degrowth project, “degrowth carries the idea of a voluntary reduction of the size of the economic system which implies a reduction of the GDP.”

“Voluntary” here points to the emphasis on voluntaristic solutions—though not as individualistic and unplanned in the European conception as the “voluntary simplicity” movement in the United States, where individuals (usually well-to-do) simply choose to opt out of the high-consumption market model.ow-or-die society—and if not, what does this say about the transition to a new society?…

It is undeniable today that economic growth is the main driver of planetary ecological degradation. But to pin one’s whole analysis on overturning an abstract “growth society” is to lose all historical perspective and discard centuries of social science. As valuable as the degrowth concept is in an ecological sense, it can only take on genuine meaning as part of a critique of capital accumulation…

Read the full article in Monthly Review, January 2010


  • Herman Daly and the wider school of ‘steady state economists’ may lack (or de-emphasise) a certain appreciation of the realities and implications of the capitalist system. But they have absolutely carried the torch for the understanding that endless economic growth is an impossibility, thereby (following Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen) providing the hard intellectual foundations for the ‘limits to growth’ thesis which has lain at the heart of the modern environmentalist movement since its beginnings. (And Daly has, to boot, demonstrated enormous wit and humanity throughout his writings.) So to talk about Daly in quite dismissive terms shows that one has either not read him, or done so with an entirely tin ear, as it were. Which impression is rather in line with the utterly unearned de haut en bas tone adopted in respect of John Bellamy Foster.

  • The degrowth movement in Europe has attracted the interest and participation of some people with a background in Marxian political economy. I do not know about Latouche himself. The people who are attracted to Daley, on the other hand, either have no background in economics at all or have been trained in neoclassical economics and have little or no background in Marxian economics. Neoclassical economics makes a lousy foundation for an ecological economics since, among other things, it cannot clearly distinguish between the (capitalist) market economic and the substantive / material / real economic. Daly himself knows absolutely nothing about Marxian value theory but is given to making pronouncements about it nonetheless based, I would assume, on his cursory reading of inaccurate secondary sources. Marx never said that labour created all wealth but Daly reads him that way because in his ignorance he assumes that Marx’s use of the term value, which is for Marx a specifically capitalist category, refers to material wealth in any society. Long story short, I agree with Jeff White though I always find Bellamy Foster an interesting read on ecological subjects. Bellamy Foster’s writing on political economy could improve if he acknowledged that Marx’s Capital was an unfinished masterpiece and that some reconstruction of that work is necessary to render Marx’s value theory impervious to the criticisms of Daly and his other better informed neoclassical critics.

  • This article by JBF is both confusing and confused. He starts off by expressing sympathy for the degrowth and steady-state advocates, among them the Marxist Paul Sweezy and the very un-Marxist Herman Daly. He argues for an alleged consistency between the positions of Sweezy and Daly, which seems pretty far-fetched; then he seeks to draw a divide between Daly and Latouche, who have far more in common than Sweezy and Daly. He saves all his criticism for Latouche, while having nothing but kindly words for Daly’s “much more reasoned” approach. Why he rightly demolishes Latouche while giving Daly a free pass – even enlisting Daly in his own support – is not readily apparent.

    “Needless to say,” says Foster, “none of this [degrowth and steady-state economics] would come easily, given today’s capitalist economy.” Really? Is it really “needless” to say that? Or isn’t it rather the whole point?