Would degrowth socialism mean forced austerity?

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Socialism means qualitatively better lives, not bigger piles of the same stuff capitalism makes

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Some leftists argue that ‘degrowth socialism’ would mean mass deprivation. Richard Seymour replies that socialism aims for better ways of life, and that could well mean making less stuff.


by Richard Seymour

There is a Rorschach debate about bananas going on right now, which is mostly – I’m not made of stone – bananas.

The issue is the claim that working-class consumers in the ‘global North’ may have less of certain commodities under ecosocialism than under capitalism. What is rational to produce and transport half way round the world under capitalism might not be so rational under ecosocialism. Bananas are actually a bad example. Their carbon footprint isn’t very big and could be reduced. Meat reared in the ruins of Brazilian rainforests, or palm oil produced in monoculture plantations in Indonesia, would be better examples.

By far the best answer to this debate is Arun Gupta’s Dissent column, which suggests that we can do better than choosing between more or less of the current run of poor-quality foods. It is a poor Prometheanism indeed that thinks socialism consists of offering workers more of what capitalism already delivers. It sidesteps the question of desire, to which all privation and abundance is relative.

But the suggestion that workers need have less of anything is profoundly triggering to a certain kind of socialist. And like Pavlov’s bell to a hungry dog, it has caused drooling utterance of the word ‘austerity’ on more than one occasion. The debate is coarsened by these boorish tics, which I think probably originated with Leigh Phillips of the Breakthrough Institute.

Austerity cannot be accurately summed up as a “politics of less,” especially where “less” means less of certain products like air travel or beef. It is not austerity if we collectively agree, in a democratically planned economy, that it would make sense to do with less of this or that product. To read austerity in that way is to give it a curiously depoliticized inflection, stripped of class analysis.

The purpose of austerity, crudely put, is to make workers pay for capitalist crisis, to insulate the system from democratic challenges produced by that crisis, and by these means to enable capital accumulation to resume on a more profitable basis. It is very much on the side of ‘growth’ in that sense. It is also counter-democratic. Austerity begins with the logic of emergency, usually occasioned by a public debt crisis, overriding normal democratic procedures.

It almost invariably entails the temporary closure of space for debate in the national media, the creation of special ‘independent’ apparatuses to oversee fiscal cuts, and the investment of special authority in unaccountable international financial institutions. As a ferociously moralizing discourse is directed at prior laxity in state spending, rights and entitlements, the only debate permitted is how to effectively free the state from these entanglements.

Does it need to be spelled out that restricting ‘growth’ in a democratically planned economy, even if that were misguided, even if it were based on some spurious reasoning, in no way resembles a capitalist austerity regime?

Why, then, does this ideologeme keep coming up?

Is it because of the innate difficulty in imagining a planned economy that isn’t directed by a reformed and expanded version of the current capitalist state, such that any such constraints would have to be ‘imposed’?

Is it because of the difficulty in envisioning a utopian desire that doesn’t simply augment and inflame the desires already elicited by the capitalist world-market?

Is it because of a doctrinaire interpretation of ‘what Marx says,’ in which socialism is tendentiously interpreted as the unleashing of capital’s already prodigious productive powers?

Is it because of a lurking suspicion that people just aren’t ready to give up their toys for some will-o-the-wisp degrowth socialism?

Whatever the reason, growthers no less than degrowthers are fixated on quantitative thinking, on the idea that everything hinges on the expansion or contraction of the net amount of product, as though the change we seek is not fundamentally a qualitative one. As though the point were to amass more ‘stuff,’ rather than to fundamentally improve the quality of life for everyone. And from that point of view, even a drastic improvement in the circumstances of the majority of workers’ lives could, through the camera obscura, look like ‘austerity’ if it also means ‘less’ of some things.

Richard Seymour’s most recent book is The Twittering Machine: How Capitalism Stole Our Social Life. This article was first published September 12 on his reader-supporter blog: he has kindly given C&C permission to repost it. (If you haven’t already subscribed to his excellent Patreon blog,  check it out right away.)

1 Comment

  • Good points Richard has made concerning the ‘growthers’ and ‘degrowthers’ who only seem opposed but actually are both champions of the latest hierarchical mass society systems – based now on the domination of capital and the class which owns/controls it. The two concepts of growth and degrowth presume a future hierarchical system based upon private capital or state capital (or a mixture – as early post 2nd World War economies) in which the hierarchy will pursue it’s own interests anyway – leaving wage labour in place, plus profits and interest paid on capital. This kind of futurist thinking also seems to imagine a smooth transition between now and an imaginary future which contains no profound crisis of the capitalist mode of production . A crisis in which substantial sections of the system (mode) collapses (through exreme climate events, future war, civil war, or a crucial species/ecological collapse) and that a socio-economic revolutionary transition will need to take place. It’s hard to imagine working communities being urged to debate whether to increase or reduce production from some current hy(or future) pothetical median range, when a probable collapse may mean them starting (here and there or wherever) from some extremely low survival situation. Surely even now, the debate should be focussed upon what kind of association of working people (hierarchical or communal) should replace the present system based on class and elite control of the means of production, not which will be better – growth or degrowth – in some unknown and uncertain and therefore hypothetical future. Regards, Roy