Should socialists support degrowth?


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:

Reducing production would supposedly worsen the lives of working people.

The degrowth movement began with bourgeois liberals.

Since degrowth cannot occur within capitalism, discussing it should wait until “after the revolution.”

The concept of producing less is too abstract to build a movement around.

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 fitzdon@aol.com

via Should socialists support degrowth?.

via Should socialists support degrowth?.

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Posted on March 31, 2013, in activism, EU, Government, International affairs, Ireland, politics, Russia, UK, USA, Wealth and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Brilliant essay. It’s amazing how many people purport to want change. They say they want to do something about our current race to destroy the planet, say they want to curb insane greed, say they want justice and democracy – yet, run and hide when the subject of evolving past the obscene system of Capitalism is raised. They don’t see the interconnectedness of things. It shows how deep the Capitalist Indoctrination Process runs. Corporate media is clever at exposing the differences between different groups of people who desire change. They have perfected the ancient business of “conquer and divide” with manipulation being the new twist. This obscures the violence to those who don’t see subtlety. But, it’s there. It’s more insidious than in the past because so many people have been “taught” to take part in this mindless violence – pretending they aren’t part of it. Great post. I hope many people read it.

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