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Disaster Environmentalism 2: Roads to a Post-Growth Economy

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, December 5, 2019

The disaster environmentalists’ hopes for the future rest not only on “deep adaptation”, but on acceptance that we need to live in a “post growth world”. Rupert Read writes:

It is crucial that we resist growthism, the very widespread drive to keep the economy ‘growing’. For (perpetual) growthism is a perpetual obstacle to collective sanity, to facing the reality of [ecological and social] limits. […] And green growthism is merely a subset of growthism.[1] […]

Society can not afford more growth, Read argues; progress towards understanding this is “glacially slow”. And so:

It still seems, tragically, far more likely that growth will end because of collapse than because of informed decision.

Yes and no, in my view. “Economic growth”, as manifested by global capitalism, is completely unsustainable. “Green growth”, or “socialist growth”, are no substitutes. Our challenge to the economic system must open the way for a society based on human happiness and fulfilment, values completely at odds with – and distorted and defaced by – the rich-country consumerist ideology that helps to justify ever-expanding material production. But, unlike Read, I believe that the way “growth” ends is still to play for.

In my view (not new, from a socialist), all this means challenging capitalism, along with the state and political structures that protect its interests. On that, the disaster environmentalists are agnostic. They talk up the need for systemic change, but combine this with tame, almost naïve, claims about how to challenge the system.

A really thoughtful article by Richard McNeill Douglas, in a book put together by the disaster environmentalists, poses a crucial question: “Could capitalism survive the transition to a post-growth economy?”[2] Douglas surveys the arguments by mainstream degrowth economists on one side, and ecosocialist writers on the other. Both camps view breaking with growth as vital; the former see that as an alteration of capitalism, the latter as a movement past capitalism. Douglas concludes:

It does seem possible to imagine capitalism’s survival through a transition to a post-growth economy – but only if one defines it in formal terms, as a set of features relating to private ownership and market distribution. If one understands the drive of endless accumulation to be the essence of this system, however, then the answer is clearly the opposite. […] If capitalism could survive the transition to a post-growth econmy, then, it would be a strange beast: capitalism without the capitalists.

Spot-on. Furthermore, Douglas continues, it’s for this reason – that growth and capitalism appear to be inextricably bound together – that:

[T]he significance of the [mainstream de-growthers’] modelling which shows the compatibility of post-growth economics and capitalism could appear to be easily exaggerated. So many special conditions are required to enable this model to function as to surely reduce the significance of its contribution to this debate, its suggestion as the survivability of capitalistic organisation in a post-growth economy appearing only trivially true.

However, Douglas continues, another way to see this is that the mainstream degrowthers’ work is “a significant breakthrough”, which might not win the debate about capitalism’s sustainability, but “points towards its transcendence”. It offers a model of a non-growing economy that is macroeconomically stable: a wage economy that “uses markets and price signals to connect consumer preferences with production standards and options”.

The model developed by Herman Daly, the most prominent mainstream degrowther, could be “the beginnnings of a convergence of capitalism and socialism, within the terms of environmentalism”. And:

Abiding by environmental limits, abolishing the systemic drive for accumulation, respecting the internal dynamics of macroeconomic stability, and preserving a sense of pluralism, freedom and dynamism – these are the defining conditions for any viable economy from this point forwards. […] Is capitalism compatible with this vision? – sort of. Does this matter? – in the way that it is compatible, very much so. […]

On a tokenistic level this blurring of its political lines might disrupt the automatically negative reactions that a simple identification either with capitalism or socialism might variously draw from left or right. More substantially, its reception might itself be aided by the theoretical design of a post-growth economy.

And here Douglas has lost me completely. The implication is that, if we can draw a picture of a future economy that keeps the good bits of capitalism (market mechanisms, price signals, wages) and chucks out the bad bits, we have found the road forward. That the design of a post-growth economy might look so attractive to those with power that they will embrace it.

How this could begin to be achieved, in the real world that we live in, Douglas does not say.

That world is one in which governments are tied to the interests of multinational corporations by a gigantic, sprawling web of social and political connections. The looting of the global south is sanctified through international treaties and trade policies; subsidies for fossil fuel production and consumption are embedded in fiscal policies, that also carve out space for corporations in other areas of the economy to salt away their profits; the financial system glues together these corporations with banks and funds, tying in ordinary people’s savings on one hand and debts on the other.

This is power that will have to be confronted: social forces that will have to be challenged by other social forces. This will not be easy. The thirty plus years of neoliberal policies in some of the largest rich countries, which have – not accidentally – gone alongside the emasculation of decarbonisation via the international climate talks, have pushed back at inroads that the labour movement of earlier generations made into the capitalist state, in terms of welfare, health and education provisions, and so on.

Confronting and confounding capital accumulation, which is, as Douglas indicates, the underlying driver of “economic growth”, will mean building on those earlier battles. It will mean class struggle.

I have not found, among the disaster environmentalists – any more than among the mainstream degrowth advocates before them – any sense that changing economic policy will require such a clash of social forces. They see hopes for transforming the economy in finding ways to regulate it, without tampering with the nature of ownership, of finance, or of the associated political structures.

A different way of looking at it

Where the disaster environmentalists see governments’ economic policies as a set of bad ideas, I see a reflection of the inherent destructiveness of capitalism. It is a different way of looking at the world. To my mind, the violence and cruelty written into capitalism’s very being forms an explanatory bridge between the horrors of the 20th century – war, dictatorship, artificially-produced famines – with the foremost threat in the 21st, climate change. It is no coincidence that a system so rapaciously destructive of humanity is also so destructive of nature.

This means not that no progress can be made in tackling dangerous climate change this side of the complete obliteration of capitalism, but that it’s impossible to conceive of a process that tackles climate change without also seeing it as a process that challenges, subverts and confronts capitalism.

These thoughts of mine are not especially original. In 1915, during the first world war, the German socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg famously wrote from a prison cell that humanity faced a choice between “socialism or barbarism”. That way of looking at things was already common in the labour movement in the 1890s, that took on an awful reality during the butchery of the war. The assumption, by Luxemburg and most socialists at the time, was that if humanity was not able to destroy capitalism, it would be reduced to barbarism.

Twentieth century history has borne this out, but not as an “either/or”. Capitalism was not destroyed. While it succeeded in overcoming what appeared to be fatal contradictions, and, especially during the post war boom, supporting historically unprecedented living standards for rich-country populations, the barbarism grew within: war, the special technological cruelty of atomic and chemical weapons, dictatorship, the subjugation of the global south. The supposedly “socialist” alternatives in the Soviet Union and China reproduced much of the most horrible aspects of capitalist barbarism. (A similar view of the 20th century was offered in 2000 by the Hungarian Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros.)

It has turned out that the boom – which seemed to be one of capitalism’s most positive achievements – was, by crunching through fossil fuels and other natural resources, paving the way for even greater manifestations of barbarism in the 21st century. In Syria, to start with. To my mind, the need to supercede capitalism remains; Rosa Luxemburg’s choice, “socialism or barbarism”, is being reproduced in the 21st century, as climate crisis.

One of this century’s tragedies, to my mind, is that many socialists are so hamstrung by 20th-century ideologies, that, from the standpoint of the generation of school pupils now leading the fight on climate change, socialism appears as out-of-touch as disaster environmentalism is politically tame.

Many so-called socialists or would-be socialists have not broken with the Prometheanism (i.e. faith in humanity’s ability to overcome material obstacles with industry and technology) that ran through much socialist thinking in the 20th century. This belief in the positive qualities of the economic growth initiated by capitalism in 19th-century Europe dominated the early labour movement. It was accentuated when the Russian revolution of 1917 ushered in the world’s first “workers’ government”, which saw industrialisation, urbanisation and electrification as vital steps to lifting the people of the former Russian empire out of poverty. That in turn reinforced the enthusiasm for industrial development in the labour movement far beyond the Soviet Union’s borders; together with this came assumptions that socialism will continue “economic growth” in a non- or post-capitalist form.

The culmination of state socialism’s embrace of economic growth was the decision in the late 1990s by the Chinese Communist Party to turn the country in to the “workshop of the [capitalist] world”. By investing heavily in the production of energy-intensive raw materials and manufactured goods to export to the rich world, the CCP gave another twist to the spiral of capital accumulation. There followed the greatest coal boom in world history, the prime purpose of which was to fuel China’s export-focused boom. That has seriously exacerbated the runaway fossil fuel consumption that is driving climate change.

To be clear: I am not sitting comfortably in the global north, telling Chinese people that their economy should be prevented from developing in the way that they want or need. (Not that most Chinese people were consulted on the economic development model in the first place.) I am arguing that the development path chosen – which benefited world capitalism in the first place, producing urbanisation and some increase in living standards as a by-product – could perfectly well have been substituted by one less damaging to the future of Chinese and other people in future, i.e. less carbon-intensive. There were alternatives; roads that were not taken.

I have never thought of the Chinese Communist Party – nor any of the Soviet or other versions of state “socialism” – as socialist, in the way that I understand the meaning of the word. But the record of state socialism casts a long shadow.

Twenty-first century socialists are rethinking. A good example is Alan Thornett, who in the 1960s and 1970s was a militant in one of the UK’s biggest car factories, the British Leyland plant at Oxford, and a leading light in the Trotskyist movement. In a book published last year, Facing the Apocalypse, Thornett challenges the acceptance of “economic growth” that is still widespread in the labour movement. In the era of climate change, that is incompatible with socialism, he argues. I agree.

Hopefully the social movements in this century will build on the successes of, and overcome the defeats of, the workers’ movement in the 20th century; socialist programmes will be worked out that build on the thinking by Rosa Luxemburg and others, and bury the quasi-capitalist practices of the state socialist regimes. Such programmes will find a way to post-growth that is more than an economists’ sketch, that can take shape in the activity of people working to change the world.

How change happens

These different views of the path to a post-growth economy matter, because they will inform decisions about how to move in that direction. Socialists think in terms of large-scale social movements; of political transformation going beyond the existing political system; of developing collective counter-power to confront the structures of power that are inherent to capitalism. Many who are active at local community level see that as bound up with a movement for change that necessarily offers a challenge to capitalism.

The disaster environmentalists, for all the radicalism of their view of what the future holds, have a fairly conventional environmentalist view of how to bring about change, focused at local level.

For Rupert Read, change has to be made at local level, and will only be converted into systemic change via catastrophe. “We have to build seeds of a new system at community level within the shell of the old”, he writes, “because of the high probability that the old will fail at scale, perhaps catastrophically. We need, therefore, to have good examples that can be scaled up in that eventuality”, such as the Transition Towns initiatives.[3]

When he advocates “radical activity at every level”, he means not the expansion of social movements, but “good people everywhere at this time […] sinking their savings into radical causes, standing for parliaments, putting their bodies on the line, getting involved in smallholdings and foraging, devising places to live that can be resilient in the event of social breakdown, looking at their careers and asking what better they could do in the time we may have remaining; and more.” He also favours electoral activity.[4] But the focus is to build islands of post-growth within the capitalist economy; there is no hint that we as a social force can summon up the collective strength to challenge the nexus between power and wealth.


[1] Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander, This Civilisation is Finished (Melbourne: Simplicity Institute, 2019), pages 23-24

[2]Richard McNeill Douglas, “Could capitalism survive the transition to a post-growth economy?”, in John Foster (ed.) Facing Up to Climate Reality (London: Green House, 2019) pp. 15-34

[3] Read and Alexander, This Civilisation is Finished, p. 72

[4] Read and Alexander, This Civilisation is Finished, p. 73

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