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Ecosocialism and Degrowth: a Reply

By Simon Butler - Climate and Capitalism, January 6, 2022

David Schwartzman makes some very good points about the ecological benefits of ending militarism. I was also pleased to read his arguments about the strong potential for 100% renewable energy to meet global energy needs, although I cannot judge if his specific calculations about global per-capita energy are correct.

I’m not a degrowther per se. I think the fundamental problem is capital accumulation, of which capitalist growth is a product, but there are some questionable aspects to Schwartzman’s critique.

First, there is a claim about political strategy: that degrowth will appeal only to “the professional class” (I suppose this means middle class/petty bourgeois/intellectuals etc) in the North and would alienate the “global working class.”

That’s a strange formulation because it seems obvious that it’s not the “global” working class that Schwartzman and similar critics are worried about convincing, but the working class in the North who, they fear, will be repelled by a message that emphasises sharing resources with people elsewhere. The degrowth answer to this is that living standards for working people in the North can still improve even if economic growth is halted, as long as there is significant wealth redistribution.

I suspect that hostility to degrowth ideas among some ecosocialists in the North is linked to glossing over the sharp inequalities that divide “the global working class.” Any worthwhile ecosocialist strategy must address the North’s unequal access to the South’s mineral resources & soil nutrients. We in the North cannot hope to form international alliances with mass movements in the South if we neglect to do this. It’s imperialism that so destructively distorts the economies (and political cultures) of the South and the North, producing glaring inequalities and reproducing the ecological rift on a global level.

This relative underdevelopment of the South is part of what Che Guevara once called “the great formula for imperialist economic domination” which he likened to “the old, but eternally youthful Roman formula: Divide and Conquer!” (See Cuba: Historical exception or vanguard in the anticolonial struggle?)

Debates about degrowth and concerns about how it would be received in the North make me think it’s time to revisit the classical Marxist discussions about imperialism and the labor aristocracy.

Lenin’s original argument was that some of the super-profits accrued in the imperialist countries also flowed in part to the better organised and highly skilled layers of the working class. This creates a minority privileged section of the working class that is far more open to class collaboration.

In his classic speech Socialism and Man in Cuba, Guevara also alluded to the issue of “how the workers in the imperialist countries gradually lose the spirit of working-class internationalism due to a certain degree of complicity in the exploitation of the dependent countries, and how this at the same time weakens the combativity of the masses in the imperialist countries.”

My point is that global working class solidarity cannot be proclaimed or assumed in advance. It doesn’t exist today. It has to be fought for — it cannot be merely rhetorical. Our proposals for action in the North have to line up closely with, and take the lead from, those that arise from the radical movements in the global South.

So if one of the big strategic problems for ecosocialism is overcoming the “divide and conquer” system of imperialism then one of the strengths of the most radical degrowth critiques is their internationalism. Given the specific climate/ecological emergency, strategic degrowth of the wasteful aspects of the economies of the North will allow ecological space for the South to develop. In this way it is linked to the concept of repaying the North’s ecological debt to the South (something David Schwartzman also endorses).

Jason Hickel’s understanding of degrowth goes beyond this as well. He poses degrowth as an anti-capitalist alternative to ecological imperialism and unequal exchange.

“Degrowth, then, is not just a critique of excess throughput in the global North; it is a critique of the mechanisms of colonial appropriation, enclosure and cheapening that underpin capitalist growth itself. If growthism seeks to organize the economy around the interests of capital (exchange-value) through accumulation, enclosure, and commodification, degrowth calls for the economy to be organized instead around provisioning for human needs (use-value) through de-accumulation, de-enclosure and de-commodification. Degrowth also rejects the cheapening of labour and resources, and the racist ideologies that are deployed toward that end. In all of these ways, degrowth is about decolonization.”

There are some versions of degrowth I’ve read that I’ve found less convincing. For instance, there is a difference between the degrowth ideas of people like Serge Latouche and the more systemic, anti-colonial views of people like Hickel, Matthias Schmelzer and Aaron Vansintjan. Ecosocialist assessments of degrowth politics should take those differences into account.

Finally, the article says that degrowth is “a prescription for mass death for most of humanity,” because it would condemn the global south to energy poverty.

That isn’t accurate or fruitful. It fails to acknowledge the basic point that most degrowth advocates explicitly want more energy consumption in the global South. It echoes other oratorical attacks on degrowth that accuse it of triggering a new great depression or implementing global austerity. Such over-the-top claims deter serious discussion.

Let’s be clear in our future discussions: capitalism and imperialism are a “prescription for mass death,” not degrowth thinkers.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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