Degrowth and Marxism: A Critique

Review of Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism (2023) by Kohei Saito. Published by Cambridge University Press.

Just as the “Green New Deal” did in 2019 and 2020, “degrowth” is currently having a moment of popularity as a left-wing response to the climate crisis. Aspects of the project have been enthusiastically embraced by members of Extinction Rebellion and by many academic socialists.(1) As unlikely as it seems, Kohei Saito’s book originally released as Capital in the Anthropocene in 2020 was a bestseller in Japan, and so he has become somewhat of an intellectual figurehead for the movement, being interviewed by Der Spiegel and his book being reviewed in the Guardian and the Financial Times. The book has finally been translated into English, as well as being renamed and substantially enlarged with additional chapters which are meant to offer more academic arguments for an English-speaking Marxist audience. Saito has been deeply engaged in long-running debates about the extent of Marx’s engagement with ecology, with Marx in the Anthropocene being an addition to the work of the “metabolic rift” analysis of the Monthly Review school. Degrowth thought however predates Saito and metabolic rift analysis(2) by several decades, so it is important to place this work in the longer tradition of degrowth thought, as well as the thought of the metabolic rift school itself, in order to understand what is novel about this book, as well as give an overall appraisal of Saito’s attempt to combine these two intellectual traditions.

What Does Degrowth Mean?

Firstly, it is worth emphasising that it is an often intentionally vague term aimed more to provoke thought than establish a codified doctrine and as such can include a variety of critiques and proposals.(3) This ambiguity means that degrowth can sometimes take on liberal reformist dimensions, and at other times appear as almost a sort of anarcho-primitivism or even neo-Malthusianism. What is essential to the critique can be seen in relation to what is common to the two more dominant political narratives of “green capitalism” and the “Green New Deal” that degrowth is explicitly opposed to. While green capitalism, under the rubric of “sustainable growth” first proposed in 1987 by the Brundtland Report of the UN, argues that an ecologically sustainable society can be reached through the action of the free market once the government has adequately priced environmental negative externalities (through carbon taxes, etc.), and the Green New Deal argues that climate catastrophe can only be averted by the government taking a more central role in investing in and directing new “green” industries, both have an underlying assumption that economic growth is necessary and beneficial for these transitions. Degrowth thought, on the other hand, argues economic growth itself is the problem, and that only a reduction in GDP or total societal material or energetic throughput will solve the ecological crisis. Insofar as economic growth is an essential element of capitalist society, degrowth may seem an inherently radical ideology. As an economy that does not accumulate capital would necessarily collapse, a call for degrowth may seem to straightforwardly be a call for the end of capitalism. However, degrowth literature often defines its enemy as “economism” or even philosophical dualism rather than class society. As Jason Hickel puts it in his book Less is More: “Ultimately, capitalism itself is just a symptom. The real problem lies much deeper, in the realm of ontology – in our theory of being”.(4) This conception of the main enemy of an ecologically sound society tends to lead to an acceptance of reformist politics. The reason for this can be seen in the political, economic and historical assumptions that are contained within degrowth thought and which can be elucidated through a reconstruction of the history of the term.

The term “degrowth” (in French décroissance) was first used by the influential New Left figure André Gorz(5) in 1972 during a debate organised by his magazine Le Nouvel Observateur in which he said: “Is global balance, which is conditional upon non-growth—or even degrowth—of material production, compatible with the survival of the (capitalist) system?”(6) This was in the context of the francophone debate over the Limits to Growth report by the Club of Rome (1972), which had predicted resource depletion if world governments did not make a rapid shift to a “zero-growth” society or enforce population control. Gorz explicitly advocated degrowth in his book Ecology as Politics (1975), where he quotes the ideas of the economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen that even zero-growth societies would lead to exhaustion of resources.(7) Degrowth then was already a meeting of two separate intellectual traditions. On one hand, the New Left and the search for a new revolutionary subject inspired by the existentialist Marxism of Jean Paul-Sartre, and on the other the fledgling field of “Ecological Economics”.

Ecological Economics was an attempt to understand the economic system in terms of material and energy use, with an eye to calculating resource depletion and providing universal laws describing the relationship between man and nature. It represented part of the wave of “systems-thinking” that flourished in the post Second World War intellectual landscape that appealed to the western technocratic elite at the head of the Bretton-Woods system and was personified in the west by ecological thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller, H. T. Odum, and Donella Meadows (one author of the Limits to Growth report). There is also a separate but connected influence from the more political side of the environmental movement, personified by economists such as E. F. Schumacher, whose famous 1973 book Small is Beautiful argued that small and medium sized co-operatives and “intermediate technology” could serve as the basis of a more equitable and sustainable society, and the Catholic priest Ivan Illich who likewise criticised technology and mass institutions for their alienating powers.(8) Although André Gorz published writings by both Illich and Georgescu-Roegen in Le Nouvel Observateur, it was Georgescu-Roegen who proved to be the most profound influence on the degrowth movement. Georgescu-Roegen’s thought contained a profound pessimism within it. He took the thermodynamic law of entropy and applied it to the economics of resource and energy use, arguing that as human activity could only transform one energy form into a less organised and therefore less useful form, an economic system based on perpetual growth would inevitably reach a tipping point at which “recycling” of this energy was impossible and the economy would be forced to shrink back to a much lower level.(9) Notwithstanding some criticism from physicists of Georgescu-Roegen’s application of this law(10), degrowth thinkers have generally kept at least his vision of an energetic descent to a solar minimum as a basic assumption.(11)

During the late 1970s and early 80s a series of deep changes to the world economy caused interest in degrowth and other environmental issues to wane. The financialisation of the economy improved access to credit which along with the decline in oil prices over the 1980s “solved” the problem of resource scarcity, while the off-shoring of heavy industries removed the visible impact of pollution within the capitalist core.

Degrowth as a popular term re-emerged on the French protest scene in 2002, in the wake of the anti-globalisation movement. In February and March of that year Ivan Illich chaired a conference at the UNESCO headquarters called "Défaire le développement, refaire le monde” (Unmaking development, remaking the world). In February a French magazine called S!lence published a special issue in tribute to Georgescu-Roegen which reintroduced his ideas to many.(12)

In the UK the first introduction of the term was through Tim Jackson’s 2008 book Prosperity without Growth and the work of the New Economics Foundation. Spread of degrowth as an idea around the world has been maintained by an association of researchers called “Research and Degrowth” which in 2008 proposed a definition of degrowth as “a voluntary transition toward a just, participatory, and ecologically sustainable society”. From a more economic point of view, they have also defined it as “an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that will reduce societies’ throughput of energy and raw materials”.(13) Combining this with its social and political commitments they define it thus:

Degrowth signifies a society with a smaller metabolism, but more importantly, a society with a metabolism which has a different structure and serves new functions. Degrowth does not call for less of the same. The objective is not to make the elephant leaner, but to turn the elephant into a snail.(14)

In this way we can see the many authors behind degrowth do not see it simply as a reduction in energy use, but also fundamentally a different use of that energy. It is perhaps not fundamental enough, in that the essential point of these often vague proposals, is merely the aspiration to a capitalism that does not accumulate.

Metabolic Rift

The concept of “metabolism” is also used in a variety of eco-socialist literature as a way of describing the physical exchange of material that happens between human society and nature.

The use of the term comes straight from Marx. However, Marx uses the term in several other ways as well. In Capital Vol.1 it is used in three separate ways: in an abstract way as a biological analogy for the circulation of commodities (“In so far as the process of exchange transfers commodities from hands in which they are non-use-values to hands in which they are use-values, it is a process of social metabolism”)(15), in a general way to talk about the interaction between human labour and nature (“Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature”)(16), and in a specific way where it is used to describe the exchange of soil nutrients within the circuit of capital (“Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance. This has two results. On the one hand it concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil.”)(17)

Of the three uses, the one used in the definition of degrowth above is closest to the third definition, that stresses the material exchange between society and nature. Marx himself took this definition directly from the work of the 19th century agricultural chemist Justus Von Liebig, who was instrumental in developing the field of organic chemistry and proving that plants relied on soil mineral nutrients for their growth. Metabolism was for Liebig this exchange of nitrogen, phosphorus and other trace minerals between the soil and plants. Liebig noted how “robbery-agriculture” i.e. the over-farming of plots of land was leading to an exhaustion of the soil and reductions in crop yields. The nutrients were being taken from the soil and then lost as sewage from animal agriculture and urban areas. As a solution to this he proposed aggressive manuring of agricultural land to return nutrients to the soil. To this end he ran a company selling his patented manure mix to farmers. But with the further development of industrial agriculture, in the 1860s he became pessimistic about the ability of manuring to heal the metabolic rift opened up between the town and the country. Liebig felt that reduction of crop yields over the long term was inescapable and saw civilisational destruction on the horizon. In this way he pre-empted by a century the ecological pessimism of Georgescu-Roegen who likewise saw an inevitable and irreversible energetic decline caused by human activity.

The Monthly Review school, under whose press Saito released his first book Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, makes great use of the concept of metabolic rift in their treatment of capitalism’s environmental impacts. This analysis has been pioneered by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett in order to show Marx and Engels’ interest and understanding of ecological issues against a critique from some environmentalists(18) that Marx and Engels had ignored completely issues of resource scarcity and environmental pollution, and that the concept of metabolic rift already provided a theoretical link between the depletion of the soil and the capitalist labour process. The other concept that the Monthly Review school is famous for is that of “monopoly capital” (which, back in the day, had already been taken apart by Paul Mattick).(19) Namely that due to the concentration of capital within a small number of monopolies, the law of competition which would cause the rate of profit to fall over the long term is no longer in operation and thus crises are only caused by overproduction and underconsumption of commodities. The two concepts may not seem related at all, yet Paul Sweezy, the author with Paul Baran of Monopoly Capital (1966) was from a very early stage concerned with environmental issues. In fact, Sweezy and Georgescu-Roegen were friends at Harvard together during the 1930s where they were both students of Joseph Schumpeter. Sweezy followed his old friend’s work closely and wrote to him in 1974 praising it, yet also criticising him for his political conservatism. According to Foster, “[Sweezy] was deeply concerned with the development of a mode of Marxian thought that could incorporate the entropy law—a task that would not be fully accomplished until the publication of Paul Burkett’s path-breaking Marxism and Ecological Economics”.(20) The similarity between the two ideas lies in a shared concept of unnecessary surplus(21), which can be viewed in its economically corrosive form as the overproduction of commodities underproducing the labour force, and in its environmentally harmful form as the overproduction of crops underproducing the soil.

The metabolic rift school is one side in a wider eco-Marxist controversy. As such, large sections of the opening chapters of Marx in the Anthropocene are devoted to sparring matches with adherents of the opposing side in this controversy, the “world-ecology conversation” as styled by its leading voice, Jason W. Moore. This debate is often obscured by the imprecise ways with which both sides categorise each other’s stances and as such it is not worth getting into the weeds for a discussion principally focused on this book’s treatment of degrowth. However, it is worth noting that degrowthers are usually more receptive to world-ecology than to the metabolic rift school.(22)

Other polemics are carried out in the first two parts of this book regarding the thought of György Lukács and István Mészáros in their relation to nature, as well as controversies surrounding the intellectual division of labour between Marx and Engels. One more useful section of the book is where Saito argues against the proponents of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” for whom the transition to communism can only happen once a certain productive capacity is reached, criticising them for adopting technocratic views which reproduce the productive relations of capitalism while only creating a different means of distribution.

Saito’s Argument

Part three of the book, “towards degrowth communism”, is the core of Saito’s argument and where the various Marxological strands spun in the first two parts of the book are brought together. Saito takes the argument from Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism that Marx had a coherent view of how capitalism causes ecological crises, to expand and say that there follows from these insights a clear vision of the ecological properties of communist society. Saito’s Marxological arguments, that Marx had an interest in ecologically issues but still had productivist notions up to the Grundrisse, and then a more coherent ecological view that was in development at the time of writing Capital, are all based on texts that are widely known and have been available in English for at least the last 50 years. His further argument that Marx’s ecological vision of communism developed post 1868 is based on Marx’s famous drafts and letters to Vera Zasulich and the editorial board of Otechestvennye Zapiski, and the preface to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto. Saito also employs two much less widely read documents, the Ethnological Notebooks of 1879-1881 and the Ecological Notebooks published in the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe. While the subject of the “late Marx” and the “Russian road” is well known(23), the employment of these texts along with wider studies of pre-capitalist societies for their ecological insights is more novel. Saito links closely Marx’s rejection of productivism and eurocentrism in the 1870s with a development of his vision of post-capitalist society and an “abandoning of his earlier scheme of historical materialism”.

This is a bold claim and so it is worth following closely his reconstruction of the development of Marx’s thought. Saito starts with the consideration of the Marx of the Communist Manifesto of 1848, where the scheme of revolution is laid out as follows: the rise of capitalism creates great productive forces, but also leads to an increase of inequality from the capitalists exploiting the proletariat. The increase in poverty of the proletariat means a reduction in their purchasing power which causes an economic crisis as capitalists are unable to make profits and therefore lay off workers, further reducing the proletariat’s purchasing power and compounding the crisis. From this crisis, the proletariat will come to understand their situation, rise up, and expropriate the expropriators. However, the crisis of 1848-50 came and went, and, from his exile in London, Marx considered a new cycle: that of crisis causing the wide scale destruction of value, allowing a new cycle of accumulation to commence, from which a new crisis was inevitable. This was not however, simply a “business cycle” which would be a recurring and potentially manageable phenomenon. Within and beyond these cycles, contradictions were still sharpening. Specifically for the purposes of this book, the shift in 1861-3 from formal to real subsumption of the labour process is considered essential to understanding Marx’s rethinking of the historically “progressive” character of capitalism, as the internal reconstruction of production in response to capitalist crises led to an objective modification of the metabolic interaction between society and nature from its pre-capitalist unity in order to maximise exploitation and surplus extraction. This “progressive” character is noted to have two components already mentioned above: productivism and eurocentrism. Productivism is the idea that capitalism leads to technical development which can reduce the length of the working day and eliminate poverty. Eurocentrism, in this context, is the idea that European countries show non-European countries a vision of their future and that to a certain extent, capitalist development in non-European countries is desirable in the sense of allowing the potential of communist society as a higher stage. Marx’s analysis of the ecological harms caused by the real subsumption of labour, such as soil exhaustion, deforestation, desertification, animal cruelty, species extinction, and water pollution made him rethink the productivist thesis that the productive capacities unleashed by capitalism were something that could be more beneficially applied. If the more developed (i.e. really subsumed) labour processes in the imperial core were therefore not more progressive than the only formally subsumed ones in the periphery, then the thesis of eurocentrism would also have to be thrown out. This is how Saito links Marx’s comment to the Russian revolutionaries that the peasant commune could form the lever of a socialist revolution to his contemporary ecological readings. Marx had been studying Georg Ludwig von Maurer’s study of the ancient Germanic commune as well as Carl Fraas’ study of how civilizations’ activities influence their climate. From these he concluded that primitive communist societies were better at maintaining a positive relationship with their environment, and that the birth of large-scale agriculture in ancient Mesopotamia had led to environmental destruction and desertification. The peasant commune then, rather than simply being a feudal residue consigned to be displaced at the first instance in the name of universal development, represented a positive example of sustainable metabolic interaction with the environment which could even act as a place of resistance to capitalist development in a way that could be conducive to the launching of a socialist revolution. That is, allowing Russia to skip the historical stage of capitalism. He notes that Marx did not want the rural commune to be preserved as a museum to rural life, but that rather it should utilise modern technology and develop on its own sustainable terms.

The politics of the rural commune may seem a historical curiosity, as any hope of its organisation forming the basis of a new society was dashed by a decade of development under the liberal Tsardom of Alexander III, followed by the First World War and the Russian Civil War, and then the nail in the coffin of the NEP of Lenin and the collectivisation of Stalin (in fact, already in 1894, Engels pondered “whether enough of this commune has been saved so that, if the occasion arises, as Marx and I still hoped in 1882, it could become the point of departure for communist development”).(24) Saito argues for the continuing relevance of this analysis as it forms the basis of a fundamental change, not to the theories of different paths to communism, but of the content of communism itself. He even speculates that part of the reason that Marx delayed the publication of Capital Vol.2 and 3 so much was precisely due to this change, and Marx’s studies of Russia, mathematics, geology and ethnography were in order to develop this new argument. Concretely, the result of Marx’s study of pre-capitalist and non-western societies was that “cooperative production and […] communal property are related to a more sustainable form of human metabolic interaction with their environment”. Marx made notes on the work by Maurer on the ancient Germanic commune that “the individual received his share of the common mark, as far as it was distributed, for a number of years, but only for cultivation and use. The share of each in the gardens, fields and meadows was allotted to him and was called the whole share. After the expiration of the years designated for special use, all shares reverted to the community and were remeasured and again distributed to the individuals”. Saito comments that this “was an effective way to prevent the formation of relationships of domination and subjugation among its members due to the concentration of wealth.” In addition, export controls guaranteed the circulation of soil nutrients within the boundaries of the commune, as plant nutrients would decompose back into the soil through manuring of fields rather than being transported to cities and lost through sewage into rivers and the sea. Marx’s study of “communism in living” in Henry Lewis Morgan’s work on the Iroquois, also furthered his understanding of the link being communal ownership and a sustainable social metabolism.

At this point, one can place this work within a trajectory of eco-Marxist thought. If degrowth thought has in common with Marx the third definition of metabolism referenced above, that of material exchange between society and nature, and the metabolic rift school has the second as well, that is how this exchange is mediated by the labour process, then the attempt by Saito to extrapolate the ecological conditions of communism from Marx’s critique of the degeneration of the productive forces is an attempt to include the first definition as well, that of the process of objectification under the value-form.

However, it is one thing to note the rural commune as the “focus of popular life and liberty during the Middle Ages” and its relative longevity and vitality in comparison to urban areas and latifundia against war, plague and famine. But it is strange on the other hand that Saito does not consider the position of the rural commune today, central as it is to his argument as a positive example of social metabolism. Large parts of Africa and Asia are still under customary land tenure, where fructus rights to the land or at least water are given to individual members of a tribe or village, but land ownership is held by the village in common. In other words, a structurally similar legal system to that which existed in the English open field system or the Russian mir, and to some extent the ancient Germanic commune or the longhouse units of Iroquois society. However, as any system ecologist or biologist would tell you, cells do not live in isolation of the body. While the legal structure may be superficially similar, the social context within which they are found differs greatly. The global capitalist system, within which today’s communal land endures, places an unbearable burden on their inhabitants. The “green revolution” and the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s enforced by the US and IMF following the third world debt crisis in the 1980s has done much to commodify land in the global periphery, the bitter fruit of which can be seen in persistent famines in African countries even when they have food surpluses or the plague of suicides of Indian farmers drowned by debt. The eurocentrism of early and middle Marx can then be seen for what it is, not an apologia for European primitive accumulation in their colonies but a tragic acknowledgement of the as of yet unstoppable progress of the rationalising machine of capitalism that “incorporate[s] the soil into capital, and create[s] for the urban industries the necessary supplies of free and rightless proletarians”(25). Marx’s comment that the Russian mir “may” form the lever for a social revolution (which, for the record, he did not see in isolation, but on the condition that “the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other”)(26) has to be read in the context of the further development of the rural commune and peasant radicalism over the course of the 20th century. Examples of peasant or smallholder movements during the 20th century (Chinese peasants against the compradors, Latin American peasants against globalisation, Punjabi peasants against neoliberal reforms of Modi) have been, as protests foreshortened by their position as owners of land recognised (or in the process of being recognised) by the state, limited to making demands for state aid rather than destruction of the state.

Saito does ask of us, as part of the project of degrowth communism, to listen to and learn from indigenous communities, specifically their ability to form steady-state economies which persist over the long term. It is of course true that the making of indigenous people, that is the uprooting of people from their land and forcing by capitalist development into the most precarious position of existence (becoming victims of primitive accumulation to be succinct), involves at the general level forgetting of essential knowledge relating to a specific bioregion and its rational management. This knowledge, despite the valiant efforts of indigenous communities to conserve it, is doomed to oblivion if these communities are not reconnected with their land and it remade into the truth of their lives. What does learning from indigenous communities mean in this context? This has to be a fundamentally communist politics which requires not just a liberal idea of “landback”, in the sense of transferring property deeds or cash equivalents to indigenous people while some “insights” of indigenous knowledge are superficially absorbed into the capitalist system, but an entire restructuring of productive relations to allow the continued ecological flourishing of all society, interdependent as it is. Our comrades in the IWG have noted elsewhere the continuing exploitation and murder of indigenous peoples in Latin America even by nominally left-wing governments.(27) The truth is that no matter the ideological pretensions of capitalist governments nor how much they claim to champion the causes of sustainable development and indigenous people, they are condemned by the logic of capitalist value to ensure the necessarily ecocidal and authoritarian robbery of the natural world continues.

Where Saito is perhaps stronger is in his critique of Stalinism. He rightly criticises the Stalinist view that the productive forces of capital can be appropriated and repurposed for the interests of the proletariat without any profound modification of the social metabolism with nature. And while he links closely co-operative production and communal ownership with a sustainable metabolism between society and nature, he errs in not distinguishing properly between the means whereby such a relationship can be brought about. Saito’s proposals do not preclude revolutionary change, but he seems to be open to reformism at many points. As he says on page 59 when talking about the “active factor of resistance” against environmental destruction, “The boundless extension of working hours as well as the intensification of labour result in the alienation of labour and physical and mental illness. This ultimately calls for the conscious regulation of reified power such as by establishing the normal working day or schools for vocational teaching founded by the state. A similar path can be envisioned with regard to nature”. This is troublesome for his argument because it depends on there being an unavoidable link between communal cooperation and rational management of the social metabolism. Therefore, any moderation of the social metabolic interaction within capitalist society would either be a brief aberration, soon done away with by the “domination of individuals leading to the concentration of wealth” or a deepening of the ecological contradiction to appear in further calamities. If Saito thinks that democracy within capitalism can create these “non-reformist” reforms, then he is stuck in the productivist notions of the Stalinists that he criticises. Namely, that a certain level of further production, with more “ecological” considerations but still under fundamentally capitalist relations of production is necessary or at least positive towards a truly ecological and communist society. This is the position of Foster who Saito quotes on page 210 saying that an ecological society requires the transition towards “an economy without net capital formation”. And it is this elision that allows Foster in other places to claim as a sort of degrowth Xi Jinping’s target that China reach carbon neutrality by 2060, stating that “The seriousness with which ecological civilization is being pursued [in China] is reflected in the clear acknowledgment that, in the implementation of these ecological plans, economic growth will need to be slowed somewhat in relation to earlier decades”.(28)

Marx in the Anthropocene is most persuasive when it outlines clearly that the rift between society and nature can only be repaired by communist society. But it is also frustrating in that it does not follow through to explicitly dismiss reformism as a means of repairing this breach, thus contradicting an earlier, equally true, assertion of a fundamental unity between co-operative production and a sustainable metabolism between society and nature.

What can this ambiguity within even the most thorough systemisation of degrowth tell us about its wider political project? What do other degrowth thinkers offer as their politics?

Degrowth Politics

Authors Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan in their book The Future is Degrowth (2022) list three political strategies of degrowth(29): interstitial strategies (cooperatives and community-based organisations), non-reformist reforms (reduction of working hours, radical policies of redistribution, universal basic services, and ecological tax reform), and building counter-hegemony and parallel institutions of power (strikes, blockages, citizen assemblies). This gives an idea of the variety of options that are considered for the aim of shrinking the economy. In order to counter the claim that any reduction in growth would lead to increased inequality and living standards, the authors state that this is opposite to the aims of degrowth for equality and good living, which is a strange non-answer – given that with the current dynamics of capitalist society, any reduction in growth forecasts due to widespread exiting of the workforce and entering into ecological, co-operative regionally anchored communities and “solidarity economies” would cause a recession, reducing demand for the produce of these communities (assuming they still wish to make use to some degree of modern technology and have to trade with the outside world) forcing them to shut down or adapt to industrial production, either way pauperising these ecological secessionists and returning them to the labour supply.

The second strategy of non-reformist reforms can have a similar critique levelled at it. That the ecological space carved out by a legislated reduction of the working day within capitalism would be eroded, either directly or indirectly, under demands from the bourgeoisie of a return to profitability.

The third political strategy is the one with which we as communists have more agreement, as it marks the point when the proletariat finally stand up to the bourgeoisie. However, strikes and other manifestations of working-class self-activity are doomed to be defeated or absorbed within the capitalist system unless they can unite internationally behind a programme of seizing political power. And specifically dismantling the global capitalist system which ensures the continuation of the basic conditions of capitalist society and associated environmental destruction.

Without a clear political programme, how do degrowthers see an end to the capitalist system? Is there simply an assumption the quantitative addition of myriad forms of vague and potentially contradictory resistance, will at some critical point metamorphosise into a new society? Or is there, within their analysis of the dynamics of capitalist society, an assumption of inevitable self-destruction of that society? Let us look at some examples of descriptions of the future of capitalist societies from degrowth authors:

Just as there is nothing worse than a work-based society in which there is no work, there is nothing worse than a growth-based society in which growth does not materialise. And that social and civilizational regression is precisely what is in store for us if we do not change direction. For all these reasons, de-growth is conceivable only in a de-growth society, or in other words within the framework of a system that is based upon a different logic. The alternative really is: de-growth or barbarism.

Serge Latouche - Farewell to Growth, 2007

The social limits thesis is central for degrowth. It is not only that growth will not last forever or that it is becoming uneconomical because of its social and environmental costs. It is that growth is ‘senseless’

Giorgis Kallis - Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era, 2014

This is the essential point: while degrowth (as a social project) may still be considered a utopia, ‘real’ degrowth, that is the long term decline in advanced capitalist societies, should be considered as a fact, with all the harshness characterising processes of a material and economic nature.

Mario Bonaiuti - The Great Transition, 2014

Here we can perhaps see the influence of Georgescu-Roegen, where the inevitability of the energy descent, is itself the motor and creator of the degrowth society, and replaces the role of the proletariat as the author of a communist society. In this way there is a similarity between the socialism of classical social democracy which saw its role as waiting for the ripe fruit of socialised industry to fall into the lap of the technocratic custodians of the working-class movement, and the politics of the degrowth academics.(30)

In a way, this is what “economism” is for degrowthers, the ruling ideology of our current society that must actively be made to fade away as surely as the economic system under it is in crisis. And that it must be replaced with a new ideology that is appropriate to the energetic regime we will find ourselves under. However, the ideology of capitalist society is really a product of the capitalist relations of production and it is these which must be changed. Instead, they argue that we have a choice of ideologies and that the cost of not choosing is eco-fascism, a society with low material throughput but with the ideology of an expansive and imperialistic one. The abundance of some would then require the extinction of others.

The danger of what is called eco-fascism is very real, but we shouldn’t let this fear blind us to the real difficulties of a transition to a communist society or the sources of reaction. Even attempts at real material improvements for the working class within capitalist society will meet with “fascism”, i.e. capitalist violence. At this point, the question of seizing political power from the fascists as well as liberal capitalists will have to be contended with. Unfortunately, due to the decadent nature of capitalist society, capitalism’s jealous guarding of every potential to increase profit means there is no reformist means of avoiding this violence.


The key argument of the degrowthers is that capitalism must stop accumulating. As we have argued above, this implies the collapse of the system and its replacement by cooperative production controlled by the producers themselves. Degrowth literature continually skirts around this central issue, which leaves the door open to uncritical and even conciliatory positions towards social democratic and Stalinist politics, which in addition to maintaining capitalist society are inherently ecologically unsustainable. There is an assumption within degrowth literature that capitalist society is reaching its ecological limit beyond which it will no longer be able to function due to the building up of negative ecological externalities. Unfortunately, we cannot be optimistic about the potential for the ecological crisis to end capitalism. The only thing necessary for the continuation of capitalist society is the maintenance of conditions of profitability through the exploitation of wage-labour. This ultimately requires devaluation of capital on a massive scale, which, in the present stage of capitalism’s development, is just as likely to be achieved by global war as catastrophic climate change. The planet may be burned over by warfare and forest fires, yet if capitalists are still able to command labour to expend itself profitably, the system will continue indefinitely no matter how barbarous the conditions become. This is why it is so important to be clear about the need for a political break with the capitalist system, and a communist alternative to be put forward by the working class itself in order to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship between society and nature. It is a shame, but perhaps not a surprise, that Marx in the Anthropocene does not call for this.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
July 2023


(1) Jason Hickel, Geoff Mann, Michael Löwy

(2) Fred Magdorf and John Bellamy Foster from the Monthly Review school however have both had cautious engagements with the concept back to 2011.

(3) “The idea of degrowth is both politically and intellectually generative and serves to knit together other concerns and desires in a not always systematic way“

(4) Jason Hickel – Less is More (2020)

(5) André Gorz’s most notorious work is perhaps Farewell to the Working Class (1980), where he rejects the industrial working class as an antithesis to capital. In its place he sees the feminist and ecological movements and their “revolutionary reforms” as harbingers of a new society. Here we can see the basic dichotomy of degrowth thinkers between the old “productivist” working class, and the new amorphous social movements. Gorz in this work sees the political difference between the two is that one wants better pay, and the other wants to work less. Onto which can be easily mapped a distinction between an economy that grows and one that shrinks.


(7) Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen – Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971)

(8) Both Schumacher and Illich were students of the Austrian economist, anarchist and Welsh independentist Leopold Kohr, known for his critique of the “cult of bigness”.

(9) The argument is similar to that of “peak-oil”, that there will come a point at which the energy required to extract a barrel of oil will be greater than the energy contained within that barrel of oil.

(10) Tomas Kåberger and Bengt Månsson - Entropy and economic processes: physics perspectives (2001)

(11) Joan Martínez Alier, a central figure in degrowth thought, summarises Georgescu-Roegen’s vision of an ecologically sustainable society thus: “Georgescu’s lower limit would be that of an economy fuelled by the current inflow of solar power” Joan Martínez-Alier and Roldan Muradian - Taking stock: The Keystones of Ecological Economics. In Handbook of Ecological Economics Ed. Martínez and Muradian (2015).


(13) Schneider et al - Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability (2010)

(14) Giorgis Kallis - Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era (2014)

(15) Karl Marx - Capital Vol.1 (Penguin Edition), Ch.3, The Means of Circulation, p198

(16) Ibid. Ch.7, The Labour Process, p283

(17) Ibid. Ch.15, Machinery and Large-Scale Industry, p637

(18) Including degrowthers “And yet a critique of capitalism is not enough: we also need a critique of any growth society. And that is precisely what Marx fails to provide.” Serge Latouche - Farewell to Growth (2007)

(19) See:


(21) See Paul Mattick’s article Monopoly Capital linked above for a critique of Baran and Sweezy’s concept of surplus.

(22) Both Jason Hickel in Less is More and Timothée Parrique in The Political Economy of Degrowth (2019) lean heavily on Patel and Moore’s book History of the World in Seven Cheap Things (2018) for their reconstruction of capitalism’s origins.

(23) Teodor Shanin - Late Marx and the Russian Road (1983)


(25) Karl Marx - Capital Vol.1 (Penguin Edition), Ch.27, The Expropriation of the Agricultural Population, p895




(29) Helpfully summarised by Mariko Frame in her review of the book

(30) This argument owes much to the comrades of Grupo Barbaria and their book El Decrecentismo y la Gestión de la Miseria (Degrowth and the Management of Misery):

Tuesday, July 25, 2023


I think the issue of degrowth is more complicated. Capitalist production needs to be reorganised, i agree, and this may or may well involve a streamlining of some industries eg agriculture, transport and building. However, if you consider the size of unproductive industries like armaments, financial industries and more complex areas like retailing and state institutions that can also be disposed of or at least slimmed down, then there is plenty of possibility of degrowth. The reorganisation of these industries may be used to support or expand other more productive industries but I dont see we can be very clear about the overall effect. Degrowth will happen in the short term but what is particularly important to recognise is that communism wont be a society that is based on growth in the way capitalism is. I dont agree therefore that degrowth is a view that automatically means reformism, i think we can present it as well as constructive

'Unfortunately, we cannot be optimistic about the potential for the ecological crisis to end capitalism'. I am unsure what this means as i dont think we should be optimistic about the potentials of global war or environmental collapse. Clearly there is a greater threat of global war at present and it is in the forefront of our minds, but environmental crisis will continue to escalate. The CWO presented the argument that the bourgeoisie has not wanted a global war with the threat that is poses of nuclear disaster and i not convinced that situation has change that much so i am inclined to think that ecological crisis is a greater threat and may well increase the threat of war.

I dont agree therefore that degrowth is a view that automatically means reformism


Except, as the article points out, the advocates of degrowth are reformists, which is why they propose measures like "reduction of working hours, radical policies of redistribution, universal basic services, and ecological tax reform".

communism wont be a society that is based on growth in the way capitalism is


Of course, since communism will be a society where things are produced according to need. "Growth", as it's understood today (i.e. GDP increase), will have no meaning in a society without money. However, it's not out of the question that, in order to meet human needs and the challenges of a post-capitalist world, some things might need to be produced more under communism than under capitalism (though the relations of production and the way things are produced will naturally be different).

But there will be a lot of reduced production too that is my point. Eliminating waste production will probably reduce production or the 'economy' by 20% or more so I think left communists can also be called advocates of degrowth but it must be primarily a qualitative reorganisation. My point is that the idea of degrowth is not automatically reformist. Indeed prompted by something in RP22 i would say that communism develops the productive forces qualitatively rather than quantitatively. Having said that there must also be significant quantitative development the poorer regions of the world so i agree growth is not out of the question as you say.

Just to correct my figure of waste production. I found a source saying just the financial industry accounts for 24% of the economy yet armaments is about 6% too. Added to that the armed forces, police and govt institions which may not produce commodoties but still are part of the unproductive sector. So waste ssector must be towards 40%. This sounds high but if its correct then degrowth is clearly what we should be arguing for.

Or, maybe, we could be arguing for communism instead of another trendy academic theory that's so ambigous it's even "being granted a hearing in the EU institutions"...

You are wrong D, I was arguing for communism and what the working class must do when it takes power.

I seem to remember that was a lesson I gained from the CWOs meeting on the German revolution when revolutionaries has little idea of what to do when the class took power. Discusson of what the working class needs to do when it takes power, and that includes what to do about the environmental problems capitalism will leave behind, is important

But that's the thing - degrowthers do not approach the question from the standpoint of "what the working class must do when it takes power", but what reforms can be introduced within the framework of capitalism.

Of course, a system where production takes place according to need not profit will accordingly eliminate waste. But we can't be too prescriptive now regarding "what the working class must do" because we don't know the circumstances under which it will take power, or the exact state of the planet and means of production that it will actually inherit. Therefore we can at best speculate what kind of effort it might require to make the planet habitable and to transform production in accordance with natural conditions.