Degrowth and Marxism

Issue: 183

Martin Empson

In September 2019, during a year of rising environmental activism punctuated by swelling climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, climate ­campaigner Greta Thunberg spoke to the United Nations Climate Action Summit.1 One of her most memorable lines was, “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth.” She concluded, “How dare you?”

This linking of economic growth to capitalism’s environmental crisis ­resonates among climate activists and increasing numbers of left-wing and ­ecological thinkers.

Growth is intrinsic to capitalism. Discussions by mainstream politicians about the state of the economy frequently identify growth (or the lack thereof) as an ­indicator of economic strength (or frailty). Capitalism’s advocates consider a lack of ­economic growth, and the lack of a strategy to encourage growth, as a major failing. Conservative Party prime minister Liz Truss blamed a ­mythical “anti-growth coalition” of trade unions, green campaigners and European Union-supporting “Remainers” for the failure of her short-lived administration, complaining in her resignation speech that Britain “has been held back for too long by low economic growth”. In summer 2023, a year on from her 49-day premiership, she attempted to revive her career by launching a new lobby group, The Growth Commission. A similar focus on growth can be found in the rhetoric of the Labour Party; in February 2023, leader Keir Starmer issued five pledges for his first term in office, including a promise that Britain would see the highest rate of continuous growth of any G7 country.2

The idea that growth is essential for economic well-being is not restricted to mainstream politicians and economists. Most sections of the ­workers’ movement, particularly the leaderships of the unions, see a growing economy as the only way of improving working peoples’ conditions. Even some on the far left, especially those influenced by the “communism” of the Soviet Union from the late 1920s onward, view growth ­positively.3 Stalin’s Five Year Plans and endless production targets were part of a strategy to keep up with the West by expanding the Soviet economy. In theory, this was supposed to benefit the working class; in practice, it simply ­mirrored the capital accumulation in the West’s supposed “free market capitalism”.

There is a direct relationship between capitalist forms of production and ­ecological degradation. Throughout history, humans have transformed nature in order to satisfy our needs; yet, only with capitalism has this economic activity lead to systematic deterioration of the environment and unrestricted use of ­natural resources. As we shall see, this is because the motive force of capitalism is the need to maximise profit, rather than the rational use of resources to benefit humanity.

As a result, many activists see a direct correlation between economic growth and ecological degradation. This is epitomised by a popular slogan: “You cannot have endless growth on a finite planet”. So, it is unsurprising that many activists (whether on the far left or more liberal) see “degrowth” as a counter to capitalist environmental vandalism and an alternative to inequality and poverty.

I will loosely term the advocates of this view “degrowthers”.4 Degrowthers argue that we need to turn away from a growth-based economy, instead erecting one aimed at satisfying human need within “planetary boundaries”.5 This requires the shrinking—“degrowth”—of destructive elements of the economy, such as the fossil fuel and arms industries, and the expansion of more ­beneficial sectors, such as healthcare, education and renewable energy.

Degrowth is a reflexive response to capitalist ecological devastation, which is why much said by its advocates resonates with Marxists. Revolutionary ­socialists share a great deal with this approach—we too are enraged by ­capitalism’s degradation of the environment, and we desire a sustainable world that also massively improves access to basic services, ends historic injustices, and delivers equality and democracy for everyone. However, as I will argue in this article, degrowth is an inadequate strategy for the global working class. It cannot offer a solution to a world on the brink of environmental catastrophe.

Instead, Marxists must strengthen their argument for the ­revolutionary ­overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a sustainable world based on “common ownership”. Under a socialist system, democratic planning of the economy would determine production and ensure it takes place in a ­sustainable and equitable way. In this sense, our vision is not a choice between “growth” and “degrowth”. We are for a complete break with the capitalist system through its dismantling and replacement with socialism, and this new society would open up opportunities to enormously expand the ­capacity of humanity to meet its needs in a sustainable way. This would happen through the rational and democratic control of the economy by what Karl Marx called the “associated producers”—those engaged in the productive process. Degrowthers, as I will show, frequently share an anti-capitalist ideal with Marxists, but all too often their approach implies reforming the existing system rather than destroying it.

Achieving this goal of a socialist society requires the mass mobilisation of the working class, impoverished people and oppressed groups in both the Global North and South. In the short term, the struggles waged by these groups will be over expanding their share of the economic surplus. In these ­battles, particularly (though not only) in the Global South, slogans of “degrowth” can be a barrier to those who are fighting to improve their lives against the greed of capitalism. Our strategy and slogans must recognise the real threat of ecological disaster, but must also relate to the living struggles of working people and the oppressed.

All that said, Marxists and degrowthers share much common ground. Thus, this article intends to demystify the ideas put forward by some proponents of degrowth in order to defend them from some cruder critiques. I hope this will contribute to the development of a vision of, and strategy for, collaboration in the struggle for a sustainable and equitable world.

Understanding growth

To get our heads around degrowth, we must start with understanding growth. Let’s begin by looking at the history of the concept of growth in capitalist economic thought before moving on to examine its subsequent interrogation by Marx.

Classical political economists such as Adam Smith believed that a general increase and accumulation of wealth would benefit everyone, as implied by the title of his most famous work, The Wealth of Nations. He saw economic growth as arising directly out of the nature of capitalist society. The division of labour in society, according to Smith, led to a situation whereby the labour of some workers “adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed”.6 However, from the point of view of increasing the wealth of nations, not all labour was economically productive, even if it was useful. Smith believed that unproductive labour—including that performed by people as diverse as the clergy, lawyers, menial servants and opera singers—made no contribution to economic growth. Only productive labour, and the work of the individual capitalist in adding to his capital through investing in the production of new commodities, increased the general wealth of society.7 He describes capital in the following fashion:

It is, as it were, a certain quantity of labour stocked and stored up to be employed, if necessary, upon some other occasion. That subject, or what is the same thing, the price of that subject, can afterwards, if necessary, put into motion a quantity of labour equal to that which had originally produced it.8

For Smith, the accumulation of capital arose out of capitalism’s development of the division of labour and its innovation of new technologies; in turn, this facilitated the further expansion of capital by opening up new markets. As economic theorists Neri Salvadori and Heinz Kurz point out, Smith saw growth as central to the further development of the capitalist economy: “The accumulation of capital propels this process forward, opens up new markets and enlarges existing ones, increases effectual demand, and is thus the main force behind economic and social development”.9

Smith saw the process of the accumulation of capital as unlimited, finding new markets and simultaneously expanding the workforce whose labour enabled accumulation in the first place.10 Viewing the accumulation of capital as essential to the growth of capitalism was central to the work of the early political economists. As we shall see, Marx also placed the accumulation of capital at the heart of his analysis of how capitalism functions—and of his critique of classical political economy. After Marx, however, the study of economic growth became less central to mainstream economics, particularly with the emergence of approaches such as marginalism and microeconomics.11

There was a renewed interest in growth among capitalist economists during the post-war era of Keynesianism. This period also saw the ­development of the concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a way to quantify economic growth. Today, “growth” is central to how capitalism understands itself and how politicians and mainstream economists measure the success of economies.

Nonetheless, Marx’s economic theory, which built upon and radically developed Adam Smith’s ideas, offers the best way to comprehend how ­capitalism systematically destroys our natural environment through endless growth. This is the first reason why it is wrong to argue that activists should, as activist and writer Jonathan Neale’s recent critique of degrowth put it, “stop worrying about Marx”. The second reason is that Marx’s economic theory led him to an analysis of capitalism that guided a strategic understanding of how to destroy the system.12

Marx on growth and accumulation

Marx argued that economic growth arises out of the particular nature of production under capitalism. The shape this production takes is compelled by the competition that lies at the heart of the capitalist system. As Marx famously wrote, “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets”. He continued by quoting Smith: “Industry furnishes the material that saving accumulates.” He described the behaviour of the capitalist according to classical economists in the following terms:

Therefore save, save, that is, reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus value or surplus product into capital! Accumulation for the sake of ­accumulation, ­production for the sake of production; this was the formula in which classical economics expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie in the period of its domination.13

Marx develops this further, emphasising the importance of human labour and natural resources to capitalist production:

By incorporating with itself the two primary creators of wealth, labour power and land, capital acquires a power of expansion that permits it to augment the elements of its accumulation beyond the limits apparently fixed by its own magnitude, or by the value and the mass of the means of production that have already been produced, and in which it has its being.14

The capitalist, Marx says, is compelled to constantly expand production, reinvesting the value they extract from their workers back into production as capital in order to further expand production. This is a matter of survival. Without such competition, monopolies could reduce production to maximise profits. However, competitive accumulation means the capitalist must expand production in order to stay afloat. Marx explains the consequences of this in terms that are often quoted and paraphrased by left-wing degrowthers:

In so far as the capitalist is capital personified, his motivating force is not the acquisition and enjoyment of use values, but the acquisition and augmentation of exchange values. He is fanatically intent on the valorisation of value; consequently, he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake. In this way, he spurs on the development of society’s productive forces and the creation of those material conditions of production that alone can form the real basis of a higher form of society—a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle. Only as a personification of capital is the capitalist respectable. As such, he shares with the miser an absolute drive towards self-enrichment. Yet, what appears in the miser as the mania of an individual is, in the capitalist, the effect of a social mechanism in which he is merely a cog. Moreover, the development of capitalist production makes it necessary constantly to increase the amount of capital laid out in a given industrial undertaking, and competition subordinates every individual capitalist to the immanent laws of ­capitalist production as external and coercive laws. It compels him to keep extending his capital, so as to preserve it, and he can only extend it by means of progressive accumulation.15

Thus, capitalism is a system based on “accumulation for the sake of ­accumulation”. Let us explore how this comes about. The driving force of ­capitalism is the individual capitalist’s desire to maximise profits relative to investment. The “compulsion” to do this arises in the context of two great divisions in capitalist society: first, the division between the exploiter and the exploited; and, second, the competition between capitalists themselves.

The first division—the competition between workers and ­capitalists—flows from the ­mechanism by which capitalism generates profit. Workers are compelled to sell their labour power (that is, their ability to work) to a capitalist. Simply put, every day the worker produces commodities that embody a certain amount of value and is, in return, paid a wage. However, the worker does not take a whole day to produce commodities of equivalent value to their daily wage. The value over and above what they are paid in wages is known as surplus value, and this is the source of the ­capitalist’s profits. Superficially, it looks like there is equivalence in this ­relationship; the ­capitalist hands over money in return for labour from the worker. However, in ­reality, it is an exploitative relationship that benefits the capitalist. The capitalist always gets more from the worker than the worker gets in return.

In workplaces, the individual exploitation of the worker by the capitalist is obscured. Surplus value is averaged across the enterprise, and the capitalist’s claim on surplus value reflects the scale of their investment, rather than the particular individual exploitative relationship. Capitalists try to maximise their profits through reduction of costs, for example, by cutting wages, forcing workers to do longer hours and increasing workers’ productivity. Capitalists constantly try to increase the rate of exploitation to maximise the surplus value they can accrue.

The second division within capitalism is that between the capitalists ­themselves. Marx wrote of capitalists as a “band of warring brothers”, united against any threat to their interests from the working class, but also forced to compete against one another. Most of the surplus value that the capitalists extract from workers is pumped back into the production process in order to produce further surplus value through the expansion of capital. Marx focused on this accumulation, which is motivated by the need of the individual capitalist to stay ahead of their rivals.

Capitalism is a system of competitive production. Individual capitalists are forced to compete with others producing the same commodities (whether these are goods or services). By reinvesting surplus value back into production—by, for instance, purchasing more and better machinery—or by increasing the ­exploitation of their workforce via reduced wages, the capitalist hopes to be able to lower costs and generate more profits than their rivals. Thus, the motor of capitalist accumulation is not the individual capitalist’s greed for material luxuries, but rather the competition forced upon them all by the system. Indeed, Marx highlights that the capitalist’s private consumption is actually detrimental to the process of expanding capital because it depletes the amount of value available for reinvestment.

Capitalism’s growth imperative has further consequences that are also of great interest to both Marxists and degrowthers, including how the system generates inequality, injustice, oppression and exploitation as a result of its tendencies towards colonialism and imperialism. This is directly related to the expansive drive of capitalism. As Marx says, the ambition of capitalism is to endlessly widen “the area of exploited human material and, at the same time, the extension of the direct and indirect sway of the capitalist”.16

As capitalism develops, there is a process of integration between the general interests of a nation’s capitalists and the state itself. The competition between nation-states—motivated by the need to access ­markets, secure raw ­materials and generally protect their interests—can lead to war and the oppression of other nations. The capitalist state, however, finds itself in a contradictory ­position. On the one hand, it is constantly seeking to further the interests of its own capitalists; on the other, its destruction of nature undermines the viability of capitalist production altogether. Ecological Marxist James O’Connor described this problem as the “second contradiction of capitalism”. The ­capitalist state simultaneously sees the need for regulation and action to deal with environmental destruction while also furthering the behaviour that causes ­environmental degradation in the first place.

Capitalist expansion leads to the constant innovation by capitalists and the constant revolutionising of the means of production: the invention of new ­production methods, the development of new models of products and the ­creation of completely new commodities. Such innovations are not a result of the desire to satisfy human need, but rather serve to maximise profits, often through the creation of new wants and needs. The very dynamism of capitalism, celebrated by its apologists, is an outcome of the need to increase profit. Meanwhile, the resources needed to solve social issues, from homelessness to hunger, are often made ­unavailable due to the priorities of capital and the state.

Capitalist production is resource hungry and wasteful. Competition between capitalists leads to duplication and overproduction, while natural resources, energy and human labour are squandered on the “treadmill of production”. Capitalist cost reduction often manifests as increases in pollution and waste. Lowering waste, emissions and the pollution of waterways costs money and thus eats into profits.

Capitalism’s “endless growth” arises out of the very nature of the system. Although a minority of thinkers believe that degrowth might be “the only way left to ensure that capitalism remains stable”, such hopes are illusionary.17 It is simply impossible for capitalism to operate in a sustainable way because the growth imperative points in the opposite direction.

The consequences of growth

Despite the celebration of growth by pro-capitalist politicians on both the left and right, capitalism’s need to constantly expand leads directly to environmental destruction. The evidence for this is long established. Indeed, in the 19th century, Marx’s Capita already drew on the work of scientists such Justus von Liebig, whose work on soil chemistry showed how industrial agriculture was ­systematically depleting the soil of the nutrients crucial to plants. Marx developed this into a theory of the “metabolic rift” between humanity and nature, showing how ­capitalism disrupts the ecological relationships inherent to ecosystems.

Environmental degradation is global because capitalism is too. As Marx and Friedrich Engels noted in the Communist Manifesto, colonial systems rapidly grew on the back of the need to expand capitalist relations globally. The colonial era saw capitalism hunt the globe for raw materials and natural resources that could provide the inputs for capitalist production and profits. Similarly, as capitalism spread, it also destroyed existing economic relations and replaced them with its own ­markets. Marx raged, for instance, against the way that the Indian cotton industry was destroyed so that India could be turned into an import market for English cotton.

All human history has been characterised by a dialectical relationship between nature and humanity. We are part of nature, but we also labour upon it, ­changing it in order to satisfy our needs. In changing nature, we also change ourselves and our forms of social organisation. For most of human history, the impact of this dialectical relationship was necessarily localised. H0wever, as the capitalist mode of production came to dominate the world, the impact of production upon nature has assumed global dimensions. As a result, humanity is systematically alienated from the natural world. Capitalism has transformed our relationship to nature; indeed, it has even transformed how we conceive of nature. Writing in his Grundrisse, Marx noted, “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility”.18 This speaks to an important point; ­capitalism is not simply about economic relationships but rather embraces and reshapes the ­totality of social relations. Thus, because developing a sustainable society will require transforming humanity’s relationship to the natural world, this will require the transcendence of capitalist social relations more generally.

Production is based on a relationship between society and nature, and a system of competitive accumulation subordinates nature to an unplanned system of perpetual growth, while constantly enlarging the scope of its devastation of nature. As Marxist ecologist John Bellamy Foster comments, “The accumulation of capital is accompanied by the accumulation of catastrophe”.19

This accumulation of disaster has propelled the popularity of degrowth. However, its advocates do not limit their application of the concept to the environment. They support degrowth because they understand that capital leads to many other social and political crises. For example, Giorgos Kallis and his collaborators argue that the “pursuit of growth drives debt, inequality, and financial crisis”.20 They also highlight how, in an effort to improve growth rates, governments will cut expenditure, ­privatise public services and introduce austerity. The emphasis on “growth as good” means attacking the conditions of working people through austerity. In response to these realities, degrowthers frequently argue for solutions that protect and improve workers’ living standards, such as guaranteed wages and jobs, investment in green infrastructure and better social services.

Measuring growth: the concept of GDP

The centrality of the idea of growth to capitalism resulted in the development of the concept of GDP in the 20th century. GDP is a measurement of the sum of the value of goods and services produced in a country. In his history of GDP, Financial Times journalist David Pilling argues that, although GDP certainly enables a particular measurement of the state of an economy, it is inadequate because it only quantifies things of interest to capitalists:

If GDP were a person, it would be indifferent—blind, even—to morality. It ­measures production of whatever kind, good or bad. GDP likes pollution, particularly if you have to spend money clearing it up. It likes crime because it is fond of large police forces and repairing broken windows… It does not deign to count transactions where no money changes hands. It does not like housework…and it shuns all volunteer activities. In poor countries it struggles to account for most human endeavours, the bulk of which take place outside the moneyed economy. It can count a bottle of Evian in the supermarket, but not the economic impact of a girl in Ethiopia who trudges for miles to fetch water from a well.21

The modern concept of GDP sprang from the pioneering work of economist Simon Kuznets. In the early 1930s, Kuznets was asked to create a national account of the economy of the United States. His researchers toured the country compiling data about what was being made. By 1942, this had evolved into a “full set of gross national product statistics”. However, the modern concept of GDP is somewhat different to that envisaged by Kuznets. For instance, he wanted to exclude defence and government spending, “striving for a measure that would reflect welfare rather than what he considered a crude summation of all activity”.22 Yet, this was not what the US government desired, and thus GDP became, particularly following the work of British economist John Maynard Keynes, a measure of total economic behaviour, including government spending.

The perspective of GDP necessarily celebrates aspects of the economy that encourage growth, regardless of how bad they might be in other respects. If a ­privatised water company is expanding, increasing its profits and ­contributing more to GDP, it is saluted, even if this comes at the cost of more pollution. Indeed, negative events such as environmental disasters can be positive for GDP if they lead to economic activity, such as workers being paid to treat injured people and clean up spillages (even if they negatively affect individual capitalists’ ability to increase profits and the capacity of capital as a whole to grow).

This flawed view of the world percolates through the entire system. Focusing on GDP helps to encourage a form of neoliberal environmental accounting that places a financial value on nature. We are also told to celebrate how banks “contribute” to the economy, but the contribution of unpaid labour such as voluntary work, domestic labour and childcare in the home is downplayed and ignored. Moreover, rhetoric about GDP suggests that growth is good for all. Pilling refutes this:

In wealthy countries the share of national income paid to workers fell from around 55 percent in 1970 to below 50 percent at the height of the 2007 financial bubble. An expanding economy has not, in other words, primarily benefited the workers who produced all that growth, but rather the owners of capital.23

An expanding economy has provided the opportunity for reforms to improve workers’ lives, but these had to be wrested from governments by struggle—or granted by governments that recognised that some reforms were necessary to improve capital’s competitiveness. One example of the latter is the agenda of the Labour government in Britain after the Second World War. Clement Attlee’s reforming administration nationalised industries such as coal mining and ­railways precisely in order to make sure that state investment could improve their efficiency and ensure they continued to provide vital inputs to other sectors, ­irrespective of narrow profitability criteria. Meanwhile, social welfare reforms, such as the ­creation of the National Health Service, were introduced in order to avert class struggle from below and ensure the reproduction of a healthy ­working class.

Since China opened up to the global market in the late 1970s, its economy has grown by about nine percent a year—far larger than the global average of around three percent. This unprecedented growth has led to hundreds of millions of people being lifted from poverty, but it has simultaneously seen inequality grow dramatically, and the biggest beneficiaries of growth have been the rich. A study of inequality and growth in the Chinese economy between 1978 and 2015 showed the income of the bottom 50 percent of the population grew by more than five times between 1978 and 2015. Nevertheless, the rich have benefitted to a far greater extent:

In both China and the US, growth accruing to the bottom 50 percent has been smaller than macro growth, while growth accruing to the top 10 percent has been larger. This is even more so if one looks at the top 1 percent and smaller groups up to the top 0.001 percent. For instance, average income for the top 0.001 percent has been multiplied by more than 26 in China since 1978—and by almost 8 in the US.

Over the same period, the income of the bottom 50 percent of the ­population declined by one percent.24 Similarly, in India, an economy that saw ­spectacular average growth rates of 8.7 percent between 1993 and 2010, “The ­richest 1 percent of the population garnered 73 percent of the wealth generated, while a vast ­majority—670 million people—saw its wealth rise by only 1 percent”.25

Growth, in other words, does not automatically benefit everyone in society. The distribution of the extra wealth generated is decided by the balance of class forces and the capacity of workers’ struggle to win back a share of the value they have ­created. Without this struggle, the rich will disproportionately benefit from growth.

Despite this, the belief that growth is something that will benefit the ­poorest has become dominant, even within the working-class movement. Among ­reformist institutions such as Britain’s Labour Party and trade union ­movement, associating growth with social improvement has encouraged the idea of a common interest between workers and their bosses, undermining socialist arguments that workers need, at least in the short term, to fight for a larger share of wealth as part of a longer-term struggle against the system as a whole.

Growth and degrowthers

Most degrowth theorists demonstrate a similar understanding of growth to that of the classical political economists and Marx. In The Case for Degrowth, Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa and Federico Demaria argue that “unlike other human economies, capitalist ones depend on growth. In order to thrive amid market competition, those who have money must invest it, make more money and expand production”.26 Similarly, economic anthropologist Jason Hickel writes:

The choice is stark: grow or die. And this expansionary drive puts other companies under pressure, too. Suddenly, no one can be satisfied with a steady-state approach; if you do not push to expand, you will get gobbled up by your competitors. Growth becomes an iron law to which all are captive.27

All of these writers draw from an understanding of capitalism’s inherent compulsions that is similar to Marx’s. Indeed, Hickel, whose work is profoundly influential in the ecological movement, acknowledges Marx’s importance in his explanation of capital accumulation in Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World.28 Moreover, Marxist ideas have been developed within degrowth theory by Kohei Saito, a Japanese Marxist who argues that Marx became a “degrowth communist” towards the end of his life.29

Despite the influence of Marx, in practice, degrowthers’ understanding of capitalist accumulation is often inadequate. For example, Kallis, Paulson, D’Alisa and Demaria misunderstand the nature of capitalist accumulation, writing:

Capitalism without growth is plausible; in a stagnant, or even shrinking, economy, some companies and individuals could continue to profit. Yet, this is hardly a desirable or stable scenario… Growth’s usefulness for maintaining order and stability in capitalist systems motivates conservative and progressive governments alike to pursue growth.30

This distorts how the system actually functions by suggesting that ­capitalism could exist without its central dynamic: the imperative to ­accumulate. It would be impossible for capitalism to exist permanently ­without growth. Of course, this does not mean that capitalism is ­incompatible with periods of recession. In the 1930s, for example, the Great Depression involved a sustained period of general economic crisis. As Marxist theorist Chris Harman described it:

US industrial production fell by about half, and the slump spread across the Atlantic to Europe, where there were already incipient signs of crisis. German industrial production also fell by about half and, with a slight delay, the French figure fell by nearly 30 percent. Only Britain saw a smaller fall of about 20 percent—but that was because its heavy industries were already in a depressed condition.

This sharp contraction was followed by a long period of slow recovery, in which millions of jobs were lost and billions of pounds of capital was destroyed and wasted. It was only the “military state capitalism” practised by Britain, the US and Germany that offered a way out of the crisis—albeit one that led to the slaughter of the Second World War.31 However, a temporary loss of growth, even on a world scale, failed to prevent capitalism’s continuity. That said, this was not typical; rather, it was a symptom of a system in deep crisis, and capitalists and their states strove to end this period of stagnation as quickly as possible.

In The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism, Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter and Aaron Vansintjan rightly point out that ­“capitalism can be understood as a society driven by accumulation” and that, “from this perspective, growth can be understood as the materialisation of this dynamic of accumulation”. Yet, they also emphasise that growth is “an ideological ­construction—a collective myth that shapes modern societies and how we see the world”.32 For these degrowth writers, growth is a concept introduced in the middle of the 20th century, closely associated with GDP becoming a key ­measurement of the health of capitalist economies, which led to the centrality of the idea that “growth was desirable, necessary”. 33 They argue, “Before 1950, there was almost no ­interest at all in economic growth as a policy goal in political statements or economic literature”.34 Yet, after 1950, they claim, government “interventions” switched to becoming “largely focused on maintaining a stable growth path”.35

Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan tell us that the “ideology of growth”, which they describe as a “relatively recent idea”, is “rooted in both social and biophysical processes that go back to the beginnings of capitalism and colonialist expansion”. They describe growth as “a social process: a specific set of social relations resulting from capitalist accumulation”.36

These authors are correct to connect the ideological aspect to growth with the material processes taking place within capitalist society. However, we need to be wary of emphasising the “ideological” aspect to growth as distinct from the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan conclude that degrowth must address three interrelated points:

[First, degrowth must take] seriously the material dimension of growth… Second, degrowth must seriously examine the question of how the self-reinforcing growth dynamics of expansive modernity can be overcome without jeopardising the social, cultural and democratic achievements that have been accomplished, largely through social struggles, but also within the context of growth societies. Third, degrowth must critically engage with and dismantle—but also transform—the promises, myths and hopes associated with the growth paradigm.37

In contrast to this, Marxists argue that the problem is capitalism itself. The Communist Manifesto emphasises how growth and expansion have been part of capitalism from its earliest days:

The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally gave—to commerce, to navigation, to industry—an impulse never before known, and thereby to the revolutionary elements in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.38

It continues:

The need for a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.39

Indeed, Marx and Engels saw how it was the very dynamism of capitalism, ­resting on competitive accumulation, that drove the behaviour of the capitalist class.

Some degrowthers draw radical conclusions. For instance, in a recent article, Hickel has stressed that degrowth must lead to anti-capitalism:

In fact, degrowth scholarship embraces technological change and efficiency improvements to the extent…that these are empirically feasible, ecologically coherent and socially just. But it also recognises that this alone will not be enough; economic and social transformations are also necessary, including a transition out of capitalism. The debate is therefore not primarily about ­technology, but about science, justice and the structure of the economic system.40

More generally, however, much degrowth analysis downplays the centrality of accumulation as an integral part of the capitalist economy. Particularly among degrowthers less influenced by Marxist ideas, this tends to lead towards the idea that the capitalist system can be made to work more efficiently.

What do degrowthers argue for?

Foster recently described degrowth as “a family of political-economic approaches that—in the face of today’s accelerating ­planetary ecological crisis—reject ­unlimited, exponential economic growth as the ­definition of human progress”.41 The problem here is thus that we are dealing with a “family” of approaches; there is no single definition of degrowth, but rather a myriad of different suggestions and ideas. Still, we can determine some shared points. The Future is Degrowth discusses a poll of attendees at the 2014 International Degrowth Conference in Leipzig:

[Attendees] largely agreed that economic growth without destruction of nature is an illusion and that therefore industrialised countries need to equitably downscale production and consumption; they also mostly agreed that, consequently, the rich will have to do without some amenities to which they have become accustomed, and that the transformation to a degrowth society must come from below, will be peaceful, and will require overcoming capitalism and patriarchy.42

Hickel provides another description of degrowth as the “planned reduction of excess energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way.”43 Hickel’s summary will serve us as a general definition of degrowth. Foster is nonetheless right to emphasise the breadth of the degrowth movement. For some degrowthers, degrowing the economy in a sustainable way can be accomplished within the existing system. For others, degrowth is a challenge to capitalism and will lead to its destruction; frequently, these latter thinkers emphasise communal organisation of society through ­workers’ cooperatives and other forms of collectivity. Similarly, some Marxists, such as Saito, see degrowth as only possible in a post-capitalist, “communist” society, which would involve “the equal, communal management of the means of production as a form of commons” via democratic “municipalism and citizens’ assemblies”.44

Since most degrowth writing recognises growth as fundamental to capitalism, the majority of degrowthers are “anti-capitalist”. Saito is explicit: “Capitalism’s very definition precludes any possible pairing with degrowth”.45 He suggests that only “degrowth communism” in a post-capitalist society can provide the democratic control of the economy needed for a transition to a sustainable world. Moreover, although Saito is unusual in openly linking degrowth to a post-capitalist, ­communist future, most other degrowthers acknowledge that degrowth is a challenge to ­capitalism. Indeed, The Future is Degrowth rejects claims that degrowth is reformist:

Degrowth firmly criticises specific aspects of our modern civilisation while underlining the role of people’s struggles in guaranteeing and achieving ­equality… In other words, a degrowth perspective seeks to move beyond capitalist ­modernity through reconfiguring current power relations, rather than escaping it or absolving oneself of the responsibility to help reshape it.46

Yet, sometimes writers can be rather opaque about what their anti-capitalism really means. All too often, arguments become focused on political movements and organisations, such as workers’ cooperatives, which do not pose a real ­alternative to capitalism.47 Nevertheless, it is important that Marxists acknowledge the radical, anti-capitalist politics that dominates degrowth thinking.

Degrowth and austerity

Critics of degrowth often argue that its proposals amount to austerity and will reduce living conditions for everyone, particularly working people. The term degrowth does lend itself to this interpretation, even though few degrowthers see their ideas in this way. Yet, right wingers frequently link the term to austerity. Writing in The Spectator in 2023, Ross Clark unleashed a diatribe against degrowth:

If you are a nurse, ambulance driver, driving examiner or a member of the many other groups who have been striking about the failure of wages to keep pace with inflation, your enemy is not [British chancellor] Jeremy Hunt; it is the degrowthers. It is they who want to reduce the buying power of your wages year on year.48

These sorts of arguments come not only from the right wing. One example of a left-wing critic is Leigh Phillips, an advocate of so-called ecomodernism, and his provocatively titled Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff.49 According to Phillips, far from being the problem, growth is part of the solution: “There will need to be more growth, more progress, more industry…above all, we will need to become more civilised if we are to solve the global biocrisis”.50 He dismisses degrowth as an assault on living standards and an “anti-consumerist, back-to-the-land, small-is-beautiful, civilisation-hating, progress-questioning ideology”, claiming that it is a doctrine of “limits and retreat that is hegemonic not just on the green left, but across the political spectrum”.51 He concludes, “Austerity and ‘degrowth’ are mathematically and socially identical. They are the same thing. What green degrowth partisans are actually calling for is eco-austerity”.52

Since the 2008 global financial crisis, working people around the world have experienced devastating attacks on their living standards and cuts to public ­services. Degrowth slogans that sound like attempts to enforce further ­austerity, cut consumption and attack whole industrial sectors will be ­understood as attacks on working-class living standards. Socialist geographer Matt Huber makes an important criticism of degrowth:

Overall, a quantitative commitment to “net-zero capital formation” would usher in an austerity mindset throughout all of society, where all increases must be balanced out. It is one thing to advance a strategic critique of degrowth—in a capitalist system defined by deprivation, who will support a programme centring reduction? But its other problem is that it seeks to place de facto constraints on our future political programmes. The point of socialism, however, is to unleash human potential from the shackles of capitalism and its market imperatives.53

Neale makes similar points: “There are no political parties or candidates anywhere, in any country, campaigning for government to cut total national income and employment by 3 percent next year…because everyone actually knows that no one can win an election on such a basis.” He concludes, “No one can create a revolution on such a basis either”.54 These are important arguments. Unless degrowthers can disentangle degrowth from austerity, workers will rightly see it as an attack on their livelihoods.

To be fair, degrowthers generally have nuanced positions on how their ­strategies might deliver more equal, socially just and sustainable futures ­without further attacking living conditions. Indeed, they are usually keenly aware of potential criticism and seek to show degrowth does not mean austerity. For instance, The Future is Degrowth argues:

Public services would flourish, rather than see cuts—degrowth is about private ­sufficiency and public abundance. Certainly, life would look a lot different, and many people would likely possess fewer material objects—but others would have access to more, and society would be more sustaining, just, convivial and fulfilling… Degrowth aims at a society in which well-being is mediated less by capitalist market ­transaction, exchange values and material consumption, and more by collective forms of ­provisioning, use values, and fulfilling, meaningful, and convivial relationships.55

Degrowthers generally propose a shift to such a society through a ­process of reducing the negative aspects of the capitalist economy and ­improving, or expanding, the best aspects. This might mean the redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation of the rich, the reduction of aspects of the ­industries that are most destructive and wasteful (such as the fossil fuel, arms and ­advertising ­industries), and a passage toward a better organisation of life through other reforms. Degrowthers universally also argue for a growth in aspects of existing society; they are in favour of more libraries, swimming pools, hospitals and schools as well as the expansion of public transport. There is a general recognition that degrowth must happen in the most sustainable and democratic way, that is, through public ownership rather than private enterprise.

Degrowthers also argue for a reduction in the working day, protection and improvement of wages, and more workers’ rights. In general, their aim is a more equitable, communal and democratic society. They argue that capitalist emphasis on growth drives inequality, ill health, low pay and ecological degradation. This view is neatly summed up by Hickel’s call to “decouple human progress from GDP”.56 He stresses that “the exciting part is that we know we can do this while…ending poverty, improving human well-being and ensuring good lives for all. Indeed, that is the core principle of degrowth”.57 For Hickel, this means a “post-capitalist world”.

No socialist would oppose these radical visions, which locate the causes of inequality and ecological destruction in the system. Nor could they oppose the emphasis on social movements in The Future is Degrowth. Yet, there are problems with degrowth, at least as it has so far been articulated, to which I will now turn.

Degrowth and the Global South

The environmental crisis has been driven by an unequal process of capital ­accumulation, with wealth concentrated in the Global North. One consequence is that a majority of greenhouse gas emissions have come from a tiny minority of wealthy countries. One recent study suggested that the Global North has been responsible for 92 percent of “excess emissions” since 1850, with G8 nations responsible for 90 percent of this.58 This means that the poorest nations have done the least to cause the crisis, despite being the most vulnerable to it.

This uneven blame has led to sticking points at United Nations’ COP climate conferences, with Global South countries demanding compensation to help deal with the costs of a climate crisis caused by the wealthiest countries. Given this, the argument that economies need to degrow to solve the crisis can cause friction with activists and theorists in the Global South. Moreover, most degrowth theorists come from the Global North, and this is certainly reflected in these debates.59

The minority of degrowthers who use slogans calling for “frugal living” and “beautifully poor spaces” feed a narrative that poverty is inevitable if the world is to deal with the ecological crisis.60 Why should someone in Sub-Saharan Africa, where a third of the population are classed as living in “extreme poverty”, be denied the opportunity for their economies to be developed?61

Indeed, there are a number of criticisms of “degrowth” theory from the Global South, often rooted in reactions to the dominant views of how to deal with ­poverty in the poorest countries. Mainstream “development” policies arose in the post-war period, closely associated with US foreign policy. These saw the Global South developing through closer ties to the US economy. “Developing countries” would manufacture food and basic commodities for the richer nations, enabling them to lift their populations out of poverty and deliver lifestyles to workers that would be comparable to North America and Europe. This would be accomplished by stimulating growth. According to the World Bank, this requires “strong country-led programmes to improve living ­conditions—to drive growth, raise median incomes, create jobs, fully ­incorporate women and young people into economies, address environmental and climate challenges, and support stronger, more stable ­economies for everyone”.62 “Post-development” critics in the Global South have responded by pointing out the Global North owed its own economic expansion to its ransacking of poorer regions and that this kind of economic development can only lead to further environmental destruction and resource extraction.63

Mainstream thinkers often suggest that the way out of this conundrum is for economic development in the Global South to take place in a sustainable way, using green technologies. The UN’s 17 “sustainable development goals” are an explicit statement of this ambition. Brazilian Marxist sociologist Michael Löwy begins from a similar point:

The “underdeveloped” countries of the Global South (Asia, Africa and Latin America), where basic needs are very far from being satisfied, will need a process of “development”, including building railroads, water and sewage systems, public transport, and other infrastructures. Yet, there is no reason why this cannot be accomplished through a productive system that is environmentally friendly and based on renewable energies.

He continues, however, by arguing that the economies of developing ­countries should be transformed so that production intended for the Global North is “reduced” or “suppressed”, aiming instead for “food sovereignty and the development of basic services…rather than commodities”.64 Critics of the ­dominant development models, such as Löwy, often point to those social ­movements in the Global South that are fighting for exactly these approaches.

Nonetheless, many degrowthers are influenced by the dependency theory school of thought, which “sees capitalist development at the core of the global system as the result of the exploitation of the periphery”.65 In recent years, Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen’s idea of the “imperial mode of living” has proved influential with some degrowthers such as Saito and the authors of The Future is Degrowth. It claims that the material benefits arising from ­imperialism—and the associated environmental, economic and social toll on the Global South—are accepted by workers in the Global North. The working class in the Global North has supposedly formed a cross-class alliance with its own capitalist classes to ensure it can continue to reap the benefits at the expense of the Global South. These ideas are attractive to degrowthers because they imply that the aim of degrowth in the Global North is relevant to the Global South since it would undermine the imperial mode of living. Yet, it also results in an ambiguity that flows from the suggestion that working-class people in the Global North benefit from the ongoing oppression of the Global South.

In their recent criticism of Brand and Wissen’s The Imperial Mode of Living: Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism (Verso, 2021), Sascha Radl and Nora Schmid, writing in this journal, identify two key problems. First, it imagines “a ‘middle class imagined average existence’ that fails to accurately reflect common living conditions in the Global North”. Second, it fails to explain both the development of the North-South divide and the class struggle that can transform the situation. According to Radl and Schmid, the imperial mode thesis neglects the possibility for international solidarity in the struggle for a sustainable world; workers in the Global North do not benefit from imperialism because they are also at risk from war and ecological collapse and, like their fellow workers in the South, suffer from exploitation by capitalists. Indeed, the capitalists demonstrate an understanding of this when they move production and jobs to the Global South in order to improve profit rates, which detrimentally effects Global North workers.

Still, activists in the Global South do often oppose degrowth ideas. In their study of how environmental justice movements in the Global South relate to degrowth, Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos and her collaborators argue that the problem is more than a conceptual one. Degrowth is considered “unappealing” because the term is seen to imply austerity and because of the cultural meanings attached to the idea of growth:

Positive meanings of the term “growth” are also fundamental to the imaginaries and agendas of environmental justice movements in the South: healthy children grow, staple crops grow, ideas grow, creativity grows, autonomy and sovereignty grow… So, why should the South support the idea of not growing? Should environmental justice movements not grow? Should resistance and alternatives to ecologically damaging projects not grow? Family and child care systems, should they not grow? What about small-scale organic agriculture, both in the South and in the North?66

In response to these criticisms, degrowthers have argued for a climate justice approach that attempts to separate degrowth from such negative connotations. So, how would “degrowth” in the rich nations impact on the Global South? What would it mean to reduce consumption and production in the Global North given we live in an integrated world economy? It would be unfair to deny that some degrowth thinkers in the Global North have at least attempted to grapple with some of these big questions. A recent survey of degrowth literature found that a majority of degrowth publications referred to “post-development or decolonialism”.67 However, on the crucial question of degrowth and global “dependency”, the study concluded that degrowth theory has yet to adequately answer its critics.

Thinkers such as Hickel have argued that degrowth in the Global North would provide a space for, in the words of the aforementioned survey, “the Global South to shift away from current dynamics and build self-sufficient, ­sovereign ­economies”. Hickel claims that “degrowth in the North represents ­decolonisation in the South”.68 Yet, this conclusion is only valid if degrowth is a process that can both challenge capitalism and transform the economic relations between the Global North and Global South.

In contrast, Marxists argue that the impoverishment of billions of people in the Global South arises from the capitalist system’s division of the world in the interest of a tiny minority. This means we need to develop links between the immediate fight for an improvement in living conditions and reduction of environmental destruction with a longer-term challenge to capitalism.

Against those who do preach austerity, we must robustly defend the idea that impoverished workers and peasants in the Global South should be allowed to develop their economies. We cannot tell workers, for example, in Chad and Somali how this should take place.

Indeed, the immediate struggles of workers over jobs and conditions might lead to victories that are bad for the environment in the short term. There are some parallels here to contemporary debates over the move away from a fossil fuel economy. Correctly, the environmental movement demands that fossil fuels must be “left in the ground”; however, a struggle by coal miners to defend jobs needs to be supported. If victorious, such struggles will lead to a more confident, combative working class, better positioned to fight for a radically new energy system. The left needs to learn to champion such struggles, while also popularising the goal of departing from fossil capitalism.

At the same time, we should argue that the kind of economic development taking place in India and China today, which imitates the historic path of the Global North and its fossil-fuelled capital accumulation, will lead to ecological destruction. The revolutionary alternative is to see the struggles of workers and peasants over land and living conditions as part of a wider battle for democratic control over the economy, which would empower them to develop in a sustainable way. An example of the potential for this is the host of revolutionary organisations created during the Sudanese Revolution, which began in 2018.

Revolutionaries in the Global North, and in poorer industrialised countries such as China and India, must concretely link their everyday struggles with the fight for a just transition away from fossil capitalism. This requires making international solidarity a key component of our activities. The huge worldwide movement against Israel’s war in Gaza shows that fights with such global dimensions are possible.

Degrowth and natural limits

Prominent left-wing ecological economist Giorgos Kallis writes that “limits are the central idea of environmentalism”.69 The concept of natural limits refers to the boundaries set by physical laws that, when breached, make environmental chaos unstoppable and lead to societal breakdown. There is a close affinity between degrowth ideas and the notion of natural limits; degrowth tries to reduce aspects of economic activity that cause us to edge towards and surpass points of no return.

However, there is a danger that the notion of natural limits can lead to right-wing conclusions, as clearly shown by The Limits to Growth, a highly influential 1972 book commissioned by the Club of Rome. The book sold in its ­millions, informing the early ecological movement as much as Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring had ten years earlier. Yet, where Carson’s book was an early attempt to grapple with the effect of multinational ­corporations on nature, The Limits to Growth took a very different tack. Using computer modelling, which was then very new, it included a bemusing number of diagrams and graphs, claiming these revealed a troubling reality:

If present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years. The most probable result will be a sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.70

The book identified the two key motors of growth as “population and capital”: “We are interested only in the broad behaviour modes of the ­population-capital system”.71 It portrayed capital growth as an offshoot of the system, rather than one of its integral components, claiming growth is driven by the rising ­consumption and resource use of an increasing population. The result was a 1970s computer-powered update of the ideas of Thomas Malthus, the 19th century English political economist who blamed poverty on overpopulation:

Some pollutants are obviously directly related to population growth (or agricultural activity, which is also related to population growth). Others are more closely related to the growth of industry and advances in technology. Most pollutants in the ­complicated world system are influenced in some way by both the population and the industrialisation positive feedback loops.72

The Club of Rome is a pro-business institution, and it is thus unsurprising that The Limits to Growth refused to link “growth” and the nature of capitalism, instead focusing on demographics as the biggest threat to humanity’s ability to survive. This is not the place for an extended discussion of the drawbacks of forms of ­environmentalism based on Malthusian ideas.73 Let it suffice to say that ­population growth is not a key driver of environmental crisis and resource overuse; ­understanding these phenomena requires an analysis of how human populations’ relation to the natural world is mediated by the social relations of capitalism.

Malthusian arguments end up blaming the poorest for their condition and for the consequences of an economic system over which they have the least control. As Kallis notes, natural limits themselves are not the problem, but rather how society relates to them:

We may want to limit ourselves to avoid certain consequences and create certain worlds rather than others; science can provide valuable information about ­consequences and the limits to the types of worlds we can create. The key, though, is to see science not as a privileged domain but as part of a social and democratic process of collective deliberation. The case for self-limitation is not stronger if we postulate external limits. Ever since Malthus, the response to the idea of a limited world has been to keep the weaker out of that world—or to try to make it bigger at their expense. A world that is limited is by definition scarce.74

Since the countries experiencing the fastest population growth are mostly in the Global South, and almost entirely in Sub-Saharan Africa, racist ­conclusions can easily be drawn from Malthusian ideas. The overtones of some discussions around degrowth can fuel an environmentalism that blames ordinary people. So, it is important that most degrowthers reject these ­conclusions. Nonetheless, degrowth theory can open the door to ­reactionary interpretations similar to those in The Limits to Growth, which remains a touchstone for some activists today.

Degrowth and post-capitalism

Despite degrowthers general identification of capitalism as the cause of ecological crisis and social inequality, and their commonly held belief in the need to move to a post-capitalist society, the concrete meaning of these is often remarkably unclear. In fact, the vision of a degrowth society, even when articulated by left-wing degrowthers, rarely suggests one that has dismantled and replaced capitalism.

In The Case for Degrowth, Kallis and his co-writers see a future degrowth society as inspired by existing examples of communal living and organising. They hope to create communities based on “values of community well-being, rather than competition and growth”.75 They say we must “learn from common modes of production and consumption including: communal food gardens, community-supported agriculture and agroecology networks; ecocommunes, co-living and co-housing arrangements; peer-to-peer software, hardware and digital commons; and co-parenting and childcare circles”.76 Such organisations and institutions ­certainly do exist and sometimes even thrive within capitalism; they are created both as a response to the reality of life under capitalism and as an attempt to ­challenge it on a local basis. Indeed, Kallis and his co-authors’ claim that “people living low-impact lives not driven toward growth make up a good share of the world population”.77

We must ask, however, whether this approach constitutes a viable way of moving towards a post-capitalist society. Although people can create examples of ­collaborative everyday life and social organisation without the disappearance of capitalism, these institutions remain trapped within a system still based on the accumulation of capital. Consequently, there can be a narrowing of vision among degrowthers who advocate this kind of localism. The Case for Degrowth states:

Faced with the vast environmental damage provoked by growing economies, the minuscule amount of mitigation achieved by one person eating less meat, commuting by bike or sharing more can be discouraging. Yet, supporting each other to bring about desired worlds is vitally important because it changes us, nurturing ways of being and becoming that have broad social and political repercussions. Taking personal action is a first step toward building societies that implement needed changes in policies and institutions.78

Yet, within the confines of the capitalist system of competitive accumulation, any plan to create long-term communities of “well-being” would need a strategy to prevent capital encroaching and taking over or destroying these alternatives. Lacking this, Kallis and his fellow writers have an interpretation of degrowth that is anti-capitalist, but not revolutionary.

What of other degrowthers who champion a more radical vision? Hickel’s “pathways to a post-capitalist world” includes a five-point plan to switch to a new form of society:

1. End planned obsolescence.
2. Cut advertising.
3. Shift from ownership to usership.
4. End food waste.
5. Scale down ecologically destructive industries.79

Superficially, these are urgent demands that socialists and the environmental movement should share. However, they need some qualification. The changes proposed here are only acceptable if they fit two separate criteria. First, they should never be used as an excuse to simply displace pollution and environmentally destructive industries elsewhere in the world. Second, they should be articulated in a way that can politically mobilise workers across the globe.

In the past two decades, there have been a number of discussions in the global trade union movement about on what terms such mobilisation can and should happen. Over many years, for instance, the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) has argued for a “just transition”, which would involve economic changes that ­protect workers’ jobs and conditions while reducing environmental destruction. TUC policy calls for a transition that avoids “offshoring”, involves workers and unions in negotiations, and “leaves no worker behind”.80 Meanwhile, the Campaign against Climate Change has published a series of booklets that argue for a more radical approach, stressing the importance of climate justice to a just transition through the creation of millions of “climate jobs”.81 A just transition can only take place if workers are fighting to shape their own industries in a sustainable way and overseeing the move away from the most polluting industries. This means that workers have to be won to the idea that some sections of the economy, including whole industrial sectors, must be transitioned and may disappear. It is easy to argue that, if this ­happens, then workers’ pay and conditions must be protected and ­suitable alternative employment should be found. However, the British trade union movement has seen numerous examples of this failing to take place since the 1980s. Most recently, Tata Steel has threatened to close the blast furnaces at Port Talbot in South Wales, threatening thousands of jobs, and “green” policies have been blamed.

Any call to “scale down ecologically destructive industries” must be made in the context of a global struggle by the working class against capital’s interests, highlighting how all workers have a stake in shaping a sustainable future. Sadly, Hickel fails to articulate such a plan, and his strategy to degrow “ecological destructive industries” is weak. He focuses on the damage caused by big agriculture, but his argument could easily be applied to energy, automotive, shipping and other industries:

Ultimately governments need to set concrete targets for reducing material and energy use… Taxes alone won’t be enough. Ecological economists insist that the only way to do it is with a hard limit—cap resource and energy use at existing levels, and ratchet them down each year until you get back within planetary boundaries. There’s nothing particularly radical about this; after all, we place all sorts of limits on capital’s exploitation of people, including minimum wage laws, child labour laws and the weekend. So too, we need to place limits on capital’s exploitation of nature.

Thus, according to Hickel, we should “charge industries a progressively rising fee for resource and energy use”.82 Yet, we know from the experience of the past 30 years that attempts to make governments curtail emissions have been ­hampered by states’ commitment to the logic of the market. The annual UN COP conferences have failed precisely because governments are unable and unwilling to challenge business interests. Furthermore, the imperialist interests of the largest states constantly undermine environmental action; instead, states seek to defend and expand their fossil fuel economies. After three decades of government inaction, Hickel’s hope that state action will come to the rescue is utopian.

The same is true with social demands made by degrowthers. Revolutionary socialists would agree very much with the sentiment of the calls to “tax the rich out of existence” by Matthias Schmelzer and his co-authors in The Future is Degrowth.83 Nonetheless, we also recognise the impossibility of doing this while retaining capitalism, which necessarily concentrates wealth at the top of society. These examples show that degrowthers lack a strategy for challenging, and ultimately overthrowing, capitalism. We need to throw down the gauntlet to the system itself. In particular, unless there is a challenge to the capitalist state—the set of institutions that capital has created to maintain the prevailing social order—the system of growth will organise to protect itself and prevent reforms that endanger its rule.

None of this is to suggest that Hickel, and indeed other degrowth writers, lack any vision of a democratic, equitable and sustainable world. Quite the opposite. Hickel depicts an inspiring economic future:

People produce and sell useful goods and services: an economy where people make rational, informed decisions about what to buy; an economy where people get compensated fairly for their labour; an economy that satisfies human needs while minimising waste; an economy that circulates money to those who need it; an economy where innovation makes better, longer-lasting products, reduces ecological pressure, frees up labour time and improves human welfare; an economy that responds to, rather than ignores, the health of the ecology on which it depends.84

This is the world for which socialists are fighting. Nonetheless, without a theory of change that understands the need to overthrow capitalism and defeat the capitalist state that protects the system, it will remain a utopian prospect.

Socialism and degrowth

Most degrowthers argue that capitalism is the problem, seeing growth as arising out of the nature of the capitalist system. Moreover, a number of Marxists have adopted degrowth as an important plank of their plan for socialist ­transformation. Löwy, for instance, writes, “ecosocialists have learned much from the degrowth movement. Ecosocialism is therefore increasingly adopting the need of degrowth in the process of transition to a new socialist ecological society.” He continues:

Ecosocialist degrowth includes the need for substantial reductions in ­production and consumption, but does not limit itself to this negative dimension. It includes the positive programme of a socialist society, based on democratic ­planning, ­self-management, production of use values instead of commodities, gratuity of basic services, and free time for the development of human desires and ­capacities—a society without exploitation, class domination, patriarchy and all forms of social exclusion.85

Saito also sees degrowth as a fundamental to a future “degrowth ­communism”. However, although I agree that socialists can learn a great deal from degrowthers, I believe we are missing the point if we frame the key question as “will socialism be a degrowth society?”

Socialism, as the classical Marxist tradition conceived it, means ­production being rationally planned in the interests of human beings and our planet. Thus, economic change would be decoupled from the need to accumulate capital. Nonetheless, this implies more than a purely economic aspiration. Marx highlighted how capitalism alienates us from the natural world, ­transforming nature into a commodity and shattering our metabolic relationship to nature. A socialist ­society would, in the words of Foster, “heal the rift” between human society and nature. Marx argued that a ­socialist society would see humans freed so that they could “govern the human ­metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature”.86 Crucially, Marx assigns this role to the “associated producers”, advocating a society where workers are liberated from the chains of class and able to collectively organise and plan their social world in their own collective interest.

Asking whether socialism will be a degrowth society risks minimising these revolutionary transformations. Socialism will be a complete break from the past. Yes, reforms that temper the impacts of capitalism on the planet are welcome, and we should fight for them. Yet, reforms cannot prevent ecological degradation that arises out of the determining logic of capitalist production—its impulse to accumulate capital—which will constantly push it to reverse reforms and damage the environment in the service of profit.

A new way of organising society would, Marxists argue, emerge from revolutionary struggles themselves. The creation of revolutionary workers’ organisations—workers’ councils, famously known as “soviets” during the Russian Revolution—which frequently emerge during periods of intense social ­contestation, would provide a basis for a new form of mass participatory democracy and open a pathway to socialism. This would not be the top-down, bureaucratic command economy of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, which sacrificed both the environment and workers’ lives in order to compete with the West. Rather, it would be a society where ordinary people (Marx’s “associated ­producers”) are able to democratically create a collective plan for production.

The theoretical tradition associated with International Socialism has long contended that, after the introduction of the first Five Year Plan in 1928, the economy of the Soviet Union was subordinated to the logic of capital accumulation. Even though competition between private capitals had been suppressed within the country, the Soviet state was still locked in both military and economic competition with other states. This competition compelled the Soviet Union to engage in capital accumulation, and the state capitalist model that resulted from this was later imposed upon the Stalinist state’s subordinate regimes in the Eastern Bloc. Stalin’s counter-revolution unleashed a “river of blood” that washed away the social gains of the Russian Revolution. Workers lost any control over the means of production, and the bureaucratic layer at the top of Soviet society turned into a new ruling class.

In contrast, a genuinely socialist society, based on workers’ power, could ­implement real change. Doubtlessly, this revolutionary society would ­implement some of the changes suggested by many contemporary degrowth thinkers. With workers holding power, discussions about issues such as moving beyond a fossil fuel-based economy could take place free of the limits imposed by capital. Wasteful industries such as advertising would be scrapped, allowing workers to be redeployed in order to channel their skills into more useful ­sectors. In this sense, there would be aspects of “degrowth” to a ­post-revolutionary socialist society.

However, there would be growth too: an increase in the resources allocated towards education, healthcare and renewable energy, environmental protections, and other improvements in people’s everyday lives. This would be particularly important in underdeveloped economies, allowing them to begin to address the legacies of historic injustices, mass poverty, and lack of access to education and healthcare. Still, socialism would be more than a more rational system for shrinking some economic sectors and expanding others; it would develop the “forces of production” in the wider interest of the associated producers.

Marxist writer John Molyneux described the forces of production as “the general capacity of society to produce goods and services, which therefore also include natural resources”.87 Specifically, these are the material aspects of production, which humans use in their transformation of nature to meet their needs. Given the environmental crisis, an immediate task of any socialist society would be to avert ecological collapse by creating a sustainable economy. This would be an urgent “need” for workers after any overthrow of capitalism.

Molyneux argues that this would require a growth in the forces of ­production but cautions that this means something very different to growth under ­capitalism. The expansion of the forces of production under socialism would not be an increase in the “production of things” for the sake of profit. This will, in some places, and in some cases, require more “things” to be built—more hospitals, buses and wind turbines for instance. However, this is not the defining point. More important is that socialism would allow the development of society’s ability to fulfil human need in a rational and sustainable fashion.

These points are important because dealing with environmental disaster is about more than simply reducing the size of the economy. Instead, we have to change how the entire economy works. Fossil fuels are the clearest example of this. Neale has pointed out that reducing GDP by half means nothing if fossil fuels continue to be burnt. Similarly, if fossil fuel use stopped tomorrow, even a growth-based capitalist economy would not lead to further climate change.88 Of course, capitalist production is inseparable from the fossil fuel industry, and thus the struggle for a sustainable world is not about degrowth, but breaking from a system that prioritises profit and capital accumulation above people and planet.

Crucial to this task will be the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the destruction of the capitalist state. The depiction of the state as a benign force sitting above society and ensuring a level playing field is an ideological illusion. Instead, the state is the set of institutions with, to borrow a phrase from Lenin, “special bodies of armed men” at its core, constantly organising to protect and maintain the existing structures of power. Activists—both degrowthers and others—must recognise that capitalism, via the power and violence of its state, will strain every sinew to defend its interests. Without a strategy to overcome the state, attempts to achieve a sustainable society will be unsuccessful. Marx’s claim that a workers’ revolution will lead to a ­workers’ state, and open the way for the gradual “withering away” of class-based society, is crucial; a workers’ state can begin the process of shifting to a sustainable economy through working-class control over production.

For revolutionary socialists, the explosion of discussion around the concept of “degrowth” offers interesting theoretical and organisational opportunities. We should celebrate the fact that the degrowth debate is popularising the idea that capitalism is responsible for environmental catastrophe. Yet, without a revolutionary underpinning, degrowth theory is inadequate to deal with the ecological disaster presented by capitalism’s destruction of nature. Marxists must theoretically disentangle the idea of growth in its broadest sense from the particular dynamic of capitalist growth. Revolutionary socialism envisages a society where “growth” refers to the general strengthening of society’s ability to deliver for humanity in a sustainable way. It offers a transformative vision of human liberation, with workers’ power at the heart of change—both as the force that can defeat capitalism as well as the firm organisational basis for the democratic and rational reordering of society.

Martin Empson is editor of System Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response to Environmental Crisis (Bookmarks, 2019) and author of Socialism or Extinction: The Meaning of Revolution in a Time of Ecological Crisis (Bookmarks, 2022).


1 I am grateful to Joseph Choonara, Adrian Budd, Amy Leather, Sheila McGregor and Camilla Royle for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

3 The tradition associated with this journal views this as “state capitalism” rather than actual “communism”—a point I will touch further upon later.

4 The radical thinkers who consider themselves “degrowthers” come from a wide spectrum. On the far left there are Marxists such as Kohei Saito and Michael Löwy, “democratic socialists” such as Jason Hickel, and left-wing economists such as Giorgos Kallis, Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter and Aaron Vansintjan. Others Marxists, such as John Bellamy Foster, have written positively about degrowth within their wider espousal of ecological Marxism. I am conscious that these writers disagree on the nuances of degrowth, but I hope this article will paint a general picture of their arguments. I attribute specific ideas to named writers.

5 “Planetary boundaries” are the physical limits that, if surpassed, lead to fundamental changes in the Earth’s biosphere. One example is the continued release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere by fossil fuels, which will make Earth uninhabitable at a certain point.

6 Smith, 1991, p294.

7 Accordingly, Smith writes: “A man grows rich by employing a multitude of manufacturers; he grows poor by maintaining a multitude of menial servants.” However, he qualifies this: “The labour of the latter, however, has its value, and deserves its reward as well as that of the former.” Nonetheless, “The labour of the manufacturer fixes and realises itself in some particular subject or vendible commodity, which lasts for some time at least after that labour is past.”—Smith, 1991, p295.

8 Smith, 1991, p295.

9 Salvadori and Kurz, 2003, p5.

10 Salvadori and Kurz, 2003, p5.

11 Salvadori, 2003, xi.

12 Neale, 2023. Some Marxists focus on abstract debates to the exclusion of working within the sort of movements of which Neale has long been part; thus, his arguments hold some truth. Nevertheless, debates that clarify Marx’s theorisation of capitalism are crucial to cohering a set of ideas that can mobilise and motivate a revolutionary core within social movements. A historical example of this is the importance that Marxists such as Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin placed upon developing a Marxist theoretical model of imperialism during the First World War. The theoretical discussions generated by these contributions mattered because they helped arm the Bolshevik Party for its engagement in the mass revolutionary movements that ended the war and led to the Russian Revolution.

13 Marx, 1976, p742.

14 Marx, 1976, p752.

15 Marx, 1976, p739. For concrete examples of this, see, for instance, Hickel’s description of corporate behaviour—Hickel, 2022, p88.

16 Marx, 1976, pp739-740.

17 Quoted in Saito, 2024, p79.

18 Marx, 1977, p410.

19 Foster, 2023, p7.

20 Kallis, Paulson and others, 2020, p28.

21 Pilling, 2019, p3.

22 Pilling, 2019, pp23-33.

23 Pilling, 2019, p115.

24 Piketty, Yang and Zucman, 2019.

25 Sinha, Ramadas and Ramasundaram, 2023.

26 Kallis, Paulson and others, 2020, p27.

27 Hickel, 2022, p88.

28 Hickel, 2022, p303, footnote 2. Less is More is perhaps the best introduction to degrowth ideas.

29 See, for instance, Saito, 2024. See also the critique of Saito’s ideas contained in Gibson and Empson, 2023.

30 Kallis, Paulson and others, 2020, pp27-28.

31 Harman, 2010, pp143 and 156.

32 Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan, 2022, p38.

33 Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan, 2022, p39.

34 Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan, 2022, p43.

35 Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan, 2022, p45.

36 Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan, 2022, pp37 and 47.

37 Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan, 2022, p74.

38 Marx and Engels, 1991, p36.

39 Marx and Engels, 1991, p38.

40 Hickel, 2023, p44.

41 Foster, 2023, p1.

42 Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan, 2022, p17.

43 Hickel, 2022, p29.

44 Saito, 2024, pp231-232.

45 Saito, 2024, p82.

46 Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan, 2022, p175.

47 Saito celebrates Barcelona’s cooperatives and its “climate emergency declaration” as one example of a transition to a degrowth society—see Saito, 2024, p213. Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan also discuss cooperatives, but they point out that “the problem of a market-driven by competition remains”—see Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan, 2022, pp219-220.

48 Clark, 2023.

49 Eco-modernists suggest that ecological problems can be overcome through the development of new technologies, allowing growth and ecological degradation to be “decoupled” so that economic expansion can continue.

50 Phillips, 2015, p27.

51 Phillips, 2015, p12.

52 Phillips, 2015, p33.

53 Huber, 2023.

54 Neale, 2023.

55 Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan, 2022, p23.

56 Hickel, 2022, p165.

57 Hickel, 2022, p29.

58 Hickel, 2020. Excess emissions are those that surpass a country’s “budget” of emissions between 1850 and 2015 that would have kept carbon dioxide to below 350 parts per million, which climate scientists regard as the “safe” level.

59 Gräbner-Radkowitsch and Strunk, 2023, p2.

60 Quoted in Rodríguez-Labajos, Yánez and others, 2019, p177.

61 World Bank figures.

63 Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan, 2022, pp157-160.

64 Löwy, 2023.

65 Radl and Schmid, 2022.

66 Rodríguez-Labajos, Yánez and others, 2019, p177.

67 Gräbner-Radkowitsch and Strunk, 2023, p6.

68 Gräbner-Radkowitsch and Strunk, 2023, p5.

69 Kallis, 2019, p3.

70 Meadows, Meadows and others, 1972, p23.

71 Meadows, Meadows and others, 1972, p44.

72 Meadows, Meadows and others, 1972, p71.

73 For an extended critique of Malthusianism, see Empson and Rappel, 2021.

74 Kallis, 2019, p120.

75 Kallis, Paulson and others, 2020, p45.

76 Kallis, Paulson and others, 2020, pp45-46.

77 Kallis, Paulson and others, 2020, p48.

78 Kallis, Paulson and others, 2020, p51.

79 Hickel, 2020, chapter 5.


82 Hickel, 2020, p221.

83 Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan, 2022, p28.

84 Hickel, 2020, p243.

85 Löwy, 2023, p156.

86 Marx, 1981, p959.

87 Molyneux, 2021.

88 Neale, 2023.


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