In Part Two, John Molyneux looks at the limitations of state-planned economies operating within the capitalist system, and makes the ecosocialist case for the degrowth of some industries and growth of others.
Read Part One here.
Any discussion of growth or degrowth under socialism depends on one’s conception of socialism. In the dominant view in the mainstream media, the academic world, and to some extent on the left, the main characteristics of a socialist country or state are seen as:
- A regime which describes itself as socialist
- State ownership of the major means of production
- Central (i.e. state planning) of the economy.
The dominance of this view in academia is evidenced by the prevalence of the phrase ‘actually existing socialism’ in academic discourse, especially when referring to the former ‘communist’ countries of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe etc.
If we set aside the first criterion, self description, as not meriting serious consideration since it would yield a most unlikely list of suspects—People’s Republic of Congo, Ethiopia under the Military Junta (1974-87, which includes the great famine), Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Burma (1962- 88) etc.—we are left with state ownership and state planning.
Giorgos Kallis, who I will use as a foil again, is sarcastic on this:
“Whereas degrowth is incompatible with capitalism, degrowth rejects also the illusion of a so-called ‘socialist growth’, whereby a rationally, centrally planned economy somehow magically will bring technological developments that will allow a reasonable growth without impinging upon the ecological conditions.”
There is an obvious reply to Kallis’s sarcasm that, without any resort to magic, a rationally planned economy would be able to allow a reasonable growth without ecological damage precisely by virtue of being rationally planned. To this, Kallis could equally retort that, whatever the logic, the actual experience of growth in state planned economies such as the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe, North Korea etc. has been very far from ecologically satisfactory or sustainable. And Kallis would be right.
This raises the question of why? Why have centrally planned economies not been able to avoid ecologically damaging growth? Was it the mindset of the regimes? This, it should be remembered, is the reason given by ‘moderate’ greens for the behaviour of western capitalist governments and economies.
I would suggest that there were two fundamental structural defects shared by the state planned economies at hand.
The first is that the state apparatuses – those who did the planning – were not subject to any kind of democratic control but were run by unaccountable materially privileged and often downright tyrannical bureaucracies.
The second is that the planning we are discussing was done on a nationally limited basis in a situation of competition with other nation states, both free market and state planned, within the framework of global capitalism and the world market.
Thus, in the most important case, the Soviet Union was engaged in a long running economic/military competition with the United States (which it eventually lost) while also competing with China, and vice versa. In these circumstances the various state bureaucracies inevitably sacrificed the natural environment to considerations of economic growth which they rightly deemed to be essential to their power and survival, just as did the US government or ExxonMobile.
But in my view this is not ‘actually existing socialism’ at all. I would call it state capitalism. At any rate, the concept or vision of socialism that concerns me when it comes to discussing the issue of growth or degrowth is quite different.
It is the concept, as outlined by Marx and Engels in chapter 2 of The Communist Manifesto, of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class which begins with the proletariat raising itself to be ruling class, and then using ‘its political supremacy to wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie and to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class…’.
This first stage of socialism or workers’ power then inaugurates a process of gradual transition to a completely classless, fully socialist, or communist society which is simultaneously and in parallel a process of spreading the revolution from its initial base in one country to the rest of the world.
There is, of course, a long-standing debate in the socialist movement about the possibility of constructing a socialist society in one country. But the terms of that debate have been fundamentally transformed by climate change.
Whatever the possibility of holding at bay the pressures of world capitalism within the boundaries of a single state, be it Russia, China, Cuba, or wherever, there can be no possibility of resolving the threat of climate change in one country. If socialist transformation were to begin in Brazil or South Africa, in Egypt or China, the headlong descent into climate chaos would proceed virtually unabated as long as the US, Russia, India, the EU and the rest of the world continued on its present course.
Assuming the process of spreading the revolution develops reasonably successfully, and it will either move forward and gather momentum or be thrown backwards, then a point will be reached where planned production for human need, not profit, predominates in the world. Until that point, production decisions will unavoidably remain heavily conditioned by the necessities of survival in a hostile world.
The early Soviet State, for example, had no choice unless it was willing to surrender and be completely crushed but to undertake massive military expenditure. But once that moment is reached and socialism has come to be internationally dominant the concept of ‘growth’ as we know it at present will rapidly cease to apply.
As we showed in Part 1 of this series, the compulsion to grow under capitalism is not to produce goods, it is a compulsion to make profits and accumulate capital. Similarly, ‘economic growth’, whether expressed in GDP, GNI or another form, is a measure of increased monetary value not increased physical production.
It follows that as production becomes more and more for social need, involving, for example, the expansion of free services such as education, health, transport, housing, etc., so the measurement of monetary value becomes increasingly irrelevant.
In any pre-capitalist, so-called underdeveloped society, where the large majority of the population were peasant farmers and the bulk of production was for subsistence and only a small surplus product being offered for exchange, the major part of total social production was carried on below the level of monetary measurement. In primitive communist foraging society which, let us remember, preceded class society and the invention of money for hundreds of thousands of years, economic growth in the contemporary sense was completely meaningless.
There was, however, a very slow but real development of the productive forces as in the improvement of stone tools and the invention of pottery (approximately 30,000 years ago), without opening up a metabolic rift with nature. With 7 billion people on the planet it is obviously impossible to return to foraging as a mode of production or to the level of productive forces of the middle ages without even steam power or serious medicine, never mind the telephone and the internet.
Growth and Degrowth
Our goal must be to move towards the equality, classlessness, dis-alienation,and harmonious sustainable relationship with nature of primitive communism on the basis of an enormously higher level of the productive forces.
In terms of what should be expected, indeed required, of socialist governments from the beginning corresponds to what eco-socialists demand at present. Such as:
- Rapid reduction of carbon emissions, nationally and internationally, to zero by 2030 (not 2050).
- The elimination as quickly as possible of all dependence on and use of fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal – plus an immediate halt to further exploration; leave it in the ground! Rapid transition to renewable sources of energy.
- Free regular and expanded public transport.
- The extensive retrofitting of homes.
- Massive reduction in dependence on beef and cattle farming.
- Massive programmes of afforestation.
This very limited programme involves both degrowth and growth of different sectors of the productive forces. Reduction to zero of the fossil fuel industries which must be complemented by expanded production of wind turbines, solar panels, etc. Reduction and, eventually, elimination of the car industry, would be offset by more production of buses and trains and more ecologically sustainable housing. Less beef production but more growing of vegetables and more planting of trees.
Moreover, the same dichotomy would apply to other aspects of the programme of any really socialist government:
- Less, transitioning to zero, military and arms production but more hospitals, schools and higher education.
- Less building of expensive hotels and luxury apartment blocks but more building of public housing;
- Less advertising, more theatres, and arts centres;
- Less (no) production of single use plastics and unneeded goods, more resources devoted to youth work and care of elderly;
This is a necessary complexity that cannot be covered by the simple call for degrowth.
In particular, we should also challenge the idea, implicit in the arguments of many ‘degrowthers’, especially those that favour population control, that all human activity, indeed all human existence, is inherently damaging to nature.
In a future fully developed international socialist society a huge amount of human productive activity would be devoted to healing the rift with nature and ensuring the continued existence of a natural environment conducive to human survival. For example, it may be perfectly feasible to develop new carbon free forms of transport which allow rapid eco-friendly travel over water and thus make it possible to enormously reduce or eliminate air travel; alternatively it may be possible to render flying non-ecologically harmful.
All this is speculation, of course, and contingent on solving the immediate problems of climate change, ecological destruction and exploitation, oppression and war, which now constitute an increasingly short-term threat to survival; nevertheless it points again to a complexity that rules out blanket calls for degrowth or diminution of the productive forces.
What should ecosocialists say now?
What we say now on this question is connected to who we see as our primary audience, which in turn is linked to the question of our strategy for change.
There is undoubtedly a wing of the environmental movement which sees itself as directly addressing governments, corporate CEOs, and other ruling class figures in order to persuade them to change their ways. To call on such people to de-grow their economies or their companies is utterly utopian. One might as well ask pigs to fly or BP to become Beyond Petroleum.
In my opinion, this is a vain strategy in general, not just in terms of degrowth. There is a case for making demands of our rulers that we know they won’t concede, if such demands are an aid to mass mobilisation at the base.
And there are indeed layers of people who might, I stress might, be attracted to the idea and the slogan of degrowth. These might include school students, mobilised so effectively by Greta Thunberg, college and university students, and some of the young professionals moved to direct action by Extinction Rebellion, i.e. layers for whom immediate economic considerations do not loom very large.
Such people should not be dismissed – they are important in themselves and for the environmental movement as a whole, and we should engage them. They are not, in my view, the touchstone of ecosocialist politics.
That should be the mass of working class people and of the oppressed internationally and especially in the Global South. Why? Because these and only these are the people with the potential power to challenge capitalism and effect real system change.
But in terms of mobilising such people, whether they are located in Los Angeles or Liverpool, Sao Paulo or Soweto, the concept or slogan of degrowth will be a non-starter. To demand degrowth under capitalism is to demand more unemployment, more poverty and more suffering for the mass of people.
A mass movement cannot be built on this basis and it will not only alienate working people but will also reinforce the right wing, anti-socialist strand in the environmental movement who believe the solution to climate change is to reduce the consumption of ordinary people through mechanisms such as carbon taxes and are often, as with the Green Party here in Ireland, willing to implement such policies in coalition with conservative neoliberal parties.
It will completely undermine the idea of a ‘just transition’. And while doing this damage, it will not even bring about actual degrowth because that is incompatible with capitalism. To advocate degrowth under socialism is scientifically wrong, as I argued above, and will, as far as the mass of people are concerned, only confuse the issue. It is more likely to put them off socialism than it is to bring about a movement for real climate action.
But rejecting the slogan of degrowth does not mean we can revert to, or continue with, the old practice of calling for growth in general, even socialist growth.
What ecosocialists should do now, therefore, is spell out exactly which sectors/forms of industry we need to de-grow and eliminate – fossil fuels, cars, arms, factory farming, single use plastics, most advertising etc – while explaining that this must be combined with huge numbers of decent green jobs, better health, education and welfare and a better quality of life for the vast majority.