Is Degrowth an Alternative to Capitalism?

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The newest book by Giorgos Kallis, one of the most prolific degrowth advocates is entitled Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care. It is a short and accessible read which contains some important and unconventional arguments. In what follows, I will first briefly summarize the core arguments of the book, which promises to provoke important discussions on the matter of limits and subjects. Then I will reflect on the fuzziness of the primarily cultural conceptualization of capitalism, and argue that neither self-limitation nor degrowth qualifies as a mode of production, such that they could constitute an alternative to capitalism.

Rereading Malthus: Limits or Scarcity?

The first chapter of Limits puts forth a rather unusual reading of Malthus. According to Kallis, Malthus was not a prophet of limits, but rather one of growth who simply “invoked the specter of limits to justify inequality and call for growth” (p.16). Two premises put the engine of growth in motion: the principle of population (the notion that our ability to produce children is always greater than our ability to produce for survival) and the principle of scarcity which derives from the preceding principle (the idea that our numbers are great and wants are unlimited, and hence we are always constrained by scarcity).

Since a happy nation for Malthus is one where population grows, the suffering caused by scarcity is the necessity that mothers invention, which is the source of increases to productivity and growth. The theological premise that “populating the earth at a geometric rate is what our nature, and God, call for […]” is crucial for understanding that Malthus was not against population growth. He merely approached suffering as a “divine providence”, a necessary price to be paid for growth. In other words, for Father Malthus, torment is the source of industriousness. Hence his political agenda to abolish all Poor Laws: “Inequality is inevitable, but it is not bad […] It is the motor of growth” (p.20).

Based on this interpretation that distinguishes Malthus himself from neo-Malthusianism, Kallis formulates a critique of Malthus that is essentially different from the conventional one: “Malthus was not wrong because he underestimated technology and growth”, rather he “was wrong because he did not want to entertain the idea that we could limit our numbers and be happy” (p.25-6).

According to this reading, Malthus is not the founding father of limits to resources, but of unlimited subjects, namely homo economicus. Given the claim that Malthus’s greatest contribution to economic ideology is scarcity (and not limits), in the second chapter of his book Kallis reinterprets the relationship between Malthus and modern mainstream economic theory as not one of rupture, but rather of continuity.

For Kallis, neoclassical economics is Malthusian in essence insofar as it is founded on unlimited human wants (the assumption of nonsatiation) and universal scarcity. Limits of food in Malthus became limits of time in neoclassical economics, making the study of Robinson Crusoe’s isolated life on his island free of social relations and the concept of the opportunity cost the bedrock of microeconomic theory. Still, by relegating Malthus and his theory to the pre-history of modern economic theory, mainstream economic ideology tries to distinguish itself from Malthus, and the capitalist world of abundance from the pre-capitalist world of shortages and famines (p.41).

Limits as Self-Limitation

The Limits to Growth sort of environmentalism is also founded on an inverted logic that prioritizes growth, which would come to an end unless the environment is preserved. Hence, the best-case scenario is to be achieved by slowing down growth in a way that would allow the economy to carry the greatest number of people. The counterpart of this type of environmentalism in mainstream economics is thus reframing the question to an optimization problem within environmental scarcity constraints (p.44-47).

The common point that unites the Limits to Growth framework with the mainstream economic approach is the attribution of limits to an external space. The third chapter develops the crux of Kallis’s argument, his alternative conception of limits as arising from self-limitation. This means defining one’s own limits rather than limiting one’s self under given external constraints. This is a crucial step forward insofar as it politicizes the question of limits, escapes the fetters of socially blind quantification, and gives priority to the qualitative: “By thinking of limits as something objective out there, we disguise that they are ultimately about us and our own wants, thereby reproducing the Malthusian view that nature doesn’t let us do everything we want to” (p.60).

The ‘internalization’ of limits and its perception as primarily a political question has an immediate corollary: by which subjects and through what processes will limits be defined? Kallis is well aware that “[d]emocracy is at odds with capitalism” because unlimited expansion is incontestable (p.55).

This is the point where the argument in the book (and, frankly, in the degrowth literature) starts to become elusive for me. According to Kallis, real autonomy is achieved by questioning the wants fueling the system that destroys the environment (p.59). I think a fundamental misconception of capitalism is at play here. The capitalist system is not driven by wants (or demand; also not by supply, or investment, for that matter), but rather by the pursuit of profit.  

Does Culture Drive Growth?

First, the attribution of expansion under capitalism to wants rather than the relentless quest for profit on the part of capital bears the risk of turning the ecological problem into a moral question of taming our desires.

In fact, in the fourth chapter of the book, which is titled A Culture of Limits, Kallis contrasts today’s Western culture, fixed with “limitless accumulation – of power and riches” (p.77) with that of the ancient Greeks, supposedly a culture of limits, and avoidance of excess and hubris. The whole chapter reads as though the Western culture, its behavioral norms, and the prevalence of bad morals is driving us to the edge of the abyss. One yearns to ask the author for an explanation of the relations and mechanisms in and through which this so-called Western culture has evolved to what it is. Unless Kallis believes that Western culture is intrinsically destructive, it is worth exploring its embeddedness in the totality of social relations (including class society and production for profit) which make up capitalism as a mode of production. This is particularly evident in a time when ‘limitless accumulation of power and riches’ has attained a universal character, irrefutably overriding cultural idiosyncrasies. The matter is not one of cultures (or clash thereof), but the essence of capital, namely accumulation. 

Second, Kallis puts his finger on a vital question when he warns against the de-politicizing narrative based on the idea that an external threat, planetary crises, and so forth are threatening “a collective us” (p.63). The truth is that responsibility varies wildly across classes and country groups in a way that mimics the horizontal (geographic) and vertical (within country) inequalities and hierarchies specific to capitalism as a world system. From this, Kallis derives the following conclusion: real democracy is all about having a conversation on defining our own limits, what kind of a world we want to live in, and how we are going to construct it (p.64). 

However, there is a clear dissonance between these two statements. Those with political and economic power not only contributed in an immensely disproportionate way to the cumulative damage inflicted to our ecology, but also benefited from it, while those with least responsibility and power bear the greatest risk.

Framing the problem solely as one of democracy disguises its class character. In the context of such a clash of interests, democracy in its bourgeois form, confined to the political sphere and deliberately kept away from the economic Holy Land enclosed by private property, would be of no help.

Kallis seems to be aware that we have to go beyond bourgeois democracy to make any progress. It is otherwise impossible to achieve the objectives discussed in depth in the degrowth literature, such as establishing an economic system that prioritizes well-being over accumulation, use values over exchange values, a controlled and coordinated shortening of the working day, or “at times […] not to develop what can be developed” (p.73).

Is Degrowth a Mode of Production?

We have to be careful when setting the principles of the problem: capitalism is a mode of production that is primarily driven not by growth, but competition for profit where individual capitals are compelled to cut costs and increase scale. Growth is an outcome, not the motive of this process. And it has nothing to do with morals or personal intentions of capitalists who direct resources so as to make the highest possible profits and stay competitive.

When Kallis writes that “growth is a particular need of capitalism – a system that requires a compounding of profits” (p.36), he seems to be well aware of the systemic nature of this problem. Yet he keeps diverting to culture as the primary realm of struggle. In fact, the degrowth literature at large swings like a pendulum between these two takes: at times it focuses on structural limits pertaining to capitalism (that in fact make degrowth impossible), and at other times, it retreats to a moral critique.

The distinction between boundary (or, limit – Grenze) and barrier (Schranke) found in Marx’s Grundrisse and Capital is illuminating in this context. In the process of its expansion, capital turns every boundary into a barrier, an obstacle to be surmounted. This has two corollaries. First, capitalist growth cannot be questioned without challenging capitalism itself. Steady-state or degrowing capitalism is an oxymoron. Second, degrowth is not a substitute for capitalism, but rather a framework that aims to overturn only one constitutive element of the system. 

The logical implication of advocating for an economic system that dispenses with the profit motive and accumulation, and puts instead well-being and use values to the center is to challenge the capitalist market economy. Only under social ownership of the means of production can we extend democracy to the realm where resources are allocated and limits are defined, what Kallis perceives as ‘real democracy’. Yet the degrowth literature at large becomes timid before the task of confronting capitalism as a mode of production, instead it continuously problematizes its symptoms.

The final chapter of Limits discusses the limits of the book’s approach. Here, Kallis notes that self-limitation cannot be conceptualized as a narrow project of individual or small-group change – it must be a universal political ambition. As such, it requires the involvement of “the working class and all those who live within limits that are not of their own choosing” (p.102). 

This is a crucial point since the question of the subject haunts one’s mind while reading the book. Who is to be addressed? Who could challenge the relentless expansion of capital and thereby the capitalist system in its totality? Workers and capitalists have different perceptions of their selves, have different tools and powers at their disposal, and employ substantially different capacities when it comes to defining limits. And, above all, they have different interests!

Recognizing this fissure means to admit the contentious nature of the matter, and undermines the idea of the limitation of a universal self. If we take carbon emissions as an example, it is absurd to talk about the capacity for and necessity of self-limitation for a considerable portion of the global population who barely consume and emit anything. From this viewpoint, it is not a matter of collective self-limitation, but primarily the dethroning and limitation of those with political and economic power. Hence, an undifferentiated, abstract ‘we’ cannot assume the role of the subject of this change, but the exploited and oppressed. A radical change in the human-environment relationship is not likely to occur without a concurrent change in the human-human relationship.

A final word on degrowth itself: I totally agree that questioning capitalist growth is vital today to expose its destructive character as well as the fact that it comes at the expense of working people’s living standards. Moreover, a planned and coordinated degrowth of energy consumption (and output) in advanced countries in the short-to-medium-term is necessary at least to avoid runaway climate change. Yet, this is not to say that degrowth should be applied to all spheres of the economy as well as all social classes even in advanced countries. An increase in the living standards of the poor and working classes through expanded provision and decommodification of essential goods and services is the best way for political mobilization to beat back the expansion of capital in the immediate short-run.

We need not lock ourselves into the false dichotomy of ‘growth vs. degrowth’ where subjectivities, and the social and material content are barely perceptible. Once degrowth is institutionalized, it can easily become as socially blind as capitalist growth. Kallis himself seems to sense this when he, inspired by Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, mentions the risk associated with permanently renewing an initial commitment (p.112).

Hence, what is at stake is not replacing the straitjacket of growth (of capital) with that of degrowth, but abolishing the social relation of capital, turning the issues of “growth/degrowth of what?”, “at what cost?”, “under which circumstances?” into political questions. Avoiding ecological collapse is more closely linked to the emancipation of the working classes than it appears.

Güney Işıkara is a a Clinical Assistant Professor in Liberal Studies at New York University.

 

2 thoughts on “Is Degrowth an Alternative to Capitalism?

  1. The human brain is perfectly suited for chasing phantasms. “Degrowth” fits this bill with its fundamental evasion of sociological reality, and its persistent chimerical appeal to academic wish and hope. All the questions you pose have answers of “No” available, as “No, degrowth is not an alternative to capitalism, because, well – look a the world outside your door, would you?”

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