Writing on the wall

Incoherent mosaic

Mike Macnair reviews 'Degrowth in movement(s): exploring pathways to transformation', essays edited by Corinna Burkhart, Matthias Schmelzer and Nina Treu

‘Degrowth’ is a currently moderately fashionable way of thinking about green alternatives to the capitalist ‘growth imperative’.1 The expression originates in the writing of Andre Gorz in the 1970s, responding to the ‘Club of Rome’ 1972 report, Limits to growth. The idea was then largely left on one side, to reappear in the early 2000s as an alternative to the then-fashionable idea of ‘sustainable growth’.2

Degrowth in movement(s) is an anthology of mixed theoretical perspectives and practical initiatives by people or groups who are willing to associate themselves with the ‘degrowth’ perspective. The book starts with a preface and a foreword, both essentially blurbs; an introduction by the editors, ‘Degrowth and the emerging mosaic of alternatives’ (whose title indicates the conception of the book); and Eric Pineualt on ‘The growth imperative of capitalist society’. There follow 20 chapters in (perhaps a little artificial) alphabetical order.

A mosaic is made of many small pieces of stone or glass; but, when one steps back from close attention to the individual pieces to look at it as a whole, a coherent picture emerges. Or at least that is what the editors think readers will get from Degrowth in movement(s), but in reality the opposite is the case. The more pieces (individual chapters) one reads, the more the argument becomes incoherent. Rather than a mosaic, it seems more like the textual equivalent of one of those tedious sessions at the end of a demonstration where all of the leftwing ‘great and the good’ have their turn to speak; or, perhaps at best, a set of diverse and inconsistent blurbs produced by an Amazon search. The blurbs (chapters) do, however, have the merit of providing an introduction to the topics covered and some references to supplementary reading.

Suppose - for the moment, and for the sake of argument - that ‘degrowth’ is in some sense what human society needs, as the authors are proposing. (Proposing, rather than arguing. It is difficult to find an actual sustained argument for ‘degrowth’, as opposed to a series of extended sound-bites, here or elsewhere in current published materials using the tag; it seems to be common for advocates to assume that casual references to The limits to growth (1972), to Nicolas Georgescu-Rogen’s 1971 The entropy law and the economic process and so on, and to the certainly real problems of human-induced climate change, is enough.) Then the question is whether the proposed ‘alternatives’ as routes to degrowth pull towards or away from each other. In this book it is pretty clear that the latter is the case.


Consider, for example, the relation between the ‘universal basic income’ proposal (chapter 4) and ‘demonetisation’ (chapter 10). Universal basic income is a proposal for reforming currently extant state social security arrangements, which supposes precisely that money will continue to be the basic means of rationing access to goods. It is in fact a pro-money and pro-market proposal - counterposed to the free provision of public services in general and to ‘From each according to his or her abilities, to each according to his or her needs’ - as in the current regimes, which provide more to people with children, to the sick, to people with disabilities. It is thus flatly counterposed to demonetisation, and to the various localist ideas proposed in chapters 8 (commons), 11 (ecovillages), 12 (food sovereignty), and 20 (transition initiatives).

Or, equally, take these various localist proposals, and chapter 16 on “post-extractivism”, and set these against the free software movement in chapter 13 (also discussed in chapter 10 on demonetisation). The free software movement only makes sense in the context of the existence of the internet - an enormously elaborate piece of global hardware and software infrastructure originally created by state institutions, though now partly privatised to allow rent-extraction, which also requires the current, very wide dissemination of personal computing devices, smartphones, and so on. This depends in turn both on ‘extractivism’ and on mass production operations, conducted on a business model which involves more acute ‘planned obsolescence’ than was the case when the term was invented in relation to cars.3

I recollect the Marxist economist, John Harrison (1950-2007), giving an educational in the mid-1970s to the Oxford branch of the International Marxist Group, and referring (in the context of utopian socialism) to hippies moving to Wales to create communes to “grow their own clothes and weave their own stereo systems”. The point was that advocates of opt-out, ‘small is beautiful’ and ‘get closer to nature’ characteristically assumed that they would still have access to the products of the extended division of labour, which currently takes the form of the capitalist economy. The same contradiction in ideas is acutely visible in Degrowth in movement(s).

The population of Great Britain is around 66 million. As of the first census in 1801 it was around 10.5 million. The country came close to famine in the 1790s, but avoided mass deaths through a combination of grain imports and government intervention.4 Today, 48% of the food consumed in the UK is imported.5 Food security on the basis of fully localised production is actually impossible, since there can be quite local harvest failures; but to go find an England that was not regularly dependent on food imports, we would have to look back to the middle ages and a population of 2-3 million. A real programme of degrowth through localisation, then, calls for the death of 95% of the British population. The numbers vary from country to country, but will be globally in the same general range. Hence, the contradiction must be present: it is only very tiny groups which call for a real neo-Malthusian reduction of human population to levels which could do without food trade and/or redistribution on a large scale.

All this, so far, on the basis of the assumption that ‘degrowth’ is a viable goal; but recognising the contradiction between localisms and other projects. But this depends … ‘Degrowth’ can mean one of two things. The first is that we actually need décroissance, in the sense in which Gorz used the term: a reduction of human population and activities to some ‘sustainable’ level. It is this approach which makes EF Schumacher’s ‘Small is beautiful’ seem plausible and the various localist projects discussed in several of the chapters of Degrowth in movement(s) look like paths towards alternatives to the current world order. But here the lack of rigour is unavoidable, since working out the implications in a rigorous and non-contradictory way implies a policy of megadeaths.

Indeed, the point is no novelty. The German ideology from the late 1840s6 includes the following:

This ‘alienation’ (to use a term which will be comprehensible to the philosophers) can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an ‘intolerable’ power - ie, a power against which men make a revolution - it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity ‘propertyless’, and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development.

And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old shit would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the ‘propertyless’ mass (universal competition), makes each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones.

Without this, (1) communism could only exist as a local event; (2) the forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal, hence intolerable powers: they would have remained home-bred conditions surrounded by superstition; and (3) each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism.

A brief element of the passage was quoted by Leon Trotsky in The revolution betrayed (1936).7 The point is obvious. Competition driving growth is not in fact a novelty to capitalism: it is visible in competition between feudal lords (and peasant village groups) in the spread of water-mills around 1000 AD. Environmental degradation by human action begins at the latest in the Neolithic - even if hunter-gatherers did not drive megafauna to extinction.8 To try to go backwards is merely to remove the possibility of having knowledge of - and hence conscious control of - our collective environmental impacts, while leaving in place the incentives which drive the growth dynamic complained of.


The second interpretation of ‘degrowth’ is much more limited. It is to break merely with the growth imperative, and select other choices about our common productive activities. ‘Degrowth’ in this sense is to break with capitalism’s imperative of random growth. This would be consistent with maintaining most of the global infrastructure of production, distribution and communications - but planning how to organise this, in order to benefit the human interests and needs of the world’s 7.7 billion people (as of 2019), while reducing the pressure on the biosphere produced by carbon outputs, plastic waste and so on, and cleaning up some of the mess capitalism has made.

But the problem here is that such a project is radically inconsistent with ‘Small is beautiful’ and related approaches. And it is currently deeply unfashionable, because it entails taking hold of and using the large-scale productive capabilities - and doing so not merely on the level of the nation-state, but on at least a continental scale. Localists deny that human beings can operate democratically on the global or even the nation-state scale - and point to the failures of the ‘Soviet bloc’ countries as evidence of the point.

But this is, in essence, also the case for ‘growth’. If humans cannot organise collective-action decisions for large-scale operations, these (it is argued) have to be organised through markets allowing as much as possible individual choice. Markets, however, entail - and free-marketeers do not deny this - the amplification of initially small differences in individual competences. The result over time is radical inequalities. These can, however, be tolerated by society - the free-marketeers claim - as long as there is an aggregate increase in output, so that the winners could in principle compensate the losers (‘Kaldor-Hicks efficiency’). That is, ‘growth’ - random increases in overall net output - make market inequalities tolerable. The fall of the ‘Soviet bloc’ countries is then used as evidence that, because non-market ordering did not drive growth, the inequalities of ‘bureaucratic socialism’ (marketeers would say just ‘socialism’) are intolerable to the society.

The problem resolves itself into how to plan democratically and control the productive powers which have outgrown capitalism’s ability to do so and in consequence begun to turn into powers of destruction. But this problem turns out to be a problem of political ordering for decision-making for collective action on a very large scale. We can admit that we have not yet solved this; but the problem with Degrowth in movement(s) and similar projects is the complete failure to face up to it at all - and the attempt to avoid confronting it.

Mike Macnair


  1. ‘Fashionable’ is indicated by various polemics against the idea. For just a few recent examples, see E Conway, ‘Talking up “degrowth” is not clever or funny’ The Times August 9 2019; D Zenghelis, ‘Can we be green and grow?’ (February 4 2020): lombardodier.com/contents/corporate-news/responsible-capital/2019/november/can-we-be-green-and-grow.html; D Coyle, ‘Growth, stagnation and degrowth’ (February 22 2020): enlightenmenteconomics.com/blog/index.php/2020/02/growth-stagnation-and-degrowth.↩︎

  2. G d’Alisa, F Demaria and G Kallis, ‘Introduction’ Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era London 2015, pp1-2.↩︎

  3. A convenient account of the history is at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planned_obsolescence; with another angle at bbc.com/future/article/20160612-heres-the-truth-about-the-planned-obsolescence-of-tech.↩︎

  4. See M Turner, ‘Review of R Wells Wretched faces [1988]’ Social History Vol 15, pp390-92 (1990).↩︎

  5. foodsecurity.ac.uk/challenge/your-food-is-global.↩︎

  6. This dating formulation is intended to take account of the arguments of Terrell Carver and others that the text we now have as The German ideology is an artefact of 1920s editorial work on miscellaneous manuscripts of Marx, Engels and collaborators of the late 1840s: T Carver, ‘The German ideology never took place’: marxismocritico.com/2013/05/06/the-german-ideology-never-took-place/#more-6661, and elsewhere. The following quotation is from marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm, with the German Scheisse translated as ‘shit’ rather than ‘filthy business’.↩︎

  7. marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/ch03.htm#ch03-4.↩︎

  8. For the Neolithic, see, for example, J Chapman, ‘Climatic and human impact on the environment? A question of scale’ Quaternary International No496 (2018), pp3-13. Megafauna: eg, G Abramson et al ‘On the roles of hunting and habitat size on the extinction of megafauna’ Quaternary International No431 (2017), pp205-15.↩︎