Review: The Future Is Degrowth by Schmelzer, Vetter and Vansintjan
A comprehensive primer on “degrowth”, this book states that while growth is a powerful stabilizing mechanism of capitalist modernity, it destabilizes the ecological foundations of human life. The idea, then, is to organise society and the economy on the basis of well-being
The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism is an expanded version of Degrowth/Postwachstum zur Einführung (2018) by Matthias Schmelzer and Andrea Vetter. In an interview to a Montreal-based book review journal, Aaron Vansintjan, who has been credited as co-author in the English edition, stated that “while growth is a powerful stabilizing mechanism of capitalist modernity, it destabilizes the ecological foundations of human life also on this planet.” Degrowth is a variant of post capitalism “organising the society and the economy not on the basis of economic growth, but on the basis of well-being and living well together”. The logic of degrowth, controversies notwithstanding, lies in the self-destructive reality of neo-liberal finance capital, which incurred a loss of over $30 trillion in 2022. The Financial Times reports that this is the largest financial disaster since the sub-prime crisis of 2008.
It was in the 1970s that the concept of degrowth emerged symbiotically with the ‘Club of Rome’ to address the fallouts in post-war societies – ecological destruction, growing social inequalities, and alienation through mass consumption and Fordist labour processes.
The critique of growth has been gaining credence. “While polls have to be taken with a grain of salt, a 2018 poll taken in France showed that 54 per cent of respondents supported degrowth, compared to 46 per cent who supported green growth; in another poll, also in France, 55 per cent of respondents were for a degrowth future, compared to 29 per cent who preferred a more secure, stable continuation of the present and 16 per cent who were for a neoliberal, digitalized future,” state the authors. The book projects a vista for “post-capitalism beyond growth, charting a path forward through policies” to intensify democratisation of the economy and “now-topias” (new politics of work). It also profiles tinkerers, inventors, and improvisational spirits who bring an artistic approach to important tasks.
In 1972, social philosopher and political theorist André Gorz had asked: “Is the earth’s balance, for which no-growth – or even degrowth – of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?” Collinearly, Romanian-American mathematician and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, who integrated an understanding of physics and thermodynamics into economic theory, endorsed Gorz. In the US, revolutionary intellectuals and civil rights activists like James and Grace Lee Boggs stated in 1974 that revolution in the US would be the first one in history “to require the masses to make material sacrifices rather than to acquire more material things.” This was because they were “acquired at the expense of damning over one-third of the world into a state of underdevelopment, ignorance, disease and early death.” Sociologist Stephan Lessenich points to “lifestyles characterised by freedom and endless possibilities... through the externalisation of social and ecological costs, both historically (through colonialism, climate debt, and so on).” Today, some are living well at other’s expense. It is true that externalisation is an indispensable structural feature of the modern world system.
The authors of the volume being reviewed remind us of Marx’s term “social metabolism” to explain the dynamic relationship between humans and nature. Material and energetic exchanges allow a society to reproduce itself, produce, stabilise, and grow. “This interchange was dependent on complex and ecologically specific dynamics, such as the nutrient capacity of the soil or the availability of various forms of energy. Since societies depend on biological and ecological functions, these limit the potential of economic activities,” they state. Capitalist development, Marx perceived as one that “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, ie, it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil”.
This reference to alienation as the distinguishable chiropractic of capitalism (Karl Marx: Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 or Paris Manuscripts) is appropriate but what is missing is the vital point that alienation is not just about people’s estrangement from society (”People do not choose to go to work; they are forced to do so because –‘freed’ from the means for subsistence.”) but that it “signifies separation of the product from the producer and the product’s domination over the producer”. In Capital published in 1867, Marx quoted Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “You take my life when you take away my means of making a living”.
Degrowth shares ideas with most programmes of ecological modernisation including the Green New Deals but the mole in its cap is “Green fascism”. This train of thought opposes “immigration and cultural mixing on the grounds that ‘white’ land should be protected and saved from over exploitation by immigrants. This white supremacist belief is the basic ideological pillar of much of the New Right and Alt Right in the western world today. The title of the book by Alain de Benoist, its intellectual leader in France, Demain, La Décroissance!, was identical to the one by Georgescu-Roegen in the 1970s
Clearly, a socioeconomic system driven by endless economic growth is at the root of the multiple-pronged crisis of world capitalism. Degrowth theorists and activists now want massive investments into rapidly building up the material infrastructure for a post-fossil society. This includes the setting up of community-controlled renewable energy sources and democratically-managed public transport networks. They are against what historian Timothy Mitchell terms “carbon democracies”. Dipesh Chakrabarty, for his part, takes up cudgels for emancipation movements against the dynamics of fossil fuel-powered growth. “The mansion of modern freedoms stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuel use. Most of our freedoms so far have been energy-intensive,” he says.
Eclecticism notwithstanding, this book triggers a genuine move towards “systems-thinking”, which involves engaging history, economics, sociology, political economy, feminist critiques, neocolonial analysis and empirical treatments of social metabolism.
Sankar Ray is a writer and commentator on Left politics and history, and environmental issues. He lives in Kolkata.