It used to be radical to claim that capitalism couldn’t produce enough stuff. Now it seems all too obvious that capitalism produces far too much. From mounting pollution to unfathomable stockpiles of weapons, our earth is practically collapsing under the growth of stuff that clearly serves no social good. It’s only a short jump from this fact to the commonplace assertions of environmentalists that not only do ordinary people consume far too much, but that the system as a whole needs to slow down the pace of production, or to “de-grow.”
In reaction to the rise of degrowth, a new generation of socialists has emerged to forcefully argue that “the politics of less is a bad strategy” if your goal is to win over workers. These critics have highlighted how workers have been strategically sidelined by degrowthers in favor of a diverse, environmentally-conscious coalition that regularly heaps much of the climate blame on working-class consumers. As Matt Huber has written, “Degrowth... is overwhelmingly a movement of and for the professional class” that has confused the activities of the capitalist class with economic growth as such.
But if we take degrowthers at their word, they are not just making a political argument, but an economic one. And ultimately, the latter incentivizes the necessity of the former. Perhaps, they could argue, their politics are taken to be unsavory by working people, but if their economic analysis is nonetheless correct, then the survival of the planet really does depend on reducing economic growth. If the core of their economic theory is true, then the degrowth strategy is necessary no matter how difficult it is to sell.
Fortunately for us, their economic critique doesn’t land. By misdiagnosing growth as the culprit, instead of capital’s insatiable drive to accumulate profit, degrowthers fundamentally misunderstand both how and why capitalism produces both inequality and ecological destruction. As a result of these misunderstandings, their view not only ends up resembling much of the mainstream analysis they ostensibly aim to critique, but also subscribes to a form of capitalist realism that circumvents the political question of possible structural transformation.
This means that degrowth is not only politically harmful, but it is also guided by deeply problematic economics. The result is that it severely muddies our efforts to address climate change, and the sooner we abandon it entirely, the better.
The basic logic behind degrowth is simple. Every variant begins with the observations that capitalism is an economic system that grows, and that growth is leading to ecological ruin. The more elaborate arguments, as found in Jason Hickel’s or Giorgos Kallis’s work, go a step further: economic growth necessarily spurs demand for energy at a pace far greater than the transition from dirty fuels to clean, renewable ones. Therefore, what’s needed is a reduction of “material throughput,” or production of stuff, in order to achieve a reduction in energy demand and lower carbon emissions.
Economics has a name for a decline in the production of stuff alongside a decline in the consumption of goods and services: an economic recession. This is a comparison degrowthers are quick to deny. Most modern degrowth advocates, including Hickel and Kallis, put a qualifier on their politics, saying they don’t intend for an overall or absolute decline in economic growth. What they really want is “selective degrowth.” Greater social provision for the poor is of course good, but select wasteful industries must be tamped down or killed off.
The Left has long critiqued economists’ focus on the gross domestic product (GDP) as a measurement of economic health and stability. This metric, which measures the quantitative worth of a nation’s newly amassed goods and services, abstracts from the questions of how the value-added is distributed or to what ends.
In the eyes of economists, growth exists for growth’s sake because growth is healthy and good. They take the fundamentals of capitalism as given. But growth within capitalism is necessarily predicated on the extraction of as much surplus labor from workers as our ruling class can get away with. New economic growth is either plowed back into new investment with hopes of realizing an even greater profit or instead pocketed by capitalists and shareholders.
It’s both possible and useful for the Left to distinguish between growth for growth’s sake, which redounds to growth in the pursuit of profit, and growth as a neutral term for the expansion of society’s wealth. Under a better system, this wealth could be distributed more equitably and for human need. The socialist tradition historically hasn’t had a problem making this distinction—the promise of socialism has been nearly synonymous with a society of material abundance for all. Capitalist growth would give way to socialist growth.
This legacy goes back to Karl Marx, who was focused on explaining the historically specific “laws of motion” that made capitalism unique. Central to his analysis was the claim that increases in fixed capital investment within production and the resulting growth in output are derived from the competitive, capitalist imperatives to maximize profit and minimize costs. Each capitalist, being subject to market imperatives, finds it rational and necessary to increase the number of machines and the scale of the production process in order to increase the productivity of labor, cheapen commodity prices, and ultimately conquer greater market share.
But for Marx, to truly understand the turbulent economic growth brought forth by capitalism, we have to distinguish between mere appearances of material production processes and the social relations that introduced the novel capitalist interests that made producing all the stuff an imperative. As he explained:
Since production on a large scale developed first in the capitalist form, the profit-mania and competition which compel commodities to be produced as cheaply as possible give... the appearance of something peculiar to the capitalist mode of production and therefore make it seem a function of the capitalist.
Both the orthodox economists and the degrowth Left are guilty of mistaking effect for cause. Hickel does this when he says that “capitalism is fundamentally dependent on growth.” The actual production of stuff is certainly necessary for capitalism, but contra Hickel, that new stuff is only important or “socially necessary” (within capitalist markets) insofar as it successfully realizes a competitive profit. It is therefore the profit-mania that Marx described that drives growth under capitalism, not growth for its own sake. If capitalists cannot earn sufficient profits, they stop investing, and growth disappears.
At a few scattered points in his book Less Is More, Hickel states that he understands that in capitalism, “the goal is to produce and sell [things] for one purpose above all others: to make a profit.” But that analysis is discarded as quickly as it’s introduced. He immediately pivots to substitute growth for profit-making: “If growth stops, companies go bust, governments struggle to fund social services, people lose their jobs, poverty rises, and states become politically vulnerable. Under capitalism, growth is not just an optional feature of human social organization—it’s an imperative to which all are hostage.” This slippage is analytically crucial.
The production of environmentally damaging energy like oil and coal has been entirely contingent on this technology being low-cost and therefore conducive to profitability. The history of the past three centuries shows dramatic, dynamic leaps in technological innovation and usage overwhelmingly driven by capitalist competition, even when research costs have been shifted to the public sector. That means that capitalist quantitative growth has been accompanied and perhaps even overshadowed by the qualitative transformations in living standards and social experiences brought through ever-increasing technical change.
This has led some to think mere technological fixes may be enough to solve the climate crisis. With smart policy and a healthy dose of meritocratic democracy, some believe we can harness the virtues of capitalist entrepreneurship to stop climate change and achieve “green growth.” Degrowthers have usually charged these technophiles with offering unrealistic promises and insufficiently radical strategies to combat elites’ resistance to systemic change.
But what must be explained is the fact that over the past few decades, many advanced capitalist countries have seen continued economic growth with a simultaneous and steady decline in CO2 emissions. This is something Hickel regards as “an illusion of accounting”—in other words, it isn’t real. But as John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times writes:
For the best part of the past 200 years, one rule held across the world: if a country’s economic activity expanded, so did its carbon emissions. But starting in the 1980s with the advent of nuclear power, it became increasingly common to see countries cutting emissions while growing GDP.
What the FT journalist won’t emphasize, however, is that the expansion of low-carbon energy such as nuclear has always been achieved by active and powerful states through the pressure of working-class political movements. This was true in Sweden, where the Social Democrats and the Trade Union Confederation led the charge directly; in France, by a state-owned enterprise with strong ties to French Communists; as well as in the United States, which managed a less ambitious transition through New Deal legacy public power authorities.
Central to degrowth’s economic theory is that growth cannot really be decoupled from CO2 emissions. As Hickel argues, “The more we grow, the more energy the global economy requires, the more difficult it is to cover it with clean energy sources.” The degrowth cohort has reams of peer-reviewed papers claiming this to be true, and their entire worldview depends on clean energy taking too long to build.
But this is fundamentally a symptom of capitalist realism. Rather than challenge the actual social determinants of production, Hickel and others take neoliberal levels of technical change as given. In other words, the current pace of switching energy is inalterable. We are stuck in the degrowth prophecy of energy demand outrunning the clean energy transition if nothing fundamentally changes. (Although a recent study shows that even reducing energy demand needn’t actually translate into reduced material throughput demand.)
Instead of seeing economic growth as the result of specific social processes within a social structure that allocates different amounts of power to individuals to pursue their material interests, the operative focus becomes the specific limitations of the technology in use. Ultimately, the opposed mantras of “unsustainable growth,” on the one hand, and “market forces” automatically conjuring green growth, on the other, end up being two sides of a kind of technological determinism. For both degrowth and green growth, everything must change but our social relations.
Neither structure nor macro-dynamics are at the heart of the degrowth critique. Hickel has clarified that his primary antagonist is not growth per se, but growthism.
Sometimes growthism is presented as an economic compulsion. At one point Hickel defines it as “the pursuit of growth for its own sake, or for the sake of capital accumulation, rather than to meet concrete human needs and social objectives.” But it’s more clearly and repeatedly presented as an ideology: “our economic system is structurally dependent on growth… and it is rooted in a deep-seated worldview of domination and dualism that goes back some 500 years.” At another point, he explicitly informs us that “it becomes clear that growthism is little more than ideology.”
This naturally leads to the culminating argument of his Less Is More, where he says,
By focusing all our attention on how to fix the economy, we risk ignoring the bigger picture. Yes, we must take steps to evolve beyond capitalism. But capitalism is only the proximate driver of the crisis we face; it’s not really the underlying cause. The rise of capitalism... required getting people to see nature... as something fundamentally distinct from humans. For the past 500 years, the dominant culture on our planet—the culture of capitalism—has been rooted in that rift. The struggle before us is... over our very theory of being. It requires decolonizing not only lands and forests and peoples, but decolonizing our minds.
In other words, we’re back to the old canard that capitalism is just the result of culture, which in turn is an expression of ideology. In fact, Hickel believes we as a species entered “a different kind of ontology,” or way of existing in the world, somehow because of the causal power of “Descartes’ theory of the body.” And now, as Kallis says in his call for a culture of limits, “Our culture is saturated with the idea of limitless accumulation—of power and riches.”
This misunderstanding of capitalism has also led to a major misdiagnosis of our enemies and their interests. Robert Pollin describes the confusion as such:
If economic growth were really the “religion of the modern world,” then its high priests would be concentrating on how to put capitalism back on the leash that prevailed during the “golden age” [between 1945–1975] rather than on consolidating the victories achieved under neoliberalism.
Instead of “limitless accumulation,” the neoliberal period has been one of low growth, fueled less and less by capitalists reinvesting profits into new or expanded production but instead buoyed largely by debt-financed consumer spending. While growth has continued to increase in the United States, the rate of growth throughout each business cycle has steadily declined since the 1970s. This stagnation of accumulation has occurred at the same time that capitalists have reaped some of the highest profit rates in four decades.
Thus, the degrowth fantasy of decelerating growth rates has already been a neoliberal reality accompanied by staggering income inequality and declining unionization, as well as less personal freedom and privacy in the workplace. And with slow productivity growth, David Kotz has observed that “the only means of rapid profit growth is driving down the wages and benefits of workers and/or further reducing corporate taxation.”
Neoliberalism has also undoubtedly made labor organizing more difficult in light of stagnating growth rates and globalized production. Old strategies of winning concessions from the boss haven’t been as effective because the institutions and structural leverage of the old working class have been so radically transformed. The resulting decline in union density has involved both workers being thrown out of unions and unions being unable to organize workplaces apace with or ahead of growth in the labor force.
While pre-neoliberal capitalists never accepted the higher wages, benefits, and protections that the labor movement fought for and won, they were nevertheless willing to endure these compromises as a cost of maintaining the highest economic growth rates in human history. While we’ve had reasons to be hopeful for the service sector in the recent period of tight labor markets, we haven’t yet seen a revitalized labor movement able to force concessions like the ones that were won in the 20th century. These historical dynamics and differences are either ignored by the degrowth worldview, or are inexplicable.
Ultimately, degrowth is built on an economic theory that doesn’t understand capitalism. This has in turn led its advocates to misconstrue both the historical coalitions of progressive change and the complex foundations of our enemies' power. Regardless of intent, their ideas make addressing both the climate crisis and the injustices of capitalism more difficult. And their “aspirational” calls for a culture of less blatantly ignore one of the most obvious political facts: that left-wing politics is fundamentally about demanding more.
Cale Brooks is a video editor and also a former influencer content creator.