The Growth of Degrowth and The Confusion of Democratic Socialists

It has to be said, whoever coined the term Degrowth has done a tremendous disservice to those who advocate scaling down the current industrial mode of production to simultaneously stop climate change and improve human conditions for all. To briefly summarize, Degrowth is a proposed method for decreasing carbon emissions which calls for scaling down the resource intensity of life in industrial societies. Some specific proposals include replacing the global food system with locally sourced agriculture and seasonal diets, and the use of local energy systems such as solar panels and wind rather than fossil fuels which rely on global shipping. Proponents would admit that this means a drastic change in lifestyle for all, including the poor. Many basic goods that are widely available  today would no longer be so easy to find., Having a tuna sandwich in a landlocked urban area, for instance, won’t be as likely. And many major manufacturing facilities would stop operating given their current energy use. While acknowledging these potential sacrifices, there are many possible benefits to the Degrowth agenda as well, such as slashing the work week by two thirds off, and shrinking the ratio of rent-to-income drastically.

While Degrowth came straight out of the environmentalist movement, the ideas aren’t necessarily exclusive. At least within anarchism, the idea of small scale workshops at small communal farms, managed by a loose network of peasants and workers who overlap and switch roles, can be traced back a century ago to Kropotkin, and then — more clearly and with more environmental consciousness — in the writings of Murray Bookchin, and most recently in this decade by anarchist writer Peter Gelderloos in “An Anarchist Solution To Global Warming.” In that article, he envisions small towns without cars, with locally grown food, with programs to turn waste into biofuels, and with small local energy systems that turn off by night, with few exceptions such as hospitals. Which is to say his plan for global warming is virtually identical to the  vision put forward by proponents of Degrowth. Gelderloos even shares the Degrowther’s skepticism of scientific and technological progress. That being said, it would not be surprising to find the same ideas emerging in other places as well.

Recently, a debate emerged between Degrowth advocates and democratic marxists who are also concerned about ecological issues. Kevin Carson covered the debate in a recent paper and was, understandably, was more sympathetic to the Degrowth side. He sees the opposing side in that debate as a kind of  green managerialism, managing carbon emissions from a government building headed by elected officials pushing buttons on a big screen and scientists running around in lab coats to maintain Project Cybersyn 2.0, while the rest of society gets to wake up in the morning to receive daily tasks on their phones and go to work in Workers Walmart and produce whatever Cybernetic Socialism told them to do and keep central planning running. While Kevin declared a full on assault on these “Ecomodernists,” he allowed Degrowthers to slide under the radar on some fronts, most importantly failing to note their lack of emphasis on class friction. While the Degrowthersdo briefly consider matters of class in at least two texts (one mentions the issue of rent and increasing the work hours needed to simply afford housing and its carbon footprint) they shy away from blaming landlords as the root of the problem and, in a list of policy proposals, there is only one point to this effect. The Degrowthers call for us to “support the not-for-profit co-operative economic sector that are flourishing in Spain,” which most likely just means consumer-cooperatives such as food co-ops and community credit unions and banking or, if given a very charitable interpretation, worker-cooperatives in Spain such as Mondragon. This  seems unlikely though given the lack of clear criticism for wage labor and employer-employee social relations in the Degrowth literature. This isn’t to say that there aren’t individuals who are dyed in the wool reds, but Degrowth appears mainly to be a form of highly regulated communal social democracy.

Given that both sides could not agree on a concrete definition of what ‘growth’ is, the discussion ends up being a lot of talking across each other, and it doesn’t help that one side calls itself ‘degrowth’ while also supporting a small contingent of primitivists and anti-civilization types on the fringes. As a result, it shouldn’t be shocking that outsiders have a hard time comprehending the concept. One such confused Marxist is Leigh Phillips, author of The People’s Republic of Walmart and Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry And Stuff. Kevin Carson’s study dedicates nearly forty pages out of fifty arguing against him. Phillips, who considers himself an opponent of Degrowth and a cheerleader for growth, truly only supports growth  on certain issues, such as growth and progress in GDP, and growth in productivity per hours worked in a factory, and growth in annual income for the working class. At the same time, Phillips would be against growth when it comes to unemployment, the prison population, or homelessness. As a marxist, he is a supporter of historical working-class victories, such as the 8 hour workday and the weekend, and he would likely be supportive of the current 4 day workweek campaign slowly gaining mainstream attraction. This is to say, that Phillips is himself a proponent of lower case d degrowth when it comes to certain issues.

Meanwhile, Degrowth theorist Jason Hickel in a recent article writes two semantically contradicting terms in the same headline, ‘degrowth’ and ‘radical abundance’. In the subheadline, in fact,  lies a sentence that, if taken out of context, would sound like it came out of the fully automated luxury communism series of books and articles, “One of the core claims of degrowth economics is that by restoring public services and expanding the commons, people will be able to access the goods that they need to live well without needing high levels of income.” While admittedly Degrowth has its fair share of science and technology skeptics, who would not shy away from calling for a standard of living close to the 1950s to prevent climate change, it is the responsibility of those like Hickel, who advocate for material abundance rather than scarcity, to be more articulate in their critique of growth in terms of GDP, and to be more coherent in defining ‘degrowth’ as limited to a narrow slice of social activity, such as wage labor, rent, capitalist mass production, the reduction of which would translate to growth in leisure time, abundance in housing and space, decommodified food for all, and — most importantly — growth in the arts and sciences driven by the abundance of free time and pursuit of meaningful labor for its own sake.

Where the likes of Phillips get confused or miss the point is when it comes to the calculation debate, and this stems from two places. To start with, the fact that the degrowth side literally uses the same label as a subsection of pseudo-primitivists makes it hard to overcome the mental biases that develop from this first impression. But given that Phillips wrote an entire book on this subject, it is hard to be charitable towards this misstep. The second issue is the question of economic and ecological calculations, where Phillips and his colleagues Srnicek and Williams (authors of Inventing The Future) have a hard time grasping the superiority of hyper-local workshops of small groups working in ad-hoc fashion and fluid organizations.

Srnicek & Williams give the example of carbon accounting. They claim that, despite the carbon footprint of shipping produce out of season from across the planet to the UK, it is in fact more ecologically friendly to do this than to pursue a policy of national farming,. This is because the global system streamlines the workflow and increases the scale of production, giving UK residents cheaper produce along with a lower carbon footprint. This is absolutely true. So, every time economic calculations are performed in order to compare mass production against stigmergic and ad-hoc organizations of independent producers and consumers, large production will always win in efficiency and productivity, but only in the present. The failure of this comparison lies in measuring current efficiency rather than the rate of change in growth and progress. While Philips has a book titled In Defense of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, the arguments he lays out in the debate,are a defence of efficiency in the present without considering the future.

Take the example of supplying a major city in the global north with tropical fruits, say Vancouver, BC and the demand for bananas in February. Without the massive government subsidies to sustain global logistic networks and freight infrastructure, residents of Vancouver would simply be deprived of having a simple commodity such as bananas available for the masses, and members of the working class would now consider bananas to be culturally synonymous with caviar and champagne The real alternative to this outcome would be to work and improve on cheap-enough technologies such as container farming with controlled climates to allow growing bananas locally during winters. At first it would still be extremely expensive and accessible to the wealthy,and possibly five or ten times the price but if the rate of progress is sustained even in low double digits annually- a tenth of Moore’s law- within a decade or two, it will be cheaper than large scale industrial farming with advances in synthetic biology, genetic editing, and climate controlled systems, done not by an army of central planners and gigantic logistic chains across the globe, but by a few dozen supermarkets in Vancouver tinkering with containers on their rooftops, and sharing information with other organizations in different cold cities on best practices. Now it could be argued that the same technologies mentioned could still be applied under some form of cybernetic socialism, this is not false, but then the issue of scale arises again. Given the scale of such a system, if becomes more expensive to tinker with different possibilities and configurations to find the scientifically optimum method due to the overhead costs and manpower necessary to take the smallest action, lowering the rate of progress as a result. This is what capitalist Silicon Valley has learned, that the optimal method for industrial development is to allow an infrastructure of a small network of VC bosses to seed fund small teams of less than a dozen with an almost majority rate of failure, and then cherry pick the successful ones by acquiring them with big and costly checks to expand their monopoly status, rather than using their piles of cash to do everything in house.

If people like Phillips call themselves advocates of progress, then they should be for the ideal mode of production that allows the most degrees of freedom possible to experiment, tinker, fail, and succeed, and propagate what does and doesn’t work. That is an organization of one person. But since many or even most actions require more, the rule should be the closest number to one possible. This system would take the shape of an exponential distribution on a graph, where the most common organization is a membership of one, then a strong second is run by a couple, then a handful, a dozen, and at the tail is a small number of large organizations that are dictated by material reality, such as copper miner worker cooperatives in Chile that are the size of a few thousands. This reverses the current approach of building the biggest organization possible as a monolith and then trying to navigate it with a popular ballot box with binary options of voting yes or no, or worse, to alienate the working class by delegation to a minority class of parliamentarians in order to expand the number of options to the hundreds. By scaling down the mode of organizations and unit of production, it becomes possible for workers to act further than democracy, in forms such as affinity groups and decision making by consensus, that simply aren’t possible in popular town halls, or worker assemblies.

It seems that many democratic socialists and ecomodernists are making the same mistakes as the republican political revolutions of the past, which we have to this day inherited as social relics from the age of emperors and monarchs, that the state machinery that evolved and was designed to serve the function for kings and lords, was preserved by the bourgeois class and replaced only the top echelon with a democratic parliament. The Bourgeois Class political revolution was never monolithic, it has always had a number of egalitarians within it, and there is a strong argument that a lineage can be traced from classical liberalism to the populist English artisans and independent farmers  that formed the embryo of socialist thought. By taking over the state machinery for kings, The English Diggers, the American populist farmers, and independent craftsmen who owned nothing but their labor, all had social movements of their own, and were dead in the water. We should learn from the Jacobins’ Reign of Terror that using the institutions built to serve kings wouldn’t simply bring Liberty, Fraternity, Equality to the masses just by adding a class of parliamentarians as a scaffold on top of it. Just like liberal democracy has been an improvement to the human condition, the same would be said if gigantic companies like Amazon and Walmart were taken over and put under democratic worker control. Indeed, if a sudden worker insurrection happens and the Walton family or Jeff Bozos find themselves negotiating an exit plan to hand it over to the workers for a bargain price, or risking the loss of everything they have by going bankrupt from an ongoing general strike, such a move would lift millions of workers out of poverty , and have tens of millions of family and community members effective by positive externalities on top of that.

Community initiatives can use this as an anchor institution, such as dedicating a special aisle for ‘homemade goods’ for local families facing eviction to resell at cost, or use whatever surplus to invest in other local worker-cooperatives. All of this is good, but then comes the governance model, where millions of workers have election cycles the size of nation states. It’s in the workers’ self-interest to keep the legacy they inherited of large hierarchical institutions only to protect themselves from capitalist competition, but beyond that, every hierarchy in Walmart points to moving information and control upwards the corporate ladder so bosses can make decisions. Given that decisions are now in the hands of the workers themselves, who also happen to be on the ground of the shop floor, this hierarchy now becomes a waste of energy, that was only kept there to give bosses the ability to execute actions. If workers want to expand their degrees of freedom in their new workplace, and there isn’t any use for corporate board and HQ executives anymore, the Walmart cooperative will look less like a monolithic soviet production run by a single elected committee for central planning, and more like a cluster of independent worker cooperatives run from the  bottom up, sharing logistical and planning resources and entering income pooling and sharing agreements with each other, with a constant revolving door of workers, shops, organizations entering and living the cooperative.

The entire debate isn’t really about a discussion of increasing or decreasing economic growth, but a debate about how to measure growth and prosperity. Do we want a society run by a communitarian social democratic government to mitigate climate change, where the majority would enjoy a radically short workweek and increased leisure time, and don’t need to be stressed about modern issues such as housing. Or should it be run by a centrally planned democratic nation state, where workers could afford mass produced goods but still have to dedicated the majority of their life in the workplace. Given that both sides believe that the solution has to require a massive regulatory body and democratic decision making as integral parts of their program, the disagreement seems to be should this democratic and regulatory body be applied at the national level or the local level, while still maintaining the existing forms of current hierarchy but with more democratic control on the top.

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