Notes to self on the broader project, and on degrowth

April 11, 2021

Every year or two I do a post on ‘the broader intellectual project’ that’s been motivating my blogging in some sense since…. huh…. 2007.  In this post I want to repeat myself, again, on anticapitalism, in a very schematic and crude way, and then make a few remarks prompted by Jason Hickel’s popular degrowth book ‘Less is More’.

I take it that the objections to capitalism as a political-economic system are familiar to leftists and don’t need to be recapitulated.  For me, the main intellectual problem for anticapitalists isn’t “is capitalism bad?” (clearly, in many critical ways, yes), but “what’s your alternative then?”  This isn’t an easy question to answer, and I think it’s desirable for the anticapitalist advocates to have some credible responses available, and for there to be a good, broad debate about possible responses to this question.

Obviously anticapitalism comes in many varieties, and no typology is going to be close to exhaustive.  Still, very crudely, we can say that the most influential forms of left anticapitalism are anarchism and communism.  Broadly speaking, anarchists want to do away with the state and/or broader relations of hierarchical domination; communists want to seize control of the state, and expand it in the service of emancipatory political-economic outcomes.

(I’m aware, of course, that anything you could say at this level of abstraction and with this degree of brevity isn’t going to be really right, and that there are plenty of legitimate objections to this typology. (“What about libertarian communists?”; “I’m a Christian socialist who believes in the importance of hierarchical structures but rejects capitalist social relations”; etc.) Fundamentally you just can’t address all this stuff in a shortish blog post, so I’m just going to plough on.)

I need to spend a lot more time with the anarchist literature, but my baseline, under-informed opinion is that while the anarchist tradition is right about a huge amount, at the end of the day you’re not going to be able to get a form of complex political-economic organisation that doesn’t feature hierarchical and coercive power structures, and that our institution-design task is to mitigate the harm associated with those structures rather than to abolish them altogether.  I’m aware that this is a very crass and under-informed response to anarchism, and I want to leave a note to self here to read more anarchists, but that’s where I stand as of now.

As for the communist side of things: communism was, of course, the major real-world anti-capitalist institution-building project of the twentieth century, and it’s a fundamental premise of my own intellectual project here that the communist experiments did not go well.  It seems to me that answering the question “what’s your alternative, then?” needs to centrally include a sober assessment of actually-existing communism.

So: what was wrong with ‘actually existing’ communism?  I think, again at a very crass and high level of abstraction, the answer to that question can be broken down into three categories.

  1. Political domination and repression.

None of the major ‘actually existing’ communist states were or are democratic in any very meaningful sense.  Moreover, not only were/are they not democratic, they also frequently engage(d) in authoritarian repression of political dissent or perceived political dissent – sometimes in incredibly extreme forms. All of this is bad.

  1. Economic disaster.

Both the USSR and the PRC were responsible for world-historically appalling policy-driven famines.  This doesn’t, of course, differentiate communist from capitalist regimes – see Mike Davies’ ‘Late Victorian Holocausts’ – but it is still a large mark against the emancipatory claims of communism.  More broadly, there is a lot of debate about the strengths and weaknesses of different political-economic approaches, between and within capitalist and communist systems, of a kind that clearly I’m not going to be able to litigate here.  But in general it is, to say the least, far from obvious that communism has the economic policy answers – this is very much an objection that needs to be addressed.

  1. Is it even non-capitalist?

This third point is arguably the most controversial and pedantic – but were the major communist regimes of the twentieth century even breaks with capitalism? This depends on your definition of capitalism. If you understand capitalism as a market economy, then the command economies instituted by communist states broke with capitalism. If you understand capitalism in terms of the centrality of private property, then the forms of state ownership instituted by communist states broke with capitalism. On this blog, though, I’ve advocated an understanding of capitalism in terms of 1) an institutionalised structural imperative to economic growth, and 2) the structural displacement and reconstitution of labour as a central political-economic institution in the service of that growth. From the perspective of this analytic framework, the twentieth century communist states didn’t break with capitalist dynamics, so much as reconstitute then in an unusually statist form.

Ok. So these are, as I see it, the three big challenges that anti-capitalist institutional proposals must meet. First: is your alternative likely to be politically repressive, or politically emancipatory? Second: what kind of economic outcomes are we likely to be looking at here? And third: is it actually a break with capitalism?

It’s this third question that I want to focus on in the rest of this post, specifically in relation to ‘degrowth’ politics. I recently read Jason Hickel’s ‘Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World’ – a popular book that aims to make a broad-brush anticapitalist case on environmentalist grounds.  The argument of that book revolves around the idea that to end capitalist environmental destruction we need to abolish the political-economic institutional structures that generate ‘the growth imperative’.  In the remainder of this post, then, I want to put aside all the other considerations I’ve raised, and focus simply on the question of growth.

As I said above, I don’t think capitalism can be defined exclusively in terms of the growth imperative.  But I do think that if you were to abolish the growth imperative, then whatever political-economic system you ended up with wouldn’t be capitalist.  The political goals of the degrowth movement, then, are inimical to capitalism.  (Here it’s probably worth highlighting that for Hickel ‘degrowth’ doesn’t necessarily mean what it sounds like it would mean – i.e. the reversal of growth – but rather the abolition of the ‘blind drive’ to growth associated with capitalism, such that decisions around economic growth can be made in a more judicious way, taking environmental issues into adequate consideration.  That’s what we’re talking about here.)

One of the ways in which the 20th and then 21st century communist regimes failed to break with capitalism was their reproduction of the capitalist growth imperative within a communist system.  This reproduction of the growth imperative was in part driven by a commendable desire to raise living standards – the development of the productive forces was seen as a precondition for creating the material conditions required for a full communist society of equality and abundance.  It was also, in significant part, a geopolitical imperative – for a communist regime, major economic growth is a geopolitical necessity if you are to have any hope of resisting military and economic attacks from the major capitalist powers.  The point, here, is that while you are part of a capitalist world-system the growth imperative operative in the overtly capitalist bloc places institutional pressure even on the nominally non-capitalist bloc.  And this is one of the big reasons why a global abolition of the capitalist system would seem to be a precondition for any sub-component of the world-system becoming meaningfully non-capitalist (in the sense I’m advocating).

What about the growth imperative within the overtly capitalist system?  Here the institutional mechanisms are somewhat different.  Again, geopolitical competition plays a role, as do market competition and ideology, but there is also the important function of debt within the monetary system.  The monetary system is the major institutional mechanism via which we allocate social resources, and when banks make investments they do so on the understanding that the debt these investments create will be repaid with interest.  This in itself creates a massive growth imperative: if I have started or developed my business by taking out a loan, I will need my business to grow in order to repay the loan with interest.  Capital as a component of our political-economic institutions therefore has the growth imperative built into it at a fundamental level.  If we are to abolish the growth imperative, we need to abolish capital.

To be blunt, this is an amazingly difficult thing to do.  Hickel’s degrowth advocacy book lists a range of ways in which the incentives to economic growth could be reduced (regulate advertising better; reduce the length of the working week; decommodify goods and place them in the commons; etc.) – but as he notes, without a transformation of our monetary system, all of this is tinkering around the edges of a political-economic mode of production the fundamental nature of which remains unchanged.

Hickel’s degrowth argument therefore rests, in the end, on a handful of paragraphs in the penultimate chapter of his book (in my ebook, roughly locations 333-337), in which he points towards some recent work in ecological monetary economics.  I haven’t read (most of) that work in ecological monetary economics.  So I suppose the core function of this post, for me, is just to serve as a note to self that I really ought to read some of this literature, that it seems to me that this a critical area for anticapitalist institutional thinking, and that I hope I’ll be able to continue to inch along through these ideas, returning at some future date to these same issues with a slightly more informed perspective and analysis, fates willing.

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