Degrowth – an imperative need?



The logic of expansion, which has guided civilization in recent centuries, needs to be stopped

There is no doubt, capitalism is globally hegemonic. In almost all countries that make up the world today, the historical mode of production that is guided by capital accumulation dominates. In all of them, therefore, economic growth figures as a socially crystallized imperative. As a result, the expansion of production as real wealth and fictitious wealth in the form of papered (or digitized) debt cannot be effectively challenged. Degrowth thus appears as a bad utopia.

However, articles and books that defend degrowth as an imperative and even definitive necessity, if humanity wants to survive in the next decades of this and the next century, have already accumulated on websites and on library shelves. As is known, the immediate reason for the emergence of this theoretical – and even practical – anxiety stems from the growing concern with climate change as a mega-threat to the existence of highly organized life on the face of the Earth.

If this existential danger has long been regarded as anthropogenic by well-informed people, it is increasingly now being attributed to capitalism itself even by authors who do not see themselves as Marxists. But the resistance is still powerful even when there is already an awareness of the seriousness of the effects of pollution in general on the conditions of possible life on this planet – a planet that, as is well known, exceptionally favored the development of a rare or unique organic complexity. in the universe.

O Report on global risks produced by world economic forum it is an example of the illustrated alienation that prevails in the thinking elite of the capital relation system. Here, he is concerned – he states at the outset and centrally – with the occurrence of events that may cause “significant negative impacts on the GDP and the world population”. Now, by focusing privilegedly on GDP and taking these events as if they were exogenous to a well-functioning economic system, it is quite evident that the report presupposes the continuity of capitalism.

See, then, how he conceives the global risks that appear on the near and more distant horizon: “The next decade will be characterized by occurrences of environmental and societal crises, driven by underlying economic and geopolitical trends. The cost of living crisis appears as the most severe global risk over the next two years – its peak is in the short term. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse emerge as the increasingly acute global risk of the next decade.”

As you can see, threats are taken seriously in this report, as they are seen as mega-threats. The document also does not fail to indicate that the global economic system is in an accelerated process of deterioration due to several causes that it points out, discusses and criticizes. In addition to the supervening ecological problems, this writing notes as risks the “geopolitical confrontations” and the “erosion of social cohesion and the increase of political polarization”, not forgetting to mention the growing “involuntary immigrations” and the “spread of cyber crimes” that cause insecurity for companies and people in general.

The report does not even shy away from assuming a catastrophic tone: “As threats grow in parallel, the risk of polycrises accelerates. (…) disparate crises interact in such a way that the overall impact far exceeds the sum of each part. The erosion of geopolitical cooperation will have cascading effects on the global risk landscape in the medium term, including contributing to a potential polycrisis of interrelated environmental, geopolitical and socioeconomic risks related to the supply and demand of natural resources”.

If the assessment of the possible failure of the system is pertinent, if the vision of the threats is daunting, the recommendations to face them seem timid and, in fact, incomplete: “Some of the risks described in this year's report are reaching a critical point . This is the time to act collectively, decisively and with a long-term vision to chart a path to a more positive, inclusive and stable world.”

Yes, it is necessary to act collectively. But to do what? How such an action would be possible under the current circumstances. It is evident that there is a lack of an effective proposal to face the announced dangers, even if this is still not the main deficiency of the report.[I] Because, it assumes from the beginning that the capitalist mode of production has to be conserved, that is, that the alternatives to face the mega-threats have to be limited to what would be possible by maintaining the societal structures of that mode of production.

To prove that this assumption is nothing more than a mistake, in fact, an ideologically induced error, it is necessary to show that it is impossible to face the mega-threats while maintaining the social relations that constitute capitalism. And, for that, it is necessary to start recovering the basic arguments of those who advocate economic degrowth. And this is based on just one element, albeit a central one, of the approaching calamity.

They sustain with a solid scientific base that the expansion of the material transfer (material throughput) carried out by the current economic system is incompatible with the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and even with the maintenance of current levels, which are already considered disastrous.

Therefore, if the objective is to achieve sustainability in the near future, it is imperative to reduce the current volume of material transfer, which necessarily implies – they believe – economic degrowth. In other words, the logic of expansion, which has guided civilization in recent centuries, needs to be stopped, otherwise there will be a collapse of human civilization and complex life on the face of the Earth.

A substantive decrease, in principle, could be achieved in several ways. For example, through a ruthless genocide of the weakest populations of the poorest countries on the periphery. And this is a real possibility that finds examples in the very history of past and present capitalist colonialism. If it is aimed at achieving a higher level of civilization, it will necessarily require planning that also includes a drastic redistribution of the social product, which today is very concentrated.

It can be seen, now, that the critics of this thesis usually dispute the positivity of the relationship between economic growth and the increase in material transport. They suggest that technological innovations, the use of other energy sources, can reverse the direction of changes in these two variables. If this were effectively possible, there would be, in this case, a transformation of the really existing capitalism into a “green capitalism”. Well, existing empirical studies have shown that more growth implies more greenhouse effect and that attempts to circumvent this “trend law” have systematically failed.

Now, as is known, the currently dominant economic system cannot exist without growth – behold, its logic is based on the insatiable accumulation of capital and, thus, on the limitless appropriation of human and non-human nature. And you don't need to be a Marxist to know that, just know a little history. So what these critics really can't bear to know is that capitalism needs to be suppressed so that humanity can have a broader, longer-term horizon of survival. What Sigmund Freud called “denial” within the scope of the psychoanalytic clinic is thus manifesting itself on a social scale to support a suicidal evolution, a denialism in extremis, in short, a past that needs to die so that the generic human being can survive.

Not just “global warming”, but all the risks mentioned in the Report produced under the auspices of Global Economic Forum they come from the economic engine of the Anthropocene, which for this very reason is usually also called the Capitolocene. Thus, the resurgence of “geopolitical confrontations”, as well as the advent of “the erosion of social cohesion and the increase of political polarization” are endogenous products of the sociability of capital.

In particular, as Gustavo Mello says, “war crosses modern social reproduction in the most diverse senses and dimensions. Being the soil in which the endless purpose of valuing value germinates, in a second moment war will be subsumed by capital, which will become autonomous in its fetishist movement, without, however, ceasing to have war as one of its fundamental pillars”.[ii]

The question he poses now is to know why the process of capital accumulation requires both types of war – internal and external – as constitutive moments. Now, capitalism is a mode of production that is based on the appropriation of surplus value generated by work in production units, which are owned by private capitals that compete among themselves through competition.

The antagonism between the working and capitalist classes can only prosper by producing commodities because it is sealed off by the state, a superstructure whose main function is to bring the unity of society into the face of this constitutive contradiction, whether through laws or through violence. Now, capitalist competition beyond the limits of national states is not limited by a “global state” and, for this very reason, engenders constant struggles for regional or global hegemony. It is this equally antagonistic process, as is well known, that has been properly called imperialism.

It is precisely this character of the capitalist mode of production that explains the central paradox of geopolitics in the present historical moment. Nations need to cooperate to face the mega-threat of global warming, but they cannot avoid acting opportunistically by systematically practicing “free riding”, that is, fleeing the obligations they themselves accepted in the “climate agreements”.

But that is not all. The priority of the powers, in particular the hegemonic power, is not to fight the mega-threats in general that humanity is facing, but to guarantee this hegemony against potential competitors. This is, of course, what explains the Ukraine war between NATO and Russia, this is what explains the growing tension between the United States and China, this is what explains the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

All this, as you know, is quite obvious; but it is necessary to repeat such truisms because the eyes are blind, the ears are deaf and the mouths are closed to the imperative of degrowth.

*Eleutério FS Prado is a full and senior professor at the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of From the logic of the critique of political economy (anti-capital fights).


[I] However, Klaus Schwab, the co-founder of Global Economic Forum, thinks of “stakeholder capitalism” as a solution to current problems. This is how this societal oxymoron explains: it is “a model that (…) positions private companies as managers of society to respond to today's social and environmental challenges”.

[ii] Mello, Gustavo M. de C. – The warlike nature of capital: an introduction to the critique of the political economy of capital. Research Report, 2022.

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