Degrowth is Anti-Capitalist

Nishikant Sheorey


“A good life for all, within planetary boundaries.” That is the one-sentence summary of the ambitions behind the set of ideas, principles, and policies that have become known as the degrowth (or sometimes “post-growth”) movement. The basic concept that underpins this economic and ecological framework have been around for quite a while—half a century, at least—but it seems that only recently has the movement begun to gain traction outside of a narrow academic context. Degrowth is talked about fairly extensively in the mitigation and adaptation sections of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, released earlier this year—the first time it’s been mentioned since the original report in 1990. Even more recently, in an interview published by Democracy At Work, Marxist economist Richard Wolff spoke favorably of the idea. More generally, discussion of degrowth has exploded in the academic literature, expanding from a few early papers with a fairly narrow statistical, economic, and ecological focus to a veritable flood of articles over the last few years, involving a much broader array of perspectives and academic disciplines and overall representing a much more holistic and concrete vision.

The left and anti-capitalist reception to degrowth has been somewhat mixed. This is quite understandable; it’s a fairly novel and radical set of ideas, and as a result there are numerous questions to answer and points to discuss. Some lines of criticism raise very legitimate concerns, but others are based on misconceptions of what degrowth entails. I personally believe that the ideas, mechanisms, and policies that the degrowth movement advocates are not only not at odds with a leftist vision of the future, but are actually a natural and logical extension of leftist principles. To that end, I think it’s worth taking a look at what degrowth really means. I’ll address leftist critiques of its fundamental concepts, consider how degrowth might further anti-capitalist goals, and discuss how degrowth might be implemented on the ground as a means of retooling our energy systems.

Let’s start with the basics. What is degrowth? There seem to be a lot of misconceptions here, so it’s worthwhile to dig in a bit and get a better understanding of what degrowth entails—what it is, and just as importantly, what it is not. Laying out these core, basic concepts will make discussing critiques and visions of degrowth later on a much simpler prospect. (As an aside, I am far from the first person to advocate for degrowth from an explicitly leftist position; there are plenty of fantastic articles out there on the subject. For a particularly well-organized and -articulated overview, I’d highly recommend a 2022 book from Verso titled The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism by Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan.) In the meantime, for our purposes, I’ll start by pointing out that, to understand degrowth as it is presented today, it’s important to understand some of the basic premises upon which the degrowth framework is built, how those ideas emerged, and how they came into contact and were synthesized.

One of the core premises of degrowth is that human society, in order to be sustainable, must exist within the material limits of the biosphere. This basic idea, in various forms and as a philosophical basis, has been with humanity for, arguably, forever. Whether it’s an implicit understanding by societies throughout history and across the globe that they must exist within the regenerative capacities of their ecosystems, the explicit anti-industrial musings of various 19th- and 20th-century philosophers, or the visionary socio-ecological imaginaries presented by contemporary science fiction authors, the understanding that human well-being is interconnected and interdependent with the health of the environment is a fairly ubiquitous one.

The other core premise is that society should adopt forms of being and organization that prioritize overall social well-being: a good life for all. The basic question arises of what it means to live a good life, and there’s certainly considerable room for debate on that. However, a few points come up consistently. Firstly, meeting one’s basic material needs should not be a struggle, and really should be a given. Social and emotional needs are important as well; we should be able to have meaningful relationships with others and with our environment, as well as the time to enjoy those relationships. We should also be empowered to pursue self-actualization, in whatever form that might take—being free to engage in pursuits that interest us is valuable both to the individual and to society. Relatedly, when and where labor is necessary, it should not be alienating, but rather should be suited to one’s abilities and passions and should remain under one’s own agency.

It’s only quite recently, however, that these ideas have been given a more concrete and specific form. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, scholars began to consider, materially and quantitatively, what living within planetary boundaries would actually entail. This early work focused on determining the statistical limits of world systems and what they allow for in terms of human activity, particularly in terms of economic growth. It was in this period that a number of notable works in ecological economics and political ecology were produced, including the now-famous collective report “The Limits to Growth” and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s foundational “The Entropy Law and the Economic Process” (1971). Alongside these mathematical efforts to understand the limits of planetary systems, social philosophers such as André Gorz and economists like E. F. Schumacher were considering what it means to live a good life, a dignified life, while critiquing dominant attitudes about work, scale, and productivity.

It was also during this time that the term “degrowth” (or rather, the French word décroissance) was established, bringing together the material and mathematical conception of existing within ecological limits with a more political and philosophical perspective that emphasized an economic prioritization of social well-being removed from measures of consumption. The former deals with humanity’s overall material metabolism: the establishment of a sort of ecological budget and the constraining of human economic activity to fit that budget. The latter, on the other hand, is more concerned with how that budget is used—particularly in how the distribution of resources is managed so that all peoples’ needs are met, and met as efficiently as possible. So, combining these premises, we arrive at the general goal of the modern degrowth movement: to bring the overall material metabolic throughput of human society down to a level that meets the constraints of ecological systems, while optimizing the use of resources within those limits to justly meet the needs of all people and empower them to live fulfilled and dignified lives. A good life for all, within planetary boundaries.

It’s also worth considering what degrowth is not. Given that mainstream economics is dominated by an orthodox neoliberal capitalist tendency, it’s not surprising to see degrowth painted as equivalent to recession or austerity. Neither of these characterizations is accurate. As to the accusation of recession, two considerations arise. The first is that degrowth is not narrowly concerned with GDP. There are good criticisms to be made of GDP as a poor general indicator of social well-being, but degrowth does not seek to blindly cut GDP. This is not an unplanned collapse of the economy. Rather, it’s a managed reduction of overall material throughput concurrent with an emphasis on social provisioning. This means that, while some heavily consumption-intensive industries will need to shrink, others, particularly those that involve care labor, will likely grow. This may well result in an overall drop in GDP, but that is not the primary intent. The focus is instead on social welfare, and the result should actually be a rise in welfare indicators that are otherwise poorly linked to GDP. This is also why degrowth is not austerity, and is in fact quite the opposite—it’s focused on an increased prioritization of social provisioning, not the reduction of social services.

In recent years, the number of lenses through which degrowth has been analyzed has grown significantly. Much of the initial work was focused on identifying and calculating limits, a fairly utilitarian analysis aimed at understanding the ecological context within which humanity exists, as well as defining the aspects of human activity that are most significant for staying within the limits defined by that context. Thus, early on, there was a heavy focus on statistics, biophysics, ecology, and a sort of generalized economics. More recently, there seems to be an increasing focus on concreteness—understanding what degrowth would actually look like in practice—and breadth, or its interactions with multiple other systems, theorizing how degrowth might engage with other social processes. This expansion of interest has resulted in more involvement of a much broader set of academic disciplines, which have given the field deeper nuances: evaluation of policy and policy-making mechanisms, social and behavioral components, considerations of colonialism, imperialism, and development, etc.

So then—what does degrowth look like in practice? Broadly, there are two aspects to it. The first is sociocultural. Implementation will first require a robust social movement that can develop and propagate forms of culture and social organization and patterns of relations that align with degrowth. The second is more narrowly political, focused on the development and implementation of specific policy, for which there are two intersecting goals: first, to reduce society’s overall metabolic footprint to fit ecological limits, and second, to maximize overall social well-being within the constraints of that footprint. 

There are a great many changes society could implement that would work towards one of these goals, and many that would work towards both simultaneously. Policies which, for example, reinforce the ease of and right to repair one’s personal property, thus reducing material throughput associated with the production of necessary goods. Or work-hour reductions, which simultaneously decrease unnecessary production and increase time for more fulfilling activities.

These are good examples of some comparatively low-hanging fruit when it comes to initiating degrowth. But personally, I’m more interested in the deep systemic changes—I think that’s where things get truly compelling. A broader movement towards direct social provisioning1 and away from market mechanisms and commercial focus is key. In this context, I think there are two concepts that are of utmost importance: decommodification, and commoning. I’ll come back to these later on with more specific examples.

I believe that degrowth, as laid out above, aligns very well with a broadly anti-capitalist, leftist critique of society. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, the reception to degrowth ideas on the left has been somewhat mixed. I’d like to take time to further address some of the critiques, since, while a few of them stem from simple misconceptions, there are others that are indeed valid. Discussing these more trenchant critiques is crucial to building both a stronger left movement as well as a more effective and nuanced argument for degrowth. Ultimately, my firm conclusion is that leftists should embrace degrowth. A significant component of that argument is that leftist engagement can ensure that what is essentially a physically necessary process is also a truly just and liberatory one.

So let’s just get this out of the way: a number of “left” critiques of degrowth are just repackaged versions of neoliberal capitalist critiques. These critiques usually rest on accusations that degrowth is just rebranded recession, or that degrowth policies embrace an austerity mindset. Such lines of argument generally fall into the trap of taking certain orthodox economic assumptions at face value.

Again, the most common of these assumptions is that GDP is a reliable and accurate indicator of societal well-being, which is just not the case.2,3 There are extensive studies demonstrating that the correlation between GDP and various social indicators drops off severely beyond a certain threshold, and that the overall health of society is much more dependent on the provision of specific goods and services. I would agree with the descriptors such as “recession” or “austerity” if degrowth was simply a flat reduction of GDP or a targeted cut of social services. But that is flatly untrue. Degrowth is economically heterodox, yes, but so too (to some degree at least) are all the economic frameworks leftists propose; we should know to measure these proposals on their own terms and not those of mainstream economists.

The next critique I want to address is that degrowth is “Malthusian,” that it embraces a scarcity mindset, and/or that it is somehow inherently eco-fascist in nature. This critique misses the mark on a few counts, most of which boil down to a fixation on the idea of limits and ignorance of the programmatic element of degrowth. In other words, it amounts to a simplistic understanding of the “why,” and almost no engagement with the “how.”

First of all, degrowth does not identify population as the primary cause of ecological degradation. Rather, its target is the distribution and purposes of extraction, production, and consumption—i.e., the fact that much of our society’s metabolic budget is taken up by an exceedingly small segment of the global population and is being spent on things that we absolutely do not need. Meanwhile, most people on this planet struggle to survive, let alone thrive. Secondly, a distinction needs to be made between scarcity, specifically artificial scarcity, and ecological limits. Artificial scarcity is a social construct that is ingrained in capitalist relations, while ecological limits are a material reality of biophysical systems. Degrowth as a whole seeks to abolish the former while acknowledging the latter. It is because of these programmatic elements that degrowth is not eco-fascist, and the field is generally quite explicitly aware of how fascists may misconstrue degrowth to bolster their rhetoric. That said, there is no doubt that this movement, like all movements, is susceptible to misrepresentation and co-option by fascists, and that possibility is one we must continuously be aware of and on guard against. But that co-option is in fact a function of this misguided critique, not a validation of it.

A related criticism is that degrowth is primitivist or anti-technological. I will not speak for all advocates of degrowth, but in my opinion this absolutely need not be the case, and in my experience most degrowth advocates are not opposed to the use of technology. On the contrary, the advocacy of degrowth is in part a conclusion of a nuanced understanding of technology, its strengths and limitations, and its sociological context. This understanding is crucial when it comes to the concept of “decoupling”—the idea that with the application of technology, human activity can be made fully free of negative ecological impact.

This is a seductive idea, but a flawed one, since the impacts of human activity on the biosphere are so broad and will always have some material component. We might one day rid human activity of greenhouse gas emissions, thus decoupling with respect to climate change. But unfortunately, the climate crisis is only a single facet of ecological degradation. And even in the case of energy-related emissions, degrowth would be beneficial, because a decreased demand for energy would make the task of switching to an emissions-free electrical grid a much more manageable task.

Technology can certainly be of help in increasing the utility we can get out of a given metabolic budget, but technological advancement alone is not sufficient. Even if one assumes that advancements in technology will increase the efficiency with which resources are utilized (and I believe that they will), the precautionary principle would suggest that we fall back within ecological limits as they exist with current technology, and potentially grow as technology advances—not to assume that technology will eventually allow those limits to catch up with our consumption.

This brings me to another common critique of degrowth: that it’s unfair to the global South, who need growth, particularly growth of materially intensive economic sectors, to attain a level of quality of life commensurate with wealthy capitalist nations. This, in my mind, is one of the more credible critiques. While I do think there’s a way to have a decolonial degrowth, more critical discussion about how that would happen is necessary. There are a couple elements to consider here. The first is the ways by which degrowth is distributed. This gets back to the idea that degrowth is a planned reduction, and so it need not, nor would it ever, look identical across the planet. The global North must undertake the sharpest reductions in consumption, and, I would argue, engage in a form of ecological reparations. 

The other element is a reconsideration of what development means and what it entails. A conception of development that essentially entails replication of what are currently considered “developed” economies is not tenable from an ecological perspective (or a social one, I’d argue). Development that directly prioritizes social well-being, growing economic sectors engaged in direct social provisioning (while being more cautious about extractive sectors), all supported materially as needed by reparations from the global North: this seems more manageable.

The next set of critiques generally revolve around the political program of degrowth, and the many questions about how to get there. The first of these is concerns about the political appeal of degrowth ideas, particularly to working-class people. I think this is a legitimate concern, especially given the cultural norms in places such as the U.S., where hard work and “productivity” are held in such high regard. It’s worth noting that this is not a universal perspective—and indeed, the places in which degrowth has become more established often have different views of work.

Overall, however, I think this is where having specific policies or concrete ideas about how society is organized are helpful. Framing degrowth in terms of ideas such as environmental sustainability, alterations in governance and ownership, democratization, or in this case, worker’s rights and social well-being, will likely go much farther than abstract academic arguments. This is, at heart, an issue of messaging, and I would agree that degrowth advocates need to be better at it. But it’s worth noting that this problem of framing isn’t unique to degrowth; it’s a challenge for all anti-capitalist movements.

Another critique along these lines is the general political feasibility. Degrowth is a foundational challenge to a dominant economic orthodoxy, and thus the powerful institutions and cultural hegemony that promote it. Just to state the obvious: this will not be easy! The wealthy will do whatever they can to hold onto their wealth, and institutions of power will utilize every means available to them to maintain their power. But again, this is true of the anti-capitalist struggle as a whole. Radical social change is difficult. Yet the prospect of a catastrophically destabilized world, and the counter-prospect of a just society that provides a good life for all within the context of a thriving biosphere, makes that struggle worthwhile.

The final critique I’d like to address is that degrowth is “vague.” I think this accusation stems from the breadth and scope of degrowth, the way in which specific policy proposals, cultural shift, movement-building, and discussions about various forms of social structures can all kind of fall under the umbrella of degrowth. I don’t agree that this breadth makes degrowth vague, but I do think that this critique should emphasize to advocates how important it is to talk about the ways in which all of these elements intersect and reinforce each other, so as to present a varied but cohesive set of ideas and praxis. That breadth, however, is a strength: none of these elements alone is sufficient to drive significant radical change. If we want to change the world, we need a movement espousing big ideas, proposing specific policies, and embodying ideas in communal and personal life.

Ultimately, I think it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that degrowth is a natural, inevitable outgrowth of an anti-capitalist perspective and generally aligns quite well with historical socialist theory. After all, it’s premised on seeking a more just distribution of resources—less consumption by the wealthy for largely unnecessary and often harmful purposes, more resources directed towards social well-being for everyone else. Superficially, this is not particularly radical, but what it implies—the fundamental changes needed to actualize this different relation to and distribution of resources—certainly is. Degrowth will require a number of foundational changes to society, including the instantiation of society-wide agency over one’s labor and a shift away from capital accumulation and production for commercial and speculative purposes and towards the direct meeting of needs; in other words, decommodification. Finally, it demands a true democratization of the usage of resources, particularly the resources of the commons, with regard to production.

There is a lot of good that would come from an anti-capitalist and socialist embrace of degrowth concepts. For one, I believe it would strengthen leftist movements to incorporate contemporary critiques of orthodox economics and the broad range of knowledge from a variety of different disciplines that the field represents. It’s best, I think, not to fall back on dogma and become doctrinaire, but rather to continuously evaluate and adapt new theory and scholarship as it emerges to present a dynamic critique of a changing society. But, perhaps beyond that, it would benefit the world at large if socialists engaged with degrowth, bringing our perspectives and principles to bear to make sure that the degrowth that occurs is just, decolonial, anti-imperial, truly liberatory, and guided by the needs of the working class and oppressed communities in general.

Much of the discussion around degrowth is undoubtedly abstract, so I think it’s worth considering what it might entail in practice in a real-world context. One of the systems most deeply in need of change, especially with regard to the climate crisis, is the means by which we produce, distribute, and consume energy, specifically electricity. This also happens to be my personal area of research, and I think it represents a very useful and concrete basis on which to discuss degrowth, both in general terms of feasibility and impact as well as possible pathways and mechanisms. This is because it is a system that most people deal with on a regular basis and can relate to (even if the workings of the system are somewhat arcane), while also being a realm in which many potential concrete variations exist, both theoretically and, in many cases, in reality.

Energy systems are worth analyzing because they represent a major component of society’s metabolism and are the basis for so many other critical systems. Contemporary economies are wholly dependent on readily accessible energy. This means that, as economies grow, the demand for energy likewise increases. Within global energy systems as they currently exist, this spells climate catastrophe and ecocide; ever-increasing extraction and consumption of fossil fuels is obviously unsustainable.

But alternative, emission-free technologies are not a silver bullet. Even with these technologies added to the mix, it is effectively impossible to meet emissions reduction targets consistent with a stable climate if energy demand continues to grow.4 This is especially the case if one cares about imperialism and colonialism. No technologies are free from social and ecological impact, and alternative energy technologies are no exception; ecomodernist or “green growth” approaches to climate mitigation are predicated on massive extraction of resources, wherever those resources may be located. If we want to effectively address the climate crisis and do so in a globally just way, we have to tackle the issue of energy from both directions: both reducing consumption and replacing the energy production that we do require with emissions-free technologies.

So, if we need to reduce our overall consumption of energy, two sets of questions arise. First, what impact might this reduction have on social well-being, and how can we maximize the social utility of the energy we do produce and consume? The thing to note here is that the correlation between energy consumption, particularly energy consumption per capita, and well-being is not as straightforward as you might think. There is significant data and literature that would suggest that a high quality of life is very possible at low energy usage levels5,6 so long as, once again, that energy usage is allocated directly towards ends which have a highly efficient impact on social well-being.

The second, more practically oriented set of questions is: what mechanisms and pathways can be utilized for actualizing this reduction, and how do we utilize these tools for achieving social and ecological goals? I think this is where the specific topic of energy is best served to demonstrate the necessary radicalism of degrowth. Energy degrowth can be viewed through the lens of three interconnected concepts: decommodification, commoning, and democratization. 

I’ll flesh out these three ideas a bit. First: decommodification. If energy were to be produced specifically to power life-supporting and socially useful processes—rather than mass industry geared towards the private, profit-oriented production of goods for commercial exchange—energy demand would drop drastically. It’s worth noting the broader knock-on effect here; decommodification of energy itself would necessarily lead to decommodification of goods more generally because energy is a critical component of essentially all commodity production. 

Second: commoning. This, in the case of energy, is what underpins decommodification. Understanding energy as a resource commons that has been enclosed and commodified via the construction and maintenance of private energy production and transmission infrastructure, and subsequently pushing wherever possible to re-common energy, will be crucial steps. In my mind, this means bringing the means of energy production, transmission, and distribution back under some form of public, communal ownership—a task made more manageable by advancements in minimally capital-intensive and easily decentralized energy production technologies. 

Finally: democratization. This is the connective tissue that links commoning with decommodification. In addition to communal ownership, democratic management is what would ensure that social well-being is prioritized when decisions are made about how energy is produced. 

While all of this may seem like a herculean task, as energy companies and electrical utilities often have near-monopolies that are also frequently state-backed, there does exist a rich and varied global tapestry of counter-movements. Energy democracy, utility justice, anti-poverty, and anti-environmental racism organizations and movements are quite common. They don’t necessarily all have the same goals and visions, but that’s a good thing! It’s important to understand that what an ideal energy system might look like is heavily context-dependent, and that a variety of approaches are necessary to learn which strategies are effective.

I expect the optimal outcome to look more like a heterogeneous network of place-based systems than a homogeneous system built on the rigid replication of a singular model. I myself have worked on some and researched others; my opinion now is that the broader left should embrace and support these movements, and integrate a degrowth lens in doing so.

There are, of course, a multitude of further points that we might present in outlining a program of degrowth, with considerations and levels of detail that expand exponentially. Again: this will not be easy. But my purpose here is to outline my firm belief that degrowth is fully aligned with anti-capitalist values and critiques. The power of degrowth is that it sharply challenges deep, foundational assumptions. As such, the left should embrace all that the field has to offer—the actual social, economic, and political implications of degrowth clearly map to at minimum the wide-scale terrain of the world that leftists want to bring about.

There are some specifics to hash out, to say the least. But I think that having those discussions will make the left stronger as a whole. I have to stress the point: the material basis of degrowth is indisputable. The Earth and its biosphere are composed of finite physical, chemical, and biological processes; thus, there are concrete constraints on humanity’s material metabolism. We need to make sure our society exists within those constraints. In exceeding them lies devastation.

It’s also worth noting that while the focus has been on physical limits, acknowledging those constraints directs us to also understand more socially derived and intersubjective limits—those that are an outgrowth of the recognition that we are all individuals who are intrinsically connected and interdependent via the shared ecosystems we inhabit. But within these bounds, there is a wide range of potential ways to allocate the resources that we can sustainably utilize. While the limits are firm, the ideological character and actual processes of degrowth remain up for discussion. It would be beneficial for all life on this planet if that character were to be shaped by people who care about worker’s rights, who care about communal ownership and democratic governance, who care about environmental racism, who care about anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. It is not going too far to say that the future course of humanity depends on it.

While plenty of lively debate remains to be had, it’s clear to me, that, with the current state of the world both socially and ecologically, it’s critical that we have those conversations as soon as possible so that we can be more effective in our approach to building a better world. There is plenty of room for debate on the specifics; speaking for myself as an anarchist, I shy away from a state-driven degrowth and would prefer to see the development of communities that prefiguratively embody degrowth. But I also understand that there is room—indeed, a real necessity—for a wide variety of approaches.

I want to see the left discuss and explore those options, and try out new strategies and emphases in our organizing. Degrowth demands a plunge into the unknown. Looking over the precipice of a new world can be a little scary and unsettling—but that’s the nature of transformative ideas. Critiquing, envisioning, organizing, and fighting tooth-and-nail for that scale of radical change: that’s what it’s always meant to be on the left. It’s my hope that we truly embrace it.♦

 



1. Vogel, J., Steinberger, J.K., O’Neill, D.W., Lamb, W.F. and Krishnakumar, J., 2021. Socio-economic conditions for satisfying human needs at low energy use: An international analysis of social provisioning. Global Environmental Change, 69, p.102287.
2. Kallis, G., Kerschner, C. and Martinez-Alier, J., 2012. The economics of degrowth. Ecological economics, 84, pp.172-180.
3. Van den Bergh, J.C., 2009. The GDP paradox. Journal of Economic Psychology, 30(2), pp.117-135.
4. Hickel, J., Brockway, P., Kallis, G. et al. Urgent need for post-growth climate mitigation scenarios. Nat Energy 6, 766–768 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-021-00884-9
5. Brand-Correa, L.I. and Steinberger, J.K., 2017. A framework for decoupling human need satisfaction from energy use. Ecological Economics, 141, pp.43-52.
6. Millward-Hopkins, J., Steinberger, J.K., Rao, N.D. and Oswald, Y., 2020. Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario. Global Environmental Change, 65, p.102168.


Nishikant Sheorey is a researcher, organizer, and writer engaged in climate and ecological justice work with a focus on energy systems.

Cover image: “The Industry,” Richard Roland Holst. Public Domain.

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