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Degrowth vs. growthism

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From Jamie Morgan and RWER issue 93 [D]egrowth advocates tend to question the naturalisation of growth and objectification of an economy as though we had no alternative, they do highlight the structural conditions that lead to exploitation in the name of progress. For example, Gerber states: “The ideology of growth – or growthism – is at the core of capitalism. Growthism sustains capitalism politically because it allows avoiding redistribution by giving the impression that everyone will continually benefit from it. Growthism pacifies class struggle while justifying existing structures of inequality…  In the West, growth was instrumental to diffuse demands of the workers’ movement, in the East, to excuse the lack of democracy and worker control, and in the South, to justify

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from Jamie Morgan and RWER issue 93

[D]egrowth advocates tend to question the naturalisation of growth and objectification of an economy as though we had no alternative, they do highlight the structural conditions that lead to exploitation in the name of progress. For example, Gerber states:

“The ideology of growth – or growthism – is at the core of capitalism. Growthism sustains capitalism politically because it allows avoiding redistribution by giving the impression that everyone will continually benefit from it. Growthism pacifies class struggle while justifying existing structures of inequality…  In the West, growth was instrumental to diffuse demands of the workers’ movement, in the East, to excuse the lack of democracy and worker control, and in the South, to justify dispossession and extractivism. Today, GDP growth remains the key stabilising mechanism of capitalist economies” (Gerber 2020: 237).[1]

And degrowth advocates emphasise that “growthism” depoliticizes key issues in a neoliberal context. According to Demaria et al., degrowth is about re-politicisation:

“The contemporary context of neo-liberal capitalism appears as a post-political condition, meaning a political formation that forecloses the political and prevents the politicisation of particular demands. Within this context, degrowth is an attempt to re-politicise the debate on the much needed socio-ecological transformation, affirming dissidence with the current world representations and searching for alternative ones. Along these lines, degrowth is a critique of the current development hegemony” (Demaria et al., 2013: 192).

This emphasis on systemic critique of the ideology of growth contrasts sharply with mainstream economics. Mainstream economics is an anodyne tale of growth expressed as dynamic efficiency achieved through markets – framed as an ahistorical concept, the “market”. A cluster of theories and concepts are deployed to support the position: comparative advantage in trade, total factor productivity growth models and their descendants etc. and perhaps most influentially, the familiar narrative of mutually beneficial “globalization”. Advocates of degrowth look at this very differently. If one looks beyond some simple and often misleading metrics (such as Branko Milanovic’s “elephant curve”), “development”  around the world has been to the detriment of both the environment and much of the population on a state basis (e.g. Hickel, 2018; 2017). The historical market and historical globalization have depended on exploitation of peoples and places (taking in slavery, imperialism and empire as well as modern corporate practices) – much of this is articulated under the heading of “extractivism” (from natural resources to flows of debt servicing). Moreover, in the contemporary period, the environmental and human costs of trying to keep continuous growth going have been great (everything from plastics in the sea to financialised debt-dependency and the acknowledged post financial crisis vulnerabilities exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic). Degrowth then, is not the latest global North (if well-intentioned) demand that the global South sacrifice in order to save the planet and, conveniently, safeguard the greater living standards of the global North (Hickel, 2020a; 2020b; 2019). Degrowth (again, an argument shared by many growth sceptics e.g. O’Neill et al., 2018; Dietz and O’Neill, 2013) makes the case that we can all live differently whilst achieving better livelihoods, and one key strand in this is bringing a halt to exploitative economic relations.

To summarise, degrowth is a subset of the growth sceptic position, which draws on ecological economics for its approach to the materiality of economies, but places this in a more activist context of politicised critique of growthism and “development”. It highlights the aberrational nature and adverse consequences of continuous growth as a systemic goal, emphasizes the ideological function of growth and the perpetuated inequalities, harms and exploitations of actually existing economies. The inference drawn by advocates of degrowth is that an end to growthism is not just an ecological and climatological imperative, it is from the point of view of wellbeing, a desirable civilizational change. Hence the title of this essay, “Degrowth: necessary, urgent and good for you”. Degrowth then, embraces an ethos of “doing less with less”, of “slower by design”, but aspires to “high living standards based on lower resource use” – improving rather than sacrificing life expectancies, basic care services and quality of living.[2] Intrinsic to this is controlled lower throughput and the overwhelming likelihood of lower GDP (at least if we use current priorities and ways of measuring value as the benchmark). However, for its advocates degrowth is not just one change, it is many, degrowth looks to historic alternative patterns of living and organization and the potentials created by science, technology etc. for inspiration. This brings us to Kallis et al’s The Case for Degrowth and its main themes.  read more

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