Home > Uncategorized > Degrowth vs. growthism

Degrowth vs. growthism

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

  1. November 10, 2020 at 5:47 pm

    Seems to me that the ideas here are stated more clearly in Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth.

    • Jamie
      November 11, 2020 at 10:52 am

      They are, unfortunately,not; I suggest reading:
      Spash, C. (2020c). Apologists for Growth: Passive Revolutionaries in a Passive Revolution. Globalizations, https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2020.1824864

      • November 11, 2020 at 3:26 pm

        I just read it and both the writer there and you perhaps fail to understand what Kate Raworth is saying. But since you believe that what you wrote is not in any way similar to what she is saying then I will take you at your word. I found what you wrote full of jargon and much more difficult to follow because it was written for your choir. You packed numerous concepts into sentences and when people do that, readers have to make either too many assumptions about what is being said or read numerous articles to figure it out. Your paragraphs were long and convoluted.

        Purely and simply. Kate Raworth is clear that we have exceeded the boundaries of the carrying capacity of this planet in several areas and must pull back from those excesses. She also points out that there are several areas where we are in danger of exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet And must be careful not to. And she includes the concepts of inequities in access to energy and resources by what I would call different classes of people.

        And Kate Raworth is a clearly a critic of mainstream economics emphasis on growth. She points out in her introduction that there are seven principles underlying her framework The very first one is the fixation on the GDP and growth. Her seventh principle is to be agnostic about growth and she states “ One diagram in economic theory is so dangerous that it is never actually drawn: the long-term path of GDP growth.” She goes on to say, “ what we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow.”

        She then goes on in her first chapter to focus on “Changing the Goal” which is to stop using the GDP and growth model and change our goals to “Thriving in balance.”

        But perhaps you have not actually read her. You sent me to a source that was critical of her instead of citing what she herself actually says that is not congruent with what you wrote.

        Did you read her book or watch any of her videos?

      • Jamie
        November 11, 2020 at 6:41 pm

        Hello yes I have read Kate Raworth, as clearly has Clive. Thanks for the critique; it did not strike me that the papers were jargon filled – if you mean this in the negative sense – I would suggest they attempt to explain concepts – which of course are the ‘jargon’ of a discourse (though obviously how you read them and to what end is not something I control). Perhaps the pertinent argument is not that Kate Raworth lacks acknowledgement of limits etc or critique of mainstream economics, rather that the use of prior economics is thin, and she is inconsistent in terms of consequences and policy – this latter of course is a matter also of strategy if the aim is to persuade the policy influential that material and energy use are on unsustainable pathways. “Whether or not they grow” is not a statement that they cannot grow. Hence inconsistency? No one thrives on a dead planet.
        Best wishes, Jamie

      • November 11, 2020 at 8:34 pm

        Education can grow. Social programmes can grow. Healthcare for all is a growth activity, The use of renewable resources — such as hemp products to replace forestry and energy products — can grow as can the use of bicycles and other modes of transport. But none of it should be undertaken to promote larger GDPs. We should use the GPI modified to suit the concepts in Doughnut economics to live in balance with the natural forces on this planet.

      • jamie
        November 13, 2020 at 9:46 am

        Yes all reasonable points, but this brings us back to obfuscation and broader issues of what is not oriented on as key issues… a let us do these things argument is not the same as we must stop systematically doing others in a systematic sense. Qualitative measures matter but these are not altering the quantitative dynamics of an existent system unless that system is itself changed. Hence Clive etc concerns
        Best wishes Jamie

  2. November 10, 2020 at 6:24 pm

    The trouble is that both growthers and degrowthers flatten out things. They take for granted that everything can be reduced to numbers. I think they are both neo-classics on steroids.

  3. November 10, 2020 at 8:03 pm

    ‘Degrowth’ is not the issue. The idea that ‘growth’ lies solely with the private production/distribution for-profit sector to the exclusion of the public sector is the issue.
    I can well imagine ‘growth’ in education services, health care, child care and like matters –broadly, growth in the public production of needed and wanted services at low to no cost to users — as where the services sector can and will grow. The problem with private sector for-profit growth lies, among other matters, in the mal-distribution of all resources, including human capital resources, which results from pricing resources solely in terms of the money which can be made now by using them (including by exhausting them now). Human needs are mostly ill-served by profit-taking private operators. The provision of public goods at ass low a price as possible, including zero prices, had, in Cournot’s framework, the practical benefit to society.

  4. November 10, 2020 at 8:05 pm

    Last line should have read: “the most practical benefit for society.”

  5. Ikonoclast
    November 10, 2020 at 9:48 pm

    Growth IS the problem. It is demonstrably so from first principles in physics (thermodynamics) and ecology (biomass and biomass complexity).

    In the physical sense, growth of the economy may be quantitative and/or it may be qualitative. Quantitative growth means more people and more physical mass of produced stuff. Such growth requires ever more resource flows and produces ever more waste streams over time. There are limits to both resource flows and waste stream processing sinks on a finite planet earth (meaning the surface biosphere where we live. Ergo, physical growth cannot continue indefinitely.

    Qualitative growth implies higher complexity. Higher complexity requires ever more energy inputs to fight entropy (which hare can be taken as the tendency for complexity to break down). Possible energy inputs will also prove finite on the surface of planet earth. For example, it’s provable that if growth met no material limit and energy inputs met no limit on earth, then eventually the temperature of the surface of the earth would reach the temperature of the sun. Clearly, qualitative (complexity) growth would end well before that point. That’s the complexity-energy reductio ad absurdum of endless growth theory. Ergo, complexity growth cannot continue indefinitely.

    From a biological point of view there is the “earth-space battery” issue. Yes, we could replace the use of fossil fuels with direct incoming solar radiation but there is still the issue of our destruction of ecological complexity and the running down of the earth’s biomass (mass and complexity) store.

    Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind. – John R. Schramski, David K. Gattie, and James H. Brown.

    Click to access 9511.full.pdf

    These physical and biological facts are inescapable.

    The original post is correct that de-growth is about the necessary re-politicization of economics and production rather than this current dishonest pretense by capitalist economics that is is free from all the laws of physics and ecology and also free from all political and moral considerations of equality, human rights and the rights of the natural world. For there to be humans and human rights at all, ecological web-of-life “rights” or requirements must also be recognized and permitted a significant sphere for existence. We depend on the whole ecological web-of-life, on its bio-services and also on natural geo-services of physical systems from the climate to ocean currents etc. etc.

    In a stabilized or “de-growth to sustainability” world, equality and re-distribution will become key issues. If they don’t become key issues, if we don’t make them kay issues, then humans will go extinct with absolute certainty. It is as simple as that and provable from the fundamental laws and first principles of physics and ecology.

  6. Jamie
    November 11, 2020 at 10:49 am

    Spash, C. (2020c). Apologists for Growth: Passive Revolutionaries in a Passive Revolution. Globalizations, https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2020.1824864
    Gills, B. K. and Morgan, J. (2020b). Teaching climate complacency: mainstream economics textbooks and the need for transformation in economics education. Globalizations, https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2020.1808413
    Keen, S. (2020) The appallingly bad Neoclassical Economics of climate change. Globalizations, https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2020.1807856
    Lamb, W. Mattioli, G. Levi, S. Roberts, J. Capstick, S. Creutzig, F. Minx, J. Muller-Hansen, F. Culhane, T. and Steinberger, J. (2020). Discourses of climate delay. Global Sustainability 3, e17, 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1017/sus.2020.13
    Wiedmann, T. Schandl, H. Lenzen, M. Moran, D. Suh, D. West, J. and Kanemoto, K. (2015). The Material Footprint of Nations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(20): 6271–6.

  7. Craig
    November 11, 2020 at 3:29 pm

    Re-directing industrial policy and thus both political and ecological reality will only happen by changing the monetary and financial paradigm with a 50% discount/rebate policy at retail sale because it will enable us to pivot from irrational austerity enforced growthism to rational de-growthism via both universal and selectively (ecological) reduced costs, increased profits and the inflation free fiscal ability to fund the mega projects necessary to survive ecological and thermo-dynamic suicide.

    The new production tag on consumer items must become Made Underground, Made in Orbit and Made on the Moon.

  8. November 20, 2020 at 5:37 pm

    Good to read the discussion, as I had my work cut out to extract the meaning from the unnecessarily complex word salad of the post.

    I think all contributors have their ‘hearts in the right place’, and I do hope that these ideas can catch on before we make our planet uninhabitable for our species, but there can be little hope of getting ordinary folk to accept such basic, sensible, simple, and obvious, ideas when habitual ‘economists’ sophistry’ demands they be run through a ‘Private Eye’ ‘Pseud’s Corner’ translator before printing!

    Oeconomics (roughly ‘house-keeping’) is, at root, a simple concept understood by everyone with a wage slave’s budget to manage. ‘Economics’ needs to drop the pretence of being a science requiring its own pseudo-scientific jargon in order to compete with ‘the big boys’, and get back to explaining to consumers the necessity of getting back to the basics of providing for ourselves without compromising the ability of future ‘Earthlings’ to do likewise.


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