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Can a steady-state economy be capitalist?

from Theodore Lianos and current RWER issue

The increasing intensity of the environmental problems that we face as a global community for the last fifty years has led to the development of several important ideas and proposals regarding the systemic changes that may be introduced in order to reverse the existing tendencies. Most prominent among them are the Steady-State Economy (Daly, 1972), the Green Growth Economy or Green Economy (OECD, 2015, 2011; UN, 2012), the ideas of Degrowth (Hickel and Kallis, 2020; Kallis, 2011; Kallis et al., 2012), of Ecosocialism (Kovel and Löwy, 1991; Löwy, 2018) and of Ecomodernism (Asafu-Adjaye et al., 2015). These ideas and proposals are sometimes referred to as theories. Strictly speaking, a theory is a statement that can be tested, and in that sense these ideas are not theories. However, we can continue to call them theories as long as we understand that in essence they are simply ideas.

The Green Growth Economy and Ecomodernism offer ideas and proposals which, independently of their effectiveness, can be applied in the presently existing socio-economic system in most countries, i.e. within the institutions of capitalism. For the ideas of degrowth and ecosocialism to be applied it would require important institutional changes, more so in the case of ecosocialism. For ecosocialists the prosperity of human society and the health of the environment will coincide with the socialist transformation of society. For degrowth the required changes are not clearly delineated although the advocates of degrowth speak of non-violent and democratic transition beyond capitalism.

The case of the steady-state economy is debatable. Can a steady-state economy be capitalist or does it imply major institutional changes?


  1. Ken Zimmerman
    April 15, 2021 at 7:51 am

    The COVID 19 crisis is forcing most of the world (excepting the psychopaths and sociopaths) to reexamine their beliefs and actions. And to wonder if some drastic changes are not called for. I am not a proponent of the full range of what is covered by the term, degrowth. But, for a moment allow me to assume that I am and to speak to you from that standpoint.

    “Deep inequalities are coming into play in new ways. While some have the luxury of sheltering at home, others must choose between unemployment without an adequate safety net and exposure to the coronavirus in jobs involving care work and provisioning. As the pandemic plays out differently in different parts of the world, those who are in more vulnerable identities and positions are likely to suffer more than others. These injustices coexist with an awareness that, unless whole populations are protected, not even the wealthiest are fully safe from contagion.

    In this crisis, like others before, people have mobilized and self-organized where businesses and governments have failed to provide for their needs–from mutual aid groups delivering food and medicines for elders, to groups of doctors, engineers, and hackers collaborating to 3-D print components for oxygen ventilators, to students babysitting the children of doctors and nurses. The proliferation of caring and commoning endeavors, which form the bedrock of the degrowth societies we envision, are all the more commendable given the contagious nature of the virus. After the pandemic is over, and the difficult path of economic reconstruction starts, this resurgent dynamism of commoning and care will be vital.

    Positive impulses among individuals and grassroots networks are necessary but not sufficient for sustained change. We need states to secure safety and healthcare, protect the environment, and provide economic safety nets. The policies we advocate in this book were necessary before the pandemic, and are vital during and after: a Green New Deal and public investment program, work-sharing, a basic care income, universal public services, and support of community economies. So is the reorganization of public finance through measures including carbon fees and taxes on wealth, high incomes, natural resource use, and pollution. Whereas our book focuses on demobilizing resource-intensive and ecologically damaging aspects of current economies, pandemic responses deal with demobilizing those aspects not immediately essential for sustaining life.

    We coincide in facing the fundamental challenge of managing political economies without growth during and after the pandemic: how to demobilize parts of the capitalist economy while securing the provisioning of basic goods and services, experimenting with resource-light ways of enjoying ourselves, and finding positive meanings in life. Radical proposals are already being considered and selectively adopted across the political spectrum as they provide concrete solutions amid the pandemic. Companies and governments have reduced working hours and implemented worksharing; different forms of basic income are being debated; financial measures have been instituted to subsidize workers in the quarantine period and after businesses close; an international campaign for care income has been launched; governments have engaged the productive apparatus to secure vital supplies and services; and moratoriums are being considered or imposed on rent, mortgage, and debt payments. There is growing understanding that vast government spending will be required.

    Our book suggests ways we can reconstruct economies with the goal of mitigating crises that loom on the horizon, including a wide array of threats associated with climate change. This goal will not be met by subsidizing fossil fuel companies, airlines, cruise ships, and tourism mega-businesses. Instead, states need to finance Green New Deals and rebuild their health and care infrastructures, creating jobs in a just transition to economies that are less environmentally damaging. As oil prices fall, fossil fuels should be taxed heavily, raising funds to support green and social investments, and to provide tax breaks and dividends to working people. Rather than using public money to bail out corporations and banks, we urge the establishment of basic care incomes that will help people and communities to reconstruct their lives and livelihoods.

    The world will change after the virus, and there will be struggles over which paths to take. People will have to fight to direct change toward more equitable and resilient societies that have gentler impacts on humans and natural environments.
    Powerful actors will try to reconstitute status quo arrangements, and to shift costs to those with less power. It takes organizing and a confluence of alliances and circumstances to ensure that it won’t be the environment and the workers who pay the bill, but those who profited most from the growth that preceded this disaster.

    This crisis arguably opens up more dangers than it does possibilities. We worry about the politics of fear that the coronavirus pandemic engenders, the intensification of surveillance and control of peoples’ movements, xenophobia and blame of others, as well as home isolation that curbs communing and political organizing. Once measures such as curfews, quarantines, rule-by-decree, border controls, or election postponements are taken, they can become part of the arsenal of political possibility, opening dystopian horizons. To counter these risks, this book motivates and guides us to re-found societies on the commons of mutual aid and care, orienting collective pursuits away from growth and toward wellbeing and equity. These are not just lofty aspirations; we identify everyday practices and concrete policies to start building the world we want today, together with political strategies to support synergy among these efforts in the construction of equitable and low impact societies.

    When we were writing this book, we knew we would have to work hard to convince readers of the case for degrowth. Our job may be somewhat easier now amid such tangible evidence that the current system is crumbling under its own weight. As we embark on the second major global economic crisis in a dozen years, perhaps some of us will be more willing to question the wisdom of producing and consuming more and more, just to keep the system going. The time is ripe for us to refocus on what really matters: not GDP, but the health and wellbeing of our people and our planet. In a word, degrowth.”
    (Preface, The case for degrowth” (Polity Press, 2020) By Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa and Federico Demaria)

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