Can there be green socialist growth? A commentary on John Bellamy Foster (part II)

By Giorgos Kallis*.

A genuine eco-socialism will be one that consciously decides, and plans to live with enough; and one that collectively squanders the surplus of its production, taking it out of the circuit of growth.

Ecosocialism. Source:

In the first part of this commentary, I argued that there is no necessary incompatibility between capitalism and a steady or declining economy. Such a state, unstable (and ugly) as it could be, would increase the likelihood of the rise of a social force that will transform and transcend capitalism. In this essay, I want to ask instead whether an end of capitalism would necessarily bring sustainable degrowth followed by a stable steady-state. Or, if not, under what conditions this may be possible.

Foster argues that socialism is better suited for a steady-state economy than capitalism. But what is socialism? A system that is not capitalist is not necessarily socialist. Reducing the ubiquity of capital accumulation and surplus value—the M-C-M’ circuit—(or eliminating it altogether?) is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for socialism.

One could argue in Marxian terms that a sufficient condition is the elimination of surplus value. Eliminating surplus value means eliminating exploitation with a collective appropriation of the surplus by those who produce it. Workers always produce more than the requirements for their mere reproduction. If they appropriate this excess (surplus) and use it to satisfy their human needs, then this does not become surplus value.

‘Appropriation’ cannot be literal, each and every worker appropriating the surplus of the factory or office that she happened to work in. If that was the case, then there would be rich workers from profitable factories, and poor ones from less productive ones. Appropriation and redistribution at some higher scale (region, nation, etc.) would be necessary and hence the onus would shift to the democratic process through which ‘workers’ define collective needs and decide how to allocate the product and excess. Socialists’ opinions differ on whether this is best done by a centrally planned economy, or by a more decentralized, participatory one.

Would a socialist economy thus defined differ from a capitalist one in so far as the ‘growth imperative’ is concerned? If the imperative is not axiomatic but contingent, as I’ve argued, then the answer is: it depends. A socialist economy without growth is less likely to be ‘ugly’, given that there won’t be bankruptcies, firings, and the like. There will be no capitalists lobbying for growth.

On the other hand, if the socialist economy depends on international markets to finance its expenditures, or if its stability depends on output-fuelled arm races against capitalist competitors, then growth might be necessary. Importantly, if the legitimacy of the system depends on its capacity to deliver an ever-increasing output to satisfy ever-increasing material human needs, then lack of growth will also mean political and social instability.

One might argue that it is capitalism which creates artificial needs; without capitalism, needs will satiate. Satiation of needs however is not a principle that one will find in Marx or in much of contemporary socialist thinking, where needs are considered unlimited and calls for ‘acceleration’ remain prominent.

Note also that there is no incompatibility between socialist economy thus defined and growth. Economic (and throughput) growth can well continue even in the absence of exploitation and capital accumulation. Growth can continue in so far as the workers refrain from consuming all of the product for the satisfaction of their immediate human needs, and instead invest it to increase production, to satisfy their higher needs of tomorrow.

Greening productivism? Source:

Socialist growth isn’t any greener

The process of surplus-(re)investment-growth in a socialist economy is very similar to that of capital accumulation; the only difference is that since it is controlled by the workers themselves (and not by capitalists) and it is geared to their needs, then one could argue formally that there is no surplus value, and no capital accumulation (capital here understood in the Marxian sense of surplus value in movement, not in the standard sense of machinery and money, which obviously would increase). But there is economic and throughput growth.

This scenario more or less describes the ‘actually existing socialist’ economies of the Eastern bloc, where there was lots of growth, though—formally speaking—no surplus value or capital accumulation. (The fact that these economies were probably not genuinely socialist, in the sense that a state bureaucracy took the place of capitalists, and drew surplus value from workers investing it without direct democratic control, does not negate the logic of my claim—that a collective, socialized control of surplus and investment can produce growth).

I recently came across the notion of ‘socialist growth’ in a book by the ex-leader of the French Communist party, Georges Marchais, written in 1973, and called The Challenge of Democracy. In it, and responding to ecologists and the Club of Rome, Marchais argued that while capitalist (GDP) growth is bad because it destroys the planet for the needs of profit, without serving the needs of people, a different, ‘socialist growth’ geared to the satisfaction of human needs would not have to be limited since it serves the real needs of the collective. And in his view, a case in example was Soviet Union at the time, which was outperforming the West in terms of output, while serving the real needs of its citizens.

Marchais’ view is not a relic of the past, save perhaps for his praise of the Soviet Union. In Spain, socialist, and ecologically sensitive, economists Vicenç Navarro and Juan Torres—the duo charged with drafting Podemos’ economic program—have repeatedly written against degrowth in more or less the same terms as Marchais. Let me unpack two arguments that they make in defence of a socialist green growth.

The first is that, unlike a capitalist economy, a proper socialist economy can grow and be green. In other words, it can better organize dematerialization and decouple economic growth from throughput. Their argument accepts that decoupling and dematerializing growth is possible (the ‘green growth’ thesis of environmental economics), but then adds that only a ‘rational’, socialist system, not driven by profit is capable of bringing forward such green growth.

As I argued in this first part of the commentary, the reasons why green growth is unlikely apply to any type of economy, capitalist or socialist or else. It has to do with the material needs of economic expansion and the diminishing energy returns of renewable resources. I can’t see how ‘rationality’ will magically change all this. And this begs the question of what is ‘rationality’ and to what extent a socialist system would be more rational, or more effective and inventive in driving technological change (assuming that there is such a techno-fix to environmental problems).

What ensures that the rational democratic outcome won’t be a decision to increase material output now and care for the climate later? Or increase our material living standards by shifting their cost elsewhere? And why are we so sure that capitalism cannot turn ‘greening’ into a profitable enterprise and put its irrationality to good use, if such greening is in principle technically possible?

The second argument is that a socialist economy would not care about GDP but about real human needs. GDP is an indicator that makes sense only in an economy based on profit since it is the aggregate of the accounting logic of individual firms. Hence a socialist economy could conceivably ‘grow’ its own definition of wellbeing, while reducing throughput.

But this is a play of semantics. Of course, if we define the goal of the economy as the number of times we say good-morning to each other, we could make growth angelic at a stroke and decouple it from throughput. But this would be simply an accounting trick. The question remains what would happen to actual production and throughput. And beyond that, I can’t see why a socialist economy should seek to grow the number of good-mornings geometrically to infinity. More seriously, I can’t see why as eco-socialists we would care to salvage the idea of ‘growth’ (by adding the adjective socialist or else), an idea that is so central to the imaginary of capitalism.

One could say that indeed the question of growth is irrelevant, and that a hypothetical socialist country would simply decide democratically on its needs and satisfy them indifferent to the question of growth. Note, however, that to the climate or to the communities supplying primary commodities (often at the expense of their environments and health), it makes little difference if country X decides democratically or not that it needs to emit carbon or extract their materials.

The degrowth option. Source:
The degrowth option. Source:

Degrowing our way to eco-socialism

An eco-socialist response then can only be one that rejects the notion of (socialist) growth, and then argue that a socialist system could organize better a ‘prosperous way down’, i.e. a degrowth in material and energy throughput to a steady-state.

This does not mean reducing each and every activity. It might mean increasing one activity (say trains or solar panels) while reducing and compensating with another (car production and nuclear power). Far from being indifferent to the question of growth, this calls for a conscious focus of the democratic process in the regulation of the social metabolism and the decline and stabilization of economic activity and throughput.

Capitalism is ill-suited for this since it is unstable in the absence of growth. But rather than a general invocation for an end to capitalism or a transition to socialism, this raises the concrete question of what specific institutions a post-capitalist economy will have and what desires will it privilege that will make it stable in the absence of growth. This is for me a core question for the economics of degrowth, or the economics of eco-socialism.

Further, if a socialist economy were to reach a steady state, it should eliminate not only surplus value, but also squander all excess from production above what is necessary for satisfying the basic needs of the producers. This is the argument we construct with Giacomo D’Alisa and Federico Demaria in the epilogue of our recent book on degrowth, benefiting from George Bataille’s notion of ‘depense’ or unproductive expenditure.

In other words: to reach a ‘steady-state socialism’, such as the one espoused by Foster, the collective appropriation of surplus is a necessary but not sufficient condition. A sufficient condition is that there is no excess or surplus reinvested into more production: all product should be consumed by the workers, now or later.

This, and only this, condition can satisfy Foster’s ‘zero net capital formation’ (capital here understood in the wider sense, and not the formal Marxian one). With zero net investment (which does not preclude reallocation of investment from some sectors/activities to others), the economy and its throughput will not grow, period.

One may claim that this idea of a steady state of zero accumulation and investment is the genuine vision of socialism (or communism). What I hope I have argued though is that this is only one possibility of how socialism may be conceived, indeed the one compatible with a steady-state eco-socialism. But there is another, actually dominant productivist vision, which sees human needs as insatiable and aims to satisfy them with the collective appropriation and re-investment of surplus to produce more (and perhaps greener) in the future. This is a vision of socialism as a rationalized capitalism controlled by and for the collective.

Zero accumulation/investment requires two things. First, that the principle of satiation of material human needs is accepted by society (though one could still conceive the flourishing of arts, games and other spiritual development that do not increase throughput). And second, that meaningful and fun ways are collectively devised for the squandering of the unavoidable excess that human activity produces.

As Bataille argues, it is precisely around the question of squandering surplus that society and ‘the political’ form. A society that only builds railways and solar panels is not a society worth living in. A society that builds railways, solar panels but also wastes its excess in carnivals, maybe. Socialism from this perspective is not only the democratic control and planning of production but also the democratic control of the expenditure and destruction of the surplus by those who produce it.

In conclusion: there is nothing intrinsic in socialism that will make it pursue degrowth and a steady-state economy or throughput. Yes, unlike capitalism there is nothing that makes a socialist economy unstable without growth; and the democratic determination of production with an eye on needs and not profits, makes it possible to degrow sustainably. But not necessary.

Indeed, the long tradition of the idea of ‘socialist growth’, and the insistence of socialist intellectuals that growth can be greened under socialism (in more or less the same terms as capitalist green growthers) shows that the imaginary of growth can well survive the end of capitalism, as it did survive it under ‘actually existing socialisms’. A genuine eco-socialism will be one that consciously decides, and plans to live with enough; and one that collectively squanders the surplus of its production, taking it out of the circuit of growth.

*Giorgos Kallis is an ICREA professor of Ecological Economics at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA), Autonomous University of Barcelona, and a Leverhulme visiting professor at SOAS, London. He is co-editor of the book ‘Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era’ (Routledge 2014). 

This post extends a commentary previously published on the Great Transation Initiative.

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