Capitalism, democracy, and the degrowth horizon (Part I)

By Leandro Vergara-Camus*

In the third post of the Ecology after capitalism series, divided in Part I and Part II, Leandro Vergara-Camus argues that the root causes of the socially and ecologically destructive character of capitalism is not to be found in growth, but in capitalist accumulation. He suggests that growth can be greened in a post-capitalist society if the institutions and dynamics that force capitalist accumulation and competition are abolished and full democracy is established.

“He preferido hablar de cosas imposibles, porque de lo posible se sabe demasiado…”

“I have preferred to talk about impossible things,  because we already know too much of what is possible…”

From the song “Resumen de noticias”, Silvio Rodriguez, Cuban song-writer and singer.

I have always found it strange to read interventions about “transition to socialism” published around the late 1970s and I have always consciously decided to keep away from academic discussion about what our world “should” look like. Not because I think they are not important, but mainly because I think we are so far away from breaking the neoliberal hegemony, the power of capital, and the right-wing pseudo-nationalist rhetoric that thinking of transcending capitalism appears unfortunately to be an exercise in pure speculation.

However, the global ecological crisis that most probably will be accelerated by the current economic crisis obliges us to seriously think about transcending capitalism and identifying the institutions that should be challenged and the strategies that could bring us closer to this goal. Hence, following Silvio Rodriguez, I will try to contribute to the discussion on what seems impossible, a post-capitalist world.

I will focus my intervention on how we can bridge the gap between the degrowth perspective and a Marxist-inspired approach to the roots of the ongoing ecological crisis of capitalism. I will do this by first pointing to three of Marx’s most important contributions to our understanding of capitalism and liberal representative democracy: his attack on the ideological and class character of the foundations of classical political economy, his views of the alienating aspects of capitalism, and his critique of liberal democracy and defense of radical working class democracy.

Secondly, I will use my understanding of these contributions to address the strengths and shortcomings of the degrowth perspective, especially through the work of Giorgos Kallis. I will conclude with some examples of how concrete social movements have challenged key institutions of capitalism and liberal democracy to build—imperfect and contradictory—alternatives to it, which often only partly respond to their aspirations.

My general argument is one for analytical specificity, the importance of the political, and fundamentally for radical working class democracy, as the root to any post-capitalist society.


The many Marxs or the many Marxisms?

I would like to begin with a half-joke. A Brazilian friend of mine, political ecologist Carlos Walter Ponto-Gonçalves, told me once: “If someone tells you that he is a Marxist economist, be suspicious: he probably doesn’t know anything about economics and he certainly doesn’t understand what Marxism is”. Beside the punt to economics, which self-represents itself as the mother of all social sciences, the joke is meant to remind us that Marx proposed a critique of political economy. His goal, which inspires all of his major writings, was not to discover the immutable laws of capitalism, but to uncover and denounce the political and class character of political economy—today called economics—that pretended to understand and explain the functioning of the market.

The problem, however, is that many Marxists have read—and continue to read—Marx as a scholar preoccupied with identifying the immanent laws of motions of capitalism—though to be fair he himself used the term law when he identified a recurrent dynamic. My reading of Marx is different and is closer to what Kallis mentions in his article to the effect that Marx did not discover laws, but simply pointed to tendencies.

Marx, as many others did after him, underlined the very particular and radical nature of capitalism in comparison to previous types of societies. Capitalism is radically different because it is the first society that separates the producers from the means of production and triggers a market-dependence among producers and capitalists. Among capitalists, market-dependence generates a compulsion to compete and a constant and endless need for capital accumulation, because they have to reinvest part of their capital in the improvement of the productive process to keep their competitive edge over other capitalists. Of course, this has dramatic effects on the lives of workers and the cycles of nature. Marx captured this in a famous passage on modern industrial agriculture in Volume I of Capital:

In agriculture, as in manufacture, the capitalist transformation of the process of production also appears as the martyrology of the producer, the instrument of labour appear as a means of enslaving, exploiting and impoverishing the worker (…) all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil….

The exploitation of labour by capital has historically been given precedence by Marxist scholars, but following the second part of this quotation, numerous Marxist ecologists among them Bellamy-Foster, Clark and York, have recovered Marx’s use of the concepts of social metabolism and metabolic interaction and have developed the concept of metabolic rift. What Marxists express when they work from this concept is that capitalism, by triggering an imperative of competition, tends to lead to over-exploitation of labour and of nature. Hence capitalism destroys the social and natural/ecological basis upon which its stands. These tendencies sometimes appear as laws.

Marx himself opened the door to being interpreted as a theorist that identifies inexorable laws, as some of his writings he actually uses the term laws, for example in his chapter on “The law of the tendencial fall in the rate of profit” in Volume III of Capital. Here, it is the “structuralist Marx” that we have in front of us, but clearly an incomplete and even distorted Marx. Because there is another “agency-focused Marx” that is clearly visible in the Communist Manifesto for whom history is the history of class struggle.

This Marx tells us that the actual particular forms that these “laws” take within capitalism—i.e. the market-dependence, the competitive dynamic or the types of state intervention—are the result of the balance of class forces within a society that develops historically in a particular way. Let’s not forget that Marx called his approach historical materialism. To be honest though there, isn’t two Marx. He is actually never either a structuralist or a purely agency-focused theorist. He understood agency and structure in a dialectical fashion.

Marx is also not a “structuralist” because he would supposedly privilege the “economic base”—or structure—over the “political and ideological superstructure”, as if one precedes and determines the other, or as if the latter is simply a fantastic veneer on the real concrete relations of exploitation that happen in the former. Marxists that read Marx in this way often quote the following passage of Marx’s Preface to A contribution to the critique of political economy:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations of production, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage of development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness…. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of certain stage of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or —this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. These changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

What is disturbing about the Preface is that it is not representative of Marx’s thinking. The attractive aspect of it though is that it is about five pages long, compared to the several hundreds of the different volumes of Capital, Grundrisse, and other major texts of Marx. Because of this it has been a key text for readers to approach this colossal thinker. More problematic is that, according to Prinz, the Preface was mainly intended to avoid the Prussian censorship. That is why he wrote it in the way that he did—without any reference to term class and presenting social change in rather abstract apolitical manner. Marx never refers to this metaphor again, neither in the Grundrisse or Capital. Marx’s thinking, from his early writings like the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts all the way to the three volumes of Capital is never organised under the so-called “base-superstructure” metaphor.

Neither is his understanding of history driven by a kind of economic or technological determinism, nor his understanding of the human experience separated in distinctive spheres of activities. Humans do not experience an “objective reality”, say the forces of production or nature, and then make sense of it through a “subjective reconstruction/critique”. Humans interact with each other and with nature simultaneously through their physical-material experience of it and their interpretation of this experience through the meanings that they give to these material interactions. Humans are also not subjected to laws of economic development but take decisions under particular historic and social contexts that inform and constrain their decisions and strategies.

In my view, a Marxian-inspired approach to the current ecological crisis of capitalism should not rely on inexorable laws or universally applicable models, understanding of human rationality or predictable trajectory of the development of capitalism. Marx highlighted the social implications of the establishment of certain institutions and the development of certain dynamics peculiar to capitalism on the agency of different subjects. But his approach also highlights that the form that these take in a given society—and even if they develop fully or not—will be context-specific and determined by class, political struggles. Hence we would gain a lot by moving away from too generic formulations about human beings or capitalism toward specific formulations about the actually existing capitalism(s) in particular social formations.

We would also gain a lot from distinguishing how the capitalist society is different from other types of society. That is why capital accumulation more than growth or throughput is the category that Marxists have used when they seek to understand the logic of capitalism. Because when we compare capitalist societies with other types of societies—historically precedent or possible in the future—we underestimate its uniqueness, which transforms human rationality, relations between humans and between humans and nature, through complex reorganisation of locally and culturally-specific social and institutional orders.

One of Marx’s most interesting contributions was to show how ideological and a-historical the laws, categories and assumptions used by classical political economists were. He criticised them for projecting their assumptions about the bourgeois, capitalist individual into the past by presenting them as pertaining to “human nature”. In contrast, Marx highlighted that human rationality responded, created and shaped its historical and environmental context. Hence, we should seriously approach capitalist rationality—profit maximisation, competition, etc—as being historic and context specific, and as such subjected to social struggles.

As difficult or impossible as it appears today in the twenty-first century, market rationality is not something that exits in all human societies and it cannot be assumed that it will continue to be the dominant form of rationality in the future. In his studies of pre-capitalist relations and non-Western societies—specifically in the Grundrisse or Volume III of Capital—Marx underlined how different they were from Western capitalist societies.


The second important contribution of Marx that I want to point to is his virulent critique of the consequences for humans and for the relationships between humans and nature of the establishment of private property of the means of production, which he developed in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and then repeated under different forms throughout his life.

For Marx, what distinguishes human beings is their creative power that they actualize when they apply their labor to transforming nature, creating and perfecting goods or performing an activity that satisfies their needs. Human beings can realize their creative power when they are in control of the means of production because, under this circumstance, the process of producing things—time spent, effort applied, technology used, etc—is decided by them and the final product of their labor is their own. Simply put, the control of the means of production means the control over their lives.

This is completely turned upside down when the means of production are privatized and the great majority of laborers are separated from the means of production. From then on they become simple sellers of labor power and a process of alienation from their creative nature and from nature itself begins. They no longer have control over how their labor is used—the labor process; the final products of their labor—commodities—are not theirs but those of the owners of the means of production; competition among laborers to be employed workers alienates them from each other; as they perform alienated labor, i.e. a form of labor that does not allow them to unleash their creative potential and control the process of production, they further distance themselves from nature. Nature is increasingly objectified and they have no way of transforming it, creating it, as they would want.

The important point in Marx’s idea of alienated labor is that the laborer individual or collective control of the means of production is what allows autonomous decision on what to produce, when to produce it, how to produce it and for what purpose. It is also what allows laborers to decide the balance between production and leisure. The control over their labor potentially makes laborers more conscious of the totality of relations and processes (including ecological ones) that are involved in the act of producing. The establishment of private property over the means of production triggers a set of dynamics that de-humanise laborers who are turned into a simple “instruments of production” not required to understand the whole production process and even less the social and environmental ramifications of it.

The power to decide over how to deal with these by way of taking decision over the production process is transferred to a small minority, those who own the means of production, i.e the capitalists who are preoccupied above all with reaching certain levels of profits. On the flip side, the decisions that laborers are able to take “as consumers” is seriously constrained by the fact that their separation from their means of production and subsistence makes them solely dependent on their wages and the market for their social reproduction.

This is where Marx’s third contribution that I want to highlight, his critique of liberal bourgeois democracy, becomes important. Marx time and time again alluded to the formal separation of the economic from the political. By referring to this formal separation, Marx alluded to the fact that, under a capitalist society, the dominant classes present (private) economic matters as if they are separated from (public) political ones. For him, the precondition for this illusion began with the establishment of private property of the means of production, i.e. the so-called primitive accumulation, and followed by its relentless defense through its codification into laws and the naturalization of bourgeois culture within political economy.

Ellen Wood’s book Democracy against capitalism is probably the book that most clearly shows the importance of this contribution and develops a framework to critically explore the relationship between “the political” and “the economic” within capitalism in contrast to pre-capitalist societies. The book also examines the way plebeian understandings and forms of democracy have been successfully subverted by bourgeois interests, particularly by systematically impeding that political democratic preoccupations about equality and social justice coming from the plebe encroach on the individualistic understanding of the means of production as the private property of the bourgeois—this formal separation of the economic from the political is paralleled within bourgeois society by the division between the private and the public, which as feminists scholars have highlighted enforces and disciplines certain gender roles and hierarchies.

Wood traces back the political practices existing in ancient Athens and highlights that democratic rights and practices were fundamentally different from those of liberal representative democracy. One major limitation to the democratic rights of the general population was of course the exclusion of women, slaves and foreigners from citizenship. But a radically democratic feature was the inclusion of the property-less men within the polity on an equal footing to the propertied men. Furthermore, and the crucial difference with liberal democracy, economic matters such as prices, rents, etc. were subjected to intense political debate, which placed limits on what the propertied class could or could not do with their property.

Beyond Wood and Athenian democracy, there are plenty of historical and contemporary examples of societies or communities across our planet putting moral and political limits on “economic” relations, which they do not see as operating under a different or separate logic than other human relations. Karl Polanyi’s work and the research of countless anthropologists have shown how pre-capitalist societies use cultural norms and institutions to constrain economic practices. In Latin America for instance, especially in territories that remain under the relative control of the indigenous populations, certain cultural practices of reciprocity, solidarity and redistribution intended to limit social differentiation within communities have subsisted, though they have been sometimes modified or even subverted by capitalist relations. These practices are often recovered or re-invented in times of crisis to provide more survival options to marginalised groups, often even against groups within their own communities who have managed to take advantage of these practices for their private advantage.

Editor’s note: Part II of this article will be published soon.

*Leandro Vergara-Camus is a senior lecturer at SOAS, UK. He has conducted research on the Latin American left, the Zapatista movement in Chiapas and the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil, peasant agriculture, and the history of land struggles over property rights in Latin America. His fields of expertise include theories of development, political economy of development, and historical sociology of state and class formation.

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