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

By Leandro Vergara-Camus*

In the Part II of the third post of the Ecology after capitalism series, Leandro Vergara-Camus attempts to show that Marxism is useful for the degrowth movement because of its understanding of what the specificity of capitalism is in comparison to other types of societies. In order to build a post-capitalist society, he calls for challenging private ownership of the means of production, de-commodifying and democratising the access to and management of natural resources, challenging the separation of the economic from the political, and building a collective working class political capacity.

Is the problem growth or capitalist capital accumulation?

For me, what the degrowth movement has been arguing for is politically the same thing that Marxist political ecologists, like Bellamy Foster and others, argue when they say that we are on the verge of a Great Transition, in which values of “consumerism, individualism, and domination of nature” will be replaced with “a new triad: quality of life, human solidarity, and ecological sensibility”.

An important difference is in the focus on class analysis of Marxist authors, who often see the working classes as the most affected by environmental disasters and thus as the ones with an interest in revolting against a system that is driving environmental degradation. But the gap is not difficult to bridge, as Kallis’s work in particular is strongly influenced by Martinez-Alier’s environmentalism of the poor who places particular importance on the willingness of poor people to defend nature due to their reliance on it for their subsistence. Where I think they diverge the most is in their understanding of socialism and capitalism, and what drives the production of more commodities.

I partly agree and partly disagree with Giorgos Kallis’ main argument about growth. I agree that we have to get rid of our obsession with growth, especially because we have to seriously and definitively move from a quantitative to a qualitative approach to “development” or “quality of live”. I am totally in agreement with Kallis’ call for the need for eco-socialists to abandon the idea of growth, and the traditional productivist view attached to it that leads many to say that the problem is not production of goods and services but its unequal distribution. Unequal distribution is a major problem, but we have to recognise, as Kallis highlights, that there are major issues with the way we (in capitalist societies) produce and consume, notably with our dependence on low entropy fossil energy and our inability to sustainably manage waste.

In his argumentation however, Kallis jumps from an argument about throughput—energy and material throughput—to an argument about the cost of energy and material throughput. His argument is strong on the first grounds, but weakens on the second grounds because it falls back on quantifying them instead of highlighting the social institutions and relations that lead to this situation. This leads him to argue that we have to “re-organize (ourselves) to produce and consume not only differently but also less, with less energy and less materials” and that this could not be done under a socialist society that could both grow and be ecological. His theoretical argumentation for this impossibility is as follows:

…there is a broad agreement that growth is the result of capital accumulation and productivity increases. Accumulation requires the saving and investment of surplus product from one period, for more production in the next. Productivity is related to the capacity to extract more and more product (and surplus) for each hour of work put in production. Surplus product means that producers consume less than what they produce (…) Increases in productivity demand that either workers are exploited more and/or that an alternative source of power and work (e.g. energy from fossil fuels) substitutes or complements human power.

We do not know of any process of economic growth that has not involved capital accumulation and exploitation of workers and/or nature. Socialists who want to defend economic growth, even a solar-based one, would have to explain how such overall growth will come about without more exploitation of one sort or another.

Illustration on Marx’s theory on capital accumulation. Source:

Kallis, attempting to make an argument with Marxist categories, makes several important mistakes here. Capital accumulation in a capitalist society is not about surplus product—or under-consumption—, but about surplus value that is possible because workers are not paid for the full reproduction of their labour power. Capitalists do not accumulate because workers consume less than what they produce. Capitalists accumulate because the wages they pay to workers do not cover their social reproduction—housing, food, childcare, heathcare, etc—, which is a condition for their continued existence as workers and their ability to sell labour power. To put it differently, capitalists have to bear the costs of maintaining machines in good state and running, while they get that for free from workers by paying them less than the value that their labour power generates.

Capitalists pay for labour power, not for the cost of reproduction of labour power. That cost is covered by workers from a portion of their salary. The accumulation of capital is thus predicated in the ability of the capitalist to increase labour productivity in the industry, or increase profits on the market and save the money accrued from this and transform it into capital by investing it in the improvement of the means of production to be able to increase productivity or profits continuously. Kallis is right though that this leads to further exploitation of workers and nature. But he assumes that this would be the case in any type of society where production would grow.

The second important mistake consists in the fact that Kallis’ association of growth with accumulation is fundamentally grounded on, as I have shown, how capitalism has been organised, not how previous forms of societies were structured and future one could be. In his argument, Kallis sometimes falls back on a-historical understanding of growth that projects into the past and the future dynamics that are essentially capitalist—what Marx criticised political economists of doing. Kallis however, it seems to me, does it not for ideological reasons, but more because his argument is trying to make parallels and generalisations. But there is nothing to suggest that an economy that grows in terms of production—throughput—would necessarily be based on the capitalist form of capital accumulation, because it is the separation of the labourers from their means of production and the imperative of competition that drives capital accumulation and overproduction.

Mainstream liberal economists have often argued for the superiority of capitalism—what they call free market economy—over socialism on the basis that it is a system that does not require planning, but that functions on the free decision of its different agents. It is true that capitalism to some extent is a system without central planning per se. However, this lack of planning is one of the reasons why, on the contrary, it is such a destructive system. Because this lack of planning also means that entrepreneurs within it act based on insufficient and incomplete information of what their competitors are doing in terms of the technology they use, how they organise and pay their labour forces, how they exploit natural resources, etc. They are however compelled to produce at certain costs, sell at certain prices, and reach certain margins of profits to be able to reach levels of profitability that will allow them to remain in the market.

Regardless of the information they can get through their best “market studies”, they have also no way of knowing with certainty how much of their products they are going to be able to sell. They are only able to know what these levels really are once they have put their commodities on the market. In absence of certainty and compelled by market competition, capitalists tend to copy leading firms, invest in technology or processes that increase productivity, re-locate section of the production process, or very often increase production, which has historically lead to falling rates of profits, over-production, and crisis to solve these. This dynamic is the one that Marx theorised in his chapter on “The Law of the Tendencial Fall in the Rate of Profit” in Volume III of Capital.

The consequences for the exploitation of workers and nature are the ones that Kallis and many others condemn, but the root causes of this are not the ones that he identifies. Even though I agree with Kallis that we need to get beyond our obsession with growth, I think that the fundamental problem is not growth. The problem is the need for relentless and continuous capital accumulation that the imperative of competition triggers. It is more the lack of planning or democratic limits on private economic matters, due to the separation of the economic from the political within capitalism, and the imperative of competition that drive these exploitative and destructive tendencies within capitalism. Hence, I disagree with the premise that “growth, whether socialist or otherwise, cannot be greened”.

A socialist society would have to abolish capitalist accumulation, the kind of accumulation that forces capitalists to accumulate, over-produce, over-exploit, pollute etc. because they have to save on their costs, wages, etc. A socialist society—just as pre-capitalist societies did—could grow in certain times and degrow in others—depending on the satisfaction of needs and the available technology. Growth in a post-capitalist society could theoretically be based on a more efficient and sustainable use of energy and resources, on better and more sustainable technologies, such as agro-ecology or the intensive use of recycled materials, labour enhancing instead of saving technologies, social relations that value and facilitate sharing, solidarity, redistribution, etc. because other priorities and imperatives would orient production. It would also not be simply the level of wages that would determine the consumer choices of labourers, but ideally democratically decided and ecologically informed objectives.

This might appear speculative, but it is not totally of the order of the impossible if we abolish the institutions that force enterprises to accumulate in a capitalist way. Theoretically, if we change the social institutions and relations that create a context for over-production and environmentally unsustainable production processes, there is “nothing” that would impede us from orienting Research and Development and innovation toward more democratic and ecologically sound practices and technologies. To be honest, there is “nothing” should really mean there is “nothing other than the power of the dominant classes” that could impede us from organising society under other social forms and relations. And this is not a small detail. Hence, I am not certain that a post-capitalist society would be as green as we would like it and need it to be. The answer to this question can only be found in the realm of the politics that we are able to enact and the class forces that we are able to build and mobilise.

Remains of Chernobyl’s nuclear accident in Ukraine during the former soviet union. Photographer Roland Verant. Source:

Capitalism vs. socialism… or just full democracy?

In a weird sense, my argument about capital accumulation being the target instead of growth rejoins Kallis’ argument that a socialist society to be socialist should be a society where accumulation would be absent. The difference is that I am not certain that increasing the production of certain goods and services—growth—would necessarily have the same consequences in a socialist society than in a capitalist one, because the decisions around production and consumption could have completely different priorities, and more importantly, they would not be submitted to the social imperatives that exist under capitalism. I do not believe that using real existing socialism as a proxy for socialism allows to seriously look at this issue either.

Although Kallis’ justification for using real existing socialism as a proxy for what a socialist society could look like is not completely without foundations, I think that taking real existing socialism as the model is very problematic. First, because though socialist regimes were partly based on Marxism, it could easily be shown that these regimes were never truly socialist, and Marxism was never really the ideological foundation of the regime but simply a state ideology of control.

Second, and more importantly using real existing socialism as a proxy limits our imagination of what socialism could and should be, and leads us into the productivist gaze of real existing socialism. Quoting Jean Marchais is an easy way to show the productivist bias of most Marxists, but does not allow us to seriously look at how socialism could be green. But from my perspective, the other much more important problem of taking real existing socialism as the model with which to compare capitalism is that it does not take the specificity of capitalism—and thus the specificity of real existing socialism in the context of the cold war, arms race, etc—seriously.

What lead the USSR to be so productivist and as destructive—if not more—of nature than capitalism? The work of Simon Clark can provide some elements of answer to this question. In his co-authored book What about the Workers? on the socialist mode of production in the Soviet Russia, Clark showed how what drove economic decisions was not any form of state capitalist logic. What drove economic decisions was the resources and rewards that factories and workers could get their hands on if they successfully duped planners, especially by understating their real productive capacity at the beginning of the five-year plan in order to be able to exceed their allocated targets by the end of the plan, and rip the bonuses collectively and individually.

The whole exercise was a sort of class struggle between factory workers and party and state apparatchiks, with factory managers in the middle, over the allocation of resources, which evidently did not consider the environmental consequences or the energy use to produce the throughput as important considerations. Of course, on top of these dynamics stood the ideological considerations of the confrontation with the West and the arms race, which exacerbated the impact of this system on nature even further. Just as capitalism did, environmental consequences were “externalised” by real existing socialism. But my point is that this was not due to a similar logic, say ever-increasing accumulation or growth, operating in both systems.

The economy of real existing socialism was completely different from the capitalist economy and thus using the same categories to assess it is highly problematic. However, this should also remind us, as Kallis does in a certain way, that the “collective” control of the means of production does not guarantee more environmentally sustainable outcomes. Reverting one element that defines capitalism and replacing it with its opposite will not do the trick. But I am still not fully convinced that growth is the correct target for our critique of capitalism and our discussion of a future more sustainable society.

Our discussion about a post-capitalist society should be about how we disarticulate capitalism by replacing the crucial institutions and features that make it possible: the private ownership of the means of production, the reproduction of alienated labour and nature, the imperative of accumulation, and the separation of the economic from the political. In sum, it should be about how do we build a democracy that democratises all the aspects of life, in particular the private economic decisions that the owners of the means of production make and that affect all of us and the environment.

Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brasil. Source:

Control of the means of production, de-commodification, and autonomy

Talking about what a post-capitalist or socialist society could look like appears to be like talking about impossible things because a lot of the discussion is utopian and hypothetical, but also quite universal. However, there have been countless real concrete and particular experiences of groups organising themselves under different—partly—non-capitalist relations in recent years. My work on the Zapatista movement in Chiapas and the Landless Rural Workers Movement—MST in Brazil analyses the way these movements are able to mobilise and politicise subaltern groups by creating “relatively autonomous communities” with their own social and political norms, their own participatory political structures, and their own uneven and contradictory combination of capitalist and non-capitalist relations of production and exchange.

Though I do not think that they should be taken as models, for the degrowth or any other movement, because in my view the peasant nature of their membership is essential to understanding their achievements and limitations, there are a few general features that are worth highlighting. What is important for our discussion here is that these movements of poor peasants have:

  1. resisted the commodification of land by collectively fighting to maintain or gain the control of their means of production—land;
  2. combined collective defense of the access to land with basically individual/family farming—though some level of cooperation exists;
  3. politicised their grassroots members by establishing and maintaining self-governing participatory structures of power;
  4. managed to temporarily and unevenly control a territory and remain autonomous from the stateby taking on some functions of the state, such as education and conflict resolution, into their own hands;
  5. understood the importance of family and community self-reliance, through a focus on food production, as an initial step—in the case of the MST—or the fundamental objective—in the case of the Zapatistas—of their development alternative;
  6. attempted—not always successfully—to reproduce or integrate agro-ecological methods of farming into their green revolution influenced methods;
  7. increased the political participation of women and unevenly modified the traditional gender division of labour within peasant families and communities;

Both of these movements no longer have the political capacity that they had until the mid-2000s, as they have lost grassroots members or have been forced to retreat because of changing national political circumstances. None of these movements managed to become hegemonic and convince other national subaltern groups to radicalise their struggle against neoliberalism. Both of these movements were going against the current in the respective national context.

The importance of these two very different experiences is however that they show that movements can confront and subvert defining institutions and dynamics of capitalism. These movements have challenged the sanctity of private ownership of the means of production by successfully using a moral discourse that rejects the separation of the economic from the political. The members of these organisations have to a certain degree regained the control over their labour and the productive process, though many of them still need to sell their labour power outside their communities and even migrate abroad. They have partially subverted the imperative of competition by holding land under non-commodified form—though the MST settlers are under the pressure of having to repay the loans that they receive from the state. They have been able to do this by covering some of their subsistence needs—notably food, shelter, mobilisation of labour power—without depending on the market and by tapping into kinship or community solidarity and cooperation.

Zapatistas integral farms. Source: Dorset Chiapas solidarity

In the case of the Zapatistas, indigenous families continued to partially rely on non-capitalist relations of production and exchange for their subsistence, such as exchange of labour for produce, barter, etc. In the case of the MST, inserted within a much more capitalist agriculture, several collective experiences such raising pigs and chickens initially had the double objective of providing use value—meat for consumption—and exchange value—pork and poultry to sell on the local market—, thereby decreasing the need for money of MST settlers for their social reproduction. Hence, both the Zapatistas and the MST settlers were able to be relatively autonomous from the market, though they are all inserted and participate in capitalist societies. Autonomy here does not mean that they live in autarky or in isolation from capitalism. They have simply managed to de-commodified some aspects of their social reproduction.

The ecological impact of these experiments is difficult to assess because both the Zapatistas and the MST settlers have been historically inserted in an agriculture that has been influenced by green revolution fossil-fuel dependent technology. However, the great majority of the membership of both organisations practice inter-cropping that relies substantially on peasant traditional knowledge that tends to depend on maintaining some levels of biodiversity and agro-ecological restoration.

Growth in Zapatista communities does exist and it has the goal of meeting the subsistence needs of the family unit, subjected to demography pressure, through a combination of food and cash crop, as well as wage-earnings. Depending on the circumstances, they sometimes have to grow production by stretching the limit of the balance between production and regeneration as much as possible. They can do this by open up new cultivating areas while leaving other fallow, reducing the time they planned to leave the field lying fallow, testing organic or even small amount of chemical fertiliser/herbicide/pesticide, switching the balance between food and cash crops, mobilising more unpaid family labour, selling their labour power for a wage, etc. They do hence practice a type of environmentalism of the poor and an agro-ecology of the poor, as the lack of financial resources for farming of Zapatistas indigenous peasant pushed them to use less and less chemical inputs and replace them with organic alternatives.

The case of the MST is not as clear, because many of its settlers end up re-inserting themselves much more rapidly and fully within the capitalist agriculture. Most settlers do give importance to the production of food for self-consumption, tend to try to diversify their production, and there are several experiments of agro-ecological farming.

How much of this is replicable world-wide? I do not believe this is what matters because I do not believe that thinking in terms of models is the right way of thinking about a post-capitalist society. What these movements show is that there is space for alternatives to emerge and develop within capitalism, though they are also subject to the contradictions of existing within a capitalist world, as well as the changing correlation of class forces nationally and internationally. Here I believe that the degrowth movement is among the most inspiring at the moment because it is interested in studying, generating and reflecting on a multiplicity of experiences and practices that are emerging or that should emerge to move us away from the current ecological crisis of capitalism.

I hope to have shown that Marxism is still useful for the degrowth movement because of its understanding of what is the specificity of capitalism in comparison to other types of societies. If we want to build a post-capitalist society, we need to find ways to challenge the private ownership of the means of production, de-commodify and democratise the access to and management of natural resources, challenge the separation of the economic from the political, and built collective working class political capacity. I think these general objectives are objectives that the degrowth movement can also agree on.

*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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