Degrowth requires class war – and that's a good thing

Degrowth is a good aspiration in the abstract, but deeply contradictory as a political project.

It is formulated in the terms (growth) of an economic system (capitalism) which would spiral into crisis if degrowth were implemented as policy, even moderately and gradually.

It is of course true, and crucial, that unbridled economic expansion is incompatible with planetary boundaries. But macroeconomic “growth” is an aggregate indicator of the expansion of individual firms – expansion necessary for them to survive within capitalism. Firms which cease expanding risk being wiped out in competition, sooner or later.

As a result, actually implementing degrowth requires some centralized power overriding the narrow interests of capitalist enterprises.

The private sector can coordinate perfectly well where its interests are concerned – this is what states do. But on the aggregate level, a market economy which ceases expanding – let alone one which begins contracting – enters crisis, threatening business collectively.

So despite the collective, global, long-term interest in a stable-state world economy, making degrowth into policy means clashing directly with the interests of business, both on an individual level (reining in competition) and collectively (contracting the market).

Clashing with the individual and collective interests of business is of course, Good Actually. But it seems to me that like some approaches labeled “post-capitalism”, degrowth hopes to beat the capitalists behind their backs, without open class war. This is a tragic illusion.

While some representatives of business are certainly conscious of the necessity of stabilizing the climate and preserving natural resources, the owning class as a whole will not willingly relinquish power – which is the political meaning of reining in the market.

The climate crisis is class war. We cannot win it by making believe it is not. We cannot overcome the systemic imperatives of capitalism behind the back of the capitalists. We must openly confront this existential threat to human civilization.