A REVIEW OF TWO GUIDES AGAINST EXTINCTION
The Future is Degrowth: A Guide To a World Beyond Capitalism by Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan (Verso 2022) and Climate Change is Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet (Verso 2022) are Verso’s two most recent “guides” to combating the climate crisis. Both take as foundational premises that we must move beyond capitalism to solve the climate crisis, yet they critique political economy in fundamentally different ways. While The Future is Degrowth argues for abolishing the capitalist growth imperative, Climate Change is Class War argues against degrowth and advocates for a decommodified Green New Deal. Schmelzer et al. focus on Marx’s analysis of capitalism as “an immense accumulation of commodities” that also pushes against metabolic limits,1 while Huber argues for transforming the materials of production but maintaining the expansion of the economy. This review places the two works in conversation, drawing out their differences and highlighting their contributions to a growing body of literature concerned with how to transition out of fossil fuel capitalism on a rapidly warming planet. While it is clear that degrowth needs to reach a wider audience, this review argues that Huber’s audience should integrate degrowth principles into any real struggle for the “ecological proletariat.”
DEGROWTH BEYOND CAPITALISM
The Future is Degrowth: A Guide To a World Beyond Capitalism successfully introduces the reader to the world of degrowth, chronicling the history and development of the concept and pointing toward possible paths for its future, all while making a convincing argument that degrowth is the most equitable and realistic solution to the climate crisis. The Future is Degrowth sometimes reads like a manifesto, sometimes like a glossary of terms. Schmelzer et al. define degrowth as simultaneously a “critique, a proposal, and a politics.”2The book as a whole places particular emphasis on the first point—degrowth as critique—while cycling through the history of the idea of economic growth, as well as degrowth’s ecological, social, cultural, economic, feminist, and decolonial critiques of the growth paradigm. Through critique and the holistic vision presented in its last chapter, the book also gives us a preliminary vision of degrowth politics.
While more work needs to be done to provide “a guide to a world beyond capitalism,” as the subtitle suggests, Schmelzer et al. make a convincing argument that economic growth, driven by the capitalist accumulation process, is the driving force behind the climate crisis. They conceptualize economic growth as a collective myth which was created, in part, to depoliticize the economy, showing how the growth paradigm is a relatively recent policy objective and is conspicuously absent from notions of full employment and stability in the postwar reconstruction period until 1949. The need for Western economic dominance over decolonial and anti-capitalist struggles, they argue, catapulted the growth paradigm to the top of European economic planning, which in turn influenced Soviet productivism as leaders like Khrushchev sought to rival capitalist growth with their own accelerated advances in industrial and agricultural production.3 The authors also link the growth paradigm to Marx’s critique of capitalism’s core processes of expropriation and accumulation through repeated waves of colonial, imperial, and financial expansion.4 Drawing upon Marx’s account of capitalism’s original or primitive accumulation (including capitalism’s deeply-embedded processes of expropriation, land-grabbing, and assimilation of non-capitalist practices into its system), Schmelzer et al. show how capitalism did not merely depend upon these methods to get started—it relies upon them in wave after wave of accumulation as capitalism invests in new and innovative ways to exploit the social metabolism of labor and environmental resources in uneven ways. This process, taken up by the World Bank and European economic planning, is often referred to as “uneven development” or “unequal exchange” and still drives the growth paradigm today.
The book’s ecological and economic critique of the growth paradigm remains strongest when showing how capitalism’s “social metabolism” of ever-expanding extraction, production, consumption, and disposal is killing the planet. This builds upon the undercurrent of ecological thought in Marx’s oeuvre about the metabolism of labor, social metabolism, and limits, which has been drawn out since John Bellamy Foster’s study of the “metabolic rift” in Marx’s thought.5 In Capital, Vol. 1, for example, labor is defined as a process by which the worker “mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.”6 In A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the exchange of commodities is said to produce a social metabolism which gives rise to capitalism’s social relations of production “into which individuals enter in the course of this metabolism.”7 Marx often spoke of capitalism’s tendency to push beyond metabolic limits, warning that the capitalist mode of production undermines “the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker”8 and that industrial agriculture would exhaust the soil and degrade the metabolic conditions of the environment.9More recently, the concept of “social metabolism” has guided a budding field of ecological economics concerned with the effect of material extraction, production, consumption and waste (termed “material flows”) on people and the environment.10The Future is Degrowth integrates this research in arguing that the social metabolism of capitalism relies upon non-circular (non-renewable) flows of energy and material that build up until they are released as waste—most dramatically in the accumulation of plastic waste in the ocean and carbon emissions in the atmosphere.
Just as Marx argued that capitalism as a mode of production inherently ignores metabolic limits in undermining and degrading both labor and the environment, Schmelzer et al. argue that capitalism’s cycle of material flows, under the growth paradigm, has accelerated these processes even beyond what Marx could have imagined. While perhaps in the 1880s we could conceive of some kind of gradual transition in which sustainable growth and social democracy worked hand in hand, this seems unthinkable today, given the acceleration of the climate crisis. And while capitalism generally relies on a growth paradigm that necessarily leads to the degradation of the environment (and the immiseration of human beings), the kind of metabolic rifts that define the petroleum age confirm Marx’s view of capital in the most extreme way—hence the urgency of insisting upon degrowth.
Rather than a utopian vision, then, degrowth is shown here to be a necessary program for avoiding the absolute destruction of the planet as well as a fundamentally Marxist critique: the climate crisis demands that we fix the metabolism of our economy, which is integrated into the social metabolism of labor and exchange. As Schmelzer et al. point out, the growth imperative is responsible for capitalism’s need for continuously expanding output, including the reinvestment of wealth in commodity production, circulation, and consumption. Because capitalism has always depended upon expanded waves of accumulation, the flow of energy and matter must constantly increase to maximize the output of commodities. In addition to imperatives like “planned obsolescence” in the tech industry, the growth paradigm is also responsible for the economy’s ecocidal reliance upon fossil fuels to meet the needs of this constantly-expanding system of production with more and more concentrated energy extraction.
Against the hegemony of the growth paradigm, the profit imperative, and socioeconomic mandates to become “growth subjects” who compete to produce, consume, and then discard the world’s resources, Schmelzer et al. point to a dialectic of sufficiency and care that would prioritize well-being and quality of life. Here the French political currents of decroissance are most helpful in providing further context to these terms, including decroissance dura (in opposition to sustainable development or developpement durable), which highlights the degrowth movement’s foundational pairing of sufficiency and sustainability.11 Degrowth’s principles of sufficiency seek to reduce consumption of raw materials, energy, and land in a way that will prioritize well-being and equitability. Here the authors also integrate the Marxist concept of alienation—as did the French situationists—to show how degrowth also seeks to de-alienate people from their labor, from each other, from culture and, most importantly, from their environments.
In showing how degrowth synthesizes these traditions with Marxist, feminist, and decolonial critiques, Schmelzer et al. present degrowth as the only antidote to capitalist alienation, exploitation, imperialism, and extinction, because it is fundamentally a program of anti-primitive accumulation (and therefore, anti-capitalism). In this way, many tenets of the vision stand contrary to social-democratic and productivist arguments of renewable energy transition and green growth, which would keep the growth paradigm in place by simply replacing fossil fuels with “green jobs” or electricity. Schmelzer et al. term this position one of “progressive productivism.”12
Here, the book shows how the assumption of the growth imperative is still so pervasive in dominant climate proposals of economic reform that they all fail to account for the root problem: the capitalist accumulation process, which drives GDP and economic expansion. As such, all “green growth” proposals from the various iterations of the European Green Deal to the American Green New Deal will continue what Schmelzer et al. call the growth paradigm’s “materialization” of capitalism’s dynamic of accumulation by putting growth at the center of its social metabolism.13
In the world of policy, this debate tends to play out in arguments over “decoupling,” wherein dominant policy proposals offering solutions to the climate crisis tend to rely on the promise of “green growth” to accelerate the production of—and profit from—green technological initiatives, while “decoupling” them from environmental destruction. As Schmelzer et al. argue, “criticism of these claims” is the “central starting point for degrowth” because every policy proposal which fails to cast away the capitalist growth imperative will in fact continue to drive environmental and economic harm.14 The degrowth criticisms of decoupling are decisive; as Jason Hickel has recently demonstrated, there is not a shred of evidence supporting the idea that decoupling environmental destruction from economic growth can actually happen.15 And, as Schmelzer et al. argue, the growth imperative cannot be fixed or reformed because it—by definition—depends upon its own intensification and acceleration.
Because degrowth is presented as a “holistic view” with room for a pluriverse of action, the authors argue that a combination of convivial technology, cooperative banks, democratization of energy and public control over the economy, and the promotion of well-being as the goal of a more intentionally planned economy can work to dispel the “collective myth” of the growth paradigm.16 Convivial technology, for example, examines how technological extraction and production could shape relationships between people in non-exploitative ways, includes principles of accessibility, technological literacy, open source licenses, and public funding to counter profit-driven advances and planned obsolescence.17 We need such guiding principles to help us ask whether green tech or “electrifying everything” is sustainable, efficient, and meaningfully addressing the task at hand while balancing the social metabolism of the economy.
However, the fact remains all of this would seem to require a comprehensive global policy of degrowth and a hegemonic superstructure to support it, and it is not always clear how degrowth advocates imagine the shift from municipal politics to a global policy that would put its recommendations in place. By situating this book in relation to Huber’s recently published polemic, we can begin to see how class struggle politics of an “ecological proletariat” might be expanded to achieve the aims of degrowth. Although Schmelzer et al. do cite a multitude of tactics including strikes, direct action, and the building of democratic cooperatives and solidarity movements, the reader may be left with the sense that our best hope for combating the climate crisis is in global policy reform.
THE ECOLOGICAL PROLETARIAT AND DEGROWTH
In contrast, Matt Huber argues in Climate Change is Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet that we “do not need better environmental policy ideas to solve climate change; we need a stronger working class,”18which raises the question of how to achieve degrowth policy without hegemonic power.
More than other prominent green-growth manifestos, Huber’s book stands out for its (mis-)characterization of the degrowth movement and concomitant mischaracterization of the relationship between production and consumption in capitalism’s global division of labor. However, Huber also adds an element of class struggle praxis that might more productively speak to the degrowth movement by identifying the “ecological proletariat” as a global working class with the greatest stake in securing a just and sustainable future.
At the beginning of the book, Huber defines the working class as anyone who is alienated from, or has a lack of control over, the ecological conditions of existence. This is a promising start that might link the global proletariat (from peasants and subsistence farmers to miners in the global South) to Huber’s program for class struggle, while maintaining the degrowth movement’s call for equitable distribution. For a moment, Huber discusses the massive expansion of the global proletariat torn from the ecological means of subsistence since the 1980’s. When it comes to how to organize and how to win the fight against climate change, however, this “vast majority” invoked by Huber’s theorizing of the global “ecological proletariat” falls away.
To actually win the “class war” against climate change, Huber argues that political organizations need to step in and build class struggle for “positive and easy-to-understand material gains.”19 For this reason, organizing efforts should be directed toward building majoritarian movements that can seize state power to wield its fiscal capacity for a massive public investment program to build a new energy system that can “electrify everything.”20Quoting Stephen Maher and Leo Panich, Huber sees such a program as ideally “widen[ing] democratic control over investment” and “fight[ing] to extend social control over production.”21 To win, however, the working class has to “believe” that winning a dignified life is possible and has to have enough power to demand material gains.
It is worth pausing here to note that, in a book that engages with electoral strategy and worker strikes as its primary avenue of class struggle, “class war” is very much a metaphor. It is also worth noting that notions of widening democratic control over investment and fighting to extend social control over production—which is what Huber argues the working class should do—are also fundamental tenets of the degrowth movement. Yet Huber’s main argument in Climate Change is Class War is that the climate crisis is a problem of production rather than consumption, necessitating a “class war” against the owners of the means of production which can only be waged by organized workers in the energy sector.
Huber argues that between the “real” working class, which has a stake in stopping the disastrous effects of climate change but needs to be convinced, and the ruling class, which has a stake in continuing to develop capitalism in ecocidal ways, lies the professional-managerial class (or “PMC”), a term popularized by Barbara Ehrenreich which has taken deep root among Jacobin readers, who are also likely Huber’s target audience, due to his focus on a Green New Deal for the United States.22 This audience is more likely than others to be familiar with the uses (and abuses) of this term, most notably in Catherine Liu’s Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class, which has been popular among Jacobin readers. Building upon many of Liu’s self-admonishing critiques of this class, Huber argues that the PMC is the class most likely to want to stop the climate crisis but also least effective in bringing about change.23 Huber, himself a member of this class, argues that the PMC sees contemporary climate struggle in terms of changing consumption patterns. This is somewhat disingenuous, given that the climate strikers Huber cites are well aware that changing their consumptive habits will not stop climate change. But because the professional class neither owns nor controls the means of production, Huber argues that the students, activists, NGO’s, academics, scientists, government staff, and others leading the climate movement might be at the forefront of the current discussion, but cannot effectively put their goals into action.
Huber is right to critique the neoliberal NGOs and professional class for spectacularly losing the climate fight up to this point, and to note that climate struggle has largely focused more on building knowledge about the ecological crisis than political power. Yet he uses this critique to target the “anti-system radicals” of the climate movement,24 and in particular the degrowth movement, which allegedly advocates a “politics of less” and “revolutionary austerity.”25 According to Huber, this is the worst block of the PMC class because they get closest to critiquing capitalism but make the mistake of alienating the working class.
However, Huber’s characterization of the degrowth movement as one of “revolutionary austerity” is a strawman, and so his attempt to reorient the movement towards a “working class” struggle against both the capitalist and professional classes avoids wrestling with degrowth’s carefully integrated cultural, feminist, industrial, decolonial, Marxist, and ecological critiques that center the global precariat class. This failure to engage seriously with degrowth contributes to the shallowness of Huber’s solution; he does not notice that there is something odd about invoking the rhetoric of “class war” and the global “ecological precariat” to describe a normative organizing strategy which identifies already-organized stakeholders as part of a potential change-making political bloc in the United States.
It is true that the term “degrowth” has met much resistance because of a common perception—uncritically repeated by Huber—that degrowth means imposed austerity. Yet, as the authors of Degrowth is the Future convincingly show, recessions and austerity are not objectives of the degrowth position, but exactly the opposite; they are consequences of the capitalist growth imperatives that degrowth aims to abolish. Without an intentional scaling back of the economy, the economy itself will continue to cycle through boom, bust, crisis, austerity, inflation, and recession. Schmelzer et al. argue that we can wait for the system to continue to impose its logic of economic growth—which is the logic of ecocide and extinction—or we can change the internal logic of the system itself.
Although Huber might appear to go back to a more classically Marxist understanding of the dynamics of capitalist production, he employs a surprisingly shallow concept of production; he does not effectively integrate the full dynamics of the system of capitalism as a mode of production and consumption, including its tendencies toward crisis and overproduction and the fundamental relationship between production and reproduction. As Marx demonstrates in Capital, the capitalist mode of production necessitates continuous accumulation on an ever-expanding scale, which includes continued investment and reinvestment in productive expansion and consumption.26 Huber elides the interplay between production and consumption to develop his argument about climate change as a problem of production. Most Marxists would find this distinction inadequate, given that all production and all circulation consumes commodities, often transforming them into another stage of productive consumption for capital before final consumption by individual consumers. Consumption and production cannot be considered in isolation from one another any more than production and reproduction should be theorized as isolated dynamics. Whereas degrowth integrates the Marxist feminist critique of patriarchal capitalism, underpaid and unpaid care work, subsistence work, and cultural critiques of the reproduction of capitalist subjects, Huber places production on such a high pedestal that his analysis is blind to larger, more contradictory, and more interdependent dynamics of the system of capitalism itself. It is a mistake to reduce capitalism to a simple power dynamic between capitalists and workers at the point of production.
Finally, in addition to side-stepping degrowth’s integration of cultural, feminist, industrial, and Marxian critiques of worker productivism and uneven development, Huber also targets degrowth for its anti-imperial and decolonial stance. Huber takes issue with the North-South critique of capitalist development, which argues that the global division of labor (and the history of capitalist development) necessarily entails the exploitation of cheap(ened) Southern labor, energy, and raw materials by the more wasteful and consumptive economies of the North. This is simply a fact supported by decades of literature on uneven development and colonial drain,27 but Huber argues it is overblown in the climate movement due to too much focus on “climate justice.”28 For Huber, because the “working class” has to be strong enough to make demands, the idea of a “just transition” is problematic because “many justice-centered approaches lack a theory of power that explains how groups most affected by toxic pollution could build a coalition capable of reversing these trends.”29 Whereas the degrowth movement places equitable distribution, reparations, and decolonial climate justice at its center, Huber argues that “coastal fishing communities or drought-stricken peasant farmers” who might be most affected by climate change are “defined by their social weakness.”30 Here, Huber’s previous formulation of the “ecological proletariat” disappears completely.,
Only workers at the point of production, Huber argues, possess enough structural power to enact change. And because Huber is focused on Green New Deal policy in the wake of the Sanders campaign, the analysis narrows to include only workers in American trade unions at the point of the production process in the energy sector. The question of how to get electric trade union workers on the side of total energy transition is placed front and center in Huber’s work. As Huber notes, this is a more conservative-leaning class who is not as convinced of the urgency of climate change, but who could be convinced based upon their own interest that we need to “electrify everything.”31 Yet, this vision of class struggle could fail not only in its aims for energy transition, it is likely that even “winning” these demands could continue the cycle of ecological and economic harm at the core of capital’s social metabolism.
AGAINST EXTINCTION ON A WARMING PLANET
Although Huber’s final recommendation for class struggle praxis tends to gloss over degrowth’s cultural, industrial and de-colonial critiques of capitalism that might engender solidarity across different class interests, and focuses too minutely on unionized workers in the electric sector, his preliminary theorizing of the class struggle of a global ecological proletariat (should it continue to be developed), addresses a genuine need to address class struggle in degrowth politics.
While Huber sees trade union workers in the electric sector as the only potential saviors for the climate crisis, the authors of The Future is Degrowthstake a political position much more embedded in a vision of cooperative, democratically-controlled infrastructure that would scale back the power and profit of corporate entities, place a cap on income, and redistribute those funds, as well as provide one last “green stimulus” that would favor development more particularly among the Global South, which is one of the few places where growth should be encouraged. To do this, class struggle of the “ecological proletariat” must meet degrowth halfway.
Huber’s provocation that localist visions of public power represent “a contradiction between the scale of the climate crisis and the imagined scale of social change” rings true when applied to the municipal politics of degrowth, which would necessitate a massive redistribution of funds from a superstructure far above that of municipal governments and the “left libertarianism” from which the degrowth movement draws.32 To achieve degrowth, Schmelzer et al. follow Erik Olin Wright in recommending interstitial strategies that can create cooperative economic practices against the logic of capital, including “non-reformist reforms” that seek to democratize the economy and build a counter-hegemony through strikes, blockades, and alternative institutions like citizen assemblies and autonomous municipalities. Although Huber’s final chapter on “species solidarity” rather hastily moves back to the global precariat to argue for global class struggle for public provision, here Huber and Schmelzer et al. align briefly.33 Both are in favor of work stoppages, strikes, and a variety of organizing tactics for decommodifying public provisions, although Huber reiterates in his last chapter that direct action should still focus on only one sector—electricity.34
But could we open up Huber’s ideas of class struggle to include the “ecological proletariat” as a global class? The Future is Degrowth makes space for trade union organizing and the political education of which Huber speaks, but uses concepts like buen vivir and convivial technology to tie together its “pluriverse” of strategies and crisis points. These will all have to be achieved through class struggle. Degrowth also emphasizes the interconnectedness of human beings and the nonhuman world, asking what effects technological advances have on other living organisms, not just in their production, but in their entire life-cycle and future consequences. The interdependence of our social metabolism is an important tenet of this vision, and one which Huber fails to integrate, because he does not see climate change as a threat to the planet—just to human beings. Interdependence is a key term in Indigenous climate studies, most notably introduced by scholars like Kyle Whyte, who point to the same deep history of the climate crisis as embedded in settler-colonialism and capitalism.35Degrowthers know this, which is why they argue that understanding the history of primitive accumulation is so important to understanding the climate crisis’s causes and solutions.
In keeping the repair of the climate and a more convivial social metabolism at the center of its theory, degrowth advocates for closed-loop economies where raw materials are recycled, repair is accessible, and degradable materials can be returned to the ecological cycle. Yet, as the authors acknowledge, to fulfill what The Future is Degrowth promises (“a guide to a world beyond capitalism”) more work is needed to expand and implement the degrowth vision. As anyone interested in the climate movement knows all too well, the task at hand is to “be realistic and demand the impossible.”36While Schmelzer et al. are right to push beyond US-focused Green New Deal and green growth discussions, Huber is right to point out that we need more power behind our demands.
The Future is Degrowth persuasively argues that degrowth is the most realistic solution to the climate crisis, as well as the most just and equitable. So what class struggle praxis is needed for degrowth right now? While Huber’s title, “Climate Change is Class War,” falls short of describing how to wage an actual class war, Schmelzer et al. spend a bit more time critiquing growth than providing a guide for a world beyond capitalism. The question of how we can successfully organize the struggle for the future of life on this planet will not be answered by any one manifesto and appeals to pragmatic politics are not the same thing as political practice. But in at least one respect, Matt Huber is correct: climate change is class war. So how can we more effectively combine degrowth visions with internationalist class struggle?