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,1Marx, Karl. Capital, Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin, 1976. p. 125. 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.”2Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan. The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism. New York: Verso, 2022. p. 34. The 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.3See Marx on primitive accumulation in Capital, Vol. 1, especially chapters 28-33. 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.4Marx, Capital, Vol. 1. p. 762, 927. 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.5Bellamy-Foster, John. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: New York University Press, 2000. 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.”6Marx, Capital Vol. 1, p. 283. 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.”7Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. New York: International Publishers, 1972. p. 51-2. 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”8Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, p. 638. and that industrial agriculture would exhaust the soil and degrade the metabolic conditions of the environment.9Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. p. 409-410. More 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.10Bellamy-Foster, John. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: New York University Press, 2000.The 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.