Necessary complexity is lost with these stark binaries. When it comes to a policy of “more or less,” we obviously need more of some things and less of others; and to be against the “politics of knowledge” hides interesting questions concerning the roles of different kinds of knowledge in social change. If forced to choose, I would agree that production is “more important” than consumption, if this means that it is more useful to focus on large investments than individual consumption. This does not mean that consumption is not also extremely important, both analytically and politically. The binary also hides complex discussions about individual, collective, and productive consumption, the role of consumption with class consciousness, and more. And additionally, of course, consumption and production are not two autonomous spheres.9For relevant discussion, see also Stephen Maher and Joshua K. McEvoy. 2023. “Between De-Growth and Eco-Modernism: Theorizing a Green Transition.” Critical Sociology, https://doi.org/10.1177/08969205231177370.
The core dichotomy on which we are expected to choose sides is whether we are for or against “growth.” But do we mean growth in the use of biophysical or material throughput, in energy use, in human potentials, in capital accumulation, in PPP (purchasing power parity) or HDI (human development index), as a purely metaphysical idea, or as an increase in GDP? Since eco-modernist Leigh Phillips asserts that “the end of growth” is synonymous with “an end to technological development, an end to science, an end to progress, an end to the open-ended search for freedom – an end to history,” it is not surprising that he views those critical of growth as foolish, if not as full-blown reactionaries.10Phillips, Leigh. The degrowth delusion. Open Democracy. 2019. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/degrowth-delusion/?fbclid=IwAR2Enz4-OwF8U6YosDf3UVmeQLO7s-7hdrY_jKNeNBpOAjiigzukA12EW5M. According to degrowthers, in sharp contrast, only the foolish or the malicious could be unconcerned about the fact that a newborn today will grow old in an economy 18 times larger than what we had at the turn of millennium (given 3 percent growth).
Even when confining the discussions to economic growth, there are numerous aspects to consider. One is the source of growth itself. Kate Raworth argues that the obsession with GDP has been employed to justify extreme income inequalities and unprecedented environmental devastation. Is growth determined by how we measure it, or does it stem from capital accumulation, as argued by Schmelzer, Vetter, and Vansintjan? It is noteworthy that even when proponents of degrowth discuss the complexity of “growth” (see e.g., Kate Raworth), and when underlying processes are disclosed (see e.g., Schmelzer, Vetter, and Vansintjan) the analysis nonetheless often moves forward with ‘growth’ as the core concept.11Kate Raworth. Donutekonomin. Sju principer för en framtida ekonomi. Gothenburg: Daidalos, 2018, p. 35; Schmelzer et al. 2022, p. 18; Saito 2022, p. 235.
Then comes the debated relation between ecological degradation and economic growth: Is relative, absolute or necessary decoupling of economic growth from increased environmental pressure possible? Additionally, we have disputes over connections between capitalism and growth, where the school of Steady State Economy envisions a variant of capitalism where population, physical stock/wealth and the utilization of natural resources do not increase, while the economy still progresses technologically and ethically. This stands in stark contrast to the more radical degrowth movement.12The tradition can be traced back to Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. For a contemporary defense see e.g., Ann Pettifor. The Case for The Green New Deal. London: Verso, 2020. Making the picture more complex, the position of “growth agnostics” represents a more nuanced position than those that support or oppose growth a priori. But the problem is ultimately not that it is hard to take a stand in discussions. It is rather that “growth” is the wrong question.13For a good discussion on growth, see Warlenius, 2022.
Rather than the dichotomy of being “for” or “against” growth, we need critical discussions on which sectors, places, and industries should have more economic activity and which ones must be shut down. Establishing new “green jobs” or sustainable infrastructure will indeed result in increased economic growth (as measured by an increase in GDP) in the short term, which obviously cannot be an argument against such policies. These are complex questions, but an ecosocialist movement seeking to mobilize beyond niche intellectual circles must provide concrete, place-specific answers to these kinds of questions.
The Question of Progress in the 21st Century (by Way of the 19th)
Closely related to the growth/degrowth dichotomy is the question of whether or not capitalism has a progressive character. Degrowthers claim that insisting on the progressive character of capitalism becomes increasingly absurd as economic activity further tears the world apart and global warming accelerates; eco-modernists argue that the degrowthers want to force us back to the stone age.
We are, again, encouraged to choose a side. Yet we should be careful with bold statements saying that “modern industrialization,” “new technology,” or even “capitalism”—also concepts often understood very differently—“is” or “is not” progressive or reactionary. In the face of global warming, I appreciate Walter Benjamin for reversing Marx’s idea that revolutions were the locomotives of history; rather, revolutions are attempts by the passengers to pull the emergency brake!
However, let’s be honest: Socialism might represent a break with capitalism, but all revolutions tend to contain different forms of continuity, whether we like it or not, with huge temporal and geographical variations. That with which we break will also always have an impact on the future. Ecosocialism may be a break with capitalism, but it is still a break with capitalism.
One striking aspect of this debate is how often both camps use Karl Marx to support their case. Eco-modernists frequently quote Marx on the system’s progressive character and the necessity of working-class action, with Huber claiming to return to “the core” of Marxism in the dynamics of capitalist production.14For critique, see Suzelis 2022. Degrowthers, on the other hand, emphasize the system’s destructive nature and the need for revolution. Building on new Marxological evidence, Kohei Saito takes things one step further, arguing that the “mature” Marx supported degrowth communism.15Saito 2022.
We should continue to read Marx for a number of reasons. It remains the best starting point for understanding the roots of climate change; we cannot understand global warming without grasping the dynamics of the profit motive, capital accumulation, metabolic rifts, class struggle and class fractions. Marx is also—on a sunny day—the best starting point for changing the world. However, as Marxists, we must remind ourselves that just because Marx said something, this does not automatically mean it is true. We should be careful with the rhetorical exercise of first claiming that Marx “really” meant this or that, and then simply assume that so should we.