Degrowth: Neither Left Nor Right, But Backward

Degrowth: Neither Left Nor Right, But Backward


The word itself is shocking. For anyone accustomed to the assumptions of positive economic growth in public policy and the fear and hardship associated with economic contractions—recessions—degrowth evokes self-destructive policy, if not a return to primitivism.

Yet degrowth deserves a hearing. I hope to show that degrowth is fatally flawed, but its many currents are often misunderstood, conflated, or misrepresented. We should acknowledge what degrowth gets right: gross domestic product (GDP) is a problematic economic indicator; the pursuit of economic growth as a primary policy objective isn’t self-evidently justified in liberal or other terms, despite its near universal presumption; and the pursuit of economic growth has trade-offs and can be taken to absurd extremes.

It’s worth checking in to see what degrowth’s exponents actually say for themselves. For much of the essay that follows I found The Future Is Degrowth: a Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism, by Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan, and Andrea Vetter to be a clear and engaging resource on the various currents within the degrowth movement. Early on they reference a survey especially useful for present purposes.

The largest empirical survey of degrowth proponents, a survey at the 2014 Leipzig conference in which one of us was involved, found that respondents held several positions in common: they largely agreed that economic growth without destruction of nature is an illusion and that therefore industrialized countries need to equitably downscale production and consumption; they also mostly agreed that consequently the rich will have to do without some amenities to which they have become accustomed, and that the transformation to a degrowth society must come from below, will be peaceful, and will require overcoming capitalism and patriarchy. This basic consensus across many different perspectives among conference attendees highlights that degrowth proponents are fundamentally critical of growth, capitalism, and industrialism, want to overcome other forms of domination, and advocate a radical restructuring of the economy in industrialized countries, requiring the selective downscaling of certain industries and production. This clearly distinguishes degrowth from many other political positions—not only from conservative currents (e.g., preserving the status quo, green fascism, or green growth) but also from leftist productivist positions such as most Green New Deals or visions of post-capitalism, which are less precise on the need to transform capitalism, dynamics of growth, global justice, and excess consumption. (FID 16)

Most degrowth thinkers believe economic growth is fundamentally destructive of nature; production in industrialized countries and consumption among the rich must decrease; and importantly that systems of inequality cannot be ignored in bringing about degrowth. In radical yet surprisingly reasonable terms, often appealing to time-honored critiques of capitalism, degrowth presents itself as the only viable alternative. But the reasonable arguments degrowth deploys are not unique to the movement. As we pare away the extraneous elements to get to the core of degrowth, we find an illiberal philosophy fundamentally at odds with human freedom and human welfare.

Gross domestic product

To a first approximation economic growth is captured by the familiar GDP, or gross domestic product, which in principle is all the output of the economy, all the expenditure, or all the incomes. As the economic indicator toward which politicians focus public policy, degrowth addresses the shortcomings of GDP and calls for its abolition as an indicator. But while GDP provides a convenient target, degrowth ultimately opposes economic growth even when growth is more comprehensively conceived.

GDP famously fails to account for environmental degradation or even the value of natural resource wealth. Obliterating a landscape and its associated ecology by mining for coal (and thus increasing greenhouse gas emissions) figures not just as a net positive in GDP but as entirely positive. 

There are further absurdities in domestic and reproductive labor. Work within the home, whether housekeeping or caring for children or elders goes uncounted in GDP, though such activities do count toward GDP when money changes hands. This undercounts the real value generated in the economy, but it also symbolically devalues such labor, insinuating it isn’t worth counting or that if you want to be a truly “productive” member of society you should engage not in domestic labor but the traditionally remunerated kinds.

Health and well-being figure into GDP only when they involve exchange, as in buying medicine, receiving hospital care, or visiting a therapist. The proliferation of unhealthy foods and activities increase GDP once when they are purchased and again (and again) when medical or therapeutic care is bought to alleviate the resulting ills.

But GDP also undercounts some benign things and other things we have positive reason to value. In general GDP was designed for a manufacturing economy. It was relatively straightforward to calculate the total value of the economy when we were producing cars, shoes, washing machines, etc. GDP has become a more awkward metric with the shift to services. Numbers of widgets out the door is easy, but quality is harder to assess meaningfully. How do we assess the output of teachers and nurses, where high throughput might indicate not excellent efficiency but dereliction of care?

GDP also says nothing about the variety of options or the invention of new kinds of goods and services. A shoe is just a shoe to GDP, but there are real quality of life benefits to being able to choose not just between different shoemakers but between designer stilettos, high-tech running shoes, and steel-toe construction boots. Before the digital revolution—made possible by economic growth—there was nothing analogous to computing power. It is a whole new species.

GDP is often a convenient enough metric for both defenders and critics of economic growth, but degrowth is more fundamentally concerned with growth as material throughput, or “social metabolism,” the real material and energy intercourse human beings have with nature. I will refer to “material economic growth” throughout when I’m talking about this more comprehensive phenomenon.

Degrowth favors the abolition of both GDP as a technocratic metric as well as the social objective of material economic growth. But degrowth advocates differ on whether we should consciously pursue an objective of diminishing economic growth, with some degrowth liberals advocating visions of growth-agnostic human development, and leftist advocates demanding degrowth in a very literal sense. All degrowth adherents accept that at least in the short term, some sectors of the economy should experience conventional growth, such as clean energy.

Degrowth currents

“Liberal degrowth” may sound like an oxymoron at first, but degrowth has a rich history in the liberal tradition. John Stuart Mill himself advocated an eventual move toward a “stationary condition of capital and population,” though he envisaged ever progressing improvements in the art of living, culture, and such industry as directly improves the human condition. John Maynard Keynes and John Rawls, both pantheon-stature liberals, likewise advanced versions of degrowth.

Julie Rose, a Dartmouth political philosopher, extends liberal degrowth in the tradition of Mill. For Rose, economic growth is normatively orthogonal to promoting freedom and well-being. While respecting diversity of thought, we should directly foster the freedom and capabilities of individuals—such as health, education, civic equality, safety and environmental quality—without regard to whether economic production or trade are expanding or contracting. Growth may happen by accident, but even in this case we should resist thinking of this as a “happy accident” and simply be agnostic. Expanding human capabilities is what matters.

Degrowth, liberal and otherwise, offers good reason to be suspicious of the normative “hegemony of growth.” We face an ecological catastrophe that can only be seriously met by sharply reducing our social metabolism. Material economic growth requires ever increasing imposition on the natural world. This is most acute with the fossil fuels on which global economic growth has depended since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Yet the possibilities for decoupling energy production—and thus the economy generally—from greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels have turned markedly more hopeful in the last decade, as renewable energy sources are primed to overtake coal by 2025 and as solar power costs continue to plummet. Plans to achieve net-zero carbon emissions are ambitious but no longer pie-in-the-sky, and the realization of big clean energy infrastructure moves are beginning to be demonstrated with President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, to take one promising recent example. 

But even a successful decoupling from carbon would not be enough for degrowth. Other environmental risks have come before—my youth was filled with frightening headlines about the depleting ozone layer—and more will follow even if we successfully decouple growth from carbon, as the rare metals mined for batteries and solar panels introduce their own novel crises. From the degrowth perspective, combatting the environmental havoc wrought by industrial expansion with yet more industry seems like an ever more perilous house of cards.

Other currents of the degrowth movement largely recycle timeworn critiques of capitalism. A society aiming toward economic growth reduces human interactions to soulless commerce, replacing relationships with transactions. The hegemony of growth—capitalism—alienates human beings from their toil as workers are instrumentally treated  as just another “factor of production” in capital accumulation. The relentless pursuit of production has ushered forth a consumer society of mass-produced stuff, cheap, gaudy, ephemeral. That even environmental achievements like carbon decoupling that fall short of a whole hog reversal of industrialization suggests these more old-fashioned critiques of capitalism are more load-bearing than they first appear. Anyone unmoved by these antique criticisms of capitalism will find them no more persuasive under the “degrowth” heading.

Degrowth makes a sharper point by observing how GDP proceeds regardless of real welfare, social equality, or democratic health. GDP increasing apace while inequality yawns, economic precarity deepens, and democracies backslide into oligarchy or worse serves as a vivid reminder that rising economic growth is often decoupled from human flourishing. A moment’s reflection shatters any surprise this might hold; after all, slavery and Jim Crow—regimes constituting full, dehumanizing oppression—coexisted comfortably with economic growth. The picture of languishing amidst growth is captured well by Deva Woodly, a scholar of the New School for Social Research, in a chapter of The Political Economy of Justice:

It is fine, we are to believe, that in the richest country in human history, 1 in 5 children are too poor to have stable housing and seasonal clothing, and that 1 in 12 is in extreme poverty—that is, too poor to eat regularly. For those who are not poor, who make between $45,000 and $125,000, they can expect to see between 30 and 50 percent of their income (depending on geography) go to housing costs that have inflated four times faster than income from wages (which have remained stagnant for 40 years) and health care, education, and childcare costs that have each doubled in average price since 1996. Indeed, according to a 2017 Urban Institute study that surveyed 7,500 people, 4 in 10 Americans are struggling to pay for their basic expenses: food, housing, utilities, and health care. (PEJ 122)

Woodly cites the American writer Alissa Quart, who describes  a “middle precariat” raised to believe their education, training, and middle class social position  would ensure their secure standing in the economic middle class, but instead find themselves “‘fronting’ as bourgeois while standing in a pile of debt.”

To the extent that degrowth strives to sever the association of economic growth from notions like welfare, development, and flourishing, it provides a helpful corrective. But the claim is not only that growth isn’t the whole story, but that it is either (to pragmatists like Rose and Woodly) irrelevant or (from harder left perspectives) positively harmful. For all of the growth-agnostic qualifiers from liberal degrowth, the main thrust of the many currents in degrowth is anti-capitalist, anti-industrial, anti-abundance, and ultimately anti-liberal. For liberal degrowth, this may amount to little more than a quixotic wing of social democracy. But the more literal, thoroughgoing degrowth threatens more than windmills.

Degrowth, unfreedom

We pursue common purposes through collective action when it promotes the general welfare or general security against great dangers. We impose mask and vaccine mandates to ward off a deadly virus, and even that provokes backlashes. We shift industry to wartime footing, commanding the production of weapons and materiel when invasion or humanitarian catastrophes abroad threaten. And yes, we collectively submit to rules and regulations to protect our natural environment. Yet in all of these cases the measures implemented are for some tangible greater good, worth the abridgments to freedom even by the lights of those making sacrifices. Degrowth imposes limits for the sake of limits, on the abstract postulate that extending our frontiers and expanding our capabilities is intrinsically suspect.

People who are socialized in this way, in consumer society, can be characterized as ‘growth subjects’. In analysing ‘growth subjects’, which are often conceptualized according to the model of the bourgeois white man, three characteristics are particularly noteworthy: (1) having the status of an apparently completely independent individual; (2) an orientation towards maximizing one’s own ‘world reach’, or making ever larger parts of the world available to oneself, through for example, travel, consumption, media usage, and so on; and (3) striving for personal assertiveness in order to achieve these goals under competitive conditions. (FID 111, emphasis added.)

On the degrowth view, growth subjects—ordinary people living ordinary lives in liberal democracies—must be taught to narrow their sights and dim their dreams. Why do you want to try new things, ideas, foods, sports, etc? Why do you want to see the world? Why do you want to consume so much media, read so many books, eat exotic foods, explore expensive hobbies? “Want” itself is the object of suspicion. In degrowth Need is king. Degrowth requires a radical reorientation of human life—individual and social—from the liberal openness of dreams and aspirations to the stagnant closet of necessity. Human beings should be satisfied with having their basic needs met, on a generous basis to be sure, and must learn to think of this as true freedom.

Degrowth explicitly commends a bottom-up, democratic social transition away from growth and rejects violence and tyranny in pursuing its ends. But pursued to its logical ends degrowth must turn to central planning and social control. Under degrowth the natural propensity to pursue our wants by truck, barter, and trade is held in suspicion or even contempt. Seeking profit, investing, consuming, and even saving are all pursued to better our own conditions and possibilities or those of our families, friends, or communities. Because the urge to improve our lot in life is so primal and so strong, these activities must be sharply guided or outright controlled.

There is no conceivable, stable scenario where the great preponderance of individuals, business interests, and governments choose to reduce wealth and productive capacity—to become poorer—voluntarily. Individuals will resist this for the sake of their own comfort and the welfare of their families. Businesses will resist decreasing profits and production as an existential matter; they risk going out of business. Politicians will resist imposing limits on growth for basic budget logic, and will resist curtailing consumer comforts lest they draw the ire of their constituents. Governments will shun deindustrialization for fear of losing geopolitical position and security.

A degrowth advocate could readily retort that human “freedom” is just the price that must be paid to avert ecological catastrophe. But even on its own terms degrowth is destined to fail to meet the basic needs it centralizes. Few economic or historical lessons have been harder learned than the inability of centrally planned economies to provide the basic needs or protect the basic rights of its subjects. Lest my charge of central planning be mistaken for red-baiting at the hint of an enlarged public sector, I’ll say now that mitigating climate change demands massive public spending, and a greatly expanded public sector providing “public options” for healthcare, child care, banking, transportation, and other necessities could provide a solid basis for all individuals to live productive and flourishing lives. This may or may not be socialism but it is not central planning. Central planning enters the picture when everyday consumption choices and entrepreneurial ventures are treated with suspicion, presumptively forbidden without special approval from “democratic” councils.

To make [degrowth] possible, economic decisions must be seen as political problems. This means putting the economy in the hands of people and involving more and more people in key decisions – such as the producers in a factory, the neighbours of a farm, the users of a community-owned power plant, or the care recipients in retirement homes deciding what is produced, how to relate to the environment and other economic agents, which services are needed, and how work is organized. (FID 215)

The presumption of freedom—to do what we like, buy, sell, and trade what we like, and toil how we like—is replaced by the presumption of needing approval from authorities. This is the political economy of the homeowners association at the local level, and at the national (and international) level it is picking and choosing whole sectors of the economy that need to be purged for the “common good” of degrowth. For the industries that remain, political powers must choose what products and which producers are truly necessary and which must be cut as wasteful excess. 

Organizing society according to the mercy of official approval will empower busybodies at best, and truly tyrannical personalities lusting for domination at worst. It’s also fertile soil for corruption, as those with connections on the councils will just happen to be the most essential entities. Corruption in turn augurs ineffective governance as public purposes—say, degrowth—are subverted in favor of the leaders’ personal aims.

It’s worth dwelling on what a shift to a command-and-control economy would look like in human terms. Degrowth may involve a universal job guarantee, but choice of work would radically diminish. Do you want to move to be with your family? Do you want to escape a lousy work environment? Do you want to study German literature or economics at college? These sorts of decisions may need approval from planners, especially as five-year degrowth plans begin missing their targets. 

Degrowth imagines a dramatic shift to less work and more leisure overall, but in moving from profit and freedom to choose to strictly necessary labor and wealth reduction, work incentives will plague degrowth. Some degree of compulsion will likely be necessary; in the best case, this looks like compulsory national service. 

Shopping would look different as well. An economy organized around the notion of sufficiency will tend not to produce wide variety. Coupled with the knack central planned economies have for denuding their store shelves of goods, the periodic trip for supplies after degrowth promises to be a dreary experience—where it isn’t replaced with bread lines.

In all of this, human nature will not stop rearing its head. Human creativity will doggedly sprout; black markets will erupt like mushrooms. Doubt about the necessity of the compulsory elements of degrowth will fester, producing constant protests and creative sabotage. To the extent degrowth takes the hard, illiberal track, it will have to crack down in classical authoritarian fashion. 

Growth as freedom

This has been a negative case for economic growth. We should not pursue degrowth because to do so would cost too much in the coin of basic human freedoms. But material economic growth also directly expands human capabilities. Greater wealth, greater productive capacity, and the institutional machinery of innovation multiply the effective options individuals have to pursue their respective projects and ends.  Growth makes freedom possible; freedom makes growth possible. They are inseparable.

It’s trivial to think of inventions that have radically improved human capabilities. A personal favorite is the birth control pill, which has perhaps done more to liberate women into public life and to undermine patriarchy than the entire edifice of feminist thought. But this required a base level of economic capabilities to achieve and to produce to scale. Hormone therapy for trans people might not have been developed had we started degrowth in J.S. Mill’s time. Covid would have hit differently without remote capabilities to continue work (which would be necessary to some extent even in a degrowth regime) and the readily deployed industrial capacity to churn out millions of doses of made-to-order mRNA vaccines. The Green Revolution enabled industrial agriculture to feed billions and genetic engineering promises to continue that tradition. Cutting edge technologies like CRISPR promise revolutionary health advances and as a kind of health platform technology it will likely roll out a whole new industry. 

In all these ways, growth fosters freedom. Yet promoting freedom will also lead to economic growth, even if that is not the explicit policy objective. Philosopher Brian Kogelmann has argued that the standard academic accounts of the causes of economic growth all correspond to policies and institutions we ought to support for the independent reasons of freedom, rights, and good governance.

On one account, economic growth arises from “inclusive” political and economic institutions, where ordinary people are empowered to make more decisions about their lives. Growth tends to be hindered where “extractive” institutions prevail, where wide swathes of the people are expropriated or coerced to labor for the privileged few. Extractive institutions stick around because they benefit already powerful classes, but they’re condemned in the abstract by everyone from degrowth advocates to normie liberals. But we’re likely to see economic growth persist as inclusive institutions proliferate, especially in low income countries.

In a similar vein, social justice conduces to growth. Heather McGhee has compellingly argued that racism has poisoned our political capacity to provide public goods and invest in public services. We fight racism because it is the right thing to do, but doing so also promotes prosperity. The extraction of disproportionate and unremunerated domestic and care labor from women should be opposed because of its transparent injustice. Yet sharing that necessary labor more equitably and developing a care infrastructure can also strengthen the liberal market order. 

On another account economic growth owes primarily to the increasing stock of human knowledge, and thus the freedom of inquiry and resources required to extend scientific and technical frontiers. This particular inheritance of the Enlightenment is invaluable on basic humanistic grounds, even within a degrowth paradigm, and yet well-equipped free minds working on scientific problems are bound to produce innovations which go on to provide the foundation for further technical developments and increased production—or growth.

Degrowth may remain hostile to other suggested roots of economic growth, such as the greater esteem bestowed upon the commercial classes, but modern growth most plausibly obtains from a combination of factors, many of which degrowth would wish to foster for the sake of humanitarian or Enlightenment values. Thus, even someone partial to degrowth should consider an openness to the possibility of growth, or at least embrace the liberal growth agnosticism of J.S. Mill and Julie Rose.

We do not and cannot know what technologies are just around the corner that could be just as important to us as birth control or mobile telephony. We can acknowledge that material economic growth has these attractive features without thereby committing ourselves to maximizing GDP at all costs. As we have seen, GDP alone can mask inequality, precarity, and languishing. We can and should supplement GDP with other objective metrics for public health outcomes, natural resource wealth, environmental quality, and the like. With such measures, it will remain that case that, all else being equal, growth in productive and innovative capabilities represents a positive good that policymakers have every reason to cultivate as custodians of the general welfare.

Parties of abundance

The genuine problems with “capitalism” are already recognized as problems in much of the left and center, and they’re fully analyzable and mitigable without muddying the conceptual waters with a “hegemony of growth.” The good ideas in degrowth (buy-nothing groups, libraries, universal basic services, the whole gamut of social justice causes) are easily apprehended in normal growth-friendly terms. Degrowth adds only rotten ideas: central planning, suspicion and politicization of everyday economic and lifestyle choices, and a profound lowering of human aspirations, no longer to boldly build, explore, and better ourselves but to crouch and huddle in the familiar.

A degrowth exponent might respond that however well mainstream “growth hegemonists” understand the problems of capitalism, those problems persist. It’s a common refrain in degrowth rhetoric that we’ve been trying growth all along and it’s not working. That’s debatable. How well prosperity is shared in the modern world varies with time and place, regime and policy. 

What’s undeniable is that there is abundance, providing for greater numbers of human beings living at far higher standards of living than could even be imagined before the onset of modern economic growth. Degrowth insists on a false binary choice between sharing a shrinking pie and growing that pie for the benefit of the rich at the accelerating pauperization of everyone else and growing peril to the planet. Ecomodernists, abundance liberals, and fully automated luxury socialists insist to the contrary: we should not turn the engines of plenty off, but turn them toward discovering, building, and engineering solutions to the global problems we face.

Degrowth is correct in one trivial sense. The earth and its resources are finite. As we continue to create, innovate, and expand our reach—as we continue to grow—we will encounter new problems, some emerging out of our clever solutions to problems of yore. If we solve climate change by continued growth and technological adaptation then the next problems will be waiting just around the corner, even more fearsome. But this is simply the permanent problem of the human condition. We don’t know the future and how we will meet its challenges. Degrowth imagines it has found a way out of this continuous conundrum. By stopping the economic motor and shifting into reverse, we can solve the problems we know and avoid creating new ones. This is an illusion. The social controls necessary to stop the engines of progress introduce greater problems than they purport to solve. The remedy threatens to kill the patient. Degrowth is an ideology of surrender. Its advocates see the economic and ecological challenges of the modern world and determine they are simply too vast, and we must turn back. 

Against the challenge of degrowth, abundance liberals must prepare for radical solutions to climate change and the global collective ecological problems that will follow. In the case of climate change, that means colossal public investments in zero- and negative-carbon research, infrastructure, and marketable technologies. It means something like a Green New Deal to execute such projects and equitably share the verdancy dividend. And it means a Green Marshall Plan to proliferate green technologies to low-income countries who have contributed disproportionately less to climate change but suffer more of its consequences. Like degrowth, abundance liberals countenance radical action against the ecological permanent problem. Unlike degrowth, we look forward.

Featured image is “The Only Sustainable Growth Is Degrowth” by Paul Sableman.