Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide

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Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide, Vincent Liegey and Anitra Nelson Pluto Press £16.99
That economic growth cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet has been widely accepted for some time, and Exploring Degrowth is a compendium of every conceivable aspect of this theme. The book’s glossary includes terms such as decommodification, frugal abundance, pluriversity, relocalisation and transhumanism. The realisation of degrowth involves organisations that are nonhierarchical, transformative, consensual, gender-focused, multidimensional and so on. Five hundred occurrences of ‘degrowth’ in the first half of the book is perhaps an attempt to establish it as the generic term for all sustainability movements. With some success, biannual international degrowth conferences have been held since 2008, with Leipzig 2014 attracting 3,500 people from 74 countries. The degrowth movement is more politically explicit than the World Social Forum launched in Brazil in 2001. So, there is much in this book that socialists will agree with.
For example, “degrowth invites you to take account of capitalism’s imperial dimensions and challenge the prevailing system’s hidden human and environmental debts which include exploited and destroyed ecosystems and peoples”. It also says “capitalism is like a spinning top: as it slows, it falls over, its life and function dead”. Socialist politics and trade unionism are commented on favourably in places. Antonio Gramsci is referenced as well as Thomas Piketty, André Gorz and Naomi Klein. Marx is described as “the outstanding reference for theorists”. Elsewhere, traditional socialist parties and trade union leaders are criticised, but for failings that most socialists would also criticise. Anti-capitalist movements generally have little to say about political parties and the state. This ‘autonomism’ is an understandable reaction to frustration with fundamentalist political sects and the chronic failures of capitalist social democracy.
Exploring Degrowth does at least acknowledge the “very real barriers” to the radical transformation of society. But, the implied strategy is to promote thousands of “transitional initiatives” such as cooperatives and ‘lets’ (local exchange trading systems) that will somehow outgrow corporations and states. Given that the capitalist state is the paramount barrier to socialism, what relevance does the book have to the struggle for socialism? The problem of the capitalist state is that it is more than just a passive barrier. It has evolved specifically to stop any threat to the status quo. It cannot be simply ignored. Only a higher form of democracy based on majorityrule in workplaces is capable of supplanting minority-rule by billionaires and capital markets.
That said, the book does provide strong evidence of the potential for a revival of the left. Tens of thousands of movement activists around the world are acutely aware that capitalism has no future: “It seems like the collapse of Western civilization is in full swing.” If this turns out to be the case, there could be a role for individuals experienced in transitional initiatives and, of course, for the sharper political cutting edge provided by socialists.
Dermot Smyth