Economic growth or degrowth – that is not the question
Outgrowing unrestrained socio-ecological recklessness
10 proposals by Hans-Hermann Hirschelmann,
Dipl. Sociologist, Berlin, email@example.com
(1) As we all know, growth of ‘economic wealth’ is neither equivalent to an increase in human welfare nor equivalent to a healthier planet. “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities”. Economic wealth stands for the ability to buy a sufficient amount of goods that are in any way man-made. As we also know, the growth of this ability can be pursued with little regard for the damage that it can do to society or to the environment. This is usually regarded as the effect of wrong attitudes or wrong mind-sets. However, if this were correct, the problem could be largely solved through education and through the good example set by an avant-garde of thoughtful consumers. Unfortunately, the problems have deeper roots.
(2) Our ability to organise world-wide relations of production, consumption, care, development etc. along socially or ecologically rational lines is hindered by structural problems. Human productive forces are now highly developed; technically, it should be possible to bring about social progress by pursuing aims collectively agreed on by ecologically-minded, well-informed human agents. In principle, humanity could be united in the will to create a sustainable “human wealth” that does not undermine the basic goal of sustaining life. Information showing that serious changes are urgently needed is increasingly available to everyone. Nevertheless, not many seem to question the assumption that modern life can continue as a virtually unlimited competition of independently-operating agents pursuing their individual private benefits. Why don’t we recognise that it is exactly this kind of competition that prevents us from setting socio-ecologically rational goals? Why do we still cherish so much the freedom to let our private needs decide what shall grow or vanish?
(3) In order to understand what holds us back from creating more reasonable – and sustainable – wealth, we have to look at the historical rationality of the capitalist mode of production. The almost unlimited competition of institutions whose survival depends on their ability to increase the money that they have invested seems to have done a great job: through a constantly diminishing amount of labour, we can satisfy the growing consumption needs of a growing number of individuals. At first sight, the inhumanity of workplaces such as the assembly lines created by Fordism, and the cultural homogenization resulting from the modern standardisation of production led to a critique of “commodity aesthetics” and of the outcome of “cultural-industries”. But soon precisely this means of impoverishment and estrangement became the materialistic basis of new kinds of socio-cultural and economic diversification. Apparently, we have to concede that, in the end, unfettered economic growth has become the material premise for spreading education, cultural development, freedom, and democracy. The only problem is that our civil progress is in a deadly liaison with modern forms of barbarism. From the beginning, the Age of Enlightenment was double-faced. Modern history allows everyone to see the flip-side of all the civil progress we are so proud of, and the future might get even worse. Although we now seem to have overcome the blatant brutality of colonialism and of slave trading, these days nothing seems to be able to stop the globalisation of existential risks and disasters.
(4) Glittering consumer capitalism, like the caring hands of a Dr. Jekyll, is pushing forward civil progress, but also has the brutal claws of a Mr. Hyde, which are busy undermining our basic means of survival. This is because, in principle, any gain in productivity limits the exchange-value of goods, insofar as their production require less “muscle, nerve, brain” etc (Marx) of a human being. Despite all gains in efficiency – and indeed because of them – our ability to produce an increasing quantity of goods for the same amount of money also means that, for the same corporate profit, more material resources have to be depleted. Similar dynamics are triggered if some competitor decides to further reduce the costs of production through socially or environmentally harmful exploitation. The price advantage so achieved encourages the competitors to reduce their costs through similar methods. This makes ruinous exploitation an economical necessity. As a result, the pioneers of Mr. Hyde’s methods lose their ability to gain extra benefits. They have to pass on price advantages to the consumers, who wrongly see this as a sign of civil progress. Globalisation makes it difficult to stop this race to the bottom. Consumers do not need to face any of the negative effects of non-sustainability – not even a serious rise in their cost of living, as long as new sources of exploitation can be made accessible or more effective methods to accelerate exploitation are developed. Of course, this kind of progress is not sustainable, but it can go for a dangerously long time.
(5) The race for private advantages determines also our sense of justice. As actors of capitalistic global interactions, individuals (and institutions) do not need to justify the preconditions or the impact of their purchasing behaviour. That makes it difficult, or even impossible, to identify the deadly link between social benefit and disaster. As we know from Marx, the capitalistic relationships, among those who produce, care, consume, organise, or develop human sources of existence or enrichment are established “behind their backs” i.e. without them being aware of this. This is why our economic relationships are not presented as relationships between individuals but as relationships to (or even between) money and commodities. Human actions are ruled by practical constraints that are treated as a force of nature. An attractive price seems to be the intrinsic attribute of a product or good. Whether a “nice price” was induced by intelligent innovation, by ruinous exploitation, or by a mixture of both, remains beyond the everyday interest of our cognition. We don’t need to give thought to the fact that a commodity results from the work of other humans, and is the final outcome of nature’s productivity. A decrease in price does not make us question socio-ecological costs, which are paid for by a loss of security, or health, or future prospects on the part of those on the other side of the transaction. Far from it! To get more goods for the same amount of money makes a decrease in price appear as an increase in salary, and therefore as our own achievement. In that way, the famous “invisible hand”[i] of the free market transforms real damages on the one side of a global (re-)production chain into an imagined increase in social justice on its other side.
(6) Public institutions are supposed to build a regulatory framework that leads the economy in the direction of socio-ecological sanity. Unfortunately, their ability to perform this job depends on the business success of the very entities that these public institutions are meant to restrain. Only flourishing economies generate an effectual amount of taxes. Even worse: democracy is a basic precondition of any social progress, but politicians depend on the votes of those whose everyday life automatically and systematically leads them to a narrow view of social justice.
(7) The ability, on the part of social agents, to grow out of their structurally-anchored (and therefore not willfully chosen) immaturity is not limitless. The faculties and resolution that are needed cannot just be created as if by magic. Small successes will require planning, lessons must be drawn from experiences, and achievements must be institutionalised. And yet, we have to bear in mind that both the institutionalisation and the development of the subjective preconditions for socio-ecologically-mindful interactions cannot be achieved at once. Initially, they are bound to be imperfect and contradictory. Compared to grand theories, all step-by-step movements – which have ideas of variable quality, and only gradual success – might appear worthless. But abstract doctrines presenting ideal goals cannot bring about the social transformation that is needed.
(8) Since, currently, the possibility of defining and meeting socio-ecologically reasonable goals is limited by our historical inability to share responsibility, we need criteria for development which, in principle, everyone could accept as “categorical imperatives”. Of course, such advice can only be very general, like the following: basic human interactions should be organised in a manner that enables us to justify to each other the consequences of our actions or desires; therefore, decisions about growth or shrinkage shouldn’t be left to invisible hands. The question is: what enables us to put our minds together?
(9) Today’s most powerful signpost to socio-ecological rationality is the principle of sustainable development. All human beings should have the possibility to live a good life without undermining the basic means of all creatures sustaining life. To survive the constraints for a culture of sustainable development imposed by modern life, we need a historical perspective for a structural change that enables us to step out of the current culture of socio-ecological recklessness
(10) Eventually, a type of international economic order has to be established, based on global sustainability management. This is because we do have to manage the globalisation of a number of serious risks and damages. In particular, certain dangers are increased by the development of new technological powers such as China, India, or Brazil. At the same time, no significant progress has been made in the war on poverty. The technological and scientific potential to solve these problems cannot be set in motion as long as our old ways to do business give us the run-around. Nevertheless, many approaches appear much more promising. We do not need to look for them in the anti-capitalist counter-movements. Attention should be paid to the UN process for defining sustainability goals. Taxes, levies, or fines paid on the use of certain resources can help to steer the economy into a socio-ecologically rational direction. Kate Raworth Doughnut economics shows how to create a society of un-hazardous consumption that does not stretch boundaries of sustainability either socially or ecologically. This “tasty” vision needs to be substantiated by serious figures and scenarios about the possibilities, risks, and damage that we have to face. Science, social associations, and action groups are challenged to limit contamination by non-sustainable conditions of living. So, beside supporting the official UN process for defining sustainable development goals, it ought to work out independently what the sustainability “doughnut“ should look like, and how to build up an appropriate common-wealth “bakery“.
 Karl Marx Capital I – https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-I.pdf
 Karl Marx, Capital I Chapter Six: The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power – https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch06.htm
 Wikipedia entry on relations of production: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relations_of_production
 Besides problems such as global warming, the acidification of the oceans, the depletion of soil, or prime forest and loss of biodiversity.
 Wikipedia entry on Post-2015 Develop. Agenda: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-2015_Development_Agenda