Capitalism dreams of its future

Photo credits Justin Aukema, 2010

Justin Aukema
March 2023

The crisis of capitalism and its “solution”

Capitalism has problems. In its endless quest for capital accumulation and value creation it makes too much of itself thus threatening itself with its own devaluation.

On top of this, as capital expands, it tends to overinvest in expensive machines and technologies and underinvest in labor. But this undermines its own basis for profit when unemployed or undercompensated workers can no longer buy the mass of products being produced.

These two tendencies, overproduction and the falling rate of profit, form some of the biggest internal contradictions of capitalism, contradictions which some predict may ultimately prove fatal.

In response, capitalism desperately adopts various “counteracting” measures. For example, it can purposely destroy capital to try to preserve its own value and to create more room for it to go on expanding. Or it could reduce investment in production and demand accordingly.

This largely explains the situation we find ourselves in today: declining GDP growth, falling profits and wages, and restricted innovation and development.

And it explains the rise of the new ideological paradigm of “degrowth.” Marx once stated that each historical era receives the ideology best fitted to its current mode of production. The rise of degrowth ideology therefore should be no surprise: it’s a direct product of our current economic reality.

Degrowth in other words is simply capitalism dreaming of its future.

The new Left-elite nexus

Degrowth is at the heart of the current Left-elite nexus. It conveniently marries old elite concerns that there are “too many” of us with millennial doomers concerned that we are overshooting planetary “boundaries.” This is why everyone from Prince Charles to Joseph Stiglitz to “eco-socialists” are all on board with the idea. To get some idea of the picture, just look at the list of speakers for the EU’s upcoming 2023 Beyond Growth Conference which includes Ursula Von der Leyen, twenty members of Parliament, and “radical” academics Jason Hickel and Adam Tooze. One of the conference’s stated goals is to “create new and unusual alliances between a great diversity of stakeholders.” Mission accomplished, it seems.

But besides potential shared class interests, what rational explanations could there be for this unholy alliance of the political left and the powers that be?

In fact, each group starts from different reasons even though they end up endorsing the same view.

Elites want to protect both their profits and their power. And if that means that less of us are required, well, so be it. This is a sacrifice they are certainly more than willing to make. Many are convinced that the planet's dwindling resources simply aren’t sufficient to satisfy the growing needs of the global population. And they understand that the more capital accumulates, the harder it becomes to reinvest and reproduce itself.

Meanwhile, many on the Left are terrified of runaway CO2 emissions and planetary destruction. They also think we need to reduce production, consumption, and resource and energy usage.

Now mix in some flowery language about sustainability, equity, fairness and justice, the Global South, decolonization, and hell, even sticking it to “the man,” and, voilà, the left-elite, degrowth soufflé is complete.

No socialist utopia

The major difference however is that while the ruling classes understand the political utility of degrowth, the Left has deluded itself into believing that it is the savior which will lead us to a “post-capitalist” paradise.

But socialism can’t be achieved by limiting “growth.” And it certainly won’t happen by giving even more power to the technocratic elites in charge. Rather, real socialism means giving the working class political power and resources to make their own decisions about how to better orient production toward their needs.

It’s likely that in such a future society, which operates democratically on the basis of need rather than profit, society would produce less useless crap and more really useful stuff.

Yet this will never happen under capitalism. And that’s why the current degrowth movement is so dangerous. By putting the cart before the horse, it takes the focus away from the true route to socialism, class struggle, and misleads us into thinking we can get there by other means, degrowth, more expediently.

Degrowth under capitalist social relations won’t give us a socialist paradise. Instead, it's much more likely to give us a dystopian kind of neofeudalism where private property and wage labor are still dominant, reduced needs are met in kind by near starvation wages, and our political and other freedoms are highly restricted.

As Marx jokingly implied in his 1844 manuscripts, a capitalist economy that produces only “useful things” renders a large part of the population itself useless! Let’s hope that his dire forecast never comes true.

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