Degrowth: the realistic alternative for Labour.

AuthorBurton, Mark H.

Degrowth poses a fundamental challenge to a Labour Party that has yet to decide how far it wishes to transcend - and not merely reform - a growth-oriented, capitalist political economy.

The British Labour Party has seen a resurgence of radicalism since the 2007-8 financial crash. With the collapse of the authority of neoliberalism, a space has opened for alternative ideologies, theories and policies. This space has hitherto been dominated by a post-Keynesian orthodoxy, one that seeks to manage capitalism better, in the interests of 'the many'. This is sometimes accompanied by an acknowledgement that ecological and climate crisis threaten to render any economic and social system unviable. This article introduces the ideas of the 'degrowth movement': an alliance of scholars and activists who link social, economic and ecological justice through a critique of the dominant economic and social models of advanced capitalism. Degrowth poses a fundamental challenge to a Labour Party that has yet to decide how far it wishes to transcend, and not merely reform, a growth-oriented, capitalist political economy.

An alternative socialist tradition

According to Raymond Williams, there are two versions of the socialist tradition. In the long evolution of the British labour and socialist movement, there are many examples of those who did not simply struggle against labour exploitation and for a bigger slice of the cake produced by the workers, but who also resisted the reduction of life to commodity relations. For the Diggers and related groups, these ideas and struggles were present from the earliest stirrings of capitalism. They were present in Chartism, with its Land Plan and mutual institutions, the Socialist League, associated with Morris's critique of industrial society, or the Clarion Club, with its cycle excursions linking socialism and the countryside and its range of alternative cultural institutions. This tradition was never entirely eclipsed. Referring to this legacy, Williams argued that: 'in Britain, identifiably, there is a precarious but persistent rural-intellectual radicalism: genuinely and actively hostile to industrialism and capitalism; attached to country ways and feelings, the literature and the lore'. (1)

As he later reflected, Williams was here criticising the dominant tendency of the Labour Party at that time, for whom socialism was no more than 'a successful industrial capitalism without the capitalists'. (2) Pre-capitalist values, resisting both commodification and destruction of relations with nature, were present in the modern emancipatory project. Yet the dominant force was what Williams called 'productivism'. This was the tendency to assume that the central problem of modern society was poverty, which would yield to production, and more production.

The resilience of 'productivism' is demonstrated every time Labour demands investment-led, inclusive and even 'green' growth. Yet we are faced with a world capitalist system that is pressing up against the finite limits of the natural and physical world. This system ensures the continued reproduction of dispossession and impoverishment. Fetishising growth is not only unrealistic, but deeply unjust: by and large, it is people in the Global South who will suffer most from the environmental devastation associated with continued economic growth. Continued growth on a finite planet is a recipe for international conflict and competition. As Paul Mason demonstrates in a recent article in which he calls for a slowing-down of Chinese growth, the UK Labour Party's dominant productivism is ultimately dependent on a form of national-welfarism. (3)

The degrowth movement

Degrowth is the name given to a relatively new movement that has emerged, largely in continental Europe, over the last ten years or so. However, it has deeper roots, drawing on the field of ecological socialist thinkers such as Andre Gorz and Cornelius Castoriadis, and ecofeminists like Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva. There have now been six biennial international degrowth conferences, the last being in August 2018 in Malmo, Sweden. The next, in 2020, will be in Manchester. The conferences, like the movement, combine scholarship with activism, acting as interventions in local debates: the Leipzig...

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