The trouble with “economic growth”

Part 1 of an edited version of a talk given at the Communist University, 26 August 2012, by Gabriel Levy. Part 2 is here.

The point of the talk is to consider what a socialist response to discussions about “economic growth” and “sustainability” might consist of.

Ideas about “economic growth” and “sustainability” not only figure prominently in discussions between governments, companies and mainstream economists, i.e. the ruling class. They are also widely used in the labour movement and other anti-capitalist movements. The TUC protest march last year, the biggest in recent memory, was for “jobs, growth and justice”; the TUC leadership advocates a “green economic policy”; and there is a campaign supported by much of the left wing of the labour movement for “one million climate jobs”.

But these ideas thrive far beyond the trade union bureaucracy. Since the economic crisis began, in all the very varied social movements – from north Africa, and Spain, to the student protests and “occupy” movement here – discussions have been heard about types of economic growth that favour equality and sustainabilitity, or on other hand about prospects for “no growth” capitalism.

The impact on these movements of socialist ideas has been minimal. This is not so surprising, not because people are not interested in socialist ideas, but because of gaps and contradictions in those ideas and in the ways they are often presented.

One of the big gaps concerns the socialist response to environmentalism. In most cases, the response has been at a crude political level. Socialists either attack environmentalists for believing that something can be done about environmental issues under capitalism, or try to convince environmentalists that such issues can only be resolved by overthrowing capitalism.

However such responses do not address the underlying theoretical issues – in the first place, that the word “environmental” is applied to a range of problems, many of which are not environmental at all, phenomena that are better understand as ruptures or disruptions in the relationship between human society and nature – a subject about which socialist theory has a great deal to say.

For example: a company digs a coal mine and somehow poisons people, animals and plants living nearby. This is commonly described as an environmental problem. But what is going on is a human activity that in some circumstances and on some levels might be 100% reasonable – getting fuel resources from nature to produce heat and light – being conducted in an alienated, inhuman way under capitalist social relations.

The problem is that labour, that is the human activity of taking things from nature for sustenance and to provide the basis for culture, has for several thousand years been conducted under alienated, and alienating, social relationships.  Karl Marx very clearly saw humans’ alienation from each other, from the products of their labour, and from nature – three different types of alienation – as being integrally connected. I think he was right. But many socialists today do not take this approach.

My basic argument is: what is required is not somehow to incorporate so-called environmental arguments into socialist ideas –the approach often adopted – but to develop our understanding of social relations and the way that they deform the labour process and the relationship between people and nature.

Obviously the talk will not put all this right. But it will identify some of the gaps in socialist thinking, with particular reference to “economic growth” and “sustainability”. The second part of the talk will refer to the discussion of “limits to growth”, and what these “limits” mean for energy and agriculture.

“Economic growth”

Here are three points to start with.

1. About “economic growth” as defined by governments, international financial organisations and mainstream economists. We probably agree on:

(a) The indicator they use, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), more accurately reflects capital accumulation than physical economic activity, let alone people’s well being;

(b) The univeral association by politicians of people’s well-being with economic growth and rising GDP is completely ideological;

(c) The so-called “green new deal”, i.e. state support e.g. for renewable energy and other technologies that reduce carbon emissions, solves nothing fundamentally.

2. There are various economists who advocate “no growth” strategies for capitalism. The most recent is Tim Jackson. The most original and significant is Herman Daly, a former chief economist at the World Bank, who has been writing for many years about what he calls “steady-state economics”. These writers take as given capitalism and the capitalist market; they want very wide-ranging regulation to send it down a “no growth” path. I will not discuss these in detail unless someone wants to come back to them.[1]

3. What is more important in a meeting such as this is so-called socialist “growth”.  I will argue (a) that twentieth-century socialism has been dominated by assumptions about so-called socialist economic growth, and (b) that in the twenty-first century such ideas should be junked, i.e. there is no such thing as “socialist economic growth” and socialists should not go round talking about it.

Prior to the 1920s, ideas about economic growth – in the sense of the expansion of industry and of other forms of economic activity – played almost no part in the socialist or workers’ movements. Ideas about “socialist growth” were developed by social democratic parties who participated in, or led, governments in capitalist countries, and by Stalinist leadership of the Soviet Union. A very good article explaining this history was published recently by Gareth Dale in the International Socialist Journal.

In the Soviet Union, the prioritisation of economic growth was justified in Marxist terms, and throughout the twentieth century was seen as a model, both in Maoist China and by many other nationalist governments in developing countries.

Obviously, in the period after the Russian revolution of 1917, the capitalist economic development of Russia was way, way behind that of western Europe. Scarcity was overwhelming. Economic policy discussions centred on the need urgently to industrialise the country. The strategy of putting the economic burden on the peasantry, in order to make this industrialisation possible, was rationalised by Evgeny Preobrazhensky with his theory of “primitive socialist accumulation”.

For the purposes of this discussion, the issue is not what alternatives there were in that impossible situation, but the fact that as a result of this historical process socialist ideas became completely distorted – and that was even before we got to the victory of Stalinism and the five-year plans, which involved the destruction of millions of human beings and the use of slave labour in the name of so-called socialist construction.

The question now, I repeat, is the deformation of socialist ideas. The Communist Manifesto defines communism as “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”; by the time we get to the early 1920s, it had become “Soviet power plus electrification” (Lenin). The idea of state-owned industry as the basis for socialism was all-pervasive – be it among social democrats who supported nationalisation in the capitalist countries, among Stalinists, or among Trotskyists who denounced Stalinism and the policy of “socialism in one country” but still hung on to the idea of this “degenerated workers’ state” as a stepping-stone to socialism.

We can argue about the extent to which “primitive socialist accumulation” or “Soviet power plus electrification” might have been relevant to the circumstances of the time. I will not do so now. Now, I want to give three reasons why those discussions are very much in the past:

First. capitalism is at a very different stage of its history. The expansion of industry and of capitalist economy, which Preobrazhensky believed the USSR had to replicate on the backs of the peasantry, has now gone far further than anyone in the 1920s could have contemplated. The socialists at the time all believed that, by the 21st century, capitalism would either have descended into forms of barbarism, or that it would have been overthrown internationally. It has not been overthrown; barbarism continues to develop within it. Certainly none of the socialists of that time would have believed that capitalism could have gone so far without producing a successful socialist revolution.

One consequence of this: we have to redefine the role of scarcity. In the Russian revolution, clearly, scarcity played a big part in cutting down the options available. Today, while many countries still suffer from terrible scarcity, I think the character of scarcities has changed. 

Measured in terms of urbanisation (which is related to but not the same as proletarianisation) more than 50% of the world population now live in cities, i.e. a higher proportion across the whole world than there was in western Europe – let alone Soviet Russia – in the 1920s. Across almost all of Africa, Asia and Latin America, urbanisation has now gone far farther than it had in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Measured in terms of technology, millions of people in the poorest countries have access not only to electricity but also to mobile phones, computers and the internet.

Think about Marx’s proposition that the productive forces – that is the labour applied to the natural resources and the instruments used – as they develop, increasingly come into conflict with the social relations of production. Clearly that tension is today far greater than ever before. For young people in north Africa in the 2010s – who are spearheading the struggle for social change – ideas of socialism that start with the conceptions around in the 1920s about socialist growth, or socialism “completing the tasks of bourgeois development”, are irrelevant and counter-productive.

Second. The rapid expansion of the capitalist economy in the decades since the 1920s has increasingly brought it up against natural limits within which it operates – the limits e.g. to the amount of air available into which you can pour carbon dioxide generated by burning fossil fuels, or to the amount of freshwater in the places where it is needed for agriculture. (I will return to this in the second part.) The amount of material stuff used by the economy, and the consequent impact on the natural environment, really started increasing exponentially in the 1950s; these problems did not exist in anything like this form in the 1920s. To my mind this is a type of scarcity – different from that in the early Soviet Union, in that it does not pose the type of immediate threat to life and well-being, but poses a potentially greater threat over the long term. This needs to be theorised.

Third. While the Soviet Union has collapsed, Stalinist state socialism in China has evolved into an essential support – perhaps the essential support – for capitalist domination internationally. This is a result in practice of so-called “socialist growth”.

Some different starting points

So those are arguments against the idea of “socialist growth” as a starting point. What then are the starting points? In my view, these have to do with reappropriating Marx’s view of the productive forces and social relations of production. We have to work out a view of the transition to communism as: a transition that completely remakes the relationship between human beings not only in terms of the social relations of production, or the ownership of the means of production, but also in terms of (i) the way that the productive forces – that is, both people, and the instruments of labour (tools and machines) that they use to take what they need from nature – are developed, and (ii) types of consumption. This is a side of communist thought that has largely been lost sight of during the twentieth century.

Marx, in a chapter of Capital about the impact of capitalist production on agriculture, including the division between town and country and the disruption of the nitrogen cycle, wrote:

In agriculture as in manufacture, the transformation of production under the sway of capital, means, at the same time, the martyrdom of the producer; the instrument of labour becomes the means of enslaving, exploiting, and impoverishing the labourer [my emphasis, GL]; the social combination and organisation of labour-processes is turned into an organised mode of crushing out the workman’s individual vitality, freedom and independence.[2]

Marx is arguing that we not only have the tension between productive forces and social relations containing the potential of revolutionary change – that tension is not something static, it’s not a spring waiting to be let go in an explosion of socialist revolution – but also under capitalism the instruments of labour “enslave, exploit and impoverish” the labourer.  There is nothing intrinsically good, intrinsically progressive or pro-socialist, about those instruments of labour and their development through technology. Engels, in Socialism Utopian and Scientific, makes similar points:

In making itself the master of all the means of production to use them in accordance with a social plan, society puts an end to the former subjection of men [and women, we would add, GL] to their own means of production. It goes without saying that society can not free itself unless every individual is freed. […] productive labour, instead of being a means of subjugating men, will become a means of their emancipation.

He was arguing that the relationship between people and the tools they use must be transformed.

The socialist writer Andre Gorz took this discussion further. I think that, although some of what he wrote in his later life was problematic, his work in the 1970s and early 1980s on people, the tools they use, and nature, is important. In his essay “Ecology and freedom”, he wrote:

Growth-oriented capitalism is dead. […] The development of the forces of production, which was supposed to enable the working class to cast off its chains and establish universal freedom, has instead dispossessed the workers of the last shreds of their sovereignty, deepened the division between manual and intellectual labour, and destroyed the material and existential bases of the producers’ power.[3]

This view of the productive forces is clearly at odds with the idea that they are somehow inherently progressive, the basis for socialism. This is a development of Marx’s argument that we should think about. Gorz continued:

Societal choices are continually being imposed upon us under the guise of technical choices. […] capitalism develops only those technologies which correspond to its logic and which are compatible with its continued domination. It eliminates those technologies which do not strengthen prevailing social relations, even where they are more rational with respect to stated objectives. Capitalist relations of production and exchange are already inscribed in the technologies which capitalism bequeaths to us.

This is a quotation from a longer work, which I hope you will all read – and I am using it to emphasise one particular aspect of the problem of labour in capitalist society. I am not suggesting – and I don’t think Gorz was either – that the development of technology is somehow uniform. For example the internet, arguably the biggest innovation of the last 20 years, supports democracy, in the widest sense of the word and is potentially at odds with capitalist social relations. But there are many other technologies that are best explained along the lines of Gorz’s argument. For example, technologies employed in agriculture clearly favour big agribusiness and are used to dispossess – by the hundreds of millions – small farmers; and any number of industrial technologies prioritise types of production that produce profit, that produce unneeded consumer goods, and that further smother workers’ creativity.

There have been Marxist writers, classically Harry Braverman, who looked at the labour process in capitalist society. But Braverman’s book[4] was published 38 years ago, and I wonder how far socialists, collectively, have really taken these issues since then. There were discussions in the 1970s and 1980s – for example I have recently discovered for myself material that was published at that time in Radical Science Journal, about science, technology and socialism – and these need to be reworked for the present.

Here’s some more by Gorz, that I hope we will all think about:

The struggle for different technologies is essential to the struggle for a different society. […] The inversion of tools is a fundamental condition of the transformation of society. The development of voluntary cooperation, the self-determination and freedom of communities and individuals, requires the development of technologies and methods of production which:

— can be used and controlled at the level of the neighbourhood or community;

— are capable of generating increased economic autonomy for local and regional collectivities;

— are not harmful to the environment; and

— are compatible with the exercise of joint control by producers and consumers over products and production processes.

Without this transformation of technology, Gorz argues, people calling themselves socialists can seize state power but will not fundamentally change “either the system of domination or the relations of men and women to each other and to nature”.[5] And as well as these issues about the instruments of labour, there are issues about consumption: the use of workers, particularly in the richer countries, as consumers of piles of pointless stuff, the production of which is driven by capitalist accumulation.


• I see no evidence for the assumption that socialism implies an expansion of the economy or an expansion of production. It may well imply more production of some stuff, and less production of other stuff. But the main point now is that it certainly implies the overthrow not only of the ownership of the means of production, but also of the relationship people have with these means of production.

• There are no quick fixes at the level of politics. Some socialists campaign for “one million climate jobs” as a means of trying to push capitalism to minimise its impact on people and on the environment. I think this is based on a view of socialism in which real struggles by real working-class people play no part. We can support workers who take action to defend their jobs, without pretending that the road to socialism is opened by the creation of so-called “climate jobs”.

• A picture of the transition to socialism needs to be developed that includes a critique of the labour process – not just at the workplace level, but at the level of society – a critique of the way that capitalism distorts the instruments of labour and destroys the creative potential of people who use those instruments.

• A critique needs to be developed of the way in which the capitalist economy confronts the natural limits. I consider this to be a form of potential scarcity, but a very different type of scarcity that socialists were dealing with in the 1920s.


Among the questions asked, there was one about: should we always support workers who are fighting to defend jobs that are damaging and dangerous to their health and to their lives? The example was given of steelworkers in Italy, who have engaged in strikes and blockades to prevent the shutdown of steel production that is damaging to workers’ lives and health, and to the lives and health of their families, in order to defend workers’ jobs.

Response: Similar issues arose during an environmentalist demonstration at the Kingsnorth power station some years ago. Representatives of the mineworkers’ union were invited to a discussion with the demonstrators, who were opposed to coal-fired power. It was a dialogue of the deaf that I found very depressing. I think it’s absolutely possible, and absolutely right, for communists, for young people who want to change the world, to understand that in a future society nobody will have to work in dirty, dangerous holes in the ground, but at the same time to support struggles such as the strike of 1985, in which the state wanted to destroy the miners’ union.

Many of the young miners, who were at the forefront of the battle with the police on the picket lines, had no intention of working in mines for the rest of their lives, didn’t see that as their future, had a very different view of the world from their fathers and grandfathers and older people in their communities. I see no reason why people like those who are here could not go on picket lines and join in such struggles with the state, and at the same time work out – together with those workers – a view of the future: of socialism, which means not more people working in coal mines but a much, much greater change. Many miners are probably well ahead of many on the socalled “left” in understanding how this will develop.

There were questions and comments about the ideas of abundance and scarcity, and about hunter-gatherer societies that live in great abundance despite having few material goods.

Response: Abundance and scarcity are socially-formed conceptions that develop and change. Abundance is not just about having more material stuff. And there is an enormous amount to learn from hunter-gatherers people about how to live. Clearly there is no simple return to the past. The equations about abundance and scarcity change through history. With each development of agricultural technology – starting with the very use of settled agriculture as opposed to gathering and hunting, which came 9000 years ago – there follows a big increase in population. That is a cause and effect. I am opposed to the idea that increases in population are bad – but these increases do change the parameters. We need to look at abundance and scarcity at different stages of human development.

Part 2 of the talk is here.

[1] See Tim Jackson, Prosperity Without Growth (Earthscan, 2009). The Steady State Economy (1972) by Herman Daly is usually considered the founding work of ecological economics. His more recent book (1996), still available in paperback, is Beyond Growth: the economics of sustainable development. The on-line journal Real-World Economics Review in 2010-11 published a socialist critique of Daly’s work: Richard Smith, “Beyond growth or beyond capitalism?” (RWER no. 53), a response by Daly and rejoinder by Smith (RWER no. 54), and a further comment by Smith, “Green capitalism: the god that failed” (RWER no. 56)
[2] Marx, Capital volume 1, chapter 15, section 10.
[3] Andre Gorz, Ecology as Politics (Pluto Press, 1987), p. 11
[4] Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: the degradation of work in the twentieth century (Monthly Review Press, 1974)
[5] Gorz, Ecology as Politics, pp. 19-20

4 Responses to The trouble with “economic growth”

  1. […] The idea of “socialist economic growth” should be “junked” in the twenty-first century: socialism is about human happiness, not simply about more stuff. The assumption, widespread in twentieth-century socialism, that the productive forces are the basis for superceding capitalism, needs questioning carefully – and the way that the instruments of labour “enslave, exploit and impoverish” (Marx) working people should be at the centre of socialist thinking. These are points from a talk I gave last week, and the edited notes are here. […]

  2. […] 2. There are various economists who advocate “no-growth” strategies for capitalism. The most recent is Tim Jackson. The most original and significant is Herman Daly, a former chief economist at the World Bank, who has been writing for many years about what he calls “steady-state economics”. These writers take as given capitalism and the capitalist market; they want very wide-ranging regulation to send it down a “no-growth” path. I will not discuss these in detail unless someone wants to come back to them.[1] […]

  3. […] often feel, with good reason, that they are called upon to respond to Malthusian arguments,[1] i.e. that there are too many people, or – in more recent versions – that there are too many […]

  4. Mike Nelson says:

    There was a very interesting interview with Vandana Shiva 19 Nov on HARDtalk. BBC World service.
    The programme’s blurb below completely distorts her position.
    She was continually attacking the commodification of food, the focus on yield for a single cash crop and the resulting dependence on junk food.
    she also resisted the idea that she was going back to old methods of agriculture with old technologies.

    BBC blurb:
    In the decades since, Vandana Shiva has become known throughout the world for her environmental campaigns. She says a billion people go hungry in the world because of the way greedy international companies go about their business. So is it a naïve world view or could we really end poverty and improve everyone’s life by returning to old fashioned ways of farming?

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