I very much welcome Louis N. Proyect’s critique of my article on degrowth because I think it is important that socialists and ecosocialists discuss and debate this issue. I also think it is important that we do so in a comradely fashion, understanding that in important ways we are entering uncharted territory and that it is very unlikely that any of us will have all the answers. We are going to have to learn from each other and for that we need to listen to each other.
Louis writes that he considers ‘Molyneux and Lowy’s attempt to debunk degrowth feeble at best’. He is of course entitled to his assessment but I don’t think either Michael Lowy or myself were attempting to ‘debunk’ degrowth. Rather we were attempting to consider the extent to which its arguments need to be taken on board by ecosocialists and Marxists in the present situation. After all I did state, and stress, that we cannot ‘revert to or continue with the old practice of calling for growth in general, even socialist growth’.
Also Louis upbraids me with failure to engage with ‘the numbers that both Kallis and Jason Hickel have crunched’ and with scholarly degrowth literature in general. Here he has a point and I plead guilty. In mitigation, rather than defence, I would simply say that one can always read and reference more and that my article was not, and did not claim to be, an academic or scholarly survey of the degrowth tendency or movement, merely a set of reflections on the issues. My citing of Kallis’s comments about Egypt was not setting up a straw man to ‘debunk’ or discredit degrowth thinking as a whole, merely a foil to illustrate what seems to me a common misconception about ‘growth’, namely that what it means is primarily an increase in the production of physical ‘stuff’.
Louis complains that much of my article is ‘a rehash of the arguments I’ve [he, Louis N.Proyect] heard and made about the anarchy of capitalist production for the past 53 years’ and advises Lowy and myself ‘to put the Marxist verities on the back burner’ but he was not really the target audience for my article. Rather I was trying to address comrades in the environmental movement with slightly less erudition than himself. And in so far as the Marxist verities do remain verities i.e. are still true, it seems to me they should be repeated even at the risk of boring Louis, especially as Marxist ideas are hardly hegemonic either in the wider society or within the environmental movement. At one point Louis cites my argument that the development of the productive forces under socialism could mean not producing more but producing the same amount in less time and my comment that Marx put a lot of store by this and asks, almost sarcastically, ‘Who can argue with that?’. But actually a lot of people can and would and this illustrates what seems a real difference between myself and Louis. He would appear to view this debate as just an internal spat between veteran Marxist cognoscenti, whereas I would hope that my writing and ideas can reach a wider audience than that.
There are a few other points I need to respond to. Louis says that degrowth ‘means addressing the population question that people like Molyneux recoil from’ and ‘ there is scant attention to that in his article’. Well. I don’t know about ‘people like Molyneux’ but I certainly do recoil, not from addressing the issue, but from the claim that there is an ‘overpopulation ‘problem’. In fact I have addressed the question in some detail, and quite recently, in ‘Climate Change and the Overpopulation Argument’ in Irish Marxist Review 26 (file:///C:/Users/oem/Downloads/359-1419-1-PB%20(2).pdf). And I’m not quite sure whether Ian Angus is a person like me or not but we are both ecosocialists and he (with Simon Butler) has written a whole very good book on it, Too Many People? Haymarket (2011). I would not expect Louis to have read my article but he should be aware of Ian’s book.
Louis poses a couple of questions to myself and Michael.
Now, under world ecosocialism, how could you continue to provide the wood needed for the average household without encroaching on the forests and hence the risk of a new pandemic?
how is ecosocialism going to generate groundwater that is the key to sustainable agriculture? Will making the Ogallala Aquifer people’s property somehow overcome the ecological limits on a resource that took thousands of years to accrue?
Now I don’t, and can’t, know the answer to these questions anymore than I know what kind of housing people will choose to live in ‘under world ecosocialism’ or what their diets will be but it seems to me likely that it will not be beyond the capacity of people in such a society to plant a huge number of trees. And when it comes to generating ground water for sustainable agriculture the point is not that ‘making the Ogallala Aquifer people’s property’ will solve all problems but that world ecosocialism, at least as I understand it, will release the creative and collaborative energies of billions of people which will produce all sorts of solutions to all sorts of problems that seem insoluble at present. It is getting to world ecosocialism that is the real problem here, and I don’t think either Michael or I would propose it if we thought any more easily achievable goal would resolve the crisis humanity faces.
Speaking of world socialism, however, raises the question of agency. What social force could or will bring it about? Here I do plead guilty to repeating a Marxist verity. My answer is the international working class – now larger and potentially more powerful than it has ever been in history. But this brings me to one of the most disappointing features of Louis’s reply. It seems highly likely that the slogan and discourse of degrowth will be alienating to the mass of working class people who have been experiencing years or decades of austerity and cutbacks or are looking into mass unemployment. Now I am well aware that sometimes socialists have to take stands on principle that may, at least for a period, alienate the majority of workers who remain under the sway of reactionary ideas –.opposing imperialist war and combating racism are obvious examples. But that doesn’t mean we should go out of our way to isolate ourselves. My article does at least address this issue. The weakness of Louis’s critique is that it does not even pause to consider it.
Nb. A small factual correction: Louis describes me as an ex-member of the British SWP. In fact I moved to Ireland in 2010 and thus ceased my active participation in the British SWP (without relinquishing my formal membership) and here I joined the Irish SWP, now the SWN (Socialist Workers Network), a component part of People Before Profit.