Challenging the Left on the Growth Imperative

Demonstration at Degrowth Conference in Leipzig, 2014.
Demonstration at Degrowth Conference in Leipzig, 2014.

Usually it is the environmentalists that get criticized by the Left for their failure to see the big picture and align ecological politics with social politics. But recent articles turn the tables on this expectation, taking on the political Left for a failure to embrace the new ecological order coming down the pipe.

Giorgos Kallis has emerged as the leading voice on ‘degrowth’, an academic and activist movement with origins in southern Europe challenging the hegemony of growth. Kallis penned an article in the New Internationalist called “The Left should embrace Degrowth” outlining the history and present context of the movement. Kallis claims that “A new Left has to be an ecological Left, or it won’t be left at all.” He argues the focus of the Left must be on redistribution, not growth. “Without a tide to raise all boats, it is the time to rethink which boat gets what.” He asks the Left to liberate itself from the absurd ‘imaginary’ of perpetual growth, because:

The things we in the Left would like to see ‘grow’ would not bring aggregate growth (unless we totally redefined what we measure as economic activity, but this is then a play of words). Spreading wealth evenly, using more hands and minds than otherwise necessary, leaving environments and people idle, spending time to care for one another: all these are ‘taxes’ on productivity and growth. We may as well be better being less productive.

Kallis is disappointed in leftist movements in Europe that have failed to challenge the hegemony of growth, groups like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, although local politics holds more promise.

Globally, Kallis says the issue is not that the Global North consumes more than it produces. “The issue is that it produces and consumes more than what is necessary, at the expense of the Global and inner ‘South’, other beings and future generations.” Although no leftist party can openly challenge growth in Europe yet, the time will come, like it or not he says.

A very different article, What is Left of the Left, in the popular magazine, Adbusters, laments the brief history of leftist politics. “The Left is marginalized in its thought, fragmented in its goals, unconfident of its ability to unite.” The authors reckon that a reckoning is coming. “All we have, we have taken from the earth; and taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.”

Like Kallis, this is attributed to a grow-or-die imperative at odds with ecology. Both also believe that capitalism, as a system, cannot overcome this need for growth. “Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.”

In a much different vein, Alyssa Battistoni scratches deep under the surface of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and approach to growth, the Left, and much more in the Jacobin.

Battistoni finds that while Klein calls out growth in the ‘everything’ she wants to change, the Left generally is not ready to go there. She identifies tensions throughout Klein’s book which tries to bridge a government-centric, jobs vision generally assigned to the Left, with a post consumer, deep green vision that could unintentionally find an ally in the austerity left. Battistoni recognizes that Klein is just a reporter, and frankly, the movement just hasn’t figured out how to bridge the divide between shared prosperity, as its currently understood, and ecological limits. Something has to give.

So will the political Left take up the call to reorganize around ecological limits? Growing attention suggests, at the least, the question will be asked.

Originally printed at Rethinking Prosperity.

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