Degrowth is utopian, and that’s a good thing

A response to Socialist Forum on degrowth by Giorgos Kallis

by Giorgos Kallis

What we dream about the future affects how we act today. If utopias express our desires, dystopias distill our fears. Utopias and dystopias are images we invoke to think and act in the present, producing futures that often look very different from either our dreams or our nightmares.

An oft-repeated criticism against the green movement is that it is dystopian and catastrophist (some call this ‘Malthusian’) when it comes to its diagnosis, and utopian when it comes to its prognosis. On the one hand, greens warn of a scary future of planetary disaster, and on the other, offer a peaceful dreamland where people bike to their artisanal work and live in picturesque houses with well manicured food gardens and small windmills. Nowhere to see is a realistic political plan on how we could ever escape from the current capitalist nightmare, and move to something remotely close to an egalitarian and ecological future.   

I won’t deny that some green writings, especially in the 1970s and 80s (but also still today) merit this critique. But in the meantime, there has been a lot of new thought, under the labels of ecosocialism, degrowth, or environmental justice that cannot be caricatured and packaged in this simplistic mold. And yet this is what geographer Matt Huber does in a recent article published at the Socialist Forum, entitled Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific. Huber argues that there are two types of green socialism, one that is utopian and unscientific, and one that is realistic and scientific, his.

Tired dichotomies

Democratic socialism is a project in the making, and it is important to avoid tired dichotomies and divisions of the past, especially between green and not-so-green socialists. I find a lot to agree with in Huber’s socialist climate politics and would fully sign on to his concluding agenda in the Socialist Forum piece, where he defends an ‘inspiring and positive political program that can win the masses of the working classes … built on the decommodification and universal access to [their] needs, but also a more radical and democratic vision of organizing production to integrate ecological knowledge’ based on ‘public transport, green public housing … and public ownership of energy’. Yet, before that Huber argues that ‘degrowth oriented ecosocialists’ (his term), like us are too utopian, and not scientific. And here I disagree.

What I want to argue is that, first, being utopian is not a problem as Huber makes it seem it is, and second, we are scientific, at least as scientific as Huber can claim his position is.

Dialectical utopias

To begin with: what does Huber mean by ‘utopian’ and ‘scientific’?

By utopia, Huber, following Engels, understands a social arrangement that does not and cannot exist (a place that has no place, a u-topos). If such an arrangement cannot exist, then it is a waste and misdirection of our energies, Huber implies. 

Forgive me the heresy, but thinking about utopias has progressed – fortunately – a lot since Engels’ time.

Forgive me the heresy, but thinking about utopias has progressed – fortunately – a lot since Engels’ time. David Harvey, who Huber certainly reads, wrote a wonderful book on cities and utopias almost 20 years ago (Spaces of Hope). Harvey says we should oppose utopias that are meant as models or blueprints – not so much because they are unrealistic, but because the realization of a perfect ideal tolerates no objection and crushes everything that stands in its way. Harvey recognizes, however, the value of ‘dialectical utopias’ – contradictory and incomplete images that express desires about the future, that challenge and make us reflect, that generate conflict with prevalent visions and open up new syntheses.

Ernst Bloch famously called utopias the education of desire. As Hug March and I argued, the future prefigured in the degrowth literature is indeed a dialectical utopia that wants to reshape desires.  When French activists and intellectuals launched the word ‘degrowth’ in the early 90s, they intentionally meant it as a missile slogan that would generate a conflictual antithesis to the prevalent, and taken for granted, imaginary of growth-based development. The hope was – and is – that this conflict would catalyze a new synthesis – maybe not the bio-region of low-tech eco-communes utopia that Huber sees in degrowth writings, but at least some unpredictable new future other than one which would look exactly like capitalism, only with the workers in command.

Unscientific socialism?

Huber claims this vision is ‘unscientific’. A scientific socialism, Huber tells us, is one ‘grounded in analysis of what kind of socialist society is possible given historical and material conditions’. So far so good. Only one problem: who is to judge what is really ‘possible’?

Huber, for example, seems to think that something close to the energy or material consumption of an average American, secured for everyone in the world, is possible (Huber is against wasteful capitalism, and implies that unnecessary production and consumption could be curtailed, but is not clear what he classifies as waste –and in any case, insists on the point of ‘abundant energy’, which one can only think means at least as much energy as it is currently consumed, if not more). Energy should come from renewable energy, or why not 80% renewable and 20% nuclear, which is fine, Huber claims – and food from robotic agriculture. Moreover, we will do all this without exploiting anyone, taking everyone’s concerns democratically into account, somehow minimizing damage, or at least making those on the receiving side of such damage concede to it ‘democratically’.

I am a scientist too, and I think this vision is unrealistic. To use Huber’s terms, it is ‘materially impossible’.

I am a scientist too, and I think this vision is unrealistic. To use Huber’s terms, it is ‘materially impossible’. I explain why here or here in more detail. The emissions, land use and material extraction involved in a scenario like Huber’s make impossible a sort of American standard of energy abundance available for everyone (or more precisely, it can be possible but just for a few at the expense of many others, as it has been actually till now).

And if we were to take really into account everyone’s concerns (those who live next to mines where the lithium for the batteries and the uranium for the reactors will come from, those who will have to be relocated or see their landscape destroyed to put windmills, etc) and actually compensate them for the damages our consumption causes, then production would be inevitably much, much lower than it is today on average. (Not to mention how much the economy would slow down if we were to devote time to reach decisions on such matters truly democratically).

The past is not proof of the future

Granted, I might be wrong, and Huber right. But who is to judge whose science about what is possible is right and whose is wrong? And what makes Huber so sure that he is right and scientific while others are not? Any science—scientific socialism including—is bound to be incomplete, uncertain and debatable. There are different, contested views, of what is possible – crucially, these views cannot be separated easily from our desires about the future.

Huber, for example, thinks it is undesirable to live with less energy. His argument is that since agricultural work is drudgery and no one wants to do it, societies without fossil fuels to power tractors had to and will have to have slaves. First, it is questionable whether the historical and anthropological record supports the claim that all societies without fossil fuels were slave-based.

Second, even if many were, this does not mean that we cannot have a future society without fossil fuels, with more manual work and without slaves. The fact that something did not exist in the past is not proof that it cannot happen in the future – if it were, then we wouldn’t be discussing socialism to begin with.

The fact that something did not exist in the past is not proof that it cannot happen in the future – if it were, then we wouldn’t be discussing socialism to begin with.

Third, no one that I know in the ecosocialist, degrowth or other environmentalist communities that Huber seems to have in mind has argued for a total substitution of fossil fuels by manual labour. It doesn’t  help to take the arguments of others to their extremes just to prove that they are impossible and unscientific. The claim of those who support decentralized renewables or peasant agro-ecology for example is much more nuanced and is based on the recognition that a sustainable future would involve both cleaner energy and less energy use, as well as less use of chemicals in agriculture. Agro-ecological, lower-intensity models that would involve more human labour than is currently the case in countries such as the U.S., are advocated. But these arrangements are generally envisioned as a mix of old and new, peasant and industrial experiences, not a total overhaul of modern techniques or a return to a pre-capitalist mode of living.

Engels was right and it turned out materially possible for capitalism to produce plenty of goods at a fraction of the time they needed before. But that doesn’t mean that it is today possible to power ever-growing energy use with renewable and nuclear energy, with no harm done to others (or with harm done at levels that can be ‘democratically’ tolerated by others). These are different times and different arguments, and the fact that siding with a ‘pro-technology’ (so to speak) argument at one moment in time may have proved right, does not make all similar arguments always and everywhere right or ‘scientific’.

Degrowth: radical abundance

Capitalism produced (more than) enough, quite soon after Engels’s time, but there is still poverty amidst an overabundance of goods and productive possibilities. This should make us pause for a moment. The problem may not be that we are not producing enough, but as Marx and Engels were among the first to note, that we are not distributing equally what we are producing.

As Jason Hickel argues in ‘Degrowth. A call for radical abundance’, the continued enclosures and dispossessions that sustained capitalism have always been justified in the name of growth. The story we are constantly being told is, as Malthus first put it, in the service of his argument in defense of capitalist growth (yes, Malthus was a defender of growth, not of limits to growth), is that ‘there is not enough for everyone to have a decent share’. The artificial scarcity created in turn by enclosures makes everyone live in need, and therefore work harder to stay afloat, which is essential if the engine is to keep going and growing. So the problem isn’t that we don’t produce enough, but that we can’t share the abundance that we already have.  

Huber’s vision of sharing and public luxury is not as far as he thinks from a degrowth vision. I would only add that this has to take place in a context of private sobriety – a sobriety that actually socialist revolutionaries of all times have espoused and lived in their everyday lives. It is what Enrico Berlinguer, leader of the Italian Euro-communists called ‘revolutionary austerity’. It is the sort of personal austerity that real revolutionaries of all times have practiced in their personal lives.

Relative versus absolute scarcity

Defending Berlinguer’s revolutionary austerity does not make one accomplice to Thatcherite austerity. On the contrary, what is Thatcherite is the liberal assumption of a God-given right of each and everyone to mobilize all resources possible in their pursuit of their individual (or collective) goals. According to this ingrained liberal view, we cannot tell people that we could perhaps live better with less, because it is people’s god given right to want more and more, as much as those richer have. What is more revolutionary instead than Gandhi’s plea to ‘live simply so that others may simply live’?

Huber agrees that there is so much waste going on within capitalism, and so much work expended just to goods and services whose purpose is no other than to pay for rents and profits. Then just ending profits and rents could reduce resource use significantly. Why insist on robots and nuclear plants if we could live with less and sustain a decent material standard of living for everyone?

Note also that what counts as ‘decent’ living is always socially determined and it makes little sense to defend an average, or middle class standard of living. A poor person today does not die from diseases that royals died in bygone eras. But if your loved one dies from a curable disease that a rich person can pay to treat, this creates a real sense of scarcity.

Crucially, this scarcity is relative. If housing was public and cheap, Hickel argues, then people could live with well with a fraction of their salary – and produce and consume much less than they do now. To imagine an absolute scarcity, and use it as a justification for mobilizing ever more work and ever more resources in the name of making everyone have what the rich persons of their epoch happen to have, is a fundamental myth that sustains capitalism. 

Bending material reality is not scientific

Huber also has a second take on the meaning of ‘scientific’. He writes that ‘let’s get real, or ‘scientific’ … we are not going to win the masses of workers with a socialist program based on … ‘drudgery for all’. Science here seems to refer to realism about how can ‘we’ (sic) win the masses of workers. There are problems with this formulation too.

Even if there were a mass of workers that wouldn’t be mobilized to anything that sounds like ‘less’, that still wouldn’t make it materially possible to have ever more stuff.

First, even if Huber were right and there were a mass of workers that wouldn’t be mobilized to anything that sounds like ‘less’, that still wouldn’t make it materially possible to have ever more stuff. Huber argues that given that the workers will never buy into a degrowth utopia then ‘the key to an ecosocialist future is finding some way to replicate the labor-saving aspects of the fossil economy with clean energy’.

This actually seems to me a very unscientific, and utopian in the bad sense – having to ‘find some way’ to make something possible, independently of whether it is materially possible or not. Rather than consider integrating your political strategy to what is materially possible, the call here is to bend material possibility, one way or the other, to what you came to think as the only possible political strategy.

Fixed desires

But, second, like the statement on material possibility, the idea that some of us can know with certainty the limits of political possibility – that is, know what the workers really want – is also problematic. Who is to say that workers everywhere and always would only be attracted to visions of ‘more’?

Our mayor, Ada Colau won the municipal elections with the support of a substantial fraction of the working class. Her program emphasized dignity and equality, not growth and material affluence.

I live in Barcelona, and our mayor Ada Colau won the municipal elections with the support of a substantial fraction of the working class. Her program emphasized dignity and equality, not growth and material affluence. Colau wanted to stop evictions and secure decent housing for everyone, she did not have to promise air-conditions and cheap charter flights for all (I am not saying that Huber advocates these, but Leigh Phillips, a provocateur who Huber for some reason enthusiastically cites twice, does).  

Third, Huber implicitly assumes that what workers want is fixed, and that desires cannot be shaped through reflection and dialogue. This leaves no space for new ideas or new desires and makes one wonder, how is it that workers come to want what they want, and how does this ever change in time? If we follow Huber’s logic then we can only cater to what exists, never shape the possible – this to me seems a quite restricted view of the political.

Politics has a make-believe quality. Pre-defining what is possible leads to self-fulfilled prophecies. If we assume that we cannot even utter our dreams of a different future, because they are unrealistic and impossible, then of course ‘workers’ will want what they currently want and alternative dreams will remain unrealistic and impossible.

But fourth, and more importantly, it is not clear why, for Huber, ‘we’ who write these things are not part of the working class, and can’t understand what ‘they’ want. If the working class is those who have to sell their labour in order to survive, then it is not only coal miners and Joe the plumbers that make the working class, not even only nurses and teachers, but also we University professors and the precarious post-docs and students that read our musings. Those among us who desire some sort of a degrowth future are not some weird romantic animals, different from the rest of working people – we are not people who live from rents, we are workers like anyone else who have to work in order to make it from month to month.

Of course there are different experiences, and different power positions within a broadly defined working class, or the 99%. We shouldn’t be blind to our positionalities, for example, as academic urbanites, with a decent income, a health insurance, flying regularly and so on. But the desires of education workers or precarious youngsters are as legitimate as those of factory workers. And our desires do not necessarily have to be different either (actually keeping them different is essential for the hegemony of capitalism). And they are increasingly not different, as the incomes, social protections and privileges of the professional middle income groups are collapsing.

Chris Carlsson and Fransesca Manning write about a new ‘nowtopian‘ experience of class, shared among parts of the precariat which finds work and meaning outside wage labour, in urban gardens, social centres or pirate programming. Nowtopians formed the backbone of the occupied squares. Waving away dreams like theirs as unscientific (and implicitly, elitist) is not doing the building of a broad movement any service. 

Reducing complex debate into outdated binaries

In conclusion, both material and social conditions are much more complex and uncertain than Huber allows for. Huber, I am afraid, is reducing a complex debate into simple binaries of the sort ‘(post)-industrial future’ versus ‘back to slavery’ (if not back to the caves).

The choices ahead are much more nuanced than that and will involve different hybrids of advanced and simplified techniques and modes of living. Consumption will have to go down and production will need to be cleaner – fortunately this can be experienced as an improvement in living if the commons are reclaimed and shared equally. The discourses and visions that will mobilize the 99% to an eco-socialist future are bound to be context-specific, but I firmly believe they can be constructed in a Colau-style fashion around ideas of sufficiency and sharing the commons equally, while securing a dignified life for all.

If something disappoints me, and motivated me to write this essay, it is the feeling that no matter how hard some of us work to advance and refine a certain strain of green-left thought (call it degrowth, ecosocialism or else), we are bound to be caricatured as a blend of socialist utopians of the 19th century and neo-Malthusians of the 1970s (never mind the stark differences between these two sets of ideas).

We owe ourselves and the few people who might read us a more informed and refined debate than a repetition of tired dichotomies from the 1970s. Reality is complex, what is possible and what not is hard to know, and the roads to ecosocialism (or however else you might want to call an egalitarian and sustainable future) are many.

Aaron Vansintjan commented on a previous draft and helped me improve this text.

Giorgos Kallis is an ICREA professor of political ecology and ecological economics at ICTA-UAB in Barcelona. He is the author of Degrowth (2018, Agenda Publishing). A collection of his essays and media articles, ‘In Defense of Degrowth,’ can be downloaded free of cost.