by Gray Maddrey
In his recent book, Climate Change as Class War, Matthew Huber argues that the ecological crisis is primarily caused by the capitalist mode of production, especially the preponderant deployment of fossil capital, ‘the forms of capital that generate profit through emissions’. For many on the anti-capitalist left, this is a conclusion that hardly bears repeating. Nevertheless, Huber is right to centre the claim. Ecological collapse is accelerating and requires immediate action. While the global average of emissions must reach zero by 2050 to stay within 1.5–2 °C heating, in order to do this at pace, the parts of the world most responsible for emissions must reach net zero by 2030. But not only are we failing to make progress toward these goals, emissions continue to rise with no end in sight. Huber puts it bluntly: ‘We’re still losing.’
We’re still losing to capitalism—but why? Because, in the first instance, Huber emphasizes, we are not really fighting it. Capitalism is uniquely defined by its class structure: capitalists, the business owners and corporate boards of directors who organize production; and workers, those they hire to carry it out. While the capitalist class comprises a relatively tiny number of people, it dominates the working class in terms of property owned and legal authority over its use. In order to make a living, workers have no option but to sell their time to capitalists in the labor market. However, due to its relatively immense size and leverage at the point of production—through strikes and other forms of collective action—the working class has the potential to exercise its own form of power. This is where climate struggle must be located, Huber tells us: the sites of mass emissions. Capitalism can be fundamentally challenged by nothing other than class struggle, so only class struggle can fundamentally address the ecological crisis. In this historical moment, climate change is class war.
In addition to its strategic position in the production process, the working class has the most to gain from class struggle. Huber suggests that the point of building class power is to alleviate ‘the lack of control over the basics of life [that] defines working-class life’. In fact, this is how the struggle against the capitalist class ought to be framed. In a capitalist economy, even the means of subsistence—basic goods such as food, energy, and housing—are available only in markets that operate on the principle of profit. This makes access to them unreliable for the majority of workers, who live from paycheck to paycheck. From the perspective of the working class, resolution of the ecological crisis ought to be seen as ancillary to universal access to these means of subsistence—through a public guarantee of basic goods outside the marketplace. Huber then highlights the possibility of organizing around this goal in the electricity sector as the fastest route to mitigating the ecological crisis: ‘As the climate crisis intensifies and the technical case for electrifying everything becomes clearer, a “socialism in one sector” approach could be the core of a public sector–led decarbonization program.’ That is, electrifying everything would simultaneously begin to reverse ecological collapse and lead the way towards further public provisioning of basic goods.
However, in Huber’s estimation, climate ‘struggle’ is predominantly oriented around consumption rather than production: instead of building power at the point of production, climate struggle has focused on building knowledge about our individual carbon footprints. Unfortunately, Huber claims, ‘knowledge is not power’. Although he begins here with a critique of naive science communicators and technocratic policy experts, whose approaches assume that not enough of us are convinced of the reality of ecological crisis or that we are not properly taxed for emissive consumption choices, the primary targets of Huber’s antagonism are ‘anti-system radicals’, that is, proponents of the degrowth movement. For Huber, they are more egregious than the others because they attempt to critique capitalism yet alienate those actually capable of challenging it, the working class. Growth is not the problem with capitalism; capitalists are. Whereas the working class has a material interest in ‘more’, Huber maintains, degrowth is a politics of ‘less’ and therefore ultimately undermines itself.
Huber has already been criticized for his failure substantively to engage with degrowth, thereby missing any compatibility with his own position. The degrowth movement calls for an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that will reduce societies’ throughput of energy and raw materials. It does not implore us to take individualized responsibility for overconsumption. Furthermore, an equitable distribution of that downscaling would result in those with the least now having even more after. I would like to deepen the present critique by showing how Huber’s failure to engage with degrowth results in a failure to recognize tensions intrinsic to his own position. First, there is no empirical evidence that the plan to electrify ‘everything’ would sufficiently mitigate the ecological crisis. On the contrary, the material and energy requirements of such a project on the existing (and growing) scale of infrastructure would likely exacerbate the crisis. Second, Huber’s disregard for the problem inherent to growth rests on misunderstanding the capitalist mode of production as capitalists’ power to organize production. While this is certainly part of it, the ‘mode of production’ is more completely understood as the way life itself is organized within capitalism, which requires perpetual growth. Finally, without grasping the relationship between capitalism and growth, motivating class struggle solely on the grounds of material security will not necessarily lead to a greener future. The very meaning of ‘material interests’ is influenced by capitalism, so class struggle must coincide with efforts to interpret and advance our own desires beyond what life within capitalism conditions us to take for granted. For this reason, I underscore the significance of socialist political education for degrowth. A future beyond growth is one we can learn to freely associate with only through democratic pedagogy.
Evidence in favor of degrowth
An implicit point of contact between Huber and degrowth occurs early in the book where he centres capitalist production:
[LafargeHolcim, the largest cement company in the world] boasts of a new strategy called ‘Building for Growth,’ which ‘aims to drive profitable growth and simplify the business to deliver resilient returns and attractive value to stakeholders.’ The company does not seem to see a contradiction between this growth orientation and its stated goal of sustainability, which includes a ‘mission to cut its net CO2 emissions per tonne of cement.’ Of course, if you cut the ‘emissions per tonne’ but keep growing the tonnage you make, you still produce more emissions. [emphasis mine]
In the empirical literature surrounding degrowth, this fact is known as ‘relative decoupling’—when the amount of emissions per energy use decreases. But, as Huber observes, relative decoupling is not enough. If the amount of emissions per energy use decreases, but energy use does not decrease, then emissions still increase, albeit more slowly. Further, due to improved resource efficiency, relative decoupling often results in a price reduction of the produced goods. This creates the ‘rebound effect’, a rise in demand and energy use to the point where emissions increase even more quickly than before. What would be necessary is absolute decoupling, a decrease in overall emissions irrespective of energy use. Huber later says that ‘if we actually decarbonize energy, the need for aggregate reductions in energy consumption is less obvious’ [emphasis his]. This is the extent of his argument, but the consideration has already been made within the discourse on decoupling: there is evidence against the possibility that absolute decoupling from emissions can be achieved at the scale of the global economy quickly enough to mitigate the ecological crisis. There is also no evidence that absolute decoupling can be achieved with respect to ecological variables other than emissions if economic growth is sustained.
In this regard, Huber’s text lacks a broad ecological awareness. Rather than focus exclusively on CO2 emissions and climate change, degrowth is about several facets of ecology, such as the full range of planetary boundaries, various limits to things—from freshwater use to biodiversity loss—beyond which rapid or irreversible changes to the global ecosystem become more likely to occur. Huber continues:
Our energy system is currently bifurcated between those things that run on electricity … and those that run on other forms of energy …. Theoretically, many of these non-electric energy applications can be electrified, moving them for example, from gasoline to battery-powered automobiles, from natural-gas furnaces to electric heat pumps, and from combustion-based industrial heat to electric heat to replace such processes as steam reforming for hydrogen with electrolysis. [emphasis mine]
Setting aside just how theoretical this transition is (electricity itself is currently primarily generated through fossil fuels, so the transition to renewables will have to deal with the rate of decoupling of emissions and energy use), there is the question of how materially intensive such a process would be. Calculating from World Bank estimates, the global economy at its current rate of growth would need to increase lithium extraction by at least 2700% between now and 2050 in order to produce the batteries necessary to store energy at the grid level (not to mention the other rare metals required for renewable-energy infrastructure: copper, cobalt, silver, and so on). But even at existing levels of extraction, lithium mining devastates local communities and environments. Worse yet, most of this mining occurs in the Global South, exacerbating inequality between it and the North.
Yet Huber also takes issue with the North–South critique that ‘frames inequality as between the rich countries in the Global North and the poor countries in the Global South’. According to Huber, concepts such as ‘North’ and ‘South’ fail to articulate the inner dynamic of these political geographies, in particular their class dynamic: in both the North and South, the exploited masses are the working classes. Far from ignoring this, however, the critique conceives the North–South dynamic as the capitalist class dynamic recreated at a global scale. Northern countries use four times or more material per capita than planetary boundaries allow. In comparison, a majority of countries (mostly Southern) use less material per capita than could be safely allocated. This is the result of imperial, neo-colonial relations between the North and South, such as the structural adjustment programs implemented by the IMF since the latter half of the 20th century. Among other things, these relations have regimented access to valuable resources for the North, and the fact remains regardless of whether the ‘transnational capitalist class’ is to blame. In order to liberate the working classes within Southern countries, the dissolution of imperial relations between the North and South is prerequisite. Without the possibility of absolutely decoupling energy and material throughput from planetary boundary variables such as land-system change, aggregate consumption in the North will have to be significantly reduced—both to accommodate renewed exchange with the South and as a measure against ecological collapse.
This is just a glimpse of the research that undermines the idea that electrifying everything (or any other so-called ‘green growth’ approach) would successfully mitigate the ecological crisis, much less in an internationally egalitarian way. The evidence cannot be overstated, but I leave it here because I want to address the core of Huber’s critique of degrowth: the notion that a ‘politics of less’ will not win over the working-class who are struggling to make ends meet.
Capitalism and the mode of production
At the height of his critique of degrowth, Huber urges us to consider the literal meaning of the term: ‘the prefix “de” indicates less, or as an online dictionary defines the prefix: “used to indicate privation, removal, and separation.”’ It is therefore surprising that he fails to reflect on how versatile the meaning of ‘less’ is. When ‘degrowth’ means less of a bad thing, degrowth is a good thing. Huber practically acknowledges this when he states that ‘a class politics would articulate a confrontational approach where the capitalist class must degrow so that the working class can see growth in material security and basic human freedom’ [emphasis mine]. This is consistent with the entire framework of degrowth, which is oriented to the fact that the economy has outgrown, and is destroying, the Earth. The problem with economic growth in the abstract is that it is ‘infinite’—continuous, for its own sake, and ignorant of its material or ecological basis. When the economy ‘grows’, there is more production and thus more ‘value’ in circulation. But, for example, this can be the result of ‘planned obsolescence’, a general design strategy that ensures frequent consumption by artificially limiting the lifespan of products. The most infamous example concerns light bulbs designed to last 1000 hours, despite existing knowledge and capacity to produce bulbs that could last twice as long, but this practice manifests in various ways. It can be found in the production of technologies—from furniture and clothing to smartphones and home appliances—that are easier to trash and replace than to repair or upgrade. It is also evinced in a culture of advertising that facilitates desire for the ‘new’ even when it is only superficially different from the ‘old’. In all of these cases, the fact that we spend (or waste) more time and resources producing things overall is irrelevant to the resultant economic growth.
From this angle, Huber appears to side with the degrowth movement: ‘As we have seen since the 2008 financial crisis, we can have quite steady growth alongside wage stagnation and declining labor force participation. The mass of the working class is not really benefiting from growth.’ So what’s wrong with degrowth?
Capitalism does not require aggregate societal growth, but growth for capital (M-C-M’). It is private capital that controls investment, the profitability of which will determine whether capital grows …. It is true that economists have created all manner of statistical tools to track something called ‘growth,’ but this does not mean we live in a society where the owners of the means of production collectively devise strategies to grow the economy. … Thus, growth ideology creates the myth of a unified aggregate societal ‘system’ of capitalist growth.
Huber argues that degrowth misses the mark: by going after fictional aggregate societal growth, the degrowth movement ‘lets off the hook’ the capitalist class who controls and profits from growth for capital. It is true that the degrowth movement has historically comprised a wide variety of views, some of which have failed to centre the critique of capitalism—by one-sidedly critiquing consumerist culture or insufficiently appreciating the power dynamics of class, for example. As Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan recognize in their recent compendium, The Future is Degrowth, the movement must be ‘explicitly critical of capitalism’ and take on ‘systems of domination such as patriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, racism, and capitalism as the central, structural problems facing us today’ [emphasis mine]. While the degrowth movement is becoming more actively aligned with socialism of late, it has always been implicitly critical of capitalism through its critique of aggregate societal growth. Contrary to Huber’s statement above, capitalism does require such growth, and to see why requires investigation of the capitalist mode of production.
Several times throughout the book, Huber cites the formula M-C-M’, which abbreviates the ‘circuit of capital’, a representation of the capitalist mode of production. Some amount of money M (including what is distributed as wages) is invested in the production of commodity C, which upon consumption returns as a greater amount of money M’ (the difference being profit). If there were no consumption of C, there would be no return of M’. Now, the growth of any specific firm does not require aggregate societal growth. Huber is correct as far as this goes. One company may simply absorb the business of its competitors while the size of the economy remains the same. However, capitalist economy rests on a basis of growth for capital in general and therefore does require aggregate societal growth (when inferring from what applies to individual parts that it also applies to the whole, Huber’s reasoning falls into the ‘fallacy of composition’). Overall, capital cannot grow unless consumption keeps up with production to complete the circuit. If the aggregate value within society were not growing, then it could not be continually appropriated as growth for capital. If the capitalist mode of production conditionally requires growth for capital, it consequently requires aggregate societal growth.
There is no need for the process of aggregate growth to be collectively controlled by the capitalist class. It follows ‘on its own’ from the mechanisms of capitalist economy, for example, the system of compound interest on loans, which requires exponential growth for its debts to be reliably paid. Additionally, capitalism is structured against an equitable distribution of value. As Thomas Piketty statistically shows in Capital in the 21st Century, the rate of return on investment (growth for capital) is systematically greater than aggregate growth; that is, capitalists’ share of wealth tends to crowd out the workers’ share. Despite this, the promise of growth equalizes the tension between classes. Because workers’ livelihoods intimately depend on their incomes from capitalists, this promise is received simultaneously as an opportunity and as a threat. On the one hand, growth promises to improve workers’ lives with cheap, commercial goods or high wages (although, either of these are bought at the expense of intensified labor exploitation and material extraction in ‘periphery’ markets, such as those in the Global South). On the other hand, growth promises to destabilize workers’ lives when the circuit of capital is disrupted. The classical Marxian analysis of capitalism demonstrates the economy’s periodic tendency for consumption to be unable to keep up with production and therefore for the economy to collapse into recession, but the threat can also be wielded more locally and intentionally to quell working-class resistance and manufacture consent to the expansion of capital.
Because material well-being structurally hinges on the promise of growth, it is in many workers’ immediate interest to maintain the capitalist mode of production—especially, but not exclusively, those in the Global North. For this reason, the capitalist mode of production cannot be reduced to the power capitalists have to organize production. Whereas private ownership of the means of production is an historic premise and material condition of capitalism (making it necessary to overcome on the road to socialism), the essence of the capitalist mode of production is the capitalist form of value. In spite of his reference to M-C-M’, Huber’s exclusive focus on capitalists’ direction over the literal production of commodities ultimately fails to interrogate the circuit through which their value as capital is realized. This analysis of the mode of production is one-sided and elides the problematic of growth.
To take this investigation further, we need to ask what, in general, is meant by ‘mode of production’. In The German Ideology, Karl Marx equates a society’s mode of production [Produktionweise] with its way of life [Lebensweise]: ‘As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and how they produce.’ While this definition reinforces the idea that isolated critiques of consumption are wrong-headed, it is because such critiques are one-sided. If the way of life is the mode of production, then there is never a society in which consumption can be considered in isolation from production. Conversely, as we have seen, a critique of the mode of production isolated from consumption is one-sided as well. Neither side can be made sense of without the other.
A concrete example of this is located in the way that electricity is currently produced and consumed. As remarked upon in the first section, electricity is primarily generated through fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are considered high-energy ‘stocks’, meaning that they store large amounts of energy that can be released on demand, which allows electricity production to be continuous and intense. We are not a passive recipient of this fact: we actively construct the world around continuous, intense electricity production. It becomes normalized, feeding into the further development of an energy grid designed around high-energy stocks. This is why we would have to massively expand lithium mining for batteries if we were to convert the current energy grid to renewables. The ‘flow’ of energy—the rate at which energy can be produced—from wind turbines, solar panels, and so on is insufficient to power the grid. Renewable sources of energy are also intermittent: the wind does not always blow, and the sun does not always shine. Batteries would be necessary to convert these low-energy, intermittent flows into high-energy stocks. However, this uncritically assumes that we require continuous and intense energy production. Marx describes in the Grundrisse how production and consumption ‘create’ each other by ‘completing’ each other. Intermittency may be a problem for our current way of life, but that way of life is itself the source of the problem. Then, in Capital, Marx refers to the mode of ‘social reproduction’ to articulate how the immanent relationship between production and consumption perpetuates, or reproduces, the way of life. A critique of fossil capital that does not encompass the mode of consumption, including how we have used fossil fuels to design a world that is ‘always on’, is not a critique of the mode of production either.
This imbrication of production and social reproduction implies that economies are characterized by the production of not only things but forms of subjectivity as well. In Between Capitalism and Community, a study of the obstacles to transitioning out of capitalism, Michael Lebowitz provocatively calls the subjectivity of capitalism its ‘second product’, and he warns, ‘never forget the second product’. A well-known example of the second product is the subjectivity of the worker, who within the capitalist division of labor is another cost of production. Workers are therefore continually cheapened, guided by the production process rather than exercising agency over it, which ‘rationally’ results in disinterest and low thresholds of capacity. The subjectivity of the consumer is also affected. In the marketplace, consumers do not simply purchase goods but exchange ‘bourgeois right’ to them—the abstract right to what is yours and no one else’s (what we casually refer to as ‘private property’). This is conditioned by the competition that structures not only capitalists’ relations to profit but everyone’s relation to physical survival itself. Because markets exclusively supply access to everything, including the means of subsistence, capitalism naturalizes the ideal of bourgeois right to whatever it is one may want or need, regardless of why one may need or want it. Again, this is the ‘rational’ result.
Marx makes a note of this in Critique of the Gotha Programme: ‘What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.’ Although Marx references ‘morals’ in this passage, he does not mean to moralize—to patronize individual conscience. Rather, he acknowledges that the subjectivities of capitalism do not automatically dissolve within new material conditions but must be transformed by the possibilities they engender. Paulo Freire expands on a related point in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, saying that
almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or ‘sub-oppressors’. The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. … At this level, their perception of themselves as opposites of the oppressor does not yet signify engagement in a struggle to overcome the contradiction; the one pole aspires not to liberation, but to identification with its opposite pole.
In the struggle of the working class to be liberated from the marketplace, there is no guarantee that it will desire a progressively different way of life than capitalism has offered. For example, without a critique of the ‘American Dream’ built into such liberation, residential developments structured around low-density housing, transportation networks structured around individual automobiles, and production structured around private wealth in general may expand under the proliferation of bourgeois right. Such a proliferation gave birth to the ‘middle class’ in the United States and Europe after World War II, but further expansion of the middle class remains the goal even of popular social-democratic leaders worldwide, such as Bernie Sanders. Once again, this is not a moralistic failure but speaks to the need for an explicit critique of the mode of social reproduction—a need that has been emphasized primarily by feminist and anti-colonialist critics of capitalism (whose voices are absent from Huber’s text). Without such a critique, ‘liberation’ may not in fact be revolutionary: even if it did not intensify imperial relations with the Global South, it would continue to drive ecological collapse, regardless of the success of decarbonization.
Even if this is not the future that Huber envisions, there is nothing in particular about his strategy that resists it. He admits in his conclusion that ‘shifting to public ownership [of utilities] does not guarantee decarbonization. … All public power does is to grant us a democratic opening for creating a comprehensive public sector–led transformation of the electricity sector.’ For the same reason, it does not guarantee subordination of capitalist growth to post-capitalist society. Of course, whereas there is never the guarantee that the future we are striving after will come to be, it would behoove us to understand better how to arrange for its possibility.
Class struggle, degrowth, and political education
I am faithfully sympathetic to Huber’s ecological concern and opposition to capitalism, but I have argued that his position is disoriented. On the one hand, the idea to electrify everything will not mitigate the ecological crisis. On the other hand, the idea appears appropriate because the logic of Huber’s argument does not sufficiently grasp the mode of production, which is not totally determined by material conditions but is caught up in the mode of social reproduction. A class struggle that reflexively accepts the current mode of social reproduction is therefore by itself incapable of leading us into a greener, more equitable future. Of this final fact, though, Huber is relatively aware—to continue the previous quote: ‘All public power does is to grant us a democratic opening for creating a comprehensive public sector–led transformation of the electricity sector in line with what climate science says is necessary. Actual movements need to do the rest’ [emphasis mine]. Ironically, this is where degrowth comes in: climate science says that infinite economic growth is unsustainable.
Furthermore, when it explicates an eco-socialist future, the degrowth movement stands to ‘write history backwards from the future’ and answer the question with which Lebowitz concludes Between Capitalism and Community: ‘What must we do in the present for the future to become what it must?’
Historical paths are inherently unstable; given the sensitivity of outcomes to the interaction of parts and wholes, any slight deviation in the starting point (for example, the disintegration of feudalism) might lead to someplace other than capitalism. The point is critical. If you write history forward, how can you understand the next system? If capitalism disintegrates, what system emerges in its place? … If we write history forward, it is assumed that the contradictions of capitalism … are sufficient to yield the movement to community. But are they?
Lebowitz shares Marx’s concern in Critique of the Gotha Programme about the different ways in which the new society might emerge from the old. As I adumbrated, it would be possible for a fledgling socialist society to unintentionally build upon the ‘metabolic rift’—the contradiction between capital and nature—in the transition from capitalism, even after it formally abolished the capitalist class. The way to intentionally prevent this possibility is to target the subjectivity of capitalism.
I agree with Huber that the material interests of the working class are objective. Stefania Barca affirms this in ‘The Labor(s) of Degrowth’: ‘Logically speaking, working-class people … have a vested interest in the subversion of [capitalism].’ To be working-class is to be systemically exploited and therefore to have an interest in subverting capitalism. However, Barca does not take this interest to be immediate: it is possible even as a worker for one to be subjectively—that is, from one’s own point of view—interested in the maintenance of capitalism. As seen in the previous section, this interest is self-perpetuating: it is socially reproduced through the promise (both opportunity and threat) of growth. Even though it is objective, an interest in subversion must still be subjectively grasped through understanding oneself as systemically exploited. Beyond that, there is the question of what exactly the working-class interest in subversion entails. Does it simply entail liberation from the capitalist class, through a livelihood independent from income, or more generally the freedom to determine new ways of life? This question directly bears on who ultimately is working-class. Barca suggests that ‘a good starting point is enlarging the concept of class relations beyond the wage labor relation and toward a broader conception of work as a mediator of social metabolism’. In that case, the working class would comprise anyone without the freedom to direct social reproduction, from traditional ‘industrial’ workers to homemakers and ‘meta-industrial’ workers outside the labor market. Whatever the extent of the working class may be, its members must recognize each other as such in order to take collective action against capitalism. Along these lines, class struggle would be best conceived as the project of the working class not only to be liberated from the domination of the capitalist class, but to recognize itself as free to determine its material interests for itself.
In light of this, those of us who believe in the necessity of degrowth would do well to incorporate it into the larger body of socialist political education (Huber himself discusses the significance of political education but mainly in the context of union campaigns). Lebowitz, channeling Freire, designates political education as the primary function of the ‘revolutionary political instrument’. Following the discussion above, this requires that it break with the ‘banking concept’ of education according to which teacher–leaders ‘deposit’ knowledge into the minds of student–followers. Such pedagogy presupposes a passivity on the part of students and is therefore antithetical to ‘protagonizing’ them—activating their understanding of their fundamental role in transforming the world. Instead, revolutionary pedagogy would provide a ‘problem-posing’ education that generates knowledge through dialogue. Similarly, Marta Harnecker argues in ‘Ideas for the Struggle’ that ‘true popular pedagogues [are] capable of stimulating the knowledge that exists within the people … through the fusion of this knowledge with the most all-encompassing knowledge that the political organization can offer’. Barca connects this to degrowth when she states that
the degrowth movement must build a constructive dialogue with the alienated and exploited workers of the world. Here, in the messy reality of everyday re/productive work, complex contradictions arise that need to be addressed in fundamentally new ways. Different forms of metabolism clash with each other and produce environmental conflicts, which enter into communities’ and people’s lives, questioning identities, crushing certain life-forms, and turning them into cogs of the dominant social metabolism.
Another way the degrowth movement provides this education is through ‘the commons’, spaces that either implicitly resist or explicitly deny the logic of bourgeois right. In England before the rise of capitalism, the commons were primarily forests where villagers collected wood or pastures where they raised animals. In today’s commodified world, the commons are less common, but small-scale examples include communal gardens and libraries of things. Among other approaches, opening varieties of commons to people can be a part of what philosopher Barbara Muraca calls the ‘education of desire’. In the foreword to Degrowth in Movement(s), she writes: ‘In the alternative spaces of experience established through social experiments, one can learn to desire differently, better, and even more. Instead of repressing desire through a one-sided notion of voluntary simplicity, the point is rather to free oneself from the forces that limit the autonomy to demand more (in political terms).’ In such spaces, people may come to recognize the extent to which they feel alienated from their individual and communal capacities to direct their lives in broader society, discussing future commons and organizing with others around the subversion of capitalism for the sake of their own liberation. Further, these democratic forms of education would help not only to distance degrowth from, but to immunize it against, adjacent trajectories such as ‘eco-austerity’, the notion that Huber ostensibly takes issue with, which frames ecological transition around accepting lower levels of material comfort (‘voluntary simplicity’) without investigating the subjectivity of capitalism and its mode of social reproduction.
Huber’s belief that ‘we should appeal to a working-class interest in more—specifically, more access to the elements of a secure life’ is not a mistake. It should be the foundation of revolutionary pedagogy. The problem is that he rejects the rich vision of a democratic world that elaborates on this interest, in which not only could secure life be sustained, but the point of securing life—our own freedom—could be explored. The timeline of the ecological crisis requires that we transform the mode of production and the ‘second product’ at the same time by preparing ourselves for the world we want to create through our struggle against the world we have to inherit. Degrowth is a transitional program without which the metabolic rift will devour the Earth. Class struggle is a movement without which the emancipatory potential of degrowth will fail to be realized. We need both—and only a revolutionary pedagogy can unify them. Knowledge may not be power, but should the future ‘become what it must’, the process of building power will have been one of building knowledge.
Gray Maddrey is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He currently serves as his chapter’s political education director and chair of its ecosocialist working group.