RK: In defense of degrowth

The following are excerpts from a correspondence between the Maoist Communist Union, USA and the Revolutionary Communists, Norway on the topic of economic “degrowth”. We are publishing it in the hopes that it might have value for revolutionary communists, environmentalists and readers of maoisme.no in and outside of Norway.

Sections that are irrelevant to our readers or otherwise unfit for publication have been omitted; apart from this, the letters are presented in their original form.

Documents from the MCU are available at maoistcommunistunion.com.


MCU: “Another note of disagreement”


We also read the recent article on the climate crisis by Reidar Knutsen on your website. We wanted to share a few reflections on the topic. While we agree with the view that the climate crisis is inextricably bound up with capitalism, we do not agree that the main issue is economic growth. This, in our view, is a liberal framing of the issue. Addressing the crisis will actually require sustained growth to have enough social surplus to invest in environmental remediation, fund massive R&D [research and development, –ed.] efforts to solve various issues in agriculture, energy production, build new transportation networks, etc.

Actually, as Marx and Engels noted, there is a need for rapid development of the productive forces under socialism. This is an essential precondition for the establishment of communism. We need to not only transform relations of production, but also develop the productive forces. In The Grundrisse Marx explains the central role of the development of productive forces in facilitating the qualitative transformation of the role of human labor in the productive process, which is an essential step for overcoming the value form:

The exchange of living labour for objectified labour – i.e. the positing of social labour in the form of the contradiction of capital and wage labour – is the ultimate development of the value-relation and of production resting on value. Its presupposition is – and remains – the mass of direct labour time, the quantity of labour employed, as the determinant factor in the production of wealth. But to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production. (The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production.) Agriculture, e.g., becomes merely the application of the science of material metabolism, its regulation for the greatest advantage of the entire body of society. Real wealth manifests itself, rather – and large industry reveals this – in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends. Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself. (What holds for machinery holds likewise for the combination of human activities and the development of human intercourse.) No longer does the worker insert a modified natural thing [Naturgegenstand] as middle link between the object [Objekt] and himself; rather, he inserts the process of nature, transformed into an industrial process, as a means between himself and inorganic nature, mastering it. He steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor. In this transformation, it is neither the direct human labour he himself performs, nor the time during which he works, but rather the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body – it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth. The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself. As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis. The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.” 1

Of course, in order for such a development of productive forces to take place, there is a need to transform the relations of production through revolution so that it is possible for human society to develop our “understanding of nature and […] mastery over it by virtue of [our] presence as a social body.”

While it is true that the resources on Earth are finite, we see no logical reason why human society should be confined to Earth or even the solar system in the future. Of course, this is a problem for the future, but the issue with capitalist production and the environment is not due to economic growth per se, but rather the antagonistic contradiction between man and nature under this mode of production is an expression of the contradiction between value and use value in the very commodity form itself. Under capitalist production the qualitative aspects of the commodities produced are relevant only insofar as they permit the commodity to be sold, only insofar as they can exist as the bearers of value which can be realized via their exchange. And actually, every advancement in productivity requires a corresponding rise in the sale of more goods to realize the same value (because increased productivity means that each individual commodity bears less socially necessary labor time).

Fordism and planned obsolescence show how the capitalists actually are forced—by the logic of commodity production—to make low-quality goods that break more readily to stimulate sales. This is in part done out of an attempt to address overproduction, but clearly leads to massive amounts of social waste, when much of what is thrown out could easily be repaired and even made of a better quality in the first place. But under socialism, changes made to produce more reliable and long-lasting consumer goods would not be undertaken in order to limit economic growth, but rather the natural resources and labor time that are presently wasted on various disposable consumer items could be redirected toward much more important tasks. This would actually lead to the much more rapid and greater development of the economy, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Consider smartphones. Currently a large majority of the US population owns a smartphone, and they are typically replaced every 2.5 years or so. This is pretty wasteful because a lot of mining is done to produce all the materials needed by smartphones, and the technology for recycling them is not so developed. Almost all of what’s being thrown away is still quite useful; it’s just not the “latest thing.” There is a certain amount of recycling that happens via the used market (people who obsessively buy the new iPhone every time are likely to sell or trade in their own ones) but generally the way these things are sold and made obsolete impels the production of quite a staggering number of them every year.

Imagine instead phones designed to last 5-10 years, get upgraded and change their components but are supported for a long time, have a lot of replacement parts, are designed to be very durable, repairable, and recyclable, etc. Producing such phones will, assuming they really can last and be used for 5, 6, 7, 8 years or more, of course require a period of expanding phone production to bring everyone over to those phones, but once they’re “out there” there will be fewer phones produced every year, fewer sold, and thus just looking at the raw numbers this sector of the economy will shrink, with perhaps some of the machinery used being adapted to other purposes. All of this will free up time and resources to do other things, and thus keep developing the productive forces. And this is just dealing with one particular consumer good.

What’s more, even an advanced capitalist country like the US, many still live in extreme material deprivation, and there is a need to not only redistribute existing commodities (e.g. there is more than enough empty housing to house all the homeless people in the US many times over), but also significantly develop the economy to overcome the contradictions between town and countryside in numerous respects and transform the economy in a thorough-going fashion.

As you no doubt know, after socialism, communist society too is not a static state, it opens the doors to the unprecedented all around development of human society in hitherto unseen ways. You may find Mao’s remarks in A Critique of Soviet Economics on the importance of developing the productive forces to be of interest in this regard. We are very interested in continuing the discussion and debate on this and other important topics with you comrades!

– Maoist Communist Union (MCU)

RK: “In defense of degrowth”

We are getting back to you on the topic of climate change and degrowth. We apologize for our late response, but we found it necessary to take some time for research and internal discussion before writing a response. Moreover, we have been tied up with other tasks. We want to emphasize that even though we are not always able to respond in a timely fashion, we do value correspondence like this, and consider it absolutely necessary to develop a correct political line on different topics.


You write: “while we agree with the view that the climate crisis is inextricably bound up with capitalism, we do not agree that the main issue is economic growth”.

Indeed, the climate crisis is inextricably bound up with capitalism, but the abolition of capitalism doesn’t necessarily imply sustainable development as long as the economy relies on growth. Consider Stalin’s “basic economic law of socialism”:

The essential features and requirements of the basic law of socialism might be formulated roughly in this way: the securing of the maximum satisfaction of the constantly rising material and cultural requirements of the whole of society through the continuous expansion and perfection of socialist production on the basis of higher techniques.[1]

This economic law is different from the one governing the current capitalist system in that the driving force is not the accumulation of capital for its own sake, but the consciously planned satisfaction of human (material and cultural) needs. However, there is an inherently anti-ecological element to this economic law, as it presupposes that the “material […] requirements of the whole of society” are “constantly rising”. The socialist economy must indeed satisfy the material and cultural needs of humanity, and the cultural needs of humanity will indeed constantly increase as the fetters of capital are no longer an impediment on our development as full human beings, but why would the material needs of society “constantly increase”?

On climate change being caused mainly by economic growth, you write that “[t]his, in our view, is a liberal framing of the issue.”

Could you elaborate on this? How do you define “liberal” in this context? In our experience, liberal “environmentalists” (understood as adherents to the capitalist system) rarely frame climate change as related to economic growth, as this would require an ideological break with capitalism. Rather they tend to point a finger at individual consumption patterns, while at the same time spreading illusions about the possibility of some “sustainable” or “green” growth under capitalism. Degrowth as a conscious economic strategy (i.e. not negative economic growth as a result of a crisis) requires a planned economy which is not based on the principle of capital accumulation. We are struggling to understand what this has to do with liberalism as it is commonly understood.

It is likely true that some new technologies will be needed to heal parts of the ecosystem, but the actual solution to the climate and ecological crises cannot be technological. If this had been the case, then it is not entirely clear why these crises couldn’t hypothetically be solved within capitalism (and indeed, liberal “environmentalists” do rely on “research and tehnological development” as the solution to climate change). The implication seems to be that the problem is not about the objectification of nature and its reification in the form of “natural resources”, causing in the long term a metabolic rift, hindering nature’s ability to reproduce itself, but rather simply that capitalism is not effective enough, and that socialism would be more effective. Socialism would indeed be more effective at technological development, but an increase in efficiency does not necessarily correspond to progress in solving the climate and ecological crises, considering that capitalism as well has significantly increased in efficiency ever since the start of the public awareness around the climate crisis (and before that, since capitalists knew about the climate crisis).

On economic growth and productive forces

“Economic growth” can be roughly defined as an increase over in the aggregate output of goods and services over time, usually measured as GDP change from year to year. In an economy based on commodity production, aggregate output is measured as the sum of all exchange values (that’s what GDP is). In an economy which is not based on commodity exchange, output has to be measured differently, as the volume of actual use values (1000 tons of steel, a million liters of milk). Either way, growth means an increase in output. On the other hand, the productive forces are the combination of means of production with human labor power, by which humanity transforms natural resources into use values such as food, clothing, machines, houses etc. In the capitalist mode of production these use values are treated as commodities (including services) which are sold on the market. Under capitalism the development of the productive forces is placed in the service of economic growth, but under socialism it doesn’t necessarily have to be so.

It is correct that the productive forces must be rapidly developed under socialism, but this does not equal “economic growth”. We have claimed that the economy must be shifted away from economic growth (i.e. constantly increasing output of goods and services), not that the further development of the productive forces is unneccessary. It is perfectly possible and desirable to develop the productive forces in an economy, yet at the same time decrease the total transformation of nature and the output of goods; i.e. accomplish the development of the productive forces and “degrowth” at the same time. Actually, development of the productive forces is a prerequisite for degrowth; your smartphone example illustrates this.

We can give another example. Let’s say you have 10.000 workers working with wool spinners, spinning 5 kgs of wool each worker each day. This gives a total yield of 50.000 kgs of wool in a day. Let’s say that we replace some of those workers with modern and automatic wool spinning machines, so that each worker is able to produce 50 kg of wool each day. 1000 workers can now produce an amount of wool that required 10.000 workers before. We could now either use the new machines at their top speed to maximise output (that is, pursue growth), or decide to use the freed-up productive forces to produce higher-quality clothing that lasts longer. A sweater that had to be replaced once a year now only has to be replaced every two years. Now we only have to produce 25.000 kgs of wool each day. Each worker now only needs to work a little fraction of the time they previously spent on making wool. The productive forces have increased enormously — we now have the power to produce much more wool than before with fewer workers — but since the quality of the clothing has increased and there is a reduced need for wool consumption, the economy is shrinking.

A major problem with constant economic growth is that it requires an ever growing energy expenditure, and large-scale energy production inevitably comes at a cost on climate and/or nature. This is not a minor side problem. Even if the burning of fossil fuels were eliminated on a world scale (this is highly unlikely!) the finite character of earth’s resources will set limits to growth. The sun is a renewable energy source, but it cannot be used for electricity production without solar panels. In a steady-state economy it is possible to sustainably use non-fossil energy sources without encroaching on nature, but as long as the economy needs to be constantly growing, one would have to build constantly more solar panels on constantly larger areas of land. You simply cannot have growth without destroying either climate, nature, or both. What we need now is to reverse this situation. Long-term remediation might include removing windmills as part of restoring nature, but you cannot remove windmills, if you need more energy. This is the catch-22 for a society dependent on economic growth; it simply cannot solve the climate crisis without at the same time destroying nature.

You write:

Addressing the crisis will actually require sustained growth to have enough social surplus to invest in environmental remediation, fund massive R&D efforts to solve various issues in agriculture, energy production, build new transportation networks, etc.

You say that we need sustained growth to “to have enough social surplus to invest in environmental remediation” as well as various research and development efforts. It is true that all of this will require a significant social surplus, understood as that part of the social product which does not go to reproducing labor-power and means of production and therefore is available for profit or new investments. However, as long as there is a social surplus available, there is no need for sustained economic growth to finance remediation, research and development efforts — all that is necessary is to shift the social surplus from profits to social investment. U.S. corporations made 11,8 trillion dollars in profits last year.[2] Let’s say that the U.S. has a revolution, all corporations are socialized within a year, all profits are abolished and the economy is shifted from a growth economy to a steady-state economy (neither negative nor positive growth). In this hypothetical (and granted, impossible) scenario, there would suddenly be 11,8 trillion dollars available every year for environmental remediation, research and development efforts and other social spending, just by eliminating profit!

You write:

the issue with capitalist production and the environment is not due to economic growth per se, but rather the antagonistic contradiction between man and nature under this mode of production is an expression of the contradiction between value and use value in the very commodity form itself.

This is correct. And of course, economic growth is not wrong in every situation. When we talk about “degrowth”, we are talking about the total economy in the world today. This has to be reduced, because the energy needed for this production is destroying our living conditions (nature and climate). It’s today not possible to reduce the impact on climate and nature of the industrial revolution undergone under capitalism, without another social revolution which replaces economic growth with economic degrowth on a total. Some areas of the economy will of course still need to grow in order to facilitate solutions that can balance human needs with the limits set by the climate and nature, while at the same time allowing for remediation of the damages that have been done.

You write:

under socialism, changes made to produce more reliable and long-lasting consumer goods would not be undertaken in order to limit economic growth, but rather the natural resources and labor time that are presently wasted on various disposable consumer items could be redirected toward much more important tasks. This would actually lead to the much more rapid and greater development of the economy, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

We are not sure what you are thinking about in the last sentence. We think about “economy” as measurement of production. Hence larger economy is synonymous with more production. All production needs energy, and hence we cannot, under the current circumstances, have net-growth in the global economy. If this is what you are thinking about in this sentence, then we disagree. If, on the other hand, you are thinking about the productive forces, and/or quality of what is produced, we can agree.

Marx envisions a society where humans “rationally regulat[e] their interchange with Nature”:

Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.[3]

On the opposite end, capitalism means predatory, short-term and greedy extraction of resources from nature. Today the impact is already being seen. In nature there are several “ecological tipping points”, where gradual quantitative changes suddenly reach a threshold and cause large, irreversible changes. Some examples of this are:

  • When the populations of animal species are reduced gradually over time until a threshold is reached, after which they suddenly go extinct
  • When deforestation of rain forests leads to decreased amounts of rain, which in turn causes the forest to erode and turn into desert (the forest itself creates the foundation for rain, and not the other way around)[4]
  • When global warming causes various changes such as the thawing of the arctic tundra, which in turn cause more greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate climate change in a negative feedback loop

Regional and sectoral growth, global degrowth

We believe it is urgently necessary to halt and reverse economic growth on a world scale in order to avoid irreversible climate change and in order to heal the metabolic rift between humanity and Nature. Obviously this shouldn’t just mean a quantitative shrinking of global output without consideration to the needs of particular regions, countries and sectors; it is necessary to reverse the uneven development that is driven and exacerbated by the capitalist-imperialist world system.

In Norway, only 40-50% of the food we consume is produced domestically, and we are increasingly dependent on imports, mostly from EU countries.[4] Fish from Norway is shipped to China on large freighters for filleting and packing, before being shipped back to the European market (some of it is even sold in Norway!).[5] This is “rational” from the point of view of monopoly firms, but highly irrational from the point of view of humanity and Nature. It would obviously be less costly to the climate if the fish was filleted and packed in Norway, even though it would be more expensive for Findus due to increased wage costs. An expension of the filleting and packing industry on the Norwegian coast would lead to growth on a local, sectoral level, but contribute to degrowth on an international level, as it allows for a decrease in international shipping (note that global shipping contributes 3% of global carbon emissions)[6].

By way of a conclusion

All this tells us that the only way to avoid an all-out climate and environmental catastrophe is a revolution in the way we live and produce, and a basic change in the way we relate to nature. Notably, the global burning of fossil fuels has to be reduced drastically in the short turn. The principle of “growth for growth’s sake” must be replaced with “the satisfaction of human need within ecological limits”.

For anyone who has some interest in the facts regarding human effect on the climate and nature, it is not hard to come to the conclusion that economic growth is the cause of the problem, and not part of the solution. We know perfectly well that the term “degrowth” was not coined by Marxists, but by liberal environmental activists and researchers within the bourgeois academy. However, this is no reason to completely reject the insights of degrowth studies — rather we should draw from their positives while critiquing their limits.

The logical conclusion of a genuine commitment to degrowth is that capitalism must go. Young environmental activists across the globe are increasingly becoming aware of this, but they lack a feasible alternative, as the only feasible alternative is one that necessitates a revolutionary break with the current system. Our task as communists working within the environmental movement should be to point out the impossibility of solving the climate and environmental crises under capitalism, and to wrest the movement away from reformist tendencies step-by-step. It is our firm belief that only the proletarian revolution can solve the problems that are being posed by the environmental movement.


[1] Stalin, Economic Problems in the USSR (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1972), 40-41.

[2] U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Table 6.16D. Corporate Profits by Industry”. No date. Accessed June 17th 2023. https://apps.bea.gov/iTable/?reqid=19&step=3&isuri=1&1921=survey&1903=239

[3] Marx, Capital Vol. 3, (Marxist Internet Archive), chapter 3: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/subject/hist-mat/capital/vol3-ch48.htm

[4] Sommer, Lauren; Seyma Bayram. “Why deforestation means less rain in tropical forests.”  NPR. April 2nd 2023. https://www.npr.org/2023/04/02/1167371279/why-deforestation-means-less-rain-in-tropical-forests

[5] Kildahl, Kjersti. “Ti fakta om norsk matindustri – status og utvikling.” Nibio. April 12th 2021. https://www.nibio.no/nyheter/ti-fakta-om-norsk-matindustri–status-og-utvikling

[6] Ibid.

[7] Transport & Environment. “Ships.” No date. https://www.transportenvironment.org/challenges/ships/ https://www.transportenvironment.org/challenges/ships/

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