Degrowth “This Time Capitalism Really Is About to End”
There have been doubts about the sustained growth of economy and prosperity since the days of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; however climate change has brought new momentum to the debate: does the scarcity of resources herald the end of capitalism? A discussion on the post-growth debate in Germany.
This time it really is for real: this time capitalism has outlived its usefulness. What neither Karl Marx nor Friedrich Engels achieved, what the Russian revolution was not able to accomplish over the long term, what the GDR as purportedly the first social state on German soil did not manage to do – abolish the free market and its rules and power structures – is now set to happen as a result of the foreseeable end of natural expansion potential. “This time capitalism really is about to end”, believes publicist Ulrike Herrmann, who presents her arguments in her book Das Ende des Kapitalismus (The End of Capitalism) in 2022. Without a revolution, without an uprising of the suppressed masses – in fact it will be due to the climate crisis, which will in turn shrink the economy, she says. This will result in a death sentence for an economic system based on growth.
Growth Criticism Is Not New
This opinion aligns the historian and philosopher with the movement of growth critics, which is finding an ever-increasing following in Germany as well. Doubts in an exclusively growth-oriented economic strategy are nothing new. Even the German economic minister during the reconstruction years after the Second World War, Ludwig Erhard, who perceived socialist ideology as entirely harmless, gave it some thought after years of strong growth. Whether after this development a phase would now be coming “when we shall have to ask ourselves which is more valuable,” he speculated, “to work more, or to lead a more comfortable, fuller, freer life and thus consciously forgo some pleasures.”
In the decades that followed, the growth doctrine was criticised repeatedly with varying intensity – partly because the destructive features of excessive resource consumption were becoming increasingly obvious. This criticism reached an initial peak in the Club of Rome report, which predicted the “Limits to Growth” in 1972. On the other hand, the growth-oriented economy brought more wealth for all. Neither the left-wing critics of capitalism nor the growth scepticism on the part of conservative visionaries could do anything about that. The debate gained importance again during the years of the global financial crisis, and even more so as a result of the increasingly urgent issues of climate protection. A tributary of the Rhine that has dried up due to drought: inland navigation on the Rhine was restricted or no longer possible at all in 2022. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance / Daniel Kubirski
An Economy on a Shrinking Trajectory
This is also the backdrop against which the degrowth movement came into being. The term describes the opposite of an economic framework oriented towards permanent growth: a shrinking economy. “We need a radical transformation of the economy,” advocates sociologist Matthias Schmelzer of the University of Jena in support of a departure from the principles of a free market economy. Along with his co-authors, he wrote a book entitled The Future is Degrowth, which pledges to serve as a guide to a world beyond capitalism.
Schmelzer and Herrmann are united in the assumption that the necessary reduction in carbon emissions could not be achieved simply through renewable energies and technological progress. “Green growth is an illusion, because eco-energy won’t be enough” – of this fact Herrmann is certain. Schmelzer points out that annual greenhouse gas emissions would need to drop by ten per cent. “But that’s not possible,” he observes. So further growth is not an option for either of them. But this conclusion is where the similarity ends.
Heading for a “Survival Economy”
Herrmann believes that it’s necessary to restructure capitalism into a “survival economy”. She uses the British wartime economy during the Second World War as a specific model. During this period the state took over broad areas of economic control because a significant percentage of manufacturing facilities was needed for military applications. The government laid down specifications for consumer goods and production for civilian markets. Admittedly factories, farms and small-trade businesses were not nationalised, so the economy remained private. However the state took responsibility for allocation of materials, energy and labour, thus forcing the civil economy onto a shrinking trajectory. Although there was rationing of goods and products, supplies remained sufficient for every household. Herrmann describes the model of a future climate-neutral circular economy as “using shortages for control purposes”. Ideas for degrowth range from state-led shrinking to more of a regional subsistence economy. These chickens in a shop window in Cologne are presumably intended for the latter. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance / imageBROKER / scully As a sociologist, Schmelzer prefers to call it a post-growth period rather than the end of capitalism. The degrowth movement imagines a world that’s ramping down consumption considerably, for instance by means of cooperative production in small communities or sharing consumer goods. Its goal is to create a positive association with lower resource consumption, for example because although less work equates to less money, it does mean a higher quality of life.
The Visions Are in the Early Stages
Ultimately Schmelzer’s concern is to address the fundamental criticisms of the growth maxim: it destroys the ecological basis of human life, alienates people from their work, relationships and nature, and supports capital accumulation and exploitation, particularly of women and inhabitants of the Global South. All this, according to his vision, would be stopped as a result of the economy shrinking in industrial countries and resource consumption being distributed fairly on a global scale.
"We’re only just beginning to cast about for viable concepts," admits Schmelzer. And Herrmann doesn’t map out any concrete path towards an economy that can do without growth and such fundamental capitalist drivers as competition, technological development and greed. So what we need now is workable concepts to keep the degrowth debate going.