Political geography professor Matthew Huber argues that degrowth is middle class environmentalism and cannot hope to connect with the working class. Degrowth intellectual Jason Hickel responds, echoing environmentalist Chico Mendes, who said that “ecology without class struggle is just gardening”. He writes that “degrowth is justice” and that recognising this is “part of building class consciousness against the ideology of capital.”
Economic historians Schmelzer et al. point out the stabilising effects that growth has had on society, such as the emancipation effects of some types of growth. For instance, Britain’s economic reliance on coal and, therefore, coal miners, empowered the miners’ unions. They organised successful strikes in 1972/74 to gain a decent pay rise. But it is only when an industry is highly labour-reliant that workers have power. When an industry is in decline, workers have very little power. The miners’ strikes in the 80s over pit closures were not successful because the Thatcher Government believed that the economy need not be reliant on coal – and it was motivated to break the unions. Other civil liberties groups joined the miners, seeing the strikes as a battle for social democracy against deregulation and privatisation that would decimate the public welfare system of the UK. Thatcher’s defeat of the unions paved the way for neoliberalism.
To bring this back to Hickel’s paper; he argues that degrowth can be a new battleground for the working class in terms of calling for redistributive justice. Global North nations have sufficient wealth to provide wellbeing to all their citizens even as they downscale throughput, but the benefits of wealth must be more evenly shared. Degrowth will require processes of decommodification, expanding the commons and switching from production organised around exchange value to production organised around use value.
This would cause a huge and dynamic reorganisation of industries, deeply affecting the working class. Degrowth needs working class assent. The question for the working class is, will they gain greater emancipation from future growth or future degrowth? I believe part of the answer could be to work with unions to build scenarios of growth and post growth futures for their industries and communities to reveal differences in opportunities for emancipation and resilience. They may see things in degrowth worth fighting for, and value in building solidarity in a global labour movement toward degrowth.
- The Case for Socialist Modernism by Matthew Huber
- The Anti-colonial Politics of Degrowth by Jason Hickel
- A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism by Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan, and Andrea Vetter
Featured image: Adi Goldstein on Unsplash