Nick Dyer-Witheford, Bue Rübner Hansen and Emanuele Leonardi
QUESTION 1: How do you define degrowth?
Nick: Over the last few years the intensifying climate emergency and other ecological crises has stirred a surge of interest in left versions of “degrowth”. Publication of the English translation of Kohei Saito’s Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism, due on Jan. 31, 2023, is clearly keenly anticipated. Yet some theoreticians and activists, such as yourselves, have been working at an articulation of “degrowth” with “Marxism” for some time. To start with an elementary question, how would you define “degrowth”, and what part does it play in your political projects?
Lele: I’d go with three definitions of degrowth; the first expresses a shift from social movements associated with the alter-globalization cycle of struggle to more recent manifestations of the anti-austerity cycle of struggle; the second, in parallel with the concept of Environmental Justice, directly concerns the link with Marxism and engages with the state of affairs just before the global climate strikes of 2019; the third is connected with ecosocialism and gives us a hint of where we stand now. These three definitions can be elaborated:
a – Kallis, D’Alisa, Demaria (2015): „Usually, degrowth is associated with the idea that smaller can be beautiful. Ecological economists define degrowth as an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that will reduce societies’ throughput of energy and raw materials (Schneider et al. 2010). However, our emphasis here is on different, not only less. Degrowth signifies a society with a smaller metabolism, but more importantly, a society with a metabolism which has a different structure and serves new functions“.
b – Akbulut, Demaria, Gerber & Martinez-Alier (2019): „Degrowth and Environmental Justice are complementary – EJ lacks a broader theoretical roadmap while degrowth lacks a wider movement […] [A good starting point for this endeavour] “can only be world-systemic and class-based […] Whereas Marxism emphasizes the capital vs. labour contradiction, both degrowth and EJ emphasize the contradiction between capitalist growth vs. living conditions […] [The core idea is that] “Unlike traditional labour movements, EJ and the degrowth critique do not usually focus on the capital vs. labour conflict within processes of (re)production, but are rather concerned with the defence of the community, its territory and the environment against capitalist accumulation. In other words, the focus of EJ and degrowth is often less on the conditions of production and more on the conditions of existence and reproduction of society“.
c – Loewy, Akbulut, Fernandes & Kallis (2022): „Ecosocialist degrowth can only win through a confrontation with the fossil oligarchy and the ruling classes who control political and economic power. Who is the subject of this struggle? We cannot overcome the system without the active participation of the urban and rural working class, who make up the majority of the population and are already bearing the brunt of capitalism’s social and ecological ills. But we also have to expand the definition of the working class to include those who undertake social and ecological reproduction, the forces who are now at the forefront of social-ecological mobilizations: youth, women, Indigenous peoples, and peasants. A new social and ecological consciousness will emerge through the process of self-organization and active resistance of the exploited and oppressed“.
More than the actual content of these definitions, what counts is the trajectory: from ‚less‘ to ‚less but different‘, then from ‚class-based‘ to exercised by an ‚expanded working class‘.
As it stands now, degrowth intersects my main research project as it opens pathways to investigate the ecological dimension of class composition, and is politically useful insofar as—after having supported workers‘ mobilizations (see the GKN case in Italy)—it contributes to build class-sensitive ecological imaginaries.
Bue: Lele has provided a precise and nuanced overview of the shifting and flexible meanings of degrowth. The idea of degrowth is both politically and intellectually generative and serves to knit together other concerns and desires in a not always systematic way. Perhaps because degrowth is a relatively new movement without a big and inert class constituency, its proponents are relatively free to refine and redefine the meaning of degrowth in the face of criticism and contemporary developments. This makes degrowth discourse dynamic, nimble, and frustratingly hard to pin down for people who prefer that terms have fixed and limited meanings.
So rather than define degrowth, we can trace shifting definitions as Lele does above, or ask: what is the problematic of degrowth? That is, what intellectual and practical problems is it formulated in response to? The problematic of degrowth starts from the now well-established ecological undesirability of economic growth (in the Global North and on an aggregate global level) due to its close relation to ecosystemic harm and destabilisation. In response to this problem, it develops a critique of growth-orientated and growth-dependent economics, policies, and modes of life—as well as alternatives to all of these. Obviously this critique is a serious affront to most politicians, state managers, and capitalists. But it also offers a serious challenge to traditional left wing politics.
Degrowth constitutes an important rupture with 20th century socialist thought, whose problematic was, crudely put, how to manage the extreme increase in the productive forces. For social democrats this has meant harnessing capitalist growth in the name of socio-economic progress and stability, while for socialist communists this meant expropriating capitalist property in order to achieve the full development of the forces of production to satisfy human needs and create a realm of freedom. For all these conflicting socialisms, expanded material production was seen as a solution to the problem of scarcity and toil. This ultimately Christian view on labour and life, was brought to prominence in political economy by Malthus, and remains, as Giorgos Kallis has argued in Limits, a feature in much Marxism and in Keynesianism.
You ask what role degrowth plays in my politics. Put briefly, it helped me settle some incipient critiques of growth I had before I encountered degrowth and before the ecological problem became central to me. I came of age in Denmark where Social Democrats adopted the politics of racist exclusions and attacks on pensions, students, and the social wage, were all legitimated with reference to growth. The refrain was: “we all have to work more to secure the welfare state”. The lesson I draw was that a politics that makes social justice dependent on growth (because this increases the tax-base and the scope for wage gains) will always attack social justice when growth is threatened or absent. This intuition became solidified for me by engaging with social reproduction feminists, autonomists as well as left communist writings. I also spent several years of my childhood and youth in Tanzania, where I saw how the “economic development” entailed not just greater consumptive powers for many (especially of imported goods like textiles and mobile phones), but displacement of subsistence farmers from their lands, destructive plantation economies, and urban slum formation. This experience made me receptive to Fanon’s suggestion that “We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe”.  For me, a certain kind of Marxism helped formulate these critiques of growth. Later, when I finally made the problems of the planetary ecological crisis central to my work—belatedly, like so many others—all this made me quite open to degrowth.
Built by people engaged in intellectual pursuits (critiques of economics and economic policy) and prefigurative social experiments, the critique of growth is often and unsurprisingly accused of being “middle class” by socialists. The point here is rarely to question the class-belonging of degrowthers (because most vocal socialists are themselves a part of the “professional middle class”) but questioning whether degrowth is in the real or perceived self-interest of “the working class”. It has often been pointed out that this understanding of class is rather narrow—the critique of growth is recurrent in communist, feminist, and anti-colonial thought.
Moreover, it’s worth remarking that degrowth offers its own sustained critique of middle class politics. Degrowth rejects the growth dynamics that have created this class, it rejects middle class lifestyles and aspirations that define it. Unlikely bourgeois class traitors of yore, like Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Negri, etc., who could join large, combative working class movements, the contemporary degrowthers of middle class background came of age during the crisis of the workers movement. So degrowth—while closely aligned to the alter-globalisation movement—was never an explicitly class-based critique of capitalist society. But things may not stay this way, as degrowth authors adopt more explicit class discourses. And the rapprochement may be mutual: in the German speaking world, for instance, more and more unions are engaging in open exchanges with degrowth proponents.
These unionists have realized something some middle class socialist writers haven’t, namely that degrowth is neither austeritarian, technophobic, or primitivist. The fact is that degrowth has developed a notion of wealth which rejects the false choice between infinite growth and scarcity, and the weird, bourgeois-masculinist idea that our needs cannot be satisfied without ever-deepening control over “nature”. And those are a point that resonates strongly with my understanding of Marxism, because why else would growth become an obsession in a world of literal plenty, if not because “scarcity” is constantly reimposed through competition, private property, and theft?
QUESTION 2: Is degrowth a bad term?
Nick: In a recent interview Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the climate change novel The Ministry of the Future, says ”I don’t like the term degrowth because it seems wrong to me, as being some kind of capitulation to the current definition of “growth” that is quantified by GDP and GWP—in effect, growth of profit, as being the only rubric or measurement system we use.” He goes on to remark that degrowth is not a good term “because there are at least two billion people living in misery, and we need them all at adequacy (another good word) before we can say we are doing well as a civilization.” What do you think of that critique of “degrowth” terminology?
Lele: I’m not a big fan of debates about terminology because they tend to emphasize the distance between supporters‘ ideas (about degrowth, in this case) and sceptics‘ perceptions/projections, preventing bridge-building. KSR in this interview is no exception. To me, the question is: does a certain field of reflection/activism (in this case, degrowth) belong to my „part“? If so, I open a channel of communication to see whether some issues which are of vital importance to me can be integrated to such field of reflection/activism. If not, I criticize/oppose it. In both cases, the label is not that important—and in any case, it can be ‚expanded‘: our mailing list is named ‚Degrowth Communism‘ and our collective reasoning can be confused with a „capitulation to the current definition of ‚growth'“.
As for the poverty issue, I find the following reflection quite convincing: Parrique (2022):
„We live in a world where poverty remains and those with unmet needs require more resources to satisfy them. We also live in an ecologically-constrained world struggling to cut emissions as fast as possible. In that context, by reducing consumption in the global North (and more generally for all of those who are over-consuming), one could free some of these resources for the people who need it the most. Ensuring basic needs and well-being for all necessarily implies limiting consumption in high-income regions and wealthy households in order to enable resource-poor countries and households to reach decent standards of living. In other words, degrowth in the global North is a prerequisite for sustainable development in the global South“.
Moreover, to recall again Loewy, Akbulut, Fernandes & Kallis (2022):
„It is well known that the Global North is historically responsible for most of the carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. The rich countries must therefore take the larger part in the process of degrowth. At the same time, we do not believe that the Global South should try to copy the productivist and destructive model of “development” of the North, but look instead for a different approach, emphasizing the real needs of the populations in terms of food, housing, and basic services, instead of extracting more and more raw materials (and fossil fuels) for the capitalist world market, or producing more and more cars for the privileged minorities“.
Bue: I totally agree with Lele that any terminological debate over the phrase “degrowth” must be secondary to bridge building the degrowth movement, and communists and socialists who are sceptical of the term. In fact, the term “degrowth communism” implies not just that such a bridge is possible, but that it is desirable and in some sense necessary. I don’t think this question can be answered with reference to whether Marx was an ecosocialist or degrowth communist (very much) avant la lettre, but I do agree with Kohei Saito, that the later Marx is compatible with degrowth communism.
Since I started discussing the concept with Nic Beuret back in 2019 (I was editing his critique of the Green New Deal, in which he coined the term), degrowth communism has never appeared to me as a fully formed idea or even an attractive slogan, as much as a challenge to thought. Because what does it mean to bring degrowth and communism together? This is a spicy question, given that state socialism did not provide an alternative as much as a slower version of capitalist predation of nature, given that most Marxisms adopted Marx’s early Promethean approach to technology, and given that much of the green movement, from which degrowth stems, has a history of anti-communism and anti-Marxism. To understand why degrowth and communism may need to be brought together, it’s useful to look at their respective strengths and weaknesses, which are rather complimentary.
Marxism has its own critique of growth, which connects to capital’s compulsion to grow—think of concepts such as surplus value, accumulation, formal and real subsumption, expanded reproduction, and imperialism—all concepts of growth. Economically, capital is dependent on surplus value generation—the basic and most essential form of growth under capitalism—without which there can be no interest payments on loans, no rental payments, no profits, and hence no investment, hence crisis. Moreover, the stabilisation of social conflicts under capitalism requires a growth that goes beyond capitalists’ requirements: there must be a taxable or otherwise redistributable surplus to pay for police and courts, and welfare and wage rises to otherwise restive workers. But this only amounts to a critique of capitalist growth and how growth is leveraged to secure capitalist hegemony.
From an ecological perspective, degrowth is much more radical. It stresses that compound economic growth, often considered in terms of ecological economics as material and energy throughput, is ecologically destructive and unsustainable, also when managed on a non-capitalist basis. Thus, degrowthers have done impressive amounts of work establishing the possibility and desirability of non-growth economics and modes of life. You can see why degrowth becomes a reference point for many Marxists and communists who take the ecosystem crisis seriously. In fact, we may question if there can be any renewal of communism, which does not build on the problematic of degrowth (i.e. the ecological critique of growth and the question of post-growth economics and modes of life).
Conversely, Marxism and communism have important things to contribute to degrowth. Degrowth tends to speak in a straightforwardly normative register, stressing the different socio-economic arrangements that are necessary and desirable to end the destruction of climate and ecosystems. But while it is true that a phase-out of growth is necessary, and that it is desirable that it is managed and planned, this does not prove that an orderly phase-out of growth is possible. Given capitalism’s dependence on growth, it is hard to imagine any absence of growth, including degrowth, which will not be highly tumultuous and conflictual. And while scientific necessity has clearly inspired many people to direct action, and has fostered experiments with sustainability, it is very far from moving a decisive number of people. Here a core lesson of communist politics is that broad social transformations from below are unlikely except where people’s faith in and reliance on the status quo are shaken, and they become open to reimagining survival and who they are in the world. Another lesson is that as long as growth means jobs, wages, livelihoods, welfare, social peace and the promise of progress for vast numbers of people, it will remain a beacon of hope or nostalgia. Except, that is, if the absence of growth is accompanied by deep transformations of economic relations, from expropriations of wealth of the rich, to the socialization of housing, land, utilities, and core factories. In short, it seems degrowth is unlikely to get mass support without communist measures.
QUESTION 3: Technology and biocommunism
Bue: Nick, you have made great contributions to the Marxist study of technology. But your work has also undergone a quite significant shift from a Promethean affirmation of the inherent communist potentialities of technological development towards a closer attention to the catastrophic ecosystemic effects of the development of the forces of production. Today, climate policy targets depend on technological fixes to do a fossil-fuel phase out without sacrificing growth and capital accumulation. Some of these technologies have a deus ex machina character, like fusion energy and yet-to-be scaled carbon capture technologies, while others require an extreme expansion of global mining and of non-agricultural land-use (under conditions of declining farm yields). How do you see the role of technology and technological development in biocommunism?
Nick: Just for the benefit of readers, the “biocommunism” essay to which you refer speculates on new forms of communism that may arise in an “age of catastrophes” (Callinicos 2022), in which capitalism decomposes, either in a gradual degradation, or with explosive rapidity, under the combined forces of economic, epidemiological, ecological and geopolitical crisis. And yes, I have altered my perspective on technology since I first used the term “biocommunism” in the early 2000s, because of the intensification of climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis, critical collaborations undertaken with other authors on the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) (Dyer-Witheford, Kjosen and Steinhoff 2019) and the influence of outstanding work of eco-Marxist scholars, such as you and Lele!
Marx saw capital as an intrinsically machinic system; the very form of the wage relation drives individual capitalists to competitively automate, changing capital’s overall “organic composition” in the direction of mounting machine dependence. He denounced the exploitative violence of this process, in which machinery “pumped out” surplus value from workers and then discarded them, but also saw the rise in industrial productivity generated by machines a prerequisite for a socialist or communist society.
I think that on balance, Marx was, as Amy Wendling (2011) argues, a techno-optimist, who believed the machinery of capital would be taken over by socialism/communism to create a plenitudinous society, but that this vision is shot through with more somber apprehensions and a nascent ecological critique that Kohei Saito (2017) and others has valuably unpacked. Within the Marxist tradition different thinkers and schools have emphasized different aspects of this ambivalence; for example, in the autonomist Marxism all three of us are familiar with, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s (2000) Empire adopted a cyborg optimism while George Caffentzis (2013) and Silvia Federici (2012) embraced relentless techno-critique.
I tended to the former position. Now, however, I think the positive and negative effects of capital’s vast techno-apparatus cannot be easily sorted out by any diachronic, before-and-after logic, whereby what was negative under capital will become a positive in socialism or communism, or by a synchronic claim that technologies wielded destructively by capital against labour become benign when repurposed by workers against capital. As revolution has been delayed and defeated, the destructive effects of the expanding forces of production amplify, and the more deeply imbricated and laminated together are the two sides of this process; abject poverty declines, but the planet over-heats, bringing new ruinations by fire and flood.
Confronting climate change, the “progressive” side of capital is making belated and half-hearted efforts to pry these fused dynamics apart with a market-led energy transition. But as you suggest, Bue, it is doubtful this can be done within an accumulatory system whose destructive but profitable effects outpace innovations intended to abate them. Falls in the market price of solar and wind energy are so-far largely overrun by ongoing fossil fuel extraction and the carbon emissions of deeply embedded industrial and agricultural systems. Even if green capitalism is successful in avoiding the worst of global warming, it may prove a nightmare in which use of renewables becomes a license to obliterate every trace of a natural world without anthropic utility.
My most recent speculations on “biocommunism” (2022) conceive it as a successor system to capitalism in which expansion of the force of production is not the prime directive but subordinated to collective planning oriented to equalitarian and ecological—“equalogical”—priorities. Such a system does not preclude researching and investing in techno-scientific breakthroughs that might maintain or increase material production without ecological devastation. But it would also recognize that radical social reorganizations, including measures such as consumption taxes on the global rich, maximum income limits, planetary energy rationing, and changed dietary norms, may be more important in remedying eco-crisis—both in the short- and long-run—than projected techno-innovations that never come, or come too late, or perpetuate ultimately unsustainable practices, or that when they arrive, worsen the problem they are meant to alleviate.
Once the accumulative compulsion of capital is subtracted from the social equation, can its technological legacy be disentangled or “salvaged” (The Salvage Collective 2021) to operate in accord with a different logic? It may be that, as comrades of the communisation school wager, we confront a techno-system locked to capital by a set of intractable path dependencies (Bernes 2013). But, alternatively, removing the power of profit may make possible what at the moment seem implausible or even chimerical “reconfigurations” (Toscano 2014), such as a high-tech de-growth, in which digital networks and algorithmic calculation help coordinate a planned reduction of material throughputs in the world’s rich zones, rather than speeding their runaway expansion. The crucial aspect of biocommunism is, however, that its social praxis would face these questions without capital’s machinic a priori.
 On 9 July 2021, Melrose Industries announced the closure of its GKN Driveline (ex-FIAT) factory of car axles in Campi di Bisenzio, Florence, and the layoff of its workers (more than 400). While in many such cases the workers and unions settle for negotiating enhanced redundancy benefits, the GKN Factory Collective occupied the plants and kickstarted a long struggle against decommissioning. However, what makes the GKN Florence dispute really unique is the strategy adopted by the workers, who sealed an alliance with the climate justice movement by drafting a conversion plan for sustainable, public transport and demanding its adoption. Such strategy engendered a cycle of broad mobilisations—repeatedly bringing tens of thousands to the streets—so that the dispute is still open, and the factory remains under occupation as of today.
 Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis, “Is Green Growth Possible?,” New Political Economy 25, no. 4 (2020): 469–86; Jason Hickel et al., “Urgent Need for Post-Growth Climate Mitigation Scenarios,” Nature Energy 6, no. 8 (August 2021): 766–68.
 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Grove Press 1968), 312
Bernes, Jasper (2020) “Communism Might Last a Million Years.” Commune Magazine no. 5, https://communemag.com/the-shield-of-utopia/
Caffentzis, George (2013) In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
Callinicos, Alex (2022) “The New Age of Catastrophe: Alex Callinicos’s Farewell Lecture.” (Video). YouTube, 23 April, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-DTifOGfM4
Dyer-Witheford, Nick (2022) “Biocommunism.” PPPR, https://projectpppr.org/populisms/biocommie-power-and-catastrophe
Dyer-Witheford, Nick, Atle Mikkola Kjøsen and James Steinhoff (2019) Inhuman Power: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Capitalism. London: Pluto Press.
Federici, Silvia (2012) Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.
Kallis, George. Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care, 1st edition (Stanford, California: Stanford Briefs, 2019).
Kohei, Saito (2017) Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. New York: NYU Press.
Hart, Michael and Antonio Negri (2001) Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Parrique, Timothée (2022) “Sufficiency Means Degrowth.” Resilience, 6 May, https://www.resilience.org/stories/2022-05-06/sufficiency-means-degrowth/;
The Salvage Collective (2021) The Tragedy of the Worker: Towards the Proletarocene. London: Verso.
taken from here