By Don Fitz
The year 2023 saw the hottest Summer on record in the northern hemisphere while those in the southern hemisphere felt the hottest winter on record. It was followed by a Fall with terrifying storms and floods across the globe. The number of people attributing climate catastrophe to economic growth is mounting.
Not all agree that growth is the problem. Some respond that growth is here to stay and that the concept of “degrowth” is idealistic nonsense.
Many of the accusations against degrowth have been answered. Jason Hickel’s book Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (2020) is perhaps the best known and most readable. An excellent collection of articles (Planned Degrowth and Sustainable Human Development) is available in the July/August 2023 edition of Monthly Review.
Is “Degrowth” Anti-Worker?
One accusation still seems to lack an adequate response: Is the US working class inherently anti-degrowth because it would mean a massive loss of jobs? This makes it appear that pro-growthers have never heard of a shorter work week. It would be the first consequence of degrowth. For many US workers, actually having a 40 hour work week would be welcome relief.
So, are workers inherently against degrowth? My family, friends and neighbors generally work for a living and not a single person has ever told me, “I would hate a shorter work week.”
One of the greatest problems for US workers is absence of health care as a human right. Despite the rantings of insurance company apologists, Medicare-for-All would cost much less. It is another way that degrowth would play out. In my book on Cuban Medical Care, The Ongoing Revolution, I document that Cubans have a longer life expectancy than do those in the US, while costs in Cuba are less than 10% per person per year of US costs.
Since the book was published, research has shown that Covid reduced life expectancy by almost three years in the US while it actually went slightly up in Cuba. A health system which focuses on preventive care, maternal care and child care saves more lives and is vastly less expensive than one that focuses on insurance, providing too little care for those who need it most, giving too much treatment to some, over-medicating millions, and offering luxury hospital rooms.
No working person has ever said to me that “I want my elderly relatives to choose between treatment and food and I want super-expensive care that is less effective because that is what helps the economy grow.” With genuine degrowth, the cost for health care might not be just “less,” but could be much, much less and would result in longer lives.
There are several other things that I have never heard from working people…
I have never heard a truck driver say, “I want to buy things that fall apart quickly so I have to go out and buy another one that won’t work, go out of style or become obsolete. If products were built so that people could repair them themselves and would last a long time, that would mean fewer jobs; so, businesses should manufacture as much junk as possible.”
No secretary has told me, “I love food that travels for 2000+ miles before getting to me, has lost most of its nutritional value, and can contaminate everyone who eats it due to its chemical content. Having good food grown locally would mean fewer jobs.”
No grocery store checker has ever told me that he really wants packaging that costs almost as much as the product, banking with ever-increasing fees, insurance that does not pay when he needs it, and incessant advertising on TV, radio and billboards. These are just some of the ways that capitalism creates useless jobs which do not improve people’s lives and whose reduction or abolition would contribute to a shorter work week.
The other day an image of Dracula gazed at me as the phlebotomist put a rubber cord around my arm and I waited to hear if she would say, “I would hate having a smaller economy because that would mean that fewer people would get cancer from radiation and toxic chemicals. There would be fewer jobs from producing poisons and fewer jobs for every type of health care worker. I would be happy to increase cancer risks for myself, my family and my neighbors if that means more jobs.” For some reason, those words were never spoken.
Who Dislikes Degrowth?
So where are all these working people who passionately hate degrowth? They must be hiding behind a tree or underneath a bed because I have never run into them.
Maybe there is a place they could be where I never looked – they could be in the offices of union bureaucrats writing articles about how labor supports the corporate ideology of growth.
Actually, the claim that “working people are against degrowth” may well ring a bell for many. Those who work in armaments production as well as veterans and others who simply accept militaristic propaganda may be against degrowth because there is no way to degrow without massively shrinking the US military.
Degrowth means shifting resources to colonized peoples both inside the US and globally. The essence of degrowth is (a) decreasing useless and harmful production in rich countries, (b) increasing the production of necessities in poor countries, (c) while making sure that (a) is greater than (b). Growth does not and never has meant improving the quality of lives in the poor world. In contrast, reparations are essential for degrowth.
Saying that degrowth would never happen because working people would be against it is not only wrong – it is grossly immoral.
Abortion rights provide an illustration why. A majority of working people currently support women’s right to have an abortion. The reason to support abortion rights is not because most of labor is in agreement – the reason is that protecting women’s lives is the right thing to do (regardless of whether or not it is popular).
What does one do when confronting an opinion that does not jive with the mood-of-the-day? The movie Matewan portrayed a union organizer constantly struggling to overcome prejudices. He did not ignore them or cowtow to them.
Today, most progressives would agree that, when faced with those who hate Blacks or sympathize with efforts to eliminate Jews or Palestinians, it is necessary to confront them.
If it is good to challenge those who attack one group of humanity, then why would it be bad to challenge the destruction of all of humanity, as the ideology of infinite growth would set the stage for? Growth means expansion of fossil fuels, increased electronic colonialism (i.e. “alternative” energy), and extermination of Life on land, in the air and within the oceans.
Who Represents Workers?
Two common mistakes about American workers are that they all think the same and that thinking is represented by union leaders.
Anti-degrowthers often give the impression that they confuse the word “workers” with “unions.” At last count, only about 6% of US private sector workers are in unions and union bureaucrats often do a terrible job of representing them. Certainly the masses of union members did not ask or consent to their “leaders” conspiring with bosses to build “Free Labor Development” that would crush militant democratic unions internationally as Kim Scipes so carefully documents.
A core aspect of today’s union leadership is its intimate ties to the Democratic Party, one of the two giant corporate parties in the US. If union big shots oppose degrowth, that hardly condemns the idea as being opposed by all workers.
The portrayal of labor as a uniform blob who all think the same (“growth = good; degrowth = bad) is more than a little bit condescending and insulting to those of us who sell our labor power for survival. In addition to Democratic Party loyalists, “working people” includes millions who switch from one party to another, those who do not identify with any party, right-wing Trumpsters, and, yes, moderate and revolutionary socialists and anarchists. Union history is a mixed bag of the most magnificent heroes to the most vile traitors to inter-ethnic and international labor solidarity.
The UAW strike that began in September 2023 manifested a union waking out of its nearly century old Rip Van Winkle state to rediscover the demand for a 32 hour work week. Let us hope that this foreshadows a reawakening that spreads throughout labor, unorganized as well as organized.
Capitalism without Exploitation?
“Bread and butter” unionism is dedicated to preserving capitalism while getting a bigger and greasier pork chop before those in other countries do. “Social unionism” challenges capitalism’s assumption of that some should be vastly richer and more powerful than others.
Degrowth will require redefining every aspect of the economy, beginning with the length of the work week and extending to what is produced and relationships between those involved in production. Unionism that accepts capitalism as eternal would be poorly suited to such a task. Unionism that proudly announces its goal to be building a new world from the ashes of the old would be the cat’s meow.
You may have heard of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Ever since 1905 it has consistently sought to unify all working people, not just in the US, but across the globe. Perhaps it is time for existing unions to either emulate the IWW or be replaced by it or other solidarity unions that will seek to liberate humanity from the chains of corporate growth, whether they reside in the imperialist homeland or the colonized world.
Proposing growth without racist colonialism makes as little sense as advocating capitalism without exploitation. Colonialism was the method by which corporations amassed the “primitive accumulation of capital” which Marx wrote about.
Belief that the economy must grow assumes the eternal existence of capitalism. Genuine degrowth means reorganizing society so that destructive and useless production is brought to an end while protecting the well-being of all involved in affected industries. A total redesign of society could begin with a shorter work week and then expand to establishing new relationships, whether in an office or at a health facility or a factory. For the working class to take control of the economy and metamorphose it will be degrowth realized.
Is it time to ask if the concept of growth is what is inherently anti-worker? A shorter work week is the rock on which degrowth stands. If not that rock, it is the name of the rock that David put into his sling and hurled into the head of the corporate system called “Goliath.”
Don Fitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, where a version of this article originally appeared. He has been the St. Louis Green Party candidate for County Assessor and candidate of the Missouri Green Party for State Auditor and Governor. He is author of Cuban Health Care: The Ongoing Revolution (2020).