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Capitalism, the growth imperative and (human) nature

Degrowth transformations cannot but start out from what currently exists, that is, capitalist societies. Thus, an understanding of capitalism is a prerequisite for theorising such transformations. Drawing on selected ideas of Karl Marx, supplemented with insights from a range of other social theorists, the chapter unfolds such an understanding. In doing so, it focuses on the capitalist growth imperative and on capitalism in relation to work, consumption and nature. It also takes up the question of whether egoism and greed are universally dominant human attributes. This issue is of key importance as deep social change beyond capitalism is only conceivable to the extent that human beings are able to manifest and nurture existing human qualities which transcend egoism and greed. The chapter argues that indeed human beings have that capacity.

Historically, humankind survived and advanced because humans lived in groups in which they learned to collaborate and divide tasks and in which they developed and used tools. This division of labour resulted in a differentiation of roles among members of society. In the earliest times, when productivity was low and members of society lived near the subsistence level, the differentiation was probably not very hierarchical. Yet as productivity increased with the innovation of ever more advanced technologies, it became possible for small classes of individuals to escape ordinary, physically hard labour and perform other societal functions. From this point onwards, hierarchical, class-based societies emerged and developed. These were societies in which members of lower classes performed the work needed to support all of society while members of higher classes – from slave owners in ancient Greece and Rome, over feudal lords in medieval Europe to capital owners in all capitalist societies – enjoyed the privilege of not being directly involved in the production of everyday necessities while still benefiting from them (Hunt 1975: 3–4).

In the present chapter we turn our attention towards capitalism. Doing so in a book on degrowth transformations is relevant insofar as the capitalist organisation of societies and the capitalist growth imperative are – as noted in the Introduction – root causes of the multidimensional crisis currently facing the earth and its inhabitants. As degrowth transformations cannot but start out from what currently exists, that is, capitalist societies, a holistic understanding of capitalism is a prerequisite for being able to theorise such transformations. By a holistic understanding we mean an understanding that takes into account capitalism’s means of subsistence as well as effects on nature and human (and other) beings, instead of merely considering it narrowly as an economic system. In this context, we take up the question of whether egoism and greed are universally key human attributes. This issue is of key importance to any consideration of deep transformations, as deep social change beyond capitalism is only conceivable to the extent that human beings are able to change or manifest existing human qualities which transcend egoism and greed. Throughout the chapter we take selected ideas of Karl Marx as our point of departure, supplementing them with insights from a range of other social theorists along the way.

The growth imperative

Capitalism is a complex system of structures and other mechanisms, which is continuously transformed and reproduced through the activities of actors. The reproduction of the class structure through day-to-day working processes or the use of commodities and money through practices such as buying a cup of coffee is typically not the intended outcome of individual action (Koch 2020a). Unintended structural consequences follow from practices such as working and shopping because these phenomena are embedded in wider sets of, often unacknowledged, social structures, including the commodity form of work products, money and capital.

As countless scholars have observed, both in the degrowth literature and beyond, capitalism is structurally reliant on economic growth for its stability. For Marx, the origin of the imperative of capitalist economies to expand in scale and grow in value lies in the logic of exchange relations, especially the money form. He associated capitalism with endless M-C-M' cycles, where capital as money (M) is invested, then assumes commodify form (C), before it again assumes money form with added profits (M') (Marx 1990: 247–257). The amount of money invested in the beginning of the cycle (M) is transformed into a larger amount at the end of it (M') via wage labour using natural resources to produce commodities (C). Capital accumulation, then, depends on capital owners making profits by initiating the production of goods and services and subsequently being able to sell them (Jessop 2002).

Wage labour entails a commodification of work which occurs because employees have no alternative but to offer the only commodity at their disposal on ‘labour markets’. Employees, in other words, exchange their capacity to work for a wage and are then forced to accept the right of their employer (the capital owner) to reap the profit (or absorb any losses) that results from the sale of the goods and services they have produced. Analysing the last step in the M-C-M' cycle, Marx (1990: 728) observes that there is ‘not one single atom of its value that does not owe its existence to unpaid labour’. Further to this, the ‘ownership of past unpaid labour is thenceforth the sole condition for the appropriation of living unpaid labour on a constantly increasing scale’ (Marx 1990: 729).1 Capitalism, then, is a system that is based on and produces deep inequalities.

The social structure of capitalism is complex and contradictory. Under feudalism, the vast majority of the population were bondmen and bondwomen subject to direct legal and political domination by feudal lords.2 Capitalism came to coexist with legal independence and political equality for citizens, including the right to be geographically mobile within the jurisdiction of the state. Citizens, including wage labourers, formally became politically and legally free to, for instance, vote and start a business. Nevertheless, they remained socially unequal in that most people found themselves having nothing to sell but their labour power while being separated from the means of subsistence such as land.3 The production and reproduction of this inequality became one of the central questions for the social sciences from Marx onwards.4 In addition to exploitation related to class differences, capitalism exhibits other, often intersecting (de los Reyes and Mulinari 2020), inequalities pertaining to, for example, gender, race and age.5

Capital accumulation generally unfolds in the context of corporate competition, that is, rivalry between firms for profits and market shares (on capitalist competition, see Buch-Hansen and Wigger 2011). In its most intense forms, competition ‘strikes not at the margins of the profits and the outputs of the existing firms but at their foundations and their very lives’ (Schumpeter 1947: 84). If they wish to survive, capitalist firms have no choice but to compete. The capital accumulation process, then, instils a grow-or-perish logic in the corporate sphere, as a result of which the interactions of capitalists can become like ‘a fight among hostile brothers’ (Marx 2006). Under this system, to avoid going out of business, companies seek to increase their productivity by being ever more efficient. As for capital owners, they are constantly watching out for investment opportunities that yield higher returns (extra profits) than those they get on their existing investments. In the words of Streeck (2016: 206), ‘Social institutions that demarcate areas of trade against areas of non-trade, from national borders to laws prohibiting, say, the sale of organs, children, or cocaine, will find themselves under pressure from profit-pursuing actors seeking to extend economic exchange across demarcation lines.’

As a historical system, capitalism has been defined by making ‘structurally central and primary the endless accumulation of capital’ (Wallerstein 2000: 147). Certainly, other systems, including ancient civilisations and feudal societies, knew commitments to accumulation of wealth, especially the expansion of territory and riches earmarked for particular purposes such as the building of palaces or pyramids. Yet in such systems the pursuit of profit for its own sake tended to be seen as deviating from the norm. In medieval Europe, for example, economic interests tended to be subordinate to religion and the quest for ‘salvation’ (Weber 1958). Consequently, before the 1820s, when economic growth accelerated in the context of the Industrial Revolution, economic activity around the world was characterised by periodic swings, yet expanded only by an average of 0.05% annually, due largely to slow population growth (Maddison 2001, 2007; see also Büchs and Koch 2017: chapter 2). In comparison, the annual average compound world growth rate was 2.21% from 1820 to 1998 (Maddison 2001: 28). Considering the nature of the capital accumulation process and the actual history of the capitalist economic system, there is little to suggest that a smaller and overall non-growing economy is potentially compatible with capitalism as a few scholars have suggested (e.g., Lawn 2011; for a critique of the suggestion, see, e.g., Spash 2020). By implication, far from being a process that can be reconciled with capitalism, degrowth points beyond and stands in opposition to it.

Work and consumption

In the chapter’s introduction we noted how human beings have historically advanced as a species by dividing tasks. Marx (1875) viewed the division of labour as the necessary precondition for the ‘all-round development of individuals’ and their productive powers. Far from viewing economic growth as an ahistorical and quasi-eternal goal of economic action, he regarded economic expansion and a simultaneous intensification of the division of labour as a temporary and historically specific necessity to reach a development stage in which basic needs can be satisfied relatively easily, and where social actors are able to devote more time to purposes other than economic ones (Koch 2019a). He famously distinguished between the ‘realm of freedom’, which ‘lies beyond the sphere of actual material production’, and the ‘realm of physical necessity’ of material production, which can be temporarily reduced but not eliminated. Indeed, he was optimistic that the development of the productive forces under capitalism would create conditions making possible a reduction of the time devoted to material labour. Like many contemporary degrowth proponents, Marx viewed the shortening of the working day as the basic prerequisite for the realm of freedom to blossom (Marx 2006: chapter 48; see also Saito 2023: 238–239).

In capitalism, work is organised around the production of goods and services that the employer can sell with a profit, the very profit that allows capitalists to sustain and increase their powers. ‘Workers’, writes Harvey, are hereby ‘put in a position where they can do nothing other than reproduce through their work the conditions of their own domination’ (2014: 64). Work assumes the form of a paid activity that an individual performs in accordance with goals and procedures determined by the employer. The typical worker in capitalism, then, is an individual ‘who produces nothing she or he consumes and consumes nothing he or she produces; for whom the essential objective of work is to earn enough to buy commodities produced and defined by the social machine as a whole’ (Gorz 1989: 22). To the extent that the concrete work process of products is dominated by the valorisation process of capital, the employee is estranged or alienated (Marx 1977), not just from the products he or she contributes to producing, but also from nature, fellow humans and community. Alienation from nature can result from the work taking place in locations with a lack of access to nature, such as cities. It can also result from attributes of the workplace, the nature of the work itself and from long working hours that ‘tie’ the worker to the workplace.

Degrees of exposure to alienation vary with the position of the individual worker in the division of labour of a company. Ultimately it is a question of the extent ‘to which involvement in one’s work implies the enrichment or sacrificing of one’s individual being. After my day’s work, am I richer or poorer as a human being?’ (Gorz 1989: 80). Though, potentially, work can be a source of fulfilment, personal growth and learning, a space where one’s creativity can be exercised, the bulk of work under capitalism does not leave those who carry it out richer as human beings. The notion of alienation is therefore as relevant to the type of industrial work that was performed in the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the Industrial Revolution in Marx’s lifetime, as it is to much work in contemporary capitalism. Cases in point include the work performed by today’s global working class, most of which is located in developing and rising economies, and the widespread and growing existence in developed countries of ‘bullshit jobs’ (Graeber 2018), that is, jobs in, for example, financial services, administration, corporate law and public relations that are, according to the workers themselves, essentially meaningless and unnecessary.6

This brings us to the issue of the technology of work. As an economic system, capitalism is, on one hand, characterised by a ‘strange stillness’ in the form of the recurrent pattern of the M-C-M' cycle, a pattern which is repeated over and over again (Sewell 2008). On the other hand, there is flux. As a result of competition and the accumulate-or-perish logic, companies continuously reshape and innovate technologies, products and organisational forms to succeed in capitalist markets. The history of capitalism has thus been marked by deep changes in technologies and organisational forms – and these changes have, in turn, been accompanied by radical transformations of work. Much of the technological change that has happened over the course of capitalist history has been used to disempower and replace workers, in other words to the opposite of enriching their being (Harvey 2014: 270). Such transformations have been guided by what André Gorz referred to as economic rationality: the aspiration to use the factors of production, labour power included, as efficiently as possible to maximise profits. The economic rationalisation of work sweeps away ‘the ancient idea of freedom and existential autonomy’ and ‘produces individuals who, being alienated in their work, will, necessarily, be alienated in their consumption as well and, eventually, in their needs’ (Gorz 1989: 22).

As noted above, Marx (1977: 94) pointed to ownership of capital as the condition for accumulating more capital. He observed that

private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it – when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc., – in short, when it is used by us. … In the place of all physical and mental senses there has therefore come the sheer estrangement of all these senses, the sense of having.

Building on these and other observations, German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm later developed an elaborate distinction between what he called the mode of having and the mode of being. The modes constitute two different ways of existence, two different orientations towards oneself and the world, which shape how a person thinks, feels and acts (2013: 21). The mode of having prevails under capitalism and is thus the mode we will focus on here – in later chapters we deal also with the mode of being. In the mode of having, a person’s relationship to everything and anybody in the world is one of wanting to possess and own it/them. The relationship between the having person and what she owns is one of deadness: she has things because she has made them hers; but conversely things have her in the sense that her identity rests on what she has – money, stuff, prestige etc. – and what she consumes (2013: 21). Fromm notes that the most important form of having is consumerism and that the attitude inherent in it ‘is that of swallowing the whole world’ (2013: 24).

Pierre Bourdieu (1984) points to correspondence between individual consumption and positions in social space, especially class positions (see Koch 2019b). The cultural sphere is regarded as a site of symbolic struggles over the societal acceptability of lifestyles in which the dominant class manages to maintain a hierarchy of cultural forms that subjects all consumptive acts to the legitimate taste (its own). This process is objective and effective insofar as it operates largely independent of the (manipulative) intentions of dominant groups. While members of the middle and working classes may eschew legitimate cultural practices or regard them with suspicion and disdain, the position of the dominant class at the pinnacle of the cultural hierarchy normally goes unchallenged because it appears to be built upon ease, casualness and natural superiority. The competition for positional goods (Hirsch 1976) is mediated through a social logic referred to by Bourdieu (1984) as distinction, perceived as natural differences. The result of the naturalisation of the specifically capitalist character of production and consumption relations is that economic growth appears to be the ideal breeding ground for upward mobility and progress and in everyone’s interest. With regard to production relations, a strong work ethic seems to be a worthwhile and rational individual strategy to ‘get ahead’, while in consumption, growth guarantees the creation of ever-new generations of consumer articles which are the material basis for individual distinction.

In capitalism, then, competition exists far beyond the marketplace. Fromm notes that a society revolving around profit and property produces a social character oriented around the having mode of existence, due to which key attributes of the relation between individuals are antagonism, competition and fear.

If having is the basis of my sense of identity because ‘I am what I have,’ the wish to have must lead to the desire to have much, to have more, to have most. In other words, greed is the natural outcome of the having orientation. It can be the greed of the miser or the greed of the profit hunter or the greed of the womanizer or the man chaser. Whatever constitutes their greed, the greedy can never have enough, can never be satisfied.

(Fromm 2013: 97)

Fromm observes that in capitalism, ‘the having mode of existing is assumed to be rooted in human nature and, hence, virtually unchangeable’ (2013: 86). This brings us to the question of human nature.

Human nature

The classical liberal creed asserts that human beings are innately egoistic, greedy, atomistic, coldly calculating, lazy and generally independent of society (Hunt 1975: 55). It is moreover assumed that it will benefit both the individual and society at large if such human beings are given the unrestrained freedom to compete in capitalist markets. In The Wealth of Nations, for example, Adam Smith (1976: 454) writes that

every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society.

The notion that the actions of all humans flow from them being, in their essence, egoistic utility-maximisers has survived to this date, most notably in the homo economicus (economic man) of mainstream neoclassical economics.

Marx (1977, 1990) adopted a fundamentally different perspective, one involving a distinction between human nature in general and human nature as it is affected by a given type of society. As regards human nature in general, productive labour is held to be at the core of its essence. ‘It is just in his work upon the objective world … that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life’, writes Marx (1977: 69). Although other species are also productive, building nests and dwellings for themselves and their young, only human beings produce with tools. As a result, the productive powers of human beings – unlike the productive powers of other species – develop over time, and what is being produced takes a greater variety of forms than does the production of any other species. Moreover, only human beings produce even when they are free from the physical need to do so (1977: 68).

Seen from this perspective, human beings are not egoistic, greedy and competitive because their human nature dictates them to have such character traits; rather, the extent to which they are egoistic, greedy and competitive is a result of their character being moulded by the specific societal context in which they are situated. Instead of claiming that human beings are driven by egoism and the desire to maximise material gains, Marx claims that the way human beings produce in a specific spatio-temporal context has a decisive impact on his/her thinking and desires (Fromm 1961: 12). Consequently, being shaped by – and in turn contributing to shaping – the transformation of their natural and social environment, the concrete psychology of human beings will differ from one setting and one era to the next (Collier 2004: 25).

If engaging in productive labour is at the core of what defines human beings, it follows that the alienation of such labour under capitalism can only impact the inner being of humans in profound ways. In the words of Collier (2004: 25),

the alienation of the human essence – productive labour – creates a totally different moral atmosphere from that, which, if Marx is correct, is natural to humankind. It makes people egoistic, not only in the sense that it sets everyone in mutual competition for survival, and thus corrupts our relations with our fellow humans, but also in the sense that it destroys our feel for the intrinsic value of things.

The commodification of labour under capitalism runs deeper than labour power itself being a commodity. It is not just that people come to experience themselves as commodities to be sold; it is also that, simultaneously, they have to act as the sellers of that commodity (Fromm 2013: 127). Because success depends on how well a person is able to sell him or herself in competitive labour markets, a decisive issue becomes how nice a ‘personality package’ that person is or can appear to be. That is, how reliable, robust, ambitious and so on he or she comes across. Offered for sale on the ‘personality market’, personality structures come to continuously adapt to the employer’s desires and thus to exhibit great plasticity. Being saleable becomes the overriding concern of human beings. Associating this state of affairs with the having mode of existence, Fromm (2013: 86) notes that while humankind’s biological urge for survival tends to further this mode, greed, selfishness and laziness ‘are not the only propensities inherent in human beings’.7

As mentioned in the introduction to this chapter, the question of human nature is crucial when theorising degrowth transformations. Were capitalism a system existing in natural extension of an immutable human nature, deep transformations along the lines of degrowth would be ruled out. Fortunately, human nature is not fixed once and for all. Rather, as already noted, it is shaped by pre-existing social structures and cultures. Whereas capitalism produces ‘as a chief incentive the desire for money and property’, different ‘economic conditions can produce exactly the opposite desires, like those of asceticism and contempt for earthly riches, as we find them in many Eastern cultures and in the early stages of capitalism’ (Fromm 1961: 11). Under different socio-economic circumstances, then, greed and selfishness may become less prominent features of the personalities from which peoples’ actions flow. In the words of Kallis et al. (2020: 42–43):

To keep systemic expansion going, growth imperatives are internalized in life purposes and identities, making it feel like the impetus for growth is in our DNA. But … [h]‌uman nature offers many possibilities: we can be selfish and we can be altruistic, we can want more and we can do well with less, we can accumulate but also share. Which propensities get cultivated and which ones constrained depends on sociocultural systems.

Further to this, it can also be noted that several degrowth scholars have referred to human needs theory (e.g., Büchs and Koch 2019). Such scholars, for instance, draw on Max-Neef’s distinction between universal needs and culturally, socially and locally specific needs satisfiers (Max-Neef 1991; see also Chapters 5 and 7). This distinction draws attention to how, on one hand, human beings, qua their biological nature, universally have various needs in common and, on the other hand, to the specific spatio-temporal social conditions in which human lives are lived.

The capitalist consumerist culture incentivises people to work hard and long so as to be able to purchase commodities and commodified experiences. These commodities and experiences replace deeper, more enriching and lasting satisfactions (Soper 2020: 55). While human nature is shaped by consumer culture, it is not dictated by it. Human agency and inner being possess emergent properties making them irreducible to structures and discourses. A person can thus live in a capitalist consumer society without (entirely) internalising the prevailing culture of that society. Indeed, many people under capitalism live lives that are shaped by altogether different discourses, discourses that do not equate the ‘good life’ with consuming fashion items, air travel, cars, electronic goods, spacious accommodation and so forth. And there is growing realisation that the consumerist lifestyle is a source of over-work, depression and health problems (Soper 2020: 54). Even so, people in capitalist consumer societies are generally slow to change their lifestyles in ‘a less energy-intensive and climate-adverse direction’, both because they face many structural and cultural barriers such as the consumerist culture (Næss 2010: 69) and because the desire to have more is deeply ingrained in the social character (Fromm 2013).

In this and the preceding sections we have considered some key features of capitalism and some of the ways in which this economic system affects social life and the inner being of humans. As such, our perspective on capitalism so far has been an anthropocentric one. In the following section we broaden the perspective to situate capitalism in relation to the natural environment.

Capitalism and nature

Fundamentally opposing views as to the relationship between expanding capitalist market economies and the natural environment can be found in extant scholarship. Mainstream neoclassical economics regards the growth of monetary value as indefinite. Economic processes are conceptualised as if they were a closed system within which flows of services and goods are compensated by financial flows in the opposite direction. Energy, other natural resources and the earth in general are treated as if they were infinite and/or irrelevant. In this view, then, ‘nothing enters from the environment, nothing exits to the environment. It does not matter how big the economy is relative to its environment’ (Daly 1991: xiii). Yet economics has not always been synonymous with a science of prices, economic value and monetary growth. Political economists of the pre-industrial period did not conceive growth in abstract, quantifiable terms (Dale 2012a, 2012b) or as a key policy goal for governments.8 Although Smith, David Ricardo and other classical economists pointed out that it is labour that produces exchange value, they did not go as far as to leave out nature from their analysis of economic processes (Koch 2012: 18).

For Marx, who witnessed a largely industrialised economy where most labour products had taken the form of commodities that were produced for the purpose of exchanging them on markets, labour is the connecting link between nature and human beings. In order to survive, humans must interact with nature and transform natural raw materials into use values. Building on Justus Liebig, Marx viewed this metabolism between human beings and nature through the labour process as an anthropological constant, as the ‘everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence’ (Marx 1990). In this view, human life and society are embedded in and dependent on nature and the two are considered to exist in a dialectical relationship in which they continuously shape one another. In the words of Marx (1977: 67), ‘That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.’

Under capitalism, the endless accumulation of capital is, as mentioned, made possible through the appropriation of unpaid labour or its product. Yet Marx (1990: 134) also observed, following William Petty, that ‘labour is not the only source of material wealth, of use values produced by labour. … labour is its father and the earth its mother’. To put it differently, the capital accumulation process is premised on production processes combining labour power with land, raw materials, fuels and the like. The C in the M-C-M' cycle, then, refers to commodity production processes that, in addition to creating increased exchange value, also involves the use and the destruction of nature. Gorz (1980: 20) notes that this destruction is inevitable: ‘The earth is not naturally hospitable to humankind. Nature is not a garden planted for our benefit. Human life on earth is precarious and, in order to expand, it must displace some of the natural equilibriums of the ecosystem.’ All human activities and social forms inevitably affect nature, but they can reshape it to smaller or larger extents and do so in more or less destructive ways. Capitalism is an extraordinarily destructive system, a system under which nature has been reshaped more than under any other system.9

Further to the above observations regarding the alienation of work and consumption under capitalism, Gorz (1989: 86) writes that ‘learning to work means unlearning how to find, or even to look for, a meaning to non-instrumental relations with the surrounding environment and with other people’. In his analysis, the dominant culture in capitalism leads people to treat nature and fellow human beings in instrumental ways, doing violence to them. This violence is seen ‘in the functionality both of our everyday tools and of the objects and spaces we have designed to support and contain our bodies: chairs, tables, furniture, streets, means of transport, urban landscapes, industrial architecture, noises, lights, materials and so on’ (1989: 86). Again, it is important to recognise that there is a scale of violence. While some transactions with nature, such as fracking and large-scale conventional agriculture, are extremely violent, other transactions, such as small-scale organic agriculture, are hardly violent at all.

The logic of capital accumulation pushes companies to not only produce an ever-expanding range of commodities but also to invent ever-new wants that can be satisfied by means of these commodities. Historically, this process has resulted in (over)production divorced from basic or universal needs as defined by scholars such as Max-Neef or Doyal and Gough. And in parallel, it has resulted in the consumption of ever more nature. While the logic of capital accumulation reigns supreme, this process will not end until all of nature has been consumed. As an economic system, capitalism ‘cannot help but privatise, commodify, monetise and commercialise all those aspects of nature that it possibly can. Only in this way can it increasingly absorb nature into itself to become a form of capital … This metabolic relation necessarily expands and deepens in response to capital’s exponential growth’ (Harvey 2014: 262). Because it unfolds under the condition of competition which forces individual companies to speed up the overall turnover process as much as possible, the use and commercialisation of nature is continuously intensified and expanded, subsuming new geographical areas.

Though capitalist development cannot and does not get rid of the material and energy sides of production altogether, it nevertheless tends to negate and dispel them as much as possible (Burkett 1999). Whereas money and valorisation are quantitatively unlimited and, hence, reversible, natural resources are generally limited as the result of which the consumption of them is irreversible. The earth’s stock of fossil fuels, in particular, is confined, and the existing stock can only be burnt once.10 These contradictions and limits nevertheless place an expiry date on a growth-dependent economic system such as capitalism. When that date is depends on how successful capitalists are in pursuing their objectives: ‘a way of life that bases itself on materialism, i.e. on permanent, limitless expansionism in a finite environment, cannot last long, … its life expectation is the shorter the more successfully it pursues its expansionist objectives’ (Schumacher 1993: 121). Still, capitalism exists, and, while it is not exactly thriving (see, e.g., Streeck 2016), it continues to overall grow five decades after Schumacher made this observation – and indeed after the Club of Rome published its Limits to Growth report (Meadows et al. 1972). While environmental limits to capital accumulation certainly exist, such limits will not by themselves bring an end to capitalism. Capital accumulation seems likely to continue well into the future, while the earth becomes increasingly uninhabitable for an ever-greater number of human and non-human beings.

Recognition of biophysical limits and the social and ecological downsides of endless growth led to the establishment of the field of ecological economics within heterodox economics. Pioneered by thinkers such as Georgescu-Roegen (1971), Herman Daly (1991) and Inge Røpke (2004), the field views economy and society as subsystems of nature. In the words of Clive Spash (2020: 2), reality is ‘a hierarchical structure with the economy emergent from and embedded in social relations, while social and economic systems are also subject to biophysical structures and their law like conditions’. In this view, capitalist growth some decades ago passed a point beyond which it became uneconomic in the sense that its social and ecological costs came to exceed the benefits of growth (Daly 1991). As mentioned above, ecological economics initially constituted the main scientific base for degrowth scholarship (Buch-Hansen and Nesterova 2021). It calls for limiting ‘the physical scale of matter/energy throughput that sustains the economic activities of production and consumption of commodities’ (Daly 1996: 31; see also Puller and Smith 2017).11

The notion of the Anthropocene has been used to describe a new geological era in which the activities of humankind have come to have a significant impact on the climate and ecosystem of the earth. While few deny that the activities of human beings have had and continue to have a massively negative impact on nature, the notion of the Anthropocene has been questioned for creating the appearance that the predicament we are now in is the unavoidable outcome of human biology or that it is an outcome for which all human beings are equally responsible. Yet some countries, classes and human beings are clearly more responsible for it than are others. In the words of Hornborg (2019: 141), ‘the Anthropocene is the creation of a minority of the human species in its struggle to dominate and exploit the global majority’. The consequences for human beings of the violence and irreversible damage done to nature in the Anthropocene are also distributed unequally, with the severe overshooting of the earth’s ecological boundaries having more fatal ramifications for ‘those at the neo-colonised periphery’ than for those ‘in the neo-imperialising centres’ (Soper 2020: 17). The fact that, historically, various modes of production have existed under which humanity did less violence to nature than has been the case under capitalism (Soper 2020) has led some to adopt the notion of Capitalocene (Moore 2017).

In conclusion: from capitalism in general to capitalism as a social formation

In the book’s Introduction we noted that any social phenomenon exists simultaneously on four planes: material transactions with nature, social interactions between people/inter-subjectivities, social structure, and inner being. As shown in the present chapter, capitalism is no exception. Capitalism shapes humans’ transactions with nature by exploiting, commodifying and transforming it into human artefacts at an ever-increasing rate. It alienates people from one another on the plane of social interactions. Its production relations hierarchise people on the plane of social structures. Finally, on the plane of inner being, capitalism brings out, nurtures and rewards greed and egoism, in combination with illusions of meritocracy. It promotes and normalises these traits, rendering opposition to capitalism more difficult.

In this chapter we have dealt with capitalism at a rather general level, for the most part at the level of what Marx called a ‘mode of production’, entailing for example that an abstraction is made from institutional regulation while individual actors are reduced to economic character masks (Marx 1990). Though the analysis of the mode of production allows for insights into the general tensions between economy, ecology and society that characterise all capitalist societies, it does not sufficiently consider how these structural tensions are articulated in actual societies and institutional circumstances.

For example, the long-term expansion of the scale of production and the associated increase in material and energy throughput under capitalism, and the ensuing rise of CO2 emissions and the transgression of planetary limits, can be analysed at the level of abstraction of the mode of production. But such a perspective is too abstract and general to explain why CO2 outputs per economic unit differ from one era to the next or why one capitalist country has considerably lower CO2 outputs per capita than another (Fritz and Koch 2016). The tensions existing within the capitalist class in particular sectors also cannot be adequately analysed at the level of the mode of production. For example, whereas the profits of companies operating in some sectors may be negatively affected by specific forms of environmental protection, companies in other sectors may benefit from it (Görg 2003: 286). And whereas for most entrepreneurs the overconsumption of raw materials and natural resources is a means of valorisation, for others it threatens profitability. When, for example, the rainforest is cut down, it places strain on resources required by the pharmaceutical industry (Dietz and Wissen 2009).

Actual capitalist economies and societies, that is, capitalist social formations (Poulantzas 1968), are far more complex than capitalism viewed as a mode of production. They are dominated by this mode yet also feature elements of non-capitalist economies, corresponding forms of domination and a range of real-type combinations of productive and unproductive as well as paid and unpaid work contexts (Gibson-Graham 2006; Koch 2011).12 And over time social formations change profoundly (Buch-Hansen 2014; Lipietz 1992). In other words, it should be recognised that not only do different, coexisting and competing forms of capitalism exist, but also that capitalism as an economic system is not all-pervasive. In each of the four planes capitalist manifestations coexist with non-capitalist ones (Buch-Hansen and Nesterova 2023). Proceeding along these lines, that is, taking into consideration diversity within and beyond capitalism, the following chapters add nuance to the perspective presented in this chapter.


1 The transfer of surplus labour is hidden through the continuing distortion of specifically capitalist economic categories and social relations into objects and natural features (Koch 2018a). Consequently, while capitalism is premised on the exploitation of employees, it comes to appear as if all labour is paid and as if profit derives from other sources than surplus labour.
2 Bondmen and -women were part of the personal possession of their feudal lords, just as the land or the tools used in agriculture. They were tied to the place where they worked and could not move without the consent of their landlords. Both were politically and legally unequal.
3 Marx (1990: chapter 24) described the historical separation process of labour and land using the example of the Scottish Highland Clearances. This case of ‘enclosing the commons’ gave later rise to the formulation of the general concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (Luxemburg 1951; Harvey 2005), which was applied to processes of corporatisation, privatisation and commodification of previously public assets, from water and public utilities to social housing and academia.
4 This tension between the spheres of production and circulation made Marx regard capitalism as a historical transition period. The experiences of equality, individual independence and mutual respect, associated with the circulation of commodities, awaken and increase the will and the potential in humans to also make these core characteristics of their work relations and hence a post-capitalist mode of production.
5 The latter are forms of ‘exclusion’, denoting a situation in which the material benefits of one group are acquired at the expense of another group, coercive practices being an essential part of the process. ‘Exploitation’ is a specific form of exclusion in that the ‘material well-being of exploiters depends on the effort of the exploited’ (Wright 1994: 40), whereas in non-exploitative exclusion there is no labour transfer from the excluded to the excluding group. The crucial difference is that in the former case, the exploiter needs the exploited, whereas in the latter case the excluding group is sometimes better off if the excluded group simply disappeared (Koch 2017: chapter 1).
6 Schumacher (1993: 39–40), arguing for a Buddhist economics, noted how organising ‘work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal: it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence’.
7 The philosopher Baruch Spinoza thought of greed and ambition not as natural aspects of human nature but as mental illnesses. In Ethics (1677) he makes the following observation: ‘if the greedy person thinks only of money and possessions, the ambitious one only of fame, one does not think of them as being insane, but only as annoying; generally one has contempt for them. But factually, greediness, ambition, and so forth are forms of insanity, although usually one does not think of them as “illness”’ (cited in Fromm 2013: 82).
8 This changed in the course of the nineteenth century, when use values, matter and energy were reduced to abstract numbers and monetary magnitudes started to become a salient feature of economic life. In the first half of the twentieth century, this development reached a new level when, in 1932, the US Congress commissioned the economist Simon Kuznets to devise a means by which to measure the nation’s output. This resulted in the Gross National Product (GNP) and later the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a measure that estimated the market value of all final goods and services produced within a country per year, including the costs of government services (Paulsson 2019). Subsequently, not least in the post-Second World War period, GDP growth became a dominant priority for all countries, informing practices and policies that have deeply shaped societies and the planet (Schmelzer 2016).
9 This is, of course, not to suggest that capitalism is the only environmentally unsustainable type of economic system. Most notably, Soviet communist countries were fossil fuel-based economies that strove for high economic growth rates. As a result, their ecological footprints were very large.
10 Hornborg (2019: 17) speaks of ‘modernity as a social condition founded on the capacity to externalize biophysical burdens and risks’.
11 While it is, as such, not first and foremost preoccupied with GDP growth, limiting the scale of matter/energy throughput to a level where the economy works within ecological boundaries would undoubtedly result also in a smaller GDP.
12 If we do not consider the fact that capitalism proceeds in different growth strategies and modes of regulation, then we run the risk of repeating the errors of earlier generations of Marxists who thought that the social tensions and contradictions inherent in capitalism as mode of production would lead to its inevitable and in some cases immediate collapse.
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Deep transformations

A theory of degrowth


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