I am for the rational planning of the world economy in order to fulfil social need (e.g. free time, housing, healthcare, transportation, education etc.), including the minimization of the work day until its eventual abolition. This would require consolidating current scientific and technological capacity towards the goal of serving these needs. Yet, I feel this usage of scientific rationality for socialist means is often mistakenly coupled with the idea of unconstrained economic growth. In the last couple of years, this idea of growth has become a tension in the Left between the so called “de-growthers” and the “prometheans“, the former wish to contract the economy in order to avoid ecological catastrophe while the latter argues that continued growth and progress are necessary for socialism. The debate is quite muddled, and often it is not really related to technical disagreements in political program relating to economic growth, but instead, to fuzzier aesthetic and ideological concerns between the ecologists and the futurists. On one hand you have quasi-luddites who privilege the local and small over the global and cosmopolitan, and rail against GMOs, and nuclear power. On the other side, you may have sci-fi “communist” types that want to pave the Earth and colonize Mars.
Much of these debates about growth are anchored around ecology and malthusianism – the idea that planetary constraints demand that humanity downsizes and consumes less. However, as a socialist, I am not invested in the tension between mass consumption and an impersonal natural world that I have no affinity with. Rather, I am interested in the liberation of humanity from toil, alienation and material misery. I therefore believe that the idea of unconstrained growth is at best confused from the perspective of a socialist, or at worst, actually detrimental to to the objectives of liberating humanity from quasi-forced labor (wage labor, peasant labor , slavery, etc.). This leftist anchor around growth leads me to argue in this piece the following: (i) growth as a metric for socialism is undefined, (ii) if we measure growth as increased productive capacities then it is antithetical to socialism (productionism), (iii) productionism has a human limit, given that human beings can only be optimized into productive workers at the cost of incredible physical and psychological violence.
Growth, from the perspective of these left debates, is definitely undefined, given that economic growth is usually conceptualized in the context of capitalism. Since GDP growth is the telos of capitalism – the expanding of capital through reinvestment of profit and exploitation of labour, economic growth is a very well defined process within the market and in that sense, it is a “positive” thing. For example, the competency of a politician, whether “left” or “right” is at least partly judged by how much did the GDP grew under their tenure. In the context of social democrats operating within capitalism and the nation-state, GDP growth is important because the satisfaction of social need is the side-effect of a growing economy that can generate new jobs and more tax revenue. However the fulfilment of social need is not the end goal of capitalism, just the potential byproduct of profit. In contrast, the telos of socialism is not capital growth, but the rational satisfaction of social need. Therefore the concept of economic growth in the context of socialist economics becomes undefined. One cannot use a metric defined in relation to the expansion of capital to judge the progress of a society that is focused in satisfying needs related to housing, healthcare, education, reduction of the work day, and transportation. Socialist progress cannot be meaningfully quantified in a metric such as GDP, especially in the maximum program of socialism, which would abolish money and private property.
A more universal metric for growth, as opposed to GDP, may be a productionist metric – a function of how much of a particular industrial output is created. This was more or less the metric used for planning in the USSR , under the famous Five Year Plans. Through a method called “material balances”, the planning agency of the USSR, the Gosplan, would survey all the available raw materials/natural resources, turning them into inputs that where “balanced” with industrial outputs. Given the absurdly high production outputs required by, for example, the first Five Year Plan, which demanded the accelerated expansion of heavy industry at the cost of famines, terror, and slave labor, one could label the USSR as productionist. This historical human cost of industrialization (both in the USSR and the West) leads to my next argument, that the intensification of productionist growth depends on the exploitation of human labour – through either extending the work day so that more industrial output is produced within a single day, or by extracting a surplus that must be reinvested in the development of machinery and techniques.
The history of class society has shown that economic expansion is contingent to the extraction of surplus from human labor. The pyramids, the steam engine, and the violent transformation of peasants to more productive proletarians are a function of the coagulated blood of billions. Economic expansion requires the extraction of a surplus in human labour, whether it is by seizing peasants’ agricultural output, or through the exploitation of proletarians.
Today in the Global North we can see the more humanistic manifestation of the tyranny of economic growth. Although the economy in core states has exponentially expanded in the last century, the length of the work day has frozen for almost a hundred years. Not only has the length of the work day remained frozen, but more intensive techniques are currently applied to dissect the human being in order to rebuild it as a working automation. We see this with the expansion of the work-day into our inner lives, transforming humans into semi-sentient, individual firms. Socializing becomes networking, love a machine learning algorithm to find a mortgage partner, social media a matter of building a brand. This transformation of homo sapiens to homo economicus is hard to describe, but I feel it in the marrow of my bones as an immigrant. Economic rationality controls the way I move my hands in a professional presentation and also structures my speech, demanding that I do not betray my foreign sloppiness. For the sake of career and success I must conceal my spirit, which was shaped by a culture where lines are wobbly, time is erratic, and human boundaries less exact. How could anyone that is human defend this infernal labor camp? This despair makes me sympathetic to “non-model” minorities that are unable to adapt to this padded asylum of white light and right angles, because at some level they are more human than me.
I must reiterate that the above arguments do not necessarily run counter to technological innovation and a planned and controlled growth. My point is that productionism inevitably is a function of human labour, and therefore is at tension with the reduction of the work day. If the priority of socialism is to expand the sphere of free-time, then inevitably, reduction of the work-day will be prioritized over mass consumption and productionist growth. That does not imply that humanity will necessarily live an austere existence with the minimum necessary for survival, but that production will be planned in accordance to use-value, so instead of the bult-in, capitalist obsolescence of large volumes of short-lived consumer goods, we may have a lower volume of long-lived, quality goods. An exact picture of the social reality within a world, planned economy is hard to portray at this moment, but the important point is that productionism and consumerism are antithetical to free time.
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EDIT: I misrepresented Leigh Phillips’ argument, as he isn’t really arguing for unfettered production, rather his argument is against localist imperatives of arbitrary “downsizing”. He instead locates the problem in the fact that capitalism isn’t planned, and we don’t have control on what to produce/stop producing depending on a scientific and planned evaluation of human need and environmental constraints. So the problem is not in growth per se, but the random arbitrariness of the market which cannot be solved even if we downsize if we don’t leave capitalism. To quote Phillips from his book “Austerity Ecology“:
“Instead of next investment or production decision being driven blindly by profit seeking, or consumer purchase made constrained by the need to reduce expenditure, all economic actions occur as the result of rational decision-making on the basis of maximum utility to society. Because this all this is a conscious, planned process and we are no longer beholden to the drive for profit, we would now have the possibility to wait, to hold off for a while until we have sufficient technological innovation to move forward in a way that does not damage the environment in a way that delimits the optimum living conditions for humans.
We can collectively say: Well, now that we have this new efficiency in the production of this commodity, what shall we do with the savings? Shall we increase production? Shall we reduce material use? Shall we increase the overall amount of leisure time available to the labour force?
Capitalism is a problem because in the face of environmental spoilage, it must proceed regardless (not because of growth per se!). Any new innovation permitting efficiency gains will be invested in the optimum way to produce still more capital, even at the expense of environmental despoilment. This is not to say that the capitalist is evil. He is not. He has no choice. Indeed, even if he is environmentally minded, he must still make that choice, or go bankrupt. As Foster writes, and here he is correct, the constant drive to accumulate capital “impos[es] the needs of capital on nature, regardless of the consequences to natural systems.
[…] Democratic economic planning though gives us breathing room. True, we may in principle at some point in the future have to pause some production expansions here or there, for a period. But this is a very different thing from saying there is an upper limit.
Even better, because socialism would permit us to direct investment—including investments in research and development—not merely toward what is profitable, but toward what is most useful, there is every likelihood that growth may actually advance faster under socialism than under capitalism, because more research funding can directed to technologies ensuring we do not damage the environment.”