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May Day – Let us Talk ‘Degrowth’

May 1, 2013

“I saw men on television (trade union stars, Cabinet Ministers, left-wing think tank advisers) visibly hystericized by talking economics: eyes would glaze, shoulders hunch, lips tremble in a sensual paroxysm of ‘letting the market decide’, ‘making the hard decisions’, ‘levelling the playing field’, ‘reforming management practices’, improving productivity’…those who queried the wisdom of floating exchange rate, deregulating the banks, or phasing industry protection were less ignored than washed away in the intoxicating rush of ‘living in a competitive world’ and ‘joining the global economy’.” (Meaghan Morris cited in J K Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2006: 92)

Degrowth, courtesy extraenvironmentalist.com

Degrowth, courtesy extraenvironmentalist.com

Meaghan Morris is talking about Australia, but she could be talking about anywhere in the world and the description would be perfect. This is how capitalism is performed – literally and figuratively. Eyes glaze, shoulders hunch, lips tremble, as policy-makers, media personalities, economists and even those supposedly at the left end of the spectrum, talk about taking hard decisions. Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, P. Chidambaram, to be sure – but also Narendra Modi, LK Advani and even Buddhadeb Bhattacharya (now waiting in the wings, hoping his act isn’t over yet), Pinarayi Vijayan…we could go on.

This May Day, the day of international solidarity of labour, comes to us in some very special circumstances. It comes against the backdrop of heightened attacks on workers’ livelihoods and on their fundamental right to organize and their right of collective bargaining. We have covered and commented on some of the recent workers struggles in the last couple of years in particular on Kafila (here, here, here and here). The most recent post on the attack – on the NOIDA workers tells a story of the creation of luxury living amidst destitution, a story of super-exploitation by the real estate mafia, a story of non-payment of wages and of repression and violence when the workers demand no more than their rightful due.

This May Day also comes as the countdown to the impending 2014 general elections begins and there is frenetic activity in corporate circles and their media houses to determine the political agenda in keeping with their interests. The ‘policy paralysis’ that  afflicts the UPA government, they all sing in chorus, needs to be quickly overcome  – and of course, as has been pointed out by commentators, ‘policy paralysis’ does not mean that Food Security should be rapidly ensured or the Lokpal idea should be immediately put into practice. Rather, it means that the obstacles to growth should be immediately removed. Hard decisions must be taken!

Thus, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, recently underlined that the “Government will need to take decisive action to remove and unclog some of the bottlenecks to help the economy recover to 7% growth as new reforms alone will not be sufficient.” And it was acting on that understanding, widely shared by government and opposition alike, that the Cabinet Committee on Investment had earlier that week, “cleared 25 of the 31 oil and gas blocks that were held up for want of clearances. The committee, headed by prime minister, also cleared 13 power projects, freeing up stalled investment of around Rs 33,000 crore”.

Do we not know what this means – this clearing of oil and gas blocks, this clearing of power projects – all in the name of hard decisions? Do we not know from our recent experience that this will mean more and more loot and destruction of the environment, more brutal displacement of populations? Growth means increased exploitation inside the capitalist production unit (as the Manesar stories linked above show), as much as it means a violent dispossession outside them. A higher growth rate means sharply increased violence inside and outside production sites – at the points where minerals are extracted, where metals are processed, where new units are set up.

Growth, in other words, is not a benign matter. It is malignant from the beginning to the end – except for the rapidly growing cancer cells that today pose the biggest challenge to the existence of the larger body of the cosmos itself. The story of growth is a story of the rapid multiplication of the malignant cells of capital that tend to simply overwhelm and destroy the healthy body.

Cancerous growths

Cancerous growths, Image courtesy autoevolution.com

Mukesh Ambani house that consumes power worth Rs 70 lakh per month

Mukesh Ambani house that consumes power worth Rs 70 lakh per month, courtesy TOI

Today, it is not just a matter of labour versus capital. The antagonism of capital is not with labour alone but with all of society – indeed the entire planet. All life forms are endangered today as the cancer multiplies at more and more rapid rates of growth.

And this is why we need to talk about ‘degrowth’ today. This is why we need to talk, as a growing number of people across the world are beginning to, about the protection of planet by halting and turning back growth. Though the movement that is known today by the name of ‘degrowth’ or ‘post-growth’ actually pre-dates the recent financial crisis, there is no doubt that the crisis has led to a fundamental rethinking not among policy planners but among the ordinary people at large. In the midst of the unprecedented crisis, municipal governments in some parts of the world have found it expedient to encourage various initiatives at developing alternative cultures of repair and recycling. Sample this from a report:

Barcelona is a laboratory for such experimenting with alternative, solidarity-based forms of economy. While many of the city’s businesses are closing, hundreds of cooperatives are being launched there. At the same time, initiatives to recycle equipment and materials are blossoming. In courses financed by the municipal administration, people are learning to sew, restore furniture, and repair household appliances. Neighbours cooperate in urban gardens to raise vegetables for their own consumption. Forms of collaborative consumption are also on the rise. Car sharing is very popular; people are bartering goods and services and jointly organizing children’s day care. Consumers are joining forces to buy directly from farmers in the region, bypassing middlemen. The growing popularity of this “consumo de proximidad (regional consumption) supports organic agriculture at the regional level. The crisis seems to have brought about a new awareness – a growing appreciation of raw materials and resources. But that is not all: the need for structures of solidarity and a fundamental social transformation is on the rise.

The movement towards degrowth or postgrowth does not emerge out of nowhere. Indeed, it builds on earlier forms of production and exchange, which were tied to the needs of the local economies. One such major precursor of the movement could be seen in what is known as the ‘slow food movement‘. Neither the degrowth movement not the slow food movement, it needs to be emphasized, is about asceticism and denial of pleasure. Indeed, as this report argues,

And so it was that exactly 20 years ago, on 10 December 1989, the Slow Food Manifesto was released in a Paris theatre. It was a call to arms for gourmets everywhere. “Against the universal madness of the Fast Life,” the Manifesto declared, “we need to choose the defence of tranquil material pleasure. Against those, and there are many of them, who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of a sufficient portion of assured sensual pleasure, to be practiced in slow and prolonged enjoyment … “

Pleasure, hedonism, enjoyment, tranquility, conviviality, richness; Slow Food has never made any bones about its commitment to the truly sweet things in life.

An entirely different aesthetic, in other words, from the one expounded 80 years ago (1909 was the year the Futurist Manifesto was published) in the very same Italy, by the Futurists that extolled speed and the muscularity of the modern. The idea very simply is to underline that it is possible to enjoy the good things of life only if you have the time – and the inclination – left to do so. Modern capitalist living leaves no such possibility. Life is precarious and always as the mercy of corporations – banks, insurance companies and what have you.

Capital, Marx had concluded from his studies, accumulated endlessly, on an extended/ expanded scale. Accumulation was the essence of capitalism. But where did this value come from – this value that endlessly multiplied itself? Marx’s answer was – and perhaps in the nineteenth century could only have been the one he gave: it was unpaid labour. Everything else was paid for. It was labour alone that was, through different modes of exploitation, made to produce value – surplus value. It would either be absolute surplus value – based on making the worker work more hours, or it would be relative surplus value, based on the introduction of more efficient productive mechanisms and technology so that output per unit of labour would increase even if hours were regulated by law.

What Marx could not have seen and what we can and must is this: As opposed to the 19th century, today we have no doubt that the capitalist has never paid the ecological costs of production. The ecological costs are fundamentally different from the costs of raw materials which are also procured from nature because they include the costs that emerge out of the destruction of nature: costs of the pollution of air, of water, the costs of the radiation that is caused by them and so on. Once we recognize that it is not ‘nature’ or the ‘ecology’ that are the subset of the ‘economy’ (as providers of raw materials) but, on the contrary, the ‘economy’ that is the subset of the ‘ecology’, then we cannot but also recognize that these are costs that must be internalized into the very costs of production. In other words, if capital were to be made to pay not only the unpaid labour of workers but also the ecological costs of production, then the entire idea of accumulation would collapse.

Today, we can no longer talk innocently about ‘growth’ and ‘growth rates’ in the manner in which our neo-liberalizers like Montek Singh Ahluwalia do. Every time we talk about growth and GDP, we must think of factoring in the other costs that go along with them. What we need are more concrete, composite indices that include the devastation caused by high growth rates and high GDPs which will not simply tell us about how much is being produced but also tell us at what cost.

The questions for the workers’ movements here are many and call for some fresh thinking. In the first place, the workers’ movement, especially the trade unions need to overcome their political fragmentation – even before they can begin to think things afresh. For as long as they are divided along party lines and are always ready to jump into knee-jerk competitive political positions there is no hope. There has long been a voice in the trade union movement in India that has argued along these lines, in favour of a Confederation of all workers – a confederation where all party activists work but which is itself independent of all party affiliations. In the second place, they need to think of the struggle not any more in terms of a losing battle of workers against capital but in terms of the society at large versus capital. This means that the struggle must establish connections with the local communities whose water is being poisoned and drained off, whose air is being made toxic and whose atmosphere is being saturated with cancer-causing radiations. This means that the workers organizations need to take their struggles outside the four walls of the enterprise and enter the political arena, demanding that every industrial/ production unit – at the unit level – must be made to conform to the demands and the well-being of the immediate community.This means that the question of firm management cannot simply be an internal affair of the firm and profit cannot be its only aim. Every firm must be made to conform to the interests and well-being of the community. Finally, the trade unions will have to stop seeing themselves as organizations of proletarians or wage-slaves alone – for their work must include, as it does in many different parts of the world, their intervention in setting up cooperatives and other forms of community production and exchange. Given the domination of the old Left imagination on the leaderships of the various trade unions, it is urgently necessary for them to raise questions and force debates on productivism in all possible ways.

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