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Can growth be good?

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Growth is central to capitalism, but the expansion of production can be organised to protect people and the planet if it is coupled with radical change, argues Simon Basketter
Issue 2655
Does development have to come at the price of destroying the environment?
Does development have to come at the price of destroying the environment? (Pic: Lucas Dumrauf/Flickr)

Faced with looming environmental disaster, many people conclude that economic growth, and development in and of themselves, are the problem.

Capitalist development, driven by competition, does come at an enormous cost in terms of suffering to people and planet.

In response some even end up saying that the ­poorest in the world must stay poor—because any more development will be bad for the planet.

More often people simply say that the planet can’t afford for everyone to have the living standards that we “enjoy” in the West.

But the problem is not ordinary people wanting mobile phones. It is a system addicted to producing more mobile phones than anyone could ever need, but also of limiting ordinary people’s access to them.

The development of technology has given us thousands of new ways to influence the world around us. It helps us to stop being helpless in the face of nature. And it also gives us more potential ways to ­protect the planet and deal with ­climate change.

The problem isn’t ­development. It’s the form that development takes under capitalism, in which there is a huge contradiction.

On one hand there have been huge increases in productivity that have the potential to make life for ordinary people much better.

On the other there has been an immense growth in the forces of destruction that threaten humanity and the planet.

Increased productivity and technological development means we now have the capacity to produce everything that everyone on the planet needs—food, shelter, heat, medicine and much more. And we have the potential to do that sustainably.


Industrial development and new technologies also give us the means to tackle global warming. For example, we have seen the development of ­renewable energies and more efficient transport.

But this potential is squandered because of the way the system is organised. Capitalism is run on the basis of what benefits a tiny few, not what is good for everyone.

The profit motive and class division that is key to the system stifles our potential and is utterly destructive.

Revolutionaries and socialists have long seen the great potential that capitalism brought about—and understood why it will block that potential.

The Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote in 1926, “I remember the time when men wrote that the development of aircraft would put an end to war. In fact, however, the invention of the flying machine heavier than air opened a new and crueller chapter in the ­history of militarism.

“There is no doubt now, too, we are approaching the ­beginning of a still more ­frightful and bloody chapter.

“Technology and science have their own logic. But technology in itself cannot be called either militaristic or pacifistic. In a society in which the ruling class is militaristic, technology is in the service of militarism.”

Capitalism is a brutal system, ruthlessly exploiting anything it can to make money, from the working class to the planet itself.

As the revolutionary Karl Marx put it in Capital, “all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil—all progress

in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the ­lasting sources of that fertility.”

Under capitalism, firms resist changes to production methods that reduce their profits. And at the same time the system is hugely wasteful.

It is more profitable to

overproduce crap food and throw it away than to produce good quality food at a rate that we need. We have more than enough food. But people starve and we produce food in a manner that destroys the environment and makes the food itself harmful.


It is more profitable to burn the planet than to be sustainable.

It is this pursuit of profit that decides what development, what growth, takes place.

Many firms make pointless or poisonous things that society would be better off not producing at all. And waste is built into the system because that way firms make more money. For instance, goods are designed to wear out, so we have to keep buying more.

And bosses are constantly pushing the “latest” model of phone or car at us simply to get more sales, not because they are needed.

We are awash with stuff we cannot afford. This is not a consumerist problem—it is built into how the system is ­organised.

Frederick Engels wrote, “In every crisis, society is suffocated beneath the weight of its own productive forces and products, which it cannot use, and stands helpless face to face with the absurd contradiction that the producers have nothing to consume, because consumers are wanting.”

This is one of the problems of talking about growth. We are often told that if the economy grows, it is good for us all—but it’s the rich that benefit. Jobs, wages and services come under attack whether capitalism is said to be doing well or in crisis.

Further growth in the production of chemical weapons or single use plastic is not great for anyone. So it is not just a question of producing enough stuff, but of what stuff. In what way? And for what purpose?

Capitalist growth doesn’t mean good things for the people who produce it. The rapid growth in China and India has turned them into global powers. Yet behind this “success” millions live in misery.

As Marx put it, capitalism produces “palaces—but for the worker, hovels”.

Often people divide the world into “developed” and “underdeveloped” countries.

The impression is given that the “underdeveloped” countries have been moving in the same direction as the “developed” countries for hundreds of years, but at a slower speed. A central reason why Western countries are in a stronger economic position today is because they robbed wealth from the rest and pushed them backwards.

The development of European capitalism depended on conquest, genocide and slavery.

Capitalism is inherently expansionist. It has integrated the whole world into a single economic system.

Ordinary people pay the price with extreme repression, brutal labour discipline, and shattering social dislocation.

The slave trade, for example, went alongside looting natural resources.This process of impoverishing and exploiting the world’s people and resources continues today.

Despite the vision offered by the tyrannies of Stalinism in the 20th century, socialism is not the final outcome of a journey of glorious economic progress.

Instead it is a historical break from a system ­progressing towards catastrophe.

Only then, as Marx wrote, “will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.”

In contrast to a stereotype of socialists believing in an onwards march over nature towards socialism Engels wrote, “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves on our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us.

“Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.”

He believed our one advantage was that we could learn and that for real productive and equitable development to take place we must overthrow the ruling class.

The solution isn’t to shun development. It’s to shun the chaos of capitalism and fight for a sustainable world. We need to gear production around fulfilling human needs.

We could easily end global poverty with the money that is spent on weapons and war every year. Removing the profit motive means we could move from what Marx called the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.

Climate disasters hit the poorest hardest. Fighting climate change doesn’t mean ordinary people must sacrifice—it means we can have a better quality of life.

We can of course squeeze some reforms out of our rulers. But there are powerful interests mobilising against saving the planet. And we don’t have time to wait for reform.

We could stop climate catastrophe if we lived in a world we democratically controlled.

We need to replace capitalism, a system driven by competition for profits, with socialism, a system organised collectively to meet the needs of everyone. And soon.

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