Friday, November 17, 2023

Growth below zero and the development of the productive forces

Was Karl Marx a “degrowth communist” as Kohei Saito claims in Marx in the Anthropocene? In a word, no. But the whole truth is even stranger and more wonderful than Kohei Saito’s oxymoron anachronism.

André Gorz is credited with the first use of la décroissance (degrowth) in the context of modern criticism of the political imperative of economic growth. The occasion was a public forum held in Paris by Le Nouvel Observateur on June 13, 1972 to discuss the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report. Gorz’s remarks were largely a reply to a speech and interview given by European Commission President, Sicco Mansholt.


In the interview, Mansholt had called for “growth below zero” and the end of wasteful and environmentally destructive consumer society. Gorz acknowledged the compatibility of Mansholt’s vision with socialism and even, “better, with communism as it was understood in the last century. … In short, an economy ruled not by the law of value but by the slogan: to each according to his needs.” He objected, however to the absence of any discussion of a method for achieving such a post-industrial civilization. “With few exceptions.” Gopz complained, “ecologists and ecological movements are silent on the subject of means.”

Such silence was not innocent in Gorz’s view because without a clearly defined alternative, implementation would, by default, have to “rely on the moral conversion of the custodians of big capital, and enlightened intervention by national and international state bureaucracies, to bring about a post-industrial and post-capitalist civilisation.”

Gorz’s own strategy, up to that time, relied on the traditional Marxist expectation of a revolutionary working class, albeit a working class weaned from the distractions of the affluent society, planned obsolescence, and an enervating culture industry. His Strategie ouvriere et neocapitalisme (1964) had stressed anti-consumerist themes from Herbert Marcuse, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Vance Packard. It would be another eight years before he would bid  Adieu au Proletariat and go in pursuit of a new subject of history, namely a “non-class of non workers” whose goal is the abolition of work and the expansion of a “sphere of autonomy” outside the heteronomous activity of waged work.

Saito quotes approvingly from the English translation of a republication of the postscript to Adieu, originally titled « Croissance destructive et décroissance productive »,
…the development of [the] productive forces within the framework of capitalism will never lead to the gate[s] of Communism, since the technologies, the relations of production and the nature of the products exclude not just the durable, equitable satisfaction of needs but also the stabilization of social production at a level commonly accepted as sufficient.
Saito quoted Gorz in support of his thesis that Marx’s “productive forces” or “forces of production” belong to a Promethean, “productivist” perspective that Marx abandoned after 1860 and that had tainted his analysis in the Grundrisse. However, in both Adieu au Proletariat and Strategie ouvriere et neocapitalisme, as well as in much of his subsequent writing, Gorz relied heavily on the Grundrisse in formulating his unconventional views.

Gorz shared with Saito – as well as Lenin, G.A. Cohen, Eric Hobsbawn, and just about every other Marxist -- an interpretation of productive forces derived from Marx’s 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.
In quoting this famous passage, Saito overlooked the introduction to it, which clearly stated this was a “general conclusion at which I arrived [during his time in Paris and Brussels in the 1840s] and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies.” In other words, it was not meant to be a summary of the results of those studies, which continued through the next decade and included the Grundrisse.

Here is where the story of those productive forces starts to get strange. Martin Nicolaus, a Simon Fraser University grad student and lecturer who had co-translated Gorz’s Strategie ouvriere et neocapitalisme in 1967, wrote a highly acclaimed article the following year, “The Unknown Marx,” in which he discussed the much more detailed and, more importantly, historically specific account of productive forces that appeared in the Grundrisse. The essay, published in the New Left Review, won the first Deutscher memorial prize. Nicolaus subsequently translated the Grundrisse into English.


In his NLR essay, Nicolaus explained that the dichotomy between forces and relations of production in the preface was developed in the Grundrisse as the dichotomy between “two distinct processes which Marx identifies as basic to capitalist production.” It is also the unity of those two distince processes of production and circulation that is basic to capitalist production.

In a section that began three-quarters of the way through his essay, “The Road to Revolution,” Nicolaus revealed what are the famous “fetters” on the development of the productive forces. Or rather he quoted Marx’s enumeration of those fetters. Capital, Marx argued, “appears as the condition of the development of the forces of production as long as they require an external spur, which appears at the same time as their bridle.”
It is a discipline over them, which becomes superfluous and burdensome at a certain level of their development, just like the guilds etc. These inherent limits have to coincide with the nature of capital, with the essential character of its very concept. These necessary limits are:
(1) Necessary labour as limit on the exchange value of living labour capacity or of the wages of the industrial population;
(2) Surplus value as limit on surplus labour time; and, in regard to relative surplus labour time, as barrier to the development of the forces of production;
(3) What is the same, the transformation into money, exchange value as such, as limit of production; or exchange founded on value, or value founded on exchange, as limit of production.
This is: (4) again the same as restriction of the production of use values by exchange value; or that real wealth has to take on a specific form distinct from itself, a form not absolutely identical with it, in order to become an object of production at all.
This short excerpt hardly does justice to an argument that Marx developed over the course of 26 pages and then returned to in the (in)famous “Fragment on Machines.” But the final clause is crucial to questions of ecology and social justice. Under capitalism, “real wealth has to take on a specific form distinct from itself, a form not absolutely identical with it order to become an object of production at all.” The commodity is that form not identical with wealth. Marx had a lot more to say in the Grundrisse about productive forces that is very different from the conventional reading based on the 1859 preface. Relying exclusively on the latter is like writing a high school book report based on the dust jacket blurbs.

While Saito construes the productive forces as technology, albeit in its broadest sense, Marx conceived the development of the productive forces as “the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation stone of production and of wealth.” Marx reiterates this point in a section labelled “true conception of the process of social production”:
When we consider bourgeois society in the long view and as a whole, then the final result of the process of social production always appears as the society itself, i.e. the human being itself in its social relations. Everything that has a fixed form, such as the product etc., appears as merely a moment, a vanishing moment, in this movement. The direct production process itself here appears only as a moment. The conditions and objectifications of the process are themselves equally moments of it, and its only subjects are the individuals, but individuals in mutual relationships, which they equally reproduce and produce anew. The constant process of their own movement, in which they renew themselves even as they renew the world of wealth they create.
This essay began with a recap of the circumstances of André Gorz’s use of la décroissance and his objection to the absence of means or a “revolutionary subject” in scenarios for a “growth below zero” future. Saito’s rejection of productive forces implies that Marx abandoned his theory of historical change and consequently turned his back on communism. If he did, Marx couldn’t have been a “degrowth communist.”

The question of what a Grundisse-based analysis of productive forces might contribute to human emancipation and ecological survival would take a book. I am working on it.