Regulation beyond growth.

Author:Durand, Cedric


De-growth theses have attracted growing interest in the past decades, as the appeal of the concept of sustainable development has decreased in the absence of substantial progress concerning environmental and social durability (Martinez-Alier et al. 2010), and as ecological concerns are growing with the rapid extension of the Western capitalist civilisational path all over the world. In December 2009, the failure of international negotiations in Copenhagen to tackle the rise of greenhouse gas emissions along with the subsequent climatic disorders have given momentum to a general sense of alarm--a feeling that became even more acute with the disappointing results of the Rio Earth Summit in June 2012. With the beginning of the great economic crisis, sustainability has receded on the agenda again, as governments all over the world struggle to maintain financial stability and to escape from another great recession. Taken together, these elements cast doubt on the very possibility of the implementation of the sustainable development paradigm. Contrastingly, de-growth arguments may seem to offer a consistent diagnosis of the degradation of the economic, social and ecological situation, and point to the need for an alternative civilisational path.

We can trace the origin of 'de-growth' in Andre Gorz's comments on the Meadows Report in the early 1970s (Bosquet and Gorz 1973). However, the intellectual appeal of this current is the result of its combination of two distinctive schools. Economists such as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly focus mainly on the ecological limits of Earth and its economic implications. They consider that a decreasing material intensity of GDP growth is not able to stabilise the material throughput of economic activity. Indeed, the hypothesis of Kuznets's environmental curve has so far proven to be misleading: if local pollution is able to diminish above a certain level of GDP per capita output, the global environmental negative externalities - in areas such as climate change or biodiversity, for example--are not. For these ecological economists, the main issue is thus to de-grow, or to attain a steady state in order to diminish the material throughput of the economies.

The second main source of influence of the de-growth current is post-development literature, including leading authors such as Ivan Illich, Serge Latouche and Arturo Escobar. Development is considered to be a Eurocentric anthropological project and, more specifically, an occidental 'belief' (Rist 1996) which has been imposed through colonisation and neo-colonisation at the expenses of other cultures. Most of the research has focused on discourses and aims to deconstruct this concept in order to free subjectivities from its domination. According to Serge Latouche, a society of de-growth should thus be understood as a 'society built on quality rather than on quantity, on cooperation rather than on competition ... humanity liberated from economism for which social justice is the objective. ... The motto of de-growth aims primarily at pointing the insane objective of growth for growth' (2003:18).

Drawing on both ecological economists and post-development studies, a rich network of grassroots movements, political currents and journals have emerged that endorse the de-growth slogan. It is influential in the global North, but also in the global South, especially among indigenous movements from Latin America, and has attracted interest from across most of the spectrum of the left. (1)

For the regulationist school in particular, and radical political economy in general, de-growth theses are thus important since they point to a potential renewal of critical thinking able to link intellectual research and social movements. However, from a regulationist perspective, the debate is troublesome. Indeed, the focus of regulation theory (hereafter RT) is to analyse the social conditions of the accumulation of capital in the medium term, but not so much the wider prospects for growth. From a normative point of view, the regulationist quest has been an exploration of the conditions of possibility of a good growth regime, as exemplified by research on post-Fordism during the 1990s and, in the present time, the quest for a Green New Deal (see Lipietz in this issue). There is thus a gap between the de-growth agenda and RT. The aim of this contribution is to open a dialogue between the two approaches through the mediation of classical political economy in general, and Marxist research more specifically.

The second section of the paper presents the case for de-growth, but insists that the de-growth current is far from being a unified paradigm. We then explain why issues raised by de-growth proponents are at odds with the regulationist research strategy, which focuses on the medium-term ability of capitalism to provide institutional fixes to its contradictions. The fourth section discusses the relations between growth and capitalism and points to an opposite--although twin--weakness of the de-growth and regulationist approaches, which is the lack of connection between crisis tendencies and contradictions and capitalist social-property relations in general. Contemporary prospects for growth are then discussed in the light of some classical insights. In conclusion, we summarise our arguments and propose an articulation of the three corpus: we endorse the case for a socioeconomic transition toward a no-growth model of development, but insist that a no-accumulation (i.e. reproduction) regime would be no more capitalism, and that it should be normalised by very different modes of regulation.

Physical limits and socio-economic shortcomings: The case against the growth obsession

This section proposes a rapid overview of some important strands of arguments that are mobilised to criticise the 'growth obsession' (Altvater 2001), making the case for a normative research agenda beyond growth. Three main sets of arguments need to be presented: those of ecological economists, which point to the physical limits of growth; cultural criticisms of growth and development; and some statistical accounts of the divorce between GDP growth and well-being.

Economic perspectives on the limits to growth

Over the last several decades, a growing but still marginal current of ecological economists has pointed out the limits of economic growth in a finite world. Among them, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen's book The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) has been hugely influential. Considering that the economic growth process produces an irreversible depletion/degradation of energy and mineral resources, all unnecessary uses of resources are a waste made at the expense of the very ability of future generations to live. This proposition introduces a radical disjunction vis-a-vis mainstream economics, for which production factor substitution is a key hypothesis and, consequently, suggests that further growth is compatible with ecological challenges, if appropriate policies are implemented to foster an adequate consumption/investment balance (for example, Arrow et al. 2004). On the contrary, Georgescu-Roegen states that 'undoubtedly the current growth must cease, nay, be reversed' (1975: 369). Following this radical conclusion, the man once called by Paul Samuelson a 'scholar's scholar and an economist's economist', (in Georgescu-Roegen 1966: vii) came to be treated as a pariah by mainstream economists.

This commitment to the decline of the economy also leads Georgescu-Roegen to distance himself from the Club of Rome and from its fellow ecological economists (Levallois 2010). Indeed, although the steady state economy draws on Georgescu-Roegen insights and acknowledges the entropy law in the long run, in practice it suggests a stabilisation of the economy--a slightly varying level of capital stock and non growing human labour--rather than a decline, in order to achieve an almost constant rate of throughput (Daly 1992: 2007). However, because of considerations of space (rich versus poor countries, the world economy) and time (short-term transition period versus long-run new regime), steady state economics and de-growth economics should be considered as complementary rather than contradictory perspectives (Martinez-Alier et al. 2010: 1743-44; Kerschner 2010). Along these lines, a political agenda in favor of the 'steady state economy' has gained some momentum in particular in Britain, with think-tanks such as the New Economic Foundation or Tim Jackson's (2009) book, Prosperity Without Growth, which was first released as a report of the Sustainable Development Commission, the UK government's independent advisor on sustainable development.

Is growth desirable?

Beyond physical critical issues, another strand of de-growth arguments has grown among authors who criticised the concept of development from a cultural point of view, pointing out the need for a 'decolonization of the minds' from economism (see Marglin 1990, Latouche 2006, Di Meo 2006 and Treillet 2007 for a critical appraisal).

Marglin rejects a Lewis-type justification of development, namely that 'economic growth ... gives man control over his environment, and thereby, increases his freedom'. Drawing on Sen's (1987 and 1999) argument that the expansion of choices may be desirable for intrinsic and instrumental reasons, Marglin shows that 'the argument that growth expands choices fails to take adequate account of the many reasons why growth eliminates some choices at the same time as it adds others' (1990: 7). Pointing out the destruction of traditional knowledge and solidarity by development policies and the modernisation path, he insists that 'the Western model of development, notwithstanding its considerable economic successes, has yet to produce an acceptable model for relationships between people or with nature'. In the face of major social, ecological and economic crises ahead, he considers...

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