October 21, 2021

Degrowth and Revolutionary Organizing

Jamie Tyberg and Erica Jung

I. (Re)introduction: Degrowth as a Revolutionary Process

Degrowth is a corrective prescription for the Global North, not the Global South. Degrowth targets the “externally conceived and managed growth-driven projects of private and government entities, from national to international levels.”[1] Driven by its mission to accelerate the growth of its core economies, the Global North erected institutions such as the United States military, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and private Wall Street banks to tip the balance of resource distribution and wealth accumulation to their favor. In this way, the infinite growth of Global North economies prevents any development of Global South economies.[2]

Revolutionary intellectuals in the US like James and Grace Lee Boggs synthesized the idea of degrowth as a form of ecological reparations as early as the 1970s. They insisted that “the revolution to be made in the United States will be the first revolution in history to require the masses to make material sacrifices rather than to acquire more material things,” which “this country has acquired at the expense of damning over one-third of the world into a state of underdevelopment, ignorance, disease and early death.”[3] This contradiction between the material overdevelopment of the Global North and the extreme overexploitation of the Global South indicates that, for the latter to end, the former must end first.

Under this economic system, dépense—or how societies allocate their social surplus[4]—is rooted in expanding a system of exploitation, expropriation, and accumulation. Material overdevelopment in the US should have led to equal and free access to basic living necessities, as well as time to pursue meaningful projects. Instead, the average person in the US remains politically and socially underdeveloped due to the coercive conditions of capitalism. “Even the poorest layers of the population are constantly being courted by capitalism to buy, buy, buy,”[5] instead of being enabled to explore their social responsibility and develop their political consciousness. Degrowth, recognizing this design as “an anomaly that needs to be corrected,”[6] calls for a limit to the expansion of this economy, and envisions a system of dépense that generates time and spaces that advance progress of social responsibility, political consciousness, and builds collective meaning.

Above all else, dépense motivated by infinite growth for the few has delayed the realization of our evolution as a species. Bissau-Guinean and Cape Verdean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral called this the “negation of the historical process of the dominated people by means of violent usurpation.”[7] Revolution then becomes “not only struggling against existing institutions, but making a philosophical leap and becoming more human.”[8] Yet, today we are marching full steam ahead into extinction and habitat destruction.

Still, not all in the degrowth movement have embraced the revolutionary path to degrowth. Many in the degrowth movement opt for prefigurative politics of cooperatives, community gardens, and communes, which, while complementary to revolutionary aims, are not contending with class struggle or what comes after. This has opened much of degrowth literature to criticism. In their paper Decolonizing degrowth in the post-development convergence, decolonial researchers Padini Nirmal and Dianne Rocheleau write that while the current degrowth discourse has “great strengths at the intersection of ecology and economics,” it “does not do the work of dismantling structures of violence, debt, and death.”[9] And political ecologist Claire O’Manique also has argued that “while degrowth has a strong critique of economic growth and capitalism, this alone is not enough,” for “any movement towards degrowth will require transforming power relations.”[10]

In her June 2021 review of Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World by Jason Hickel, a prominent scholar associated with degrowth, Chennai-based researcher Sara Abraham points to how Hickel misses “what balances of forces, what struggles, would be needed for governments to pursue radical economic reforms.”[11] In the case of Vincent Liegey and Anitra Nelson, two other leading degrowth scholars, their Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide credits certain “authoritarian” tactics of the Burkina revolution led by Thomas Sankara as the reason it failed, ignoring the larger neocolonial context that resulted in his assassination.[12] This tendency to assume that degrowth—a wholesale reorganization of society—can occur without revolutionary action reverts back to what Marxist theorist Bertell Ollman described as “a way of thinking that separates the two halves of a paradox from one another, and both halves from the larger social and historical context in which they appear.”[13]

In our analysis, degrowth can be achieved only with the “overthrow of all existing property relations and the destruction of all institutions that directly or indirectly support existing property relations.”[14] Environmental researchers Weibren J. Boonstra and Sofie Joosse share this analysis, writing, “degrowth cannot be realised from within a capitalist society, since growth is the sine qua non for capitalism.”[15] Meaning, alternatives such as eco-communities promoted by the degrowth movement that are “internally constituted by self-organized decision-making processes” cannot be sustained for as long as private property exists within the means of production.[16] And degrowth can be a reality here for as long as we are prepared to perform revolutionary functions. It is a revolutionary process in nature, and this paper is dedicated to those in the Global North whose pledge to achieve degrowth is not mere empty words but a serious and sincere desire.

NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 15: Protesters carry an inflatable globe during an anti-war demonstration February 15, 2003 in New York City. Tens of thousands attended the rally which coincided with peace demonstrations around the world. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

II. Abolishing the Growth Industrial Complex

The process of growth is, and has always been, concretely violent. Today, the US is able to significantly grow and expand its hegemony through its exploitation of prison labor—a legacy of slavery.[17] This intertwined nature of economic growth and the industry of enslaved labor should warrant a broad interrogation into the role of mass incarceration by the degrowth movement, but we can count on one hand the number of degrowth assessments of prisons.[18] Our intention is to highlight this coil of corruption through the case of mass incarceration in Central Valley, California, as well as the flow of monopoly finance capital that facilitates this industry among others in the growth-industrial complex. Finally, we wish to impart as a major task to the degrowth movement the objective of joining prison abolitionists in this cause.

The end of World War II marked the era of the rivalry between imperialist nations, and the US consolidated its singular position as the world’s superpower.[19] Consequently, the state of California in particular invested in a burgeoning military-industrial complex, relying on substantial amounts of Department of Defense (DOD) contracts to increase federal investment and fuel their economic growth.[20] However, as the twenty year-long Vietnam War caused federal deficits, the US dramatically reduced its military spending, which surged the unemployment rate in California to 11.1 percent, higher than the nationwide rate at the time.[21] Thus, prisons were proposed as the all-encompassing solution to the stagnating or shrinking local economies in the Central Valley.

Between 1982 and 2000, the prison population in California grew by 500 percent.[22] The “biggest prison construction program in the world,” dating back to 1983, offered a lucrative investment opportunity, a politically efficient method of diverting public attention away from state-driven economic inequality, and a means of exploiting the surplus labor and land available.[23] Once in Kings County, CA, “local officials traded more than 20 years of future tobacco settlement payments meant for health care for $18 million in cash from the bond market to build a new jail.”[24] Rural areas in the Central Valley like Avenal especially solicited the construction of prisons in order to boost their economies and create new jobs.[25]

Today, some California prisons operate as e-waste recycling sites. At the US Penitentiary in Atwater, California, which occupies part of the former Castle Air Force Base that was “contaminated by fuels, oils, solvents, cleaners, and paints used to operate and maintain aircraft for national defense,” incarcerated workers run one of Federal Prison Industries’ largest e-waste recycling stations.[26] Daily, they are exposed to toxic metals from the facility’s processing of cathode ray tubes found in computer monitors and television sets.[27] Under such conditions, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy could not be just.

This is not an argument against renewable energy; rather, one for the production and use of renewable energy in consideration of ecological limits as well as global racial equity. Samir Amin referred to “catching up”, or the “use of methods analogous to those of capitalism” in formerly colonized nations, to describe their “passive adjustment to the so-called objective requirements of capitalist development.”[28] Despite gaining independence, the formerly colonized nations are condemned by “the colonial power through its immense resources of coercion.”[29] The investments into renewable energy, too, are tied to this capitalist development in its stage of monopoly finance capital.

What is monopoly finance capital? John Bellamy Foster describes that “following the Second World War the new stage of capitalism was fully consolidated, particularly within the United States, the most advanced capitalist economy,” and “the result was a situation in which a handful of giant corporations controlled most industries.”[30] And “since the end of the Cold War, global capitalism has been characterized by the undivided monopoly of the United States.”[31] Between 1980 and 2008, global multinational companies multiplied in numbers from 15,000 to 82,000 and became the “core organizers of international economic activity, and the engine of global economic growth.”[32] We are up against a world system where the top 147 multinational corporations control nearly 40 percent of the economic value, and counting.[33]

Moreover, this concentration of corporate power has been instrumental in “maintaining the dollar as the world’s fiat currency, and an element of accumulation on a world scale,” which gives the US a special advantage over the rest of the world’s countries.[34] By engineering an international monetary order centered on the US dollar, which accounts for 60% of global foreign exchange reserves and 88% of all foreign exchange trading,[35] the US has essentially created a world system wherein poor countries subsidize the rich.[36] Workers in “Third World economies are forced (by imperialist-sponsored governments and severe restrictions on international migration) to provide cheap labour for imperialist corporate and financial interests,” while the core economies of the Global North “dominate the leading sectors of the world economy.”[37]

Investigating the transition from imperialism into neoimperialism in the 21st century, Chinese economists Cheng Enfu and Lu Baolin bemoan that “multinational corporations are all organized entities, while the global workforce finds it exceedingly difficult to unite effectively and defend its rights.”[38] Our offensive therefore must involve the organization of the rest of us. Degrowth organizers must stay grounded in the goals of abolishing the growth-industrial complex, made up of prisons and structures of monopoly finance capital that commandeer the global capitalist economy. To do so as effectively as possible, we must commit to an organization—the prerequisite to collective struggle and collective learning, and to a degrowth world.

III. Against Idleness, Towards Organization

“Between theory and practice there is organization. Organization is what bridges theory and practice. These three concepts are essential to each other. You can’t just have theory and practice, you gotta have an organization.”

Vijay Prashad

Degrowth intellectual Serge Latouche put forth eight interdependent principles of degrowth in his book Farewell to Growth. They are:

1. Re-evaluate what matters;
2. Reconceptualize key notions such as wealth, poverty, value, scarcity and abundance;
3. Restructure the productive apparatus and social relations to fit these new values;
4. Redistribute wealth and access to natural resources between North and South and between classes, generations and individuals;
5. Relocalize savings, financing, production and consumption;
6. Reduce production and consumptions, especially for goods and services with little use value but high environmental impact;
7. Re-use products;
8. and Recycle waste.[39]

Furthermore, political economist Hubert Buch-Hansen outlined four “prerequisites for socio-economic paradigm shifts: deep crisis, an alternative political project, a comprehensive coalition of social forces promoting the project in political struggles, and broad-based consent.”[40] Inherent in both of these propositions is a coordinated plan of action to transform structures, shift paradigms, and mobilize people to reconstruct the world in which we live. The first step to achieving any of this is committing to an organization. If we do not successfully build a degrowth organization, how can we be expected to build a degrowth city, state, world?

Organization is where we “can be continuously re-evaluating [our] theory and practice and continuously transforming [ourselves] so as to be better able to live up to the historic tasks for which [we] have accepted responsibility.”[41] James and Grace Lee Boggs write that we “should be consciously aimed at transforming those who have come together on the basis of commitment to a collectivity, with a powerful sense of their developing and continuing collective identity and purpose.” In its initial period, degrowth organizations should focus on internal programs. Without a strong foundation of theory, and consistent practice in advancing that theory, the organization remains susceptible to false degrowth paths. At the first meeting of DegrowNYC—a collective of degrowth advocates of color in New York City—all attendees shared their capacity to participate in the organization, their comprehension level of degrowth, and their ideas and hopes for shaping this nascent organization. That conversation then determined the curriculum for the first few months of our internal political education.

During this initial stage, degrowth organizations should set their principles of unity, which helps identify not only what the organization is against, but exactly what it is for.[42] This can look like a list of points, a mission statement, a set of guiding questions,[43] but they should exist to hold all members and the work of the organization accountable to each other and to their values. Such a document serves as an ideological anchor for the organization so that we may carefully correct our behaviors resulting from the “hundreds of years of steadily centralizing capitalism and in some areas, after thousands of years of hierarchy.”[44] In DegrowNYC, we dedicated two thirds of our first year to internal political education before drafting our organizational mission statement through a participatory process. It reads:

DegrowNYC is a collective of organizers of color based in occupied Lenapehoking who view degrowth as a form of ecological reparations. We organize ourselves and our priorities around the principles of care, sufficiency, and autonomy to challenge and unlearn the dominant ideology of infinite growth. Through developing resources and hosting educational events, we empower activists and organizers to implement degrowth values and practices in their organizations and campaigns.

Writing this required an ideological unity among members on the purpose of this collective, and its role and position within the existing movement. We could not have achieved this without an investment into the internal programs during our initial period.

The principles of unity must remain open to revisions, allowing the organization to measure its progress, its success and failures, and adjust its movements accordingly. In setting these standards of conduct, we practice the principles of care for ourselves and one another, and work to build communities with ecological limits in mind. Correct ideas come from practice[45]—when we attempt degrowth collectively, correct our ways as we go, and build the degrowth world ourselves. Questions like “Are we working to satisfy collective needs as opposed to individual needs? Does our work reject imperialism and resource extraction everywhere?” should be expected to be answered in the affirmative, at all phases of the work, regardless of what it is or who is involved.

A degrowth organization must also learn to distinguish itself by understanding that no member will have the identical capacity, schedule, or even modes of interacting with, and within, the organization. As revolutionary theory argues, “equal right, an application of the same measure to different people who, in fact, are not the same and are not equal to one another, presupposes inequality.”[46] Degrowth organizations must switch from the concept of rights to the concept of roles, where different people based on their abilities, age, experiences, and so forth, will have different roles within an organization working towards a unified goal. Perhaps the most accessible trait an organization can inhabit is its fluid, unfinished nature—that one is welcomed at any time, for the work is ongoing and shared. By working together based on the foundation of commitment to revolutionary change, we contribute what we can, when we can, however we can, and still rest assured that the work will always continue.

James and Grace Lee Boggs also note that “great care should be taken to make the process of recruitment a selective one, aimed at slow and qualitative growth, rather than rapid expansion, taking care not to judge the growth of the organization by the numbers of its members, rather than by their commitment to the ideology and programs of the organization.”[47] Organizing takes time and patience, as will constructing a degrowth world. “Judging the revolutionary content of a group by its militancy or by the excitement and relief which it offers from boredom and frustration,” takes away from the “development of collective struggle.”[48] Degrowth organizations must create routines in their efforts, involving regular meetings and clear roles, “in full consciousness of the group’s responsibility to advance the evolution of humankind.”[49] DegrowNYC for example meets every other week, and members routinely share additional opportunities for collective movement ranging anywhere from educational courses, eviction defense, tabling for community programs, attending rallies, to simply enjoying each other’s company at local public spaces. By being in an organization, we internalize the meaning of commitment and care. We make degrowth attitudes and behaviors a part of our unconscious nature, by learning to partake in it within our organizations.

Additionally, degrowth organizations should eventually implement the revolutionary method of “criticism and self-criticism,” to practice collective self-limitations inherent in the degrowth principle of autonomy, where we “limit our footprint upon the non-human world” for the well-being of all of us.[50] In Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, James and Grace Lee Boggs explain the importance of criticism and self-criticism within a revolutionary organization:

“First, the need to prevent mistakes (through the most thorough discussion and preparation of all involved); second, the need to recognize, admit, and correct (rather than cover up) mistakes; third, the need to pin down exact responsibility for mistakes. This is not for the purpose of placing blame on an individual but to enable the individual and others to learn the appropriate lessons from the mistake and thus avoid repetition.”

Degrowth organizations should remain a dialectical space wherein its members’ participation informs its programs and practice, and vice versa. Wherever we are, to build towards degrowth is to be in an organization that practices degrowth values and advances degrowth ideals in its community. Mistakes in our thinking and our actions are bound to occur, but revolutionary work is first and foremost in believing that people are capable of change, and in recognizing and correcting, to eventually prevent altogether, those mistakes. Degrowth will be a “protracted period required for the cultural revolutionizing of the masses,” a time for all to become accustomed to the habits of degrowth, to institutionalize degrowth values for future generations, until we no longer have to degrow.

Ecological researcher Max Ajl in his 2018 article Degrowth Considered warns that “degrowth’s investment in idleness may have to be qualified,” for “if as production localizes, poorer countries are focused on feeding their own, and richer countries can no longer replace knowledge, attention, and labor with chemicals, we might find that we need somewhat more labor, or human presence on farms, than degrowth imagines.” Especially when the terrain on which we must collectivize the agrarian sector is scaffolded by three multinational companies—DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta—which control 55 percent of the global seed market, the task of collectivizing agriculture to feed everyone in the world will require our labor.[51] Because every other task ahead of us will require our labor. And the shared division of that labor, of constructing the degrowth world, will require organization. It is never too late to commit.

Jamie Tyberg and Erica Jung are members of Nodutdol and cofounders of DegrowNYC


[1] Nirmal, P., & Rocheleau, D. (2019). Decolonizing degrowth in the post-development convergence: Questions, experiences, and proposals from two Indigenous territories. Sage Journals, 465-492.

[2]Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis in their 2015 book Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era are not ambivalent about this, writing, “Poverty in the South is the outcome of the exploitation of its natural and human resources at low cost by the North. Degrowth should be pursued in the North, not in order to allow the South to follow the same path, but first and foremost in order to liberate conceptual space for countries there to find their own trajectories to what they define as the good life.”

[3] Boggs, James, and Grace Lee Boggs. 1974. Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 163.

[4] Per Kallis, “Dépense refers to the unproductive expenditure of the social surplus. How civilizations allocate their surplus, the expenditures they make above and beyond what is necessary to meet basic human needs, gives them their collective character.” Kallis, Giorgos. “The Degrowth Alternative,” Great Transition Initiative (February 2015), https:// greattransition.org/publication/the-degrowth-alternative.

[5] Boggs, Grace Lee. 1972. Organization means commitment. [Detroit, MI]: [National Organization for an American Revolution].

[6] Kallis, Giorgos. In defense of degrowth: Opinions and minifestos. Uneven Earth Press, 2017, p.12

[7] Cabral, Amilcar. “The Weapon of Theory.” Speech, Havana, January, 1966. Marxists. https://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/cabral/1966/weapon-theory.htm

[8] Boggs and Boggs, “Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century.”

[9]  Nirmal and Rocheleau, “Decolonizing degrowth in the post-development convergence”, 465-492.

[10] O’Manique, Claire. “Degrowth in Canada: Critical perspectives from the ground.” PhD diss., 2019.

[11] Abraham, Sara, “Degrowth Remains a Slogan,” Review of Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, by Jason Hickel, Penguin Random House, 2020.

[12] Liegey, Vincent, Anitra Nelson, and Jason Hickel. Exploring degrowth: A critical guide. London: Pluto Press, 2020, p.96

[13] Ollman, Bertell. “Marxism and the philosophy of internal relations; or, How to replace the mysterious ‘paradox’ with ‘contradictions’ that can be studied and resolved.” Capital & Class 39, no. 1 (2015): 7-23.

[14] Jackson, George. Blood in my eye. Black Classic Press, 1990.

[15] Boonstra, Wiebren J., and Sofie Joosse. “The Social Dynamics of Degrowth.” Environmental Values 22, no. 2 (2013): 171c–89. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23460977.

[16] D’Alisa, Giacomo, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis, eds. Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era. Routledge, 2014, 197

[17] Davis, Angela Y. Are prisons obsolete? Seven Stories Press, 2011.

[18] This could be due to the Eurocentric base of degrowth literature, but it is a glaring oversight.

[19] The armed forces’ accounting of the nation’s total energy consumption also increased from 1 percent to 29 percent after the second World War, according to Barry Sanders in his book the Green Zone. Sanders, Barry. The green zone: the environmental costs of militarism. AK PressDistribution, 2009.

[20] Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden gulag. University of California Press, 2007.

[21] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Unemployment Rate in California [CAUR], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CAUR, October 10, 2021.

[22]  Gilmore, “Golden gulag”, p.7

[23] Kang-Brown, Jacob and Jack Norton. 2020. Funding Jail Expansion in California’s Central Valley. Brooklyn, NY: Vera Institute of Justice. https://www.vera.org/in-our-backyards-stories/funding-jail-expansion-in-californias-central-valley

[24] Kang-Brown and Norton, “Funding Jail Expansion in California’s Central Valley.”

[25] King, P. H. How pistachios and a prison are keeping a little California town afloat. Los Angeles Times. (2016, November 22).

[26] Air Force Civil Engineer Center. (n.d.). Castle Environmental Cleanup: An Unqualified Success. Retrieved from AFCEC: https://www.afcec.af.mil/Home/BRAC/Castle/Cleanup.aspx

[27] Office of the Inspector General Oversight and Review Division. (2010). A Review of Federal Prison Industries’ Electronic-Waste Recycling Program. Washington, DC: Department of Justice.

[28] Amin, Samir. The World We Wish to See: Revolutionary Objectives in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008.

[29] Fanon, Frantz. The wretched of the earth. Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007, 97.

[30] Foster, John Bellamy. “Monopoly-finance capital.” Monthly Review 58, no. 7 (2006): 1.

[31] Enfu, Cheng, and Lu Baolin. “Five Characteristics of Neoimperialism Building on Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century.” Monthly Review 73, no. 1 (2021): 22-58.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ajl, Max. A People’s Green New Deal. Pluto Press, 2021, 32.

[35] Park, Juhyun. “What are sanctions?” Sanctions of Empire: A Nodutdol Zine, 14.

[36] Enfu and Baolin, “Five Characteristics of Neoimperialism”.

[37] Cope, Zak. Divided world divided class: Global political economy and the stratification of labour under capitalism. Kersplebedeb, 2012, 27.

[38] Enfu, Cheng, and Lu Baolin. “Five Characteristics of Neoimperialism Building on Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century.” Monthly Review 73, no. 1 (2021): 22-58.

[39] Latouche, Serge. Farewell to growth. Polity, 2009.

[40] Buch-Hansen, Hubert. “The prerequisites for a degrowth paradigm shift: Insights from critical political economy.” Ecological Economics 146 (2018): 157-163.

[41] Boggs, “Organization Means Commitment”.

[42] Ture, Kwame. “On Unity” Speech, Miami, FL, 1992. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN8oq7lF9FA

[43] The DegrowNYC chapter advocates for the principles proposed by The Red Nation’s Red Deal, a program for Indigenous liberation and revolutionary socialism. Some of these principles include: demilitarization, police and prison abolition, Indigenous liberation, and food sovereignty. The chapter’s guiding questions revolve around the three degrowth principles of sufficiency, autonomy, and care.

[44] Jackson, “Blood in my eye”.

[45] Mao, Zedong. Where Do Correct Ideas Come from? : (May 1963) / Mao Tse-Tung. 2nd pocket ed. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1966. Print.

[46] Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. 1917. The state and revolution: the Marxist teaching on the state and the tasks of the proletariat in the revolution. London: G. Allen & Unwin.

[47] Boggs, “Organization Means Commitment”.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] D’Alisa, Giacomo, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis. 2015. Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era.

[51] Enfu and Baolin, “Five Characteristics of Neoimperialism”.


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