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Scientific paper


Understanding capitalism. Marx meets degrowth

Elke Pirgmaier

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Scientific paper

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Degrowth Conference Budapest 2016


This paper is a theoretical contribution to the economics of degrowth. It is motivated by the fact that degrowth proponents attack capitalism for its drive for accumulation which relates to a range of socio-ecological crises. The emphasis on growth translates rather quickly into the development of concrete degrowth proposals. While the activist spirit is admirable, a profound understanding of the system as a whole as the basis for targeted action seems somewhat lacking. This is a gap noted in the literature. It matters, as degrowth ‘solutions’ need an architecture around them to see how they unfold in the wider system. Marx offers such an account. His analysis of capitalism is still widely accepted as one of the best accounts of how capitalist economies function. This paper clarifies some of Marx' core ideas: What is capital? What is capitalism? What are the core dynamics of the inner workings of capital? How do they relate to socio-ecological crises? The paper argues that unravelling Marx’ heritage from a degrowth perspective has several advantages. First, it offers a sound theoretical framework for thinking about ‘real alternatives’ and leverage points for change, in contrast to those that seem sensible only on a surface level; second, it sheds light on how and why capitalist structures hinder the implementation of degrowth alternatives; third, it shows that ‘growth’ is in fact the end of ‘the capitalist story’ rather than its beginning. Capitalism has to be understood as a process that entails growth as one of several features. A too narrow focus on 'growth' as the starting point for debates might lead to a misplaced focus in designing effective degrowth strategies.

This media entry was a contribution to the special session „Understanding capitalism. Marx meets degrowth“ at the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest in 2016.

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