As the failure of COP26 sinks in, it is increasingly clear that our leaders have neither the courage nor the will to respond effectively to ecological breakdown. This is not surprising. The ecological crisis is being driven by capitalist growth, which is tearing through the living world at a staggering pace, with the rich states and corporations of the global North responsible for the vast majority of the damage. Responding to this crisis will require deep changes to the structure and logic of the world economy, and existing incumbents are clearly unable to take the necessary steps.
This leaves us with a series of haunting questions: What will the 21st century look like? How will the story unfold? What will happen in the future and how might we shape it?
To answer these questions, we must come to grips with a key feature of the world economy—one that pundits in the global North tend either to ignore or wish away—namely, the fact that capitalist growth is fundamentally dependent on imperialism. This arrangement, which has persisted now for 500 years in various forms, is beginning to come under significant strain, and climate breakdown is likely to widen the cracks. This opens up opportunities for change, but also poses significant dangers. Everything depends on how governments and social movements choose to respond.
The key thing to grasp is that, under capitalism, “growth” is not about increasing production in order to meet human needs. It is about increasing production in order to extract and accumulate profit. That is the overriding objective. To keep such a system going requires several interventions. First, you have to cheapen the prices of inputs (labor, land, materials, energy, suppliers, etc.) as much as possible, and maintain those prices at a low level. Second, you have to ensure a constantly increasing supply of those cheap inputs. And third, you need to establish control over captive markets that will absorb your output.
Growth along these lines cannot occur within an isolated system. If you place too much pressure on your domestic resource base or your domestic working class, sooner or later you are likely to face a revolution. To avoid such an outcome, capitalism always requires an “outside,” external to itself, where it can cheapen labor and nature with impunity and appropriate them on a vast scale; an outside where it can “externalize” social and ecological damages, where rebellions can be contained, and where it does not have to negotiate with local grievances or demands.
This is where the colonies come in. From the origins of capitalism in the late 15th century, growth in the “core” of the world economy (Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan) has always depended on the sabotage of labor and resources in the “periphery”. Consider the silver plundered from the Andes, the sugar and cotton extracted from land appropriated from Indigenous Americans, the grain, rubber, gold and countless other resources appropriated from Asia and Africa, and the mass enslavement and indenture of African and Indigenous people—all of which exacted a staggering human and ecological toll. On top of this, colonizers destroyed local industries and self-sufficient economies wherever they went, in order to establish captive markets. There was no lag between the rise of capitalism and the imperial project. Imperialism was the mechanism of capitalist expansion.
As the Indian economists Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik put it, capitalist growth requires an imperial arrangement—not as a side gig but as a structurally necessary feature. Imperialism ensures that inputs remain cheap, and thus maintains the conditions for capital accumulation. But it also underpins the fragile inter-class truce that prevails in the core states. If you’re going to raise the real wages of the working classes in the core, or take steps to protect the local ecology, then in order to maintain capital accumulation you have to compensate for this by depressing the costs of labor and nature elsewhere, namely, among workers and producers in the global South. Ever since the rise of the labor movement in the late 19th century, capital’s concessions to the working classes in Europe and the United States have been possible in large part because of imperialism.
This arrangement came under strain in the middle of the 20th century, however, as radical anti-imperialist movements gained traction across the global South. After winning political independence, many Southern governments set about dismantling colonial systems of extraction. They protected their economies and supported their domestic producers using tariffs, subsidies and capital controls; they instituted land reforms; they nationalized key resources and industries; they rolled out public services and improved workers’ wages. This movement was successful in advancing economic sovereignty and improving human development across much of the South. But it also constrained the core’s access to cheap labor and nature, and reduced their control over Southern markets.
The collapse of the imperial arrangement posed a significant threat to Northern capital accumulation. This problem was mitigated for a time by Keynesian policy: massive government expenditure boosted aggregate demand in the global North and generated an extraordinary economic expansion, providing a temporary “fix” for capital. Further concessions to the working classes of the core were sustained under these conditions, permitting the rise of social democracy in some states. But this fix could only hold for so long. As wages rose in the core and the supply price rose in the periphery, growth ground to a halt, capital accumulation became increasingly untenable, and by the mid-1970s the economies of the global North were overcome by a full-blown crisis of stagflation. As it turns out, capitalism cannot function for long under conditions of global justice. Fair wages and decolonization are compatible with a functioning economy, but they are not compatible with a functioning capitalist economy, because they limit the possibility of capital accumulation.
To deal with the crisis of the 1970s, capital needed a way to restore the imperial arrangement, to once again depress Southern prices and regain access to Southern markets. To achieve this, the core states intervened to depose progressive leaders in the global South—including, most prominently, Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, Sukarno in Indonesia, Nkrumah in Ghana, and Allende in Chile—replacing them with regimes more amenable to Northern economic interests. But the final blow was delivered by the World Bank and the IMF, which during the 1980s and 1990s imposed neoliberal structural adjustment programs (SAPs) across the region. This move shifted control over economic policy from the national parliaments of the South to technocrats in Washington and bankers in New York and London, ending the brief era of economic sovereignty. SAPs dismantled protections on labor and the environment, privatized public goods and cut public spending, reversing the reforms of the anti-colonial movement in one fell swoop.
It worked: wages and prices in the South collapsed under structural adjustment, and the new “free trade” regime allowed Northern capital to shift production abroad in order to take direct advantage of cheap labor and inputs. This enabled a massive increase in the scale and intensity of appropriation from the global South during the 1980s and 1990s, restoring the imperial arrangement and resolving the crisis of capitalism. Those who see neoliberalism as the main problem, and who fantasize about reverting to a less destructive version of capitalist growth, fail to grasp this point. The neoliberal turn was not some kind of mistake; it was necessary to restore the conditions for growth in the core. It was the obligatory next step in capitalist development.
But now, as the 21st century wears on, the engines of imperial appropriation are slowing down again. This reality is evident in the declining rate of economic growth in the core states, which economists have come to refer to as “secular stagnation.” This is happening for several reasons.
First, in the wake of structural adjustment, the collapse of the USSR, and the semi-integration of China, there are few nation-states and territories left that have not been brought into the remit of the capitalist world system. Imperialist expansion has effectively reached the limits of the planet. Now, instead of shifting production to new pools of cheap labor, capital has to deal with the existing workforce and their demands for higher wages. Second, certain regions of the South—specifically China and the leftist states of South America—are managing to push back against imperialism and improve their terms of trade, even while operating within the basic structure of the capitalist economy. All of this is leading to a rising supply price, which spells trouble for capital accumulation — and growth — in the core.
But perhaps most importantly — and this is the clincher — climate change and ecological breakdown are beginning to undermine the conditions of production on the tropical landmass. This is beginning to manifest already, with climate chaos ravaging parts of Central America, the Middle East and North Africa, driving social dislocation and human displacement. Without some kind of dramatic change in direction it will get much worse. With existing policies, we are headed for 2.7 degrees of heating this century, which is likely to trigger multi-breadbasket failure and sustained food supply disruptions across large parts of the global South, displace more than 1.5 billion people, wipe out 30–50% of species, and render much of the tropics uninhabitable for humans.
This is a problem for capital, because growth in the global North depends utterly on production in the global South, and depends utterly on Southern land and resources—today just as much as during the colonial period. Recent research finds that rich countries rely on a net appropriation of land equal to twice the size of India, a net appropriation of 10 billion tons of material resources per year, and a net appropriation of embodied labor equivalent to a standing army of 180 million workers. This means that as labor is displaced and disrupted, and as the productive capacity of land is constrained by heatwaves, wildfires, storms and desertification, this will lead to a rising supply price in the core that will trigger a severe crisis for capital—more serious than anything it has yet encountered.
The question is, how will the core states respond? To maintain the rate of growth and capital accumulation in the face of this crisis, they will have to find a way to cut the supply price once again.
There are two obvious possibilities. One option is to cut wages in the core states, shred the welfare system and privatize public services, all of which would help cheapen inputs and open up new frontiers for accumulation, giving some reprieve to capital. This option — domestic neoliberal austerity — was deployed in the US and Britain during the 1980s as part of the response to the initial collapse of the imperial arrangement. Now it is being increasingly taken up by the European social democracies themselves, including the Nordics.
Of course, the risk of this approach is that it could trigger a backlash from the domestic working class, which could coalesce into a socialist revolution. Aware of this danger, politicians will seek to promote anti-immigrant and white nationalist narratives. By directing working-class grievance toward an “other,” this approach gets people to accept their own immiseration, so long as they can feel an affinity with the ruling class on the basis of race, and feel superior to people of colour who are kept in conditions more miserable than their own. This strategy has long been used to support the neoliberal project in the United States, and the ruling classes of the UK and Europe are now also turning to this playbook. Boris Johnson is a master of this in British politics.
The second option is that the core states could double down on imperialism. It is not difficult to imagine new rounds of invasion and occupation intended to force Southern prices back down. The recent coup in Bolivia, backed by the U.S. with its rising appetite for cheap lithium, offers hints of what might come. And it is clear that the Biden administration, just as under Trump before him , is already preparing the grounds for aggression against China, among other things to constrain China’s domestic demand for resources. Imperialist interventions that cheapen the supply price would allow capitalists in the global North to maintain accumulation and sustain their truce with the working classes of the core for a little while longer, even as the world crumbles around them.
If left to itself, this is how the capitalist story will play out in the 21st century: neoliberal austerity, white supremacist ideology, and violent imperialist interventions—all for the sake of maintaining growth and capital accumulation in the core. Indeed, this barbarism is already well underway. Liberal politicians denounce the barbarism at every opportunity, and yet they cannot bring themselves to address its underlying causes because they remain fundamentally committed to capitalist growth. The solution that the liberals offer—capital accumulation without barbarism— is a chimera.
There is an alternative ending to this story, however. If the core states shift to a post-growth, post-capitalist economic model—in other words, if they abandon the growth imperative and curtail capital accumulation—this would obviate the need for austerity and imperialist interventions. This is the power of post-growth transition: it would liberate all of us, in North and South alike, from the predatory interventions that are required to sustain capital accumulation.
Of course, capitalist states are highly unlikely to make such a shift voluntarily. It will require a popular mobilization powerful enough to bring it about. Post-growth visions that focus primarily on ecology have so far placed their hope in the environmentalist movement as a political vehicle. But environmentalists will not be able to deliver the transition on their own. This is partly because the movement does not yet have a sufficiently radical analysis (i.e., it does not yet recognize capitalist growth as the main structural problem, although this is beginning to change), and partly because it does not have sufficient political power. Working-class movements and labor unions, on the other hand, have significantly more leverage. The problem is that most unions have bought the narrative that growth is necessary in order to improve working class employment and livelihoods. They align with capital in calling for more of it, and they have in large part abandoned solidarity with the South in order to sustain this position.
But growth in the core countries is not in fact necessary to improve employment and livelihoods. This can be done directly, by shortening the working week, introducing a public job guarantee and a minimum income, legislating living wage policy, and establishing universal public services (healthcare, education, housing, water, energy, internet, transportation, food) to ensure that everyone has access to the key resources they need to live well. These are basic socialist policies, and they can be accomplished without growth. This is what the unions should demand – a social guarantee –and the environmentalist movement must unite with them to fight for it, because delinking livelihoods and well-being from capital would create political space for a just post-growth transition. And both movements must commit to supporting Southern struggles for self-determination, to permanently dismantle the imperial arrangement.
In other words, we need the principles of social democracy, but in order for social democracy to be sustained against the forces that demand austerity — and without resorting to imperialist violence—it must be a social democracy without growth, and without capital accumulation.
A social guarantee would dramatically improve the bargaining power of the working class, which would be enough to redistribute income and force a radical deaccumulation of capital. And the process of decommodifying and expanding public services would restore a significant chunk of property to public ownership (utilities, land, rental units, etc.), thus reversing the process of enclosure. Outside of the social sector, other forms of provisioning could be managed through the market, but given the strong bargaining power of labor in this scenario it would be difficult for firms to accumulate capital in any significant quantity: in other words, these would be markets without capitalism—which is exactly what we need.
If capitalism depends on commodification, enclosure and accumulation, then decommodification, de-enclosure and deaccumulation spells its end. All of this would remove structural pressures for growth, and we would be free to organize our economy instead around meeting human needs. What is more, as my colleagues and I have explained in previous work, shifting to a post-growth economy (and taking public ownership of energy utilities) would make it possible for us to decarbonize the energy supply fast enough to stop climate breakdown and bring resource use back down to planetary boundaries, thus preventing the chaos that otherwise awaits.
An alternative story for the 21st century is possible, and is available to us — a story that does not entail imperialist violence or neoliberal austerity or white supremacist ideology; a story that is more just and more ecological — but it requires that we throw off the shackles of growthism.