Abundance, capitalism and climate change

By Branko Milanovic (77) - 20 May 2024
Abundance, capitalism and climate change

In classical Marxism, communism is defined as a society of material abundance. It is a society where goods flow in abundance (“after the productive forces have…increased…all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly”, Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program). It is also a society that, having overcome the division of labor, allows for full self-realization and flowering of individual abilities:

He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so [under capitalism] if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner… without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” (The German Ideology)

When we define abundance in communist society it is important to keep in mind that it is material abundance, viz., abundance of physical goods and some services. This cannot be a abundance in everything. We can each have as many cars as we wish but the number of desirable parking places near the good restaurant, where we get a free dinner,  or near a good theater will always be limited.

One could even argue that the abundance of material goods cannot be absolute. For example, if cars are abundant and one can have as many as he or she wishes, they can indulge in anti-social behavior by destroying a car each day.  Thus eventually, society must step in and impose a limit on the number of cars. It can be countered, however, that this is not a likely behavior because a socially destructive behavior is generally indulged in order to show power and wealth. One could expect this kind of behavior to be minimized in communist societies because wanton destruction of goods that are accessible to all does not convey status. A useful comparator may be the wastefulness with the things that are relatively cheap today like water or electricity are used. Neither of them is, for most households in rich countries, very expensive. There is thus no particular status one gets by being ostentatiously wasteful with them. The same might apply for most goods under communism: since they are accessible to all, intentional wastefulness is not signaling power.  

This summary of the standard Marxist view faces one significant problem. The definition of abundance implies full satisfaction of all needs. However, Marx very clearly defines needs as a social category, something that evolves with the development of society. What it means is what we perceive as a need today is a function of what currently exists in the world and consequently what is the current level of development. In Roman times nobody felt the need for a smart phone, nor a frustration if they did not have it. Likewise, we do not experience  the need to spend a weekend on Mars simply because such a good is unavailable.

If needs are a historical category, then new needs arise with technological progress. If new needs are constantly born, the abundance that was presumed in the opening paragraphs cannot be achieved because sufficient material means to satisfy these new needs will always be deficient. When the first laptop was invented, no matter how efficient the production, society could not create billions of laptops almost instantly. Some people’s needs for a new laptop had to go unsatisfied. The access to new goods must always be unequal, and this inequality will produce frustration and imply absence of abundance.  

To summarize: Our needs increase in step with technological progress but the technological progress cannot at all points in time satisfy the needs of everybody. Abundance defined as full satisfaction of all material needs cannot be achieved in technologically advancing  societies.

When can all needs be covered by societal production? Only in a society which does not experience technological progress and where no new needs can arise. In such a society it is possible to imagine an almost unlimited production of things which already exist. That society can be related to today's society by realizing that in the rich part of the world most of our current material needs, defined in terms of goods that already exist, can be fully satisfied. Given the productive capacity of rich countries, everyone could have a decent home, refrigerator,  laptop, dishwasher, car etc.

To reach a society of abundance requires that we accept absence of technological change or economic stationarity. The question then becomes  whether capitalist society can ever be stationary. Schumpeter thought that imagining capitalism as a stationary society is a contradiction in terms. Capitalism can exist only if profits, on average, are positive. No capitalist or entrepreneur would invest if they cannot expect a net return, no more than a worker would work for a zero wage. If profits are positive they will be used for investment; investments will generate growth, and that very growth will create new products, which in turn will create new needs and make the society of abundance impossible.

This then means that the stationary society that is compatible with full satisfaction of all human needs cannot be capitalist. Capitalism, by definition, means limitless change and limitless progress. With the society of limitless change and limitless progress we cannot have abundance.

Degrowth advocates therefore might have a valid point when they argue for an end to capitalism if they believe that climate change can be stopped only if society is stationary. Stationary society, end of capitalism, and abundance are logically consistent.  


P.S. The last point is an implication based (I hope correctly) on Kohei Saito’s arguments. I had a privilege to participate in a panel with Kohei and my interpretation is based on that discussion. I have not yet read his just published (in English) book “Slowdown: The Degrowth Manifesto”.


This first appeared on Branko's blog.

Photo by David Bartus

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