Sustainability, Non-Sustainability and Crime II

In the wider context of sustainability we have to deal not least with growth – to be more precise: the obsession with growth. Of course, this term is, at this stage, hugely problematic – a matter that is at this stage even widely accepted in mainstream economics and social science.

It is not least problematic if we take it as universally valid pattern.

(i) Growth is typically biased, limited to a quantifiable development, leaving by its very definition qualitative aspects out of consideration.

(ii) It also undermines even conceptualising systematically any non-commodifiable aspects of life (take happiness e.g.: we would speak of increasing happiness, not of growing happiness).

(iii) Growth is with this perspective in principle and inherently a completely individualist concept – even in its pretended ‘social’ understanding (for instance as matter of macro-economic growth) it is based on methodological individualism.

(iv) It is then difficult (if not impossible) to conceptualise ‘needs’ in a globally differentiated way: conventional growth is surely nothing needed in the so-called developed world; on the other hand we find in many regions severe under-supply of goods; as far as this undersupply is a matter of the lack of means of subsistence and ‘basic goods’, the answer will be obvious. However, in several cases there may be an unquestionable need although the means of satisfaction are not defined. An example for the latter can be seen in India where we find attempts to introduce cheap, i.e. affordable cars. This may well be an example where the need (transport for everybody) cannot and should not be questioned; but where the means to answer this need cannot be seen as given – in some respect the need may actually be limited (spreading availability of services, increasing local production by decentralisation  …); in another respect the means of transport can be directed in different ways rather than orienting on private means.

Fundamentally questionable presumptions are at least the following:

  • Growth is understood as growth of the production of ‘goods’ and with this actually leading to an understanding of economic processes based in consumption as ultimate end of the process. – It would be different by looking at (re)production of daily life (and the related means) as ultimate end. Only then economic growth would be a means rather than an end in itself.
  • This means also that production in the mainstream understanding is only narrowly understood, namely as production of goods. However, it is necessary to go beyond this understanding, searching for ways of determining other ‘means of production’, which themselves produce the ultimate product, i.e. daily life of socio-individual beings.
  • With this, a further qualification emerges: considering the human being as genuinely and indispensably social being requires – in the light of the demand of sustainable sociability – accepting equity not as secondary, i.e. as result of growth of the production of goods (thus is the fallacy of mainstream economics). Instead, equity is condition, i.e. means of production of sustainable sociability. – The latter can easily be shown by several empirical studies, for instance those that point at the Nordic countries facing less problems during crisis; cooperatives being let hit by the crisis etc.
  • Another and fundamental fallacy is that growth strategies as they exist today are to a large extent only mechanisms of (i) distribution and (ii) externalisation. A few remarks may be exemplifying this.


We find some evidence for emerging and increasing poverty, developing in countries exactly at that time when they closely entered the global economy …, and when they did so as ‘explicit periphery’ of the world economy. So-called developing countries had been for a long time sufficiently strong in their own reproductive and sustaining way before entering fully the global economy.[1]

Social I

We find several mechanisms of externalisation, not least ‘shifting costs’ to the organic environment (nature)

Social II

A further social dimension can be seen in ‘by-production’ and parasite-production: enterprises produce political influence (CSOs sitting on political boards); contribute to welfare (foundations); NGOs produce services; households are engaged in DIY-production and so on.


In many cases this can be closely linked to processes of tempoarilisation of costs, shifting them to later generations.

I am not yet sure if ‘development’ is a sufficiently thought through alternative – development carries with it the burden of Rostowian modernism though it can surely be questioned if this is a necessary burden.[2] One additional fundamental critique of growth emerges in this context: growth emerged in the meantime as by and large nationalist concept, being closely linked with the mechanisms of competitiveness. To the extent to which this is true, a Green Deal is highly problematic as long as it is conceptualised with the emphasis on ‘changed growth’ rather than changed understanding of ‘buen vivir’.

As long as we follow the mainstream growth model, we have to be aware that  there are two issues that are of fundamental importance, although they are easily overlooked at least in terms of their consequential character: the current model is based on two patterns that are frequently and in popular gist considered to be exceptions but that are actual fact structural foundation of the system – as such they are closely knit into the factors that had been laid before us in the previous paragraphs:

  • debt is the one
  • the other one is crisis.

The strictly economic side of debt can easily be described – and much had been written about it. It is not always considered sufficiently that there is a fundamental difference between private and public debt but by and large it is probably fair enough to say that the difference is usually seen and only naive political jargon draws simple comparisons. The perspective from political economy is a bit more difficult – but in any case it is also fundamentally a concern with a rather traditional model of growth, in particular looking at the wider understanding of distributing economic components over time. This is then not only a matter of financing current investment on the account of expected gain in the future. At least equally important are various inherent mechanisms of social transfer, as for instance business investment loans financed by agglomerating savings of private households, ‘cold expropriation’ of private and business households by the means of undervalued government loans (e.g. a short note on this here), shifts of public money to private businesses using also mechanisms of tax exemption and tax evasion.

However, another perspective has also to be considered, it is concerned with the soci(et)al time perspective. Both, personal and social history are based on a loan taken from the future, however without sufficient cover. The reason for the lack of security is not a matter of overspending. In order to understand the contradiction, it is not sufficient to consider the (im)balance between spending and borrowing – these are actually by and large brought into congruence with each other via various mechanisms of the economic crisis – a mechanism which is, at least insofar we are talking about a crisis of consolidation, nothing else than forceful negotiations which decide who is paying which share. This can be roughly broken down to the following: the investors, the mediators, the consumers. Still, there is another factor, socially constructed by a specific political-economic understanding, namely the ideology of infinite growth: it is the suggestion that the major share is paid by the future. So – simplified – we end up with the following rough scheme:

Current debt

Loan from future 1

Delayed payment:

Loan from future 2








paid by soci(et)al inequality

paid by societal inequity

remaining unpaid

At this stage it does not play a role if we are talking about debt in monetary terms, energy, raw material, space … . Importantly we have to aim n maintaining the link

  • between production and reproduction of daily life

and also

  • between the needs and means as mentioned earlier with reference to Wilhelm von Humboldt.

And of course, we can then clearly see the justification of speaking in the title of the crime of lacking sustainability: It is even in positive law – in terms of the criteria set by this society – a crime insofar it disrespects the fundamental principle of contracts: contracts are actually drawn with a party that is not part of the negotiations.

We can come back to what had been said before: for understanding the contradiction, it is not sufficient to consider the (im)balance between spending and borrowing. Such perspective is simply limited to the realm of circulation. However, the real imbalances are on the level of production. For a clearer understanding of such localisation we have to distinguish at least analytically the following dimensions – always keeping in mind that the fundamental reference is the production and reproduction of daily life. The following is suggested:

  • Systemic (re-)production, i.e. the (re-)production of the socio-political-economic system itself. Part of it is well reflected in the definition of the accumulation regime as brought forward the Régulationist School. Important is to consider that the definition is established by drawing a close link between production and reproduction, looking at

stabilization over a long period of the allocation of the net product between consumption and accumulation which implies some correspondence between the transformation of both the conditions of production and the conditions of the reproduction of wage earners.[3]

  • Personal (re)production, i.e. the (re)production of individuals and private households, importantly establishing a link between development of personalities and their ‘fit’ into the societal relations and vice versa.
  • National (re)production, i.e. the (re)production which is mainly concerned with a specific part of the systemic (re)production, however, limiting this to a certain social space and in turn providing a basis for specific exclusionary structurations
  • Class and cleavage (re)production, i.e. the (re)production of different relations that socio-politically ‘order’ the positions within the overall relationality.

Two factors are of major importance. First, social and political divisions find their original foundation in the first of these (re)production-schemes, i.e. on the systemic level. However, these can only emerge from the division of roles – a matter of division of labour and also of – only in part subsequent – division of power positions. Second, in all these cases we find specific environmentalisations. With this term I suggest that human beings define themselves as depending in different degrees from the natural conditions of the organic environment, the other way round: the tendency to externalise of organic environment. This independence is itself relative as much as it is defined by human agency’s individual and/or collective ability to control the organic nature. It should be clear, however, that the dependency is a relational one. The highest thinkable degree of independence is one of the ability to make perfect use of the organic forces – though they cannot be overcome nor can human beings transcend their own organic essence.

Tensions and contradictions emerge within each of these realms and also between them – an apparently incalculable net of relations. These tensions and contradictions are in their historically specific form definiens of historical structures of meaning. – And this can be – and is at times – the nihilist demeaning of everything, arbitrariness of existence that is getting aware of the crime of lacking sustainability.

Is there a way out? One way out is the amplified nihilism: denial of the future, suggesting that the debt is already to high to be paid back at any one stage. Another is the religious or otherwise value-ridden suggestion that another world is longed for – and thus it should be possible: the internalisation of a deeply felt enigma and frequently the idealisation of the past and the suggested eternal while facing the crumbling away of parts of reality. There are technical suggestions – green deal and decoupling.

Finally – and in part contradicting the aforementioned suggestions – there is the need to concentrate really on a new mode of production as core of a new societal formation. This surely has to be socialist in its very core. But being socialist has to thoroughly consider a new productive basis under non-industrialist conditions. An important question is in which way socialisation of production can be employed as a means also of ‘steering needs’.

Part of the necessary analysis is to clearly answer in a differentiated way the questions of what is needed, how this is determined and who the actual producer is.

Including importantly the questions of capitalisation and commodification of labour power

This includes material, immaterial, mediated/symbolic dimensions

What id actually needed for the (re)production of daily life

Important is also the differentiation between the departments (I & II according to Marx; in addition III according to Luxemburg; in my own opinion this needs today further differentiation, for instance by looking at the service sector as candidate for a further department)

Including the question of marketisation[4] and commodification

How the need is determined – e.g. by physical necessity, social definition, technological requirements or suggestions … (a new approach to Maslow?)
By whom is actually produced (incl. public households,[5] private households, NGOs, as ‘by-product’ of other processes …)

[1]            It remains to be discussed how this relates to the thesis of world systems theory, in particular the interpretation by Gills and Frank (see Frank, Andre Gunder/Gills, Barry K. (eds.) 1993: The World System. Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand?; London/New York: Routledge); furthermore it would be interesting to analyse in this context the theory of major cycles (Kondratieff waves).

[2]            Part of this is more extensively reflected upon in my article  ‘Indicators – More than Evidence and Maths; forthcoming in: Journal of Globalization Studies’, Association with the Faculty of Global Processes of the Lomonosov Moscow State University; Eds.: Leonid Grinin/Andrey Korotayev/Victor de Munck/James Sheffield; Volgograd: Uchitel; and the more extensive document from the Cork-presentation on occasion of the Poverty Summer School at University College Cork.

[3]            Lipietz, Alain, 1986: New Tendencies in International Division of Labour: Regimes of Accumulation and Nodes of Regulation, in: Production, Work, Territory; Scott, A.J./Storper, M. (eds.); London: Allen Unwin: 16-40, here: 19

[4]            Important to note that marketisation does not necessarily means capitalist markets.

[5]            In addition public goods though they are not necessarily produced by public bodies.

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  1. […] and exchange value. These entries had been titled Sustainability, Non-Sustainability and Crime I, Sustainability, Non-Sustainability, Crime II and Growth and Development and finally the presentation during the recent Poznan-workshop of the […]


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