The degrowth propaganda squad

Degrowth. Image: Klimacamp Wien

What degrowth thinkers can learn from free market economist Friedrich Hayek and the father of public relations, Edward Bernays.

By actively shaping the views of both the wider public and the elites, the Mont Pelerin Society unleashed a dynamic that eventually led to a new common sense.

‘There is no alternative.’ The infamous slogan used by Margaret Thatcher would often be flung in your face, explicitly or implicitly, whenever you tried, in recent decades, to resist the dominant economic system.

You were opposed to ‘capitalism’ because of its colonial roots, because it was a productivity machine that generated extreme social inequality and that was disrupting the climate and the environment at an ever-growing pace.

Readers interested in how knowledge of strategic thinking and public relations can assist in environmental activism can contact the newly formed Degrowth Propaganda Squad by emailing

You were a part of that ‘system’, however, and, for some of us, we were also white middle-class Westerners, and we reaped some of its benefits. You only really stammered when you tried to describe that ‘alternative’.


Jason Hickel’s bestselling Less is More (2021) at least frees us from this sense of discomfort. In it, Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, not only shows irrefutably that capitalism – driven by the creation of profit and the reinvestment of that profit and thus by the idea of seemingly infinite growth – is an impossible path for the future.

In purely material terms, the planet on which and off which we live has put up several hard ecological boundaries. Crossing those boundaries, it has become increasingly clear, has extremely destructive consequences.

Drawing on indisputable data, Hickel shows that, as a new way forward, ‘green growth’ – growth decoupled from an excessive energy and material footprint – is just as likely to lead to a dead end and that technological innovation is not going to magically solve the problems.

We are going to have to choose: do we want to save capitalism, or do we want to save life?

For those who prefer the second option, Hickel also outlines a credible alternative: an economy that revolves around ecological stability and human well-being rather than focusing blindly on shareholder profit and GDP growth.

Hickel is not the first to put degrowth ideas on the agenda, but the clarity of his argument, the timing of its publication and the skill with which the author translates big ideas into concrete, achievable policy proposals mean that Less is More is a real breath of fresh air, something to hold onto in times of despair and panic.

Despite all its qualities, however, the book only partially delivers on the promise its subtitle suggests, How Degrowth Will Save the World.

There may be an alternative, and one at that which also has the potential to be popular among large sections of the population, but how do you convert, as if by magic, the ideas into actual degrowth policy?

Besides good books and a group of convinced readers, a politics of habitability needs actual state power to ‘save the world’.

By actively shaping the views of both the wider public and the elites, the Mont Pelerin Society unleashed a dynamic that eventually led to a new common sense.

How do you acquire that power? And how do you do that within the specific context of the twenty-first-century Western political system, a system we could describe as a parliamentary democracy with strong oligarchic traits and illiberal tendencies?


The question of how to acquire power drove Bruno Latour and Nikolaj Schultz to write the short political tract Mémo sur la nouvelle classe écologique (2022). In it, they list the groups of people who would benefit from a policy that takes habitability seriously, that is, pretty much everyone of course, apart from the one per cent.

According to Latour and Schultz, this motley group just needs to come together and assert itself as the majority. In this way, the necessary state power can be legitimized in a convincing democratic manner.

Anyone who has any experience with the complicated process of activist coalition-building may wonder, as they read this, how useful it is to gather workers, women, indigenous peoples, postcolonial activists, farmers, gardeners, scientists, inventors, environmentally conscious entrepreneurs and more under a single terminological umbrella, and specifically that of class. Nevertheless, this readable little book includes a number of relevant questions and insights.

Latour and Schultz refer more than once to Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), and this should come as no surprise. The Italian Marxist’s ideas are crucial when looking for answers to this question of how to acquire power.

Gramsci defined politics in essence as a struggle for hegemony, the dominance of a coherent set of social views, values and norms that becomes institutionally entrenched and thus excludes other possible perspectives.

Hegemony demarcates the horizon of what is considered politically possible, realistic, necessary and desirable, and what is not. Such a dominant framework doesn’t simply establish and maintain itself spontaneously. Rather, it implies a constant struggle – an active, strategic interference in the course of history.

According to Gramsci, this struggle is largely cultural in nature: through the domains of education, science, the media, the arts, and the culture of everyday life, it is possible to influence the ideas, values and even emotional structures and identities that dominate a society.


For four decades since the Thatcher years, we ourselves have been living under the hegemony of neoliberalism, which now seems to be on its last legs – although its demise has been announced many times before, always prematurely. Within the neoliberal model, the main task of government is to drive economic growth through deregulation and privatization.

Citizens are primarily self-sufficient individuals who can pursue their ‘self-interest’ in ‘free’ competition with one another.

Incidentally, one of the alternatives that helped to make neoliberal hegemony invisible was degrowth thinking precisely. After the publication in 1972 of The Limits to Growth, the infamous Club of Rome report, degrowth ideas briefly began to spread politically, until the 1973 oil crisis put the brakes on them prematurely.

According to political thinkers Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, there is a lot we can learn from the highly strategic way in which the neoliberal hegemony was prepared and installed.

At one point in their manifesto Inventing the Future (2016), they reconstruct the history and methods of the Mont Pelerin Society, the club of neoliberal economists that ultimately succeeded in transforming the entire world.

Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992) et al patiently expanded their influence over decades thanks to the establishment of an international network of think tanks, the securing of key institutional positions ay major universities, the lobbying of various governments, and the popularization of their ideas in the form of articles in widely read dailies and magazines.

By actively shaping the views of both the wider public and the elites, the Mont Pelerin Society unleashed a dynamic that eventually led to a new common sense.

Today, degrowth thinking is largely absent from the existing ideological landscape: there are hardly any politicians promoting it openly, and despite its steadily growing visibility, the vast majority of the population does not yet recognize it as a valid option.

The breakneck pace at which the ecological and social crises are now unfolding is putting up both obstacles and opportunities for counter-hegemonic strategies: on the one hand, we don’t have the decades it took the Mont Pelerin Society to achieve the change they were aiming for; on the other hand, the growing sense of urgency may well accelerate the maturing of minds for a fundamentally different social model – although, of course, there is no guarantee that that model will necessarily be more just and sustainable than the current one.

Of course, an important area where degrowth thinkers need to fight the hegemony battle is that of the economic field.

University lectures, expert commentaries on TV news and in newspapers, analyses in authoritative economic journals, advice to governments and corporations still bear the stamp of the pensée unique that sees growth as the basic condition for a healthy economy. Moreover, attempts to change elite opinions will necessarily have to take place on an international scale.

Indeed, within the current context of a highly globalized economy, the freedom of individual countries to chart a radically different course is relatively limited.

Less Is More
Less Is More


That Hickel’s Less is More is not an impenetrable academic piece of work but a bestselling, highly readable book is a very good thing from a Gramscian point of view.

It can convince many non-specialist readers of the absolutely destructive nature of the dominant economic views and practices as well as of the advantages of the alternative model.

There is a word for influencing the broader public opinion on a large scale, a word that we almost automatically shy away from: propaganda. And yet it is an important part of an effective counter-hegemonic strategy.

While rational arguments like Hickel’s, based on sound scientific or journalistic research, are crucial for a fruitful public debate, they often prove inadequate as a means of political communication.

Building on Gramsci, political scientist Chantal Mouffe assumes in On the Political (2005) that politics is not about reaching a reasonable consensus but is a hegemonic struggle between clashing alternatives.

This view helps us to understand why scientific reports on the climate and the environment often have a frustratingly limited impact on public opinion and policy.

Similarly, political propaganda that is mainly concerned with the moral register is doomed to failure. As Mouffe explains, when you portray your political ‘opponent’ as morally reprehensible – think of ‘good’ democrats vs ‘bad’ right-wing populists, or of the demonization of the ecologically unsustainable consumer – you turn them into an ‘enemy’.

That is, you no longer respect them as an equal political opponent with whom, despite profound differences, you can engage in a debate. Such a moralizing approach is usually counterproductive: it strengthens the opponent instead of weakening them, and in the worst case leads to resentment and violence.

Mouffe herself emphasizes the mobilizing potential of emotions and passions. In a representative democracy, political parties and civil-society organizations should develop, besides well-thought-out programmes, inspiring collective identities with which citizens can identify emotionally.

This raises the question of what degrowth thinkers could learn from the infamous communications strategist Edward Bernays (1891–1995).

His ideas on advertising and propaganda fundamentally changed the ways in which consumer products as well as politicians, ideologies and programmes are showcased.

Inspired by the theories of his uncle Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), Bernays argued that many of people’s thoughts and actions are rooted in desires they feel compelled to repress.

Most of the choices they make, as both consumers and voters, are based less on rational considerations than on these deeper emotional urges, urges which are highly individual yet which they simultaneously share with countless others. In Propaganda (1928), Bernays summarized this view particularly concisely: ‘Human desires are the steam which make the social machine work.’

A salesperson won’t sell a car by enumerating the engine’s technical qualities, but by presenting the machine as something that appeals to ‘masculinity’, to a desire for ‘freedom’ or ‘adventure’.

Shared emotions

If you want to make effective propaganda for a politics of habitability, what emotions and identities can you mobilize for that purpose?

Clearly, the dominant fiction of unlimited individual freedom of choice is difficult to reconcile with the idea of planetary boundaries and degrowth policies.

The apparently endless diversity of consumer offerings is a particularly powerful magnet for the desires of the masses – even if, in reality, the destructive monocultures of Big Oil, Big Agriculture, Big Fashion and co. are lurking behind them.

However, people are still more than just consumers. We are also anxious beings who yearn for security, stability, good health and a sense of home.

There is still a great untapped communication potential in confronting the general public with the true scale and circumstances of the environmental catastrophe – the penny hasn’t really dropped yet.

What if we could imagine more concretely the potential impact on our own day-to-day lives, our local environment, our own bodies and those of our loved ones? Those who have become apathetic from all the doomscrolling are so, in the first place, because the shocking information hasn’t led to the radical policy change we need.

We are therefore also furious creatures. Political inertia, our own powerlessness, the vengeful sense of injustice: how is it possible that big polluters can continue to make big profits, sometimes even receive subsidies, while at the bottom of the social ladder more and more people are finding it harder to make ends meet?

We want to take matters back into our own hands – or at least to feel that our political representatives can do so on our behalf. That is what we voted them into city councils, parliaments and governments for, right?

Besides negative emotional incentives, there are also many positive ones. How can we once more get history moving in a meaningful way?

The idea of repairing and regenerating damaged ecosystems and communities could generate a lot of enthusiasm, as could freeing technological innovation from the restrictive logic of market, profit and growth.

A politics of habitability also offers the prospect of various forms of human emancipation. For instance, we could finally do away with the inane value hierarchies between practical workers and the theoretically educated, and finally rid the practice of care of its age-old gendered character (care as something supposedly ‘feminine’).

Work can fully become a source of meaning, self-esteem and pride. At the same time, we yearn for a better balance between work and leisure, for peace of mind, the opportunity to develop ourselves in many different areas, or just spend time together.

After all, we are also social beings; we like belonging to a community or to different communities. How many local social ties have supermarkets and shopping centres cut?

Long live our SMEs, and down with the chains and anonymous multinationals. We want to be able to have a chat once more with the baker around the corner, the fruit and vegetable farmer, the woodworker, the tailor, the bicycle repairman … We want to discuss the price of the products we buy, to know where they come from, and so on.

This wide range of emotions is rooted in a more sustainable conception of ‘the good life’ than the consumerism and productivism that dominate our collective imagination today.

How can we translate these emotions into effective propaganda materials? Which audiences should we address with them, through which channels and in which way? What are the party-political players and civil-society organizations we need to convince to help build the new common sense?

This Author

Sébastien Hendrickx is based in Brussels. He is an active member of Extinction Rebellion and affiliated groups since 2019. He started Le Parlement Citoyen, a campaign on democratic innovation in times of ecological breakdown. He works in the field of the arts as a performing artist, dramaturge and teacher. Anyone who feels like thinking about these questions further is welcome to join the Degrowth Propaganda Squad. Please email