Degrowth offers perspectives that should be productively integrated and critically adapted into progressive politics.
We live in a time of many and accelerating crises. Climate breakdown is breathing down our neck. Biodiversity is collapsing in ecosystems around the world, and many natural safety nets – water cycles, soil fertility, fish stocks, microbial diversity – are unravelling.
Civil war and natural disasters have ripped whole countries apart, sending millions of people to seek safety – only to be blocked by militarised borders.
This article is an excerpt from The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism, published today with Verso Books.
A pandemic has brought the global economy to a shuddering halt. Financial and economic crises roil the world roughly every decade. There is a resurgence of nationalist and racist electoral parties.
Meanwhile, mass movements arise every year to demand change. Political leaders have for decades promised prosperity and a middle-class lifestyle for all. Yet those standards of living are becoming even less attainable for most, as high levels of stable employment dissolve into precarity and endemic unemployment.
Which proposals might get us out of this mess? Here, it may be useful to borrow a term from Immanuel Wallerstein, the world-systems theorist.
In the 2000s – during what we could now consider the heyday of neoliberalism and the corresponding global movements against it – Wallerstein suggested that there were two main political camps: the ‘Spirit of Davos’, where the world’s economic and political elites meet at the annual World Economic Forum, and the ‘Spirit of Porto Alegre’, the birthplace of the World Social Forums, where the world’s popular social movements come together.
Today, these camps have each been split into two poles.
On the Davos side, there are not only the globalists, many of whom are in favour of green capitalism, but also feudal authoritarians and neo-fascists, as represented in particular by Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
The globalists recognize the reality of climate change, and advocate ecological modernization and green growth. They think there is no need to fundamentally change the current system – we just need better technology, more efficiency, and the proper application of science and market mechanisms.
Just replace what we have now with electric cars, carbon capture and storage, green appliances, and renewable and nuclear energy – and the problem is solved.
Neo-fascists, by contrast, are more explicitly in favour of a kind of eco-apartheid: close the borders to migrants fleeing ecological collapse and the ravages of capitalist globalization, expand military powers to defend the privileges of those who have benefited from economic growth, further entrench the global division of labour, and accelerate the extraction of resources.
Degrowth offers perspectives that should be productively integrated and critically adapted into progressive politics.
What drives this reactionary idea is the willingness to change everything in order to preserve what is seen as the natural order of things.
Ultimately, this proposal will lead to a world more unequal than the one that exists today and will still cause the wide-scale collapse of the present system. Importantly, both camps – the globalists and the neo-fascists – favour growth; they just support different means to attain it.
On the other side, the Porto Alegre camp also has two poles. On the one hand, there is progressive productivism: those parts of the left that – in the tradition of socialist and social-democratic workers’ movements – focus on growth, increases in technical productivity, and redistribution, and that tend to prefer vertical forms of organisation.
Often, these leftists argue for keeping existing technological infrastructure, but seek to make it more efficient and socially just through centralised and hierarchical state planning.
Proposals for utopias based on overcoming work through productivity increases or a ‘fully automated luxury communism’ also fall in this camp. Let us call this ‘left productivism’.
On the other hand, there are the libertarian movements and currents that strongly focus on self-organization from below and that fundamentally question growth – we could call this ‘left libertarianism’.
This pole positions itself against hierarchy and productivism, and seeks to fundamentally alter global relations towards a multi-polar, post-growth internationalism.
Today, degrowth has become one of the key reference points within left libertarianism in the Global North – or, as put in a recent volume, within the ‘mosaic of alternatives’ that fight for a good life beyond growth, industrialism, and domination.
In the last half-decade, one phrase has been at the centre of both controversies and potential alliances between the productivist and libertarian poles: the Green New Deal.
Some watered-down versions of a Green New Deal or ‘Green Deal’ are promoted by governments, international organisations, and the European Commission, which essentially boil down to the ecological modernisation of capitalism. These would be considered green growth globalism, firmly placed in the Davos camp.
But we are, here, only interested in the more transformative leftist variants. The Green New Deal has existed for a long time as a set of policies for transition upheld by Green Party candidates. In recent years, is increasingly becoming a cornerstone of radical environmental politics for larger political parties, such as the Labour party in the UK and parts of the Democratic party in the United States.
The basic proposal seeks – through public investment and regulations – to radically reduce fossil fuel consumption and transition to a fully renewable economy, while guaranteeing just working conditions and full employment, as well as vastly improved living conditions, for all, and in particular for marginalised communities.
Inspired by the New Deal carried out by US president Franklin D. Roosevelt following the Great Depression in the 1930s, the idea is for a large-scale mobilisation and public investment programme of green Keynesianism that fundamentally restructures the economy.
While at first sight it appears that there is stark opposition between these more transformative, leftist Green New Deals and degrowth, we argue throughout our new book, The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism that there are many overlaps and similarities, that there is a wide scope for learning from each other and for collaborations, and that degrowth offers an important corrective for existing Green New Deal proposals.
Degrowth’s particular strengths include its strong analysis of the biophysical metabolism of capitalism, the global justice and resource implications of ecological modernisation, the ideological hegemony perpetuated by growth-based economics, and its advancement of more deeply transformative policy proposals for an economy based on autonomy, care, and sufficiency.
What distinguishes degrowth most clearly from other socio-ecological proposals is the politicisation of social metabolism and its ramifications for policy design.
Degrowth shares with most programmes of ecological modernisation – and with the Green New Deals – the call for massive investments into rapidly building up the material infrastructures for a post-fossil society.
This includes community-controlled renewable energy sources and democratically managed public transport networks, retrofitted social or collective housing, and worker-owned industrial plants, for long-lasting, repairable, and recyclable consumer products.
Similar to the outlook of Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel A. Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos in A Planet to Win, degrowth also calls for "a 'Last Stimulus' of green economic development in the short term to build landscapes of public affluence, develop new political-economic models, jump off the growth treadmill, break with capital, and settle into a slower groove".
However, the degrowth analysis – which takes into account extensive research on climate injustice and the possibilities of decoupling emissions from economic growth – posits that this needs to be accompanied by an economy-wide transition beyond economic growth. These studies show that a Green New Deal with growth – even if temporary – will likely be not sustainable.
Thus, while Green New Deal proposals tend to emphasize this investment push and the growth of everything sustainable, degrowth also and at least as rigorously puts the focus on the many things that will have to go.
To bring about a globally just and sustainable economy, large areas of production and consumption will need to be dismantled, while other systems will need to be built in their place.
In contrast to most Green New Deals, degrowth formulates active policies to achieve a selective downscaling and de-accumulation of those economic activities that cannot be made sustainable, contribute little use values, or are superfluous consumption – and these include things like advertising, planned obsolescence, ‘bullshit jobs’, private planes, or fossil fuel and defence industries.
Degrowth claims that there is a need to reduce energy and material throughput to avoid ecological overshoot.
Furthermore, the necessary policies that put a cap on emissions, rapidly curb fossil production, and end overconsumption will likely lead to a reduction of GDP.
While this might not be bad in and of itself (as GDP is a highly problematic indicator), societies need to be prepared by reorganizing institutions so that they are no longer dependent on growth and accumulation.
Green New Deal platforms are either in favour of economic growth or vague on whether the goal is growth, even as they propose policies that will in fact spur economic expansion. So, how could the ‘last stimulus’ of the Green New Deal be combined with more transformative policies?
These policies should, on the one hand, aim at degrowing those areas of production and consumption that are related to excess energy, mass, and emissions and, on the other hand, ensure that these investments do not merely stabilise an economic system built around growth and accumulation, but initiate its transformation.
Furthermore, Green New Deal platforms have been criticised for simply continuing, rather than challenging, uneven neo-colonial relationships between industrialised countries and the rest of the world.
For example, by expanding solar power and lithium battery storage technology without taking apart the unequal relationships between rich countries buying lithium and poor countries mining it, the Green New Deal may just create new problems and entrench neo-colonialism.
Degrowth, we argue in our book, offers perspectives that should be productively integrated and critically adapted into progressive politics, including those of what has been proposed as a ‘Green New Deal without Growth’.
Proponents of degrowth are therefore not only faced with the challenge of organising social majorities for a political project in the face of a shift to the right which advocates growth-oriented authoritarianism, as well as the continued presence of fossil fuel–driven and green capitalism.
It is also important to convince those who represent the ‘Spirit of Porto Alegre’ – but are also oriented towards productivism – of the merits of a degrowth society.
In this way, degrowth advocates must navigate the multiple political realities that arise through repeated crises of the capitalist system and people’s responses to these.
Our book is one attempt at navigating these challenges: by showing how degrowth can respond to the crises we face, we seek not only to introduce the various critiques of growth and the vision, policies, and strategies of degrowth, but also make a case for a degrowth that specifically addresses capitalism and social hierarchies, and to argue why the left should support it.
Matthias Schmelzer is an economic historian, networker and climate activist. He is a post-doctoral researcher at the Friedrich-Schiller University Jena and works at Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie (Laboratory for New Economic Ideas). Andrea Vetter is a transformation researcher, activist and journalist, using degrowth, commons and critical eco-feminism as tools. Aaron Vansintjan is a writer and researcher, focusing on degrowth, cities, ecology, and science fiction.
This is an excerpt from The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism, out on June 28 with Verso Books.