The space of political imagination and action pushed open in this era of crises needs to be harnessed towards broader institutional and political change. And to that end, a degrowth politics capable of appealing to and mobilizing broad-based support is more needed today than ever, Bengi Akbulut argues in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”
Not that we needed reminding, but perhaps the most recent punctuation of how perversely our economies are wired came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the memory of those early days of the pandemic is fading, but they had laid bare how our economies were not built to provide for needs, or center those who produce the goods and services essential for sustenance of human and non-human life. And these days, there is no shortage of crises to reiterate this rude awakening.
Yet the Greek root of the word “crisis” implies a turning point, a rupture through which possibilities appear. Crises lay bare what we are used to accept as the “normal” and break the common sense upholding the “normal.” Through that break, they hold the potential for a new sense of what is possible and provide an entry point to imagine alternatives. One such alternative is degrowth.
“The global equilibrium,” wrote André Gorz in 1972, “for which no-growth – or even degrowth – of material production is a necessary condition, is it compatible with the survival of the (capitalist) system?”. Since this first use of the term, “degrowth” (décroissance) has become a forceful conceptual framework and mobilizer for imagining and enacting alternative ways of articulating society, economy, and nature.
Reclaiming the economy
Degrowth is often, albeit misleadingly, equated to a technical matter of “downscaling,” i.e. reducing the materials and energy used by societies, or worse, to GDP contraction. Degrowth is indeed a proposal for voluntary, equitable, and democratically-led reduction of the materials and energy that a society extracts, processes, and disposes of as waste. Yet this call for downscaling is not conceived merely as an answer to a biophysical necessity – and on that degrowthers have forcefully challenged the unfounded claims of green growth and techno fixes – nor a technical issue of “less.” Degrowth denotes a far more radical transformation, one that unsettles the dominant structures of our economies in more than one way.
Firstly, degrowth is a project of breaking with the dominance of economic growth as a societal goal, i.e., the ideology of growth. It is a call to deconstruct the automatic equation of growth with “better,” in order to open space for imagining other ideals and principles in organizing our economic relations. Degrowth is a fundamental challenge to the economic logic that colonizes, in Serge Latouche’s words, the imaginary – economism that dominates and smothers other (non-economic) social rationalities, goals, and representations.
In this sense, degrowth aims to (re)politicize the “economic” – by radically questioning the supposed objectivity of economic imperatives such as efficiency or growth, reappropriating their political dimension and foregrounding democratic choice in shaping the economic sphere. Degrowth is a project of reclaiming the economy.
Secondly, degrowth is a call for “not only less, but different” – it is not a quantitative issue of shrinking our economies as they exist, but rewiring them to serve different functions. Degrowth is a call for restructuring our economic relations and reorienting them towards different principles – such as care, autonomy, solidarity, justice, and democracy. This means, among other things, constructing and strengthening alternative economies – processes of production, exchange, labor/compensation, finance, and consumption that are intentionally different from mainstream (capitalist) economic activity. In this sense, degrowth joins others – thinkers, movements, practices – that embrace building alternatives to capitalism as strategy and concrete utopia.
Put differently: degrowth is first and foremost a project of reorienting, restructuring and recentering our economies. Such a recentering can take a number of forms: it implies a shift away from extractive activities, fossil fuel production, military, and advertising, towards those that sustain and regenerate human and non-human well-being, such as healthcare, education, ecological-restorative agriculture, and local food systems. It could mean, for instance, that we eliminate subsidies provided to the former and reroute public finance support to the latter; that we restructure taxation systems in ways that punish harmful economic activity and reward life-sustaining activities, and that we curb the socio-ecological destruction created by capitalist growth economies by establishing democratically-determined caps on extraction of resources.
It also implies equitable sustenance and ensuring access to basic goods and services for all. Among possible routes to this end are the decommodification of basic services such as health care, education and housing, and/or measures to guarantee a minimum level of well-being for all, for instance through universal basic income schemes. Decoupling paid (market) work and fulfillment of basic needs would not only relieve the coercion to work in exploitative, alienating, and degrading jobs. It would also sever the link between well-being, employment, and economic growth. Guaranteeing a decent level of well-being for all is in fact a decision to radically shift how we distribute the means of sustenance within our societies; a decision to delink it from the need to maintain economic growth for the jobs it supposedly creates.
Politics of work: Social and ecological reproduction
Fundamental to this recentering are three axes that I would like to highlight. The first is a broader conception of what constitutes “work” and which kinds of work are necessary for surviving well. This means recognizing and validating the types of unpaid and paid work that goes on in multiple settings (households, communities, ecosystems) and that sustain human and non-human life – what ecofeminists and feminist political economists have long theorized as social and ecological reproduction: a form of labor that reproduces and sustains the laborers, produces life-sustaining goods, and services, and regenerates the ecological and social conditions of (commodity) production.
Implementing a care income to reward and support this invisibilized form of labor has been at the forefront of degrowth activism, which had gained renewed impetus with the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides a care income, policies that expand the rights and entitlements of essential workers and public investment into social and ecological reproduction would be instrumental in shifting what is recognized and deemed valuable as work.
Yet feminist engagements with degrowth have not only been instrumental in pushing for recognizing and rewarding the work of social and ecological reproduction. They have also problematized how this reproductive work is organized, i.e. the gendered and racialized nature of who performs how much of it under which conditions. In this sense, degrowth’s broader conception of work also provides a novel lens for thinking about transition justice, as it imbues not only the notion of just transition but also that of transition justice with the diverse and immense field of labor and production that underpin commodity production and capital accumulation. That is to say, transition justice requires justice for (human and non-human) workers of social and ecological reproduction.
Autonomy and (economic) democracy
The second fundamental axis is autonomy and democracy. This relates to degrowth’s call to exit a social imaginary dominated by economism – economic representations and imperatives – and liberation from the imperative of growth, to foreground democratic decision-making in shaping economic processes. But it also builds on the work of thinkers like Ivan Illich, Andre Gorz, and Cornelius Castoriadis, which share a common thread: that increased scale of economic activity undermines our ability to self-govern.
Democratizing economic decision-making towards the expansion of self-governance, i.e. enabling all to participate in the making of decisions that affect their lives, is therefore inherent to degrowth. Economic democracy is not only worth pursuing in itself; but it would also function as a force against the socially and ecologically destructive activities our economies run on. Curbing corporate power, establishing democratic oversight over money and finance, participatory public budgeting, democratic governance of productive capacities are all facets of a degrowth future.
The question of justice
The third, and last, axis is justice. Degrowth is a project of justice: justice requires setting limits since social and ecological costs of growth are never equally shared, neither within societies or across the Global North and South, as the long history of environmental justice struggles illustrate. But growth does not only create injustice, it is also driven by it.
The unequal relationship between the Global North and the South, historically constituted and contemporarily perpetuated, lies at the basis of the global capitalist system that runs on endless economic growth. It positions countries of the North and South differentially within a world system, where the former’s prosperity and growth depends on the appropriation of resources from the latter. Repairing the historical and ongoing injustices is thus fundamental to degrowth – and here degrowthers ally with debates on ecological debt, i.e. theft, plunder, and disproportionate use of resources (and sinks), and ecologically unequal exchange, i.e. unequal flows of “embodied nature” through global trade.
Degrowth as concrete utopia denotes both an (open) imaginary of a future and a path of transformation that would shift the relations of power in ways that place us “in the best position to do more later”: non-reformist reforms in Andre Gorz’s famous formulation. The space of political imagination and action pushed open in this era of crises needs to be harnessed towards broader institutional and political change. And to that end, a degrowth politics capable of appealing to and mobilizing broad-based support is more needed today than ever.
Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de