Book Review by Timothèe Parrique
This book review originally appeared on Timothée Parrique’s blog
The best the degrowth literature has to offer served on a silver platter. That’s how I would describe The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism (June 2022) by Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan. Reading it, I felt like Neo in The Matrix learning everything there is to know about Kung Fu all at once – “I know degrowth.”
This kind of synthesis was long overdue. The degrowth literature has grown rather large and I cannot think of a single text that maps it all. Research on degrowth used to be my favourite guide to degrowth but there is only so much you can do in a 20-page article (plus, the literature has more than doubled since it was published in 2018). Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era (2014) is a good pot luck of perspectives but lacks coherence and depth due to its multi-author, short-entry format. I tried my best in The political economy of degrowth (2019) but the end result is rather cumbersome.
In The Future is Degrowth, the authors have achieved a colossal Spring cleaning of the field. Sufficiency, dépense, commoning, pluriverse, unequal exchange, conviviality, self-determination, and many more (I have counted more than sixty concepts throughout the book). With such an exhaustive span, this book is to degrowth what the IPCC is to climate science: the best available literature review on the topic.
But warning: this book is not for the academically faint hearted. If you’re looking for a wide-audience introduction to degrowth, this is not one of them, and I would rather recommend The Case for Degrowth [G. Kallis, S. Paulson, G. D’Alisa, F. Demaria], a shorter, less demanding way of covering the basics. If you’ve never heard of the topic at all, Less is more [Jason Hickel], Post Growth: Life after capitalism [Tim Jackson], and Degrowth [Giorgos Kallis] are also good places to start.
The Future is Degrowth is rather long (more than 100,000 words) but neatly organised. The literature is chiselled into six tidy lists: 3 dimensions and 7 critiques of growth, 5 currents and 3 principles of degrowth, 6 clusters of proposals, and 3 strategies for change. The book itself is divided in seven chapters. After a long introduction (12% of the total book length), the first two chapters deal with understanding economic growth and its critics (that’s about half of the book). The remaining chapters follow Erik Olin Wright’s famous triad: Chapter 4 is about the desirability of degrowth (11%), Chapter 5 about its viability (13%), and Chapter 6 about its achievability (11%). This leaves us with a short concluding chapter (5%) titled “The future of degrowth.”
With such a monumental piece of work, I could not resolve myself to write a short review, which would feel like summarising all seasons of Game of Thrones in a single tweet. This book deserves a proper dissection, and so I will here process chapter by chapter, taking all the space needed to summarise its content and, in the end, analyse its (many) strengths and (very few) weaknesses.
Chapter 1: Introduction
Investing that much time into the (admittedly fringe) concept of degrowth might seem a waste of hours, and yet it isn’t. The concepts and theories mobilised to criticise economic growth and design an alternative to it will take you through all the classic questions of political economy and political ecology. This is not only about growth and degrowth, nor is it a book only about economics. This is the ultimate ride through contemporary debates on climate justice, the origin of value, animal ethics, class struggles, work, property, money, technology, and many more.
“In this book, our goal has been to show that degrowth poses a set of key questions that all emancipatory alternatives need to address, which are often ignored. Degrowth offers answers to them as well. If people want to know how to address the challenges of ecological destruction, the ideology of capitalism, or the industrial, hierarchical, and imperial mode of production, degrowth is much more advanced than many other realms of debate – and this includes many of the debates on the left” (p.297). Degrowthers have spent the last 20 years pondering these questions, and have come up with quite a few useful insights.
If you care about gender equality, you need to read about degrowth. If you care about class conflicts, workplace alienation, financial crises, corruption, and democracy – you need to read about degrowth. That’s where the subtitle of the book finds its meaning: a guide to a world beyond capitalism. These are actually the very last words of the book: “we need to break free from the capitalist economy. Degrowth gives us the tools to bend its bars” (p.297). If you think capitalism (or whatever you like to call today’s dominant economic system) has run its course and needs replacement, read on.
Chapter 2: Economics Growth
One cannot understand degrowth without understanding what economic growth is. Forget about the flat, one-dimensional definition of growth as an increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Economic growth is much more than that. It is (1) an idea, (2) a social process, and (3) a material process.
First, growth is an ideological construction. This is the point Matthias Schmelzer made in his PhD thesis “The hegemony of growth”, which showed that it was not until the 1950s (twenty years after the invention of GDP) that the idea of growth became dominant. Growth is also a social process of “dynamic stabilization.” Just like a bike that finds its balance with speed, the economy needs to grow in order to remain stable, growth acting as a promise that pacifies social conflicts and creates consent for certain kinds of politics. And finally, growth is a material process. An economy is like a super-organism with a giant societal metabolism and growth is “the flows of energy and matter that are passing through societies – extracted in some useful form, put to work or consumed, and eventually emitted as waste” (p.62).
Since economic growth is both an idea, a social process, and a material process, an agenda for social change cannot only focus on changing GDP as an indicator, which would be akin to changing the dashboard of a car running full speed towards a cliff. Escaping from the growth paradigm requires to deconstruct growth as an idea, to problematise the role it plays in broader power dynamics, and to carefully understand its relation with nature. Quite a project indeed: going against growth means reinventing most of what we know about modern economies.
Chapter 3: Critiques of growth
After reading so much degrowth stuff, I’m used to skim the critique section because it’s usually always the same. Except here it isn’t. The authors have conducted a remarkable synthesis (the chapter is 100-page long) and summarised it into seven critical strands (ecological, socio-economic, cultural, anticapitalist, feminist, anti-industrialist, anti-development), each opening towards a different curative concept (sufficiency, alternative hedonism, conviviality, dépense, care, convivial technologies, pluriverse). Each of these strands exist on their own, but what makes degrowth special is that it hosts the seven of them in a kind of ultimate, growth-bashing Megazord. “Degrowth’s strength is its holistic view. [It] relies not on a single strand of growth critique but has, from its very inception, braided the seven emancipatory strands discussed in this chapter together into a cohesive, well-developed, and broad critique of growth” (p.177).
According to the ECOLOGICAL CRITIQUE, economic growth “destroys the ecological foundations of human life and cannot be transformed to become sustainable” (p.78). The economy, like any physical system, is subject to the natural laws of physics. And so, the bigger an economy, the more difficult it becomes to reduce its biophysical throughput. “Any society that relies on compound rate of economic growth will eventually face ultimate limits, which manifest themselves in the breakdown of the complex ecosystems upon which growth relies” (p. 83). This ecological critique leads to a defence of sufficiency (the nemesis of ecologically destructive growth), “a reduction in the consumption of raw materials, energy, and land which nevertheless offers a basis for well-being” (p.93).
According to the SOCIO-ECONOMIC CRITIQUE, economic growth “mismeasures our lives and thus stands in the way of well-being and equality of all” (p.78). Essentially, GDP growth is not necessary (and sometime even counterproductive) for the betterment of quality of life. This is a return to Herman Daly’s concept of “uneconomic growth”: above a certain income level, further growth bears more costs than benefits. They explain this “Easterlin paradox” in five steps: (1) more is not always better, (2) especially since happiness is determined by relative income levels (moving everyone up is not changing relative position), (3) GDP is a poor measure of well-being, (4) the neoliberal turn of the 1980s has undercuts the foundation of welfare, and (5) secular stagnation and the rise inequality smothers the collective benefits of growth. This critique “sees the end of economic growth not as a threat, but as an opportunity for new forms of well-being and a good life for all” (p.94), for an alternative hedonism.
According to the CULTURAL CRITIQUE, economic growth “produces alienating ways of working, living, and relating to each other and nature” (p.78). Modern, industrial life simply sucks. The workplace has turned into a domain of alienation (especially for those having “bullshit jobs” [David Graeber]), consumers drown under a stressful avalanche of options, stripped of their autonomy by pervasive advertisement, and culture as a whole is slowly turning into an accelerating competition for who owns the most stuff (which again, doesn’t make us happy). This line of critique denounces the reductive definition of humans as Homo economicus and warns against emergence of modern growth subjects. This critique leads to a call for conviviality: “forms of social organization that enable mutual dependencies, the negotiation of interpersonal relationships, and good coexistence” (p.116).
According to the CRITIQUE OF CAPITALISM, economic growth “depends on and is driven by capitalist exploitation and accumulation” (p.78). Owners of capital constantly reinvest surpluses in order to maximise profits, which accelerates the wheel of capital accumulation resulting in more environmental degradation and wider inequality. The so-called ‘growth’ is based on an appropriation of unpaid labour and energy from humans and non-human nature – an “accumulation by dispossession” [David Harvey]. “[W]ithout unpaid inputs – both from people (unpaid domestic work or neo-colonial exploitation, but also public bailouts) and the raw materials and energy of nature – production costs would rise so far that profits would fall and accumulation would come to a standstill” (p.124). This critique leads to the concept of dépense which “offers a way to go beyond a purely productivist conception of the economy” (p.128), and to the idea of “self-determined post-scarcity society” (p.128) where one would regain the “autonomy to collectively create public abundance” (p.129) while collectively deliberating and setting limits.
According to the FEMINIST CRITIQUE, economic growth “is based on gendered over-exploitation and devalues reproduction” (p.78). In a “capitalocentric” society [J.K. Gibson-Graham], “the vital reproductive work of society – which is largely carried out by women, in particular Indigenous and Black women, and women of colour – remains fundamentally unacknowledged, invisible, devalued, and precarious” (p.133). They use the iceberg analogy to argue that “what is usually identified as ‘the economy’ – commodities, labour, and investment – is in fact only the tip of the iceberg, beneath which lies an economy that is invisible, reproducing and sustaining life, and which makes the market economy possible in the first place” (p.135). “‘[R]eproductive’ activities (subsistence labour, the ‘under-developed’ world, the home, nature, and femininity) are subordinated to ‘productive’ activities (wage labour, Western civilization, the public sphere, and masculinity)” (p.138). This critique opens up to the corrective concept of care and of a caring economy geared towards supporting life.
According to the CRITIQUE OF INDUSTRIALISM, economic growth “gives rise to undemocratic productive forces and techniques” (p.78). “The development of productive forces and technology in modern societies have become authoritarian, alienating, and restrictive of self-determination” (p.143). Technological ‘progress’ is not a neutral process and the kind of innovations incentivised under a growth-based, capitalist economy is not necessarily beneficial to all. The car, for example, holds a “radical monopoly” [Ivan Illich] over choices of mobility, smothering alternative modes of transport, and centralised sources of energy like nuclear electricity can indirectly restructure society towards “more alienated, authoritarian, militarized, and highly centralized social systems” (p.149). This leads to a call for a post-industrial society, made of non-authoritarian, non-alienating, and non-exploitative technologies, often referred to as “convivial tools” or “low-tech.”
According to the SOUTH-NORTH CRITIQUE, economic growth “relies on and reproduces relations of domination, extraction, and exploitation between capitalist centre and periphery” (p.78). The “imperial mode of living” [Ulrich Brand & Markus Wissen] of Northern citizens is sustained via an unfair and unsustainable appropriation of labour and natural resources through processes of “unequal exchange.” Economic growth is a form of neo-colonialism. What Western countries call ‘development’ is the imposition of a growth-oriented, industrialist and capitalist lifestyle in the global South (the so-called Westernisation of the world), against alternative visions of prosperity like buen vivir (South America), ubuntu (South Africa), and swaraj (India). This critique leads to a call for the defence of a pluriverse where all communities should have autonomy in pursuing their own visions of prosperity.
Additionally to these seven critical strands, the chapter ends by reviewing five other critiques of growth from outside the degrowth discourse: conservative critiques (exemplified by Meinhard Miegel in Germany), green fascism (Alain de Benoist in France, Björn Höcke in Germany, Ecopop in Switzerland, the Five-Star Movement in Italy), anti-modernism (the documentary Planet of the Humans), and environmentalism of the rich. The authors argue that degrowth is quite different from these critiques: “the core of degrowth, with its emphasis on ecological justice, a critique of all forms of exploitation and hierarchies, and a vision of solidarity, points to the very opposite of conservative, anti-modern, or regressive growth critiques […] degrowth’s vision, proposals, and strategies […] fundamentally contradict anything resembling these regressive growth critiques” (p.177).
Chapter 4: Visions
“Degrowth is not only a critique of the present but also a proposal and a vision for a better future” (p.180), and this chapter clarifies what the degrowth utopia looks like. To do so, it identifies five currents within the degrowth spectrum (institution-oriented, sufficiency-oriented, commoning or alternative economy, feminist, post-capitalism and alter-globalisation) which “provide different, partly complementary, and partly disputed answers to the question of what a degrowth society looks like” (p.181).
The institution-oriented current “aims to overcome the political fixation on growth and the transformation of previously growth-dependent and growth-driving institutions through reforms and policies of sufficiency” (p.181-82). As they write, “this is the current most likely to become a government position” (p.181), a green-liberal society with eco-social taxes and regulations, in the line of Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economy” and its application in the city of Amsterdam, or in line with discussions about post-growth at the European Parliament.
The sufficiency-oriented current aims “to radically reduce resource consumption through the creation of local and decommercialized subsistence economies, do-it-yourself initiatives, and ‘voluntary simplicity’ and thus focuses on practices outside the consumer-driven capitalist market in the here and now” (p.183). This is the position of the German economist Niko Paech, the Italian Movimento per la Decrescita Felice, the Global Ecovillage Network, parts of Transition Towns, and one symbolised by Can Decreix, the small utopian commune in the South of France that hosts a yearly Degrowth Summer school.
The commoning or alternative economy current focuses on “the construction of alternative infrastructures, cooperatives based on solidarity, and non-capitalist forms of collective production and livelihood” (p.185-86). Examples include community-supported agriculture, solidarity networks, Wikipedia, community garden, peer-to-peer production networks, and alternative currencies. What they all have in common is the principle of “commoning” as a democratic mode of governance in a spirit of “taking back the economy.”
The feminist current seeks “to place reproductive activities and care – which form the basis for society and life in general – at the centre of the economy and economic thinking and aims to overcome the separation between production and reproduction” (p.188). This is the line defended by the Feminisms and Degrowth Alliance, which calls for a radical reduction of working time, a redistribution of care activities, and the demise of patriarchal structures.
The post-capitalist and alter-globalization currents strive “to undo the domination of the market, socialize key sectors of the economy, and reduce social relations of domination” (p.189). Let’s mention here the recent alliance between eco-socialists and degrowthers, as an example of a broader convergence for a post-capitalist degrowth. This current focuses on “reappropriating and socializing wealth” (p.190), for example via worker-controlled enterprises, social housing, and universal basic income schemes.
Then comes the moment we’ve all been waiting for: defining degrowth. To do so, they look at the commonalities between the five currents of degrowth, which allow them to pin point three common principles, three “dimensions of the degrowth vision” (p.206):
“A degrowth society, we propose, is one which, in a democratic process of transformation (1) enables global ecological justice – in other words, it transforms and reduces its material metabolism, and thus also production and consumption, in such a way that its way of life is ecologically sustainable in the long term and globally just; (2) strengthens social justice and self-determination and strives for a good life for all under the conditions of this changed metabolism; and (3) redesigns its institutions and infrastructure so that they are not dependent on growth and continuous expansion for their functioning” (p.195).
Let’s unpack these principles a bit further. The first one is ecological justice, “the vision of an ecologically sustainable and socially more equal world” (p.196). This is degrowth in the literal sense of the term (“a planned contraction of economic activity”; “a reduction of production and consumption among the affluent,” p.196) for the sake of global justice: the lowering of footprints among the wealthiest towards a “solidary mode of living” that can reverse exploitative North-South relations.
The second principle is about social justice, self-determination, and a good life. By social justice, they mean “undoing broader structures of domination such as class society, racism, colonialism, (hetero-)sexism, ableism and other forms of exclusion” (p.203). Self-determination, following Cornelius Castoriadis, has to do with collective democracy and individual autonomy. And finally, a good life is the search for a holistic understanding of prosperity, a form of “alternative hedonism” [Kate Soper] including notions of “resonance” [Hartmut Rosa] (“meaningful and good self-world relationships,” p.205), conviviality (“thriving coexistence and collective self-determination,” p.205), and time prosperity (“more self-determined time,” p.206).
The third principle is growth independence. “A degrowth society is a society that, through a democratic process, transforms its institutions and infrastructures so that they are not dependent on growth and continuous expansion for their functioning” (p.206). It involves dismantling certain growth-inducing material infrastructures and technical systems like the car-based system, transforming growth-dependant social institutions like the financing of the welfare state, cleansing mental infrastructures from the belief that more is always better, and more generally ensuring that the economic system as a whole can “prosper without growth” [Tim Jackson].
And if you’re looking for a shorter definition, here is one: “the democratic transition to a society that – in order to enable global ecological justice – is based on a much smaller throughput of energy and resources, that deepens democracy and guarantees a good life and social justice for all, and that does not depend on continuous expansion” (p.4).
Chapter 5: Pathways to degrowth
The depiction of the degrowth society offered in Chapter 4 is a lovely utopia, but how to make it happen? As an answer to that daunting question, this chapter inventories “the most characteristic policy proposals” (p.215) of the degrowth literature, which they divide in six pathways.
Pathway n°1: Democratization, solidarity economy, and commoning
The goal is the commonization of the economy. Decommodifying certain things like labour, natural resources, schools, hospitals, and knowledge as to manage them in a democratic manner following the principles of “commoning,” commons being “social practices through which self-organized communities govern certain goods, resources, or territories, according to self-designed rules and institutions” (p.217).
The idea of a solidarity economy refers to “cooperatives and other smaller companies oriented towards the common good” (p. 219) which conduct business based on cooperation instead of competition and which put purpose before profit. They mention the Austrian “economy for the good common good” as an example of “socio-ecologically oriented entrepreneurial activity” (p. 220).
Economic democracy aims “to contain and dismantle the high concentration of economic power in a few corporations” and “enable all people to participate in economic activities” (p. 221). It includes the re-municipalization of basic services like water and banking, the reappropriation of private enterprises into collective forms of ownership. This involves participatory planning in multi-stakeholder assemblies following models such as “participatory economy” or “democratic confederalism.”
Pathway n°2: Social security, redistribution, and caps on income and wealth
The central proposal is the “unconditional autonomy allowance” [Vincent Liegey and others], a mix of universal basic income (in national currency and/or alternative currencies) and “universal basic services” to ensure that goods and services such as housing, food, water, energy, local transport, and communication (or anything else democratically determined as essential) are made available to all regardless of their purchasing power.
In parallel to this “guaranteed basic provisioning or income for all,” degrowth aims at “taxing the rich out of existence” (p. 228) through income and wealth caps, and a more fundamental “overhaul of the private property regime” that restricts property of land, buildings, and intellectual property. The goal is to achieve “a more egalitarian society, and thus a mode of living based on solidarity that does not transgress ecological boundaries globally” (p. 228).
Pathway n°3: Convivial and democratic technology
Degrowth is “characterized by a differentiated view of technology and the democratization of technological development (e.g., moratoria on high-risk research and technologies). The question degrowth puts at the centre is: “Which technology should society use? And for what, by whom, how, and how much of it? And who decides?” (p.229).
The central concept is “convivial technology” (inspired by Ivan Illich’s Tools for conviviality), which they define in five central values: connectedness (promoting healthy social relations), accessibility (free use and autonomous control), adaptability(reparability and compatibility with other tools), bio-interaction (sustainable impacts on the living world), and appropriateness(needs fulfilling). In a nutshell: technological development should be needs-oriented and not market-oriented. (Examples of such tools for conviviality include tool-lending libraries, repair cafés, do-it-yourself spaces, hacker spaces, maker spaces, and fab labs.)
Pathway n°4: Revalorization and redistribution of labour
Degrowth aims at fundamentally transforming work. Here is the agenda in one sentence: “a radical reduction in working hours without lower pay groups losing income; access for all to good, non-alienated, and meaningful work; a valorization of reproductive and care work and the distribution of this work among all; collective self-determination in the workplace; and, finally, the strengthening of worker’s rights and autonomy through the provision of basic services, independent of people’s employment” (p.232).
The goal is to reduce “bullshit jobs” (that are useless) and “batshit jobs” (that are harmful) and liberate time for more meaningful activities. They hint to radical reduction in working time (e.g., 21 hours) in parallel to a revalorisation of low wages (working less without a pay cut for low-wage workers) and a redistribution of care work between people and gender.
Pathway n°5: Democratizing social metabolism
Democratising social metabolism means to deliberate on what should grow and what should degrow. The “phasing out and simultaneous expansion of different sectors, technologies, resource-uses, or economic activities – would no longer be left to the market, competition, and prices (but rather) democratically and politically deliberated at regional, national, and global levels” (p.238). In a spirit of collective self-limitation, citizens must decide which sectors should be downscaled (the authors nominate coal and gas, aviation, cars, weapon manufacturing and the military, advertising, lobbying, planned obsolescence, fast fashion, border security, and large parts of the financial industry and animal farming), and which sectors should be further developed.
For the shrinking part, they mention a few instruments such as caps on resource use (targeting in priority excess consumption by the rich), moratoria on new construction projects, and ecological tax reforms. They also call for a direct appropriation of key means of production: “certain industries must be expropriated and transferred to common ownership in order not to stand in the way of socio-ecological change” (pp.243-44). By seizing control of the workplace, people could decide to dismantle certain infrastructures (coal mines and nuclear power plants) and retrofit others (car factories converted into bike production).
Pathway n°6: International solidarity
The global North must live simply so that the global South may simply live, or put another way: degrowth in richest countries to enable sustainable prosperity in poorest nations. To do that, one must cancel odious debts, support Indigenous peoples in their struggle for rights, reform land ownership as to protect peasant livelihoods, transition away from industrial agriculture, remove unfair trade rules that disadvantage the global South, organise financial and technological transfers to offset climate debts and compensate for the consequences of colonialism, restrict international movements of capital, create a democratic international monetary system, put a stop to land grabbing practices, and abolish international organisations like the World Bank and the IMF.
Chapter 6: Making degrowth real
After chapter 4 about the desirability of degrowth, and chapter 5 about its viability, this chapter tackles the tricky question of achievability: How can we imagine the transformation to a degrowth society? The authors answer that question in three steps, following the three logics of transformation from Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning real utopias (interstitial, symbiotic, and ruptural).
Strategy n°1. Nowtopias: Autonomous spaces and laboratories for the good life
This part is about interstitial strategies, initiatives emerging in the cracks of dominant institutions. As examples, they mention the Catalan Integral Cooperative. “Interstitial strategies, such as this cooperative, seek to experiment with new institutions, infrastructures, or forms of organization. They are laboratories in which new social practices are intentionally developed, tried out, and practised. They emerge within and despite the old system and prefigure post-capitalist relations on a small scale” (p.256). They also point to degrowth Summer schools and climate camps which “offer people an experience of a communal, self-determined, and sufficient lifestyle through collective self-organization, shared care work, and the use of exclusively renewable energies and compost toilets” (p.257). Other examples include “collective enterprises, community-supported agriculture, alternative media, urban gardens, childcare and alternative schooling, collective kitchens and food recuperation, housing projects and squats, occupations, municipal energy projects, time banks or regional currencies, repair cafés or open-source hardware” (p.257).
Strategy n°2. Non-reformist reforms: Changing institutions and policies
The term “non-reformist reform” is often associated to André Gorz (1923-2007), who made a difference between neo-capitalist reforms that only keep the system running and non-reformist reforms that involve more structural changes. For example, a slight increase of the minimum wage might not change much in the daily functioning of capitalism, but a switch to a 3-day working week might be more disruptive. Same logic for the introduction of a radically progressive tax on wealth, which uses the usual tax system, but at levels that will radically alter social dynamics. It is symbiotic because transformation starts from within and moves with the system. One can use the existing political infrastructure to legalise local currencies, which would allow new grassroots experiments, and perhaps in the end radically transform the system as a whole. It is here that they connect to the Green New Deal for Europe and the Global Green New Deal, which they consider ally initiatives.
Strategy n°3. Counter-hegemony: Building people power against the growth paradigm
The final logic of transformation deals with opposing the current system. They mention the German Ende Gelände (meaning here and no further), which “was probably the first major action of civil disobedience to take place in close connection with the degrowth movement” (p.267), among others such as the blockage of the North Dakota Pipeline, peasant resistance against industrial agriculture in Brazil, indigenous pacific islanders blocking coal shipping in Australia, among countless other movements of resistance against extractivism, aviation, megaprojects, and structural adjustment. These actions of civil disobedience, which Naomi Klein gathers under the term “blockadia,” raise awareness among the public about the wrongdoings of capitalism, and create space to envision a world where nature is not treated like an all-you-can-eat buffet, where the livelihoods of Southern citizens are not sacrificed for the welfare of rich consumers, and where democracy is not trampled by the lobbying power of transnational corporations.
Chapter 7: The future of degrowth
This chapter has a more relaxed structure than the rest of the book. There are two main messages I found important. The first one is a reflection about the pandemic, which the authors consider a partial form of degrowth. “For the sake of argument, the politics to fight the pandemic can be interpreted as a deliberate and planned shutdown of large parts of the economy, with the goal of furthering the common good (flattening the curve and thus saving lives), thereby differentiating between sectors that were essential for the provisioning of basic goods and services and those that were less so. To achieve this shutdown and cushion its effects, governments introduced policies that had long been deemed impossible – furloughing workers, protecting livelihoods, ordering planes to stay grounded, securing employment through short-term work allowances, investing in care, or intervening directly in the production process by nationalizing crisis-ridden companies and health facilities or planning the production of health equipment – all by using the government’s sovereign power of money creation. These and many other far-reaching interventions were initially backed by large majorities, and they led to (temporary) significant reductions in emissions and material throughput” (pp.285-86).
The second message has to do with gaps in the degrowth literature, and “important challenges that have been only partially addressed in the book.” They name four of them.
The first concerns class and race. Within the degrowth literature, they argue, “there is a tendency to mainly focus on ecological issues and to do so from a class-blind and consumer-focused perspective that downplays social issues and fundamentally depoliticizes degrowth” (p.289). Acknowledging that most people engaging in the degrowth debate are white from privileged social contexts in the global North, they call for better linking proposals to ongoing struggles such as those around rent and housing, the phasing out of fossil fuels, feminist struggles around care work, and trade union struggles.
The second has to do with geopolitics and imperialism. “Degrowth advocates have not adequately tackled the geopolitical ramifications of the transition that they envision. This includes the relationship between growth, the state, imperialism, and militarization, and the political-economic effects degrowth would have on international relations and on communities in the Global South in particular” (p.291).
Third, information technology. What is the relation between degrowth and digitalization? And how the transition to information capitalism will transform the degrowth agenda? Instead of rejecting industrial technologies in bulk, degrowth “needs to analyse how platform cooperativism which refers to efforts to build new, cooperatively owned platforms to replace for-profit social media and entrepreneurial platforms – could be integrated into the degrowth vision” (p.294).
And finally, they deplore certain silences about democratic planning. “Degrowth should engage more explicitly with the question of planning. Curiously, while ‘planning’, ‘design’, or ‘coordination’ are often mentioned in degrowth discussions, the reality of planning itself – its primary actors, whether it is centralized or decentralized, participatory or imposed – is rarely engaged with” (p.295).
The book is remarkable in several aspects and slightly disappointing in others. On the up side, and in contrast to the usual male-focused story of degrowth thinking, the authors give female authors the attention they deserve. “The feminist degrowth current is neglected in many accounts, in large part because feminist arguments have had to struggle for recognition in the degrowth discourse. Nevertheless, many of the most prominent degrowth concepts were anticipated at least since the 1970s in feminist economics and critical theory, as well as in the subsistence approach” (p.188).
Perhaps I was expecting too much of Chapter 4: Visions, but I found it a bit too abstract. General concepts such as ecologicaland social justice, self-determination, the good life, and growth independence are powerful, but how do they translate in practice? And by practice, I mean very simple things like, how to organise childcare, run a pension scheme, or create a new business. These are practical questions, and they need practical answers. (In defence of the authors, most of them do not exist in the literature yet, which is a good enough excuse for why they’re not in the book.)
I wasted a large chunk of my (short) career on the issue of green growth. The decoupling literature is a black hole of abstract, technical subtleties with very little useful insights for how to actually reduce environmental pressures. The authors wisely manage not to get suck in that debate, affirming that the question of decoupling GDP from nature is rather absurd: “the point, instead, is to move towards an economy in which well-being can increase while environmental damage rapidly declines, thereby decoupling prosperity from ecological impact and thus also from economic growth” (p.92). That’s brilliant and I hope it inspires many to stop wasting time dissecting the silly models of a few ecologically-illiterate economists.
Another small deception, this time about Chapter 2: Economic growth. The authors do not engage at all with neoclassical theories of growth. This being said, I also didn’t do it in The political economy of degrowth because it felt incredibly time-consuming for not much reward. In fact, this time-saving omission is perhaps another form of wisdom, as it prevents us from getting bogged down in a framework that has proved absolutely useless in understanding the crisis we’re in and how to get out of it.
Concerning Chapter 5: Pathways to degrowth, I would have liked to see a clearer division between ends and means. In Exploring degrowth proposals (2022), we tried to organise the degrowth toolbox by linking instruments (means) to specific objectives (ends). This is difficult but not impossible. If we want degrowth to become a useful framework for organising a just transition, we must present our proposals in a modular fashion, and not as an all-or-nothing bundle (again, easier said than done).
Anyway, I’m just being greedy. The author of The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism have already done plenty and produced a masterpiece, which is now officially my favourite book on the topic. Bravo!