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Degrowth and the Emerging Mosaic of Alternatives

After decades on the defensive, the left has once again started to embrace positive visions of the future.
By Corinna Burkhart, Nina Treu, and Matthias Schmelzer / opendemocracy.net
Jul 3, 2020
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Degrowth and the Emerging Mosaic of Alternatives
Pixabay/Barbara Alayne. Pixabay Licence.

In the face of unfettered globalization, the rise of right-wing movements around the globe and the dangers of climate catastrophe, it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than an end to capitalism, growth and domination. However, in recent years something new has emerged to counter what Mark Fisher has called “capitalist realism:” after decades on the defensive against neoliberalism, the left has once again started to embrace positive visions of the future.

This can be seen in the movements behind the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, for example, but also in a new wave of prefigurative social movements ranging from community gardens and worker-owned co-ops to the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in Rojava and the “transformative economies” highlighted by the 2019-20 World Social Forum in Barcelona – new economic models and practices around the commons, agroecology and cooperatives aimed at transforming the existing economic system. All these are movements that “embody their ultimate goals and their vision of a future society through their ongoing social practices, social relations, decision-making philosophy and culture.”

These progressive visions fall into two broad camps, most clearly symbolized by the eco-modernist notion of “fully automated luxury communism” on the one hand, and “degrowth” on the other. While sharing an understanding of the need for systemic alternatives and a critique of domination, the split between these perspectives and the social movements associated with them runs deep.

As argued by world system theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, not only are the world’s economic and political elites divided between globalists and authoritarians, there is also a split within the left, between the ‘progressive productivists’ who - in the tradition of the socialist and social democratic labor movement - focus on growth, productivity gains and redistribution and tend to prefer vertical forms of organization; and those movements that, closer to the tradition of anarchism, rely on self-organization from the bottom up and fundamentally question economic growth.

The new narratives of progressive productivism - best represented by Paul Mason’s “Postcapitalism” and the concept of “fully automated luxury communism” - embrace modernity, globalization and technological progress, since, they argue, these create the conditions for liberation. This strand of socialist futurism tends to ignore ecological questions and issues of global social justice (including climate justice), and flatly dismisses movements that promote localism, luddism or sufficiency as “primitivist romanticism.” Leigh Phillips, for example, condems degrowth as “austerity ecology” and criticizes the movements that promote it as “collapse-porn addicts.”

For their part, the growth-critical, bottom-up prefigurative movements which seek social-ecological transformation argue that relying on technological innovation and global markets to solve humanity’s challenges is a dangerous illusion. Proponents of degrowth claim that the eco-modernist position cannot provide an answer to the most important challenge of the twenty-first century, i.e. how can we live well without externalizing the costs onto others, the planet and future generations? Answers to that question can only be found if early-industrialized countries find ways to transcend expansionary modernity. Rather than relying on techno-fixes we need to find pathways towards post-growth or degrowth societies.

What could bring these different prefigurative movements together? Degrowth is the key here because it symbolizes the most radical rejection of the eco-modernist and mainstream focus on growth, extractivism and industrialism. In recent years, degrowth has also developed into a framework for many social-ecological movements, initiatives and projects, providing a set of theories, arguments and visions that give meaning to prefigurative “nowtopias.”

Degrowth isn’t just a new term for an ongoing discussion on alternatives; it’s also an emerging social movement that overlaps considerably with other social movements ranging from anti-globalization and climate justice to movements like the commons, Buen Vivir, food sovereignty, non-profit cooperatives, the care revolution, free software, DIY repair workshops, basic income and transition towns.

Each movement has its own particular orientation, motivations and strategies, yet there are many commonalities:

  • An orientation towards concrete needs and a good life for all, replacing economic concepts, abstract production figures or the rules of market exchange.
  • Humans as complex, relational beings: people are not seen as rational utility maximizers but as social and emotional beings living in relationship with, and depending, on each other.
  • A comprehensive analysis of society, power and politics, taking into account the many different facets of existing inequalities and crises.
  • Global justice instead of only discussing political questions in a national context.
  • Rejection of the ‘green economy:’ multiple crises can’t be solved through a ‘greening’ of growth and capitalism; large-scale technological solutions have major, negative side-effects.
  • Democratization: instead of delegating the power to shape society to a selected few, most movements strive for an all-encompassing democratization that ensures the participation of all people.
  • Systemic change and paradigm shift: instead of hoping that small changes or political reforms will solve society’s problems, these movements seek to bring about comprehensive and fundamental changes.
  • Working in the here and now: instead of simply making demands, most movements try to effect change in the present, either through alternative projects in which utopias are tested out or in social struggles with concrete goals.

These commonalities can be the cornerstones of a common framework for an emerging alliance of progressive forces that brings together growth-critical, bottom-up, prefigurative movements – a ‘mosaic’ of alternatives.

Almost a decade ago, German trade unionist Hans-Jürgen Urban stated that a “mosaic of left-wing groups” would be the “beacon of hope of the post-neoliberal era.” In his view, this mosaic would be an anti-hegemonic bloc ranging from trade unions to movements critical of globalization, NGOs, social self-help organizations and critical segments of the cultural left. Urban stated: “Just as a mosaic can unfold its beauty as a complete work even though every individual piece is still recognizable as such, a newly founded left could be seen and valued as a heterogeneous collective actor.”

The notion of a mosaic highlights the vision of building a plural world, based in multiple struggles, with many different strategies and composed of different forms of economies, lifeworlds and cultures all pollinating, interacting and collaborating with each other in a “pluriverse.” For Ashish Kothari, who is involved in similar alliance-forging processes in India, the main achievement of Degrowth in Movement(s) – one of the projects in this mosaic - has been to identify “the essence of these initiatives, and to see if the values and principles emerging from them can suggest a cohesive framework for challenging the currently dominant mindset and practice of growth-centred ‘developmentality.’”

We believe that this framework is already in the making, but its shape is still being debated, negotiated and contested. What’s important is that these movements actively put into practice and experiment with the key principles of degrowth. They largely reject an orientation towards profit and productivity; they seek to reduce wage labor; they emphasize direct forms of democracy, relationships, sharing, and a mentality of giving, which focuses on needs, care, and reproduction; and they tend to use technologies and tools that increase autonomy, sharing and sustainability (what Ivan Illich refers to as “convivial tools”), involving lower consumption and shorter production-consumption circuits.

There is thus a multiplicity of prefigurative social movements that already exist which integrate degrowth ideas - what degrowth refers to as “nowtopias.” We don’t think that degrowth itself will develop into the social movement that brings about urgently-needed social-ecological transformations, but we do argue that the next cycle of a larger counter-hegemonic bloc of social movements and political forces opposing both neoliberal globalism and authoritarian nationalism should integrate key critiques, perspectives and proposals from the degrowth discussion.

This emerging mosaic of alternatives for social-ecological transformation provides fertile ground for the development of ideas, practices and actions leading to a good life for all. Rather than hoping that technological advances in the age of platform capitalism or the political economy of information technologies will bring about socialist liberation, these movements criticize not only capitalism and capitalist forms of ownership, but also other forms of domination. They criticize industrialism and the domination embedded in technology, and they take seriously the global injustices that stand in the way of a good life for all. They focus on strategies and actions that start building alternatives in the here and now, within the cracks of capitalism and power.

The authors’ new book is ”Degrowth in Movements(s): Exploring Pathways for Transformation,” published by Zero Books. For more information and to order, click here

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