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The Left should embrace degrowth

Political Theory
Stop sign and poppy

Only if we stop the cycle of endless growth will our planet prosper, argue Degrowthers. Jenny Downing under a Creative Commons Licence

Degrowth is a frontal attack on the ideology of economic growth. Some call it a critique: a slogan or a ‘missile word’. Others talk of the ‘theory of’ – or the ‘literature on’ – degrowth; or of degrowth policies’. Many see themselves as the ‘degrowth movement’ or claim they live ‘the degrowth way’. What is degrowth and where did it come from?


Intellectually, the origins of degrowth are found in the Continental écologie politique of the 1970s. Andre Gorz spoke of ‘décroissance’ in 1972, questioning the compatibility of capitalism with earth’s balance ‘for which … degrowth of material production is a necessary condition’. Unless we consider ‘equality without growth’, Gorz argued, we reduce socialism to nothing but ‘the continuation of capitalism by other means – an extension of middle-class values, lifestyles and social patterns’.

‘Demain la décroissance’ (‘tomorrow, degrowth’) was the title of a 1979 translated collection of essays of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a Romanian émigré teaching in the US and a proto ecological economist who argued that economic growth accelerates entropy. These were the times of the oil crisis and the Club of Rome. For continental ‘red-green’ thinkers, however, the question of limits to growth was first and foremost a political one. Unlike Malthusian concerns with resource depletion, overpopulation and collapse of the system, theirs was a desire for pulling the emergency brake on the train of capitalism, or, to quote Ursula Le Guin, ‘put a pig in the tracks of a one-way future consisting only of growth’.

The slogan ‘décroissance’ was revived in the early 2000s by activists in the city of Lyon in direct actions against mega-infrastructures and advertising. Serge Latouche, a professor of economic anthropology and vocal critic of development programmes in Africa, popularized it with his books, calling for an ‘End to sustainable development’ and ‘a long life to convivial degrowth’. For French intellectual Paul Aries, degrowth was a ‘missile word’, a subversive term that questioned the taken-for-granted desirability of growth-based development. A small but dedicated network of degrowthers sprang around the monthly La Decroissanse magazine. The word registered in French political debates, with even a failed attempt for a degrowth political party.

Degrowth today

From France, the new meme spread to Italy, Spain and Greece. In 2008, just before the Spanish crisis, Catalan degrowth activist Enric Duran ‘expropriated’ 492,000 euros via loans from 39 banks. He gave the money to social movements, denouncing Spain’s speculative credit system and the fictitious growth it propelled.

Starting in Paris in 2008, a series of international gatherings, a mix of scientific conference with social forum, introduced degrowth to the English-speaking world. In September 2014, 3,500 researchers, students and activists met in Leipzig for the 4th International Conference on Degrowth. Activities spanned from panels on growth and climate change, Gramscian critiques of capitalism, or the 20-hour workweek, to civil disobedience outside a coal power plant and courses on how to make your own bread.

A proliferating academic research has buttressed key degrowth claims: the impossibility to avoid disastrous climate change with growth as usual; fundamental limits in decoupling resource use from growth; the rising social and psychological costs of growth

A proliferating academic research in peer-reviewed journals has buttressed key degrowth claims: the impossibility to avoid disastrous climate change with growth as usual; fundamental limits in decoupling resource use from growth; the disconnection between growth and improved wellbeing in advanced economies; the rising social and psychological costs of growth. Recent works highlight the imperative of compound growth for capitalism (what David Harvey called the most lethal of its contradictions), and explore how employment or equality could be sustained in post-capitalist economies without growth.

Policy proposals range from carbon caps and extraction moratoria to a basic citizens’ income, a reduced working week, a reclaim of resource commons and a debt jubilee, as well as a radical restructuring of the tax system with carbon instead of income taxes, salary caps and capital taxes. By demanding the impossible, such ‘non-reformist reforms’, as Andre Gorz called them, call for systemic transformation (as Slavoj Zizek noted, social-democratic reforms are revolutionary in an era that capitalism can no longer accommodate them).

Politically, there is a clear understanding that system change is necessary, and that this requires a movement of movements, or an alliance of the dispossessed, including a coalition of the global social and environmental justice movements. Whereas degrowth is incompatible with capitalism, degrowth rejects also the illusion of a so-called ‘socialist growth’, whereby a rationally, centrally planned economy somehow magically will bring technological developments that will allow a reasonable growth without impinging upon the ecological conditions. In the spirit of Gorz, degrowthers take issue with fellow socialists who find it easier to imagine the end of the world or the end of capitalism, but for some inexplicable reason, not the end of growth.

Another way

For others ‘degrowth’ signifies mostly an everyday (politicized) stand of living. Our three-day degrowth forum in Athens earlier this year was attended by hundreds of participants: not only academics, environmental and human rights activists or members of Syriza, the Greens, and the ‘anti-authoritarian’ Left, but also back-to-landers and organic farmers from rural Greece, and many of the ‘ground troopers’ of the solidarity economy of peoples’ clinics and urban agriculture. In Barcelona, degrowth is symbolized in projects such as ‘Can Masdeu’, an occupied squat with a network of food gardens in the working-class neighbourhood of Nou Barris and a history of ‘right to housing’ activism; or the ‘Cooperativa Integral Catalana’, a co-operative with 600 members and 2,000 participants, umbrella for independent producers and consumers of organic food and artisanal products, residents of eco-communes, co-operative enterprises and regional networks of exchange that issue their own currencies.

Degrowth offers a slogan that mobilizes, brings together and gives meaning to a diverse range of people and movements without being their only, or even principal, horizon

Francois Schneider, instigator of the international conferences and founder of the ‘Research & Degrowth’ thinktank in Paris (now in Barcelona), embodies degrowth’s hybridity: a PhD graduate in industrial ecology, he walked for a year with a donkey around France explaining degrowth to passers-by who stopped him bewildered. He lives now in ‘Can Decreix’, a bare-basics house on the French-Catalan border, a centre of experimentation and education in frugal living.

Some speak of a grassroots degrowth ‘movement’, but the attendants of the conferences are not a cohesive group of people with a shared agenda or unified purpose, nor do we still reach the numbers of a movement. Unlike the ‘anti-globalization’ movement, there is no WTO building to be stormed or free-trade treaty to be stopped. Degrowth offers a slogan that mobilizes, brings together and gives meaning to a diverse range of people and movements without being their only, or even principal, horizon. It is a network of ideas, a vocabulary as we called it in a recent book, that more and more people feel it speaks to their concerns.

Redistribution, not growth

A new Left has to be an ecological Left, or it won’t be left at all. Environmental change ‘changes everything’ for the Left too, Naomi Klein argued. Capitalism requires constant expansion, an expansion predicated on exploitation of humans and non-humans, that irreversibly damages the climate. A non-capitalist economy will have to sustain itself while contracting. But how can we redistribute or secure meaningful work without growth? There is not yet a concrete ‘economics of degrowth’. Lamentably, Keynesianism is the most powerful tool the Left, even the Marxist Left, has for dealing with issues of policy. But this is an economics of the 1930s when unlimited expansion was still possible and desirable.

If the Egyptians had started with one cubic metre of stuff and grew it by 4.5% per year, by the end of their 3,000-year civilization, they would have occupied 2.5 billion solar systems

Without a tide to raise all boats, it is the time to rethink which boat gets what. The Left’s response to Piketty’s r>g conundrum should not be ‘we will increase g’. After all, we always wanted to degrow r, i.e. reduce capital accumulation! Piketty himself, hardly an ecologist, does not believe in the possibility of higher growth. Redistribution is the central question for a 21st century without growth.

The Left has to liberate itself from the imaginary of growth. Perpetual growth is an absurd idea (consider the absurdity of this: if the Egyptians had started with one cubic metre of stuff and grew it by 4.5% per year, by the end of their 3,000-year civilization, they would have occupied 2.5 billion solar systems.). Even if we could substitute capitalist growth, with a nicer, angelic socialist growth, why would we want to occupy 2.5 billion solar systems with it?

Growth is an idea that is part and parcel of capitalism. It is the name the system gave to the dream it was producing, the dream of material plenty. GDP was invented to count war production, and evolved into an indicator ‘objectively’ measuring and confirming the ‘success’ of the US in the Cold war. Growth is what capitalism needs, knows and does. As Gareth Dale notes, socialist politics were never about quantitative increases in abstract exchange value. They were about specifics, about concrete use values: employment, a decent wage, dignified conditions of living, a healthy environment, education, public health or clean water for all. All these need resources; but there is no reason why they would need a perpetual expansion of resources, 3% each year.

And here is a stronger claim: the things we in the Left would like to see ‘grow’ would not bring aggregate growth (unless we totally redefined what we measure as economic activity, but this is then a play of words). Spreading wealth evenly, using more hands and minds than otherwise necessary, leaving environments and people idle, spending time to care for one another: all these are ‘taxes’ on productivity and growth. We may as well be better being less productive. But industrialization took off by concentrating surpluses in the hands of a few (capitalists or states), reinvesting profits for more growth; not by spreading the wealth to everyone or leaving the pastures and the fossils idle.

Changing the dreams

This may be too hard to swallow. After all, many of us often advocate for equality, democracy, full employment, a minimum wage, education, or renewables (you name it) in the name of growth. The belief is that an alternative to the capitalist system that has eyes only for profits will be more ‘rational’ and do better what capitalism does, and even more. This is wrong politically: as Slavoj Zizek claims, the Left cannot exhaust itself to new ways of realizing the same dreams; it has to change the dreams themselves. It is also wrong factually. The ‘glorious’ (sic) post-War era of reconstruction and catch-up is over. There are few indications that debt-fuelled Keynsianism, brown or green, capitalist or socialist, can revive it. This is independent of the fact that neoliberal austerity is disastrous. Redistribution, democracy and equality, yes; but not in the name of growth.

Degrowth revives the spirit of Enrico Berlinguer’s ‘revolutionary austerity’, an austerity born out of solidarity. The petrol that fuels our cars, heats our homes or even powers our hospitals and schools is the same that destroys livelihoods and forests in the Peruvian Amazon or Nigeria. We do not need the Pope to remind us that. The reason for a ‘sober’ life, as Berlinguer before or the Pope now calls it, is because our actions ‘here’ affect people and ecosystems ‘there’. Not because the capitalist machine is running out of things (Malthusians’ worry), or because, as the neoliberals want it, ‘we live beyond our means’ (by which they mean ‘we the 99%’ who use the services of the welfare state, not they the 1% who live by their capital).

From a degrowth perspective, the issue is not that the Global North consumes more than it produces (or produces more than it consumes, à la Keynesians). The issue is that it produces and consumes more than what is necessary, at the expense of the Global and inner ‘South’, other beings and future generations. Producing and consuming less will reduce the damage done to others. This is a question of social and environmental justice: a ‘shrink and redistribute’ from the global 1% (and to a lesser extent the 10%, which includes the middle classes of the EuroAmericas) to the rest. Such invocations of sober simplicity may resonate with dormant common senses about the ‘good life’ present in many cultures, East and West. It can recover the commonsensical critique of ‘excess’ from the grip of austerians, who hypocritically use it to justify their regressive policies.

Political possibilities

Degrowth is a keyword circulating mostly among activists. In Greece and Spain, it resonates with anarcho-cooperativists and eco-communalists, including many in the youth bases of parties like Syriza or Podemos. It was a word present, though not dominant, in the occupied squares, and the solidary economies that span off from them. Among Greens it has woken up old, pre-‘sustainable development’ divisions between radical ‘fundis’ and pragmatist ‘realos’. A sign of the re-radicalization of Europe’s Greens, Spain’s Equo, represented in the European Parliament, has endorsed explicitly a ‘post-growth’ agenda (its MEP writing in favour of degrowth). The national campaign of the UK Greens was also ‘post’ or ‘de’-growth in spirit, though not in name.

Calling for degrowth explicitly is electoral suicide in an environment dominated by corporate media. More groundwork is necessary to make degrowth a widespread common sense

Calling for degrowth explicitly is electoral suicide in an environment dominated by corporate media. More groundwork is necessary to make degrowth a widespread common sense. For now, the closer a radical party gets to power, the more likely it is to disassociate itself from degrowth. Pablo Iglesias signed the degrowthist ‘last call’ manifesto. But as The Economist noted approvingly, as Podemos matured it left behind more ‘nutty’ ideas like ‘degrowth’ and ‘anti-capitalism’. The parallels with the New Left in Latin America are obvious. Correa or Morales were elected with the support of indigenous and ecological movements with philosophies similar to degrowth. Once in power, real-politik and growth-based redistributive politics dictated accommodating capital and extraction-fuelled growth.

One would hope that at least New Left parties in Europe refrain from making growth their central objective. No doubt, crises reassert the imaginary of growth, this time as a progressive goal. A Podemos activist in Catalonia commented to me that ‘in the current crisis, we can only talk about growth’. And yet this is not totally true. It takes courage and imagination, but is not impossible. ‘Barcelona en Comu’ won the elections of the city without mentioning growth once in its programme. This might have to do with the organic rooting of degrowth and associated ideas in Barcelona’s civil society and the flourishing, alternative solidarity economy of the city. Many of my friends and colleagues worked for the party’s programme, which commits to a citizens’ income, green taxes, reclaiming of green spaces, a municipal energy co-operative, less resource use and waste, or social housing. Among the first decisions of the new mayor, Ada Colau, were a moratorium on new hotels and an end to the bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics. Santi Villa, Catalonia’s minister for the environment, and an aspiring young conservative, accused her for leading ‘a party of degrowth’ (omitting though that a few months’ back, and trying to stay on top of the latest international ideas in debates around climate change, he too had talked favourably of degrowth in Parliament).

Keynesianism without growth?

Podemos’ economic programme was drafted by two socialist-Keynesian economists (Vicenc Navarro and Juan Torres), who had frequently written opinion pieces against degrowth. Fortunately, it avoids clear references to growth. Might this signal room for a ‘Keynesianism without growth’? I have argued yes. One can imagine fiscal and tax policies that shift resources in favour of the working classes and towards green, caring or alternative activities stimulating a low-intensity consumption by those in need, within an overall pattern of economic contraction. Hardly Keynes’ vision, but perhaps one apt for secularly stagnant economies.

Unlike a municipality, of course, whose fiscal responsibilities are limited, a nation without growth may have problems to finance its welfare services. At least in principle, however, I see no good reason why health or education costs have to grow at 2 or 3% per year (the rate of the supposed necessary growth). There is immense scope for saving by reversing outsourcing and expensive procurements, banning mega-projects, or decentralizing services, like preventative health or child caring, sharing them with solidarity networks. Poorer countries such as Cuba or Costa Rica have world-class public health and education. Higher capital taxes can also offset revenue lost from degrowth. Welfare without growth is theoretically possible, but no Left party has dared to think what it would take to put it into practice.

A major sticking point is debt. Without growth, debt as a percentage of GDP increases. Borrowing rates sky-rocket, as the likelihood of repayment declines. This is what makes a degrowth Keynesianism less plausible. Without growth, public debt has, sooner or later, to be restructured or eliminated either by decree or by inflation. There are historical precedents for this. But once done, it cannot be repeated. Without new debt, the room for fiscal expansion is limited.

The urgency of the public-debt question may explain differences between Spain and Greece. The rise of Syriza initially fuelled hopes for ‘another world’ becoming possible: the base, especially the youth, of the party consisted of greener ‘co-operativists’ who, akin to a degrowth spirit, bet on – an arguably not fully defined – ‘solidarity economy’. All high cadres of the party, however, talked unreservedly in favour of growth, framing it as the alternative to austerity. In the negotiations with the Eurogroup there was a short-lived attempt to advance Joseph Stiglitz’s proposal for a ‘growth clause’: Greece would link debt repayments to growth. Such demands were deemed as ‘ultra-radical’; speaking of a solidarity economy without growth would be nuttier than nutty.

A solidarity economy

Some foreign commentators dreamed that a ‘No’ to the Troika and an exit from the euro would open the road for a degrowth transition and a solidarity economy. There is no political force, however, in Greece advocating this. The pro-drachma Left of Syriza, now a separate party called ‘Popular Unity’ is ardently productivist, its leader having a dismal environmental record as Minister of Energy, including plans for new domestic coal production and fuel subsidies to industries. Despite the phenomenal expansion and the important achievements of the solidarity economy in Greece, this is still a marginal social movement (much smaller than in Spain), and its networks are insufficient for satisfying the population’s needs in case of a transitional period. A smooth economic contraction out of the euro is unlikely: it was precisely the fear of imported food or drug shortages and economic chaos in the interim period that scared Alexis Tsipras into signing a new memorandum. Countries like Japan, with fiscal and monetary independence, and an ability to issue and finance debt in their own currency, are better positioned to sustain employment and welfare without growth (Japan has not seen growth for more than 10 years, a decade ‘lost’ only in the eyes of economists). But, of course, a capitalism without growth is inconceivable, and Japan tries as hard as possible to relaunch growth (with little success to date).

The impossibility of imaging political forces raising to power with a degrowth agenda makes some degrowthers argue that change can only come from the grassroots and not the state, through an ‘involuntary’ path, whereby citizens will self-organize as the economy stagnates and lack of growth brings crisis. I agree that a degrowth transition is unlikely to be voluntary and take place in the name of ‘degrowth’; it will be a process of adaptation to the actual stagnation of the economy. I can’t see, however, how this can happen without occupying also the state, with a mutual reinforcement of civil and political society, grassroots practices and new institutions.

No political party of the Left might dare to openly question growth, but I find it hard to see how in the long-term, willingly or not, the European Left (which, unlike its Latin American counterpart, cannot bank on a commodities bubble) can avoid thinking how to manage without growth. Growth is not only ecologically unsustainable but, as economists openly admit (from Piketty to Lawrence Summers and the ‘secular stagnationists’) increasingly unlikely for advanced economies.

Capitalism without growth is savage. Degrowth is not a clear theory, plan, or political movement. Yet it is a hypothesis whose time has come; and one that the Left can no longer afford to avoid.

Giorgos Kallis is the Leverhulme Visiting Professor, Department of Development Studies, SOAS.