This blog is the second in a series of five, each digesting and reflecting on a day at the Degrowth conference in Leipzig, 2nd – 6th September. You can read about Day 1 here, and below is a summary of my experiences of Day 2 – Wednesday 2nd September – Facing the current crises: critique and resistance.
Social-ecological crisis & crisis of democracy: a view from Southern Europe
Haris Konstantatos from Harokopio University of Athens kicked off day two of Degrowth14 with a Southern European perspective, emphasising the generally neglected geographical (as well as financial) causes and spatial effects of the crisis e.g. local conditions and economic/ political integration of country/region in the international division of labour. Of course, there are no mono-causal explanations, and the environmental and resource factors of the crisis have also been neglected – ecological limits threaten basis of capitalism.
Konstantos pointed to how the rise of technocratic decision making – the hollowing out of democracy – has created a post-political neoliberal order, where government is done only by elites, political, business, NGOs etc. This has gone hand in hand with the exclusion of people from decision-making, and the widespread repression of dissent. The lack of legitimacy of this kind of governing is illustrated by social movements like Indignados rising up. Konstatnos sees three possible models appearing as solutions to the crisis:
- aggressive neo-liberalism – a double devaluation of labour and environmental commons e.g. the catastrophic effects of austerity and the elimination of provisions for environmental protection, with coasts, forests etc threatened by investments; the “poor sell cheap” i.e. new opportunities for international capital e.g. in tourism, energy and extractive industries, and Southern Europe turned into body of cheap labour; the privisation of public services in all crisis-hit countries; violent land dispossession, similar to in the global South, e.g in Greece the Troika has required land concentration and re-ownership, with traditional smallholders losing out;
- progressive productivism – the traditional leftist answers, capital control, (re)nationalisations, price controls, state-industrial policies, utilising national fossil fuels to fund welfare bill etc – answers which tend to marginalise the qualitative aspects of development like quality of jobs, are technocratic/top-down and skeptical of de-materialisation;
- socio-ecological transformation – the real alternative, emerging from new forms of social activism, like Indignados, which attempt inclusive/meaningful democratic decision making within, use horizontal and non-heirarchical structures, in effect building a new political sphere here and now; setting up parallel socio-economic structures like work cooperatives and occupied factories, social clinics and pharmacies, direct producers to consumers networks, movements again mining/polluting investments/ privatisations of land/water etc, solidarity against evictions/electricity cuts, open source groups of young scientists, neighbourhood social centers, local exchange networks and alternative currencies.
Whilst the conventional left says these latter movements lack critical mass or can’t seriously change the system, they have enormous radical potential because they are re-politicising the debate from below of what kind of development we want. From adopting anti-capitalist/ pro-degrowth stance to prioritising social needs as the starting point of alternatives and respecting that agency – active participation – is indispensable for transition. Southern European countries have unique political opportunity to form new opposing majorities, shifting the agenda toward radical change/ changing established power structures.
Between Doom and Utopia: Degrowth as a way out of the crisis?
Barbara Muraca, from DFG-Kolleg Postwachstumsgesellschaften (‘Post-growth-societies’, University of Jena), used her keynote to remind us that economic growth has been a magic wand for social pacification and political stability. Growth has been the outward legitimation of democratic societies – as long as it continues, dynamic stability is ensured. But growth not only has to keep going in order not to collapse, it actually has to keep accelerating. The magic wand has turned into a poison – growth undermines its own conditions of reproduction – it can no longer secure employment, social mobility and welfare, and the saturation of needs means we have to keep creating artificial needs in order for the economy to keep growing. Which, in turn, means more private debt, investing in ever bigger infrastructure projects (dams, highways etc), exploiting new markets, intensification of the pace of life, and ever greater environmental degradation. But whilst this kind of poisonous growth system is doomed to end, it remains the case that when growth-based societies stop growing we get crisis and destabilisation. Less growth means less tax revenue, less welfare state means more poverty, the care sector being forced into the private sector or families to having multiples jobs…
When people talk about this kind of context as reviving family relations, spiritual values and dematerialisation, “happy poverty”, it sounds like a step back towards fixed social roles and gender division, increasing inequality and social immobility. Where the options of enjoying leisure and cultural values are only open to those who can afford them, in time and money. Such views serve business as usual proponents, proffering a sort-of feudal degrowth. This is not what we’re talking about. Our degrowth, Muraca explains, requires the radical transformation of society’s basic institutions so that they are independent of the growth compulsion: your recession is not our degrowth!
Since a growth-based society that stops growing is doomed to collapse, we must challenge the cultural infrastructure that justifies the growth system. We need to bridge the different social movements and societal experiments, both the antagonistic (e.g. Occupy) and constructive (e.g. transition towns), in the North and the South, as part of a project for societal transformation, of creating concrete utopias. Talking of abstract utopias is nothing more than wishful thinking, but concrete utopias require us to actualise existing potentials and tendencies for alternatives, to challenge the “imaginary” of dominant ideologies. The social imaginary is a set of shared and established values, a collective self-understanding by which societal settings make sense, that acts as legitimation and justification for practices, actions and institutions. Even dominant ideologies need legitimation, to promise non-alienation and a better life: the desire for transformation can be enhanced by appealing to different kinds of dissatisfaction. Crisis can thus be an opportunity to transform the social imaginary, forcing us to reconsider meaning, to face disillusionment and contradictions, like the myths of meritocracy and climbing the social ladder, or to recognise that growth doesn’t guarantee employment any more.
Muraca ended by emphasising the importance of plurality, participation and diversity of approaches, but also noting that its not always about scaling up, as generalising successful small-scale projects can make them lose their meaning. A final point that sticks in my mind from Muraca’s talk is that in contemporary industrialised society, humans are effectively driven to state of addiction (consumer products, advertising etc) which gives us less autonomy, less real desires (given the addictive quality of materialism). We need to collectively relearn our desires, rather than the preferences of economists, the pseudo-desires and satisfaction of “needs” imposed by existing structures.
Responses to the eurocrisis: Strategies for the degrowth-movement
In a panel discussion on what a degrowth proponent’s reaction to the Eurocrisis should be – recession and austerity as “the wrong kind of degrowth” – it was pointed out that many people, looking at Eurocrisis countries that aren’t growing, like Greece and Spain, think “life’s awful there, why would you demand that society’s stop growing?” Whilst it may be obvious to us that a degrowth society is something very different to a growth-based society that suddenly stops growing i.e. that collapses, this is not yet widely understood.
Steffen Lange, from Konzeptwerk, reminded us that before the crisis, there were big trade imbalances in the EU, some countries with big deficits (e.g. Greece), others with surpluses (e.g. Germany). As public debt increased (e.g. from bailing out the banks), markets started betting against deficit countries paying back this debt, which led to interest rate increases. When they weren’t able to pay back all this debt, they sought help from the Troika (the European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank), getting credit but under certain conditions and policies to be implemented – decreasing public expenditure, lower production costs to make them more competitive on international markets (i.e. wages cuts), etc. So less demand, less welfare, lower wages and fewer jobs, with very weak democratic legitimacy/control (as terms dictated by the Troika rather than elected governments), plus no environmental agenda.
So much for a recap of the Eurocrisis, but what would have been more socially, ecological, democratic response, a response in tune with degrowth? Lange proposed this would include four elements:
- Redistribution – instead of cutting public expenditure, taxing high income members of society and big companies, and using this money to pay off deficits; tackle tax avoidance and evasion, which is currently double the total EU deficit; instead of decreasing wages in crisis states, decrease working hours in more competitive countries like Germany (which means a higher hourly wage, effectively increasing wage costs)
- Strengthening democratic institutions – strengthen the European Parliament’s role vis-a-vis the European Commission; effectively regulate financial markets at EU level; control the financial and business lobby (as they pushed policies that led to the crisis in the first place)
- Sufficiency policies – to ensure environmental soundness, reduce working hours (especially in surplus countries to increase wage costs) to give more time for living “good life”; environmental taxation at EU level, making environmentally harmful goods more expensive, with revenue going to crisis country governments; environmentally intelligent investments.
- Strengthening local economies – public institutions should buy locally; increase transport costs; local currencies; local ownership of public goods; fight TTIP, the EU-US trade agreement. (Whilst avoiding right-wing/radical localisam, and finding narratives for localisation that are not right-wing).
Whilst Lange’s proposed Eurocrisis response would undoubtedly have been infinitely better than the neoliberal Troika’s response of austerity, austerity, austerity, it became clear from the discussion that not only are these (quite state-centric/EU-centric) proposals closer to being neo-Keynesian than degrowth, they are also very much a first attempt. More thought, discussion and work is clearly needed, as so little has been written about at a possible degrowth-based Eurocrisis response, yet the crisis is in some ways a window of opportunity.
Giorgos Velegrakis, of Harokopio University Athens, noted that in Greece, social-environmental movements and struggles have succeeded in creating new spaces for transformation, alternative spaces that challenge the dominant approach and threaten power structures, partly by bringing back the question of power. Collectively, we need to confront power structures and property relations, and start to unify environmental, workers and other social struggles in a broader political praxis.
Nicola Bullard, from Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, brought the discussion out to the broader context of the Eurocrisis – its certainly not the first time a country’s been structurally adjusted by neoliberal policies! It is part of a global process, going on for decades, of forced integration of national economies into the global economy, in which countries of the global South have born the brunt of the pain.
Looking back on deglobalisation movements, Bullard drew some parallels with the degrowth movement – aiming to re-enbed the economy in society, so the latter controls the former and the former works for the latter. Deglobalisation retained the possibility of international or regional institutions, but with much more plurality and diversity between economic and political practices, rather than the existing economic monoculture. But deglobalisation remained neo-Keynesian, it didn’t jump from the capitalist framework; although it looked at the redistribution of power, it didn’t tackle the fundamental question of property. The movement was weak on the ecological perspective, how to integrate ideas on commons and commoning, and the need to re-embed society in nature as well as re-embed the economy in society.
Climate Justice and Degrowth: commonalities, resistances and alternatives
Tadzio Müller, from Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, set the scene for this discussion by looking at the differences, in origin and emphasis, between the climate justice and degrowth movements. Degrowth is a story from North, built out the sensibilities of the North. For example, people facing a deluge of consumption is a problem most people in the South don’t face. The narrative of trying not to consume too much is a story for countries of great surplus. Climate justice on the other hand comes from the South, for the people of the South. This is distinct from some earlier environmentalist movements, for example 1970s US environmentalism, which was “a movement by and for white people”, too often displacing problems to poorer communities and minorities, a kind of environmental racism. Müller warned that the degrowth movement must be vigilant against new kinds of environmental racism or class-ism, the North dictating that the South must stop growing, telling the poor to tighten their belts.
Furthermore, the climate justice movement grew from specific struggles, front-line communities fighting extractive projects etc, so the agent of change is relatively obvious. Contrastingly, within the degrowth movement it is not so clear who exactly is interested in shutting off the growth dynamic. Rather, degrowth has grown from an analysis and discourse; it is a story and a frame that resonates in Europe and the global North, unlike climate justice. Müller suggests that this is a way for the movements to come together, combing the specific struggles of climate justice and the North-resonating narrative of degrowth. Müller noted that another obvious cross-over is the struggle against the fossil fuel industry; economic growth has, since industrialisation, been powered by fossil fuels, just as fossil fuels are the key driver of climate change.
For me, there is a third very clear cross-over, which is that degrowth in the North is a key part of, or even a prerequisite for, paying the climate debt owed to the South – reducing its consumption so that the South can ensure basic needs for all are met, whilst collectively staying within our planetary boundaries. Other counterpoints made in the discussion, included that degrowth and climate justice can be seen two sides of the same coin, the former dealing with cause, the latter with effect. It was also pointed out that degrowth is important precisely because it is Eurocentric – a home-grown critique of growth, the pursuit of which has driven so many injuries right back to the colonial era. The environmental justice movement is, furthermore, much bigger worldwide than the smallish, mainly European degrowth movement, but the starting point need not be their separateness – degrowth can be seen as a strand of environmental justice.
Nnimmo Bassey, from Friends of the Earth Nigeria, made the cogent point that if there is to be a future for this planet, if we are not all migrating to Mars, then the power of corporations must be curtailed. Bassey touched on the madness of societal bads (crime, drugs, oil-spill clean-ups) contributing to GDP growth, a “statistical myth to cover up the mess”. Growth is powered by the myth that we can always grab whatever we want, and if gets really bad, just move somewhere else. But displacements are happening all over the world, real struggles, real peoples lives are being destroyed by the fallout from growth. No more evident than in the extractives sector, with destruction and pollution from gold mining to unconventional fossil fuels.
Bassey concluded that climate justice and degrowth must both tackle a situation of addiction. However difficult it may be, we need over-consuming societies to recognise that we cannot continue this way – ecological collapse, species extinction and climate change are all very real and severe threats. Degrowth will happen one way or another – we need to make sure it happens in an organised way – transformative, empowering and just, not as crisis, poverty and unemployment.
Lucia Ortiz, from Friends of the Earth Brazil, connected the dots between the neoliberal growth paradigm and the false solutions being pursued to stop climate change, which also have serious effects on people in the South. Emissions trading, the financialisation of nature and the propaganda of “green economy”(e.g. industrial agriculture, monocultures and GM) are exacerbating existing problems. Multinational corporations exercise great influence over governments and the UNFCCC, and free trade agreements threaten the sovereignty of states and peoples. Ortiz warned that the neoliberalism of the climate approach is a major threat to us all, and the corporate influence over the UN climate talks must be tackled.
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#Degrowth14 also included a Group Assembly Process (GAP), a three-day working process among activists, practitioners, scientists and artists of the degrowth movement. The GAP aimed at developing concrete proposals for the transition towards and the shape of degrowth societies, and at mapping existing areas of disagreement and open questions for debate and research in a process of collective and democratic consensus building. With nearly twenty groups, on topics as diverse as money&finance, childhood and climate&energy, I took part in the GAP on Democracy and Degrowth. Details on the process and outcomes of this will be covered in a separate piece, at a later date.
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