Book review: Degrowth as a desirable and possible future

Review

1) The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism.
by Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter and Aaron Vansintjan. Verso, 2022. ISBN 9781839765841. £18.99 paperback, £11.39 ebook (publisher is currently offering both at the ebook price)

2) Political Friendship and Degrowth: An Ethical Grounding of an Economy of Human Flourishing. by Areti Giannopoulou. Routledge, 2022, ISBN 9780367757960. £120 hardback, £33.29 ebook.

More and more books are appearing on Degrowth. However, if you are looking for a clear, comprehensive, scholarly but practical overview, then I’d recommend The Future is Degrowth. Published by Verso, it does speak specifically to those of us on the left, but even if you are from a different political tradition, you could do worse than to read it.

Political Friendship and Degrowth is for a different audience, based on a PhD thesis from the University of Sussex, it is primarily directed to those with a grounding in philosophy, but it does make some interesting observations on degrowth and the kind of society that would restore solidarity and kindness among us.

The first book, by Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter and Aaron Vansintjan, has the following structure:

    • Introduction
    • Economic growth
    • Critiques of growth
    • Degrowth visions
    • Pathways to degrowth
    • Making degrowth real
    • The future of degrowth

The introductory chapter is particularly good at debunking the various misrepresentations and misunderstandings of degrowth. Degrowth, they note, is both a critique and a proposal, and later sections explore both aspects.

They begin by examining the concept of economic growth. Building on their statement in the introduction, “Economic growth, we argue, appears as the ideological, social, and biophysical materialization of capitalist accumulation”, they explain,

First, growth is a relatively recent idea, the hegemony of which is the core ideology of capitalism, justifying the belief that growth is natural, necessary, and good, and that growth, as the increase of output and the development of productive forces, is linked to progress and emancipation. Second, growth is a social process that has long preceded the current hegemony of growth in contemporary society: a specific set of social relations resulting from and driving capitalist accumulation that stabilizes modern societies dynamically and at the same time makes them dependent on expansive dynamics of growth, intensification, and acceleration. Third, growth is a material process – the ever-expanding use of land, resources, and energy and the related build-up of physical stocks – which fundamentally transforms the planet and increasingly threatens to undermine the foundations of growth itself.

While I would put the three points in the reverse order, this is one of the best definitions I have seen.

The next section surveys the various critiques of growth that come together in degrowth. Most will be familiar to readers of our work; they are (with my summary statements),

Ecological critique – growth destroys the very foundations of life on earth.

Socio-economic critique – growthism offers a false proxy for human well-being and stands in the way of a more equal society.

Cultural critique – growth destroys human relations, making them mechanistic, instrumental and alienating.

Critique of capitalism – growth is inherently bound up with the capitalist mode of production, that is with accumulation of surplus as a result of exploitation and expropriation.

Feminist critique – growthism, as an economic rationality, devalues other spheres of human labour and relies on gendered exploitation.

Critique of industrialism – growth is inseparable from the deployment of undemocratic technologies and structures.

South–North critique – foregrounds the exploitative and extractive relations between rich countries and the global South.

Moving on, the book considers what degrowth actually means. Having reviewed some of the definitions that have been offered, the authors suggest a synthesis,where,

A degrowth society… 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.”

So far so good, nice ideas but how can it be made to happen? The rest of the book is concerned with that key question. The answer can be contrasted with the simplified policy programme of the New Green Deal (to which the authors, while critical aof some aspects maintain a friendly orientation, emphasising the points in common). Rather than a single policy package, to be implemented by wise politicians, top-down,

“… degrowth proponents prefer a diverse policy platform and tend to approach the issue more holistically. This is because focusing on a single policy tends to minimize the amount of change needed in the whole system while failing to hedge against the possible negative effects of that policy taken in isolation.”

Focusing first on policy, six clusters are identified as covering the bulk of degrowth approaches, (1) the democratization of the economy, or, the strengthening of the commons, a solidarity-based economy, and economic democracy; (2) social security, redistribution, and caps on income and wealth; (3) convivial and democratic technology; (4) the redistribution and revaluation of labour; (5) the equitable dismantling and reconstruction of production; and (6) international solidarity.

However, in the penultimate chapter, the book also addresses the how of change. This is where many contributions to the debate fall apart. These authors do better. They begin by acknowledging a rift in the degrowth discussions between grand policy prescriptions and small-scale bottom up solutions (we ourselves position our distinctive approach between the two, primarily at the “meso-level”). The use this duality productively, seeing the bottom-up “nowtopias” as providing content, know-how, as vital for the more systemic interventions. Drawing on the work of Erik Olin Wright, his notion of “real utopias”, and taxonomy of strategies, they review the roles of nowtopias, non-reformist reforms, building counter-hegemony and transformative power, and the response to crises.

Will it work? We can only know by trying. The authors sum it up in these words,

Yet whether a degrowth society can and will become reality cannot be answered theoretically; it depends on the practices, relationships, and organizing of all of us. To make this vision real requires a massive, concerted effort from every corner of society – let alone those who consider themselves to be on the left. We have made some proposals for how to think about the strategies for systemic change, …. But to start this journey, we need a broad but unified ‘movement of movements’ for life and against capitalist growth to confidently take the first steps along this path of transformation. You don’t have to call this ‘degrowth’, but we hope that the core concerns of both the critique and the proposal of degrowth will be integrated into more and more struggles and transformative practices. There are endless ways to follow this path – from starting a workers’ cooperative to setting up a mutual aid centre or pushing for non-reformist reforms in your municipality. Whatever you choose to do, know that our trajectories are aligned.”

Degrowth as a movement of movements

Degrowth as a movement of movements


To conclude, The Future is Degrowth is a tour de force, it is well argued, and well referenced (although sometimes the references are to a whole text rather than the specific relevant part). It is unusual for me to read a text where I can hardly raise a quibble but these authors are extremely sure footed. I recommend you read it.

Political Friendship and Degrowth is a more difficult read. Only if you have an interest and some grounding in philosophy would I recommend it. It argues for the relevance of Aristotle’s concept of political friendship, a kind of extension of interpersonal friendship across the communities we live in, and potentially further. It is a concept that connects with the ideals and practices of solidarity, mutuality and accompaniment. Areti Giannopolou relates this idea, negatively to the writings of Adam Smith (the free market with its invisible hand), and more positively to Karl Marx (and economic equality) and Otto Neurath (a free, associational socialism). She explores the concept of the solidarity economy and discovers limitations in its political vision, it being tied to the logic of the market.

Finally, in the last chapter, and pulling in the eco-feminism of Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, she comes to degrowth and finds in its convivial emphasis on necessary production and “relational goods” rather than the current system that emphasises of material goods. She sees a clear synergy with the life-orientated approach of degrowth and an extended understanding of political friendship.

Sadly, the book is extremely expensive, even as an ebook (on the highly restricted Vital Source platform), so few will read it. That is a shame as it does make some helpful connections between political philosophy and the degrowth project.

Mark H Burton

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