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Some more Reflections on the Budapest Degrowth-Conference

By: Adrián Beling


The signs from the Degrowth-Conference having disappeared from the walls of the portentous building of Corvinus University, and the streets of Budapest emptied from the stalls and the babble of the Degrowth-Week, the time is ripe for another evaluation-round. The conference can be assessed from diverse perspectives – with disparate outcomes, I suspect.  Even if I am relatively new to the Degrowth-scene, I am strongly persuaded that this is a decisive time in the evolution of the European intellectual and activist degrowth-movement. Therefore, I will look here at the conference as a device for measuring the pulse of the community of degrowth-supporters, and as a milestone to reflect on its overall direction.

A key variable in the complex success-equation of the degrowth movement, it seems to me, would be to generate a more effective and rewarding mutual fertilization between degrowth scholars and degrowth activists. The currently prevailing assessment in the degrowth-community seems to be that there is “too much of academia and not enough activism”. Even if the critique of ‘sterile intellectualism’ should not come as a surprise in the framework of a friction-prone (even if potentially fruitful, better: possibly indispensable!) alliance between the academic and activist spheres, my concern is that bridging the two will probably require a more focused and deliberate effort than is currently the case. Failing to build a strong bridge between the two spheres, I’m afraid, would threaten to dissolve the core of the degrowth discourse(s) via two parallel threats:

  • Politization (in the narrow sense of the word): ‘Degrowth’ becoming a corporatist banner seeking to rebuild a radical left as a political force to replicate the well-worn strategy of seizing state-power as a means to attain radical social change. The imploding Latin-American ‘left turn’ and the backfiring SYRIZA-experiment in Greece are possibly the historically closest and clearest examples of the inherent limitations of such a strategy. Entering the game of political struggle would be the wrong battle to fight, one that seems doomed to failure within current socio-political and cultural arrangements, at least without compromising on the key tenets of the degrowth discourse(s). Rather, degrowth should seek to challenge these arrangements, instituting a platform for a pluralistic debate on a social-ecological transformation, and not be identified with a particularistic political identity and a pre-standardized repertoire of ideological or identitary preferences. As Robert Brulle has argued, that precisely was the mistake of the hippie-movement in the 1970s: believing that they would change the world by contagion. Instead of reaching out to the world, they intended to attract the world towards them. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Now, in order not to repeat this historical mistake, the degrowth movement should avoid putting all its eggs in the basket of alternative cultural or political niches, and seek also to engage with a wider plethora of cultural and political agents instead, including civil society organizations (CSOs), progressive funders, think thanks, churches, etc., as well as state-institutions and international organizations.
  • De-politization (in the broad sense of the word): The (understandable yet inexpedient) eagerness for ‘translating degrowth into practice’ (now!) runs the risk of watering- down degrowth by merely super-imposing this new ‘fashionable’ label to business-as-usual activist practices. Worse, this could prove counterproductive, insofar it tends to reproduce the currently prevailing definition of reality instead of challenging it: as a friend put it to me, “planting lettuce to save the world” is surely a valid action in and of itself, but largely misses the specificity of degrowth ideas; worse: in so doing, it reinforces the feeling that there is nothing that could be done beyond what is already being done. Ultimately, this could be unwillingly contribute to reproducing the ‘post-political’ setting (Chantal Mouffe) pointed out by Federico Demaria in his opening speech at the conference. Degrowth is political in nature, and its job is to problematize the pillars of the currently prevailing socio-economic system. To that purpose, it could surely profit from a potent complementary relationship with, say, the permaculture or slow food movements, as long as it is not swallowed by them!

How to avoid these dangers? In my understanding, the interface of movements and scholarly knowledge-gain towards challenging a continued growth-path in society at large remains under-explored. Concrete proposals (policy initiatives, collective and individual practices – including political practices, in the broader sense of the term) towards undermining growth-dependency are put forward by several proponents (Tim Jackson, Uwe Schneidewind & Angelika Zahrnt, Serge Latouche, among others). They are worth more serious considerations as guidelines for the action of degrowth-supportive movements (over 150, according to the “Degrowth in Movement(s)" project). There are, of course, many other sources of inspiration for a more fruitful ownership-taking of degrowth by civil society agents. The pocket book “Re.imagining activism. A practical guide towards the Great Transition”, for example, contains tailored reflections and tools for NGOs and SMOs to assess and (re-)design their organizational outlook and strategies to fit the challenge of a “Great Transformation” on a Polanyian-scale.

While the world can be changed through a myriad of micro- and macro-level strategies, from alternative sub-cultures all the way up to international regulatory frameworks, the specificity of degrowth is to seek ways of breaking the vicious cycle of economic growth, private profit-maximizing, and consumerism. And this can neither be achieved by pushing a degrowth-party into power, nor by shouting out to an unresponsive world “make love, not war”, but rather by creating cultural and economic infrastructures that – to borrow Uwe Schneidewind and Angelika Zahrnt’s expression - “make it easier to live the good life” for the many. And social movements, along with NGOs and scholars partnering in the degrowth-community, have a big role to play in this.

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Adrián Beling

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