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Critical Self-Reflection as a Path to Anti-Capitalism: The Degrowth-Movement

By: Dennis Eversberg


Although growth-critique is currently in vogue and degrowth is mentioned favorably even by the pope in his most recent encyclical, there is as yet almost no scientific research on degrowth as a social movement.

We can now present the first empirical findings on the character of this movement, based on a survey we did at the 2014 Degrowth-Conference in Leipzig, in which 814 conference participants took part, and a cluster analysis of their responses.

The main argument in our longer essay in German language is that degrowth is an emerging but heterogeneous social movement representing in its essence a critique of capitalism and social domination that makes self-transformation and current collective practices the starting point for a broad societal transformation. Our conclusions can be summarized in four propositions:

Disputes around degrowth and growth critique

Whether degrowth should be considered a social movement or merely a platform for the discussion of alternatives is controversially debated, as is the emancipatory substance and transformative potential of growth critique. Moreover, degrowth is often criticized as merely reflecting the post-materialist discomfort of the wealthy, educated and privileged who needn’t worry about issues of justice and distribution. Therefore, it is portrayed as a superficial and primarily cultural argument that avoids a critique of capitalism and, accordingly, confrontational political positions and practices.

In contrast to this, Ulrich Schachtschneider has recently shown in an analysis of the Leipzig conference program that at least the community gathered there does seem to be united in emancipatory approaches and a critical view of capitalism. Several other authors have attempted to further categorize the heterogeneity of growth-critical actors in order to specify the rightful addressees of such criticism.

However, these remain fixated on the typical positions in the post-growth discourse as published in books and articles. But can these same differences also be found among the people who are active in the field of degrowth at the grassroots level? What are the decisive lines of conflict in this field, and which groups support the respective positions?

Degrowth as an anti-capitalist transformational perspective

The vast majority of people gathering under the label of "degrowth" stand for a transformational perspective that is critical of social domination and, in large parts, also of capitalism. Although there was substantial disagreement among the conference participants in many regards, they were overwhelmingly united by a shared basic consent that can roughly be summarized as follows:

Growth without environmental destruction is an illusion. Therefore, economic shrinkage in the industrialized countries will be inevitable. This includes that we will have to abstain from certain amenities we have got used to. The necessary transformation towards a post-growth society needs to be peaceful and emerge from below; it amounts to overcoming capitalism, and female emancipation needs to be a central issue in the process.

This consensus derives from those questions on which less than 100 people opposed the majority opinion. However different people's motives for rejecting or agreeing to these statements might be, the results show a great deal of consensus on central points of shared concern. The common ground of these consensual views is, in essence, a critical view of social domination. Although remaining largely unspecified for the time being, this shows that allegations of lacking critique of domination and capitalism occasionally brought forward by left-wing protagonists miss the self-conception of those who identify with the goals of the degrowth debate.

The degrowth movement is more heterogeneous and does not match its public image

Our findings clearly demonstrate that the degrowth movement is internally heterogeneous and comprises of several different currents, whose orientation and approaches often don't match the widespread perception of degrowth. We identify five currents that differ not only in terms of substantive attitudes, but also in terms of political and day-to-day practices.

  1. Sufficiency-orientated critique of civilization: 22% of survey participants belong to this current. Many of them are older activists, often with long-standing experience in the new social movements, particularly the environmental movement. Based on a strong ecological motivation, they articulate a pointed critique of civilization, strongly agreeing to statements stressing closeness to nature, spirituality or a revival of lifestyles of former generations. Their activism is oriented towards building sufficiency-orientated "parallel societies" (Frank Adler) as cores of an alternative way of life. After the collapse of industrial societies that many of them expect, these communities are to become a model for a societal 'reset'.
  2. Immanent reformism: People in the second current (19%) actively use the newest technologies, travel quite frequently, often belong to political parties and student initiatives and feel comparatively little connected with social movements. This group represents the techno- and progress-optimistic pole of the degrowth spectrum, and is most 'reformist' in the sense of thinking within existing institutional structures. They reject techno-pessimist, spiritual and backward-looking orientations, but also express little support for revolutionary upheaval and anti-capitalism. They seek the fundamental societal change they deem necessary between the poles of "green growth" and reforms transcending growth from within existing institutions.
  3. Voluntarist-pacifist idealism: People from this current (23%) are on average relatively young, two thirds of them are female, and many have little experience with social movements and political activism. Most of their positions don't differ much from the average of the survey participants – their most striking single position is the above-average endorsement of a degrowth party. Moreover, they seem to have a distinctly voluntarist attitude (locating the problem with growth mainly in people's day-to-day habits, which they could change right away if only they understood), blended with a particularly strong pacifism and a general avoidance of conflict. If overcoming growth is simply a question of insight and needn't be experienced as a loss – so the reasoning goes –, degrowth could prevail by way of an evolutionary expansion of day-to-day behavioral change from below.
  4. Modernist-rationalist left: This primarily male group that strongly concentrates in large cities accounts for 13 percent. Its members often have a long history of activism, while mostly engaging in rather "traditional" forms of left politics: Relatively many are party members, and a particularly large majority often participates in demonstrations. Their identification with social movements is weaker than average, while their substantive positions are an exact mirror image of the first current: They represent progress-optimistic attitudes, sharply refuse spirituality, romanticization of the past and conservatism, and clearly criticize capitalism with structure-oriented arguments, focusing on issues of social justice rather than ecology. For them, a critical analysis of society is a central precondition for any political practice, and taking action without a thorough theoretical reasoning to support it easily appears to them as naïve, futile or even dangerous. This current is probably not in its entirety to be seen as part of the degrowth movement. The part that articulates its positions "from within", however, is immensely important for the movement's discourses.
  5. Libertarian practical left: The fifth current (22%), with an above-average percentage of people living outside Germany, is rooted in an activist alternative social milieu. Among this group, a percentage far above average takes part in direct actions or lives in alternative projects. They feel strongly attached to social movements and are highly connected within the degrowth environment. Typical for them is a pattern of mostly radical views which, however, cannot clearly be located on either side of the divide between the critique of civilization (current 1) and rational leftism (current 4), but rather crisscross it. Here, openness to spirituality and rejecting the romanticization of nature, structural thinking and a critique of industrial society are no contradictions, but go hand in hand. This current stands for an anarchist-inspired critique of growth and capitalism that is similar to the fourth current in stressing aspects of social justice, but also focuses on experiences of alienation caused by the perpetual pressure to expand, thereby seeking the leverage point for transformative action in one's own practice. Breaking away in practical terms and acting differently is not so much aimed at the formation of parallel structures but at transforming one's own growth-determined subjectivity and, thus, society as a whole. The bottom line is the vision of bringing about revolution by way of practical self-transformation.

Degrowth as a new form of critique of social domination?

Degrowth stands for a critique of capitalism and domination that makes the current individual and collective practice the starting point for a broad societal transformation. To our minds, the existence of this last, fifth current is decisive for what is qualitatively new about the degrowth movement. Firstly, it is, both socially and in terms of ideas, an important catalyst for the perceptibility of one degrowth movement as an alliance of its different currents. Secondly – as indicated by the large share of non-German respondents in this current – it is here that an understanding of transformation originally linked to the idea of décroissance seems to play the largest role: an approach that has only recently spread from Southern Europe to German speaking countries.

For one thing, this is evidenced by the fact that the fifth current very clearly rejects the idea that climate change is a larger future threat than social injustice, while equally broadly sharing the view that an economic contraction will be inevitable in the industrialized countries. And for another, it paradigmatically stands for the specific mode of articulating critique and practice that has become the hallmark of what "degrowth" stands for at large, far beyond this particular current.

At the heart of the project is the quest for transformative practices that depart from people's day-to-day life, aiming to change not only the structure of social relations but also of the self that is inseparable from them. These forms of action and organizing are not only about opening real spaces for acting "differently", but also about the actors themselves "becoming something different" along the way, about becoming different subjects that are not produced by growth-fixated practices. This corresponds with an anarchist-inspired understanding of revolution: "Revolution" is no future historic break, but that very process of current self- and world-transformation once it becomes epidemic. According to this idea, just and liberated forms of practice and subjectivity are 'contagious' and bound to gradually unfold an ever broader impact.

Contrary to oft-heard allegations, this does not amount to renouncing a further-reaching transformative vision. If anything, it is rather a radicalization, insofar as it involves problematizing one's own way of existing as a subject, i.e. making one's own mode of existence the object of a necessary revolution. Instead of blaming everything on real or imagined "opponents" or anonymous "structures", it opposes one's own entanglement within a resource-intensive mode of living that, on a global level, is incompatible with enabling a good life for everyone. This is based on the realization that one's own practices of consumption, mobility and patterns of work and life are part of what needs to be practically challenged.

In light of this we might have to reassess the oft-criticized fact (indeed confirmed by our findings) that degrowth activists mainly recruit themselves from privileged, academically educated social strata: If the movement's core concern is with global injustice, why should it be a problem that precisely some of those profiting most from these injustices begin to question their own mode of living and their embodied "mental infrastructures"? For such critical practice to unfold a broader impact, it is exactly the critical reflection of these privileges that's needed; and a deep understanding that the same issues are experienced and perceived differently from other social positions. However, as we can see from the more individualistic forms of questioning lifestyles and the personalized ascriptions of guilt – prevalent particularly in current 1 and 3 – this is indeed not yet part of the shared consensus. What direction the movement's development will take in the future, and how it will deal with its inner tensions, is up to its coming discussion processes and its practical learning from concrete experience. ------------------ Translation: Christiane Kliemann

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Dennis Eversberg

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