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Degrowth strategies: thinking with and beyond Erik Olin Wright

By: Joe Herbert, Nathan Barlow, Jacob Smessaert, Carol Bardi

29.09.2021

Cats craddle 2

Image created by the illustrator Viviane Griesinger, we are appreciative of her effort and collobartion on this.

Degrowthers have recently seemed to find a lot of inspiration in Erik Olin Wright’s framework of political strategies for transformations beyond capitalism. In this blog post, we wish to highlight some crucial insufficiencies of Wright’s framework in relation to degrowth transformations, and propose some adaptations which can enhance its utility for further strategy discussions. To do so, we begin by offering a brief overview of some ways in which degrowthers have discussed Wright’s strategic framework so far. We then propose three ways in which we believe Wright’s framework can be enhanced in order to speak more fruitfully to degrowth. These consist of (i) a reconsideration of ruptural strategies, (ii) a greater attentiveness to the dynamics of contemporary ecological crisis, and (iii) a deeper recognition of possibilities for the inter-mingling of different political traditions in order to develop novel strategic frameworks for twenty-first century degrowth transformations.

Degrowth and Erik Olin Wright: the story so far

We have chosen two texts to consider for this piece, which were selected for their thematic focus on the topics of the state, strategy, and their relation to degrowth. Specifically, we have chosen a blog post on this website by Ekaterina Chertkovskaya, due to its focus on the relation of Wright’s ruptural strategic logic to his other strategic logics (interstitial and symbiotic). Additionally, we have selected a journal article by Giacomo D’Alisa and Giorgos Kallis exploring a theory of the state for degrowth, which also draws on Wright’s framework.

In an earlier post on this website, titled ‘From Taming to Dismantling: Degrowth and Anti-Capitalist Strategy’, Ekaterina Chertkovskaya noted Erik Olin Wright’s relative dismissal of one of the three strands of political strategy within his own framework for post-capitalist transformations; that of ‘rupture’. Wright develops the category of rupture to describe wholesale attacks on the state with the aim of taking over state power in the revolutionary socialist tradition. However, he then argues that “the robustness of the institutions of the state in developed capitalist democracies make ruptural strategies implausible” in the twenty-first century, and that the massive levels of disruption caused by rupture are almost destined to result in the emergence of anti- or undemocratic forces for managing this crisis (Wright 2010, p.309).

Yet, as Chertkovskaya argues (and Wright himself acknowledged to some extent), ruptures need not necessarily happen at the nation-state level, nor be permanent, in order to constitute valuable contributions to long-term strategies for movement-building and post-capitalist transformations. She provides some examples of temporary, small-scale ruptures, like the occupying of public space or factories. We would add to this list (temporary) autonomous zones which displace local state power, such as those which arose in the US in 2020 when the Black Lives Matter movement supplanted police presence in certain neighbourhoods.

In 2020, Giacomo D'Alisa and Giorgos Kallis also drew on Erik Olin Wright’s work in order to discuss  degrowth's  theory of the state. Their motivation was the apparent lack of scholarship focusing on how the many policies and social reforms advocated by degrowthers can be achieved within existing (capitalist) states, and if this is not possible, how the state can be transformed. In other words, they tackle the question of what kind of state, if any, is required for degrowth transformations.

D’Alisa and Kallis argue for degrowth to take up a Gramscian theory of the integral state, which sees the state as comprised by both political society (the army, the police, the justice system, etc.) and civil society (voluntary associations, trade unions, families etc.). The integral state thus contrasts with other traditional conceptualisations of the state, which often consider only what Gramsci calls ‘political society’ as constitutive of the state. The integral state theory therefore subsumes all social activity within ‘the state’, and by extension precludes the existence of spaces and relations ‘outside’ the state from which to mount a ruptural attack. Instead, D’Alisa and Kallis argue that only the right combination of Wright’s interstitial (autonomous grassroots action) and symbiotic (interventions into state institutions) strategies can, in specific contexts, lay the preconditions for rupture.

In degrowth’s dialogue with the work of Erik Olin Wright so far, then, the role of rupture has been a notable point of contention. In some cases, Wright’s relative dismissal of rupture has been problematised, whilst in other cases, it has been reaffirmed. As such, we see this discussion around rupture as a pertinent point of departure from which to consider potential shortcomings of Wright’s strategic framework in the context of degrowth transformations.

Reconsidering rupture

We believe that a reconsideration of rupture as a strategy, and the various forms it might take, is needed in the present moment. The reasons for this are multiple.

Firstly, we must reconsider possibilities for rupture because the urgency and gravity of the ecological crisis facing our societies compels us to broaden our spectrums of political action. We are rapidly approaching 1.5°C of warming above pre-industrial levels, we are already in the midst of the breakdown of ecosystems and livelihoods, and many communities around the world have been so for centuries as a result of colonial capitalism. Reconsidering possibilities for rupture, in this sense, reaffirms the need for degrowth now, rather than at some distant point down the line when the perfect conditions might fall into place.

Secondly, judging the potential of ruptural strategies purely on the basis of their historical failures - such as the record of twentieth-century socialist revolutions that Wright turns to - fails to consider the ways in which ruptures could look different in the future. This is a point we return to below. 

Thirdly, ruptures can entail physical violence, both from the aggressor and from the violated, which is often dismissed as a non-legitimate form of political action. Yet, it is important to recognise that dismissals of (potentially violent) ruptures as unfeasible, undesirable or counterproductive are often made from positions of privilege, such as (relatively) stable positions within global North universities (as we authors have at the time of writing). This disregards the fact that violent ruptures are always a possibility and often a reality for many on our planet who face an ever-present threat of violence in various forms. As Harald Welzer argues in his book Climate Wars, the threat of violence and its massive deployment grows continually as ecological breakdown escalates. In order to carry out nuanced and comprehensive analyses of various strategic pathways for transformation, possibilities of potentially violent ruptures must be actively engaged with, and not shied away from.

Finally, a universal dismissal of rupture obscures context-specificities. As most degrowthers will likely agree upon, the state is not a monolithic entity. It takes on different characteristics in the context of different places, cultures, and material conditions, and its stability, legitimacy and structures vary greatly through time and space. While ruptural approaches may understandably face more skepticism in contexts of very stable state institutions, high-tech surveillance, and militarized security apparatuses, some state contexts exhibit more vulnerabilities and possible entry points for rupture.

Emphasising ecology

One source of limitations in Wright’s framework is the privileged position it gives to the late nineteenth to early twentieth century period of mass struggle and radical politics as a formative historical influence. This is indicated by Wright’s decision to delineate three core strands of post-capitalist strategy according to an ideological triumvirate of revolutionary socialism, anarchism, and social democracy, drawing on the experiences of these political traditions within the stated historical period. A major implication of this specific historical grounding is that Wright’s framework lacks an analysis of contemporary ecological crisis, in its various dimensions.

This is not to say that radical thinkers and movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century did not exhibit ecological concerns. Indeed, many raised alarm around the ecological destructiveness of ongoing colonial capitalist industrialisation, as well as its socially oppressive character. Yet, ecological problems did not constitute the same type of global existential threat that they do today. Accordingly, ecology was not at the forefront of strategic discussions on transformative struggles, and nor is it sufficiently addressed by Wright.

For example, in Envisioning Real Utopias (2009), Wright lists eleven motivations for transformations beyond capitalism. One of these motivations is the ecological destruction that capitalism causes, whilst the other ten detail various social and economic problems. While we of course agree wholeheartedly that capitalism must be overcome because of its socially destructive and unjust character, Wright’s framework leaves a need for greater consideration of multifaceted ecological crisis and the central role of states in driving this crisis, such as through (neo)colonial exploitation of global ecological resources and ‘sinks’. Put simply, Wright largely undervalues the ecological component of what degrowthers understand as social-ecological transformation.

These ecological considerations bear important consequences for the political, scalar and temporal characteristics of transformation. As we mentioned before, they intensify temporal pressures for transformation which are not articulated so urgently by Wright, particularly due to a lack of consideration of the biophysical ‘tipping points’ in the Earth’s ecological systems. Ongoing ecological breakdown will also continue to bring about more acute, localised instances of crisis, such as extreme weather events. This may inadvertently lead to different kinds of opportunities for ruptural transformations than those which have historically existed, or at least make them more frequent. By extension, it is likely that there will be more occasions in which state institutions fail to respond effectively to acute crises, creating vacuums of care and governance. These could be filled by residents and local movements establishing mutual aid to meet basic needs and possibly new forms of radical grassroots democracy, which supplant the functions and political legitimacy of the state. On the other hand, as we explained above, we must never underestimate the possibility that escalating ecological crisis simply paves the way for more violence and authoritarian rule.

Intermingling strategies

The rise of ecological crisis as a key focus of political struggles since the late twentieth century has itself spurred evolutions within and across the three strategies and associated political traditions (revolutionary socialism, anarchism, social democracy) around which Wright builds his framework. Witnessing the adherence to ecologically destructive practices of states both brazenly capitalist as well as those more social-democratic or (at least nominally) socialist in orientation, ecologically-minded social and political movements have developed strategic approaches for transformation which blur and cross-fertilise elements of these different political traditions.

Examples of this are growing movements around (eco)municipalism and autonomous ecosocialisms, which draw heavily on the works of radical social-ecological theorists such as Murray Bookchin. Notable manifestations of this can be found in diverse places around the world, from the Democratic Confederalism of Rojava in Northern Syria, to the worker cooperative network of Cooperation Jackson, in Mississippi, USA. Furthermore, degrowth is itself a movement which comes together around a vision of social-ecological transformation rather than any one political tradition. This has accordingly facilitated some intermingling of different political strategies (e.g. grassroots nowtopias, civil disobedience, influencing policy) and ideologies (e.g. ecological, feminist, Marxist, anarchist, anti-racist, Indigenous), albeit in a largely unstructured manner so far.

We believe degrowth would benefit from not only preserving this instinct of cross-fertilising different political traditions and strategies, but extending it, by creating dedicated structures and spaces through which to develop novel strategic models for twenty-first century degrowth transformations tailored to specific contexts.

Molding degrowth strategies beyond Erik Olin Wright

By incorporating insights from contemporary social-ecological struggles across diverse spaces and scales, and the ways in which they are carving out innovative pathways for transformation, we argue that Erik Olin Wright’s framework can be enhanced in order to better aid the degrowth movement’s thinking around strategy.

We believe degrowth should hold on to the potential of ruptural strategies, and not prematurely relegate it to the domain of the unfeasible and unimaginable. Importantly, this is rooted in a recognition that escalating ecological crisis will continue to alter the urgency, viability and character of potential ruptures, and political strategies of all kinds, for that matter. Additionally, we see it as fruitful for degrowth to advance an intermingling of political strategies and traditions in order to develop its own novel and context-specific frameworks, without falling into strategic indeterminism. This means going beyond an ‘anything goes’ approach to strategy, whilst maintaining plurality, acknowledging complexity, and realising that no one strategic approach is adequate on its own.

While degrowth is notable for its embodiment of a diversity of approaches, we perceive that this intermingling has so far been rather unstructured and shallow in nature, and that there is scope for greater coordination, planning, and prioritisation of particular strategic mixes within specific contexts. These considerations are crucial in this moment when degrowth is still being molded as an idea, and increasingly, as a political project.

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The Cats Cradle image at the top of this piece was created by the illustrator Viviane Griesinger, we appreciate her effort and collaboration.

About the authors

Joe Herbert

Joe is a member of the degrowth.info editorial collective, working on the blog and communications. He recently completed a PhD in Human Geography at Newcastle University (UK), studying young environmental activists' imaginaries of socio-ecological crisis and transformation. He tweets at @joefherb.

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Nathan Barlow

He is a PhD candidate at the MLGD Institute at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU). His research areas and interests are degrowth, strategies for social ecological transformation, and understanding how related movements are taking shape on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active in Degrowth Vienna and is currently editing a collected volume on Degrowth & Strategy.

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Jacob Smessaert

Jacob is currently doing a PhD in environmental social sciences at Utrecht University, focusing on democratic praxis in alternative food networks.

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Carol Bardi

is a Brazilian feminist economist and researcher currently finishing her master's at the Copernicus Institute at Utrecht University with a UES scholarship. When not playing football or training MMA, Carol enjoys discussing ways to build a decolonial society based on happiness for all beings. She believes in autonomous movements, commonality, and sport as a tool for community building.

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