By Lasse Thiele
Is degrowth only conceivable in the context of “oversaturated” industrial societies while the global “South” remains dependent on growth? In two installments, this article questions such assumptions. In this first part it introduces positions critical of development which refuse to adopt the Western model of prosperity; the second part will focus on the analysis of these positions with a view to their relevance for the European degrowth movement and the growth debate here.
A common objection against visions of degrowth is raised with regard to the material needs of large parts of the global population – those who live in so-called “developing” or “underdeveloped” countries under conditions of extreme poverty. This group, so the argument goes, essentially depends on growth in order to improve their living conditions.
Interestingly, this argument is often brought forward in order to justify further growth in the global “North,” i.e., growth which in the first instance would benefit much more privileged groups. This line of argument has been easily refuted by the degrowth movement which emphasizes that in view of increasingly scarce natural resources, further material growth in richer industrial countries would rather diminish the prospects for development in poorer regions. The claim that wealth generated in the “North” would somehow “trickle down” to the “South” – the traditional argument of radical free-market theorists extrapolated to the global level – has been too thoroughly discredited over decades of empirical evidence to deserve further attention here.
But even explicit critics of growth, in pursuit of the laudable goal of global justice, often argue that economic development requires further growth in the “South.” Indeed, their demand for an end to growth in OECD countries is often motivated by the desire to enable “sustainable development” in poorer regions. From the perspective of post-development theory, however, the assumptions underlying such demands are quickly revealed to be rooted firmly in Western ideas of progress and growth.
Although critiques of development may be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s (cf. Esteva 1992, Tévoédjrè 1979), the formation of a “post-development school” took place in the early 1990s (cf. Sachs 1992), in the context of the establishment of postcolonial studies as an increasingly prominent academic field (cf. Ashcroft et al. 1998, Young 1995). In this “school,” a broad range of “tricontinental” (Asian, African and Latin American) authors and Northern writers with professional experience in “development aid” came together in order to thoroughly deconstruct the paradigm of economic “development,” which for decades had rarely been questioned.
These critics foregrounded the ethnocentrism of the dominant concept of development: Western industrial countries are assumed to be the gold standard by which the rest of the world is to be gauged – the less any given society corresponds to this model, the greater the deficit attributed to it. “Development” suggests a prescribed, linear path whose endpoint is marked by the blessings of a modern Western consumer society. Modern understandings of nature (as a resource which awaits submission to and exploitation by humans) and cultural patterns (individual material consumption as the main determinant of prosperity) come as part of the package. Divergent “traditional” world views, meanwhile, are redefined as factors which retard such “development” and must therefore be overcome.
Moreover, this development happens under historically specific conditions: It is to be understood as capitalist development. Its dynamic is necessarily uneven – capitalist development produces and reinforces the phenomenon of social inequality whose abatement is the declared goal of development policy (cf. Lummis 1992). From this angle, a simple “catch-up” imitation of historical patterns of development in the West is considered impossible for geopolitical, economic-technological and ecological reasons. The mainstream's insistence on retaining such models of development in spite of their dim prospects has the convenient effect of suppressing the question of global (re)distribution of wealth and power: Responsibility for change lies with the “underdeveloped.” The “developed” – in other words, the former colonial powers – are the model, the lodestars on the road to “development.”
The parallels to the growth debate are readily apparent: Usually, development is first and foremost defined by economic growth. A widely recognized measure of development success is Gross Domestic Product (GDP), an indicator sufficiently criticized in the degrowth discourse. But even if one improves this questionable indicator by consulting additional data on median income or income quintiles in order to gauge the living conditions of broad sections of the population, the argumentative validity of such figures remains very limited. (Not least thanks to such criticism, e.g. health and other social indicators are increasingly taken into account when measuring development, although the mainstream economic discourse on development remains fixated on growth.)
Capitalist modernization implies that social relations are increasingly mediated by the market. The more this happens, the greater the growth rate. Western perspectives, however, commonly and conveniently overlook the fact that such market-based exchange in the global “South” does not emerge in a vacuum. In many cases, it rather displaces other forms of economic activity which cannot be captured through a purely monetary indicator such as GDP. In particular, family- or community-based modes of subsistence tend to be neglected in this discourse despite their vital role. Their continuation is often rendered impossible because of market-oriented reforms and the privatization of land, which lead to their replacement by wage labor. Thus, monetary family or community income in a certain region may have increased significantly in any given decade – a success in terms of mainstream development economics – while these people's actual livelihoods have deteriorated while the loss of subsistence opportunities outweighs any additional monetary income from wage labor.
Particularly feminist authors have repeatedly pointed out these connections while also foregrounding the problem of unpaid, mostly female, care work, which neither in industrial nor in “developing” countries is properly acknowledged (cf. Bennholdt-Thomsen 2013, Gibson-Graham 2007, Mellor 2009, O'Hara 2009, Rahnema 1992). They criticize that the discourse on development and growth is shaped by male norms that focus on formal and paid employment. This approach not only reproduces social differences along gender lines by systematically devaluing those types of work commonly imposed on women, but also leads to a stark misdiagnosis of economic structures, especially in societies that are not yet completely marketized.
As suggested above, in the development debate as well as in day-to-day politics in OECD countries, it is the metaphor of the “growing cake” that allows for the circumnavigation of inconvenient questions of social justice (cf. Sachs 2002). This way, nobody has to give up anything – we simply need more for everybody. This rationale not only collides with ecological limits (the realization that an average US-American or European middle-class lifestyle cannot be globally replicated has become commonplace; this argument, with all its implications for (re)distributive politics, is well illustrated by Thie ). It also ignores the relativity of poverty: individual satisfaction does not depend on absolute material wealth as much as on the social context in which individual levels of consumption are understood and which shapes the opportunities of various income groups for participation in social life. As long as an obscene wealth persists, relative poverty on any level remains problematic.
(The second part elaborates on the parallels between aspects of post-development theory introduced here and contemporary European contributions to the critique of growth.)
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