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Transformative economics on both sides of the Atlantic – Comparing the new economy movement and degrowth movement

By: Nathan Barlow


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Two movements have emerged on either side of the Atlantic with the aim of transforming the economy in the U.S. and Europe –the new economy movement and the degrowth movement respectively. Both movements gained momentum after the financial crisis, and have since flourished nascent social movements composed of practitioners, academics, and activists loosely organized through informal networks and some organizational support. Both movements convene annual conferences that represent a hybrid of ideas and action, which capture their dual nature as movements pioneering alternative ideas but recognize the need to bring these alternatives to reality through action – activism, organizing, politics, grassroots initiatives, etc.

Their common issue but different approaches

Both movements problematize the status quo for its inherent systemic design that produces outcomes that are harmful to both humans and the biophysical world. Thus, both movements call for a deep and systemic transformation of the political-economic system to fundamentally change the functioning of the economy and society, such that it produces more just and equitable outcomes. However, the movements do not have a homogenous or singular idea of transformation, including (i) the initial problematization, i.e. what needs to change; (ii) what alternative vision is imagined; (iii) what are the obstacles and possibilities to achieve this vision; (iv) how might these obstacles and opportunities change with time; and (v) what is a strategy to actively get towards the vision given points (i)-(iv).

A brief comparison of approaches

There are many similarities between both approaches to transformation, despite the different contexts that they emerged from, including the need to overcome capitalism, the rejection of economic growth, and the importance of considering strategically how to achieve a systemic transformation. However, the new economy movement has a greater focus on social and economic issues, e.g. inequality, democratic ownership of productive assets, and community well-being. In contrast, the degrowth movement focuses more on the biophysical world and the environmental crises, e.g. the need to radically reduce throughput, stay within planetary boundaries and re-orient society along a less resource intensive way. Therefore, while both are clearly advocating for a social-ecological transformation, thus the potential of both approaches to emphasize the intersection of these crises is significant. One limit of emphasizing the social-economic crises and accompanied solutions is an under-recognition of the deep embeddedness of society-nature relations. A limit of over-emphasizing the ecological is the risk of alienating many potential allies, such as a small business owners, a point that will be considered next. As a result of these two slightly different foci, the other categories were also often filtered through this lens, which resulted in an initial slightly different problematization leading to increasingly different ideas of barriers, potentials and importantly – the subjects for/against a transformation, i.e. who will support this transformation and who will resist it. For example, Alperovitz embraced small businesses for their wealth democratizing characteristic and their emphasis on place and community, whereas Kallis was more critical of such actors due to their tendency towards profit, accumulation, expansion, and thereby increasing throughput. The limit of the degrowth approach is clearly a lack of potential allies, a point Kallis concedes, whereas the potential of the new economy movement is its broader number of allies. Another contrast is the difference in spatial focus. A recurring emphasis of Alperovitz is that a Pluralist Commonwealth is an American vision of transformation, which includes drawing on American values, institutional landscape, and historical experiences when considering pathways, potentials, and barriers for transformation. In contrast, Kallis’ discussion of degrowth is at a higher level of abstraction, often applied to the global North, sometimes referring to the “European degrowth movement”, and occasionally citing specific examples but there is no single focused context. While this lends degrowth to a more globalist perspective that has potentially far greater reach and greater consideration of peoples across places, it falls short in highlighting specific pathways for transformation in the way that Alperovitz has outlined based on his insights in the U.S. broadly and in the new economy movement specifically. Interestingly, the similarities between the two approaches again increased when considering strategy as both drew on Gramsci’s concepts of the state, hegemony, and common senses. This resulted in both authors critiquing the limits of pathways that failed to engage with the state, e.g. small projects and grassroots initiatives. Additionally, both considered ways that these projects and efforts could be a part of a transformational strategy through different forms of mobilization to impact politics and policy. For Alperovitz, the possibility of creating new institutions to displace hegemonic institutions, e.g. new cooperative banks, was a high potential pathway for building power before later building a new transformational political base. Slightly differently, Kallis rather proposed building a movement composed of people in alternative economy practices, to form a new political force, then create policies to further the space of maneuver for these projects, which would in turn increase their number and bring more people to the political force. Therefore, the approaches to transformation had similarities in their broader problematization and understanding of the multiple crises, with slightly different foci as described already, but on the more specific consideration of allies, barriers, institutional-landscape, political possibilities, etc. resulted in greater divergence between the two approaches, thus reflecting not just the different foci but also the different contexts. However, when concluding with possible strategies, both approaches again resonated at a theoretical level through their embracement of Gramsci’s approach to transforming the state.  

About the author

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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