Degrowth Conference Vienna 2020

Effective Strategies for Degrowth

This contribution has been written by IKPS board director Andreas Novy in the context of a Panel Discussion (Understanding transformations and the role of Strategy) at the Degrowth Vienna 2020 conference. It takes place online from 29th of May to 1st of June.

29th of May, 2020


Andreas Novy

I my short presentation I will dwell on insights from Karl Polanyi, especially his last chapter of The Great Transformation: “Freedom in a Complex Society”.

These Polanyian reflections help to deal with the key problem of the degrowth movement: Its lack of effective strategies. While being convincing in its critique of the growth imperative and the plea for resilient, sustainable and solidaristic socio-economic orders, many in the degrowth movement have a problematic model of transformation. All too often, there is an implicit belief in a spontaneous order, an invisible hand that will guarantee that the emancipation of the spontaneous organization “from below” in communities of like-minded individuals is compatible with the social and biophysical necessities of a polity and a bio-system. This is, I argue, not only naïve, it offers no structural counterbalance to the liberal dispositive that fragments society and puts the individual freedom of choice above other social-ecological valuations. It is true, that the liberal dispositive of individual agency reduced to consumer sovereignty is fiercely rejected by the degrowth movement. But its two most widespread variants have a lot in common with this liberal dispositive:

First, an ethical individualism, as proposed recently by Giorgos Kallis, a call for “self-limitation”, autonomy, rule-making for oneself. For me personally, I esteem this moral exercise, inspired by Greek reflections which, by the way, have already been explored by Foucault in his critique of Christian Manichean morality. But, according to Polanyi´s judgement of such a liberal creed:

“No society is possible in which power and compulsion are absent, nor a world in which force has no function.”(TGT, 266).

It is a form of morality that ignores what Polanyi has called “the reality of society.” Today we live in a “complex society” that imposes a lot of limits and causes mutual dependency of unknown degree – as demonstrated in the current pandemia. By consuming we are inserted in an international division of labour, often cruel to workers and careless to nature; as care-dependent beings we are integrated in more or less functioning public health systems and as citizens we depend on more or less authoritarian territorial governance.

Second, the degrowth movement is often based on an avant-garde understanding of change that centers on a communitarian self-organized model of collective liberty in the form of community self-reliance and independence. Autonomy is part of its DNA, an elitist disdain for ordinary people a constant challenge. This value system assumes that decentralized and “bottom up” agency by emancipated, cooperative and like-minded individuals will lead to a degrowth transformation: From niche alternatives to system change. Glocalisation is the respective spatial dispositive: Global problems, a plurality of localized solutions from below. This goes hand in hand with a focus on civil society and social movements, and a dis-interest in intermediary institutions, in regional and national actors and infrastructures.

Both strategies have been proposed for decades: Autonomy versus heteronomy is the topic of political ecologists from Illich to Gorz. Pioneers of change, commoners have become role models, as have the Indignados, Occupy Wallstreet and the Arab Spring for the radical left. But over the years, the history of these initiatives has shown a pattern: Aspirations turned out to be “illusory”, as illusory as the liberal utopia of the invisible hand, of an utopia of societal self-regulation, if the individual only has the freedom to act. According to Polanyi, the consequence for a liberal order is clear:

“If regulation is the only means of spreading and strengthening freedom in a complex society, and yet to make use of this means is contrary to freedom per se, then such a society cannot be free” (p. 266).

Polanyi criticizes the underlying liberal assumption on the condition of wo/men. Liberals, according to Polanyi, do not see that freedom and responsibility are linked. For a good liberal the following is valid:

“Any decent individual could imagine himself free from all responsibility for acts of compulsion on the part of a state which he, personally, rejected; or for economic suffering in society from which he, personally, had not benefited. He was “paying his way”, was “in nobody´s debt”, and was unentangled in the evil of power and economic value” (p. 266).

This is not the degrowth position of Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, as they and many others would insist on our structural entanglement in an “imperial mode of living”. But I am doubtful whether Uli, Markus and many others would challenge the illusory “liberal philosophy which claims that power and compulsion are evil, that freedom demands their absence from human community.” Degrowth discourse is full of hope for the implementation of an alternative free of hierarchy and coercion. But, according to Polanyi:

“No such thing is possible; in a complex society this becomes apparent.”

And indeed, the current pandemia shows: The first effective transformation towards degrowth, the first substantial shrinking of the world economy over the last decades, is happening today, due to coercion, state action. Decades of manifestations and bottom-up initiatives have not been able to stop the growth imperative. But a few weeks of systematic deglobalization have. While “nudging”, “incentives”, “ethical consumerism” have been the liberal manual of climate politics, their ineffectiveness in comparison to bans, limits, rules and a new discipline is manifest. Indeed, many in the degrowth community have criticized the effectiveness of market mechanisms to deal with climate change. Me included. But at the core, the problem has not been the market alone, it has been the liberal dispositive, the insistence in individual, civic and communal niche activities. To generalize one´s own insisting on the right of nonconformity for oneself and one´s community as an absolute right is dangerous, even if used for noble motifs like human rights and planetary conviviality. It legitimizes the individual freedom of the strong against any impositions by democratic majorities.

According to Polanyi and experienced by all of us over the last weeks: change does not “spring from human volition; noncooperation is impossible in regard to them. The function of power is to ensure that mechanism of conformity which is needed for the survival of the group.” (p. 267). The invisible hand will not defeat a pandemia.

What does Polanyi propose? Democratic deliberation on how to regulate and plan the economy to achieve “freedom not only for the few, but for all”. Increased power of the state will be a lasting consequence of the pandemia. This is not necessarily good news – it might lead to ugly forms of authoritarianism and nationalism. But the only feasible alternative is another statehood, more decentralized and based on civic-public partnerships. This requires political agency to transform public institutions, to change bureaucracies, to improve laws and regulations – the stony road of pragmatism, inspired by a concrete utopia of a good life for all.

I will end with a quote from the last page of TGT:

“Uncomplaining acceptance of the reality of society gives woman indomitable courage and strength to remove all removable injustice and unfreedom. As long as she is true to his task of creating more abundant freedom for all, she need not fear that either power or planning will turn against him/her and destroy the freedom she is building by their instrumentality. This is the meaning of freedom in a complex society; it gives us all the certainty that we need.”(TGT, 268).

Watch the video here: