When degrowth enters the parliament

by FEDERICO DEMARIA

Ecological Economist Federico Demaria was one of the panellist at our recent House of Commons debate on ‘Degrowth’ as an international movement gaining traction. Here’s his report on the challenges and tasks ahead. (This article first appeared on The Ecologist website.) 

© Bàrbara Castro Urío (labarbara.net)

Can degrowth enter into the Parliaments? How large would its constituency be? What policy proposals shall be put forward? How could a synergy be built between grassroots social movements and institutional politics?

These are some of the questions that have been on the table in Europe for a decade – at least since 2008 when the first international degrowth conference took place in Paris. In 2009 Tim Jackson published an influential report title Prosperity without growth? as chair of the UK sustainable development commission. Professor Jackson, a central figure of the beyond growth debate, has recently promoted the ‘All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on limits to growth‘ with the support of the Green Party and the MP Caroline Lucas (a kind of political miracle, given the British electoral system), among others. The APPG aims to “create the space for cross-party dialogue on environmental and social limits to growth; to assess the evidence for such limits, identify the risks and build support for appropriate responses; and to contribute to the international debate on redefining prosperity”. It is part of a long tradition of promoting a post-growth agenda within parliaments in Europe, most recently with the parliamentary commissions in France (Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress) and Germany (Enquete commission on Growth, Prosperity, Quality of Life).

Among its other activities, this APPG organizes debates at the House of Commons and I recently had the chance to join one of these, entitled The end of growth? Which was moderated by Tim Jackson and Caroline Lucas and which asked  the question: “is there still a role for economic growth in delivering a sustainable prosperity?“.

Panellists included Kate Raworth (author of Doughnut Economics), Jørgen Randers (co-author of the 1972 Limits to Growth study) and Graeme Maxton (Secretary General of the Club of Rome). The 100 tickets made available to listen to the debate sold out in a few hours. And I think there was a general consensus among panellists that economic growth, rather than a panacea to solve all social problems is itself a problem, if not directly a cause for many other problems.

The panellists brought in different arguments to demonstrate that economic growth is ecological unsustainable, socially undesirable and that it might have come to an end (i.e. secular stagnation). In a nutshell, we quickly removed the question mark from the title of debate: growth has indeed come to an end.

Now, although we broadly agreed on the diagnosis, differences emerged when discussing the prognosis, or what I would call the politics of sustainable degrowth: What has to be done? How are we going to do it? Who is going to do it? And for whom?

The consensus with the audience was that we face many unresolved challenges: How does social change happen? How do we scale up grassroots alternatives? How do we position ourselves in relation to capitalism? How would we envision a socio-ecological transformation in low-income countries? What are the obstacles? How do we make the welfare state sustainable? How do we avoid co-optation? And so on…

Overall, the debate was to the point. I’m told it even continued at a pub later on, along the lines of the British cultural tradition. I unfortunately missed that. I found a nice balance among the panellists themselves, although I missed someone bringing in a feminist perspective. For example, I had a nice exchange of opinions on the role of democracy with Jørgen Randers. We were the youngest and oldest panellists, respectively. Randers brought in the experience and authority of someone that has been in these debates for almost 50 years, but who is somehow now disillusioned. I hopefully brought in the enthusiasm of the ‘youth’ (sic), and I was rightly reminded that we are not reinventing the wheel. The newcomers, like myself, definitively stand on the shoulders of our predecessors. However, during the debate I did my best to make the case for degrowth, and argue that we need to focus on degrowth and not just limits to growth, or moving ‘beyond’ growth. Let me explain how I understand degrowth.

In the article What is degrowth?, we conclude that “Generally degrowth challenges the hegemony of growth and calls for a democratically led redistributive downscaling of production and consumption in industrialised countries as a means to achieve environmental sustainability, social justice and wellbeing.”

© Bàrbara Castro Urío (labarbara.net)

Degrowth is not an end, but a means. The focus should be not only on less but on different (see image above). Degrowth, as a term, was first used by Andre Gorz in 1972. It was then launched as an activist slogan in France at the beginning the 2000s in reaction to the failure of sustainable development, seen as an oxymoron.

Degrowth is the hypothesis that we can live well with less. It is about imagining and enacting alternative visions to modern growth-based development. Alternative, better, or greener development is simply not enough – including sustainable development and all its reincarnations such as green economy, green growth or circular economy. Else, economic growth is not compatible with sustainability, no matter how you rephrase it.

However, degrowth is not only about ecological sustainability. In London, I stressed that its prognosis (why degrowth?) includes a variety of sources, such as democracy, justice, meaning of life, spirituality and care. We shall not compromise on any of these. For example, the theory of degrowth rules out entertaining the possibility of an ecological dictatorship in the name of enforcing limits that people otherwise are not willing to voluntary impose upon themselves. The socio-ecological transformation has to come from the people, and to the people, or it won’t happen. So any definition of degrowth must take into account all these concerns.

Degrowth as a word is an act of détournement (French for “rerouting” or “hijacking”); a technique developed in the 1950s by the Situationist International consisting in turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself. Today’s most famous example is the work done by Adbusters in modifying advertisements in order to subvert their meaning. Some see degrowth as punk, but the battle will have been won when the ideas behind degrowth have become pop(ular) and changed the imagination and commonsense of everyone, not just the punks. This is hard work and people like Kate Raworth or Tim Jackson have done the most on bringing the degrowth concept to the mainstream, including into the Parliaments.

But is such a political entry possible? Degrowth has certainly already had an impact, at least in South Europe, where prime ministers like Nicolas Sarkozy and Matteo Renzi felt at least the need to address it, even if only to dismiss it. Widely debated in the media, at the moment it receives the support of at least three contemporary European political leaders, including Juan Carlos Monedero of Podemos in Spain, Beppe Grillo of Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy and Benoit Hamon, ex minister of social and solidarity economy and current candidate for the French Parti socialiste presidential primary.

Elsewhere it is happening too; for example the senator Cristovam Buarque praised degrowth at the Brazilian congress in 2010. This is not so much a new phenomenon, but a revival of the 1970s limits to growth debate. For example, in 1972 Sicco Mansholt, a Dutch social-democrat who was then EU Commissioner for agriculture, wrote a letter to the President Malfatti, urging him to seriously take into account limits to growth in the EU economic policy. Mansholt himself became President after only two months, but for a too short term to push a zero (or below) growth agenda.

There is no doubt that there are numerous obstacles for degrowth to make headways to politics. However, the ongoing 2008 financial crisis has helped revive this debate, and has deeply changed citizens’ opinion about the economy. A recent study by colleagues on the public views on the relation between economic growth, the environment and prosperity in Spain shows that although a majority still views growth and environmental sustainability as compatible (green growth), about one-third prefers either ignoring growth as a policy aim (agrowth), or stopping it altogether (degrowth). Only very few people want growth unconditionally (growth-at-all-costs). Difficult to determine what drives citizens’ opinion, and whether Pope Francis pleading for degrowth helps. The question remains why if there is a ‘constituency; of a sort that is willing to entertain the critique of degrowth, why are there so few politicians daring to speak to it?

Last autumn, we organized a debate in Budapest on ‘degrowth in the parliaments‘ with four MPs from different EU countries discussing the challenges they have faced promoting degrowth within their parties and parliaments (it can be watched here). There are also efforts of developing degrowth policy proposals, like the ones by the collective Research & Degrowth, to which I belong. I shall also mention the field of ecological macroeconomics, of which Tim Jackson is a prominent figure. For example, we – at Research & Degrowth – are working on a macroeconomic model based on Tim’s models to explore the opportunities of generating employment in a post-growth scenario in the EU. Our book, Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, (now published in ten languages), explores some of those opportunities and also ideas around a basic income, debt audit, public money, work time reduction and work sharing.

In conclusion, let me outline our hypothesis. If growth has been a central pillar of stability in wealthy countries throughout the 20th century, then it is reasonable to argue that its lack in growth-oriented societies might create instability. I propose to read under this light too, but of course not only, the recent emerging political conjuncture, from Trump to Brexit, including a generalized rise of the authoritarian right.

Even the IMF argues that we might have entered into a new phase of low growth potential, especially in wealthy economies. This has been called New Normal, New Mediocre, or Secular Stagnation. The Wall Street Journal recently argued that: “In Europe, as in the U.S., voters are angry at political elites and frustrated by slow growth”. This places the end of growth right at the centre of 21st Century politics – inside and outside the parliaments.

For how long will we keep sacrificing everything in the name of growth, with austerity policies? How far will the mainstream be able to support growth’s mirage? And how – and who – is going to challenge the discontent emerging out of slow growth in growth’s societies? Can we give this frustration a new meaning and direction, other than that of closure and phobia?

Welcome to the new era of post-growth politics. As Tim Jackson and Peter Victor argued in The New York Times: “Imagining a world without growth is among the most vital and urgent tasks for society to engage in.”

So we start a new year with the knowledge that degrowth has now entered into the Parliament, and hopefully it is here to stay. We have just started and we recognise the challenges remain huge and sometimes seem insurmountable. The degrowth community wants to face the challenges. And in the House of Commons I was pleased to see we share the challenges and the tasks ahead with powerful companions.

Federico Demaria is an ecological economist at the Environmental Science and Technology Institute, Autonomous University of Barcelona. He is a member of Research & Degrowth, and co-editor of Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, (Routledge, 2015; vocabulary.degrowth.org).

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