News, Republished pieces

Degrowth: New Roots for the Economy

Re-imagining the Future After the Corona Crisis

The Coronavirus pandemic has already taken countless lives and it is uncertain how it will develop in the future. While people on the front lines of healthcare and basic social provisioning are fighting against the spread of the virus, caring for the sick and keeping essential operations running, a large part of the economy has come to a standstill. This situation is numbing and painful for many, creating fear and anxiety about those we love and the communities we are part of, but it is also a moment to collectively bring new ideas forward.

Logo for #NewRoots

The crisis triggered by the Coronavirus has already exposed many weaknesses of our growth-obsessed capitalist economy – insecurity for many, healthcare systems crippled by years of austerity and the undervaluation of some of the most essential professions. This system, rooted in exploitation of people and nature, which is severely prone to crises, was nevertheless considered normal. Although the world economy produces more than ever before, it fails to take care of humans and the planet, instead the wealth is hoarded and the planet is ravaged. Millions of children die every year from preventable causes, 820 million people are undernourished, biodiversity and ecosystems are being degraded and greenhouse gases continue to soar, leading to violent anthropogenic climate change: sea level rise, devastating storms, droughts and fires that devour entire regions.

For decades, the dominant strategies against these ills were to leave economic distribution largely to market forces and to lessen ecological degradation through decoupling and green growth. This has not worked. We now have an opportunity to build on the experiences of the Corona crisis: from new forms of cooperation and solidarity that are flourishing, to the widespread appreciation of basic societal services like health and care work, food provisioning and waste removal. The pandemic has also led to government actions unprecedented in modern peacetime, demonstrating what is possible when there is a will to act: the unquestioned reshuffling of budgets, mobilization and redistribution of money, rapid expansion of social security systems and housing for the homeless.

At the same time, we need to be aware of the problematic authoritarian tendencies on the rise like mass surveillance and invasive technologies, border closures, restrictions on the right of assembly, and the exploitation of the crisis by disaster capitalism. We must firmly resist such dynamics, but not stop there. To start a transition towards a radically different kind of society, rather than desperately trying to get the destructive growth machine running again, we suggest to build on past lessons and the abundance of social and solidarity initiatives that have sprouted around the world these past months. Unlike after the 2008 financial crisis, we should save people and the planet rather than bail out the corporations, and emerge from this crisis with measures of sufficiency instead of austerity.

We, the signatories of this letter, therefore offer five principles for the recovery of our economy and the basis of creating a just society. To develop new roots for an economy that works for all, we need to:

1) Put life at the centre of our economic systems.

Instead of economic growth and wasteful production, we must put life and well-being at the centre of our efforts. While some sectors of the economy, like fossil fuel production, military and advertising, have to be phased out as fast as possible, we need to foster others, like healthcare, education, renewable energy and ecological agriculture.

2) Radically reevaluate how much and what work is necessary for a good life for all.

We need to put more emphasis on care work and adequately value the professions that have proven essential during the crisis. Workers from destructive industries need access to training for new types of work that is regenerative and cleaner, ensuring a just transition. Overall, we have to reduce working time and introduce schemes for work-sharing.

3) Organize society around the provision of essential goods and services.

While we need to reduce wasteful consumption and travel, basic human needs, such as the right to food, housing and education have to be secured for everyone through universal basic services or universal basic income schemes. Further, a minimum and maximum income have to be democratically defined and introduced.

4) Democratize society.

This means enabling all people to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. In particular, it means more participation for marginalized groups of society as well as including feminist principles into politics and the economic system. The power of global corporations and the financial sector has to be drastically reduced through democratic ownership and oversight. The sectors related to basic needs like energy, food, housing, health and education need to be decommodified and definancialised. Economic activity based on cooperation, for example worker cooperatives, has to be fostered.

5) Base political and economic systems on the principle of solidarity.

Redistribution and justice – transnational, intersectional and intergenerational – must be the basis for reconciliation between current and future generations, social groups within countries as well as between countries of the Global South and Global North. The Global North in particular must end current forms of exploitation and make reparations for past ones. Climate justice must be the principle guiding a rapid social-ecological transformation.

As long as we have an economic system that is dependent on growth, a recession will be devastating. What the world needs instead is Degrowth – a planned yet adaptive, sustainable, and equitable downscaling of the economy, leading to a future where we can live better with less. The current crisis has been brutal for many, hitting the most vulnerable hardest, but it also gives us the opportunity to reflect and rethink. It can make us realize what is truly important and has demonstrated countless potentials to build upon. Degrowth, as a movement and a concept, has been reflecting on these issues for more than a decade and offers a consistent framework for rethinking society based on other values, such as sustainability, solidarity, equity, conviviality, direct democracy and enjoyment of life.

Join us in these debates and share your ideas at Degrowth Vienna 2020 and the Global Degrowth Day – to construct an intentional and emancipatory exit from our growth addictions together!

In solidarity,

The open letter working group: Nathan Barlow, Ekaterina Chertkovskaya, Manuel Grebenjak, Vincent Liegey, François Schneider, Tone Smith, Sam Bliss, Constanza Hepp, Max Hollweg, Christian Kerschner, Andro Rilović, Pierre Smith Khanna, Joëlle Saey-Volckrick

This letter is the result of a collaborative process within the degrowth international network. It has been signed by more than 1,100 experts and over 70 organizations from more than 60 countries.
See all signatories here

You can find the translations of the open letter here:

Catalan
Croatian
Danish
Dutch
French
German
Greek
Hungarian
Italian
Korean
Mandarin
Portuguese
Russian
Slovenian
Spanish
Swedish
Turkish

You can find the press release here

Republished pieces, Uncategorized

This Pandemic as an Opening for a Care-Full Radical Transformation

We are delighted to republish this piece, collaboratively written by roughly 40 scholars and activists affiliated with the Feminisms and Degrowth Alliance (FaDA), a network that aims at making feminist reasoning an integral part of degrowth.  More information about FADA in the endnote.

Collaborative Feminist Degrowth: Pandemic as an Opening for a Care-Full Radical Transformation

The crisis we face as a global community must be understood not only as a public health crisis, or as an economic crisis of the capitalist mode of production, but also, fundamentally, as a crisis of the reproduction of life. In this sense, it is a crisis of care: the work of caring for humans, non-humans, and the shared biosphere.

The pandemic is a historical rupture. It’s also an opening for reworlding––as one recent meme says, “There is no going back to normal because “normal” was the problem.” As a group of activists and scholars from the Feminisms and Degrowth Alliance (FaDA)1, we take this opportunity to reflect on how we can, from our diverse positions, face this moment, organize, and collectively imagine radical alternative modes of living: those with more time for community, relationship building, and care for each other as well as the non-human world.

This collaborative reflection is motivated by the following concerns: First we would like to stress that this crisis is NOT our degrowth. Secondly, we want to clarify what an intentional (feminist) degrowth project means, and why it is more necessary now than ever. Thirdly, we want to bring attention to dimensions of care and reproductive work that have been so centrally relied upon, yet so invisible and neglected, in this pandemic. Finally, we want to offer proposals for how this crisis can help us move towards care-full economies in the long term.

GDP is plummeting, resource use exploitation and pollution are declining, CO2 emissions have fallen, and in some places non-human life is able to reinhabit spaces made through diminished human activity. At a first glance, these items might read like a degrowthers’ or environmentalists’ wishlist, and yet we want to underline that the slowdown in the global economy provoked by the pandemic is NOT to be confused with feminist degrowth. On the contrary, some responses by dominant actors present worrisome and dangerous paths within surveillance, authoritarianism, and ecofascism. As the slogan proclaimed in the context of the last financial crisis: “your austerity is not our degrowth.”

Economic recessions or depressions are crises, they are not equitable to care-full social transformations, and they serve nothing to disentangle economic models from biophysical impossibilities of indefinite capitalist growth. Feminist degrowth embodies the vision of a radical transformation towards a just, sustainable, and convivial society brought about by voluntary change. Degrowth is an umbrella term for visions of doing economies otherwise, in ways which do not have growth and accumulation as their overriding aim but instead focus on care, well-being, conviviality, solidarity, provisioning economies, commons and commoning, and a concern for equality, human flourishing, and meeting basic needs as defined in context. It is rooted in collective, and democratic decision making.

Responses to the crisis in some quarters have included a much-needed re-evaluation of public collective goods and infrastructures, and an acknowledgment of government’s capacity and responsibility to provide for their citizens2, moves on which we want to build. However, we must be wary and vigilant against other visions seeking to capitalize on this moment that may mobilize inequality, authoritarianism, austerity, and repression. This includes Silicon Valley fantasies of provisioning to those who can afford it via Amazon drones, the fortification of global hyper-surveillance states, and a further deregulation of wage work which is already being implemented in many places. Many who are dropped from formal, more stable employment in the context of this crisis will not recover it afterwards, as countries pass special legislation allowing precarious contracts and short-time work in order to “save” businesses. Meanwhile, interventions to flatten the curve of contagion rely on repression including militarization of countries such as Ecuador, India, and Kenya, to enforce physical distancing in absence of a functional public health system, opening the way for recurrent human rights violations.

Our intervention therefore asks: how can we use this moment to democratically rebuild social organization of labor and care work? To reconstruct the realm of public welfare that has been so depleted by decades of neoliberalism, austerity, structural adjustment, and the privatization of education and healthcare? How can this opening lead our economies towards emancipation from the grips of the growth paradigm founded in heteropatriarchal capitalist principles? A feminist degrowth project calls for an end to the subalternization of reproduction in service to the realm of production.

We suggest here some priorities behind an intentional degrowth informed by a democratic and feminist approach that empowers all facets of society to engage, mobilize, and transform:

1. Towards a Provisioning Economy: Recognize and regenerate social and ecological reproductive capacities

As all but essential services are locked down, this crisis invites us to (re)consider the nature of the essential and the superfluous. As “productive” enterprises are shuttered, the material bases that sustain and regenerate life and that which we cannot live without are starkly emphasized. Some have termed those material bases the provisioning economy, one which provides what people actually need for their well-being and reproduction. This refocusing on basic material needs has sparked appreciation for the farmers who grow our food, to the supermarket workers who stack the shelves.

This capacity to provide is further based on the maintenance, recycling, repair, and restoration of environmental, infrastructural and social resources. These undergird social and environmental reproduction and are sometimes termed the reproductive economy––the work done to reproduce ourselves. It includes unpaid work in the home, as well the protection, regeneration and defense of the ecological capacities to reproduce life, often led by peasants, activists and Indigenous peoples who engage in care-full work and struggles to feed the soil, to keep water sources free from contamination and air unpolluted. Their reproductive and care labor has been considered free of charge and available for exploitation, while the including air, water, and soil fertility have been long considered a “free gift” to capitalism.

Focusing on provisioning and the reproductive economy brings economics back to its core. The word economics comes from the Greek oikonomia, which means administration of the household. A feminist degrowth calls for restructuring our economy to shift the emphasis from the production of things to feed the growth imperative and endless desires, and towards the reproduction and provisioning of life and meeting needs. It is crucial to foster this provisioning set-up of economic practice––without romanticizing ideas of the ‘local’ or forgetting gendered impacts of any economic transformation.

The sustainability of life should constitute the main goal of social organization. This requires the recognition, regeneration and strengthening of social and ecological reproductive capacities as well as a transformation of markets and modes of exchange as modes of provisioning.

Therefore, we urgently call for a society that not only stays within planetary boundaries, but replenishes and boosts both social and ecological reproductive capacities. One example are food systems based on small peasant agriculture or community supported organic agriculture which both increase local resilience, support the regeneration of the soil and reduce dependence on global supply chains.

2. Home as a site of production and reproduction

“I stay at home because I care for the vulnerable” is a common phrase we hear to promote physical distancing (problematically called social distancing) in this uniquely uncertain time. Unpacking this call for retreat into the domestic sphere as an act of caring brings up multiple questions. Who gets to stay home safely? Who are the vulnerable? And how can we care for others beyond isolation?

Firstly, we should note that the home as refuge is made luxury under existing capitalist social organization. The wealthy are those who have the luxury to shelter in place and maintain their salaries, the disadvantaged less so. In some cases, their work cannot be done from home. Some have to go out to care for others. Others don’t have a home at all. The virus, like pollution, is not democratic. It discriminates across structural inequalities, modulated by forms of oppression and discrimination which cumulate and interlock across gender, race, class, (dis)ability, age, and place, among others. Men are dying in higher numbers due to Covid-19 across all locations. In the US, black communities are more impacted, to give only some examples.

Further, the home is not always a safe space. Measures to restrict movement confine vulnerable people to the same space with their abusers leading to increasing levels of domestic violence against mainly women and children. As employers expect people to do care work and wage work at the same time, either in home offices, in their factories or on their fields, while replacing teachers at home, without due attention, gendered divisions of labor become ever more defined and unequal. This collision of wage work and care work in the home has starkly revealed what feminist scholars have always pointed out: that the household has always been a work-place and that the workplace depends on the household whether or not they are the same place or different places.

Finally, we must ask how we can center care for each other and our communities and social solidarity while maintaining physical distance. How can the conviviality and solidarity integral to degrowth thrive over alienation in these moments? While the state assumes that all households are made up of hetero-patriarchal families, and these will serve as safety nets to absorb the social and economic dislocations of this crisis; the reality is that in many countries, the most common household type is a single person.

This atomization means that forms of practical solidarity and, in fact, social proximity are needed. All over the world, communities are building support and care networks that reach beyond the heteropatriarchal nuclear family, and that support and interconnect members of non-nuclear family households, which make up the majority in every country. We share the enthusiasm of anarchist thinkers for affinity groups as one model for recreating networks of “odd-kin” rather than “god-kin” (in Haraway’s words) for surviving the virus. They suggest that by choosing a group of people you trust and with whom you share similar risk factors and levels of risk tolerance, we can joyously engage in togetherness and care now to preserve our mental and physical health. Such affinity groups can then be connected in broader groups of mutual aid which can engage in broader practical solidarity with the homeless, migrants and refugees, and collective mobilization and support for each other’s struggles and resistance––from rent strikes and labor movements to direct solidarity with care workers, LGBTIQA+ and prisoners´ rights groups.

Creating these networks of care now, beyond our homes, can overcome alienation and provide fertile ground for the necessary collective mobilization to create the futures we want in this historic moment. Further it can help us imagine more collective ways to organize the reproduction of their lives, while relying on commoning, community resources and attending community needs.

3. Towards a Caring Economy. Care Labor and Care Income

In most countries today, the majority of nurses, health aids, and child-care workers are women, while essential positions where men are concentrated include hospital orderlies, garbage collectors, agricultural laborers, doctors, delivery-people, and others. Many of these essential positions are occupied by informalized, undocumented, or migrant workers. As such, these workers face specific difficulties accessing public health and welfare services. If they fall sick they likely will still have to continue to work. So they also face greater risk of being fired or criminalized, as in many cases they will be forced to choose between hunger and health.

We consider degrowth a question of regeneration. While many aspects of our global economy need to degrow, some critical democratic infrastructures, such as infrastructures of care, will have to flourish. Therefore, we need to invest in transformative policies that center around the (re)production of life and the commoning of care. In a feminist degrowth future, the provision of community, domestic, and environmental care beyond the market and the state will be based on radically different logics than profit maximization, competition, or efficiency. We therefore also call for the socialization of all universal health care, the socialization of utilities, the decommodification of food, housing, medicines, education, and other basic services.

This pandemic has raised the pitch of calls for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), by actors ranging from Pope Francis to the Spanish Parliament and US tech venture capitalist Andrew Yang. Defined as a modest sum paid monthly to each resident to secure conditions of life, the UBI has been advocated as part of wide-ranging visions and purposes. Degrowth aligns with those proposals that seek material conditions that can liberate individuals from exploitative employment, support transformation away from environmentally-damaging regimes, and help move beyond battles of jobs vs. environment toward politics that address viable livelihoods as inseparable from a sustainable earth.

As feminist advocates of degrowth, we propose a Universal Care Income that builds on and differs from other proposals by foregrounding the social recognition of unpaid and gendered care work that we all perform to sustain the life and wellbeing of households and communities. Care income seeks to foster equity and solidarity by conceptualizing this income as an investment out of common wealth in capacities for all citizens to take care of ourselves, our kin, and others. For example, we support the call for a care income by the Global Women’s Strike (GWS) and Women of Color GWS, which urges governments to recognize the indispensable role of (re)productive work of life and survival, that we now depend on even more than ever.

4. Towards a Solidarity Economy

In the immediacy of the pandemic, we need to strengthen existing affinity groups, mutual aid networks, and all related efforts. We acknowledge that solidarity comes in many forms. Therefore, we need to support each other’s struggles and resistance––from rent strikes and labor movements, to direct mutual aid solidarity with precarious care workers, unhoused persons, and prisoners. In recognition of the enduring coloniality of North-South relations, a global foreign debt relief for states in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

We need long-term structural solutions to protect those who are vulnerable. We need shelters, sanctuaries and direct support for refugees, undocumented people, and the homeless. We also need the decarceration of immigrant detention centers and prisons, as a proven proliferation ground for community spread magnified by systemic human rights abuses, and as a further claim for a united effort for care-full transformation. Care-based crises can’t be solved by mass incarceration, or the closure of national borders. Degrowth is about planetary thresholds, not borders. The pandemic shows us that life (and its backside, death) does not recognize borders, but it does hinge on limits, for example, as deforestation from agro-industry incurs into forestlands and viruses jump from displaced wildlife to livestock and then to humans.

For now, world leaders are focusing on saving the economy. They need to focus instead on saving the biosphere, by way of swift policies like a solidarity-based Global Green New Deal. We don’t need to choose between jobs or climate protection, nor do we want to return back to ‘normal’ life or business as usual. The pandemic reveals that climate policy will require a much wiser, better-organized approach than ‘normal’. Given the global climate thresholds we have already unleashed, this concerns everybody’s survival although vulnerabilities vary strongly: while the resulting crises are distant and punctual for the privileged, their effects are disproportionate on the most vulnerable.

The pandemic offers an unprecedented, vital insight: the true, total interdependence of all humans on the biosphere. It reveals the interdependent and systemic way in which we must transform economies in the face of the growing climate and environmental emergencies to foreground care for humans and the environment. We need an economics based first and foremost in care, stewardship, cooperation, sharing, and commoning. For industrialized societies, this means vast resource and wealth redistribution, sweeping protection of ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as degrowth, and decarbonization of the economy. This must include social and environmental justice that make up for centuries of coloniality and plunder.

Change needs to be systemic to match the scale of the emergency and the inequalities uncovered and reproduced by the pandemic. This crisis can and should be used as a collective learning point for a transformation towards an alternative feminist degrowth future.
We demand a more care-full world!

Footnotes

1. Launched in September 2016 at the 5th International Degrowth Conference in Budapest. We are an inclusive network of academics and activists that aims to foster a dialogue among feminists and degrowth proponents, and to make feminist reasoning an integral part of degrowth activism and scholarship.
2. Ireland’s nationalizing of its health system is one such example.

Author: This piece is collaboratively written by roughly 40 scholars and activists affiliated with the Feminisms and Degrowth Alliance (FaDA), a network that aims at making feminist reasoning an integral part of degrowth. You can subscribe by sending an email to fada-subscribe@lists.riseup.net. Also, you can visit our FaDA project space on degrowth.info, follow us on twitter, or write to the coordination group at fada-feminismsanddegrowth@riseup.net.

Participants in conversations leading to this text include among others Amanda Mercedes Gigler, Anna Saave, Barbara Muraca, Corinna Dengler, Dominique Just, Eeva Houtbeckers, Emily Rose McDonald, Evi Curu, Federico Demaria, Giacomo D’Alisa, Janina Dannenberg, Jennifer Wells, Leah Temper, Lina Hansen, Lindsay Barbieri, Manuela Zechner, Maria Consuelo Revilla Nebreda, Marisol Bock, Megan Egler, Miriam Lang, Natalia Avlona, Patricia Susial Martín, Rebecca Rutt, Sophie Sanniti, Sourayan Mookerjea, Stefania Barca, Susan Paulson, Teal George, Wojtek Mejor.

Republished pieces

Access to land plus a participation income could change the world

by Samuel Alexander and Alex Baumann

Our civilisation is facing an alarming barrage of overlapping crises, together presenting an existential threat to life as we know it. Climate breakdown is intensifying; we are decimating wildlife populations; and more generally the life-support system called Earth is trembling under the weight of overconsumption.

Just as concerning are the social consequences. The global economic system has produced deep, socially corrosive inequalities; poverty around the world is extreme; and worst of all, perhaps, is that even those who are ‘winning the rat race’ so often find that the promises of consumer lifestyles are unfulfilling.

Too much ink has been spilt already criticising this broken system. What about solutions and creative responses? In words often attributed to Albert Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same kinds of thinking that caused them.

In this article we’d like to offer some new thinking: a policy proposal that we feel has the potential to be transformative. At its simplest, our proposal involves providing self-selecting unemployed public housing residents with a basic, living wage. With housing and other basic needs secured, the goal would be to enable these public residents to participate voluntarily in the creation of ‘simple living’ communities and neighbourhoods that are sustainable, resilient, and consistent with human flourishing.

If successful, proposal is that these initial examples could be scaled up to support the economically ‘redundant’ and attract progressives across the political divide as a viable alternative for a sustainable society. Central to this vision is the recognition that access to land, just as with air and water, is not a market product. It is a human right and should be recognised as such. 

We need land to live simply

The great 19th century philosopher of ‘simple living’ Henry David Thoreau spent two years living on the shores of Walden Pond, where he built himself a small abode, grew his own food, and generally lived an abundant life of voluntary simplicity.

Thoreau also wrote an amazing book called Walden, in which he presented a fiery critique of the emerging consumer culture in the United States and a beautiful defence of simple living. Both his example and his words are inspiring – and, in an age of overconsumption, more important today than ever before. In a key passage, he writes:

I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.   

But Thoreau’s living experiment at Walden Pond depended on access to land, which is the prime barrier to people living simply and sustainable today. It is hard to follow his example of sufficiency-based living, even for those of us who want to. After all, most of us have to work full time in an unsustainable growth economy just to afford somewhere to live. 

The huge cost of land and housing has significant implications, affecting what we do for work, how much we work, our need for a car, and a range of other consumer habits. Our economy has developed in such perverse ways (particularly when it comes to land cost) that we are often locked into high-impact consumerist lifestyles.  

There is absolutely no way affluent consumption practices of the developed regions of the world can be globalised to all 7.7 billion people on the planet today, let alone the 9.7 billion expected by 2050. Technology alone cannot solve this ecological contradiction. If we are to respond effectively to the overlapping crises of our times, we need to empower individuals, households, and communities to transcend consumer culture and embrace a ‘simpler way’ of life, like Henry Thoreau.

Our policy would enable low-impact living for more people, by providing access to land (in the form of secure housing) and a ‘participation income’ – a Walden Wage, if you like.

Let us explain how it could work.   

Access to Land is Fundamental: Unpacking the Vision  

At its simplest, the Walden Wage is similar to a ‘voluntary-work-for-the-dole’ scheme – but with a twist and a grand vision that we will share. The policy’s most important feature is linking a secure but modest income with access to public land and housing.

This housing and income option would be offered (at first) to unemployed people who are already in, or on the top of the waiting list for, public housing. These public residents would ‘self-select’ to be involved in around 15 hours per week of local community programs, like growing food, maintaining the neighbourhood, facilitating sharing schemes, or even building new homes.   

In other words, the Walden Wage would provide a ‘participation income’ for jobless public residents wanting to engage in the necessary work of creating new forms of sufficiency-based living, enabled by access to land.

The ‘wage’ part of this scheme has some similarity to the notion of a ‘basic income’, which is being talked about a lot these days. However, there are some critical differences. The primary difference is that it would be offered, not universally, but only in the context of public housing and community development – as a minimal and sustainable living wage. This would make it affordable to governments, and since it is linked to access to public land and housing, people receiving the Walden Wage would not find themselves needing to ‘top up’ their incomes by engaging in an unsustainable growth economy in any significant way.

Interestingly, the fact that this income (through the voluntary-work-for the-dole-scheme) it is already available (in Australia) for unemployed people who are over 55, demonstrates that it has already been deemed affordable by government. And, unlike the UBI, it would neither be universal (i.e. paid to all citizens) nor promote or depend on a limitless growth economy to fund it. Indeed, a Walden Wage would function to support the building of a new form of sustainable economy, based on a new land governance arrangement and sufficiency-based, community economies. If over 55s could show a viable pilot, we believe this option could easily be extended to under 55s who are unemployed in public housing.

Land, we should add, would still be owned by the Commonwealth, and residents would pay 25% of their income in rent. Without having the expense of private land and housing, a modest participation income is all that would be required to live well. If we assume that income is a rough proxy for environmental impact, we can also say that the Walden Wage would imply roughly an 85% reduction in impacts compared to the national average, on the basis that the dole ($489.70 per fortnight) is roughly 15% of the average Australian income.

Given the security of public housing and the many benefits of local collaborative development, this wage could be sufficient and even desirable. If shown to be viable, it’s a way of living that represents a massive reduction in market dependence and certainly puts it in the ballpark of global sustainability.

The Benefits and Prospects

The best thing about this seemingly radical idea is that it isn’t actually that radical. With the right supports, it could actually begin now – given that the policy settings are already in place to allow public residents, who are over 55, to self-select into voluntary-work-for-the-dole programs. Such a pilot, if well-conceived, could show that access to land plus a participation income could help build new forms of sustainable economy.  If this pilot showed some success, it’s not hard to see how one pilot could turn into two, and even be offered to some willing participants who were under 55.

The next phase could be slightly more ambitious. If governments could provide some more land, these public residents could not just develop community economies around existing public housing projects, but actually participate in the building of their own homes, in collaboration with others, and under the guidance of experts. This would also reduce pressure on existing public housing, giving others the opportunity to participate in this scheme.

Also, providing these public residents with such an opportunity, coupled with a voluntary-work–for-the-dole scheme (reframed as the Walden Wage), represents a shift many on the political right would want too, in the direction of less passive and more active forms of ‘welfare’.

In fact, this policy would totally reframe welfare for those who self-select.  If such an opportunity could be encouraged, the identity we give to public housing tenants who participate could begin to be uplifted and even celebrated. Their status in society, and how they might conceive of themselves, could move from being regarded as ‘social dependants’ to ‘pioneers of a new, social economy’.

What if things scaled up?

As more people are cast into unemployment by the automation of jobs, the globalisation of labour, or the phasing-out of high impact industries like fossil fuel power stations, it is highly likely that more and more people will require a new and sustainable housing and community development option like the one being proposed here. For this reason, we need bold new thinking and action now – and the courage to experiment with new housing and living arrangements. 

With the community economies we envision becoming increasingly self-reliant, it is not hard to see how this proposal, that started with the unemployed in public housing, could expand to include the growing numbers who have found themselves alienated from the market. This is where things get really interesting and where our policy shows most promise.

Once this local and cooperative sector of the economy started to flourish, we could imagine the sustainability dream coming into fruition – bike lanes weaving their way through food forests, with a few shared electric vehicles available for occasional use when necessary. We can imagine renewable energy micro-grids and large water tanks supporting these new communities on public land. And we can imagine people enriched by the process of participating in the building of their own sustainable homes (e.g. mudbrick), under expert supervision, and in collaboration with others. Soon enough, these pioneers (being liberated from a market mortgage or rent) would be living as free citizens in a thriving, local economy of sufficiency

This work building new sustainable communities would ‘earn’ or justify the small participation income, providing many benefits – not only to participants, but also to the broader neigbourhood. Through the participants 15 hours per week in local sustainable productivity (professionally run community gardens, resource share and repair programs etc.), many neighbours could opt to be involved and enjoy collaborative benefits. Neighbours could also enjoy a greater sense of community connectedness. Very importantly, all neighbours would also benefit from a much more sustainable future! 

Empirical studies show that that some simple living communities and strategies can reduce ecological impacts by up to 90% or more, which is arguably the scale of downshifting needed to bring developed nations within sustainable limits of the planet. Our policy provides an essential key to helping such sustainable communities and neighbourhoods proliferate, namely, by empowering people with access to land (thereby freeing them from the lifelong debt of the mortgage / rent and everything that goes along with it).

Over time, as the realities of globalised labour, technological job redundancy and environmental limits to consumer growth really start to kick in, why should we not imagine thousands of these ecovillages emerging within existing societies? If this happened, we might at last see the planned contraction of energy and resource demands that is so clearly necessary for any ‘degrowth’ transition to sustainable, steady state economy.  

Let governments be as ambitious as the Senegalese government, which is has announced a plan to establish and support 14,000 ecovillages.

Build a new model

Our wager, then, is this: if people are provided with affordable rent through public land and housing opportunities to undertake their own sufficiency-based living experiments like Henry Thoreau, then many people would do so. Access to land liberates people from market growth and facilitates ways of living consistent with degrowth.  At the very least, it makes sense to support all willing pioneers and encourage their skill development and empower them to build new worlds within the shell of the old.

As Buckminster Fuller once said: ‘You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.’

This is a republished version of an article first published on The Fifth Estate.

Dr Samuel Alexander is a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs and researcher with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne. Most of his writing is freely available at: samuelalexander.info 

Dr Alex Baumann lectures in Sustainable Futures at the University of Western Sydney. He is also involved with the ‘Neighbourhood That Works’ sustainability project. 

Critique, Republished pieces

Open letter to Fridays For A Future. It’s time for action, but, what action?

Open letter by Marga Mediavilla to Fridays For A Future.  reposted from 15/15\15.

“There is one thing that worries me. In your speeches on climate change you can find demands for very ambitious decarbonization objectives…..

According to my knowledge and according to the studies we are making in our group, such ambitious goals as these would require very drastic measures which go far beyond the usual proposals such as investment in renewable energy, electric vehicles or energy saving and efficiency.

Therefore, I think we have to be very realistic about the decarbonization objectives and the measures we demand in order to achieve them. If we do not, our leaders can happily silence the protests, by using exclusively technological cosmetic measures that do not solve anything, and the hopes of many young people with good intentions may be frustrated.” 

Mediavilla goes on to explore decarbonisation scenarios using the MEDEAS simulation model.  The findings indicate the relevance of the degrowth perspective rather than technological optimism.

Read the whole post HERE.

Climate strikers in Manchester
Climate strike protesters in Manchester last September

books, Republished pieces

Utopian thinking in the ether: an interview with Boris Frankel

This interesting interview appeared in the Australian journal, Overland. It is relevant to many of the concerns discussed here. Frankel’s open access book, Fictions of Sustainability, is very good.

Thanks to Zacharias Szumer for this. Here is the beginning of the interview – follow the link at the end for the rest of it.

Is utopian thinking akin to casting a net into the ether – collecting the unimaginable and dragging it into the realm of the possible? Or, by neglecting to consider any parameters of the possible, is it a fanciful distraction from meaningful politics? Well, perhaps it depends on the type of utopian thinking. In Fictions of Sustainability: The Politics of Growth and Post-Capitalist Futures, social theorist Boris Frankel takes aim at certain types of utopian thinking: proposals that he argues are unrealisable or unsustainable regardless of whether political obstacles have been removed or transformed.  Throughout the book, which was released earlier this year, Professor Frankel seeks to ask the difficult questions surrounding concepts such as green growth, degrowth and post-scarcity, not with the aim of opposing radical solutions, but to facilitate the development of more plausible and effective policies. Political-economic dilettante Zacharias Szumer met with Frankel recently to try to get his head around this somewhat heavy going but important book.  

ZS: In the conclusion of Fictions of Sustainability, you write that one of your aims in writing the book was to “bridge the political and theoretical chasm or ‘analytical apartheid’ that characterizes so much socio-economic policy on the one side and environmental analyses on the other.” What do you mean by analytical apartheid? And how did you attempt to bridge this chasm?

BF: In the past, conservatives, liberal Keynesians, Marxists and anarchists were divided over how to analyse capitalism and debated its virtues and failings. Today, it is not enough to have a knowledge of political economy, whatever the political perspective, if it excludes crucial environmental issues. On the other hand, you’ve got many people who are active and concerned about environmental issues, but who neglect political economy. The ‘analytical apartheid’ I refer to is that environmental issues cannot be separated from political economy yet, political economists and environmentalists talk past one another and rarely consider one another’s issues and positions. Despite environmental crises being highlighted for over fifty years, traditional political economists and many on the left still treat environmental issues as marginal to the main issue of capital versus labour. This is now changing. But you’ll still find many leading political economists are completely silent on environmental issues. It’s important to bridge these two worlds. Similarly, many committed environmentalists have a detailed understanding of the damage being done to so many ecological habitats and the need to transform existing consumption and production. But apart from generalised ‘wish lists’ have a very limited understanding of how existing political institutions and the economy of capitalism works. So, in order to achieve their environmental goals, it’s critical that they become more familiar with the political economic debates that have been developed by non-environmentalists.
Click this link for the full interview on Overland.

Republished pieces

The suburbs are the spiritual home of overconsumption. But they also hold the key to a better future

Repost from The Conversation

Community managed micro-allotments, Malmö (photo M Burton)

The typical suburban backyard of the future?
Retrosuburbia.com (with permission)

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne and Brendan Gleeson, University of Melbourne

Suburban affluence is the defining image of the good life under capitalism, commonly held up as a model to which all humanity should aspire.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Yet with the global economy already in gross ecological overshoot, and a world population heading for more than 11 billion, this way of living is neither fair nor sustainable.

To live within our environmental means, the richest nations will need to embrace a planned process of economic “degrowth”. This is not an unplanned recession, but a deliberate downscaling of economic activity and the closely correlated consumption of fossil energy. We don’t argue this is likely, only that it is necessary.

You might naturally assume this will involve pain and sacrifice, but we argue that a “prosperous descent” is possible. Our new book, Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary, envisions how this might unfold in the suburban landscapes that are currently emblematic of overconsumption.




Read more:
The ‘simple life’ manifesto and how it could save us


The well-known documentary The End of Suburbia presented a coherent narrative of a post-petroleum future, but got at least one thing wrong. There is not a single end to suburbia; there are many ends of suburbia (as we know it).

Reimagining the suburbs beyond fossil fuels

Suburban catastrophists such as James Kunstler argue that fossil fuel depletion will turn our suburbs into urban wastelands. But we see the suburbs as an ideal place to begin retrofitting our cities.

This won’t involve tearing them down and starting again. Typically, Australia’s built environment is turned over at less than 5% per year. The challenge is to reinhabit, not rebuild, the suburban landscape. Here are some of the key features of this reinvigorated landscape:

  • Suburbanites can and should retrofit their homes and develop new energy practices to prepare for an energy descent future.
  • Households must be encouraged to downshift consumerism, swapping superfluous “stuff” for more free time and other sources of meaning and well-being. An economics of sufficiency involves borrowing and sharing rather than always buying and upscaling.
  • We should reclaim and reimagine areas of the built environment that are misused or underused. The vast areas dedicated to car parking are but one example.
  • Finally, and most importantly, we should realise that change must come via grassroots political organisation, rather than waiting for growth-fixated governments to lead the way. This is not to deny the need for “top-down” structural change. Our argument is simply that the necessary action from governments will not arrive until there is an active culture of sufficiency that demands it.
Sharehouse food production.
Retrosuburbia.com (with permission)

What social forces might produce this necessary but elusive urban transformation? We think it can be driven by two broad social groups: the disillusioned middle class and the exploited working class. These two groups, which already blur together along a spectrum, can potentially become a cohesive urban social movement of transformative economic and political significance.

The disillusioned middle class: radical downshifters

Our first groups consists of employed professionals, bureaucrats, and tradespeople who have secure housing, earn decent wages, and can direct significant portions of their income to discretionary spending. This sector of society participates, consciously or unconsciously, in what is often called “consumer culture”.

This consumerism often fails to fulfil its promise of a rich and meaningful life. The consumer class has been sold a lie, and many affluent consumers are now developing what social scientist Ronald Inglehart calls “post-materialist” goals and values. This emerging way of life involves seeking purpose and satisfaction in life through things other than material riches, including deeper community engagement, more time to pursue private passions, or even increased political action.

This is significant, for three reasons. First, history shows that social movements tend to be sparked by dissatisfaction with the status quo – otherwise, why would people resist or seek alternatives? The deep disillusionment with materialistic lifestyles provides an incentive to explore alternative, more satisfying ways to live and self-provide.

Second, by withdrawing their spending from the market economy, this emerging social movement can undermine that economy and fast-track its transformation.

Finally, a “radical downshifting” in consumption could allow people to free up their time by working less. This will provide people with more time to participate in building new forms of economy and engaging in collective action for change. The “voluntary simplicity movement” already numbers as many as 200 million people, although its potential depends on more organised and radical expressions.

The exploited working class: economic builders

Radical downshifters will never transform the economy on their own, and this is where our second group comes in. Working-class urbanites, while also drifting into superfluous consumption, are typically characterised as individuals and households who are “battling” to make ends meet.

Again, a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo provides the incentive to seek and participate in fundamental change. We are often told that Australia’s economy has grown uninterrupted for a quarter-century, yet many people feel their personal circumstances have stagnated.

There has indeed been growth, yet almost all the benefits have been siphoned away by the wealthy. Why would the working class owe any allegiance to a system that only benefits the rich? As the battlers realise they are being oppressed and duped by an unjust system, they threaten to become a dynamite class of explosive potential.

As economic crises threaten to intensify in coming years – including the challenge of automation – we maintain that the exploited working class may be driven to explore alternative ways to self-provide. As incomes become more meagre and jobs less secure, more people will need to seek alternative ways of meeting economic needs “beyond the market”.

A suburban home complete with mini market garden means fewer trips to the shops (for your neighbours too).
Retrosuburbia.com (with permission)

Whether through necessity or choice, we foresee a growing number of people beginning to participate in informal, non-monetary, and local economies, including the sharing economy. Just as radical middle-class downshifters will help stifle economic growth by withdrawing their discretionary spending, those who are less affluent could begin to lay alternative economic foundations, and provide a post-capitalist social safety net.

Working together

We contend that these two social groups – the disillusioned middle class and the exploited working class – can conceivably form a cohesive movement with similar goals. The capitalist system isn’t working for many people, even those who are “winning” the rat race. Furthermore, historic growth trajectories seem to be coming to an end, due to both financial and ecological constraints.




Read more:
Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it


Already, a diverse range of movements are working towards a new urbanity. These include local farmers’ markets and community and home gardens, urban agriculture projects, freecycling groups, sharing communities, and repair cafes. It also includes the growing pool of climate activists, divestment organisers, permaculture groups, transitions towns, and progressive unions.

There is the small but vocal “save our suburbs” network, in which we see the seeds of something more progressive. And it includes the energy frugal households quietly moving towards solar, batteries and increased energy self-suffiency. One by one, these households are undermining the fossil fuel industry and subtly disrupting the status quo.

As financial and ecological crises deepen in coming years, the social consciousness needed to develop new systems of production and cultures of consumption will become compelling. Together these social groups (and others not yet imagined) could form an urban social movement that withdraws support for the existing system and begins building new economies on our suburban streets.The Conversation

Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne and Brendan Gleeson, Director, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

Republished pieces

Of Markets and Militaries: When will the industries of war fall silent?

by Kevin Albertson

Originally published 9 Nov, 2018 on the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) website, also 10 Nov, on the RSA site.  Here we reproduce the hyperlinked MMU version.

Professor Kevin Albertson explains how World War I has shaped economic warfare in the modern world.

#Armistice100: When will the industries of war fall silent?

Professor Kevin Albertson explains how World War I has shaped economic warfare in the modern world

Global warfare is now fought in the economic sphere
Global warfare is now fought in the economic sphere.

It is difficult to credit, one hundred years after the armistice which brought an end to the so-called “Great War” that advanced – supposedly – civilised nations had ever thought well of industrialised warfare. However, in the run up to the war, it was widely held that war was a force for good in the world, promoting evolution by rewarding the strong and brave.

Others in the establishment, for example H.G. Wells, thought war served as a useful corrective to working class aspirations for greater agency – in time of war, so it was felt, the social hierarchy would be validated. And indeed, the English aristocracy, by and large, did lead from the front, and suffered a disproportionally greater loss of life than other social classes as a result.

With hindsight, all participants agreed the war was a needless tragedy; it is not as if warnings were lacking. In 1909, Sir Norman Angell had published ‘Europe’s Optical Illusion’ – and in 1910’s The Great Illusion – in which he argued that the economic case for war had ceased to apply. In short, Angell argued that war on an industrial scale was both socially and economically irrational. He therefore expected that war between the European powers would be unlikely to begin, and would be of short duration if it did begin. Sadly, however, humanity seems to prefer to learn from experience rather than logic.

Economic theory indicates wars are likely if only one side feels they have more to gain than lose from conflict

It takes two to make a quarrel, so it is said, but economic theory indicates wars are likely if only one side feels they have more to gain than lose from conflict. Ultimately it took World War I, the war to end all wars and World War II, which we can only hope was the nuclear war to end all nuclear wars, to demonstrate to advanced nations that even the victors of such conflict gain more from peace.

There are, regrettably, wars around the world still, but slowly peace seems to be, as it were, winning out globally. The scale of this turnaround in public perception cannot be overemphasised.

The art of economic warfare

However, human greed does not sleep. The battles – or rather competitions – to take control of other nation’s resources are now fought largely in the economic sphere. The instrument of choice is the capital account deficit.

If a nation maintains such a deficit, it means that capital is flowing out of the country; somewhere in the world, domestic capitalists are acquiring foreign assets, or driving others into debt. A capital account deficit must be matched by a current account surplus, meaning that the rest of the world is, in aggregate, consuming more of the goods produced by that nation than its own citizens.

It follows citizens of the net exporting nation are, on average, enjoying a lower standard of living than they otherwise would. Their economic sacrifices (often unacknowledged) are what allows the current account surplus to continue. Economic warfare is costly, even to the victors!

Of course, pursuit of power through the market is by no means a new phenomenon. Britain, so it was once said, gained its empire in a fit of absence of mind, or rather, through capitalism and market forces, though the British were prepared to fight, if necessary to keep markets, sometimes drug markets, open. The recognition of the imperial aspects of trade is what motivated nationalists from, for example, the American revolutionaries to Ghandi to boycott British goods as part of their independence struggle.*

Is economic peace possible?

As with the recourse to the use of military force, it has long been held, and still is by some, that market forces promote morality and progress. Others argue, it is the other way about; that markets depend on, but undermine, moral constructs. Economics (and experience) indicates that unscrupulous firms are likely to be more competitive – if this were not the case, we would require no regulation or laws.

However, it is not the question of whether economic warfare promotes or impedes ethics which ought to be our concern today, but rather whether the cost of economic warfare progress, now outweighs the benefits. Beyond a certain point, further economic growth does not add to national wellbeing. Indeed, the inequality which has increased in the UK (and many other nations) alongside the four-decades long emphasis on free-markets, rather undermines wellbeing.

The benefits of further market-oriented growth appear scant; the costs, however, are increasing. From climate change, to growing evidence of the negative impact of single-use plastics, the loss of biodiversity, and the impending extinction of many species. Globally, we consume more than a sustainable world can deliver.

A world beyond “growth”

Despite many warnings the nations of the world refused to accept a little over a century ago that military forces, while useful, had reached the point where they impeded rather than facilitated progress, even viewed from a nationalist level. Today we similarly refuse to accept that market forces must also be brought to heel to serve, not destroy, our societies, nations and environment.

Perhaps a world in which the planet is not degraded in the pointless pursuit of GDP growth seems as unlikely to us today as a world without the “progress” facilitated by war seemed to our forebears. However, it is a world we can no longer afford to do without.

On Remembrance Day this year, we must aspire also to economic peace. It has been said “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realise we cannot eat money.” Let us hope it does not take this long.

*Such global mastery does not last forever, whether founded on military or market forces. the Britain of today has relatively deindustrialised and increasingly come under foreign ownership through the same means by which capitalist imperium was gained, in a fit of absence of mind, i.e., through market forces.

Read more #Armistice100 stories and expert analysis from MMU academics

 

books, Republished pieces

An economy that does not grow?

An economy that does not grow?

Mark H Burton

                                                                                                            pdf version

cover of S Lange, Macroeconomcs Without Growth - click for the publisher link

Reposted from Steady State Manchester

There is now plenty of evidence that economic growth is highly problematic for human welfare and survival. The evidence comes from three domains. 1) The ecological: continual growth uses up the resources that supply and the sinks that take the waste from human activity globally. 2) The social: economic growth does not correlate well with human welfare and its supposed benefits, rather than being shared, become ever more concentrated at the top of the wealth and income pyramid. 3) The economic: economic systems that rely on perpetual growth are inherently unstable, and meet internal and external constraints (or contradictions) that undermine them.

While it may be clear that the wager on endless growth is a bad one, a more difficult question arises: “what would be the characteristics of an economy that does not grow?”.

In his book “Macroeconomics Without Growth1” Steffen Lange attempts to construct a framework for answering this question, rooted in the three main approaches to theorising the economy, hence the subtitle: “Sustainable Economies in Neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxian Theories”. The book is a valuable contribution to the theory and practice of degrowth and provides a solid grounding for interventions in the policy arena, including those by political parties that seek to construct a coherent alternative, rather than a mishmash wish list of proposals. A strength of the book is its rigorous, formal analysis of the main theoretical approaches and what they say about the preconditions for growth, and the possibilities of zero growth.

As such the book extends to 583 pages, and the detail, with recourse to mathematical formulae to capture the various models and sub-models, will mean that many will not read it. The aim of this essay review, then, is to summarise the book, emphasising the synthesis reached by Lange, and suggesting a few issues that arise.

In search of the macroeconomics of post-growth.

Lange sets out to answer a specific research question, “which macroeconomic conditions lead to sustainable economies without growth?”, where “sustainable”, refers to environmental sustainability, social welfare and economic stability.

The problem

First, some clarification about the term “economic growth”. In everyday speech, and that includes that of politicians, journalists and other commentators, “economic growth” is typically used without definition. It can generally be assumed to mean growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at national level (and for groupings of countries when added together), or Gross Value added (GVA) when used for sub-national economies. It will generally be corrected for changes in prices over time, and for country to country comparisons, corrections are made for population and for some purposes, for local prices: there are methodological choices made ,and controversies about, such corrections. However, “economic growth” might also refer to growth in incomes, or to growth in the material aspects of the economy, that is to say, the volume of products made or consumed. These distinctions are important since the discussion to follow does concern the relations between GDP growth and change in the volume of materials and energy that flows through the economy, and the extent to which it comes out at the other end as pollution. However, for most purposes, it can be assumed that in most non-technical discussions, it is GDP or GVA that is meant by “economic growth”. GDP does, however, correlate well with the material flows of an economy (as evidenced, for example in carbon emissions). In scholarly work, the terms are more usually defined when used.

Lange begins his book with an overview of the key issues for the macroeconomic dynamics of growth. Central to this is the debate over decoupling of GDP growth from environmental impacts (on resources and sinks). The growth advocates suggest that because GDP measures aggregate value rather than material flows, change in one need not follow the other. Moreover, it is often argued that growth is needed to fund the investments needed to reduce emissions and to substitute for unsustainable resources. The growth critics argue that such decoupling between GDP growth and material flows is unlikely to be achieved at the levels needed to mitigate the damage.

Lange explores these issues in detail, bringing in the relevant economic concepts. He then identifies the existing alternative approaches, broadly Daly and collaborators’ Steady State Economy, the European continental Degrowth literature, Prosperity and Managing Without Growth in the work of Victor and Jackson, and from the German language literature, Postwachstum. While these approaches do use concepts from ecological, Keynesian, and Marxian economics, Lange notes that they are not generally based within a macroeconomic framework, one that seeks to understand how the economy as a whole behaves. They also do not draw on the dominant neoclassical approaches. The result is the “research gap” that he identifies:

… a lack of research on conditions for economies without growth based on well-established, comprehensive, macroeconomic frameworks” (pp. 29-30).

Three theoretical approaches

The heart of the book is a detailed exploration of neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxist economics, asking how they understand economic growth and its drivers, whether a non-expanding economy can be envisaged within each framework. In doing this there is a particular focus on the interplay between technological change, money, investment, profit, expenditures by different sectors, consumption and labour productivity.

Each of the three paradigms, neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxist, is itself diverse and Lange, even in such a long text, is necessarily selective. This is particularly the case with the Marxist contributions where he only focuses on Marx’s classical account and the monopoly capitalism revision associated with Baran and Sweezy and authors associated with Monthly Review (and the Marxist ecological economics also associated with this current)2. Nevertheless, there is sufficient material for him to extract key ideas from the three paradigms and it is these that inform his conclusions, the focus of the next section. The surprising finding is that from each of the three paradigms (and their variants), the preconditions of an economy without growth can be extracted.

A model of sustainable economies without growth.

Where the book is particularly helpful is in the closing chapters. Here, on the basis of his investigation, Lange synthesises an overall macroeconomic model of an economy without growth. Because that is likely to be of most interest to a majority of readers, I’ll set this out here. Inevitably, this misses out many subtleties and steps in the argument. As you will see, the implications of Lange’s review are not a matter of minor tinkering but indicate the need for a major overhaul of the economic system.

Overall description

Design features

An economy that does not grow has the following overall characteristics.

  • Firms are collectively owned: collective ownership discourages large retained revenues which would drive capital accumulation and marketing.

  • Increases in revenues and in labour productivity maintain high wages, and/or improve working conditions and reduce working hours.

  • These firms sell their products within a market that is subject to the following rules and regulations.

    • There are strong environmental policies such as strict limits on the exploitation of natural resources and strong environmental taxes.

    • The government acts to reduce the non-wage costs of employment while increasing the cost of energy, natural resources and physical capital (buildings, production plant etc.).

    • Policies prevent economies of scale and favour diseconomies of scale – for example by increasing transport costs, favouring small firms and local infrastructures.

    • The sales function is strictly regulated, including strict regulation of advertising and built in obsolescence and new features.

    • Policies such as incentives and regulations support the reduction in working hours.

On the supply side of the economy, production levels are constant, gross investments only occur at the level of capital depreciation, technological change is re-directed to clean production, and working hours reduce. Note that firms have no incentives to invest above the rate of capital depreciation because of the pressures to stay small and local (diseconomies of scale). Firms are incentivised to improve resource efficiency. Increases in labour productivity are modest, because energy and other resources are expensive. Any increases in productivity go towards the reduction of working hours: collective ownership militates against dismissals while people prefer increasing leisure rather than increasing income.

On the demand side, private consumption and government expenditure stays at a constant level and shifts from dirty (i.e. environmentally damaging) to clean products. Personal and household consumption stays static because incomes are not increasing and “the sales effort has been largely repealed”. Government spending stays static since it is not needed to expand employment. Private and State consumption shifts towards cleaner products because the ensemble of production factors in this economy makes them relatively cheaper. Moreover, political attitudes favour cleaner products.

With regard to money, there are no savings and no continuous expansion of accumulated assets by any sector or grouping. This is the result of zero net investments. Without growth, asset accumulation by one group would require the accumulation of debt by another. The lack of accumulation is achieved through low economic inequality, redistributive government policies and banking system regulation.

Outcomes

These conditions lead to the following outcomes for the economy as a whole.

  1. Because aggregate demand and supply stay constant over time, there is zero growth.

  2. Pollution (i.e. including emissions) decreases because production stops growing and technological innovation is directed towards emission reductions and due to shifts from low labour, high emission (i.e. dirty) products to low emission, high labour (i.e. cleaner) ones.

  3. Wealth inequality is low because the ownership of firms is distributed, shared, across the population.

  4. Income inequality is low since wages are the only source of income (i.e. there is no accumulation of assets that then generate income as interest, dividends or rent).

  5. The economy overall is stable because employment levels are kept high and there is no instability arising from the money system.

Limitations

Lange is clear that there are limitations to his work. Firstly, the analysis is for closed economies. We know that the current circuits of extraction-production-distribution-consumption-pollution are global in nature. They involve massive power and wealth imbalances – Western economies have rested for at least 200 years on the exploitation of resources, labour and markets in poorer countries. Moreover, a country attempting to move to a no-growth model would have to deal with the instabilities and pressures arising from the tendency of other economies to grow and the interdependence of national economies in global markets.

This leads onto the second shortcoming: there is, as Lange points out, only sporadic treatment of political economy, the interrelation between power, as politics and economics. The dominant system of power actively maintains the present capitalist growth economy and, as he acknowledges, it has to be confronted and itself transformed if there is to be any real change.

Many of these policies stand in conflict with the interests of strong social groups. In particular, the interests of the capitalist class … or oligarchy.. These groups would lose major parts of economic wealth and income and the ability to accumulate capital…. Strong social movements and alliances between different (in particular the labour, environmental and feminist) movements are the most plausible manner to implement these conditions anyhow.” (p. 537).

Thirdly, and related to the previous point, the policy dimensions are presented in relatively abstract terms rather than as “oven ready policies” that a government might be able to implement. As a macroeconomic account, the book does not concern itself with the vital question of who implements the implied changes to the system: what is the balance between top-down and poplar, bottom-up system reform, for example?

A fourth shortcoming is the limited consideration of land as a unique and finite resource. Countries are, by definition, defined by a delimited geographical area, which is differentially valued and valuable based on relative location (i.e. land in the City of London versus land in rural Yorkshire have different relative values). Indeed, the extent to which the economics of land as a unique factor of production, or as a “fictitious commodity” is lacking in most macroeconomic theories3.

However, these shortcomings do not detract from the achievement of the book which is to produce a coherent and theoretically pluralistic macroeconomic account of the preconditions for an economy that does not (have to) grow.  It puts more flesh on the bones of the steady-state / post growth economy (something we try to explore and promote at the regional scale), showing that it is a feasible option, although it will be very different in almost every respect, from the economic system we know today.  It will be a valuable tool for those working out the detail of the necessary transition to a post-growth society, and economy and for those, in multiple sectors, struggling to bring it about.

******************************************************************************
I am grateful to James Vandeventer for comments and suggestions on a draft of this review.

This article is now also available at Resilience.org

pdf version
______________________________________________________________

1 Lange, S. (2018). Macroeconomics without growth: sustainable economies in neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxian theories. Marburg: Metropolis-Verlag. See http://www.metropolis-verlag.de/Macroeconomics-Without-Growth/1298/book.do;jsessionid=D57C51C17FAA0E4D72B788EB9B71301C

2 Baran, P. A., & Sweezy, P. M. (1966). Monopoly capital : an essay on the American economic and social order. New York: Monthly Review.
Bellamy Foster, J., Clark, B., & York, R. (2011). The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: New York University Press / Monthly Review Press.

3 To introduce this issue does not mean we are saying that all value stems from land.

Republished pieces

Degrowth is the radical post-Brexit future the UK needs

Picture of forest
Does a greener future lie ahead?
Joe Herbert, Author provided

Joe Herbert, Newcastle University

As the Brexit negotiations wrap up and Theresa May’s deal is lambasted by Remainers and Leavers alike, it’s still far from clear what the future holds for the United Kingdom. On March 29 2019, it is due to leave the European Union.

Brexit is the first time a member state has voted to withdraw from the EU and it has caused a geopolitical earthquake, unleashing uncertainty in the UK and abroad. We don’t know what the impact on the UK will be when (and if) it actually leaves the EU. If it does so on poor terms, or via the still possible “no deal” eventuality, there are a wealth of devastating projections which may materialise.

The only thing that we can be sure of is that Brexit represents a moment of huge social, political and economic rupture. However, history tells us that such moments are also moments of opportunity for radical departure from the status quo.

Rupture as opportunity

Let’s be frank, Brexit is not a progressive endeavour. It threatens social and economic turmoil in which the most vulnerable in society will – as always – be the hardest hit. Leaving the EU could jeopardise benefits to UK citizens in the form of workers’ rights, environmental protections and food standards. The political climate outside of the EU also offers an increasingly undesirable community of potential allies and traders, dominated by the rise of the far-right in North and South America.

On the other hand, uncritical adoration of the EU overlooks the reality of what the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has described as “a regressive set of vile institutions”. It cannot be denied: the EU is a large and brutal force for neoliberalism.

From this critical stance on the EU, I still voted Remain in the referendum. I believed then – and still believe now – that regressive forces will profit from the UK’s exit and that the vulnerable will suffer. So, as we approach the March deadline, if the UK does indeed crash out of the EU, the left needs to be prepared with visions of alternative futures, and be ready to fight for them.

The growth question

The realities of a post-Brexit UK appear bleak, certainly in the short term. But separation opens the door for alternatives to the dominance of free-market fundamentalism. We could move from a society centred around financialised capital and the City of London, to one that promotes social and environmental justice in the UK and internationally.

Reports claim that Brexit will mean lower levels of economic growth for the UK. For politicians this is a horrifying prospect. But falling growth need not be feared, if it is integrated within a broader transformation of society.

The degrowth movement emerging amongst academics and activists argues that the logic of infinite growth is driving ecosystem collapse and climate breakdown. As stated in the latest IPCC report, we now have only 12 years to radically restructure society to cap global temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. If we fail, we will face catastrophic climate impacts.

Degrowth as a radical alternative

Degrowth argues that the wealthy and heavily polluting countries of the global north – such as the UK – must undergo a phase of managed and socially equitable economic contraction. This is necessary to downscale rich economies to within safe ecological limits.

The need for endless economic growth pushes us to produce more, consume more and make more profit. It has left our society overworked, over-stressed and plagued by extreme levels of inequality.

These dire social conditions have been blamed for the Brexit vote itself and unlimited growth also fuels climate breakdown, with the UK as a big contributor to global carbon emissions.

Simply, our slavish devotion to growth is making us miserable and destroying the planet. Degrowth could liberate us by arguing that more growth is not the solution, but the problem. We can and must live better with less, shared more fairly.

From growth to wellbeing

Degrowth would rid our society of pointless production and consumption. We could say goodbye to “bullshit jobs” – the pointless make-work that keeps workers stressed without any obvious value to society beyond enriching corporate elites. Production and consumption could be organised in service of social and environmental well-being rather than profit.

This degrowth transition could be pursued through ideas which confront the relentless treadmill of work, such as a four-day week. Poverty and inequality could be tackled by implementing a universal basic income and a maximum income. A fundamental decentralisation of the UK’s political and economic landscape could end London’s dominance by distributing more democratic autonomy to the regions.

Degrowth thus acknowledges that liberating society from the growth imperative is not only an ecological necessity, but also loosens the grip of the capitalist wage-labour market. This frees people to dedicate more of their lives to the things that really matter to them.

Is degrowth a likely future for the UK after Brexit? Certainly not in the short term. But, as Brexit and climate breakdown destabilise our politics, nothing much is certain. Only that we must be prepared with visions of a better future, and be ready to fight for them.The Conversation

Joe Herbert, PhD Researcher in Human Geography, Newcastle University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.