Friday 25 June 2021

Degrowth Remains a Slogan


Written by Sara Abraham and first published at Jamhoor

Though illuminating key debates, Jason Hickel’s recent case for degrowth falls short of its global objective – with not enough to offer regions like South Asia. 

The constant refrain on growth, more growth, and expansion is found globally in public and policy economic discourse and is a truism of capitalist common sense. South Asian countries are no exceptions to the obsession with growth, for one assumption is that the bottom rises with growth.

Growth benefits all, even if unequally, is the expectation. And even if there isn’t this assumption, since many at the bottom appear so obviously locked in spiralling poverty and early death, an expanding middle class sitting on the rump of growth is still considered huge progress. It equals the spread of modernity and democracy to larger numbers of people. Further, growth is “natural”, keeps up with expanding populations and allows all to enjoy more, enriches our lives with newer products, technologies and lifestyles, and allows for extra income and wealth (to be then redistributed). 

This is the hegemonic view of growth in the world and it makes ideas around “degrowth” deeply contrarian. Degrowth or any related idea, like controlling carbon emissions or stopping mining, is quickly castigated by many in South Asia as a Western import to keep developing countries poor. 

Yet the immense power of the narrative of growth begs the need for critical theory that advances new paradigms within which equitable economic development can be conceived. If degrowth is a paradigm which can offer a reduction in poverty and inequality while saving the planet, then it deserves our keen attention.

Further, the degrowth paradigm claims to envision an economy that is richer, more expansive and pro-nature than capitalism, for it puts life, not exploitation, at the centre of the economic system. For this reason, the paradigm has been cautiously praised by progressives. Michael Lowy, for instance, has argued that eco-socialism and the degrowth movement are the two most powerful currents of the ecological Left.

Jason Hickel’s new book, Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, therefore comes at an opportune moment. It is his ambitious attempt to make the case for why degrowth will save the world. However, I found the book theoretically muddled on multiple levels and unfortunately blind to much of the world. 

Part One of the book is a competent general statement on the scale of ecological downslide, the rapacious nature of capitalism and the core contradiction between the drive to growth and rising GDP, on the one hand, and the immediate need for ecological conservation and cutbacks in resource-use and waste, on the other. Its accessible prose makes it an excellent primer for the new reader.

Hickel links the drive to profit with the need for growth. He discusses the high scale of growth that global capitalism requires every year, and how the OECD in 1960 was mandated to follow policies that generated the highest rates of growth. He shows how neoliberal policies chasing growth basically entrapped all governments, be it in the global South or North, in “growth without development.” 

Despite quibbles with states being proxies for companies in Hickel’s characterization of the nature of geopolitical competition, and growth being an awkward proxy for profit, his statements are largely true. He then goes on to show how capitalist driven “growth” is no longer ecologically sustainable, for it has drained the earth, heated the oceans, and polluted the air. This, too, is certainly true.        

Having laid out the basic problem in empirical terms, Part Two of the book traverses, though far too briefly, across a range of contemporary radical ideas on reorganizing the economy away from capitalist imperatives and growth-ism. It suggests that the ideas of the commons, cooperation, and reduced luxury consumption are core pillars of a degrowth economy.

Public goods of sanitation and rent control are examples of urban commons and Hickel shows that such public goods, rather than “growth”, are what have led to longer lifespans and richer lives. People across the world in areas of good public health and educational infrastructure have much better lives than many deprived sectors in the core capitalist West, especially the United States. 

In a trenchant criticism of wasteful consumption, Hickel claims that a drastic cut in the disposable income of the rich (through taxation) can only have significant ecological benefits. This argument also undermines any claim about the beneficial, redistributive power of wealth. 

These distillations of older research findings challenge assumptions that aggregate growth and wealth lead to general prosperity or have any beneficial value. Yet in this discussion, Hickel does not explain the financial basis for public goods in the West or elsewhere, be it taxation (of profits generated by growth?) or the redirection of surplus (from growth?) into public programs. His larger point is that high levels of human development have occurred with low GDP per capita. Countries should not be chasing GDP. They should be reorganizing internally, redistributing wealth and building their public sectors. 

So is degrowth then a process towards equitable austerity, which requires us to cut back on consumption and live simply? Yes to the latter, but no to the fear of austerity. Rather, Hickel asserts that with the “commons” comes “abundance”. For him, degrowth is liberating precisely because it is linked to abundance, not austerity.

In fact, a core argument of his book is that it is capitalist forms of growth that have led to the imposition of austerity in major parts of the world. Degrowth (after providing for a certain minimum standard of living which need not be low) allows for flourishing through an abundance of social relationships, leisure, and culture, and a renewed relationship with nature. The go-slow wisdom of today would be an aspect of degrowth.

Undertheorized Concepts

But here one comes up against a wall. Firstly, abundance is at no point in the book explained properly, or grounded in any social or economic theory. Is it linked to material abundance primarily, or is it linked to (a non-material freedom), and if so how? Is it, as Linsey McGoey defines it, “the surfeit of goods, energy, desires, actors, interests and information that characterize modern life” – in which case, is it not partly the antithesis of degrowth? Hickel needs to elaborate with particularity how he understands “abundance” if he wants to convince readers that degrowth, and not overproduction, will lead to it.  

Clarity and penetration of vision is also so important as all readers are not located similarly. That academia has lately been entranced by the idea of abundance while there have been a surfeit of sheer death, dead time, dead rivers, violence, and so forth, doesn’t help. I wanted to know what “abundance” could mean for our present times in terms of a program to mitigate pain.

Here, one strand of economic theory seems to offer a program in relation to abundance which Hickel might have in mind. For example, as Yanis Varoufakis has advocated, of the billions of dollars handed over to banks in 2020-21, a small fraction could have been used to vaccinate the world’s population, or to clean the world’s rivers, or any number of things.

Hickel himself chooses to mention in passing that governments found the power to make debts disappear with the pandemic, thereby pointing to the speculative basis for much of financial “wealth” as well as the un-exerted power lying latently with governments. But when and where did this disappearing act happen? He offers no explanation. Was it an act of abundance, or was it a reversible reform? Hickel merely gestures. And does the occasional redistribution of wealth undermine capitalism or restore it? This question needs no recourse to the terms growth or degrowth and is not addressed in the book at all. 

Degrowth as a core concept in Hickel’s book is also heavily undertheorized. It seems little more than an unspecified consequence of decommodification, deprivatization, decapitalization, the cancellation of debt and interest, redistribution of wealth into public projects, and so forth. These concepts are older, practical and have offered programs of action and resistance which have challenged capitalism, if not blocked it. “Degrowth” does not do the work in explaining why these programs are important, and neither does “decolonization”, which Hickel comes to later in the text.

Provincializing Degrowth?

Even as Hickel marveled at governments’ unused power to make debts disappear, I asked myself, what would enable ordinary people to find their power to make imposed (even if elected) governments disappear? Posing this question to myself made me realize that this book doesn’t go there. It mostly plods on UK radical policy ground. Hickel is interested in governments implementing radical economic reforms of the types he mentions, but what balance of forces, what struggles, would be needed for governments to pursue these policies in the first place? Hickel doesn’t tell us. 

He mentions the “exciting” news that fewer work hours in the global North have great ecological benefits. But Hickel does not consider at all how this idea of “less work” can be translated for the global South – that is, again, to the most of the world, where unemployment is so dire a problem.  

Despite my growing misgiving that the UK and parts of the West is really his wicket, Hickel is sure he wants the whole world to be his lab for the paradigm of degrowth. He praises certain countries for their equitable development and creation of public goods – namely, Sri Lanka, Kerala, Costa Rica, and Cuba.

This only raised again for me strong misgivings on his style of argument and limited width of canvas. Academics and lawyers are trained to marshal evidence on the side of their frequently pre-conceived arguments, and it is for the opposing side to debunk the claims. However, these are heuristics, and fail to capture the texture of social life, political contradictions or the deep penetration of capitalism into all of it. Hickel does not guide us through the mess of what is really going on in each of these countries.

The choice of naming Sri Lanka, in particular, got my attention, as surely it is better understood as an authoritarian-militarized political economy that was produced in the aftermath of a decades-long, vicious civil war. Could all this really disappear into the remote computer screen surveying its development indicators? What about the non-existent sewerage systems and entrenched patriarchy of Kerala? Could a capitalist outpost like Costa Rica be put in the same sentence as Cuba? Maybe, but the work is not done to flesh out when, why and how much revolution and struggle went into winning a better standard of living. Without that, we are left with very false equivalences. 

I also wonder why Hickel has not explicitly drawn on feminist scholarship on the uncounted value and wealth produced by women’s unwaged labour. This body of theory and politics, associated with people like Selma James and Silvia Federici, is tied closely to a critique of conventional measures of GDP and growth. Feminists sought to calculate the value of women’s work and their contribution to the GDP, which long ago began melting its ties to capitalist needs.

Ecological critique is just the latest on the block to attack capitalism and its props and measures. Why does Hickel find it superior to any earlier thrust of critique? He eventually does mention “caring” for a full paragraph, but only as an economic arena that will gain attention once degrowth is on the cards, rather than an active site of struggle for a politics of degrowth. 

But I really want to come to my own pet peeves: that, despite what the book’s title proclaims, there is no application of degrowth thinking to the large, agricultural labour-intensive economies of parts of South Asia, where a dangerous dismantling of the public distribution system and a centralization of regional and local agricultural markets is ongoing, without recourse to ideas of growth but with every interest in profit. And there is equally no reflection in the book on countries which have already witnessed large scale devastation of public infrastructure and indebtedness such as in parts of Africa. Is it sufficient to say that these trends need to be reversed? 

As this is most of the world, it is safe to say that Hickel really does not prove his case that degrowth will save the world. 

A Romance with Indigeneity?

Part 3 of the book leaves the urban and rural worlds altogether and moves to describe Indigenous conceptions of living within nature as natural beings, and in relationships of exchange. He views these forms of living as shaped by valorizations of use value over exchange value, and understandably praises these processes. An old but still important implication from his discussion is how organized religions are pillars upholding dualistic forms of thought, separating man from nature and how this must be surpassed.

Hickel wishes to surpass modernist ways of being, and he says the struggle is over our very way of being. For this transition, we need new sources of hope, new wellsprings of possibility. We need to regain real ecological intelligence, which is invested in integration rather than expansion.

Hickel shares what gives him this hope: it is the thrilling experience of seeing like a shaman who mediates between the human and the natural world. It is through animism, which does not distinguish between humans and other living beings, that one can find connection and even radical empathy. Hickel here attempts to catapult his readers into a deeper spiritual appreciation of the world around them; that only a cultural revolution at this deep level will create the ground for radical struggles against capitalism. 

Yet, on reflection, Hickel basically concedes argument to faith and fantasy. Hickel presents decontextualized snippets of Indigenous and ecological thought at face value. For instance, I found Hickel’s celebration of the fact that the Ganga river was granted legal rights quite unconvincing. How can this recognition mean absolutely anything in the current political-economic and ecological condition of India?

This old, gracious and sacred river, given legal rights which can never match the ancient spiritual role it has had in people’s lives, currently has thousands of corpses floating in it as people can no longer find the tree branches needed to build funeral pyres. Should the river assert its rights and demand that the earth absorb the bodies? What about the earth’s rights? Can a river have greater rights than the people of the land, who have next to none? The only genre for this whole discussion is satire, or, at best, science fiction, as it compresses multiple time periods into one space.

Further, why does the long history of third-world based movements against dams, overfishing, pollution, dirty mining, water privatization, the peasants’ movements and so forth find no place in this text which is concerned with asserting the commons in the face of capital? Why is that only Indigenous “ways of being” matter, but not their material struggles?  

I find Hickel’s thoughts, tweets and blogs fresh and provocative, and a good counterpoint to mainstream thinking. He is actively rethinking economic myths and can gesture to new directions. The degrowth current on the ecological Left is important, even if thus far only a placeholder for the conceptual journey that must be made. It will force greater thinking by socialists and other radicals. However, degrowth is still a slogan it seems, and not a program for development. 

Sara Abraham is a lawyer and researcher based in Chennai, India.

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