Outgrowing the twin simplifications of Growth and Degrowth: part 1

This is the first of a series of 3 blogs by STEPS co-director Andy Stirling, responding to the ideas of Giorgos Kallis on the ‘degrowth hypothesis’. Read part 2 and part 3, and see also Giorgos Kallis’ response.

What’s at Stake Between Growth and Degrowth?

I recently had the privilege of hearing a great talk in the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) by Giorgos Kallis, hosted by the Centre for Global Political Economy and the STEPS Centre. His topic was the “degrowth hypothesis” – around which an important global activist-academic movement is currently (rather ironically!) undergoing burgeoning growth.

‘Degrowth’ involves a powerful critique of the supposed need for continuous economic growth. Recognising the massive global destruction and injustice caused by growingly unequal consumption, the degrowth critique instead envisages a general contraction in the overall scale of economic activity as measured not by social values in general, but by narrow monetary value in particular.

Now at SOAS in London, Giorgos is a longstanding member of the dynamic and inspirational ICTA ecological economics group at the Autonomous University of Barcelona – a path-breaking centre for research in this area. His deep and wide-ranging discussion at IDS engaged a crowded audience with penetrating criticism and optimistic prescriptions.

So why then – despite my respect for this analysis and many of those who propound it – did I find myself with such an ominous feeling about what it all entails? Notwithstanding the richness of the discussion at this seminar, what came over most strongly, was a sense of momentous self-defeat. The apparent error is both strategic and tactical: in substantive analysis as well as practical impacts.

These are strong words. So, there’s a duty to explain. I’m not sure I’m right. But the dearth of debate over the points I’m concerned about, is as disturbing as their implications. Tho’ far from original, the central neglected question is very simple. Surely it all depends? Growth … or degrowth … in what?

What kind of degrowth?

Giorgos ably demolished the contrived and politically expedient monetary constructs around which he rightly argued most current capitalist notions of growth are fabricated. But not all forms of capitalism are equally obsessive about money as the sole arbiter of value. And systems other than capitalism have also shown themselves to be highly susceptible to the cult of economic growth.

This said, Giorgos rightly argued – like other degrowth analysts – that the practices and institutions that shape the apparently natural clarity of monetary metrics are actually highly conditioned in order to reinforce existing structures of privilege and power. Without the enormous infrastructures within which these economic metrics are shaped and given meaning, abstract notions like economic surplus, monetary value, financial accounting or gross domestic product would all be very nebulous.

Of course, this tyranny of money is far from abstract in practice. It is imposed by many kinds of coercive power and hard structure – and (ultimately) by threat of organised violence. This is why the associated political forces are so oppressive of the people they marginalise and disappropriate – and all those held in thrall by fear of such exclusion. Any realistic understanding of the world must acknowledge this. Again, Giorgos put the case very compellingly.

But in an increasingly unequal world, it is extremely important to gain a realistic understanding of the underlying political dynamics. Currently hegemonic notions of growth are enforced with such assertiveness, not because monetary value is a self-evident physical quantity. Nor even is money a direct proxy for the material manifestations of harm.

Instead, in ways that Giorgos also underlined well, it is arguably inequality itself that forms a major factor in the forces that shape the institutions that determine monetary values – and the growth they denominate. These forces reflect specific kinds of powerful interest, which stand to benefit from reducing diverse social values to a far narrower monetary form. It is only in this way, that social dynamism and diversity can become tractable to appropriation by the most privileged interests.

Focus on economic value

In other words, the monetary values that the economic growth dogma asserts so emphatically must always be made to grow, take the magnitudes they do, in large part precisely to allow the accrual of inequalities in favour of the structures and interests that shape them. In this perniciously regressive sense, actively-pursued inequalities are a driver as well as a consequence of patterns of growth.

In seeking to support and reinforce these political dynamics, no force is stronger than the shaping of cognition itself. So, strong pressures arise to build public understandings that the only imaginable growth is that measured in prevailing (highly politically contingent) definitions of economic value.

After all, no cage is more inescapable, than when those who are caged believe “there is no alternative”. So it would be a triumph for the prevailing hegemony of this stand-alone, one-dimensional economistic notion of value, if even the criticisms are defined by the same parameters!

And this is a key reason why the ‘degrowth critique’ seems to me to be so problematic. As presented by Giorgos and others, it can (despite best intentions) too readily act to further concentrate attention disproportionately on the very quantities it aims to target – material consumption and economic value. And this problem is compounded in the way the term ‘degrowth’ also appears to conflate problems with solutions – appearing to criticise general growth of all and any kinds.

Far from subverting the prevailing hegemony of monetary value, then, seeing degrowth this way actually risks reinforcing it. By eliding the undoubted negativities of narrow economic growth with growth in all other kinds of social values, it is as if all growth is necessarily denominated in money. Or it implies that if some aspect of positive societal growth is measurable in money, then this too is bad.

These impressions risk subconsciously entrenching precisely the kinds of ‘no alternatives’ fatalism that the hegemony itself imposes – feeding rather than resisting underlying dynamics of inequality.

Further questions

In this trio of blogs, I will try to grapple with some of the key further reasons why I reluctantly found myself so disturbed by discussions at this Sussex seminar on ‘the degrowth hypothesis’. The issues seem so important, that it is worth exploring them in a little detail. I hope others agree.

Next, I will take a look at what happens to notions of growth and degrowth, when proper recognition is given to the pluralities of social values beyond monetary value alone. Then I will look at the different possible dynamics of growth and sketch some practical strategic and tactical issues that are at stake in seeking political transformations towards more just and sustainable societies.