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Theorising deep transformations

How can deep transformations be accomplished? To initiate the theorisation of this matter, the present chapter draws on insights from contemporary political economy scholarship, mainly in the historical materialist tradition, combined with insights from, for example, anarchism and scholarship on diverse economies. From such scholarship various prerequisites for deep transformative change are distilled: a deep crisis, an alternative political project, a comprehensive coalition of social forces and public consent. It is argued that whereas capitalism finds itself in a deep crisis and degrowth may be considered an alternative political project, currently no coalition powerful enough to bring about degrowth exists. Widespread popular consent to degrowth is also something that is currently absent. It is suggested that such consent would require self-transformation at the level of the individual, prompting people to come to view degrowth as something desirable and a sensible development.

Capitalism, with its growth imperative, is a key structure – or rather web of social structures – that degrowth as an anti- and post-capitalist political project aspires to transform. To initiate the theorisation of how this deep transformation can be accomplished, the present chapter draws on insights from contemporary political economy scholarship, mainly but not solely research and theoretical perspectives in the historical materialist tradition. A range of historical materialist perspectives – including regulation theory (Boyer 1990; Koch 2012; Staricco 2017), the social structures of accumulation approach (Gordon et al. 1982; McDonough et al. 2010) and transnational historical materialism (Cox 1987; Overbeek 2013) – all seek to explain when and why institutional and societal changes take place. In what follows, we distil various prerequisites for deep transformative change from such scholarship (see also Buch-Hansen 2018; Koch 2015), supplementing it with insights from, for example, anarchism and scholarship on diverse economies. We draw on such additional literatures because degrowth as conceptualised in the Introduction would entail transformations the depths of which necessitate a theorisation going well beyond what critical political economy (or any other single field) can provide. This is the case because degrowth entails metamorphoses not only of social structures and relationships, but also of the inner being of individuals and the social relation to nature. Moreover, the range of actors, structures and processes such perspectives ascribe importance to may not suffice to theorise degrowth transformations in a holistic manner.

The political economy of capitalist transformations

As noted in Chapter 2, the institutional forms making up a mode of regulation stabilise capitalism. They ‘codify the fundamental social relations that shape a given kind of capitalism. … They stabilize and normalize social conflicts and power struggles amongst antagonistic social groups or classes. They embody political compromises between them and ensure the reproducibility of the system until the next major crisis’ (Cahen-Fourot 2020: 3). Far from emerging automatically in response to the ‘needs’ of an accumulation regime, then, a mode of regulation is the outcome of political conflicts and struggles. When focusing on such conflicts and struggles, critical political economists ascribe much importance to the social forces engendered by the capitalist production process, namely fractions of capital and labour. These social forces are regarded as the most important drivers of social change. The ‘members’ of a class fraction perform similar economic functions in the process of capital accumulation and, consequently, tend to have specific ideological inclinations (van der Pijl 1998). Seen from a class fraction perspective, Fordist capitalism was underpinned by a ‘historic bloc’ comprising a coalition between the dominant fraction of industrial capital and bank capital and organised labour (van Apeldoorn 2002: 52).

The outcomes of struggles between class fractions to no small extent depend on the relative power they command. It is, for instance, far from coincidental that wage and wealth inequalities in the advanced capitalist countries were much lower in the 1960s than now: trade unions in Fordism – in the context of full employment of the (male) workforce and much smaller geographical capital mobility – were in a much better bargaining position than is the case in today’s globalised, finance-driven and flexible accumulation regime (Koch 2012; Leonardi 2019). This also goes to show that over time, social forces undergo transformations through dialectical interplays with the capitalist system itself, and in this process, power relations change and socio-economic transformations become possible (Wigger and Buch-Hansen 2014).

This brings us to the topic of structural crises. Seen from the vantage point of critical political economy, capitalism is a crisis-prone economic system. This insight has roots in the works of Marx, the scholar to discover that capitalism is replete with contradictions causing harm to people, other species and the planet (Collier 2004). Institutional forms can temporarily provide a fix to many of these contradictions, but eventually all modes of regulation break down because they can no longer sustain capital accumulation. Structural crises are crises necessitating the appearance of a new accumulation regime and mode of regulation to allow for continued capital accumulation (Boyer and Saillard 2002). Upsetting existing arrangements and throwing ‘social and class forces into states of flux and reorganization that involve struggles over hegemony’ (Robinson 2014: 217), such crises constitute moments when deep change can happen. Ultimately, structural crises can pave the way for new historic blocs, accumulation regimes, institutional forms and modes of regulation. An example of a structural crisis leading to such changes was the crisis of Fordist capitalism in the 1970s. The crisis, which had multiple causes (see e.g., van Apeldoorn 2002; Jessop 2002; Kotz and McDonough 2010), was impossible to resolve within the framework of existing institutional forms, some of which started (or were perceived) to undermine the capital accumulation process. The extensive Keynesian welfare states were cases in point. Eventually a new neoliberal form of capitalism materialised in the Western world and elsewhere. Neoliberal ideas came to prevail because they were developed into a political project that a powerful constellation of actors came to perceive as in their interest and thus advocated (Stahl 2019).

Three phases can be delineated in the process of a political project becoming hegemonic, namely phases of deconstruction, construction and consolidation (van Apeldoorn and Overbeek 2012). In its deconstructive phase, neoliberal ideas provided intellectual ammunition for the disruption of the post-Second World War social order of embedded liberalism/social democracy. Neoclassical economists and right-wing (organic) intellectuals such as Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman played an important role in questioning existing institutional arrangements such as the Keynesian welfare state and in devising the emerging neoliberal project (Peck 2010). Characterised by ‘a mix of liberal pro-market and supply-side discourses (laissez-faire, privatization, liberalization, deregulation, competitiveness) and of monetarist orthodoxy (price stability, balanced budgets, austerity)’ (van Apeldoorn and Overbeek 2012: 5), the neoliberal project provided a clear alternative to the Fordist type of capitalism and came to be widely perceived as providing convincing solutions to its crisis.

In the constructive phase, neoliberal ideas increasingly achieved the status of being the only game in town. Countless policies and reforms came to be shaped by such ideas. Corporate actors played a major role in these developments. For example, research has documented how, against the backdrop of economic crises, German and Swedish employers created and funded think tanks and public relations campaigns that led to neoliberal reforms of existing institutions (Kinderman 2017). The research finds that ‘these think-tanks have facilitated processes … that have led to a marked transformation of the German and Swedish social models and of German and Swedish capitalism over the past decades’ (2017: 590). In the final, consolidative phase, neoliberal policies had been widely implemented, albeit with major variations from one country to the next (Brenner et al. 2010). At this point, the neoliberal project had become hegemonic in most parts of the capitalist world in that the ideas underpinning it had become ‘common sense’, something to which also subordinate groups lent their consent (Robinson 2014).

Neoliberal capitalism primarily served (and serves) the interest of the fraction of transnational financial capital (Overbeek and van der Pijl 1993). This fraction came to lead a historic bloc which also comprised other leading transnational corporations, the middle classes and even organised labour (van Apeldoorn and Overbeek 2012: 5). The latter was, however, in a much weaker position than had been the case under Fordist capitalism, due, for instance, to overseas competition, declining union membership, weaker links to social-democratic parties and changes in the nature of work. From the late 1970s onwards, the balance of class power gradually shifted (Baccaro and Howell 2017: 176–177).

What are the implications of the above reflections of capitalist transformations for degrowth? That is, what of value to degrowth transformations can we learn from critical political economy scholarship on past transformations? As argued elsewhere (Buch-Hansen 2018), at least four prerequisites for deep socio-economic change can be derived from such scholarship: a deep crisis, an alternative political project, a comprehensive coalition of social forces, and public consent. When considering these prerequisites, it is important to be mindful that degrowth on a societal scale would involve systemic transformations, that is, transformations that are far more comprehensive and profound than those seen in the context of shifts from one type of capitalism to another (Buch-Hansen and Carstensen 2021).

Deep crisis

The first prerequisite for socio-economic transformations is deep crisis. As noted in the previous section, critical political economists use the notion of a structural crisis to denote crises that cannot be resolved within the existing type of capitalism. For capital accumulation to resume in the face of such a crisis, a new accumulation regime with a new mode of regulation is required. Structural crises, then, give rise to transformations within the framework of capitalism. Yet if degrowth entails systemic change, then a prerequisite for it to materialise may be a systemic crisis. A systemic crisis is one that can only be resolved if the economic system itself is changed. As such, it ‘involves the replacement of a system by an entirely new system or leads to an outright collapse’ (Robinson 2014: 129). Such a crisis may also be thought of in terms of a ‘crisis in the dominant mode of production’, implying that ‘no new accumulation regime can emerge, even taking into account the ability of institutional forms to adapt’ (Boyer and Saillard 2002: 43–44).

As noted in the Introduction to the present book, humanity currently faces not one but several deep and intertwined crises, including a social crisis, a political crisis and the escalating biodiversity and climate crises. These crises would seem to constitute something approaching a systemic crisis in that it is difficult to see how capitalism can survive them. It says quite a lot when one of the leading social scientists of our time asks not whether but how capitalism will end (Streeck 2016). In Streeck’s analysis, capitalism is in its final crisis, partly because it is collapsing from its own contradictions, partly because it has defeated its traditionally most powerful opponents. That is, whereas in the past capitalism’s enemies (say, the labour movement) often forced it to assume a new form, thereby rescuing it from itself, today its enemies are too weak to push through such changes (2016: 13).

In the Introduction we noted that the climate and biodiversity crises will eventually undermine capitalism itself. Yet unfortunately capitalism will, in all likelihood, not end until long after it has made the earth uninhabitable for most human and non-human beings. As Malm (2018: 194) puts it, ‘there is little evidence that profitability is under any atmospheric sword of Damocles, but plenty of proof that people with no advanced means of production occupy such a position’. Consequently, he warns against eagerly anticipating ‘the imminent climate-induced collapse of the capitalist mode of production’ (2018: 195). Harvey (2014: 254–255) makes the related observation that capitalism thrives on localised catastrophes caused by climatic changes. Such catastrophes not only constitute business opportunities, they also serve to mask that it is capitalism itself, rather than the unruliness and unpredictability of ‘mother nature’, that is their root cause. If the climate and biodiversity crises will not in themselves bring about the end of capitalism, the ensemble of crises they form part of may nonetheless contribute to facilitating such an outcome. Indeed, if deep crisis is a precondition for deep change, today’s world is certainly a world in which such change ought to be possible.

The articulation of a political project

The second prerequisite for the degrowth vision to materialise is that it informs an alternative political project, based on which policymakers and other agents can interpret reality and act. In the opening paragraph of this chapter, we referred to degrowth as a political project. Yet whether degrowth constitutes a political project of course depends on what is understood by such a project. If we take it to mean a full-fledged political programme with detailed policies with which all those embracing the concept agree, then degrowth is not a political project. As mentioned in the introductory chapter, proponents of degrowth neither agree on one definition of the concept, nor on what it would take for degrowth to materialise on various scales (the local, national and transnational) in different locations. For example, as we come back to in Chapter 5, some degrowth advocates are critical of the state owing to their own political/philosophical convictions, shaped for example by anarchist perspectives (such as anarcho-primitivism). Others may be anti- or non-state oriented because they have experienced too many statist barriers to transformations (Liegey and Nelson 2020: 137–138).

Still, most advocates of degrowth seem to take the position that democratically adopted top-down policies are an important precondition for degrowth transformations to materialise.1 In the literature on degrowth, a wide variety of policies are being proposed and discussed (Fitzpatrick et al. 2022). To mention but a few, these relate to, for example, promoting work-sharing and reduced working time (Schor 2015), placing a ceiling on income and wealth (Buch-Hansen and Koch 2019), taxing high-carbon luxury goods (Gough 2017), placing limits on flights and reducing the number of planes and airports (Hassler et al. 2019), providing sustainable welfare benefits, for instance in the form of universal basic vouchers (Bohnenberger 2020), banning advertising (Latouche 2009) and introducing regulation compelling companies to introduce extended warranties on products to remove their incentive to design products with a short lifespan, as well as regulation making it illegal for companies to produce products that cannot be repaired (Hickel 2020: 211). Many of the discussed policies are eco-social policies, that is, policies that simultaneously advance the goals of environmental sustainability and social equity (Gough 2017). For example, train tickets and other forms of slow travel are unaffordable to many, just as organic foods are considerably more expensive than inorganic food. As a result, many people fly and eat inorganic food. Subsidising train tickets and organic food would serve the purpose of making more sustainable diets and forms of transportation affordable to all.

In later chapters we return to some of these policies, exploring them in greater depth. In the present context it suffices to note that if we understand a political project to denote a general vision of a different society that points beyond the major crises of our time, a vision that is accompanied by discussion of policies and initiatives that can materialise it, then degrowth does qualify as a political project (see also Alexander and Gleeson 2022: 59). Degrowth is, however, a political project in a different sense from how this notion is often used in critical political economy scholarship, in that this literature for the most part focuses on political projects aiming to transform but not move beyond capitalism. Van Apeldoorn and Overbeek (2012: 5) write that ‘any hegemonic project needs … a more or less coherent accumulation strategy serving the interests of the leading capital fraction and their immediate allies’. Degrowth is neither premised on benefiting any capital fraction nor is it a political project that comes with an accumulation strategy. If anything, it offers a vision of ‘de-accumulation’ in many sectors of the economy and it aspires to benefit not merely humans but also nature and non-human beings – now and in the future.

Mobilising a comprehensive coalition of social forces

For a political project to shape societal developments, a comprehensive coalition of social forces with sufficient power and resources needs to find it attractive and worth fighting for. As noted above, critical political economy scholarship gives primacy to the social forces rooted in the capitalist production process, that is, representatives of different fractions of capital and labour. The power balance between these social forces is regarded as a key determinant of overall societal developments. Degrowth is, however, different from traditional political projects in that it is not class-based. Inevitably, those advocating degrowth are rooted in classes, most of them probably in the middle classes, yet degrowth is not a project aspiring to promote the interests of this or other classes – or only human beings. Liegey and Nelson observe that ‘being a degrowth activist sets one apart from traditional class identities as the movement fights for a class-free world’ (2020: 128). Currently, the main proponents of degrowth are grassroots, small fractions of left-wing parties and labour unions, as well as academics and other citizens who are concerned about the looming eco-social collapse. In other words, those who promote degrowth do it not because they themselves stand to gain more from its realisation than would others, but because they believe that it is necessary if the current and future needs of human beings and other species are to be met (see Chapter 7).

Seen from a critical political economy perspective, the problem is that the social forces currently supporting degrowth are far from powerful enough for this project to come to shape wider socio-economic developments. Leading political parties, labour unions, business associations and international organisations have yet to embrace degrowth – indeed, they typically strongly support economic growth, perceiving no desirable alternative to it. That none of the powerful actors in advanced capitalist societies finds it appealing has been identified as ‘the weakest spot in the degrowth project’ (Barca et al. 2019: 6). The resources of the degrowth movement are modest, certainly compared to the resources commanded by those who were successful in promoting projects that became hegemonic in the past. For example, it is in a far weaker position than was the labour union movement under Fordist capitalism, and its resources are dwarfed by those available to those representing corporate interests in contemporary neoliberal capitalism. It is not just the degrowth project that finds itself in this situation; more generally, no alternative project to the currently still prevailing neoliberal project, let alone to capitalism as an economic system, enjoys support from a coalition of social forces strong enough to make deep social change a reality. Indeed, this is the main reason why neoliberalism and capitalism linger on. Streeck (2016: 36) puts it this way: ‘Before capitalism will go to hell … it will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way.’

In Barca’s analysis, attracting support from ‘ecologically minded’ members of the global middle classes who are willing to consume and work less does not suffice if the degrowth project is to shape overall societal developments. In her words, the project will ‘remain politically weak unless it manages to enter into dialogue with a broadly defined global working class – including both wage labor and the myriad forms of work that support it – and its organizations’ (2019: 214). This is undoubtedly true. Yet to imagine a coalition powerful enough to bring about degrowth, it is necessary to transcend the class-based perspectives of historical materialist critical political economy. No single type of actor is powerful enough to make it happen. Degrowth transformations can only materialise through the combined actions of myriad actors positioned in states, civil society and business. Related to this, diverse economies scholars Gibson-Graham and Dombroski (2020) place hope in the movements and activism that young people, women and Indigenous peoples engage in globally. They note, for instance, that ‘because women are everywhere and therefore always somewhere, change can be enacted in all those many somewheres’ (2020: 20). Important insights can also be gleaned from anarchist thinking, according to which the successor project of capitalism is already in the process of being built within micro-level bottom-up initiatives that exist at the margins of contemporary neoliberal capitalism, such as cooperatives and sustainable communities (Chomsky 1999: 138; Wigger and Buch-Hansen 2013; see also Bärnthaler 2023). Given the depth of change that degrowth transformations entail, and the speed with which they would need to happen, it is, however, just as improbable that they could materialise solely through bottom-up, grassroots initiatives as it is improbable that they can emerge solely via top-down policies. And just as degrowth cannot be realised without policies implemented by state apparatuses at the local, national and transnational scales, so it cannot come about without the involvement of businesses and large groups of citizens.

In terms of temporality, the various policies that are being discussed in degrowth circles are unlikely to initiate degrowth transformations; rather, such policies are more likely to be the outcome of the efforts of social movements and other actors in civil society (Alexander and Gleeson 2022). In the current ideological environment, it would be political suicide for most political parties to embrace the aforementioned policies. For degrowth transformations to be initiated, a massive civil society mobilisation, combined with a surge in degrowth-compatible business (Nesterova 2020a, 2020b, 2021a) would be required. If such a mobilisation of growth-critical and socio-ecological social forces were to gain a decisive momentum, it could make it attractive, or at least feasible, for political parties and states to pursue degrowth policies (Koch 2022a). The outcome could be ‘a combination of bottom-up mobilisations and action and top-down regulation, resulting in a new mix of property forms including communal, state, and individual property and a new division of labour between market, state, and “commons”’ (Koch 2020b: 127). The thousands of degrowth-compatible micro-level civil society and business initiatives that are mushrooming in recent years may, together with various social movements (Burkhart et al. 2020), come to provide the basis for a mobilisation of a comprehensive coalition of social forces.

Building consent

The final prerequisite for degrowth to happen on a wider scale is popular consent to its overall vision. There are some indications that growth-critical ideas are gaining ground. A petition run by the European Environmental Bureau, which inter alia called on the European Union, its institutions and member states to devise policies for post-growth futures and reconsider the pursuit of growth as an overarching policy goal, was signed by more than 90,000 people. Drews et al. (2019: 150) suggest, based on data on Spain, that ‘a considerable part of the population exhibits sceptical views about growth’. Even so, it is safe to say that overall there is no consent to the idea of degrowth in the advanced capitalist countries. In fact, the vast majority of people in these countries are unlikely to have heard of degrowth. If this observation is correct, it speaks volumes of just how marginalised the idea of degrowth remains, even if it has gained traction over the past decade. But it is not just that many people are unaware of the idea of degrowth, it is also that it is doubtful that they, if they were to hear about it, would consider it a good idea to move beyond capitalism to a system with reduced and different production and consumption. One reason why degrowth may not be intuitively appealing to many people in the advanced capitalist countries and beyond is that it is incompatible with the Western norm of consumption (Brand and Wissen 2013; Koch 2012) and more generally the Western view of nature.2 If degrowth were to materialise, most citizens in the rich countries would have to adapt to a materially lower standard of living. Limits placed – in one way or another – on car ownership, flights, accommodation forms, diets and other environmentally damaging aspects of the Western norm of consumption would go against currently prevailing understandings of what constitutes a good life. As such they would, to put it mildly, not be popular. A further reason why consent to degrowth would be difficult to achieve is that advocates of the green growth discourse and other pro-market ideologies have been successful in creating the illusion that companies, markets and new technologies will take care of the problems so that people will not have to change their lifestyles in major ways.

Nevertheless, there are cracks in the hegemony of the pro-growth discourse. In Germany, a country with strong environmental movements that have, for instance, advanced sufficiency and reduction of working hours, labour unions have traditionally sided with business and the state in fighting for ‘a good life of consumption’ and ‘the right to work’ (Komlosy 2018). Yet recent research finds that previously hegemonic views are called into question within major German unions, with counter-hegemonic views as to what a good life entails being expressed to varying degrees (Keil and Kreinin 2022). Although this obviously does not mean that these unions now consent to degrowth – far from it – it does suggest that there are openings for consent to other views on work, production and growth than the currently prevailing view.

The word consent derives from Latin where it means ‘feel together’. Further to this, consent to degrowth is not something that could be imposed on individuals or something that can be reduced to a question of social structures and social interactions. Consent would require individuals to feel that degrowth is a sensible development and welcome degrowth practices in their everyday life and in society at large. For this to happen, self-transformation at the level of individuals is required. Such self-transformation could, for instance, involve taking steps from the ‘mode of having’ to the ‘mode of being’ (Fromm 2013). As noted in Chapter 1, the mode of having entails an outlook revolving around possessions, accumulation and status. By contrast, the mode of being revolves around focusing on who we are as humans and our capacities for learning, loving, caring, altruism, solidarity, forgiveness, presence, joyfulness and so on. We deal in greater length with this matter in Chapter 4. In the present context it suffices to observe that without such self-transformations it is difficult to imagine that degrowth – with its logic evolving around gentleness and care for humans, non-human species and nature more generally – could materialise and work. There is no single source of transformations of this kind. Rather, various combinations of a multitude of causal mechanisms could bring them about. These mechanisms could include interactions with people and with social structures and experiences in and with nature, and involve becoming aware of new and gentler ways of relating to the world (see also Conclusion, this volume).

In conclusion

Capitalism will never fall on its own. It will have to be pushed. The accumulation of capital will never cease. It will have to be stopped. The capitalist class will never willingly surrender its power. It will have to be dispossessed.

(Harvey 2010: 260)

Harvey notes that the task of stopping capital accumulation and dispossessing the capitalist class requires a strong social movement with a strong political vision of an alternative around which a collective political subjectivity can revolve (Harvey 2014). In this chapter, we have pointed to some of the same prerequisites for degrowth to materialise on a societal scale, yet pointing also to the importance of consent, self-transformation and crisis. Although the current economic system finds itself in a deep structural or even systemic crisis, a key prerequisite for deep social change, it is of course by no means a given conclusion that such change will take the form of degrowth. While the current crises facing advanced capitalist democracies can be seen to have paved the way for progressive social forces, they have also facilitated the rise of right-wing populism and authoritarianism.

Moreover, as noted in the Introduction, powerful actors (corporations, governments, international organisations and unions) have so far primarily responded to the climate and biodiversity crises by embracing the political project of ‘green growth’ – at least at the level of discourse. Beyond its green rhetoric, the corporate world does not stand united behind this project. Ougaard (2016), for instance, speaks of a conflict line between transnational companies involved in the extraction and processing of coal, oil and gas, thus having a material interest in the carbon-based economy, and companies that have a material interest in decarbonisation. Examples of the latter include ‘producers of equipment for renewable energy production and companies that stand to lose from the consequences of global warming, such as insurance companies’ (Ougaard 2016: 467; see also Buch-Hansen and Carstensen 2021). Within business, then, there is no universal consent to the green growth project. Going forward, the main challenge for this project is the anomaly at its heart, that is, the lack of evidence to suggest that it is possible to rapidly and drastically bring down CO2 emissions while the economy keeps growing exponentially. As the gap between, on one hand, the green growth discourse and, on the other, the material reality of increasing CO2 emissions, climate emergency and biodiversity loss widens in the years to come, it may become increasingly difficult to uphold the illusion that the green growth project delivers a serious response to the predicament humanity is in. Against this background, degrowth ideas may come to enjoy wider consent.

Notes

1 Or, in the case of anarchists who find it better to side with Marxist than pro-capitalist views, top-down policies and government involvement are seen as a necessary evil.
2 Whereas in the Western view nature is seen as composed of objects, under degrowth, nature would be seen as composed of subjects (cf. Rodman, 1983).
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Deep transformations

A theory of degrowth

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