Ed. note: This article was originally published on the Degrowth blog in two parts. We have combined these parts into one post on Resilience.org.

Is degrowth only conceivable in the context of “oversaturated” industrial societies while the global “South” remains dependent on growth? In two installments, this article questions such assumptions. In this first part it introduces positions critical of development which refuse to adopt the Western model of prosperity; the second part will focus on the analysis of these positions with a view to their relevance for the European degrowth movement and the growth debate here.

A common objection against visions of degrowth is raised with regard to the material needs of large parts of the global population – those who live in so-called “developing” or “underdeveloped” countries under conditions of extreme poverty. This group, so the argument goes, essentially depends on growth in order to improve their living conditions.

Interestingly, this argument is often brought forward in order to justify further growth in the global “North,” i.e., growth which in the first instance would benefit much more privileged groups. This line of argument has been easily refuted by the degrowth movement which emphasizes that in view of increasingly scarce natural resources, further material growth in richer industrial countries would rather diminish the prospects for development in poorer regions. The claim that wealth generated in the “North” would somehow “trickle down” to the “South” – the traditional argument of radical free-market theorists extrapolated to the global level – has been too thoroughly discredited over decades of empirical evidence to deserve further attention here.

But even explicit critics of growth, in pursuit of the laudable goal of global justice, often argue that economic development requires further growth in the “South.” Indeed, their demand for an end to growth in OECD countries is often motivated by the desire to enable “sustainable development” in poorer regions. From the perspective of post-development theory, however, the assumptions underlying such demands are quickly revealed to be rooted firmly in Western ideas of progress and growth.

Critique of development: Who develops, and into what?

Although critiques of development may be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s (cf. Esteva 1992, Tévoédjrè 1979), the formation of a “post-development school” took place in the early 1990s (cf. Sachs 1992), in the context of the establishment of postcolonial studies as an increasingly prominent academic field (cf. Ashcroft et al. 1998, Young 1995). In this “school,” a broad range of “tricontinental” (Asian, African and Latin American) authors and Northern writers with professional experience in “development aid” came together in order to thoroughly deconstruct the paradigm of economic “development,” which for decades had rarely been questioned.

These critics foregrounded the ethnocentrism of the dominant concept of development: Western industrial countries are assumed to be the gold standard by which the rest of the world is to be gauged – the less any given society corresponds to this model, the greater the deficit attributed to it. “Development” suggests a prescribed, linear path whose endpoint is marked by the blessings of a modern Western consumer society. Modern understandings of nature (as a resource which awaits submission to and exploitation by humans) and cultural patterns (individual material consumption as the main determinant of prosperity) come as part of the package. Divergent “traditional” world views, meanwhile, are redefined as factors which retard such “development” and must therefore be overcome.

Moreover, this development happens under historically specific conditions: It is to be understood as capitalist development. Its dynamic is necessarily uneven – capitalist development produces and reinforces the phenomenon of social inequality whose abatement is the declared goal of development policy (cf. Lummis 1992). From this angle, a simple “catch-up” imitation of historical patterns of development in the West is considered impossible for geopolitical, economic-technological and ecological reasons. The mainstream’s insistence on retaining such models of development in spite of their dim prospects has the convenient effect of suppressing the question of global (re)distribution of wealth and power: Responsibility for change lies with the “underdeveloped.” The “developed” – in other words, the former colonial powers – are the model, the lodestars on the road to “development.”

Development = growth

The parallels to the growth debate are readily apparent: Usually, development is first and foremost defined by economic growth. A widely recognized measure of development success is Gross Domestic Product (GDP), an indicator sufficiently criticized in the degrowth discourse. But even if one improves this questionable indicator by consulting additional data on median income or income quintiles in order to gauge the living conditions of broad sections of the population, the argumentative validity of such figures remains very limited. (Not least thanks to such criticism, e.g. health and other social indicators are increasingly taken into account when measuring development, although the mainstream economic discourse on development remains fixated on growth.)

Capitalist modernization implies that social relations are increasingly mediated by the market. The more this happens, the greater the growth rate. Western perspectives, however, commonly and conveniently overlook the fact that such market-based exchange in the global “South” does not emerge in a vacuum. In many cases, it rather displaces other forms of economic activity which cannot be captured through a purely monetary indicator such as GDP. In particular, family- or community-based modes of subsistence tend to be neglected in this discourse despite their vital role. Their continuation is often rendered impossible because of market-oriented reforms and the privatization of land, which lead to their replacement by wage labor. Thus, monetary family or community income in a certain region may have increased significantly in any given decade – a success in terms of mainstream development economics – while these people’s actual livelihoods have deteriorated while the loss of subsistence opportunities outweighs any additional monetary income from wage labor.

Particularly feminist authors have repeatedly pointed out these connections while also foregrounding the problem of unpaid, mostly female, care work, which neither in industrial nor in “developing” countries is properly acknowledged (cf. Bennholdt-Thomsen 2013, Gibson-Graham 2007, Mellor 2009, O’Hara 2009, Rahnema 1992). They criticize that the discourse on development and growth is shaped by male norms that focus on formal and paid employment. This approach not only reproduces social differences along gender lines by systematically devaluing those types of work commonly imposed on women, but also leads to a stark misdiagnosis of economic structures, especially in societies that are not yet completely marketized.

As suggested above, in the development debate as well as in day-to-day politics in OECD countries, it is the metaphor of the “growing cake” that allows for the circumnavigation of inconvenient questions of social justice (cf. Sachs 2002). This way, nobody has to give up anything – we simply need more for everybody. This rationale not only collides with ecological limits (the realization that an average US-American or European middle-class lifestyle cannot be globally replicated has become commonplace; this argument, with all its implications for (re)distributive politics, is well illustrated by Thie [2013]). It also ignores the relativity of poverty: individual satisfaction does not depend on absolute material wealth as much as on the social context in which individual levels of consumption are understood and which shapes the opportunities of various income groups for participation in social life. As long as an obscene wealth persists, relative poverty on any level remains problematic.

The first part of this article offered an introduction to post-development thought, which for decades has been trying to deconstruct Western models of prosperity and growth. This second part introduces some of the countless linkages between critiques of development and contemporary European critiques of growth.

The discourse on sufficiency for example – the idea of recognizing what is enough, which has been very popular with the degrowth movement (cf. Linz 2004, Schneidewind and Zahrnt 2013, Winterfeld 2007 and 2011) – is mirrored in the post-development literature despite differences in terminology (cf. e.g. Salleh 2009, Tévoédjrè 1979). Understood as a critical concept not restricted to moralistic appeals to individual consumer behavior, but also envisioning political and economic structures, sufficiency defines both a floor and a ceiling to appropriate material standards of living. By recognizing not only what is “too much” but also what is “too little,” it contains an important claim to (global) social justice. Ascesis is considered just as undesirable as waste and excess. Such orientation towards a sufficient material standard of living leaves enough room for other aspects of human well-being. In addition to being widely recognized by the degrowth movement as an urgently needed corrective, it is also understood as an alternative to the capitalist logic of development within the anti-development literature.

The commons – beyond market and state

The concept of the commons (cf. Helfrich and Bollier 2013), an even more popular buzzword, is a similar case. The orientation towards community-based production and self-organization “beyond market and state” is based on pre-capitalist and persistent non-capitalist forms of social organization, which globally have been either displaced by processes of capitalist modernization or are currently threatened by such displacement. These models are founded on understandings of human nature that are radically different from that of “homo economicus”, which underlies market-based organization. The homo economicus model always assumes the individual as utility-maximizing, which is a narrow-minded caricature of humanity. “Commons”-based approaches combine economic needs with responsibility for ecosystems including humans, and with the human desire for community and communication. They require an enormous degree of local democracy and self-administration. The adoption of such a perspective in the context of thoroughly modernized, bureaucratic societies is a challenge that may be met more easily through engagement with post-development thought.

There are, however, problematic parallels as well. The more reactionary version of anti-growth writing (see e.g. Miegel 2010; critically addressing this: Bouvattier 2011) finds its equivalent in those post-development approaches that glorify “traditional” social structures without concern for gender roles or matters of individual identity. These approaches juxtapose such traditional models as a messianic promise of salvation to the evils of modernization (critically discussed by Ziai 2007). Such ideas make obvious just how important it is to critically engage even with proposals that attack the same enemy – if they do so from a very different angle. If a movement becomes associated with such positions, this will alienate potential allies within the progressive spectrum – who could be convinced by an intelligent and more self-reflexive critique of growth. Here, clear dissociation may be required.

Lessons for the degrowth movement

A closer look at post-development writing reveals strong parallels to contemporary debates on growth in Europe. In the European context, however, many points of criticism leveled against Western lifestyles are often dismissed as “first-world problems” of saturated middle classes. This view disregards that quite similar sentiments have been voiced in regions where people’s living environments have not yet been completely seized by capitalist modernization and which still find themselves in painful conflict with modernization processes. There, the differences between modern Western world views and alternative perspectives fall into much sharper relief.

Quickly one realizes that — in contrast to the mantra commonly repeated in Western debates – the world is not exactly waiting to imitate Western lifestyles, even if their temptations certainly still exert a strong pull. In fact, the picture is revealed to be much more complex. The pervasive desire not to be condemned to material misery, in any case, should not be equated with the desire to live according to the Western growth model. The fulfillment of the former desire may in fact even require the deliberate rejection of the latter.

At any rate, the degrowth movement would be well advised to consider the needs of prosperous, burnout-threatened Europeans in the context of global developments. The same capitalist dynamics with their geographically very uneven impacts are at the root of hectic work routines in the West and the misery caused by land grabbing, privatization, extractivism and corruption in Africa or Latin America. This directly imposes conclusions critical of capitalism and social domination, and thus well-meaning consent to vaguely defined “growth” (or “development”) in the global “South” – failing to do justice to these conclusions – clearly falls short. Instead, the challenge is to develop a qualitatively different understanding of prosperity and progress that all these perspectives can agree on – and which is connected to a willingness to engage in political conflict.

A revised understanding of “development”

Many models of subsistence provisioning, some of them still in place today, together with their philosophical foundations provide an important source of inspiration in this context, particularly for people in Western (post-)industrial societies. To put it in heretical terms, this leads to a reversal of the conventional understanding of “development.” Suddenly, it is the “developed” Western lifestyle which is considered obviously deficient – and alternative models from other regions of the world set the benchmark. These models, pointing far beyond the market, are not geared towards monetary economic growth.

The first signals of hope are on the horizon. Within the European degrowth movement, there is great interest in the Latin American buen vivir movements (Spanish for “good life” or “good living”; cf. Acosta 2011, Gudynas 2011), which explicitly position themselves in the tradition of anti-development thought. The obvious parallels between ideas of the “good life” on both sides of the Atlantic allow for an aha experience. Deepening these connections would certainly be a worthwhile endeavor.

Works Cited [in both parts]

Acosta, Alberto (2011). Buen Vivir auf dem Weg in die Post-Entwicklung. Ein globales Konzept? In: Rätz et al. (ed.). Ausgewachsen! Hamburg: VSA, 173-183

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (1998). Post-colonialism/Postcolonialism. In: Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. London: Routledge, 186-92

Bennholdt-Thomsen, Veronika (2013). Subsistence: Perspective for a Society Based on Commons. In: Helfrich/Bollier (eds.). The Wealth of the Commons. A World Beyond Market and State. Levellers Press (online: http://wealthofthecommons.org/essay/subsistence-perspective-society-based-commons)

Bouvattier, Adèle (2011). Raus aus dem Patriarchat: Eine verleugnete Herausforderung für die Décroissance-Bewegung? (http://www.bb.solioeko.de/files/2011-bouvattier-decroissance.pdf )

Esteva, Gustavo (1992). Development. In: Sachs (ed.). The Development Dictionary. A Guide to Knowledge as Power. London/Atlantic Highlands: Zed Books, 6-25

Gibson-Graham, J.K. (2007). Surplus Possibilities: Post-development and Community Economies. In: Ziai (ed.). Exploring Post-development. Theory and Practice, Problems and Perspectives. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 145-62

Gudynas, Eduardo (2011). Buen Vivir: Germinando Alternativas al Desarrollo. In: América Latina en Movimiento, 462, 1-20

Helfrich, Silke and David Bollier [eds.] (2013). The Wealth of the Commons. A World Beyond Market and State. Levellers Press (online: ttp://wealthofthecommons.org/)

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Lummis, C. Douglas (1992). Equality. In: Sachs (ed.). The Development Dictionary. A Guide to Knowledge as Power. London/Atlantic Highlands: Zed Books, 38-52

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