Why do degrowth scholars use the word “decolonise” to discuss the process of changing the growth imaginary? Isn’t decolonisation about undoing the historical colonisation of land, languages and minds? How do these two uses of the word relate?
This blog post is the result from a discussion held between some participants at a Degrowth Summer School in August 2017. While some parts of this blog post are written to confront degrowth theory, we took the time to write up the discussions around the word “decolonise” because we think of degrowth as a project worth supporting and a community who is open to reflection. We recognise degrowth is an important academic and activist movement, which correctly diagnoses economic growth as a root cause of social and ecological crisis. We would like to see degrowth concepts spread. However, we have a problem with the use of the term decolonisation within degrowth literature.
Among the many ways to explain the degrowth key concepts, one common phrase is the ‘decolonisation of the social imaginary from economic growth’, first proposed by French economist and degrowth philosopher Serge Latouche. Here, the idea of decolonisation is co-opted to convey an idea of degrowth-based liberation.
In this blog post we want to question, whether decolonisation is the right and appropriate word to use. Placing decolonisation into a degrowth definition denies what decolonisation means. It turns it into degrowth jargon. This also doesn’t help alliances between degrowth and decolonisation movements, which we believe are necessary for degrowth to address growth as a global phenomena.
Exploring Decolonisation from Post-Colonial Studies
Let’s start by asking what colonisation and decolonisation mean to us. There are no (and shouldn’t be) universally accepted definitions. It’s not our place here to suggest what decolonisation is and isn’t. But examining a few examples shows that decolonisation doesn’t fit with what the degrowth usage suggests.
Colonisation is the process when a nation territorialises a landmass and its inhabitants. Colonisation removes structures of local self-organisation and replaces them by structures of dependency. Dependency is central for the domination. A colony is not a nation by itself, but merely a governed part of the colonised nation. Over history this governing has been implemented through brute force as genocides and slavery as well as by building economic structures of dependency. Economic structures are a central part of this dependency. Colonialism extracts the resources for the imperial nation and sometimes even sells them back to the country of origin. For example, the British extracted raw cotton from its colonies, manufactured it into cloth and sold the cloth back to inhabitants of the colonies.
While a number of significant empires used colonisation to expand, as for example the Romans who termed it, the term colonisation is today usually associated with European nation states colonising the continents of Africa, America, Asia and Oceania since the 15th century. Partly because Europe took colonisation to a global level, but mostly because the structures set through this colonisation still form the world as we experience it today.
Decolonisation describes any process which removes the structures of colonisation. Because it is a process of reverting structures of dependencies, it is often termed as ‘achieving independence’. This includes retreat of imperial military and construction of an autonomous local government. Decolonisation also includes economic autonomy. This is why the Indian independence movement wove their own cotton into cloth and refused to buy the British product.
Decolonisation also includes reverting structures of dependency within the individual mind and social imaginary. A subjection of the mind is part of the colonising process. European colonisers could not maintain control of the colonised territory and all its inhabitants with military force alone. Decolonisation can therefore be conceptualised as a mental process of changing beliefs and thought processes, rejecting a dominant belief of how the world functions and replacing it with an alternative. It is this concept which leads to Latouche to write: “One form of uprooting a belief is readily formulated through the metaphor of decolonization in the analysis of North/South relations”.1
Decolonisation of the mind
Latouche refers to the literature of post-colonial studies. This literature discusses the process of European colonisation and countering independence movements. Within this literature the phrase ‘colonisation of the mind’ was used by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, He argued that the continued use of colonial languages such as English in Africa and also ironically within decolonial studies show that the dominance of imperialist nations is still present. The act of colonising includes, besides the genocide and land taking, also a colonisation of those who survived. Establishing English as the main language in the British colonies was a way to establish the British rule. We are writing this blog post in English here because we are dependent on an audience to understand us and frankly, because we do not have another language at our disposal. The colonial structures still shape our everyday experience.
The colonisation of the mind can also describe internalised racism. In the 1952 work “Black Skin, White Masks” Franz Fanon argued that black children in the North grow up in surroundings, that teach them that they are inferior to white people. Based on psychoanalytic theory Fanon argues that the subjected black person has lost their native culture and has no other choice but to identify with the dominant culture around them. However, the white culture despised them and no matter how much they wear white masks, the black person cannot be fully white. They are left with a constant feeling of inferiority. They cannot overcome this inferiority as long as their self-concept is dependent on the western culture. Similar concepts have been developed within Black psychoanalysis by Derek Hook (A Critical Psychology of the Postcolonial) and Albert Memmi (Colonizer and Colonized).
A decolonisation of the mind can also be directed at the imperial counter-part. James Baldwin said: “I’m not a negro, I am a man. If you think that I am a negro, that means you need him and you need to find out why.” With this word’s he refuses the subjection as the colonised and places the responsibility on white people to explore the racism in their own psyche.
In connection Edward Said’s well know work ‘Orientalism’ argued that European imagination of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East is shaped by a process of ‘othering’. The European self is established in demarcation with the ‘oriental other’. The occident is rational, because the orient is irrational. It is strong and honest, because the other is weak and deceitful. Decolonising imaginaries in this context would mean to learn that the world is not divided as orient and occident. Islamophobia right in the middle of what we call western societies and far right movements as Pegida show us how relevant such a decolonisation would be.
What all these texts have in common is the admission that colonisation takes place on the intimate levels of language, self-concept and subconscious. In turn, decolonisation of the mind means taking ownership of your subjection as a Person of Colour and establishing your identity outside system of “white” and “other”. Decolonising of the social imaginary here would mean to imagine a world without imperialism by overcoming euro-centrism.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines decolonization as “the withdrawal from its colonies of a colonial power; the acquisition of political or economic independence by such colonies”. The authors above demonstrate that colonisation was more than the possession of colonial territory. But to use the term decolonisation to describe only the process of changing the social imaginary neglects the embodied and economic history of colonisation. Decolonisation also needs to include material processes such as the de-territorialisation of colonised land and building economic structures of independence.
There is a lot of important decolonisation scholarship exploring issues of ‘settler colonialism’. This refers to the experience of colonisation in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and other places where colonisation was not focused only on controlling territory and extracting wealth. Colonisation here included making new lives in the colony. This process was frequently genocidal, and devastated indigenous cultures, economies and lives. To quote Tuck and Yang2:
Settler colonialism is different from other forms of colonialism in that settlers come with the intention of making a new home on the land, a homemaking that insists on settler sovereignty over all things in their new domain. Thus, relying solely on postcolonial literatures or theories of coloniality that ignore settler colonialism will not help to envision the shape that decolonization must take in settler colonial contexts. Within settler colonialism, the most important concern is land/water/air/subterranean earth (land, for shorthand, in this article.) Land is what is most valuable, contested, required. This is both because the settlers make Indigenous land their new home and source of capital, and also because the disruption of Indigenous relationships to land represents a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence.
This leads to the conclusion that: Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies.
Decolonisation in a settler context is often about reclaiming self-determination. This can include reviving language and cultural practise, reclaiming stolen land or resurrecting the possibility of indigenous ontologies and legal systems. Decolonisation in Aotearoa New Zealand demonstrates the breadth of the work. Campaigns have won support for Te Reo Māori – the Māori language, through Māori language schools and public broadcasting. Māori have fought for co-governance of rivers and areas of land. This has included changes granting rivers and areas of land legal personhood. There are ongoing debates over ownership and stewardship of water and land, and discussions about a new constitution that will better reflect Māori worldviews and values. The is an example of decolonial practise, where structures of autonomy are re-built.
We have given you a number of decolonial examples. The revival of local languages, overcoming internalised racism within the mind of the colonised and the coloniser, imagining the world as plural not occident and orient and very practically building economic strucutres of independence and giving back land. Decolonisation means all of these things. To use the term decolonisation in a way that doesn’t respect these possibilities is an enclosure and a co-opting of the term.
Origins of ‘Decolonisation’ in Degrowth
So how does degrowth use the term decolonisation? The original formulation belonged to Serge Latouche, the French degrowth philosopher. He has published a book in French, Decolonise l’imaginaire.
Latouche describes the genealogy of the term in a chapter of the book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era (2014) dedicated to ‘Imaginaries, Decolonisation of”. He sees it as combining two strands of thought important to degrowth. The first is the idea of the social imaginary coming from Castoriadis. The second influence is an understanding of colonisation taken from ‘anti-imperialist anthropologies in relation to mentalities’. These anthropologies, Latouche acknowledges, are focused on colonised nations. But he goes on to suggest:
In the West, when we speak of the colonization of the imaginary we are dealing with a mental invasion in which we are the victims and the agents. It is largely self-colonization, a partly voluntary servitude. Hence the term “decolonization of the imaginary” marks a semantic shift. The originality lies in the emphasis on the particular form of the inverse process to the one analyzed by the anthropologists. [our emphasis]
For Latouche, the use of ‘decolonisation’ is a semantic shift. It has originality as a particular form of decolonisation (the inverse process of colonisation). But, once we have made a semantic shift and created a particular form does the term decolonisation still fit? This is debatable to us Perhaps this appropriation of the term is better described as a redefinition, or a takeover?
The idea of decolonising the imaginary in degrowth rests on a specific premise: Any mental invasion is a form of colonisation. The term is used equally to apply to colonial power structures and economic growth. This is the grounds for claiming that a liberation from growth ideology is ‘decolonisation’. This premise is wrong. It is a dramatic redefinition of colonisation.
Subjections of capitalism and colonialism have their own specific histories and processes. The colonisation of the mind describes the process of internalised racism, the control of language and a concept of the world as separated in West and East or North and South.
It is not yet clear to us how degrowth understands the process of capitalist subjection. The mental invasions and social imaginaries of economic growth should be further explored within the degrowth movement. There is the basic idea, that growth is good. There are also the related myths of endless progress delivered by techno-fixes, and of the opportunities for all delivered by a meritocracy. Tim Jackson also suggests that part of the imaginary of growth is an insatiable desire for novelty, fuelled by advertising. These are all interesting ideologies to understand and critique. But they shouldn’t be labelled colonisation.
Decolonisation in Degrowth today
‘Decolonise the (social) imaginary’ is now a widely used concept for capturing an element of degrowth. A search of Google Scholar shows many examples where the term is used to introduce degrowth ideas. The Degrowth conference in Mexico in 2018 is titled ‘The First North-South Conference on Degrowth: Decolonizing the social imaginary”3. Like mould – as it has spread, the term has also become more fuzzy. In Degrowth: A Vocabulary references to decolonisation include ‘decolonisation of public debate from the idiom of economism’ and the abbreviated ‘decolonize imaginations’.
There is no sensible definition of decolonisation that fits with these terms. It’s here that we might ask if decolonisation has become a metaphor in these contexts? It’s not clear. But in any case, for us it’s clear that decolonisation shouldn’t be used as a metaphor. Decolonisation feels right in these contexts, because it is linked to a semantic field related to freedom/liberation/reclaiming power. But, using decolonisation as a metaphor reduces decolonisation to simply a liberating process. This erases the specificity of decolonisation – that it is a response to the colonisation process. Tuck and Yang are very clear on this point:
Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks. The easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization is yet another form of settler appropriation. When we write about decolonization, we are not offering it as a metaphor; it is not an approximation of other experiences of oppression.
Using it for anything else is disrespectful to those who identify as indigenous, people of colour or who are struggling to make a living in areas which are still colonised lands either by settler colonialism or colonial commodity streams.
Alliances between Degrowth and Decolonialisation
We found this critique important because degrowth and decolonisation could build a powerful alliance. Continuous economic growth has a neo-colonial aspect – whether it is land grabbing in Africa, mining in Bolivia, or oil wells in the Amazon. Since colonisation was and is driven by growth, degrowth may open space for decolonisation. This is a key importance of degrowth for the South.
Degrowth researchers are often willing to point out that degrowth is a program intended for the Global North. For example in a review of the Budapest conference titled ‘Degrowth: Unsuited for the Global South?’4 Miriam Lang argues:
The idea is not to impose the concept of degrowth to the Global South as a transformatory proposal originated in the North, as it has often happened with regards to knowledge production. Rather, as suggested in the book Degrowth – a vocabulary for a new era (2015) … it is about opening a conceptual space for countries and cultures in the South to find out what they consider to be a good life.
In order to actually achieve a good life, the Global South requires more than conceptual space. It needs an end to neo-colonial exploitation.
Degrowth has failed to address growth as a global phenomena and by doing so fails to attack colonialism. This is quite disappointing for an academic movement challenging our economy as it must surely be known that the reason for colonisation in the first place was a race between nations for economic growth. Europe discovered the possibility to exploit even more resources further away. They legitimised the violent theft from people native in these lands by an ideology still known to us as racism.
The kind of degrowth we want is one where plurality of worldviews can thrive. Degrowth does not aim to be a totalising ideology. Decolonisation is one of the clearest ways to build this plural world. Honouring indigenous epistemologies and ways of life is crucial for new social imaginaries in many parts of the world. Ways of living without economic growth can be built around concepts like sumak kawsay, kaitiakitanga or ubuntu.
Maybe there are already scholars working on the intersection of degrowth and real decolonisation. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find them, because searching for ‘Degrowth + Decolonisation’ returns mostly generic degrowth results! An accurate use of the word ‘decolonise’ is needed to fix this problem.
We would like to be constructive. Thanks to the wonders of language there are always different ways to express the same idea. The change in the social imaginary promoted by degrowth is not decolonisation – but it is definitely a form of liberation. Here there is a whole range of powerful terms: liberate, free, uncage, or even emancipate. Of course, there are also great ways of defining degrowth that don’t reference the social imaginary of economic growth, but rather look forward to new economies focused on living well.
Degrowth writers occasionally boast about how degrowth is a term that is resistant to co-option (in a way that sustainable development, or green growth are not). Having demonstrated this awareness of the dangers of co-option, it would be nice if the degrowth could avoid a co-option of its own.
It’s helpful to pause here and to reflect on who gets to define what terms mean, and when they can be used. Defining is a form of power. Degrowth scholars would resist efforts to redefine degrowth into austerity, because it is our word. So it might be worth talking to those involved in decolonisation work, before writing ‘decolonisation of the social imaginary’ once more. And to ask yourself a question when you see the term used in degrowth scholarship: “What does decolonisation mean in this context?”
Let’s end with Audre Lorde’s well-known words: “There is no hierarchy of oppressions.” This text is not a call to abandon degrowth as it is now and change to decolonial studies. This text is not attempting to say that de-colonialism is more important than changing the growth paradigm. Unfortunately, both issues have to be addressed in their many facets, as do other issues such as patriarchy. Intersectional feminism has provided a rich knowledge on how all of these issues are entangled with each other. We support any connections between movements and any inspiration we can give each other. But, with the amazing power of language which allows us to keep different concepts in our mind at the same time, we should also keep issues separated enough to let them be clearly named.
The inspiration for this article came from hearing the term ‘decolonise the social imaginary’ used in a description of degrowth by one participant during the Degrowth Summer School in the Rhineland, Germany. Speaking as a Pakeha/white settler from Aotearoa New Zealand and a somewhat whitish brownish woman born in Europe by a woman who grew up under British rule in Asia, we need the term decolonising. We need it to discuss colonisation. And we need it to discuss matters of colonisation within a degrowth context. If you take the word from us (and as a mainly white, European, academic network you are in the position of power to take it from us) you lose any chance to connect these matters.
A note on spelling: Elliot writes in New Zealand English. Hence the spelling is decolonise with an ‘s’. However, we’ve kept the ‘z’ when quoting other writers.
1. Imaginary, Decolonisation of in Degrowth, A Vocabulary for a New Era (2014) Edited by Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, Giorgos Kallis
2. E. Tuck & K.W. Yang (2012) Decolonization is not a metaphor, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 1-40.
Teaser photo credit: The Chilean Declaration of Independence on 18 February 1818