The Politics of Post-Growth

January 2, 2019

The Post-Growth 2018 conference at the European Parliament marked a milestone in the history of the post-growth debate, which has predominately been contained within academic circles. In the first part of a two-part interview, Riccardo Mastini discusses the possibilities and challenges for imagining a world beyond growth with two key post-growth thinkers at the conference.

Riccardo Mastini: We are here in the European Parliament talking about post-growth with academics such as yourselves, but more surprisingly with officials from the European Commission and MEPs. As longstanding thinkers of a world beyond growth where does the battle to imagine a world without growth stand today?

Tim Jackson: It’s still a difficult debate, but not as difficult as it has been. It’s interesting to think of it in historical terms, kicking off with Robert Kennedy’s speech at the University of Kansas in 1968. In that speech, Robert Kennedy wasn’t just questioning GDP as an indicator, he also talked about what makes life worthwhile and what we mean by social progress. That speech is significant in its philosophical and social content and its vision of a different kind of society. In the 50 years between that speech and today much has changed, including in the measurements sphere. The Stiglitz Commission published its report on measurement of social progress in 2009, coinciding almost exactly with the financial crisis. Around the same time, the degrowth movement was beginning to emerge. Over the last 10 years, the conversation has been richer, deeper, and has increasingly involved civil society and resonated with the public.

Yet the debate still doesn’t quite reach political ears in a comfortable way and that’s what is slowly beginning to change. When I wrote Prosperity Without Growth 10 years ago, I was reporting to the British Prime Minister. But as a whole the government wanted it to go away. The report was seen as too uncomfortable and as coming at the wrong time. It challenged the task in hand, which the government saw as getting growth back again after the financial crisis. Today however, it’s increasingly possible to have those conversations in parliament. The virtue of what we have done in today’s conference organised by Philippe Lamberts is to create a space in a parliamentary context to have that conversation about the growth-based economy and about a post-growth vision.

Riccardo Mastini: How much progress has degrowth as a current of thought made in provoking a wider societal debate?

Giorgos Kallis: Whenever I step out of the Twitter echo chamber and of my academic circles, I am reminded that we still have a long way to go and have only just begun to open some space for conversations about growth and degrowth. But I take strength from the fact that we are producing more and better knowledge and are engaging more people in our research. We’re not just showing that we are overshooting ecological limits, but are exploring alternatives too. The younger minds that join the degrowth discussions are excited and bring fresh ideas. At the degrowth conferences, I see energy and new people – both researchers and activists – putting their bodies on the line to stop fossil fuel extraction whilst thinking seriously about how we can live differently and the politics to get us there. In the political sphere, some small changes give me hope. For example, I hear that the main opposition in the UK, the Labour Party, is open to contemplating a narrative not based around growth and that young people in the Democratic Party backing Bernie Sanders in the US discuss ecosocialist ideas. So I can see some potential openings.

Riccardo Mastini: Would that be an opening to the extent of a political candidate or social movement making degrowth its primary issue?

No, I never thought that degrowth would be a movement like the workers’ movement, with political parties arguing for degrowth and elected on degrowth platforms. A successful political movement is going to be about many different aspects of social justice and economic transformation, not just degrowth. My aspiration is that degrowth ideas are taken up by broader social and political movements and become common sense for many people, possibly even people in power.

In one sense we are in a worse place than we were in the 1970s, and in another sense we’re better off. In the early 1970s, the European Commission’s President was Sicco Mansholt, who had read The Limits to Growth and who even called for zero growth in Europe. Jimmy Carter in the US was also open to the idea of limits to growth and the need for frugal life. However,  after the second oil crisis and the ensuing recession, Ronald Reagan decimated Carter and dismissed any idea of limits so that they went completely off the political radar in the 1980s. Even the Greens came around to ‘sustainable development’ and ‘ecological modernisation’, though of course this led nowhere. While degrowth has not made as big a headway in the policy sphere today, its grassroots supporters are getting bigger and will not just go away. The conversation was even kept alive through the financial crisis and will keep on going and growing.

Riccardo Mastini: Doesn’t the rise of right-wing neoliberalism threaten this progress and potential of the degrowth movement?

Giorgos Kallis: It is easy to be pessimistic nowadays. Here at the European Parliament, we are debating reasonably with people who worry about climate change, though they might still think green growth is possible. But what about the people who openly deny climate change and want to pursue growth at all costs for the benefit of the rich? Trump and the many various hard-right governments around the world represent a backlash of climate denial and the drive for growth. I would include Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, India, Turkey, Australia, and now Brazil too. Environmental activists are murdered with impunity and terrorism laws are used against environmental protests. We have minor openings discussing degrowth or ecosocialism, but there is also a hardening and an acceleration of the opposite pole and this is frightening.

Riccardo Mastini: Tim, your report on growth came out during the financial crisis when everybody was desperate for recovery and renewed growth. Today, if we look at the US economy under Donald Trump, growth is back, at the expense of the environment, public finances, and labour rights, but questioning it is still difficult. When is it easier to talk about growth: when you have it or when you don’t?

Tim Jackson: Just before the financial crisis when we were deciding to conduct the study that later became Prosperity Without Growth, I had a conversation with one of Gordon Brown’s advisors at the Treasury and he said to me, “Actually, I think we’ve got growth licked. We know how to keep growth growing. Inflation is stable. Government finances are stable. Debt is below 40 per cent. This is a good time to talk about going beyond growth-based economy.” Of course, actually we hadn’t got growth licked. We didn’t know the fragilities that were emerging underneath GDP growth in terms of debt, division between rich and poor, and between those who own assets and those who held that debt. But these fragilities were what brought the entire equation down.

The economy undid itself and at the time I thought it was accidental, that it undid itself because we weren’t paying attention to the right things. But in retrospect I think that it was much more fundamental and that we actually destroyed growth from within. Because it was the financial architecture of that growth-based system that motivated the extension of credit, the looseness of monetary policy, and the expansion of balance sheets to the point of instability. The ‘growth fetish’ gave us both the crisis and now the motivation for talking about what might happen beyond the growth-based system.

That’s why this is a really good time to talk about post-growth. It’s not just environmental limits, it’s the growth-based system itself that is running into its own limits. That is the source of the dysfunctionality that we see around us. It’s beginning to dawn on mainstream economists that the growth that we thought we could get was only ever achieved in unsustainable ways – not only in terms of climate change and carbon emissions, but its financial conditions too.

Riccardo Mastini: Even as the contradictions of growth build up, hasn’t post-growth not been taken up simply because no social actor has an interest in it?

Tim Jackson: It’s quite reasonable to say that no social actor has an interest in post-growth, but only if you think of it in a very simplistic way. If you think we’re saying to rich people, “Sorry guys, you’re not going to be as rich as you were” and to poor people, “Sorry, there’s no more trickle-down effect”, then it’s clear that neither the poor nor the rich would vote for a post-growth economy. But there’s another way of thinking about it, which is that inequality between rich and poor, the instability that inequality causes, and the further instability of a financial system created to push for growth against fundamental forces such as declining labour productivity, simply end up making the whole system and its politics more unstable. Then you realise every social actor has an interest in post-growth. These factors turn the idea that ‘turkeys are not going to vote for Christmas’ on its head.

Riccardo Mastini: But if you look at different political parties in Europe, all across the board, post-growth has not been really picked up.

Giorgos Kallis: This is true, but this does not mean that it would be impossible. Some Green and radical Left parties advocate post-growth policies. Barcelona en Comú, the local party that runs Barcelona city council, is a good example. The word ‘growth’ did not feature once in their electoral programme and they nevertheless won. Of course, it’s easier for a local party that has much less responsibility for the economy than those at the national level. But I don’t think that for a potential green-left political movement or coalition it would be impossible to avoid talking about growth or to put forward a programme of ‘prosperity without growth’. Many left and green voters already don’t want to hear about growth. Whether such a coalition could win elections, or whether if it won it would be able to survive a drop in GDP, is a harder question.

Tim Jackson: Alternativet in Denmark, who have quite a big presence in Parliament, are very explicit about their antipathy to growth. The Greens, certainly in the UK, have adopted post-growth now. But it is tough. The one thing that would make it not so tough would be if there just wasn’t any growth anymore, which is this new argument.

Riccardo Mastini: Zooming out from national politics, what would a post-growth world mean for the international system, which sees states trade and compete with one another?

Giorgos Kallis: That’s the question we have thought about least in the degrowth movement because it’s the most difficult. A lot of our thinking tends to look at how one nation could be made stable without growth. But it is true that we live in a globalised economy characterised by competition. Trade is not the first thing that concerns me; I am thinking more about international competition and geopolitics. Geopolitics has its own logic. The power dynamics of the military sphere and economic domination play out with a logic of competition different to that of capitalist competition. Vladimir Putin wants a sphere of influence for Russia to export oil and to strengthen its economy. China wants to build the Belt Road. The United States wants to control oil supplies. Big dynamics of growth come from this competition, which is also competition over military dominance. To think that somehow these power dynamics will wither away by themselves might be too romantic.

Reflecting on the case of Greece, the other problem is that in a globalised world it’s difficult to go your own way. Imagine a scenario where a government from a small country assumes power and says “You know what, we are not interested in growth and are going to try and do without it.” The next day foreign capital would leave the country, triggering a destabilising snowball effect of investment freezes, interest rates rises on debt, and capital flight. Managing the economy to achieve one per cent less GDP might not be that difficult in theory, but the impacts of these secondary effects are easy to underestimate. Greece had little freedom given its public debt and need for borrowing. It could of course have refused to pay, but this would have had other difficult repercussions too.

Especially in the European Union, no country can act on its own any more, even if it wanted to. If the degrowth or post-growth transition is to start, it will have to start in one of the core countries: the US, Germany, England. Post-growth policies have to take root in countries that have the political power at the global level to do things differently while protecting themselves economically.

Riccardo Mastini: What’s the role of the European Union in this respect?

Giorgos Kallis: The European Union is a huge question. The European Union is more like an expression of power. Right now its policies and constitutional constraints are geared towards competition, growth, and so-called innovation. But at the end of the day, the European Union follows what the powerful states of the European Union want. If Germany and France go one direction, it influences the rest of the union. Right now the EU is an obstacle if we think about post-growth policies. Nationalising the transport sector clashes with EU competition rules for example. For some of the policies that we argue for, you need more public sector and less private sector so there is a clear clash with the direction of the EU. Then within the euro, there are certain obligations to make sure economies are geared to growth and managed broadly speaking along neo-liberal principles. The Troika asked Greece to make working hours more flexible and allow work on the weekend. Do you think they would ever concede working time reduction?

Riccardo Mastini: Tim, how would you paint a picture of life in a post-growth world? What are the main traits of a post-growth society?

Tim Jackson: There are opportunities for a richer, more convivial, more altruistic, and more egalitarian society; a society that is fairer, more fulfilling, and more creative. It’s a world that doesn’t necessarily look exactly like News from Nowhere by William Morris, but it has some of those characteristics. People are integrated in that society and work is part of participation in that society. But quality and creativity are the values that frame the tasks people do, not productivity and output. It’s a place where the opportunities for us as human beings to flourish are very different.

We think about the capitalist economy and the democracies of advanced economies as being about freedom, but that’s a particular kind of freedom: the freedom to choose from different products on a supermarket shelf; the freedom to do whatever we want in our free time whatever the impact on the environment; or the freedom to move to a more destructive or powerful job through our career. In trying to achieve those freedoms, we’ve cut down certain others: the freedom to care about each other, the freedom to interact, the freedom to have time to contemplate, the freedom to work on ourselves, or the freedom to have a full and creative life supported by our society and community.

You probably want me to answer questions like “Will I still have a mobile phone?” But I honestly have no answer to that. I suspect, yes. Because that technology empowers our human desire to communicate, to flourish, to access information, and to develop. But our idea of what it means to live and to learn will not be constrained by that view that we can only do certain things through technology. Instead, we will regain another freedom: the freedom to re-enchant the world and to reinvigorate our capabilities to be human beings.

Riccardo Mastini

Riccardo Mastini is a PhD candidate in Ecological Economics and Political Ecology in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He is also a member of the academic collective Research & Degrowth, of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, and of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and visit his website.

Tags: degrowth perspectives, new economy, post-growth economics