In the past, degrowth advocates have demonstrated why capitalism and economic growth are ill-equipped to solve socio-ecological crises and outlined what a degrowth future would look like. While it is now largely clear what degrowth is striving for, how to realize the transformation towards this end-state has not been engaged with satisfactorily.
The Future is Degrowth (TFiD) and Degrowth & Strategy (D&S), two books that now complement the burgeoning popular literature on degrowth, set out to find answers to this underexplored question.
In this review, I examine these two books with regard to their engagement with strategy. I want to make clear that while D&S devotes itself entirely to the question of strategy, TFiD is chiefly concerned with introducing growth critique(s) and degrowth currents, but engages with strategy in the last third of the book.
I begin by briefly addressing the books’ contents. I then more thoroughly elaborate on a degrowth-adapted strategic framework initially developed by Erik Olin Wright, which both books draw on. Having introduced the framework, I juxtapose the books’ operationalizations of and contributions to strategy. Since the books excel on different foci, I conclude by arguing for their complementarity. To begin, let me expand on the theme of strategy once more.
Strategy in and for degrowth
Calls for developing a strategy for degrowth have been increasing in recent years. These calls were preceded by the increasing recognition that degrowth suffers from ‘strategic indeterminism’, that is, a seeming indifference towards the selection of strategies to achieve degrowth futures. While strategy is often perceived to be the sole responsibility of social movements, this review – following the books’ understanding – considers strategy an issue pertaining to all actors advocating for or sympathetic to degrowth. However, this is not to say that different actors should not employ distinct strategies. Strategizing must not single out any one group but ought to be conceptualized and acted upon through a collaboration of degrowth and allied actors.
Degrowth & Strategy
D&S was edited by Nathan Barlow, Livia Regen, Noémie Cadiou, Ekaterina Chertkovskaya, Max Hollweg, Christina Plank, Merle Schulken and Verena Wolf, spans 407 pages and was published by MayFly books in 2022. D&S brings together contributions from 46 authors.
D&S is introduced by the editors, who outline the development of the book and its explicit focus on strategy. While stressing the need for “an intentional mix of strategies” for degrowth, they also call for preserving the multiplicity within degrowth and allied movements and communities.
Part 1 of D&S (Chapters 1 to 10) explores strategy in degrowth through rather theoretical avenues, emphasizing the relevance of strategy for social-ecological transformation while urging us not to see strategy as in conflict with diversity and plurality, and to generally strategize “with our eyes wide open”.
A strategic framework for degrowth
In the second chapter, Chertkovskaya presents a degrowth-adapted version of a strategic framework developed by Erik Olin Wright, which conceptualizes and systematizes strategic actions that propel transformation beyond capitalism. The framework distinguishes three ‘modes of transformation’ (interstitial, symbiotic and ruptural) and six strategic logics (two per mode of transformation), which are comprehensively visualized in the strategic canvas.
The interstitial mode of transformation is concerned with developing alternative structures in the cracks of capitalism. This can take the form of resisting, which translates to raising awareness about a pressing issue from the margins of capitalism (e.g. a climate justice protest), or that of building alternatives in the form of bottom-up cooperatives and commoning (e.g. an eco-village, community-supported agriculture).
While interstitial initiatives can run the risk of being relegated to ‘unscalable’ niches and therefore merely escaping capitalism, they are capable of creating power outside the capitalist system and constitute “building blocks of an alternative society” according to Chertkovskaya.
The symbiotic mode of transformation aims to tame or dismantle existing structures and institutions, “making use of available governance and existing instiutions” to create space for, support and complement interstitial initiatives. Taming constitues reformist policies (e.g. caps on emissions, work-time reduction, conditional bail-outs) while dismantling represents more profound and structural changes (e.g. altering ownership structures). Within the smybiotic mode, the strategic logic of dismantling should be prioritized as it is less prone to co-optation and because taming might simply be insufficent for radical transformation.
Lastly, the ruptural mode of transformation involves halting, which is a confrontation with existing capitalist structures to the end of harm reduction (e.g. occupying a coal mine) and smashing, which is a break with existing structures (e.g. occupying and overtaking a production facility). Evidently, smashing can enable the strategic logic of building alternatives. Chertkovskaya cautions that ruptural modes are to be applied deliberately to overcome capitalist structures in specific spatio-temporal contexts rather than in an attempt to overthrow the global capitalist system in one go.
This strategic framework is foundational to the book, with most of the remainder of Part 1 remaining in dialogue with it. For instance, Chapter 6, deviating from the strategic canvas, proposes a fourth strategy, namely ‘communicating’. Chapter 8 foregrounds the critical evaluation of strategy, which is claimed to be especially important for symbiotic strategies. In it, Panos Petridis suggests that strategies can be attributed ‘emancipatory potential’ when they: (1) are a direct result of bottom-up social movement demands, (2) resonate with a set of emancipatory moral principles (equality, democracy, sustainability), (3) contribute to building democratic institutions and, (4) are compatible with the current and the envisioned society.
Part 2 (Chapters 10-19), which to differing degrees applies this strategic framework, addresses ‘strategies in practice’. It explores transformation pathways in provisioning sectors such as food, housing and energy and rethinks economic and political organization in domains such as care, paid work, and trade. While the remainder of this review only engages with the theoretical considerations the book contributes in Part 1, I want to emphasize that Part 2 inspired me to think critically about transformation possibilities in various sectors as well as in political-economic organization. The case studies accompanying each chapter vividly exemplify what degrowth can look like and where real-world challenges lie.
The Future is Degrowth
TFiD was written by Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter and Aaron Vansintjan. It spans 310 pages and was published by Verso Books in 2022.
The first part of TFiD (Chapters 1 to 4) constitutes a comprehensive introduction to the why and the what of degrowth. In it, the authors address the origins of degrowth and demarcate it from other proposals. Chapter 2 brilliantly analyzes and problematizes growth “as a core feature of capitalism” by describing three different manifestations of growth: a “relatively recent” but hegemonic political-economic idea, an idea-preceding ‘social process’ and a ‘material process’. Further, it outlines seven ‘growth critiques’ that converge in degrowth before providing a conceptualization of five currents present within degrowth. These are the institution-oriented, the sufficiency-oriented, the commoning or alternative economy, the feminist, and lastly, the post-capitalist & globalization-critical current. Based on the common denominators of these five currents, TFiD formulates a new definition of degrowth.
At this point, the authors introduce Erik Olin Wright’s “three criteria for evaluating social alternatives”: desirability, viability, and achievability. It is postulated that in order to have a real shot at becoming a concrete reality, degrowth must fulfill all three criteria. The newly proposed definition is framed as proof that degrowth is desirable.
Part 2 of the book is concerned with viability in Chapter 5 (‘whether it could actually work’), and achievability in Chapter 6 (‘how to get there’).
In Chapter 5, packages of radical policies in six areas such as social security and international solidarity are outlined, that ought to make degrowth a viable ‘social alternative’. Chapter 6 discusses the how, by – analogously to D&S – drawing on Wright and arguing for a mutually reinforcing interplay between interstitial (‘nowtopias’), symbiotic (‘non-reformist reforms’) and ruptural (‘counter-hegemony’) strategies.
Strategy and Erik Olin Wright
First, I want to stress that these two books could be compared based on their contributions to themes other than strategy (e.g. the role of the state, technology, geopolitics, coloniality/ colonialism, care and social reproduction etc.). However, from the perspective of the degrowth community, the theme of strategy constitutes a pressing issue that both books address, albeit to different degrees.
As stated in the introduction, D&S clearly articulates that strategy is its central concern. TFiD, in contrast, does not commit to the theme of strategy. However, the book’s engagement with a “political strategy for degrowth” on about a third of the pages is what gives me reason to discuss the book based on its contributions to strategy.
D&S demonstrates a significantly more nuanced understanding of the three modes of transformation outlined by Erik Olin Wright. To give an example, Chertkovskaya recognizes the connotations of all-out socialist revolution underpinning the ruptural mode of transformation, to then argue that a conceptual shift to context-specific temporal and local applications of rupture is more fruitful.
TFiD’s initial understanding is closer to the original meaning (“revolutionary confrontation and taking down or over the state” ), while on the subsequent page, this is toned down to ‘organized resistance’ without explaining this drastic shift.
Additionally, D&S offers some guidance in terms of prioritization between strategies, asserting that “interstitial transformation [is] at the core of degrowth practice” with symbiotic and ruptural transformation taking supporting roles. Contrarily, TFiD emphasizes that “the transformation (…) requires an interplay among these three strategies” which is well-reasoned and generally convincing.
However, the fact that in the employment of Wright’s “three criteria for evaluating social alternatives”, viability is argued for purely by means of policies – that is, symbiotic strategies (Chapter 5) – while all three modes share responsibility for achievability (Chapter 6), suggests an implicit prioritization of symbiotic strategies that is not reflected upon by the authors.
D&S repeatedly stresses the risk of co-optation by antagonistic actors and therefore advocates in Chapter 2 – within the symbiotic mode of transformation – for dismantling rather than taming. The conditions to evaluate the emancipatory potential of strategies, presented in Chapter 8 (see above), are similarly developed with the real threat of co-optation in mind. TFiD, in contrast, does not address the potential threat of co-optation at all.
This points to a deeper-running shortcoming in TFiD, beyond the operationalization of Wright’s framework, which is the book’s lack of engagement with internal movement building. While rightfully highlighting the relevance of alliances with, for instance, environmental justice groups (from the global South), it disregards strategizing within the movement, which is an important requisite for transformation.
Contrastingly, D&S strikes a delicate balance between discussing strategy in terms of responding to the question of achieving social-ecological transformation, and in terms of alliance and movement building, with entire chapters devoted to the internal organization of the degrowth networks themselves (e.g. Chapter 5 on a Degrowth International proposal). As outlined in D&S, the very reason that the question of strategy is finally receiving more concerted engagement, is that various conferences repeatedly stressed the need for this.
In sum, D&S offers a much sharper understanding and nuanced advancement of Erik Olin Wright’s framework for anti-capitalist strategy and the question of strategy more broadly. It does this by paying attention to issues like movement building and threats of co-optation. The engagement with strategy in TFiD does neither appear deliberate nor critical, offering “a variety of proposals” in Chapter 5 reminiscent of a policy repository that most certainly inspires but falls short of ‘guiding’, and a compromised application of Wright’s framework in Chapter 6.
The authors of TFiD assert that “[d]egrowth is not a blueprint that needs to be followed. Rather, it is an invitation, a broad set of principles and ideas (…)” . While the authors’ reluctance to propose a ‘blueprint’ is understandable given the need to preserve multiplicity within degrowth and allied struggles, I worry that the second part of their book is perpetuating what has been called ‘strategic indeterminism’.
In my opinion, it is crucial that a book (more) likely to reach readers who are less familiar with degrowth (according to one of the authors, more than 7500 copies of TFiD have been sold), does not convey the impression that degrowth is inherently non-strategic.
On the other hand, TFiD shines with a brilliant analysis of the origins and state of growth hegemony in conjunction with a comprehensive overview of various strands of growth critiques that converge in degrowth. It also offers a concise and engaging overview of the various currents present within degrowth as well as their convergences. The authors demonstrate and systematize the multiplicity of degrowth critiques and currents in a brief and captivating manner that is unlikely to bore anyone with even a passing interest in degrowth.
While the diverse currents are also addressed in D&S (e.g. Chapter 4), providing one clear overview of degrowth currents is something that D&S did not set out to do. Instead, it is more concerned with how different approaches can be reconciled through new ways of internal organization. Due to contributions from myriad authors, the engagement with this issue is somewhat repetitive, which readers unfamiliar with degrowth might find unappealing.
In my opinion, these books are best perceived as two important and complementary contributions to popular and accessible literature on degrowth. If one’s objective is to familiarize oneself with degrowth, TFiD is an excellent starting point. Chapters 1 to 4 constitute an essential read for anyone interested in the critique(s) of growth and capitalism and the alternative future(s) degrowth has to offer.
To readers with a deeper interest in strategizing for degrowth, both as a movement and as a utopian political project, I recommend turning to D&S. The adapted strategic framework based on Wright’s work is an invaluable contribution to the scholar-activist movement of degrowth, which I hope to see furthered by future contributions.