Degrowth and the Technocratic turn?

Reradicalising degrowth via, among others, Arendt’s Human Condition, for a green politics of dept

…for now the history of mankind is only the continuation of the history of animals and plants…

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life

Environmentalists have often claimed alliance with nature, as a model and guide for social and economic organisation. Degrowth, compelled by an urgent sense of the need to swiftly retreat from our destructive impact on a vulnerable natural world, is no exception. Coined in the wake of the 1970s ‘limits of growth’ moment by Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, in his 1979 La Décroissance and gaining prominence in the post-crisis 2000s, the degrowth movement is now an increasingly prominent faction of environmentalist politics. Degrowth frames itself as a response to forces beyond our control, unleashed by modernity, industrialism and capitalism, that have run rampant on the fragile ecological systems sustaining life. Writing in Arena in 2022, Samuel Alexander posited that:

if ‘progressive politics’ cannot overcome growth fetishism and the cold logic of profit-maximisation, then we won’t survive progress in any desirable form. And yet these themes of post-capitalism and growth scepticism are unspeakable in mainstream political discourse, perhaps because for many they remain unthinkable.

Yet degrowth, if not always in an orthodox or politically consistent form, has achieved mainstream notice and popularity. Leigh Phillips, a critic of degrowth’s ‘austerity ecology’, suggests that ‘the counter-Enlightenment credo of that clutch of related concepts … dominates in contemporary culture’. Degrowth has undoubtedly risen in stature, and the effects of the pandemic response catalysed a conversation about political intervention to shut down economies—albeit, as Jason Hickel laments, unhelpfully associated with exogenous shocks causing recession rather than planned redistribution. For example, during the pandemic, the author of 2023’s Marx in the Anthropocene (an arcane revisionist vindication of an ‘ecological’ Marx) Kohei Saito’s Capital in the Anthropocene (2020) sold half a million copies and received widespread attention in the English-language press.

Culturally, ‘slow’ movements in art, food and tourism signify the desire for a different relationship to consumption consistent with some degrowth principles. Advocates point to working-time reductions, job guarantees and transition towns as tested examples of degrowth policies. In an essay in Nature contending that ‘science can help’ make degrowth ‘work’, leading proponents of degrowth including Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis cite aligned movements ‘from La Via Campesina, the international peasants’ movement that advocates food sovereignty and agroecological methods, to the municipalist and communalist movements and governments in progressive cities such as Barcelona or Zagreb, which promote policies favouring social justice and the commons’. Unsurprisingly, degrowth is prominent in highly industrialised societies, often with long welfare state traditions, especially in Europe (France is a hub, along with Scandinavian nations). Into its rhetoric of care—gentle, low-impact, harmonious—is mixed the need for rational planning and strictures on consumption and economic development. These impulses reflect a contradiction in degrowth linked to its adoption of nature as a model. Despite its claim to de-naturalise economic growth, environmentalism’s reliance on naturalist metaphors obscures a technocratic thread, which risks obviating its stated political commitments to democracy. It may thus be useful to reach back into the tradition, in particular the work of Hannah Arendt, whose unorthodox stance enables us to reconsider contemporary environmental politics.

Austerity and sacrifice

As Jed Esty writes in The Future of Decline, ‘Nothing epitomises the ethos of decline—or the age of limits—better than the rising prominence of “degrowth” as an economic program’. Linking it to the economic downturn of the 1970s, Esty contends that degrowth is an ‘economic language designed to redeem the culture of contraction, to prepare Americans for the next stage of the long downturn’. He notes the thread of nostalgia running through degrowth’s post-industrial vision, signalling what he calls ‘an elite investment in the idea of pastoralism and sustainability as core principles for American domestic life. At the cultural level, they are a very serious expression of a longing for a better way of life in a deindustrializing nation that has hit the edge of a sick planet’.

Hickel correctly notes that mainstream economics holds the core assumption that growth is good. On the other hand, ethical consumption and localism pervade the mainstream discourse. The idea of a circular, recycled product is paradoxically used to boost consumption. Their uneasy coexistence reflects the basic contradictions in our form of life and the depoliticisation of economic questions. The economy is presented as a force of nature with which we must contend. While ecological thinking de-naturalises the economy, it often proposes to attune human societies with nature. As the sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote in Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk (1995), ‘the naturalistic fallacy shared by ecological critique and its industrial opponents is politically paralysing’. Degrowth oscillates between politicising and de-politicising economic questions according to its chosen naturalist metaphor, to the extent that even proponents like Onofrio Romano in Towards a Degrowth Society (2019) have warned of the tendency to see ‘abandoning the growth regime [as] a “necessity” decreed by nature’ rather than a political decision that can be implemented in different ways.

Degrowth advocates often have to answer for the association with austerity and reduction in standard of living that seems implied by the project. In doing so, it is tempting to draw on the idea of living a harmonious life in balance with natural rhythms, and so to naturalise the postcapitalist political subject. Hickel’s Less is More: How Degrowth Can Save the World (2020) is an exemplary defence of degrowth. One of its virtues is the reply it offers to critical genealogies of degrowth that locate it in austerity politics and anti-modernism, including the alignment of degrowth with Malthusian fears about population. Anti-immigration and even neo-fascist movements in Europe and America have used localism and anti-growth arguments based on ideas of ‘ecological limits’. But leftist ecology distances itself sharply from such conclusions by virtue of its critique of capitalism, colonialism and global inequality, as Hickel demonstrates.

Hickel’s efforts to avoid the association between degrowth and austerity are not as sharply demarcated by Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan and Andrea Vetter, whose genealogy of degrowth in The Future is Degrowth embraces James and Grace Lee Boggs’s 1974 celebration of a revolution that will ‘require the masses to make material sacrifices’. In a sense, being asked to sacrifice on behalf of a higher ideal is part of the sine qua non of mass politics. On the other hand, the pandemic demonstrated that this sacrifice can be intensely private and isolating. The term ‘masses’ also marks this degrowth vision out as an elite politics, suitable to those living with such a level of material abundance that they have forgotten how to appreciate it.

More recently, Kate Soper in her Post-Growth Living (2020) describes the need for ‘affluent peoples … to restrain their material desires in order to secure a more socially just and sustainable global order’. To this end, ‘it is surely also true that a condition of the emergence of a will to sobriety in material consumption will be the fostering of an altered conception of pleasure and enjoyment’. Hickel, too, indulges in a certain self-help proselytising, citing studies by psychiatrists that ‘spending time around plants is essential to people’s mental health’. Soper and Hickel both risk giving the impression that their projects become a kind of planetary lifestyle minimalism, technocratically determining what consumption can be curbed while aesthetically rearranging our lives to make them seem brighter.

Consumption and obsolescence

The ascetic tendency in degrowth’s consumer politics is a response to the epitome of economic dysfunction: planned obsolescence. Because of the centrality of growth as a measure of economic success, Hickel charges economics with obscuring the extent to which capitalist production creates consumer objects which are ‘designed for the dump’, with intentionally short lifespans and obstructions to repair. The whole practice of consumption makes inequality palatable, Hickel argues, and conceals exploitation and dispossession. Likewise, measures of economic activity like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) do not ‘care whether that activity is useful or destructive’. The critique of GDP is far from being confined to left critics, with David Pilling’s The Growth Delusion (2018)attempting to square capitalism with alternative measures of economic prosperity while admiring the technocratic feats associated with ‘green’ development.

Degrowth advocates charge that economics operates with a conception of economic prosperity that fuels an ‘irrational and unsustainable growth race’. While they risk ignoring the rise in standards of living that come with economic growth, especially for poorer nations, Hickel devotes more technical aspects of Less is More to decoupling economic growth from ‘well-being’. But the argument remains restricted to ‘high-income countries’, supplemented by an analysis of global inequality. Hickel recommends global redistribution, arguing that beyond a certain point there is no correlation between material wealth and well-being. As Justin Vassallo points out in ‘Degrowing Pains’ (2023), this argument relies on the recent history of anaemic neoliberal economic growth, which ‘favours asset inflation at the top end and hyper-extractive, disposable consumption for the rest’. It is difficult to determine either empirically or theoretically the threshold at which growth stops being conducive to improvements in human welfare, since ‘welfare’ cannot ultimately be quantitative.

But Hickel demonstrates a positivist belief in the ability to determine humans needs. Similarly, Paul Murphy and Jess Spear’s ‘The Necessity of Ecosocialist Degrowth’ (2022) advocates for creating conditions ‘under which people can … discover their real needs’; however, this means ‘choosing more culture, education, or home improvement rather than buying new gadgets or new decreasingly useful commodities’. Whatever you think of the correctness of their proposal, it is a foregone ‘choice’. By dividing consumption into necessary and unnecessary, Hickel can justify a reduction in material wealth for the affluent. He defends this using a behaviourist psychology in which advertising persuades ‘people to buy things they actually didn’t want’ and phrases like ‘the data on this is clear’ when discussing human well-being. The focus on advertising, which Murphy and Spear share, vulgarly psychologises political economy, making consumption a symptom of people’s ideological illusions.

Degrowth also inherits a critique of industrial development that emerged in the post-war boom. Some critics, such as Kenneth Galbraith, asked questions directly about consumption in an essay called ‘How much should a person consume?’ (1958). Later, William Leiss’s The Limits to Satisfaction (1976) introduced a critique of ‘the More the Better’, or what degrowth advocates call ‘growthism’. These currents fuelled anti-globalisation and anti-consumerist movements. However, other critics such as Alain Touraine, Ivan Illich and before them Hannah Arendt attacked consumption, less as a site of new identity formation or for its contribution to growth, and more as a symbol of the kind of society and economy inaugurated by modern industrial development.

The endless economy

In The Human Condition (1958), Arendt identified ‘the extent to which our whole economy has become a waste economy, in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world’. For Arendt, consumption is a natural and necessary part of life as a biological, labouring being, but that it becomes disastrous when implanted at the centre of political, or as she described it, merely social life. Arendt warned that in a consumer society, ‘appropriation [does] not come to an end with the satisfaction of wants and desires’. Hickel and other degrowth writers pick up the idea that the economy has become unmoored from any purposes or ends other than that of consumption. However, for Arendt, the mark of this endlessness is not the ideology of the economics profession. Instead, what drives an economy to pursue endless growth is exactly the extent to which it is a natural process. The organic model, for Arendt, is already incipient in the way classical political economists looked to nature when ‘confronted with the unheard-of process of growing wealth, growing property, growing acquisition’. Arendt writes that ‘this process, because of its apparent endlessness, was understood as a natural process and more specifically in the image of life itself.’

Hickel, along with the tradition of ecological thought often invoked by degrowth, proposes that scientific modernity caught the wrong idea of nature somewhere between Descartes, Bacon and Newton. This enables degrowth thinkers to assert ecological science as a corrective, naively assuming that politics obediently follows theory. A central claim of Less is More is that ‘Ecological science requires that we learn to see the human economy not as separate from ecology but as embedded within it’. This valorisation of ecology as a political and economic model lays the ground for what Ulrich Beck calls ‘a global fusion, rife with contradictions, of nature and society’. Moreover, such a conflation gives licence to what Arendt calls the ‘repulsive’ application of techniques developed for the ‘scientific mastery of nature’ to the management of:

human affairs through an engineering science of human relations… because [we] have decided to treat man as an entirely natural being whose life process can be handled in the same way as all other processes.

Proposing exactly such a unity of nature and humanity, Hickel laments that ‘we see humans as fundamentally separate from the rest of the living community… they aren’t part of us’. The centrality of ‘life’ to ecological thought is evident in, for instance, Maria Mies’s paper ‘Questioning needs’ (2006), which focuses on the ‘people’s abilities to cooperate with each other and with nature in the “production of life”’. In contrast, Arendt shows how the reduction of human action to the production of life ignores the ways political institutions that uphold sustainability and durability require what she calls ‘reification and materialisation [that are] always paid for, and that the price is life itself’.

Hickel writes that capitalism has ‘tipped us out of balance with the living world’. Other thinkers take this more or less literally, proposing the ‘misalignment between the rhythms of society/machine and the rhythms of nature/body’, rooting bodily equilibrium in vegetal analogies. This view echoes the Marxist current following, among others, John Bellamy Foster in Marx’s Ecology (2000), who theorise a ‘metabolic rift’ that interrupts the ‘structured processes of biological growth and decay’. Metabolic relations become the principle guiding economic and political organisation. This imbricates all human activity with the natural world, but for ecological thinkers, we have lost sight of that connection. Jonathan Crary, in Scorched Earth (2022), writes that ‘Modernity is inseparable from the systematic estrangement of human beings from subsistence and from the eradication of the habitats and ecosystems on which survival now depends’. Nature is conceptualised under capitalism as ‘external’ to the economy. The proposed solution is to bring nature into the economy, and further, to model economy and society on ecological processes.

Politics under the sway of nature

Despite the quality of balance and harmony prized by ecologists, growth is exactly what is implied when the economy is modelled on organic nature. Naturalist metaphors, Lorraine Daston argues, can suggest proliferation or competition as easily as they can suggest cyclic stability. She writes in Against Nature (2019):

Nature displays so many kinds of order that it is a beckoning resource with which to instantiate any particular one imagined by humans. A resource can become a temptation … nature functions as justification as well as simple representation.

Given the dominant paradigm in the natural sciences, Arendt argues that treating human activity as just another natural process threatens to ‘reduce man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal’. Analysing the collision of political and scientific perspectives in modernity, with the central place of labour in industrial societies, Arendt is critical of the depoliticisation of the distinctions between human actions, since ‘the human body’s metabolism with nature rests not on equality but on sameness’.

The naturalist metaphors and models employed by degrowth thinkers lends itself to the impression that growth is equally natural. Representing capitalism as a quasi-natural mechanical force leads to the conclusion that the only way to intervene is to interrupt natural processes, which as Arendt points out is what human action accomplishes. Arendt is an astute critic of the naturalist tendency in modern political theory, especially its ostensibly critical analysis of capitalism’s metabolic rift. The submission of society and the economy to natural processes demands

‘ … of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species’. Acts of individual freedom interrupt the course of natural metabolism, whereas labour is ‘unending, progressing automatically in accordance with life itself … ’

Governed by natural processes, little room is left for democracy or political action. This has implications for degrowth’s vision of democratic, planned economic retraction. For Hickel, once we have dropped the ideological blinders of growth ‘it becomes possible to imagine a different kind of economy, and we’re free to think more rationally about how to respond to the climate emergency’, and yet he also insists that a degrowth society would be ‘in key ways familiar’.

Post-capitalism as ecological technocracy

Relying on dubious (evolutionary) naturalism, Hickel claims that humans are ‘evolved for sharing, co-operation and community’. The evolutionary metaphor results in the idea that ‘we must take steps to evolve beyond capitalism’. Nevertheless, since political conditions alienate us from these capacities, managerial intervention is required, for instance using quotas to rationally assign energy use, as in Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese’s proposal ‘Planning an Ecosocialist Utopia’ (2022). Their embrace of socialist planning is moderated by Hickel’s emphasis on ‘open discussion’, which he calls the ‘ultimate democratic act’. But his model of open discussion is derived from consensus models that inevitably result in ‘the ability to all agree’, which Hickel himself acknowledges means a majority can ‘overrule the selfish minority and keep their destructive impulses in check’.

Given this consensus model, both critics and proponents recognise that degrowth faces challenges in moving from small (affluent) communities to the national and international level, shifting from democratic discussion to technocratic expertise. This shift of register scales up ‘lessons’ from one ecosystem to another, as when, in one of Hickel’s most egregious natural metaphors, he indulges in citing ‘quantum physics’ and ‘mycorrhizal networks among plants [that] operate like neural networks in humans’ which ‘facilitate transmission, communication and co-operation …’. Naturalist metaphors also avoid the impression of ‘robust ideological antagonism’, something eco-modernists like Phillips and Matthew Huber embrace. Beck warns that the scientistic inversion that accompanies degrowth’s naturalist metaphors accepts the premises of bureaucratic rationality and risks ‘the intensification of technocracy’ in the management of ecological crisis. Ecological politics, he argues, ‘have remained technocratic and naturalistic at their core’, resulting in the increasing centrality of science to the management of society. While degrowth expresses scepticism about the role of technology in an economic transition to ecological sustainability, its politics belie a technocratic element that involves having the right data and ordering society on natural, holistic lines.

The ecological imperative’s authoritarian lurch

Valérie Fournier, in ‘Escaping from the economy’ (2008), suggests Arendt as a ‘precursor’ to degrowth politics and concedes that there is ‘a long-lived tension within environmentalism between a commitment to democracy and grassroots participation on the one hand, and a concern for immediate action and results in the light of rapid ecological degradation on the other’. She suggests that unlike deep ecologists, ‘degrowth proponents are as keen to escape the “force” of nature as they are from the force of capitalism or the market. Degrowth is not presented as an ecological imperative (though it may be that too)’. Fournier presents degrowth as not only ‘foregrounding democratic choices and debates in the shaping of the economy’, but ultimately ‘escaping from the economy (sortir de l’économie)’. Despite assurances to the contrary, however, even Fournier’s degrowth vision promises a post-economic (and so post-political) harmony. In doing so, it re-doubles naturalist metaphors to multiple, contradictory ends.

The risk of naturalism in environmental politics is that, combined with its use of emergency and crisis conditions, the technocratic impulse can easily become the ‘midwife of new forms of authoritarian governance’, as Ingolfur Blühdorn proposes. Degrowth intensifies environmentalism’s focus on limits and boundaries, at times not only depoliticising them as natural facts but individualising them through consumer politics. As Onofrio Romano reflects, ‘Taking refuge in the fixed idea of catastrophe is the first symptom of the “political” weakness of degrowth’. It is a sign that growth ‘cannot be contended with’ on its own terms and that ‘our only option is to claim the alliance with a superior majesty, transcendent and impolitic: “nature,” to be precise. We ask nature to carry out the dirty work in our place’. Degrowth envisages democratic processes leading of necessity to a postcapitalist society that has left behind the trappings of economy and adopted ecology. But democratic processes are not determined in advance.

Degrowth struggles to avow its partisan position in a democratic process. The ecological technocracy implicitly endorsed by degrowth forecloses the space of environmental politics to the detriment of its aspirations as a political movement achieving mass support. Without a collective base, the degrowth agenda can just as easily serve the needs of technocratic managers as they usher in an era of restriction and constraint at the price of politics. In attempting to reconcile democratic and rationalist political visions, advocates employ naturalist metaphors to defend social harmony and economic stability based on an idealised, selective conception of ecology. Arendt warns that this model of nature erodes the foundation of political life. Economic and political action are forfeited for naturalised processes of integration into an ecological framework that only a priestly caste of scientists can interpret.

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About the author

Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a writer and academic with work published in Overland, Arena, Memo Review, Index Journal and elsewhere. He is a former editor of demos journal and associate editor of Philosophy, Politics, Critique. His website is found here.

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