There is no way to begin this essay, at this time, other than by acknowledging the remarkable, mind-bending moment in which we write these words. It is a time of pandemic, one destined to shape the future of human civilisation for years, if not decades ahead. In Australia, the economy has all but shut down, with little open for business besides medical centres and hospitals, supermarkets and food outlets, and a very select number of other essential services. Against every ideological bone in its body, our conservative government has announced unprecedented stimulus packages, to avoid masses of people in our affluent nation from falling into destitution. The Coalition’s ‘jobs and growth’ mantra now seems terribly outdated in these post-normal times, a quaint reminder of when the economic engine was turning.
Because so many people have lost their livelihoods, banks have had to freeze mortgage repayments for six months and rental evictions are currently prohibited. The national and state borders have been closed, and public gatherings of more than two people are banned. Someone in New South Wales recently was fined for eating a kebab on a park bench. All of this was unthinkable a few months ago. Today the curtailment of individual liberties is the new normal. Citizens endure home detention, consumers face rationing, workers accept state subsidies. Homo economicus is frozen like a bug in amber. Next we’ll be queuing for cabbages.
This is the stuff typically reserved for dystopian fiction, not real life, but many other nations around the world are in a similar position to Australia, with more destined to follow as the COVID-19 virus continues its extraordinary disruption. As we write, the date on the computer says 1 April, usually a time for jokes and pranks. We hesitate for a moment: is this for real? Surely someone is playing us for fools. But this is no joke. We are at what seems to be the beginning of a turbulent period whose duration is impossible to forecast. We certainly won’t pretend to fully understand what is happening, and none of us can foresee how this crisis will unfold and what changes it will bring to the world, including its political economy, which for decades has been firmly framed by the diktat of neoliberal globalisation.
For all we know we are writing from within a relative calm that could yet prove to be the eye of an even more transformative hurricane. What if the virus mutates and comes back with a vengeance? What yet lies in store for the so-called ‘developing world’? Will the ‘old world’ (the pre-crisis order already seems strangely distant) simply ‘snap back’, as willed by one of its chief spruikers, Prime Minister Scott Morrison? It is a time of promise and potential, but also great risk. Apparently, workers and businesses will have to accept the cessation of state support in six months, and the clock’s already ticking. Good political luck with that! The point is, though, that this is already looking like a time of radical opening in thought and action. Even the neoliberals are shifting ground and rhetoric. For now, all we can do is nod approvingly at the words degrowth scholar Jason Hickel recently cast out into the Twitterverse: ‘Capitalist realism is over. Everything is thinkable’. Indeed it is.
A crisis within a crisis
Utterly tragic though the pandemic is—and it is not over yet—we need to remember that COVID-19 is a crisis within a broader ecological and humanitarian crisis. In short, it is a crisis of the political economic order and all that depends on it (and endures and suffers from it). An insouciant Promethean neoliberalism has been made to suffer what Engels memorably described as the revenge of nature, in this case the terrible furies of a virus that, despite all crypto-racist urgings about its Chinese origins, can only be regarded as a reminder that humans are inseparable from a wider ecology that supports them and gives them life. It is a lesson in humility, a reminder that there are many things we cannot control, try as we might to force nature to bend to our will.
And what a visiting season nature has imposed on us in recent times. It was only months ago that Australia was ablaze, suffering a devastating fire season, drawing international attention, owing to conditions that were exacerbated by global heating. It is estimated that over one billion animals perished in the furnaces—one billion! Who has the emotional capacity to understand that statistic? And what does next summer portend for our shared Anthropocene?
In the sudden new COVID order, mourners are restricted in number at funerals. This extends by analogy to the many other environmental deaths under way, attention to which has been smothered by the latest crisis. Who is currently permitted by the global media and political priority to mourn the grinding loss of planetary ecology? As we write, the Barrier Reef is suffering yet another seemingly terminal bleaching event. The last great earthly forests in Siberia and Brazil are being remorselessly hacked away towards some kind of deathly tipping point. Increasingly there is talk of a Sixth Mass Extinction, while we recall the haunting phrase from James Lovelock that the face of Gaia is vanishing. The ‘COVID erasure’ of the many dying planetary and regional ecologies speaks a great deal about the current historical political economy that locks us into the treadmill of the present, refusing all consideration of consequence and legacy. And here we are again, with nature visiting revenge in a manner that commands the attention of the dumb beast of neoliberalism by attacking its innards: free trade, consumer sovereignty, land rent and—let’s call it out—the ability of capitalism to extract surplus value, always an embodied treasure, from disease-threatened populations.
If there is one thing the coronavirus shows, it is that collective entities—in this historical moment, neoliberal states and their civil societies—really can act as if the house is on fire when we feel it is urgent enough. Therein, however, lies the catch: when we feel it is urgent enough. And, of course, the limits of action are now asserted in the rhetoric of the ‘snap back’ or ‘bounce back’. Contemporary states, recently assayed and reframed by conservative populism (certainly in the Anglophone world), continue to refuse to acknowledge that climate change, species extinction, topsoil erosion, deforestation, pollution, resource depletion, population, poverty and inequality are real problems of equal or greater urgency.
The morbid political economy of late capitalism, not scientific uncertainty, is to blame for this great caesura in human consciousness. The world knew enough about the science of climate change in 1988 to establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And yet last year, over thirty years after this scientific body was established to warn and guide us, carbon emissions continued to rise. But the growth machine and its vassals, notably the Murdoch-dominated Anglophone media, continued to ignore the science and in recent years to actively attack it. Australia’s increasingly plagued ecology—unprecedented droughts and bushfires and now the pandemic—have shaken the ramparts of denial, but the forces of reaction, by their very name, are always primed to restore the cause of Promethean capitalism. For now, however, they cannot eschew the widely felt sense that something epochal is under way.
The end of capitalism—or merely its suspension?
The social, economic and political trauma caused by the pandemic raises the prospect of an exit from capitalism, about which, to be sure, there has been prolonged speculation and dispute, but which may finally be under way, or is at least prefigured in the current disruptions the virus has invited onto the global stage. The crises of care that this pandemic manifests—both of people and planet—are not new, but they have been highlighted by it, the contradictions deepening and increasingly resistant to resolution within the existing order. There will be no vaccines for these maladies of accumulation that invite death and renewal, no healing of the sickened beast.
This consideration coincides with the dawn of the global urban age and rapid, hypertrophic urbanisation in many parts of the world. Certainly the increasing densification of urban life offers a breeding ground for viruses such as COVID-19—not itself a knockdown case against urban densification, but a further word of warning against any casual celebration of the ‘compact city’. The seemingly paradoxical intersection between these two simultaneous trends—massive system disintegration and vast physical agglomeration—is worth thoughtful consideration.
The prospects for this grand exit are being debated at the levels of meta-theory and observation: Slavoj žižek in philosophy, Wolfgang Streeck in political economy, Rebecca Solnit and Terry Eagleton in cultural studies and, closer to disciplinary home, David Harvey and J. K. Gibson-Graham. All such castings insist upon a mortal, if perhaps not yet morbid, capitalism—they face the behemoths of conventional wisdom that avow faith in system immortality. Capitalism has shown time and time again that it is a dexterous creature, able to twist and turn in hope of avoiding any fatal attacks on its legitimacy and longevity. Indeed, it may not be done quite yet, although its condition is terminal. But the evidence of capitalism’s chronic instability and unsustainability is provided in the natural and social sciences (with the dishonourable exception of mainstream economics), and the humanities, all of which document a series of interlocking deadlocks and defaults at rising spatial scales that manifest as planetary crisis.
Even many on the Left who have traditionally taken the mortal not morbid view of contemporary capitalism—for example, David Harvey—are now persuaded that the system faces seemingly insurmountable contradictions that will force its retrenchment. Similarly, Streeck in his recent writings, notably Buying Time and How Will Capitalism End?, essays ‘five worsening disorders for which no cure is at hand: declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of the public sphere, corruption and international anarchy’. Although political ecology doesn’t feature strongly in Streeck’s work, he acknowledges that global warming and biospheric collapse are certain to intensify these terminal disorders. He believes the post–Second World War ‘shotgun marriage of capitalism and democracy’ is heading for divorce and on very bad terms for the latter. In this time of virus management a creeping authoritarianism is certainly evident—a dangerous but perhaps necessary intervention that must be retracted the moment its expediency has past. But neither Streeck nor Harvey offers even a sketch outline for what dispensation is likely to replace capitalism as it continues its catabolic collapse.
What can we expect during the period of system retrenchment? Streeck writes: ‘On the basis of capitalism’s recent historical record…a long and painful period of cumulative decay: of intensifying frictions, of fragility and uncertainty, and of a steady succession of “normal accidents”’. In short, a period of intensifying and transformative violence.
Now the planetary force of urbanisation itself is a central circuit of accumulation, generating vast new forms of wealth and debt, as well as driving new patterns of urban inequity and vulnerability. Thus, on closer inspection, we might say that colossal urbanisation, hailed in the mainstream as a new engine of human (and capitalistic) prospect, betrays many of the crises, perturbations and failings observed at the system scale. Of real interest is how the hollowed-out state can manage these mighty, sputtering machines that are said to be central to human prospect. We disagree with the cheerful interpretations of this by popular urbanists. The Australian urbanist Elizabeth Farrelly, for example, in her 2008 book Blubberland, intoned that ‘Manhattan—or something like it—is the greenest city on earth’. We doubt that this soaring palace of globally mined wealth should ever be described this way. But not even green urbanism can save the metropolitan citadels from the virus: their poorer inhabitants are bearing the brunt of the rampage. And the question of density, of humans and buildings, is raised, if not answered, by the crisis. Some dense cities—not New York, not London—have managed well so far. We fear, however, for the consequences of Australia’s market-driven vertical urban sprawl of recent decades, whole swathes of our cities remade to the meanest of specifications, with little space for healthy living.
Such new conditions manifest in rapidly evolving political and material crises in shelter, circulation, health and ecology that vex and threaten state capacity, hollowed out by decades of neoliberal rescoping and withdrawal. The current situation of the United States is a stark warning to all other nations that, before the virus, were diving ever more deeply into neoliberal ideology and practice. Today the United States is the richest nation on the planet…and at the same time is accumulating the highest death count from COVID-19. On the one hand the virus is the great leveller, reminding us that rich nations and world leaders are as susceptible to the laws of biology as the rest. On the other hand, as always, it will be the poor who suffer more and whose interests will be subjugated to others’ whenever necessary in order to advance the interests of elites and maintain the system that serves them for a while longer yet.
Clearly, the long grey night of disorder that the ‘morticians’ believe we have already entered, and which seems more and more apparent as liberal democracy dims everywhere, will not be a simple or swift slide into chaos. Authority will surely emerge to stem social and natural disorders and restabilise the political economy. As noted above, we can see this playing out now as governments intervene and manage the economy in unprecedented ways, not to begin building a new world but to do everything possible, it seems, to resuscitate the old one. Further, the urban resilience project, freighted with instincts to enclose and defend, may prove to be a ‘practice swing’ by cities and concerned corporates at what may evolve into a new state securitisation of increasingly unmanageable cities. The ‘climate emergency’ alone has the power to overwhelm existing capacities to manage urban systems in any setting we can think of. There are insufficient capacities in the withered liberal-democratic state to counter, let alone prevent, heat stress, resource disruption and collapse, new disease pathologies, sudden panicked intrusions and extrusions of populations driven by ever more intense and frequent calamities… The list continues and may have no end.
In any case, these disruptions call forth new diagnoses and treatments that were not developed as modern state capacities. The rousing of authority and force for new state action, especially in cities, is in part already manifest. We may discern in these stirrings a new state form, that of pure corporate authority, which could represent another, perhaps final, attempt to ‘buy time’ (Streeck) in the face of system collapse.
Can we equitably contract the economy for environmental reasons?
The question that emerges, then, is: if capitalism is feeding off itself, like a snake eating its own tail, what comes next? This is no tired retreat into old conversations about state socialism or the ‘third way’. A range of ecological, social and financial contradictions indicate that, one way or another, coming months and years will see growing pressure on the global capitalist system and the emergence of new political and economic forms and imaginaries. As crises deepen and intensify, a further descent of some form is under way, with new ecological, technological and social realities destined to disrupt (are already disrupting) the status quo. The human challenge is to ensure that the post-capitalist era emerges as far as possible through design rather than disaster, acknowledging all the while that self-determination is a luxury not available to everyone, particularly those facing the violence of and on capitalism’s new frontiers.
In the midst of the current pandemic, which is causing so much human suffering, it is clear that shutting down the aviation industry and much of consumer culture is allowing a moment for the planet to take pause from the onslaught of global industrialism. For so long we have been told that we just cannot produce less, only more; that the type of economic contraction we see today was not possible. And yet here it is, albeit by disaster, not design. As French philosopher Bruno Latour recently commented: ‘Next time, when ecologists are ridiculed because “the economy cannot be slowed down”, they should remember that it can grind to a halt in a matter of weeks worldwide when it is urgent enough’.
Decades of green censure have done little or nothing to reset the path of growth fetishism, extractivism and consumerism, and yet suddenly, almost overnight, this pandemic has disrupted the status quo, forcing a massive suspension of capitalism. This invites reflection on whether this new crisis could be a prelude, for better or for worse, to a new economic, political and social imaginary. Global society has entered a chrysalis era, insecure but with latent potential. Nothing is ordained, and it is the task of politics, or collective action more broadly, to choose the next world. Still, if public discourse is anything to go by, it seems that the primary goal of politics in this time of disruption is to facilitate a ‘bounce back’ to where we were before the pandemic. Of course, all the evidence suggests that bouncing back would be no solution at all. We must not bounce back. We must bounce otherwise and elsewhere. The key issue then is: bounce to where and how? At this time, can we contemplate a crisis-driven exit from capitalism?
In the prehistory of the present crisis, we explored (in our book Degrowth in the Suburbs) the prospects for a systemic transition away from capitalism via degrowth—planned, managed or imposed. In the radical and surprising opening of thinking and possibility afforded by this historical moment, we offer here some further thoughts on post-capitalist futures and, specifically, how the degrowth thesis itself might be developed, extended or revised.
What is degrowth?
Degrowth is a movement that sees the goal of limitless economic growth as being dangerously incompatible with a finite planet. From this perspective, the notion of ‘green growth’—where it is heralded that economies will grow but in sustainable ways—is a myth. Despite decades of extraordinary technological advance and deep faith in market mechanisms to bring environmental salvation, the so-called greening of capitalism has only produced ever-greater devastation. How long must we wait? With faith in green growth lost, what is needed is a degrowth process that downshifts global material and energy demands to sustainable levels. The growth imperatives of capitalism, however, will not accept this, which is why sustainability implies a post-capitalist world.
Environmental concerns, of course, cannot be isolated from social justice concerns, and the growthists always push back, arguing that the only path to poverty alleviation is via the strategy of GDP growth, on the assumption that ‘a rising tide will lift all boats’. Given that a degrowth economy deliberately seeks a non-growing economy—on the assumption that a rising tide will sink all boats—poverty alleviation must be achieved more directly, via redistribution of wealth and power, both nationally and internationally. In other words (and to change the metaphor), a degrowth economy would seek to eliminate poverty and achieve distributive equity not by baking an ever-larger pie but by slicing it differently.
The lens of the ‘sharing economy’ (at least its more progressive formulations) can also highlight how more value can be acquired from the same ‘slice’ of the economic output. By sharing more between households—facilitated by the internet or by traditional community engagement—less energy- and resource-intensive production must occur to meet society’s needs. Indeed, even in a contracting economy (whether that contraction is by design or by crisis) households can still secure the tools and other things they need, provided that a deeper culture of sharing emerges to replace acquisitive individualism. This soft-sounding notion of sharing entails a bold reinterpretation of ‘efficiency’ implicit in the degrowth paradigm: produce less, share more. Communities will manage a contracting economy more easily if they share the resources they have.
So, people might ask, is the current economic downturn what degrowth looks like in reality? First of all, let’s be clear: degrowth means planned economic contraction. Nothing about the existing economic shutdown in response to COVID-19 was part of the plan for Australia or the world. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago it was almost unthinkable. The plan was economic growth, and then more economic growth. When an economy contracts involuntarily, we know that as a recession or, if it lasts long enough, a depression. Nobody advocates such unplanned economic contraction, because it has all sorts of negative social effects, including rising unemployment, stress and poverty. So degrowth must never be confused with recession.
In terms of sustainability, the risk is that everything will bounce back to ‘normal’ levels of growth and consumption as soon as this pandemic passes. History shows that emissions go down during recessions or depressions but tend to rise again as soon as the growth engine restarts. The question is whether we can manage this pandemic in a way that stops the virus from getting out of control and avoids the ‘bounce back’ to high-impact, carbon-intensive living, while also ensuring that all people feel economically secure in a downshifted economy. The radical challenge this raises becomes especially stark as we read the early estimates from climate scientists suggesting that the current economic shutdown, extensive though it is, may only produce a 5-per-cent drop in global emissions for 2020. What, then, would 50-per-cent emissions reductions look like, let alone a net-zero-emissions economy?
The deep decarbonisation and degrowth required for such contraction would clearly require significant shifts in the ways our economies are structured, including exploring innovative new ways to govern access to land and housing, and having difficult but compassionate conversations about things such as redistribution and population growth. And, if the response to COVID-19 shows us anything, it is that governments can mobilise extraordinary amounts of money when there is political will. This is good news for funding a transition to renewable energy, if we can develop the political will.
A degrowth transition would also mean a cultural recognition that high-consumption lifestyles are unsustainable and that only lifestyles of material sufficiency, moderation and frugality are consistent with social and ecological justice. This challenges us to reimagine the good life beyond consumer culture, thereby sowing the seeds of a politics and economics of sufficiency. Social movements will be needed to help create the support for these structural and cultural shifts. These might include post-consumerist movements that are prefiguring degrowth cultures of consumption by embracing material simplicity as a path to freedom, meaning and reduced ecological burdens; community-led resistance and renewal movements; transgressive and creative forms of the sharing economy as means of thriving even in a contracting biophysical economy; and other social movements and strategies that are seeking to develop new (or renewed) informal economies ‘beyond the market’.
So, while the pandemic continues to unfold, as a society we need to consider whether our ambitions are merely to return to business as usual. Alternatively, shaken awake by this disruption, do we aspire to a radical and final break from neoliberal globalisation and aim to transition to a social form that prioritises human well-being and ecology over material accumulation?
What now for degrowth? A cautionary tale
There is no reason to believe that the current season of forced degrowth represents a permanent and final dislocation of the growth-machine ambitions of neoliberalism. The relatively recent experience of the 2008–09 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and its aftermath is a worrying precedent. There was much joyous banging of cymbals and song from progressive interests as Keynesian desiderata were rediscovered and reapplied, especially and successfully by the Rudd government in Australia. The revealed downside of this reinstatement of ‘progress’ was a failure to grasp that Keynes’ theories predated political ecology and were intended to rescue, not transform, industrial capitalism. Hence, the way out of the GFC was a massive re-stimulation of consumption and all the ecological destruction that goes with it. After a major dip, carbon emissions were quickly restored and, after some mild disturbance, the planet was set back on its path to climate destruction. The shadow of Keynes lay heavy on the re-firing smokestack economies of the world.
We fear this replay for the current crisis, our anxieties deepened by the observation earlier that neoliberalism is a particularly historically insentient beast. The forces willing snap back are immense and omnipresent throughout the Global North. It’s easy to highlight, not to say pillory, the ‘let’s reopen for business’ cant of President Trump, but, as Streeck reminds us, the European Union is a deeply neoliberal institution, essentially a free-trade bloc, that is equally committed in the current historical moment to the earliest possible resumption of the growth machine. The centre-left and green parties typically operate within the same growth paradigm, too often committed to little more than a limp ‘third way’ that talks of ‘greening capitalism’ or giving it a human face. But that is merely going down the wrong road more slowly.
But caution is advised. The cloak of pessimism is too often the disguise of determinism, a tendency that we reject as bad science and politics. Both defeats and victories are snatched from the jaws of historical crises and it’s far too early now to say what will come from the current degrowth moment which we, with the support of Scott Morrison, can type as lockdown. We write, in April 2020, in the steaming mists of the volcanic eruption of the economy and of everyday life. New (or are some old?) social shadows and shapes are discernible: people (often harshly) freed from the neoliberal work frame and finding their way under a closely scripted regime of movement—and, critically, of consumption—laid down by a newly assertive state.
A dialectical play of possibilities is evident, and they are certainly too many to try to list now. But we cannot fail to see on the one progressive hand the radical reassertion of the state and of its care infrastructure, as well as the freeing of households from the treadmill of the neoliberal work order (and all the fractured and gendered coping reflexes that went with it). Equally, we discern and recoil from the authoritarian possibilities unleashed by new state arrogation, especially in Anglophone nations, where populist conservatives reign. Who knows what will emerge from this historical clash of possibilities? Our bleakest vision is the emergence of authoritarian states that will ‘lockdown the snap back’—that is, reanimate the Earth-eating monster and drive us harder and faster to the graveside of capitalism.
On better days, we hope-think for transition, however messy it might be, to a different social order that finally accepts new ideas of growth and progress. And what mature human being doesn’t desire a life marked by growth and self-realisation, a promise-idea seeded most wondrously by the Enlightenment? The simple point of degrowth, and of most radical thought traditions under capitalism, is that this journey mustn’t consume the social and ecological substrates that sustain us.
Will crisis play a consciousness-raising role?
It may be that ever-deepening crisis in the existing system of capitalism is the most likely spark for a paradigm shift in both the political economy of growth and its cultural underpinnings. To say this, however, is not to romanticise crisis like dreamy-eyed optimists. In fact, our view of change is based on a deep pessimism about the prospects of smoother and less disruptive modes of societal transformation. As the pandemic deepens or exacerbates the range of pre-existing crises, it seems that our collective task now is to ensure that these destabilised conditions are used to advance progressive humanitarian and ecological ends, rather than exploited to further entrench the austerity politics of neoliberalism.
How to ground this great and terrible opportunity in everyday life? For those who recognise the potential in this moment to think and act differently, our basic function is to keep hopes of a radically different and more humane form of society alive. The encounter with crisis can play an essential consciousness-raising role, if it triggers a desire for and motivation towards learning about the structural underpinnings of the calamity itself.
We believe that social movements should be preparing themselves to play that educational role, and in fact it is heartening to see this already unfolding in the many inspiring social responses to this tragic time. Among many examples of this, we highlight but one: David Holmgren and the permaculture movement, who are mobilising as we write for the creative renewal of our cities and suburbs. Holmgren’s relaunch of his brilliant RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future during the pandemic exemplifies this vision and faith in grassroots activity. And, importantly, under its warm messaging about restoration of natural ecology and human values lies a serious prosecution of accumulative capitalism.
In the midst of this pandemic, our challenge is to come together and set sail for newer, safer shores and resist the sirens of destruction that would woo us back to the sinking Atlantis of capitalism. This is not a time of species affirmation; it is the hour of gravest peril. It is also a reopening of human possibility. To liberate human prospect, we must cast down, not defend, the burning bridges of a dying capitalist order and be brave enough to entertain the possibility of a permanent and planned economics beyond growth. This pandemic is an ambivalent invitation, even an incitement, to humanity to confront this turning point in the human story with all the creativity, wisdom and compassion we can muster.