Reply to Robinson on ‘Degrowth?’

Scott Robinson’s ‘Degrowth and the technocratic turn’ presents readers with several challenges. First, the title is curious given that Robinson’s strongest theme is charging degrowth advocates with a turn not to technology but to nature, to ecology—a charge more than once generalised to all environmentalists. He compounds all those who recognise the limits of nature and thus respect nature, writing that ‘ecological thinking de-naturalises the economy’ and ‘proposes to attune human societies with nature’. As a consequence, Robinson damns many climate activists, ecological sustainability standpoints and holistic perspectives forwarded by Indigenous peoples.

This raises a second question related to Robinson’s position, which again, curiously, is not spelt out. Disturbingly, the inference is that Robinson believes in economic development, growth and technology—even consumptionism. Certainly he draws on Hannah Arendt for comfort and a rudder here, but only to steer the article as a negative critique rather than to offer some constructive way forward. In overstating the misconceptions of degrowth as ‘austerity and sacrifice’, Robinson seems to discount boom and bust as capitalist phenomena, and as such associated with growth—not degrowth—economic dynamics.

In short, few of those unfamiliar with the term ‘degrowth’ will be any the wiser after reading Robinson’s article. In fact, my third point is that many will be misled by the ways in which he refers to degrowth. Lest I fall into the same hole Robinson finds himself in, however, I need to spell out that I am a critical advocate of degrowth, having researched, written and engaged in degrowth discourses within and beyond the movement.

As I point out in my ‘Degrowth as a concept and practice: Introduction’, degrowth aims to reframe and recreate economies that respect Earth’s regenerative limits in order to achieve socio-political equity and ecological sustainability. This means improving currently disadvantaged people’s access to basic needs while reducing excess production and consumption by privileged others. As such, degrowth focuses on everyone getting enough. At the same time, ‘enough is enough’: degrowth encourages ‘frugal abundance’ in contrast to overabundance. In other words, it is about quality and conviviality rather than quantity, at the hub of growth imaginaries. It is about living a one-planet footprint in more attractive ways than we do in late capitalism, where the average Australian lives a four-planet footprint. Moreover, the degrowth movement actively works for much greater political participation, and diversity within ecological systems and landscapes along with a flourishing of creativity, care and commoning—all using renewable energy and materials.

Fourth, it is incorrect for Robinson to write that the movement ‘frames itself as a response to forces beyond our control’. Degrowth is a blatantly anti-growth, anti-capitalist movement with a constructive approach to managing a necessary decline in the out-of-control productive forces of capitalism. That limits to growth have been met is now such an accepted fact that only the likes of climate deniers and (neo)liberal ideologues—and they are many, in various cloaks and with numerous daggers—would reject this all-too-material truth. Degrowth supports a democratic and planned response to the need to create an ecologically sustainable mode of living.

There are diverse responses within the degrowth movement as to how such planning can happen. Not surprisingly, these tend either to more reformist, top-down approaches or to radical grassroots responses, both of which assume a transition involving both agents in concert, at least initially. As such, there are many parallels in these degrowth debates with similar factions in the ecosocialist movement. Both of these essentially twenty-first-century movements mainly draw from participatory models of democratic decision-making. However, Robinson’s conflation of works in one movement with works in the other is inadmissible. This is especially the case given that democratic (eco)socialist planning tends to centrism, bureaucracy and technocracy, whereas degrowth advocates are very wary of productivist socialist approaches.

At one end of the degrowth spectrum are immediate strategies and long-term visions for, say, a decentralised ‘community mode of production’ with local collective sufficiency, emphasising consensus, subsidiarity and direct democracy as outlined in my Beyond Money: A Postcapitalist Strategy. At the other end of the spectrum are ideas of immediate government action to encourage or outright eradicate high consumption and incomes, to highly regulate, take over, and/or abolish certain (for example, fossil fuel) industries and associated agricultural methods, and to engage state agencies in (re)developing infrastructure to deliver basic services freely, but in rationed amounts.

Fifth, Robinson seems ignorant of degrowth and ‘basic needs’. Discourses around basic needs, what they are and how can they be met are central to degrowth debates. The basic needs of various people vary, including over the course of each individual’s life depending on their different activities and places (climates and built environments). Moreover, basic needs can be satisfied in diverse ways (options). Degrowth acknowledges that identifying basic needs and how they will be met should be decided as democratically as possible, on the basis of subsidiarity. At the same time, a respect for the potential and limits of ecological needs (a regenerative approach) is integral to decision-making over the what, how and who of satisfying those basic needs.

Sixth, Robinson’s side-swipe to Kohei Saito’s commercially successful but ‘arcane revisionist vindication of an “ecological” Marx’ is out of step with the esteem that many Marxists give to this philosopher’s work. A collaborator on the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) project, among other awards, Saito’s work based on his doctoral thesis won the 2018 Deutscher Memorial Prize for Marxist Research, making Saito the youngest, and first Japanese, recipient of the award. Undoubtedly, for Robinson, Saito’s real sin is to argue for deceleration: for ‘degrowth communism’. Saito’s most recent work that has been translated into English, Slow Down: How Degrowth Communism can Save the Earth, offers alternative perspectives regarding ‘limits’ and ‘choice’ which cast shadows over Robinson’s charges of degrowth’s naturalism and democratic deficit.

For instance, Saito’s chapter on scarcity elaborates on the artificial capitalist creation of scarcity: ‘scarcity is capitalism’s essence’. He concludes that ‘we must realize that there’s no naturally existing “limit” out there for us to surpass’. Rather, limits depend on political decision-making and a combination of ‘economic, social and ethical determinations’. Significantly, representative democracy ‘always reaches its limit when faced with the power of capital’. In contrast, voluntary and collective self-limitation is ‘anti-capitalist, revolutionary action’ in line with Marx’s arguments regarding necessity and authentic freedom grounded in ‘collective cultural activities’.

Seventh, Robinson correctly emphasises the significance of the social metabolism (societal flows of material and energy) to the degrowth agenda. But he incorrectly links ‘scepticism about the role of technology’ with a political tendency to an ‘ecological technocracy’. I suggest that theorists of a steady-state economy and democratic socialist models have strong bureaucratic and technocratic tendencies, but that only a minority of those declaring themselves to be degrowth supporters are prone to such elitist models. In fact, the degrowth movement’s approaches to the roles of technology have led in much more productive directions, as epitomised initially in the work of Ivan Illich, and more recently that of Andrea Vetter, who argues for ‘convivial technology’. Vetter’s popular technology-focused matrix offers methods for participatory design and planning with respect to adopting and using technologies, disproving many of Robinson’s unconvincing charges of technophobe or technocratic tendencies.

Vetter’s approach is infused with a range of horizontalist processes for introducing and operating technologies. This example alone indicates that degrowth is in step with a range of twenty-first-century movement politicking that is characterised by transparent and sophisticated forms of self-organisation in assemblies and working groups, delegated and rotating roles and functions, co-governance, autonomy, and consensual decision-making. Working collectives and cooperatives are imbued with such techniques as well. Rather than a democratic deficit, as Robinson suggests, degrowth exemplifies a democratic abundance in a transition to commoning beyond capitalism.

I look forward to contributing to elaborations on and discussions of degrowth in Arena in future.

About the author

Anitra Nelson

Anitra Nelson is an activist scholar, Honorary Principal Fellow at Informal Urbanism Research Hub (InfUr-), University of Melbourne, co-author of Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide (2020) and co-editor of Housing for Degrowth (2018) and Food for Degrowth (2021).

More articles by Anitra Nelson

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Before I even read the article, I have to ask where the image came from. It’s perfect enough to be AI generated. It would be good to know.

Hi Kevin,

Yes, it is a stunning image, and I’m happy to say it has nothing AI about it. I’m less happy to say that it is of a real place, it was taken somewhere on the Niger Delta where the intensive and especially dirty oil production toxifies all that it touches. The photograph was taken by Edward Burtynsky, who is just brilliant ~ one of the best photographers on the subject of the anthropocene and totally worth looking up.

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