Anarchism and degrowth: deepening degrowth’s engagement with autonomous movements

Reflections from the 8th International Degrowth Conference in The Hague 2021

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AKC Collective* 

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Corresponding author: Jacob Smessaert    


Degrowth points to the need for a radical transformation of the economic system if humanity is to avoid the existential risk of wide-ranging ecological collapse. It stresses that the imperative of growth, which is so fundamental to most modern societies, is at the root of the intertwined ecological, social and economic crises of the early 21st century. Therefore, any realistic strategy of addressing the ongoing planetary ecocide will need to tackle the issue of 'economic' growth - how do we stop it while ensuring well-being and flourishing for all of humanity? Doing so through minor adjustments within the current capitalist world-system seems improbable, if not impossible (Akbulut, 2021). This has led to the conclusion, popularised amongst others by degrowth scholars, that a radically different economic system is needed.

While the implications concerning economic systems coming out of degrowth scholarship are quite clear, this cannot be said for the implications concerning political systems. In fact, degrowth scholarship often promotes (minor) adjustments to existing political structures under the label of 'non-reformist reforms' (Petridis et al., 2015). These are considered intermediary steps towards more far-reaching social-ecological transformations. The general prevalence of this approach can be ascertained from the fact that around three-quarters of degrowth proposals consist of top-down policies with a national focus (Cosme et al., 2017).

Recently the (anglophone) academic degrowth literature has started to engage with the question of what kind of state (if any) is required for a degrowth transformation. Much of this engagement has focused on the Gramscian theory of the 'integral state' (D'Alisa & Kallis, 2020), which conceptualises the state as comprising both political society (army, police, political institutions) and civil society (organisations, trade unions, and even families). As Herbert et al. (2021) note, the integral state theory 'subsumes all social activity within "the state", and by extension precludes the existence of spaces and relations "outside" the state', thus potentially obfuscating certain strategies and traditions of anti-capitalist resistance. Alternatively, anarchist conceptualisations of the state distinguish between the hierarchical institutions that control the monopoly of violence in modern societies (the state proper), and other institutions and norms that organise social interactions but do not have a claim on the legal use of violence (society at large). Such a distinction allows anarchist thinkers to keep a firm focus on the violent processes by which modern states have been formed, and which continue to be an indispensable condition for their survival (Kropotkin, 1910). Moreover, the anarchist theoretical outlook concludes that the root cause of the social and ecological crises that we are facing lies precisely in the hierarchical and violent subjugation of certain groups of people by others (Bookchin, 2015). Consequently, addressing these crises and initiating degrowth transformation would require the wholesale dismantling of these violent structures of domination that have become institutionalised over time - in other words, the dismantling of the state (political society) as we know it.

Nonetheless, degrowth scholarship has also stressed the need for any social-ecological transformation to be radically democratically led, and for democracy to be deepened in the process. Direct democracy has long been lauded as part and parcel of the politics of degrowth (Asara et al., 2013; Cattaneo et al., 2012; Deriu, 2012). Others have gone further and claimed that, because of the magnitude of changes that degrowth transformations require, they will necessarily have to be based on anarchistic principles, largely abandoning hierarchical statist structures (Trainer, 2012). More generally, there seems to be broad recognition of the fact that degrowth challenges hierarchical, centralised and representative democracy, and as such it is broadly aligned with (ecological) anarchist thought and ethos (Toro, 2017; D'Alisa & Kallis, 2020).

While the francophone degrowth literature has long acknowledged this alignment, and therefore extensively analysed the question of the state and anarchism in relation to degrowth, the anglophone literature has only recently started recognising the deep links between degrowth and anarchism. For example, Finley (2019) has looked at the connections and discrepancies between degrowth and social ecology (a branch of libertarian socialism closely related to anarchism) and found these two theoretical frameworks to be by-and-large compatible, with the potential for social ecology to fortify the degrowth analysis with its more thorough insistence on non-hierarchical epistemologies. Gerber (2020) demonstrated the fruitfulness of combining degrowth and anarchism when it comes to connecting the 'growth question' to peasant movements and the 'agrarian question', while Grubačić et al. (2022) reached a similar conclusion regarding the issue of land (ownership) more generally. Finally, Dunlap (2020) acknowledges the connection between 'degrowth and anti-capitalist, autonomist and (ecological) anarchist movements', and calls for these connections to be strengthened through degrowth intellectuals and advocates recognising the legitimacy of combative struggles against 'growth' (infrastructure) projects. What emerges from these discussions is that the implications regarding future political systems that degrowth scholarship espouses are somewhat ambiguous. While some advocate for 'non-reformist reforms', others argue that the rejection of hierarchical statist structures is a prerequisite for any viable social-ecological transformation. In other words, even though the dominant degrowth position does not generally align with the anarchist rejection of the state, there are deep intellectual linkages between these two anti-capitalist currents, and interest seems to be growing in further exploring and elaborating the connections between them. Following from this logic, we feel that it is necessary for degrowth to engage more explicitly with other anti-capitalist movements, particularly those that are not often comprehensively treated in degrowth scholarship and advocacy. These movements can be broadly categorised as anarchistic because of their rejection of hierarchical structures and their commitment to building alternative (political) institutions capable of supporting socially just and ecologically sustainable communities and societies.

If, as we argue, degrowth implies a complete transformation of political systems (alongside economic ones), then it is of vital importance to start drawing lessons from movements that align with values and goals that degrowth advocates for. These movements are actively enacting alternative political systems on the ground and have been doing so for a long time. In the remainder of this article, we present the processes and outcomes of our efforts to learn from such anti-capitalist movements, while organising a thematic stream at the 8th International Degrowth Conference in The Hague.