Degrowth and Masculinities: Towards a gendered understanding of degrowth subjectivities

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Dennis Eversberga*, Matthias Schmelzera

Institute of Sociology, Friedrich Schiller University, Jena, Germany

* Corresponding author


Modern capitalist societies depend on growth, i.e., on the permanent and limitless expansion of economic activity. In the degrowth debate, it has often been argued that this societal compulsion to grow is not only rooted in an economic system geared around profits and in hierarchical societal structures that enforce participation in 'the economy', but that it has also deeply inscribed itself into the worldviews, sensibilities and practical dispositions of people living in such societies (Eversberg, 2014; Latouche, 2005; Schmelzer et al., 2022). Yet, while in a growth society everybody's subjectivity - how we relate to ourselves and the world - is profoundly influenced by the effects of this expansionary logic. The forms that this assumes vary widely according to the different ways in which people are involved in how growth is generated and experienced, and the kinds of work they are typically tasked with - in short, on their positionality in society, intersectionally understood (Crenshaw, 1989). That is, not every subjectivity into which growth has inscribed itself as a 'normalcy' can be rightly labelled a 'growth subjectivity' (normalcy can also be viewed critically, even experienced as unbearable). Still, it seems possible to describe a certain logic or 'grammar' of relating to oneself and the rest of the world that is logically most in line with the demands and promises of growth. When actively internalised, it 'anchors' the growth imperative within the individual, turns them into its willing agents and faithful believers, and thus strengthens the growth-centric and structurally externalising imperial mode of living.

In this narrower sense, we may conceive of the growth subject as a subject accustomed to asserting itself as an actively sovereign agent by accumulating ever greater and more far-reaching capacities for action while negating or denying its own dependency on others' care and the natural environment. As a massphenomenon, this type of experience and the subjectivities it has formed haveonly become possible under conditions of expansionary modern societies since the onset of the fossil age. 

In the dominant cultural imaginary of growth societies, this figure of the growth subject is powerfully gendered: it is coded as masculine.The classical figure of the white bourgeois, the agent of capitalist expansion, is that of a man seeking to optimally deploy the resources at his disposal so as to rationally and purposefully enlarge them (Harrison, 1999; Hunt, 1996; Tosh, 2005).

This image, however, makes the social and natural preconditions of such supposedly sovereign activity invisible. And it conceals the fact that this kind of agency could only be asserted based on hierarchical divisions of both a symbolic and practical nature, allowing the socially privileged male to appropriate nature and the labour of those excluded from such privileged status. 'Masculine domination' has thus become inscribed in the gendered division of labour of capitalist societies as well as in their cultural imagery, which associates masculinity with public visibility, independence, strength, technological dominance and control over human and nonhuman nature (Biesecker & Hofmeister, 2010; Bourdieu, 2001; Federici, 2004; Merchant, 1983).

This does not mean that only men are growth subjects and that others are not, nor that all men have incorporated growth subjectivity in the same way and to the same degree - but rather that key aspects of growth subjectivities are coded as masculine due to the historical genealogies of their cultural understandings. In fact, within modern growth societies the cultural, social and economic logics that structure people's everyday experience are so deeply impregnated with 'masculine' principles of expansion, exclusion and competition that these leave a mark on everybody, regardless of gender. Growth societies are inherently androcentric societies because their inner logic makes masculine growth subjectivities the norm and the condition for success. While everybody is to some degree subject to 'masculine' growth subjectivation, the variable forms of 'hegemonic masculinity' that arise as epitomes of the successful growth subject are most readily adopted and performed by men (Connell, 2005; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Pulé & Hultman, 2021; Salleh, 2017).

This historically constituted relationship between gendered subjectivities and modern capitalist expansionism is crucial for understanding the logic of growth societies and possible alternatives. Feminists have long been pointing this out and calling for a more thorough engagement of the entire degrowth spectrum with gender relations and patriarchal dominance (Abazeri, 2022; Barca, 2020; Bauhardt, 2014; Dengler & Strunk, 2018). They have rightly highlighted the invisibilised caring relationships and the enormous amount of labour, symbolically and economically devalued as 'feminine', without which all the achievements of those male heroes of capitalist development would not have been possible. A complementary aspect of the feminist challenge to the degrowth community, however, has long received too little attention: The difficult question of what role(s) men and masculinities might play in the course of social transformations away from growth dependency (Khanna, 2022). How can masculinities rooted in the logic of growth and dominance be overcome? What alternatives to existing conceptions of masculinity are conceivable that would not stand in the way of degrowth transformations, but could play a fruitful part in fostering them?

In this essay we want to suggest that the approaches to transforming self- and world-relations that are present in degrowth debates and practices contain a number of core elements of what it will take to overcome the bourgeois-capitalist mode of subjectivation. Degrowth societies will have to be very different from capitalist modernity, not merely in terms of their material and institutional infrastructures and the logics according to which they are organised, but also in terms of how people conceive of themselves and relate to others as well as to extra-human nature. Capitalist modernity's expansive-individualist ideal of growth subjectivity will need to be supplanted, succeeded or replaced by degrowth subjectivities that reintegrate precisely those relations whose externalisation it had been built on. One of the most challenging aspects of these transformations is that they will require particularly far-reaching change to currently prevailing conceptions of masculinities.