So the question is not whether capitalism will survive the technological innovations it is spawning. The more interesting question is whether capitalism will be succeeded by something resembling a Matrix dystopia or something much closer to a Star Trek-like society, where machines serve the humans and the humans expend their energies exploring the universe and indulging in long debates about the meaning of life in some ancient-Athenian-like, high-tech agora.
I think we can afford to be optimistic. But what would it take, what would it look like to have this Star Trek-like utopia, instead of the Matrix-like dystopia?
— Yanis Varoufakis, December 2015, TED Global, Geneva
In our public discourse, the future still mostly involves endless economic growth, automation, gadgets, and a better life for all, with humanity spreading its seed to Mars and, in due course, the stars. The cornucopian vision goes almost unchallenged in the public sphere, even by opponents of global capitalism. Whether they are wall-building reactionary nationalists who love capitalism but hate the ‘global’ bit, progressive internationalists like Yanis and his Diem25 movement, or even progressive nationalists, precious few political figures dare admit openly that the sacred cow of GDP needs to be slaughtered as quickly as possible. And little wonder, when the alternatives to ‘growth for the masses’ are almost invariably presented as dark, apocalyptic, and deeply unappealing.
The truth, of course, is that positive and appetising alternatives to a global economy based on the fallacy of exponentially expanding consumption on a finite planet do exist, and always have; and people have been talking and writing about these alternatives for just as long. Yes, it is possible to live better by consuming less; in fact, it’s necessary: economic growth is actually ‘uneconomic because, at least in developed economies, “illth” increases faster than wealth’ (Daly, 1990, cited in Degrowth, introduction, p.6.) Most readers will not need convincing of this, and if they do, they should probably just go for a walk or hang out in the garden.
But Degrowth is the first book I’ve seen that really sets out to synthesise these alternatives to growth into a coherent whole. As the subtitle suggests, it presents a vocabulary of concepts related to degrowth in a series of 52 short essays by different authors on topics ranging from Peak Oil to Environmental Justice, Anti-Utilitarianism to Happiness, Eco-Communities to Unions. Broadly speaking, the first two-thirds of the book are devoted to ideas, the theoretical foundations for a degrowth movement, and the last third to actions.
There are some surprising omissions: the book has no illustrations to speak of (and no index), while topics like Transition, permaculture, and agroecology are mentioned only in passing. Some of this may be a matter of cultural perspective: the editors, and many of the authors, are based in Barcelona, from where I’m sure things look significantly different than they do from the Anglophone world. Some of the essays are pretty dense and theoretical. As someone who has spent ten years at the muddy, neo-rural end of the degrowth movement, my own selection of important vocabulary would have put far more emphasis on words like land, rain, sun, tree, house, work, build, dig or (perhaps ironically) grow. I don’t spend a lot of time chatting about anti-utilitarianism with my neighbours, though on reflection, now I’ve read about it, perhaps I’ve been ‘critiquing the hegemony of the epistemological postulates of economics’ (p. 21) in my daily life all these years without realising it; I call it ‘building a house and planting a garden while having fun with friends’. However, there’s an old joke that defines an economist as ‘someone who lies awake wondering whether what works in practice can possibly work in theory’, and if an elaborate theoretical structure is necessary to convince economists that degrowth can work, then so be it — for the rest of us, there is enough accessible material in the book to make it worth reading even if you skip the social theory.
But even so, I think that a book like Degrowth will not have as much impact as it could, and should, on the way we imagine the future. I can picture the editors presenting the case for degrowth in Yanis’ high-tech Athenian agora, engaging in debate and convincing everyone, but only on an intellectual level: the level of the logos — light, left-brain, rational, logical, yang — of which the agora itself is an almost pure representation. And it’s telling that in order to conjure his vision of a future which is almost pure logos, Yanis actually had to employ mythos by presenting a visceral contrast between two opposing stories (Star Trek versus The Matrix) that have entered the collective consciousness.
As Charlotte Du Cann puts it in Dark Mountain Issue 8: Technê (p.107), ‘to walk true in the world is to walk with “one foot in the logos and one in the mythos“.’ And where the mythos is suppressed, it will inevitably erupt in unwelcome forms: thus Donald Trump, who may well be the personification of the Norse trickster god Loki.
If the degrowth movement is going to get traction on the mass level, it’s going to need better stories: visions for a positive future that tap into the mythos. Stories to guide us down the steep slopes of the dark mountain to the shelter of the valleys beyond.