Distributing Democracy / Small prefix, big implications: learnings from the degrowth ideology

Aug 8, 2019 by

Distributing Democracy 

Over the last 15 years, I’ve attended public meetings as an advocate and citizen and helped organize them as a civil servant. While these processes were prescribed and predictable, they were never particularly meaningful. The overall impression is that the big decisions had already been made and that the “public participation” part of the process was just another box to check.  There is only one term to describe this feeling, this phenomenon: powerless. Over the last few weeks I began to feel that familiar feeling again. Over the course of the AEMS summer school, we have had the opportunity to hear so many excellent ideas. But in the end, there were no clear pathways for realizing these ideas or concepts. What’s the path? How do we really make change?

In his presentation, “Communal Politics for Alternative Business and Banks” Dirk Holemans laid bare the inadequacies of modern democratic institutions and a theory of power and political change based on distribution. To set the stage, he posed a question to the audience – “if you had an idea for your community, what are the steps to realize that goal?” Responses included the usual suspects: petitions, letters to elected officials, etc., which rests on the premise that an elected official or technocrat will ultimately make the final call. This familiar paradigm is neither nimble nor transparent.

Dirk Holemans calls for a new space to make the work of democracy more porous and transparent. He called this space the “Assembly of the Commons” – a gathering of citizens where they can speak and act on the future of their community. This co-governance model distributes the work of government throughout society. The Citizen’s Budget, for example, puts specific projects to public vote. It simultaneously makes the black box of public budgets transparent and creates a positive feedback loop of citizens who are now interested and vested in the budget-making process. This process could best be described as “revolutionary reformism” a change that strengthens and reinforces itself.

These are all great, wonderful ideas. But what’s the path? How? During the discussion portion of the lecture, Dirk pointed out that how we solve a problem begins with how we define the problem. Who defines the problem? Who sets the agenda? Our leadership. We must all seek power where we can in existing systems – our city councils, our parliaments and legislatures. If we want to transform systems, we must first work within the existing systems. It is perhaps a sad irony that we must first acquire power, before we can distribute the power. But if we want change, it is the path we must all walk.

Small prefix, big implications: learnings from the degrowth ideology 

The seemingly simple word degrowth, which in literal terms could be described as “down growth” or reduction, when translated from the French word ‘decroissance’, is more multidimensional than one might initially assume. In the alternative economy community, including academia, degrowth is known as an ideology or movement with a much broader meaning. The Lecture by Christian Kerschner, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sustainability, Governance, and Methods at the Modul University Vienna, provided us with insights to some areas of degrowth research, with a focus on energy and technology.

While there is no widespread consensus, the definitions of degrowth include the terms: downscaling of production and consumption, radical political and economic re-organisation, human well-being and environmental sustainability and society of frugal abundance. Kerschner’s own definition highlights that degrowth is a concept with its origins and primary strategic intent in the global North, where the pendulum of growth and capitalism has far over swung the boundaries – both on a biophysical but also a cultural level: „De-growth is a path for the Rich North, to allow some economic growth in the South, the goal being a worldwide steady-state economy (SSE).“

I personally agree with this view, given the biophysical limits to growth and gross inequality between the global North and South and believe that degrowth can be an opportunity for the highly developed countries to take a step back, so that developing countries can take a step forward.

Although critics of the degrowth movement associate it with suffering, hardship, austerity and limitations we can look towards, what Kerschner calls, the broken promises of the growth economy to see why an alternative to the current economic model is needed. The ‘Easterlin paradox’ shows that within the same study population in the US, over time the level of happiness stays more or less stable, despite rising GDP. Furthermore, the predicted trickle-down effect of growth has not occurred. Inequality between the richer and poorer countries is as high as ever and in most countries the share of national income owned by the top 10% is on the rise. Finally, despite hopes that green growth and decoupling would limit environmental impacts of growth, a rise in GDP continues to correlate with increasing levels of the global material footprint as well as a rise in threatened and endangered species.

At present the degrowth movement is limited to a niche segment of the population and is spreading steadily through social movements (such as permaculture, slow food or Nowtopia). It appears that at a government or institutional level degrowth or post-growth has not yet made it on the agenda, despite its first steps in a conference on Postgrowth in the European Parliament 2018. A promising nudge was an open letter to the European Union by 238 academics calling for a ‘stability and well-being pact’.

Written by: Megan Milliken Biven & Laura Gilbert

Based on the lectures “Communal politics for alternative businesses and banks”, held by Dirk Holemans, and “De-growth”, held by Christian Kerschner during AEMS 2019.