The degrowth movement is more heterogeneous and does not match its public image
Our findings clearly demonstrate that the degrowth movement is internally heterogeneous and comprises of several different currents, whose orientation and approaches often don’t match the widespread perception of degrowth. We identify five currents that differ not only in terms of substantive attitudes, but also in terms of political and day-to-day practices.
- Sufficiency-orientated critique of civilization: 22% of survey participants belong to this current. Many of them are older activists, often with long-standing experience in the new social movements, particularly the environmental movement. Based on a strong ecological motivation, they articulate a pointed critique of civilization, strongly agreeing to statements stressing closeness to nature, spirituality or a revival of lifestyles of former generations. Their activism is oriented towards building sufficiency-orientated “parallel societies” (Frank Adler) as cores of an alternative way of life. After the collapse of industrial societies that many of them expect, these communities are to become a model for a societal ‘reset’.
- Immanent reformism: People in the second current (19%) actively use the newest technologies, travel quite frequently, often belong to political parties and student initiatives and feel comparatively little connected with social movements. This group represents the techno- and progress-optimistic pole of the degrowth spectrum, and is most ‘reformist’ in the sense of thinking within existing institutional structures. They reject techno-pessimist, spiritual and backward-looking orientations, but also express little support for revolutionary upheaval and anti-capitalism. They seek the fundamental societal change they deem necessary between the poles of “green growth” and reforms transcending growth from within existing institutions.
- Voluntarist-pacifist idealism: People from this current (23%) are on average relatively young, two thirds of them are female, and many have little experience with social movements and political activism. Most of their positions don’t differ much from the average of the survey participants – their most striking single position is the above-average endorsement of a degrowth party. Moreover, they seem to have a distinctly voluntarist attitude (locating the problem with growth mainly in people’s day-to-day habits, which they could change right away if only they understood), blended with a particularly strong pacifism and a general avoidance of conflict. If overcoming growth is simply a question of insight and needn’t be experienced as a loss – so the reasoning goes –, degrowth could prevail by way of an evolutionary expansion of day-to-day behavioral change from below.
- Modernist-rationalist left: This primarily male group that strongly concentrates in large cities accounts for 13 percent. Its members often have a long history of activism, while mostly engaging in rather “traditional” forms of left politics: Relatively many are party members, and a particularly large majority often participates in demonstrations. Their identification with social movements is weaker than average, while their substantive positions are an exact mirror image of the first current: They represent progress-optimistic attitudes, sharply refuse spirituality, romanticization of the past and conservatism, and clearly criticize capitalism with structure-oriented arguments, focusing on issues of social justice rather than ecology. For them, a critical analysis of society is a central precondition for any political practice, and taking action without a thorough theoretical reasoning to support it easily appears to them as naïve, futile or even dangerous. This current is probably not in its entirety to be seen as part of the degrowth movement. The part that articulates its positions “from within”, however, is immensely important for the movement’s discourses.
- Libertarian practical left: The fifth current (22%), with an above-average percentage of people living outside Germany, is rooted in an activist alternative social milieu. Among this group, a percentage far above average takes part in direct actions or lives in alternative projects. They feel strongly attached to social movements and are highly connected within the degrowth environment. Typical for them is a pattern of mostly radical views which, however, cannot clearly be located on either side of the divide between the critique of civilization (current 1) and rational leftism (current 4), but rather crisscross it. Here, openness to spirituality and rejecting the romanticization of nature, structural thinking and a critique of industrial society are no contradictions, but go hand in hand. This current stands for an anarchist-inspired critique of growth and capitalism that is similar to the fourth current in stressing aspects of social justice, but also focuses on experiences of alienation caused by the perpetual pressure to expand, thereby seeking the leverage point for transformative action in one’s own practice. Breaking away in practical terms and acting differently is not so much aimed at the formation of parallel structures but at transforming one’s own growth-determined subjectivity and, thus, society as a whole. The bottom line is the vision of bringing about revolution by way of practical self-transformation.