How much will the US Way of Life © have to change?

by Max Ajl

Debates about the Green New Deal—Ocasio-Cortez’s version and occasionally radical varieties such as that of the US Green Party—have incited much discussion about paths to utopia. Central to these conversations is the labour question: who will do the work of making the world, and how will that work be apportioned? And how much will the US Way of Life © have to change?

Ecologically-minded socialists and degrowthers tend to point out that cheap energy and excess material use are built into the socio-technical structures of capitalism. Getting rid of capitalism requires replacing capitalist technology. We must build, literally, a new world, which may require more labour and much lighter consumption patterns in the core, especially among the wealthy. Eco-socialists also tend to be more attentive to agriculture’s role in development in the periphery and core.

Eco-modernists tend, instead, to focus on eliminating exploitation while maintaining as much as possible of the physical infrastructure and patterns of consumption of capitalism. They imagine machines that will take the place of the current ecologically destructive physical plant, including in the countryside—prototype AI bots to supplant fruit pickers, or non-existent carbon-dioxide-sucking machines in place of restorative agriculture, a proven method of sequestering atmospheric carbon. Very frequently, they imagine a totally post-work world, creating the conditions for a new utopia: Fully Automated Luxury Communism.  

Those who hold the latter position often forget that the current distribution of labour is the fruit of a very specific historical moment, marked not merely by a temporary cheapness of energy—and tell Bangladesh, the Seychelles, or your grandchildren that petroleum is cheap—but specific sectoral allocations of labour in farming, industry, and services in the core states.

Geographer Matt Huber, for example, claims that ‘very few actual people/workers are needed to grow the food many of us consume.’ He then deploys this claim—incorrect on its face—to attack those who defend smallholder farming as an active anti-systemic struggle. As he goes on to write, ‘Capitalism has produced the first society where the vast majority need not work in agriculture. A reversal of this is not politically possible or desirable.’

Huber, like many who write in this vein, does not draw a distinction between agriculture in the wealthier and the poorer countries, and does not seem to understand that such geographically-specific food systems are interwoven threads in the fabric of a world system.

The descriptive portion of his statement is true above all in relation to those who work on farms in the wealthier countries, although with important variations among them. When we widen our analytical lens to include those who work on the farms in the periphery that produce much if not most of humanity’s food, including the tropical foods consumed in the core, claims about the disappearance of labour from agriculture collapse.

Labour-intensive agriculture has been and continues to be central to global capitalism.

Labour-intensive agriculture has been and continues to be central to global capitalism. Sugar produced on Caribbean slave plantations supplied cheap calories to the British workforce and large profits to the British ruling class. As Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik show, Britain accrued much of its wealth by siphoning off the bounty of Indian agriculture in jute, opium and spices throughout the colonial period, much as the Netherlands built its affluence on rubber and sugarcane from what was then Java.

Such flows of wealth and value from agriculture to the colonial powers produced systematic famine, and were also the basis for industrialization—a historical process, not a technical model.

These days, of the 12,000 food items on an average supermarket shelf in Western Europe or North America, two-thirds have a total or partial import content from tropical areas. Producing such agricultural goods is labour-intensive. And many of those who work hardest are also the hungriest.

Labour has not been erased from the food chain, but only from some links of the food chain visible in the core states. Contemporary imperialism engineers prices, under- and de-develops the periphery, maintains massive labour reserves, and suppresses wages. As a result, consumers in the core command enough social power that people in other societies must labour to produce our food. Eurocentrism makes such labour invisible.

Where capital has replaced labour in commodity export sectors, the consequences have been disastrous. Land concentrates in the hands of the bourgeoisie, poor people flee to slums, debt-driven suicides mount in India, and the Tunisian semi-proletariat immolates itself. As the poor’s capacity to demand a share of the social product decreases, consumption decreases, and they go hungry. If capitalism has produced a society where some ‘need not work’ in agriculture, it has also produced a society where consumption in the core—such as it is, given widespread malnutrition and obesity—turns on immiseration in the periphery.

If you treat the living as the dead, it should not be surprising when the graveyards spread.

On the ecological front, industrialized agriculture has meant pretending soil and flora are not living entities that require care and attention. If you treat the living as the dead, it should not be surprising when the graveyards spread: topsoil loss, algal blooms amidst fertilizer outflows in the Gulf of Mexico, fields so damaged that they cannot absorb water in the American Midwest, leading to land-gouging floods. Recent reports speak to planet-wide biospheric breakdown, much of it related to the industrialization of agriculture.

Meanwhile, the US’s remaining farmers are killing themselves at a higher rate than war veterans, even while ‘efficient’ labour-light US agriculture only survives by massive subsidies—explicit subsidies from the state in the form of price supports, and implicit subsidies in the form of impossibly cheap energy, for which we know well the consequences.

Labour needs may have decreased on US farms, but this is not a proper way to build a national farming system.

Yet on the basis of (1) the rural-to-urban transformation of the core states; (2) the tiny percentage of the labour force in US agriculture; and (3) the socially-created poverty in peripheral agricultures, Huber claims that ‘we cannot act as if smallholder agriculture is any material basis for a society beyond capitalism.’

I am not sure if Huber is referring to paths to a society beyond capitalism, or if he is drawing up recipes for the cookshops of the future. Whatever the case may be, let me put some facts on the table about the human and social resources available in the present, and their capacity for materially improving the lives of the very poorest among us.

A copious literature makes clear that smallholder agro-ecology in various countries of the former Third World can feed, for example, 12-15 people with one person’s year-round labour on plots of between one and two hectares. In price terms, agro-ecology yields higher economic returns than conventional agriculture, and this with close to 0 percent of global agricultural research and development devoted to improving, rather than merely documenting, its potential. Agro-ecology is carbon-dioxide-absorbing, bio-diversity defending, and resilient in the face of climate change. And there is no question of whether smallholders can feed the world, as they outproduce export-oriented heavily capitalized farms on a per-land-area basis.

There is no question of whether smallholders can feed the world, as they outproduce export-oriented heavily capitalized farms on a per-land-area basis.

Furthermore, productivity per-person and per-hectare can increase (or yearly labour-inputs decrease) through sustained agro-ecological research and practice, a point at odds with those who insists that smallholder farming is a sentence of perpetual drudgery. What the viable alternative could be is always the question left with no good answer.

In the entire peripheral world, smallholder agriculture is the basis for resistance to capitalism: by de-commodifying access to food, by closing off market opportunities for corporate sellers of agro-industrial inputs, by reclaiming land from export-oriented commodity crop production and giving it to poor people for accumulation from below, by increasing the embeddedness of national agricultural systems, and by creating larger internal markets that can form the basis of a sovereign industrialization. Such an industrialization would necessarily rely more on nationally-sourced inputs, preferably renewable ones where possible—for example, there is simply no good socio-ecological reason to rely so heavily on metal and plastic furniture when wood does the job just as well, with far lower CO2 costs and without ripping into the earth.

In terms of political feasibility, we know from the work of Ricardo Jacobs that slum-dwellers in South Africa are interested in a return to agriculture, while Brazilian agrarian reform settlements include former slum-dwellers.

Huber and others claim that smallholder life involves coercion, so relying on smallholders to feed the world would involve even greater coercion. However, the issue is not forcing smallholder peasants to feed urban people, but for economies in the poorer countries to figure out how to balance agricultural and non-agricultural labour while moving away from dominant agro-export models that have produced a planet of slums. Such models put enormous pressure on the lives of smallholders, whether through insufficient credit, lack of tenancy guarantees, or compelled industrialization while input prices are kept out of reach. It is these models that are part-and-parcel of the ‘debt and manifold threats’ to the livelihoods of peasants that Huber decries. It is capitalism in the countryside, and not farming itself, that keeps smallholders poor.

The challenge is equally to allow countries in the periphery to carry out massive internal agrarian reforms, which would help improve the lives of the poor in the city and countryside alike, and move toward a ‘planet of fields.’ Furthermore, such countries must be able to determine their own developmental paths, free from “humanitarian” proxy armies or the sanctions that are imposed, with silence if not assent from much of the Western left, on countries that carry out radical agrarian programs, like Zimbabwe or Venezuela, until they re-align with US/World Bank agendas.

There is no reason—pragmatic, social, or ecological—to suggest that smallholder farming does not offer the scaffolding for a permanently sustainable and relatively equal world in the periphery.

For that reason, we ought to defend agricultural models for the Third World wherein national lands are devoted to sustainably feeding the domestic population. Does that mean that 6-10 percent of the population in the periphery will be involved in agriculture on a permanent basis? Or will such work be rotated? That is for the people, the ones who will build the future, to decide. What is clear is that getting more lands in the hands of smallholders in peripheral states is currently an extremely live anti-systemic struggle.

I happen to agree with Huber about the thorniness of what used to be called the agrarian question of labour in the core states, and I agree that speaking of smallholder agriculture as the basis for US food consumption and a path beyond capitalism is not as straightforward as it is for the periphery.

However, if we accept what I have argued above, we can summarize it in some basic statements.

One: current ways of replacing labour with capital in the Western countries have ripped apart our socio-ecological capacity to manage the land. Two: current consumption relies on imperialism to feed us food we like to eat. Three: the more peripheral countries re-orient their agricultural sectors to domestic feeding, well-being, and social development, the fewer foods will be available in the wealthier countries. Four: there are no serious models for ecologically sustainable regenerative agricultures that rely on technology as a substitute for human attention. Five: we cannot divorce thinking about a sustainable world from anti-imperialist struggle.

Increasing the percentage of the population in core states involved in farming follows logically from the above points. An increase does not mean 50 percent of the population, and it does not mean that everyone will be involved in farming. A corollary would be ensuring that such work is made as attractive as possible, inviting people to choose it freely, and de-centralizing cultural life and social infrastructure.

A second potential course of action is devoting as much research as possible into lessening the difficulty of the labour involved, through—of course!—technology. In both the core and periphery, how much farming will be mechanized and, more importantly, which tasks should not be mechanized remain open questions. So, too, is the meaning of mechanization, and what kinds of tools can spare labour without excess energy-intensive extraction. How much we can replace hard labour with constant attention through human presence and careful intervention in natural cycles is another open question. There is nothing wrong with stating that we do not have all the answers.

It is worth pointing out that almost no one demands that we mechanize the difficult work of caring for children, the sick, and the elderly, since some realms are a step too far for the solve-everything-through-tech community. Yet the earth—a living community, the physical basis for society, and for children, the sick, the elderly, and in fact everyone to have decent lives—does not receive the same treatment.

I do not think my suggestions are by any means the easiest ones. They will involve some changes in the US way of life, though perhaps fewer than one might imagine. Given the social crises endemic to this way of life, fundamental change is long overdue anyway. I do not have a problem stating the existence of such difficulties, especially since I do not see any other feasible answer to how the US can feed itself if agriculture is to be made into a sustainable sector of human production that does not rely on exploiting other countries.

However, I do not see such a transition as an insurmountable obstacle. I do not see why slitting the throats of chickens in slaughtering plants until one’s hands are riddled with carpal tunnel syndrome from repetitive stress injuries is preferable to work on farms, especially since what was previously agricultural labour is now called food processing, but with far more drudgery and alienation in the work process. Furthermore, mechanization of animal agriculture comes with its own massive and insuperable ecological problems.

In any case, I see no reason to imagine the current menu of choices as a natural phenomenon. Capitalism has structured US society and ordered its value system to de-value farm labour, the land, and the lives of non-humans. Such choices were made historically and can be unmade.

Moreover, there is an immense interest in farming even in the current set-up. Across the US, urban gardens sparkle like emeralds in cities. The Land Institute, Soul Fire Farms, the Savannah Institute, the Iowa Land Trust, and others are building up the facts-on-the-ground for a permanently sustainable US farming system.

To wave around the possibility of technological breakthroughs that can remove labour from the farming process while restoring the health of the land is to hope for a solution from the machine.

To wave around the possibility of technological breakthroughs that can remove labour from the farming process while restoring the health of the land is to hope for a solution from the machine. It very often tacitly authorizes the further destruction of peripheral farming systems, and justifies an attitude of contempt toward those in the US working to build sustainable forms of production—the embryos of a better world in the interstices of the current one. There is nothing realistic in imagining shortcuts where none currently exist.

Max Ajl holds a PhD in Development Sociology from Cornell University and works on the Tunisian national liberation movement and post-colonial development in the Arab world. He is on twitter at @ajl_max.

Planting the seeds of degrowth in times of crisis

Photo: Marula Tsagkari
Photo: Marula Tsagkari

by Marula Tsagkari

We must look for man wherever we can find him. When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, his answer to its riddle was: ‘Man’. That simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.

These words are from the Greek Poet Giorgos Seferis’ speech at the Nobel Banquet. Today they are more relevant than ever, as humanity fights against a ‘contemporary Sphinx’: the utopian ideal of an infinite growth defined by economic indicators and theories. This promethean way of living has sustained the idea that increased wealth was the ‘one pill to cure them all.’

However, in the past years, it has become more and more obvious that resources are finite and that the planet cannot sustain continued growth. And just like that, the utopian ideal started falling apart. The latest economic crisis showed the cruelest face of the unsustainable capitalistic system. It has become clear now, more than ever, that we live in an absurd world, that despite increased wealth, unemployment and poverty are increasing, conflicts are continuing, and inequality keeps rising. In this context, the idea of degrowth points to an alternative route, and establishes a vocabulary to describe a new world based on solidarity and cooperation.

While the idea of degrowth is rather old (seeds can be found in the 1970s), the movement has only started to gain ground in recent years, especially in the echoes of the recent economic crisis. The Conferences in Leipzig in 2014 and in Budapest in 2016 brought together thousands of scientists and citizens with different backgrounds and ideologies including sufficiency-orientated critics of civilization, reformists, pacifist idealists, and libertarian leftists. However, they all seem to share the common belief that the current economic model is unsustainable, as well as a vision of a different way of living.

Perhaps because the movement found its voice through people’s dissatisfaction following economic crisis, many confuse degrowth with the idea of ‘unsustainable degrowth’, which is often synonymous with economic recession and social instability. On the contrary, the core of ‘sustainable degrowth’ is the concept of ‘progress’, but a progress not related to an increase of the GDP, large-scale production, or over-consumption. As Tim Jackson puts it, ‘Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth’. And exactly this is the myth that the degrowth movement seeks to demystify.

At the same time that the degrowth movement was gaining ground in the public discourse, my country, Greece, was living the most severe economic recession since the Second World War.

At the same time that the degrowth movement was gaining ground in the public discourse, my country, Greece, was living the most severe economic recession since the Second World War. Greece entered the Eurozone in 2001 and since then joined the privileges of being a member of the EU monetary union, which led to a rapid increase in GDP between 2002 and 2008. However, Greece was unable to recover from the global economic crisis and, in 2009, Greek debt peaked at €310.4 billion.

Since then, the country has been trapped in a vicious cycle of bailout programs and austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), under the watchful eye of the German government. These measures came with many costs. The austerity plans included strict public cuts (in health and education), measures in the private sector (massive dismissals), increased taxes, and reduced pensions. These decisions increased political instability and had a severe social cost. Unemployment was last reported to be at 23%, and 45.7% among young people (January 2017); while there are more than 20,000 homeless people (February 2016). Thus, the initial economic crisis has been transformed into a multifaceted social, political, and environmental crisis—what Geels calls a ‘triple crisis’, each of which is connected to the other.

In Greece, these interactions are now becoming clear. There was an increase in the number of smog events due to the increased price of oil, while it a rapid increase in illegal hunting and logging related to sharp budget cuts in conservation was also observed.

In the Chinese language the word crisis is represented by two symbols. The first means danger and, the second, opportunity.

In the Chinese language the word crisis is represented by two symbols. The first means danger and, the second, opportunity. It is true that economic crises are complex phenomena, and a form of exogenous shock in the society. On the other hand, they are also an opportunity to challenge the current way of thinking and they can open a door to a profound change.

As some supporters of degrowth have claimed, this new era will be born from the ashes of the present unsustainable system, or more specifically, active social movements can gradually pave the way for a bigger change. The work of Giorgos Kallis, Francois Schneider, and Joan Martinez-Alier offers a useful starting point. They claim that a crisis can be seen as an opportunity for alternative discourses and the seeds can be found in community-based initiatives that can form the pieces that, in the future, will fit into a bigger puzzle.

This idea triggered my interest, and I decided to focus my research on the question of a sustainable degrowth transition in Greece, and to what extent it could result from this increased civic engagement. And taking this as a starting point, the idea I want to put forward is that in Greece, despite the crisis (οr because of the crisis) one can find the seeds that can support the idea of degrowth.

The early seeds of a degrowth economy in Greece

Civic engagement was rather underdeveloped in Greece before the economic crisis. For instance, in 2005, the Civicus Survey pointed out that Greek civil society is anemic, as it was dominated by political parties and the family. However, in the wake of the economic crisis, civic activism appeared as a spontaneous response to increased social inequality and poverty. Aside from the increased number of NGOs, new, informal groups based on solidarity erupted and formed grassroots movements and networks. In times of crisis an ‘alternative, parallel’ economy was born.

But it would be a mistake to assume that this new economy came out of nowhere. Greece is a country with a strong sense of community and a culture of self-organization. The pharmacist, the butcher, and the fisherman of the neighborhood are integral figures of Greek culture. Everybody knows them and their stores are often a gathering point. Unfortunately, these small businesses are also the most harmed by the economic crisis and the austerity measures. Between 2008 and 2015, more than 20.000 small local businesses closed in Greece, according to the European Commission. As a response to the absence of local gathering points, and the loss of jobs, a number of social movements and cooperations emerged during the times of crisis.

The pharmacist, the butcher, and the fisherman of the neighborhood are integral figures of Greek culture. Everybody knows them and their stores are often a gathering point.

What’s more, the idea of cooperation has always been an important element of Greek tradition. In fact, Greek cooperative traditions may be the oldest in Europe. The idea of self-organization can be found in ancient Greek times in the form of trade unions. Cooperatives were also present, in a more advanced form, in the Byzantine Empire. These consisted of unions of land or livestock owners into common production and management systems. In this period they were recognized by the legislation of Leo VI the Wise and achieved increased autonomy—becoming a vital part of the economy.

Cooperatives were also present during the Ottoman rule (1453- 1821) and had an important role during the national liberation war of 1821. During this period new cooperatives popped up in small villages, where small groups of producers known as ‘syntrofies’ (companies or friendships) decided to cooperate to avoid competition. In some cases they were even able to export their products to other European countries.17 After Greece became an independent country the cooperations remained active, working for the establishment of a democratic regime.

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Photo: Marula Tsagkari

 

The revitalization of Greece’s cooperative movement

Coming back to the present, the Greek cooperative movement is still a vibrant part of the economy. The numbers speak for themselves, as there are currently more than 3000 agriculture cooperatives, 14 co-operative banks and 48 womens’ co-operatives. In addition, one can find 23 electrician, 33 plumber and 41 pharmacist co-operatives all around the country.

Lately, the idea of cooperatives has once again increased in popularity. People prefer products they can trust and remind them of their ‘grandmother in the village’. They also want to support local communities. Ιn this context, cooperatives offer products whose raw materials come directly from the land of the members of the cooperative or the village, they are often based on traditional recipes from the women in the villages, and in most cases they pack and promote their products by themselves.

On the island of Lesvos, more and more women who lost their job during the crisis joined the women’s cooperative. This increase in the number of memberships gave them the opportunity to augment their production and expand their network. They take advantage of the oranges produced in the area, which remained unused the previous years, to make desserts and jams. They also use ‘neratzath’, a type of rose water made from the leaves of the orange tree, to make cosmetics and perfumes. Nowadays, their products (sweets, jams, pasta, and cheese) can be found all around the country.

Even in big cities a number of cooperatives have sprung up. In Athens one can find the cooperative coffee shops Mantalaki, Pagkaki, Syggrouomeno; the Syn Allois shop, an importer of fair-trade products; the publisher Ekdoseis ton Sinaderfon; the computer repair shop Stin Priza; and the grocery store Lacandona, among others. Many of these stores operate under the umbrella of a bigger network, Kolektivas.

The ‘do you want milk’ cooperative started in 2011, and, despite the crisis, now counts more than 60 sell points, 50 farms, and, on a daily basis, they produce 10% of the domestic production.

One initiative is the ‘do you want milk’ (thes gala) cooperative. The cooperative is made up of milk producers from central Greece and supplies with fresh milk a number of ‘milk ATMs’ in Larissa, Athens, and Greece. Consumers can fill their bottles with fresh milk, produced less than 24 hours ago, with a cheaper price than can be found in the supermarket. The cooperative started in 2011, and, despite the crisis, now counts more than 60 sell points, 50 farms, and, on a daily basis, they produce 10% of the domestic production.

 

New consumption habits

Overall, consumption in Greece had been significantly reduced as a result of diminished wages and pensions. As documented by the Hellenic Statistical Authority in 2014, average household consumption expenditure went down by almost 32% since 2009.

As a response to this decrease in consumption and available funds, more and more second hand stores have popped up in the big cities

As a response to this decrease in consumption and available funds, more and more second hand stores have popped up in the big cities. One of the most famous is located in the neighborhood of Eksarcheia; a neighborhood known for its anti-establishment and anarchist character. In this store, one can trade old clothes for new ones. ‘Our store is a response to the overconsumption, which is one of the reasons that brought us into the present crisis,’ said one of the women who worked there:

Nowadays, more and more people prefer to buy second hand clothes, especially if they can exchange them with some of the clothes they don’t need anymore. Of course some of our clients are people who can’t afford buying new clothes but the past year we see more and more people who choose not to buy new clothes as a way of living.

In the same spirit one can find similar initiatives of book exchange, furniture exchange, and even exchange of mobile phones.

Another important element of the Greek tradition is the ‘100 km rule’ (before it became famous internationally as the ‘100 mile diet’). According to this principle, people should aim to consume products that are produced within 100km from the residence. Τhis concept was a pillar of the Greek diet between the 50s and 80s, however, due to increased urbanization and working hours, and the large variety of products available on supermarkets, it was replaced by the concepts of ‘easy’ and ‘quick food’. Recently, the idea of the ‘local farmers market’ aims to bring back this idea. Producers from all around the country gather in a different neighborhood every Sunday and sell their products without Intermediaries.

In one of my visits in a local farmers’ market in my neighborhood, I had the chance to speak with M.X., a cheese producer from northern Greece. ‘Because of the crisis people want to make sure they buy local products,’ she told me. ‘More and more people tell me that they avoid buying from big supermarkets, not only because the products are more expensive, but because they know that, in this way, international brands take advantage of the Greek producers and buyers,’ she added. ‘I talk with people and give them all the information they need about my products. I am even willing to negotiate the price when someone can’t afford it!’

Social solidarity groups are also rapidly growing these past years. The work of organizations like ‘Doctors without Borders’, ‘Doctors of the World’, which were active before the crisis, are now supported by new health care organizations like the ‘social infirmaries’ (koinonika iatreia). Acting at a municipal level, these groups consist of doctors and nurses who treat patients for free. Similar initiatives are organized by pharmacists, teachers, and even coffee shops, which offer a free cup of coffee to people who cannot afford it.

Last but not least, a number of more politically-oriented social movements emerged during the times of crisis as a response to the austerity measures and the dysfunctional democracy. The big protests of 2008, the movement in Sundagma square and the ‘I won’t pay movement’ (Kínima den Pliróno) are some examples. Squares and occupied public and private buildings were transformed into sites of political contestation and mobilization.

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Photo: Marula Tsagkari

From ‘a way of living’ to a way to ‘make a living’

The above examples illustrate an increased tendency around niches of social movements that can form an alternative model of growth, based on solidarity, cooperation, and mutual respect. Many of these initiatives form part of the tradition that is rooted in the Greek culture that did not fade completely in modern life. This can offer a comparative advantage towards a potential transition to a degrowth model, as many of the ideas this model embodies are neither new nor strange to the Greek society. Of course these former traditional societies had a number of limitations (e.g. racism, xenophobia) that are not in line with the ideas the degrowth movement puts forward. Thus it is essential to learn from the past and keep the positive elements that can pave the way for a new way of living.

These ideas are becoming popular mainly as an alternative to the economic crisis; however they need to form ‘a way of living’ instead of a way to ‘make a living’.

These ideas are becoming popular mainly as an alternative to the economic crisis; however they need to form ‘a way of living’ instead of a way to ‘make a living’. Nowadays, many of the people who choose to buy from second hand stores or to visit the farmers market are driven by need. On the contrary, this attitude should grow into a fundamental mentality. Most of the people I had the chance to interview pointed out that, in the past years, they observed a change in people’s attitude, mainly because of the ongoing crisis that made many question the success of the present system. But is this enough?

The answer is no. This is only a first step in a long path. These initiatives will not have a significant impact if they are not supported by adequate education and publicity. Such instruments can strengthen these alternatives by raising awareness—triggering the interest of more people and encouraging the formation of new projects.

State intervention is another factor that can shape social movements. In the case of Greece, the government seems to ignore the importance of these movements, and often threatens their existence through increased taxation and stricter legislation. In the present political situation, it is nearly impossible to picture a major movement that does not involve the state. At first glance, this seems to be a contradiction as it’s a common belief that the state is a unitary actor, and that social movements are a separate unity and often in opposition to the state. In this context one should realize that these initiatives, through their increased influence, can have the power to form a different political regime that, in turn, will also transform them. To use the words of Saturnino Borras, ‘societal actors attempt to influence and transform state actors, but in the process are themselves transformed—and vice versa.’ Thus, realizing the potential of these initiatives, especially at a municipal level, could be a crucial first step.

One should realize that these initiatives, through their increased influence, can have the power to form a different political regime that, in turn, will also transform them.

Today, we are participants in a complex and severe crisis, and a radical crisis requires radical solutions. Through a number of examples it became obvious that in Greece there is groundwork for a transition to sustainable degrowth. There are seeds in the numerous social movements, voluntary actions, and solidarity networks. What remains to be seen is if the seeds will flower. We should not forget that, as Rebecca Solnit says, ‘Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.’

Many thanks to all the interviewees and to Brayton Noll for his useful comments.

Marula Tsagkari is a researcher, and environmental professional from Athens, Greece. She holds a BSc in Biology and she is currently enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus Master of Environmental, Science, Policy and Management. She lives in Athens, Greece and her research focuses on the areas of Environmental Politics, Policy and Justice especially in the European South.

 

Degrowth in Detroit?

 

detroit future city 9

by Seth Schindler

Speculative lending practices and the securitization of sub-prime mortgages were largely to blame for the 2008 financial crisis. The crisis was particularly severe in cities where the lack of liquidity in the financial system made it difficult for municipal governments to respond to the wave of foreclosures and resultant shrinking tax bases. With the worst of the crisis seemingly behind us it is time to reflect on its long-term impact on American cities.

Perhaps the most extreme example of a city in crisis is Detroit. The city’s beleaguered finances proved to be no match for the global economic meltdown and in 2013 Detroit filed for bankruptcy. This part of the story is well known, but much less attention has been paid to the vision of Detroit’s future development around which a consensus among local elites coalesced in the year-and-a-half since its declaration of bankruptcy.

While this plan retains some elements of out-of-the-box urban development programs, it dispenses with a growth-based strategy geared toward rejuvenating the city’s manufacturing base. Instead, it recognizes the likelihood of further economic decline and its emphasis is on improving the quality of life of Detroit residents, economic diversification and environmental sustainability.

In order to understand the willingness of policy makers in Detroit to relinquish the dream of returning to a golden era of Fordist manufacturing it is necessary to put the 2008 crisis in context. Like many American cities, Detroit is a casualty of the prolonged economic crisis that began in the 1970s. Auto manufacturers relocated production facilities to southern states and then overseas in an attempt to outflank organized labour and to counter a falling rate of return. The collapse of Detroit’s manufacturing base left the city’s finances in tatters, and policy makers responded by embracing market-oriented solutions that were in fashion in the 1980s.

detroit future city 3

There was a broad shift in the United States during the 1980s, in which the primary function of municipal government went from managing day-to-day service delivery to fostering economic growth. To this end “growth coalitions” emerged in many cities. These coalitions practiced “growth machine politics” aimed to augment land value and attracted inward investment. Public bodies assumed risk for large-scale urban development projects while private firms reaped the financial rewards.

This led to a perception among investors that municipal bonds were safe investments that offered lucrative rewards, so when Detroit’s municipal government sought to make up for its shrinking tax base by issuing bonds there was no shortage of willing investors. By 2012 Detroit’s deficit stood at $326 million while its tax base and population continued to shrink.

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The textbook response to crisis in many cities has been to intensify neoliberal policies. Thus, when growth coalitions failed to attract investment or augment land value, the response has oftentimes been to offer even more favourable terms to investors while cutting back on services. This has led many scholars and activists to despair that while neoliberalism is the cause of the current crisis it is also perversely embraced as its solution.

Many municipalities have indeed imposed fiscal austerity since the onset of the financial crisis as a means of attracting investment. Some of these cities may have fundamentally sound finances, and policy makers may view fiscal austerity as a short-term detour aimed at calming skittish investors. According to this reasoning the pain caused by austerity will be offset in the near future once the growth coalition is able to resume a cycle of development and growth.

In the case of Detroit this optimism would have most certainly be misplaced because even the most aggressive version of fiscal austerity would not have reversed the city’s decades-long decline. This begs an obvious question: Why should a city endure the pain of austerity if further decline is inevitable from the outset?

Detroit’s elites decided that, while austerity was in the best interest of extra-local creditors, it also promised to make life even more difficult for residents, and they decided to repudiate the city’s debt and take the historic step of declaring bankruptcy. By freeing the city of its debt burden, bankruptcy has allowed Detroit’s future to be re-envisioned.

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A coalition among Detroit elites coalesced around this emergent vision, which is based on creative land-use, environmental sustainability and economic diversification. It is articulated in a 345-page document entitled Detroit Future City (DFC). It reads like a master plan and focuses on five “planning elements”: economic growth, land use, city systems, neighbourhoods, and land and buildings assets.

Unlike entrepreneurial urban policies whose time horizons are measured in quarters and election cycles, DFC aims to rejuvenate Detroit’s economy in the course of the next five decades. The first step is to make the city liveable in order to stem the tide of out-migration, and to this end the plan calls for investments in neighbourhoods. Residents in neighbourhoods characterized by high levels of abandonment are encouraged to relocate to neighbourhoods with high population densities. Fordist manufacturing is rejected in favour of economic diversity, the single-family detached home is rejected in favour of densely populated diverse neighbourhoods, and in a major shift for the Motor City the plan envisions an efficient public transportation network. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the DFC is “the re-imagination and reuse of vacant land for productive uses or, where there is excess vacant land, returning it to an ecologically and environmentally sustainable state.” The emphasis on sustainable land use is a significant departure from growth machine politics aimed at augmenting land value.

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It is too early to tell whether the vision articulated in the DFC will be realized or if it will indeed guide policy for the next fifty years. Nevertheless, it is important to note that bankruptcy gave Detroit the opportunity to chart a new path. I refer to this as degrowth machine politics because it takes the further shrinking of Detroit’s economy for granted, and rather than placate creditors policy makers are focused on improving the quality of life for city residents.

The concept “degrowth” is not new but it has historically been used primarily by activists and scholars because politicians do not win elections by campaigning for shrinking the economy. This is changing since the onset of the financial crisis because there are many places in which degrowth simply seems to be a reality that cannot be reversed by fiscal austerity.

For example, elements of degrowth are beginning to enter mainstream policy discourse in southern Europe. Voters in Greece recently rejected fiscal austerity, and the concept has begun to enter mainstream discourse elsewhere in southern Europe. In the United Kingdom the Scottish National Party has chided mainstream political parties – and most notably the Labour Party – for not repudiating austerity.

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Thus, it is possible that we could see the emergence of other degrowth machine political coalitions, and this provides an answer for the pressing question: What comes after neoliberalism? The transition to degrowth is not a linear advancement to a new political system based on purportedly universal ideology. Instead it is a mixture of locally adapted policies whose coherence lies in their intended outcomes rather than ideological underpinnings. The objective is to simply do more with less and thereby improve the quality of life, and this will oftentimes (1) reduce the quantity of resources used and (2) put localities – and local elites who were hitherto part of multi-scaler growth coalitions with extra-local financiers – at odds with their creditors whose main priority is protecting their investment.

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Detroit may provide lessons for degrowth coalitions elsewhere. First and foremost, Detroit demonstrates that the intensification of fiscal austerity is not the only response available to policy makers faced with an economic crisis. In spite of declaring bankruptcy Detroit was not punished by creditors. On the contrary, the repudiation of debt transformed Detroit into an attractive destination for investors. For example, Goldman Sachs launched an initiative to invest $20 million in Detroit’s small businesses. Quite simply, an institution that is unburdened by debt seems like a better investment than one that cannot hope to repay its debt without the support of a guarantor (in this case the State of Michigan).

The reason why Detroit is able to attract investment is because its degrowth machine politics has clearly articulated an innovative plan for the city’s future. Thus, the rejection of austerity for austerity’s sake must be accompanied by a clear set of policies aimed at managing decline in a way that makes cities more liveable. In other words, the repudiation of debt should not be understood as a strategy to attract capital from different investors, but to rework with relationship with all investors so that any inward capital is leveraged toward the realization of a sustainable and equitable future.

 

Seth Schindler is a lecturer in human geography at the University of Sheffield.