How does societal change take place? What have been the key ‘push’ and ‘pull factors’ for it to occur? And what’s the situation today in this respect? There has been a huge variety of ways by which humans have organized their sustenance. Each one of these ways – or economies – has produced its specific problems (its ‘push factors’), which in turn have generated conflicts and ideologies seeking to offer something better (‘pull factors’). Since the birth of market economies some 5000 years ago, five sets of economic relations have recurrently been at the centre of popular insurrections: land, tax, labour, debt, and environmental impacts. These five major economic ‘push factors’ have appeared in different combinations throughout time and space, and they can be linked to a variety of radical ideologies. What follows is an exploration of this basic idea, hoping to provide some historical perspective to today’s key radical ideologies and what they can offer.
Let us begin with a few vignettes taken from Asia and Europe. In classical European and Near Eastern Antiquity, debt and land were the main points of economic tension. British historian Geoffrey de Ste. Croix noted that “the programme of Greek revolutionaries seems largely to have centred in two demands: redistribution of land, cancellation of debts”. Emanating from these struggles, the radical ideologies of the time were often demands for more popular participation – more democracy – in the running of economic affairs.
In medieval China and Europe, to take another example, the perennial cause of revolts was associated with the various types of taxes. Countless peasant rebellions started around tax issues. In the German states from 1300 to 1500, there occurred 210 recorded risings opposing taxes in at least 105 towns. Facing the demands of élites typically justifying themselves on religious grounds, the radical ideologies of the time often drew on alternative understandings of religion or on different religions altogether. Their ideologists could be Taoist leaders or renegade theologians.
As the transition to capitalism unfolded, new economic conflicts and new anti-systemic ideologies appeared. The rise of capitalism requires at least two basic elements without which it cannot function: the separation of producers from their means of production – through various forms of enclosure and dispossession – and the enforcement of property laws and contracts, typically ensured by the state. Accordingly, struggles over land (related to dispossession) and taxes (related to the consolidation of the state apparatus) were dominant in many parts of the world witnessing an early strengthening of capitalist relations. The corresponding radical ideologies could be anarchistic escapism from state control, or various forms of republicanism, like in the French Revolution which started as a tax revolt.
Starting in the 19th century, capitalist modernity has been a period of colossal changes at the world scale. Hungarian economic historian Karl Polanyi argued that it was the time of a Great Transformation that separated the economic sphere from the rest of society. This ‘modern era’ was a time of rapid industrialisation and commodification, with labour as the strategic site of economic conflicts, at least in the global North. Elsewhere, other economic struggles were dominant. In India, for example, debt remained a major cause of rebellion throughout the 19th century, and in the colonies more generally, land and tax continued to be at the forefront of many insurrections. But the radical ideology of European modernity was, without a doubt, embodied in the various forms of socialism and communism.
Neoliberalism: new problems and new conflicts
Around 1980, the world system entered what could be seen as a distinct period, that of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism coincides with a well-known massive increase of environmental problems such as water pollution, biodiversity loss, resource peaks, and climate change. These new circumstances have generated environmental protests to an unprecedented scale in human history.
Facing biophysical limits and slower growth rates, Western capitalism reacted by gradually shifting its strategic forms of surplus appropriation from industrial to financial profits. Debts, accordingly, came to be rooted at the very core of the neoliberal project, and it rose to unparalleled levels worldwide. New waves of debt-driven proletarianisation took place since the 1980s, reinforcing the key function of debt as a disciplinary device over lower and middle classes, not just over the working class. In parallel, anti-debt conflicts increased exponentially since 1980 as well.
Contemporary economies have thus ecological destructions and indebtedness as two most prominent sites of tensions and conflicts. These two conflictive sites can be traced back to the growth-addiction of neoliberal capitalism, which relentlessly seeks new accumulation opportunities – both virtual (financial) and biophysical (extractive). Both types of conflict are also intimately linked with each other: many environmental movements are, knowingly or not, targeting the debt economy that pushes indebted companies and countries into predatory extractivism in order to ensure loan repayments. High debt levels, in short, generate formidable pressures for growth, precisely when planetary boundaries would need it the least.
Degrowth as a radical ideology
What kind of radical ideologies is emanating from debt and environmental pressures? Because this new blend of problems is so closely connected to relentless economic expansion, it is to be expected that the resulting anti-systemic ideologies will be articulated around a critique of growth and accumulation. If this is confirmed, degrowth ideas are likely to become a central ingredient of the radical ideologies of the 21st century, especially in the global North. This is a noticeable difference with more classic land and labour struggles which are not centred on a critique of growthism per se.
As an alternative to the non-radical ideology of ‘green growth’, degrowth aims at something more tangible: a democratic reduction of excess resource use in rich nations to bring their economies back into balance with the Biosphere in a just way. The degrowth ‘pull factor’ proposes to achieve this goal by reorganizing economies along eco-socialist principles. The objective is to rebuild public services to fulfil all essential needs; democratise economic decisions to prevent élite capture and the subsequent ecosocial disruptions; and downscale extraction and production to what is truly needed.
A degrowth of industrialised regions seems to be the only way to leave resources and autonomy for deprived regions so that they can follow their own developmental paths – until all regions can reach a global steady-state at a sustainable and egalitarian level. Degrowth thus goes hand in hand with anticolonial politics and the flourishing of other radical ideologies in the global South.
The perspective presented here implies that it would be a mistake to understand degrowth as a somewhat marginal, single-issue movement that only speaks to well-off academics. In contrast, I suggested that degrowth should be understood as nothing less than a key contemporary radical ideology addressing the specific urgent problems of the day (‘push’) and advancing a way forward (‘pull’). In this sense, degrowth is part of a longer genealogy of major anti-systemic responses to destructive ways of organising human sustenance. And it could become as important as, say, communism was in the 20th century. But unlike what happened in the past, the scale of the problems is now fully global, and it affects many forms of life on Earth besides humans.
Illustration: Marina Viši?
Marina Viši? is an urban designer with a passion for creating ecologically sustainable and inclusive environments. ?In her leisure time, she enjoys reading, listening to music, taking photographs, and drawing. She relocated from Serbia to the Netherlands due to her interest in water management.