By Frigga Haug

At the closing event of the attac-congress on capitalism in 2009, the German politician Heiner Geissler pleaded for an eco-dictatorship. After all, even as a prominent member of the Christian Democratic Party he had joined attac out of concern over problems of capitalist society, among them the ecological one – and was now calling on the 2000 or so participants to take action to this effect. In the outrageous uproar following his call, his words couldn’t be heard any more. It would have been good, however, to have let him finish his speech, even if only for the sake of developing own strategies in the discussion. This was no longer possible at the end of this mega-congress. And yet Geissler was right in the midst of being wrong. Unusual means have to be found to stop the destructive growth-primacy of the capitalist economy. But it is wrong to assume that a dictatorship could be able to lead the overall process into a less dangerous direction, and that it could somehow integrate our mode of living but not us as human beings. So how can this happen otherwise?

Growth society

Most facts on this topic are well known and by now common good; the drivers: profit and power for more profit; the results: resource exploitation until exhaustion and wars for resources are reached; climate change leading to catastrophes; high-tech which even reaches into our genetic material; competition reaching as far as into childrens’ rooms – and expanding poverty and misery in ever-increasing dimensions on one side, riches to a criminal extent on the other.

Meanwhile the consequences can be felt down to the individual households and lives. In crisis after crisis it becomes obvious that the old modes of living and related strategies of domination also have to be challenged, if we want to change our share in the state of the world in a direction in which a better life could generally be possible.

1. Gender-relations

This affects gender-relationships and the accompanying negligence of all living beings as far as they don’t generate profit. This negligence is supported by womens’ commitment over the millennia to give birth to and nourish life in all its forms, without this being integrated in the regulations of the overall economy in any noteworthy manner. It is integrated into the life of society, however, a society that hopelessly destroys caring behavior as an unaffordable luxury.

2. Individual development

Accordingly, this affects the development of individuals as human beings with all their potentials and abilities, that wither, like plants in the desert without water. And to consider this as normal, i.e not making use of life. In the multiple crises, the imagination of oneself making music, writing poems, drawing and talking for being heard also shrinks into the pattern of functioning and achieving at any cost – and dying before becoming completely poor. Happiness shrinks into the perspective of simply getting hold of an exploitation place (called work), which already becomes unachievable also for the youth nowadays, depending on its country’s ranking in the world.

3. Regulation of the community

It also affects the habit of leaving the regulation of the community to others, as if it wasn’t one’s own business, and suffering from the consequences as far-reaching as war and environmental catastrophes as if it were fate; of accepting subalternity and stupidity as a way of life; of not getting in the way of injustice and not doubting everything. Thus to not empower oneself, thereby permitting uncontrolled power for others.

4. Regulation of societal work

It also affects the way how societal work is regulated. This is not only about the division of work that generates income and work that doesn’t. This relationship is made bearable through the ruling gender-relations at the expense of women. It is also about the quality and duration of work, i.e. in how far wage labor is designed according to human needs and capabilities. Under the conditions of the developed productive forces of labour nowadays, reducing wage-working times to half and breaking up the division of developing and rather repetitive work would have been feasible since a long time. Particular types of work only become dumb if they fill the pores of the day instead of being a change within other types.

The four-in-one-perspective

The arrangement and separation of these four areas against each other and their occupation by different persons has knotted together an authority that enforces the perseverance of the capitalist mode of production, even if in a state of crisis. Locked into their respective field, individuals develop a type of responsibility and spirit of resistance that gets stuck in the very same area: in the family, in clinging to one’s workplace and contenting oneself with a poor life in a state of irresponsibility for society as a whole. It is required to step back and to change this constellation as a whole.

In the crisis of the growth-society it becomes increasingly evident that we cannot go on like this. Yet it becomes clear at the same time that individuals also take part in (keeping up) this constellation and its constraints. Without them, there will be no change in the sense of turning back to a non-growth-society.

The plea is now directed towards crossing the borders of those areas, towards not leaving the order as it is, but, as individuals, to develop a common culture of another mode of living, to enter each of the four areas in equal measure, to break through the general being-at-disposal – independent of gender, class and race – and empowering oneself. It is directed towards accepting the disposal of time as a political task and taking on this political fight. In responsibility for the earth, this also means not to be content with separating one’s trash; in responsibility for the next generation not to be content with the promise that one’s own child has good chances if the parents supervise homework; not to believe that art is nothing for the masses anyway, but to fight for the time and means for it; not to be satisfied with political power being only the subject of parliaments, parliaments which one individually might not even want to enter.

Overcoming the growth-society is not possible as a top-down dictatorship and also not through the behavior of individuals, e.g. when choosing food at the supermarket. However, a postgrowth society is also not possible without the individuals, because the capitalist regime is supported by everybody through habits, norms, behaviours, goals, hopes and perspectives. Structure and subjective behavior are no alternative starting points and different political choices. They are entangled as a relationship of division. It is required that all individuals develop a collective culture of another society in which the divided areas are integrated, in day-to-day and cultural practice. It is a long process, but we have already started it.

Translation: Christiane Kliemann

Frigga Haug is professor emerita for sociology at the Hamburg University for Economy and Politics. She is chairwoman of the Institute for Critical Theory and member of the scientific board of Attac.