A degrowth strategy for societal transformation needs to combine several approaches, reflecting the plurality of degrowth as a movement. To support the myriad of bottom-up alternatives that are already out there, degrowth should put a special emphasis on strategies which build power outside of the capitalist system, be very cautious of those which merely seek to tame capitalism, but also integrate the strategic logic of overthrowing capitalism altogether.
Organised digitally amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Degrowth Vienna 2020: Strategies for Socio-ecological transformation marked the timely discussion of strategies for the degrowth movement. The work of Erik Olin Wright was one of the key frameworks referred to throughout the event. While extremely insightful for thinking about degrowth strategy, I believe that we as the degrowth movement should not just copy it but instead engage with it reflectively to devise our own strategies for transformation. In this short piece, I introduce Wright’s work on logics of transformation and anti-capitalist strategies, and reflect on their implications for degrowth.
Erik Olin Wright and strategies for anti-capitalist transformation
Wright identifies three logics of transformation: ruptural, interstitial and symbiotic. Ruptural transformations seek a sharp confrontation or break with existing institutions and social structures. Interstitial transformations involve building new forms of social empowerment on the margins of capitalist society, usually outside spaces dominated by those in power. Symbiotic transformations, in turn, are aimed at changing the existing institutional forms and deepening popular social empowerment existing within the current system so as to ultimately transform it.
Using a game metaphor, Wright connects symbiotic transformations to changing the rules of the game. He sees interstitial transformations as particular moves within the game – though it might be more accurate to view them as ignoring or resisting the existing game and starting a different one alongside it. Finally, ruptural transformations are connected to changing the game itself. Symbiotic, interstitial and ruptural transformations are closely associated with the social democratic, anarchist, and revolutionary socialist traditions respectively.
In his last book – How to be an anti-capitalist in the 21st century – Wright also connected the three logics of transformation to specific strategic logics of anti-capitalism, with objectives of either neutralising harms or transcending structures. For interstitial transformation, the strategic logics are resisting capitalism and escaping capitalism, with the former associated with neutralising harms and the latter with transcending structures. For symbiotic transformation, the neutralising strategic logic is taming capitalism and the transcending one is dismantling it. Finally, for ruptural transformation, smashing is the strategic logic, unequivocally aimed at transcending capitalist structures.
Together, this offers a complex strategic canvas that degrowthers can relate to, which will help to identify priorities, tensions, and think how to avoid cooptation in building degrowth strategies. Let me now reflect on each of the logics of transformation in relation to degrowth.
Degrowth and logics of transformation
The interstitial logic of transformation is crucial for – and might even be seen as the basis of – degrowth as a movement. Indeed, degrowth is about resistance to the capitalist system and building bottom-up alternatives, with direct democracy being one of the key principles for the politics of degrowth. This is also where many movements that degrowth connects to – such as environmental and climate justice movements – are located.
The organising practices we consider degrowthian – which work for open relocalisation and repoliticisation, such as cooperatives and commoning – operate within this logic, too. However, the worlds envisioned by the movements and organising practices that resist and escape capitalism are currently prevented from being realised at large by the capitalist and growth-centric system in place, supported by powerful agents such as corporations and governments, and the institutional settings which they have created.
Therefore, the symbiotic logic of transformation becomes important. Whether we want it or not, the symbiotic logic is something we as a degrowth movement have to engage with to make a paradigm shift happen, in attempt to expand the spaces for alternatives, and take them beyond the margins. Degrowth has been consistent as a movement in arguing for pursuing bottom-up and grassroots change at all possible levels. Thus, several scholars have already flagged symbiotic transformation as key for degrowth, complementing and supporting the interstitial logic of transformation.
In principle, I agree with this. I would argue, however, that pursuing symbiotic transformation is characterised by a duality – a potential to bring transformation, but also the risk of cooptation. In particular, it is the balance between taming and dismantling capitalism that we as the degrowth movement should be careful about.
Both taming and dismantling capitalism are entangled strategic logics of anti-capitalism within symbiotic transformation, and this is where a risk of cooptation comes in. Without taming, dismantling might be not enough. For example, dismantling practices, such as supporting cooperatives institutionally, may be a drop in the ocean when powerful corporations are not tamed and existing institutions are still oriented towards growth. In other words, it is not enough to only support “good things”, but we also have to stop and phase out “bad things”. Radical policy proposals such as those discussed within degrowth or other related spaces (e.g. the Green New Deal for Europe) need to combine taming and dismantling.
However, it is important that taming does not become a less radical compromise in the struggle for transformation. For example, in the socialist movements of the twentieth century, the more radical demands were often overtaken by those just taming capitalism. Wright actually gives an example of Sweden where I am based, where the more radical wing of the social democrats put forward a law that would in the long-term turn big companies into cooperatives, which never happened in the end.
Instead, the strategic logic of dismantling should be seen as key, with a bold vision for policies and alternative institutions that we would like to see. Taming, in turn, should be used to support and further argue for dismantling. For instance, in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting rescue packages for companies to their environmental performance in the future is an example of taming, which is a positive step. However, it is important to argue for more: workplace democratisation, worker control and support for workers to turn bankrupt companies into more collective and not-for-profit ownership forms such as cooperatives.
As for ruptural transformation, this is not part of Wright’s vision of how to overcome capitalism. So far it has not featured in the work on degrowth either, which has largely followed Wright’s reasoning. A survey of the degrowth movement conducted at the fourth international degrowth conference in Leipzig (2014) found out that about 13% of degrowthers were oriented towards rupture. While this might be a minority position in the movement and while ruptures are to be cautious about, I would not fully dismiss rupture as a logic of transformation (and smashing capitalism, as its strategic logic). When speaking of ruptural transformation, Wright usually refers to it as a complete overhaul of the capitalist system, and as a direct attack on the state. However, rupture does not have to be understood this way, which Wright acknowledged also.
There can be temporary or smaller scale ruptures and examples of smashing capitalism. Say, an act of disobedience like blocking a coal plant or occupying a public space – something that is part of the degrowth imaginary – can be seen as an example of a temporary rupture that empowers and encourages other forms of resistance. It includes, but also goes beyond resistance, by disrupting, even if temporarily, the rhythm of extractive capitalism.
Workers overtaking a bankrupt factory and making it a cooperative is another example of rupture and smashing capitalism, in a concrete organisation, such as Vio.Me in Greece, RiMaflow in Italy and the occupied factories in Argentina. Had they been waiting for the legislation that would allow dismantling capitalism to come into place and support cooperative organisational forms, such pioneering examples of change would probably not exist. However, responding to the crises the way they did created a rupture that may encourage others to do the same, as well as demand policies that would allow cooperativisation. Thus, I would argue that temporary or smaller scale ruptures can be important, supporting interstitial and symbiotic logics of transformation.
From taming, to dismantling
Wright argues for combining four logics of anti-capitalism – resisting, escaping, taming and dismantling. I agree that a degrowth strategy needs to combine several of these approaches, too, reflecting the plurality of degrowth as a movement. However, I would argue for a somewhat different strategic configuration and for different weights to be assigned to its components.
To support the myriad of interstitial alternatives that are resisting and escaping the logics of growth and capitalism, degrowth should put a special emphasis on dismantling, be very cautious about taming, but also integrate the strategic logic of smashing capitalism. While such a strategic configuration might also speak to other perspectives from the left, what marks the anti-capitalism of degrowth is that it recognises biophysical limits to the pursuit of growth, and the inevitable exploitation that perpetual economic expansion comes with.
Wright intended to write the second part of How to be an anti-capitalist in the 21st century, which may have further addressed the how question of transformation, but unfortunately he passed away before that. Thus, while his work provides a helpful framework for the degrowth movement to engage with, we are left with the difficult task to figure out how exactly to enact a transformative strategy. How can we organise for dismantling capitalism in the face of powerful corporate interests striving for growth and profit by all means, with structures of the state putting forward incremental measures at best, and the many dispersed alternatives?
While I do not have an answer to this, I am quite sure that it is only in broader unity of progressive movements – locally anchored and globally connected – that systemic change can happen. Thus, I see our own organising as a social movement and uniting with others as key for degrowth. In acting for transformation, and strategically, it is important to devise mechanisms for collective non-hierarchical decision-making, to critically reflect on our actions and stay true to degrowth principles, living up to the spirit and multiplicity of degrowth.
This piece is based on my contribution to the session on strategic approaches at the Vienna conference. I thank the organisers Nathan Barlow and Suni Scheck, co-panellists Nilda Inkermann and Panos Petridis, and all the participants for a stimulating session. I would also like to thank friends and students for the critical discussion of Wright’s work. My gratitude also goes to Santiago Gorostiza and Joe Herbert for their helpful comments and suggestions.
This article is part of a series on degrowth.info discussing strategy in the degrowth movement. The introduction to the series and an ongoing list of contributions can be found here.