The future of degrowth, and radical independence
A new Scotland needs to live within the limits of the world, flourishing within the nature it depends on. Its people’s well-being should be cared for, with common access to resources – free from degrading, unnecessary and harmful work; not alienated in the ways they relate to each other or nature.
A new Scotland should not depend on, nor drive, capitalist accumulation or exploitation. Care should be respected, breaking down exploitation due to gender or anything else. This society’s future should be determined by the people, not the forces of industrialism. Last but not least, Scotland needs to rectify and re-imagine its relations with the countries of the Global South, blazing a trail towards a post-colonial future.
With a new independence referendum nearing on the horizon, now is a good time to imagine what could be next. The above seven threads are synthesised from Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan’s new book The future of degrowth: A world beyond capitalism. This is not a book about independence or Scotland. Instead it offers razor sharp analysis of why everywhere needs degrowth, drawing the threads of the idea and offering multiple interweaving strategies on how to realise a future beyond a destructive growth-driven economy. This is a book laid on solid academic foundations while written fluidly and accessibly.
The book also offers political analysis useful towards realising radical independence. Degrowth too makes us ask questions of what we can and should do to realise a just and sustainable future, which is why I am bringing together these two visions in this article.
Degrow or decline and die
The total weight of every man-made thing (buildings, roads, infrastructure, etc.) doubled every 20 years since the 20th Century began, and recently outweighed all biomass (every plant, animal, living organism: all of it). This staggering statistic shows how we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. The book, critiquing growth, is full of more terrifying facts. For instance, humans waste 49% of food, 31% of energy, and 85% of ores. All this has led to the climate crisis, mass extinctions of species, and humans extracting more than the planet can handle.
But this is just one element of growth, which the book guides the reader through. Growth is also a mental framework, an ideology that has been with us a short time in human history. Yet it falsely promises a lot to people from opposite political perspectives; something good: think the 20th Century nemeses of Soviet intensive industrialisation and US assembly line Neo-Taylorism. Whilst growth is also a social process, including how corporations are embedded playing a structural role to keep things growing, under the auspices that growth means prosperity.
Its explanation of how growth became an all-powerful canon is just one reason this book is a must-read. The book not only charts seven main critiques of growth – ecological (mentioned above), socio-economic, cultural, anti-capitalist, feminist, anti-industrial control, and a North-South critique – but it showcases the pitfalls of only focusing on one strand. For instance, a degrowth argument based solely in ecological grounds does not address structural inequalities. After mapping these diverse strands, the book draws the intersections into one overarching framework.
Degrowth, like radical independence, is both a demand to change everything and a space for these new ideas to intersect and combine.
Myth-busting is another way by which the book defines degrowth: setting out what degrowth is not. For instance, recession within a growth-based economy is not degrowth. The potential and likely global collapse of the growth-based economy in the not-distant future, due to climate meltdown or the other escalating crises, is not degrowth either. Instead, the authors articulate degrowth about “enabling global ecological justice”. This is a world where the richest use far less and we all share effectively – say, public transport over cars, ending waste, removing the profit motive from decision making so as to enable social justice and self-determination.
In short, a degrowth future is a complete transformation, a rupture from the past – one I am comparing with Scotland rupturing from the United Kingdom. So the next big question the book explores is how such a transformation is possible.
When hundreds of people gathered in Kenmure Street, Pollockshields, in May 2021, they took direct action ending an immigration raid and resisting police intervention. They drew a line across their community against Westminster’s ‘Hostile Environment’.
This action resonates with themes the authors draw out of degrowth. It is also an example of how bottom-up counter hegemonic power is necessary for making transformative change; one of three pillars the writers assert are needed to realise a degrowth future.
The book name-checks Ende Gelände, the anti-lignite coal movement in Germany, as one of the first explicitly degrowth-inspired environmental movements – one where many participants are taking direct actions against coal mines, and which also builds on other actions worldwide that demand fossil fuels are kept it in the ground.
Much connects Kenmure Street and Ende Gelände, seen through the perspectives from the book. Both are strategic actions that make an immediate impact. Both also have a ripple effect in the longer term, delegitimising the social licence to continue those policies, and both are sustantiated by further resistance.
On another level, the book makes it clear that taking action against hostile and racist border policies fits into the degrowth agenda, as we need to shift into a world where the many are not oppressed by the few (persecuted for reasons including economic growth). Global ecological justice means everyone deserves both the right to remain and the right to leave.
The authors are clear: we have the practical means to shift to a liveable planet and for everyone to have a good life. What is lacking is the political will of those with the power and wealth. They write that transformative change requires counter-hegemonic power (like Ende Gelände) in combination with two other pathways: “Nowtopias” and “non-reformist reforms”.
A Nowtopia is somewhere that shows there are alternatives – whether this is a small example, a mutual aid tool library, or an example on a grander scale, such as Rojava, the democratic autonomous region in the predominantly Kurdish area of Syria.
Non-reformist reforms, on the other hand, are policies that push us away from a world where capital is king. For instance, universal basic income (UBI) is considered as one gateway policy, where people can devote their time to themselves, their loved ones and their community, so they do not need to work in alienating work for corporations. But UBI is just one policy mentioned in the book, not a silver bullet, just like non-reformist reforms themselves that needs to weave with counter-power and Nowtopias.
When it comes to realising an independent Scotland (even a degrowth Scotland), it is interesting to think of how there are both non-reformist reforms and Nowtopias – and how these sustantiate each other.
As a devolved nation, Scotland has already implemented what could be considered non-reformist reforms, whilst diverging from some of Westminster’s most authoritarian and austeritarian policies. Could more be done? Yes. Scotland using its devolved powers is an important aspect of the independence process, as it builds political power and people’s belief in this power.
Likewise, Scotland has many Nowtopias, places where people can imagine how we can live beyond the status-quo. I will highlight two, both that are relevant to degrowth and independence.
Community power is genuinely regenerating islands around Scotland’s periphery, particularly in islands where locals have bought out absent landlords. This story starts in 2004, with Gigha the first “first community-owned grid-connected windfarm in Scotland”. Then there is the small island of Eigg, that has created a micro-grid powered by wind, water, and sun – making the island practically energy self-sufficient. Or North Uist that’s generating money to go back into the community, or Tiree, and so on.
One take-home from these islands is that big companies do not need to generate dirty power for massive profits. Instead, people and locally self-managed power meet their own needs. And whilst these islands are a drop in the ocean of what power is used nationally, they are Nowtopias showing how people can build autonomy and have self-determination, which in a philosophical sense sits well with the case for independence too.
Another Nowtopia example in Scotland is a work in progress. For the last few years a movement of social movements are co-creating a People’s Plan for Glasgow (led by SANE). The People’s Plan notion is that instead of leaving politics to politicians, people can run their cities in everyone’s interests, taking inspiration from municipalist struggles, where in places such as Grenoble, Barcelona, Zagreb, and elsewhere people are collectively running their cities on democratic means. Again, a Nowtopian idea that shatters the status-quo and shows how power can be decentralised.
Amongst both community renewables and radical municipalism, participants have different relations to the independence question. Yet these and other Nowtopias can be used in the case for independence (and degrowth), because they do what the writers suggest Nowtopias can do. Namely, they inspire a militant optimism and break the ‘there is no alternative’ (or that alternatives never work) narrative, whilst also creating a hub and a space to experiment with new ideas and ways of doing things.
Overall, the point the book is making is that degrowth and a massive transformation needs a diversity of tactics. Diversity is no weakness. For instance, people can go into a Nowtopia space and be inspired to collectively imagine non-reformist reforms. Or non-reformist reforms can support Nowtopias – e.g. laws that support community projects or co-operatives. And counter-hegemonic social movements are lush ground for people to think of the other two strategies.
So does the book sit neatly with radical independence? Not exactly.
The Future of Degrowth has a lot to offer anyone interested in creating a liveable future, not least through radical independence. Yet it also suggests that degrowth is unlikely to be realised in one nation, as it would be attacked by interests of capital, even military violence.
This perspective cannot be brushed aside. Think of the many South American countries that have tried to break with the status quo, or Rojava that has been assisted not because it is a multiethnic democratic society, but only protected to the extent its interest align with the different proxy forces fighting in the region. But whilst an attack by the establishment (international, corporate, as well as British) is inevitable if Scotland moves towards radical independence, it is not insurmountable.
Arguably, there is space for cross-fertilisation between the broad global degrowth movement and the radical independence movement. Some of the pathways the authors suggest towards degrowth are well-trodden on the journey towards independence. Like degrowth, independence is an umbrella term that people can coalesce under, including to create ecological social justice. Independence puts questions onto the agenda that otherwise would not be so widely asked: What should we do next? Can we get rid of the monarchy or nuclear weapons? It also creates the chance to imagine a new framework, and a schism from patriarchy, classism, racism, and other structural oppressions Britain is built on.
Drawing conclusions from the book’s prescriptions can substantiate the idea of winning independence as a process, rather than solely focusing on winning a vote on one day. It is about showing another world is possible in the here and now, looking at Nowtopias and how these fit pre figuratively into a future independent Scotland. It is about building counter-hegemonic power to resist capital flight, or resisting Westminster using all its power to sabotage the independence process. All the while pushing forward with non-reformist reforms. In places, these strategies are already underway.
But to rupture from Britain, it is worth thinking of the strongest examples across the world: of Nowtopias, of building counter-hegemonic power, and non-reformist reforms that could assist with that. These are happening in many places; for example, in Chile social protests and movements created local assemblies, demanding and since securing a new constitution. This people-led process has been completed recently.
Another example of reimagining where political power lies comes from municipalism, where people are taking back control of their local political spaces, building autonomy and new power structures. This dual power strategy is often summed up as one foot in the streets and one inside political institutions, and it takes different forms in different places, from Barcelona to Zagreb and Rojava to Jackson, US.
There are also many examples of countries that showcase the power of non-reformist reforms – many Nordic countries that Scotland has an affinity to. For example, Finland tops many social indicators of well-being and happiness. Although still capitalist nation states, Nordic welfare states show the importance of social indicators about well-being. Celebrating these is an essential step towards replacing the crude marker of GDP, successors needed to guide anywhere that moves beyond growth.
One of the core messages of The Future of Degrowth is that to change everything, top-down approaches need to complement bottom-up ones, backed up with those that seek to build something new beyond the frame. The book also tells there will be no radical politics without degrowth. Yet reciprocally, an independent Scotland could be a Nowtopia to realise this other world.
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