Overcoming the growth mania through the social economy

In his splendidly provocative Tools for conviviality, Ivan Illich (1973) describes the pursuit of growth as a general affliction of industrial society. He writes that “While evidence shows that more of the same leads to utter defeat, nothing less than more and more seems worthwhile in a society infected by the growth mania” (p.8). His conclusion is that

society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. (p.10)

The analysis of the ‘growth mania’ is taken further by Herman Daly (1974) in “Steady-State Economics versus Growthmania” (pdf here). Daly decries the growth orthodoxy, the desire for “growth forever and the more the better,” calling it “a rigorous exercise in wishful thinking” (p.154).

As this Limits to Growth debate unfolded in the early 1970s, these authors and others such as EF Schumacher contributed significantly to a complex and sophisticated understanding of the predicament of industrial society. Yet, despite the depth of the insights that have been available for more than 30 years, wishful thinking remains the corner stone of government policy and business planning; “growth forever and the more the better” is still the mantra of our age.

Nevertheless, there are voices still to be heard speaking out strongly against the myth of growth, one being the European ‘degrowth’ movement which held its second conference in Barcelona at the end of March this year.

Though this conference was held at a university and was attended by many academics, thankfully it seems to have had a distinctly political edge. Major presentations and other material, including interviews with participants, are available at the virtual conference.

Most interesting, I think, are the 29 workshop groups. These were each begun with short ‘stirring’ papers ie, opening thoughts intended to challenge participants and ‘stir’ debate. Many are worth a look, but I want to focus on just two – the workshops which address political strategy and social economy.

In his paper for the political strategy workshop, Yves Cochet, a Green Party member of the French National Assembly and former government minister, suggests there are three possible degrowth pathways. Firstly, exit – voluntary simplicity as a conscious choice to live life on the margins. Secondly, voice – collective engagement through, among other things, the development of “alternative ways of consuming which aim to develop a system based on exchange and local money.” Finally, loyalty – “adaptation to the existing framework” and “assimilation into the party system” with the attendant risk of the institutional capture (and reprogramming) of the idea of degrowth.

Giorgos Kallis also considers the possibility of political parties taking degrowth on board. It is unlikely, he suggests, even for a green party – he comments that green political parties largely favour “a more pragmatic techno-managerial approach of ecological modernization and ‘green growth’”. He thinks that a widespread social movement for degrowth is also unlikely, as the concept is difficult to convert into the specific demands for constitutional/legal change that are needed to provide the focus such a movement.

What Kallis seems to favour is what he describes (borrowing from various sources) as “‘engaged withdrawal’, a mass defection by those wishing to create new forms of community.” He comments that this is a degrowth strategy already adopted implicitly by part of the activist community, and cites examples such as the neo-rural movement, urban squats, alternative currencies and economies. Adapting the terms applied by Cochet, above, we might call this a vocal exit.

Both these contributions point to a political strategy emphasising the need to construct and live alternative ways of being, doing and having – sowing the seeds and nurturing the shoots of a new economy in the shell of the old one. What is being described by these writers is the social economy or, as Jordi Garcia Jané meaningfully puts it, the solidarity economy, which he defines as:

that set of production, trade, consumption and credit practices that pursue the satisfaction of needs rather than the maximization of profits [and are] organized according to the values of cooperation, solidarity, democracy, equality and sustainability.

This social economy encompasses all the possible aspects of engaged withdrawal:

cooperatives (of workers, consumers, agricultural, services, education, cohousing…), associations for social intervention, worker societies and others mainly participated by workers, enterprises for social inclusion, foundations of social intervention, fair trade shops, networks for exchange of goods, services and knowledge, free software movements, community gardens, popular canteens, communitarian microeconomics …

Garcia outlines some of the features of the social economy which fit in with a degrowth strategy:

The social economy organizations are societies of people (not of capital), governed democratically (one person one vote) … It becomes easier to set goals related to the concept of ‘buen vivir’ (good living) (working less hours, the commitment to social causes …) than to the maximization of economic benefits.

While commercial companies need to grow continuously to provide new benefits to capital, cooperatives and other enterprises under democratic management do not have the same tendency to the expansion.

However, Garcia says, existing social economic organisations tend to act in isolation and are “poorly articulated with each other.” Therefore one of the key steps towards making degrowth a reality would be reaching a level of awareness, activity, inter-cooperation and interaction in the alternative social economy. In time it would reach a critical mass of organisations and lead to the evolution of a large stable social economic network that we could properly call a social market.

And that would truly constitute the emergence, the blossoming of the new economy and Illich’s “new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines.”


Herman Daly (1974) Steady-state economics versus growthmania: A critique of the orthodox conceptions of growth, wants, scarcity, and efficiency Policy Sciences 5, 149-167.

Ivan Illich (1973) Tools for conviviality London: Calder & Boyars.


Filed under capitalism, David, green politics, sustainability

2 responses to “Overcoming the growth mania through the social economy

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Overcoming the growth mania through the social economy « well sharp -- Topsy.com

  2. Pingback: Thirteen channels of shit to choose from | Wibble