There is no real choice for those who believe in an alternative but to put forward a set of ideas that could lead to a more appealing future for humankind – one within a sustainable ecological framework that gives us a chance of collective survival. Otherwise our protests become gratuitous or simply nihilistic. We are painted into a corner as dreamers and nay-sayers, out of touch with the concerns and interests of ordinary folk.

  • Emphasizing the quality of life as measured in convivial culture and human relationships rather than the quantity of life as measured in consumer goods.
  • Prioritizing the local in everything: in decision-making, in energy and agricultural systems, in the disposal/reuse/recycling of waste, and so on. The aim would be to achieve as high a level of community self-sufficiency as is reasonably possible.
  • Downshifting – a term used to describe a reduction of the ecological footprint of both individuals and communities.
  • Reducing working hours to eliminate ecologically and socially damaging work, and implementing a universal basic income in order to support an expansion of community-defined volunteer opportunities.
  • Allocating resources democratically so that degrowth would take place on a just basis – replacing the current practice of dealing with economic crisis and shortage through austerity policies that unfairly affect the less well-off who are more dependent on public provision.
  • Reducing dramatically unecological forms of living such as suburban sprawl, and encouraging a more equal distribution of population between rural and urban areas – but with enough density in urban planning to avoid waste in providing services.
  • Revitalizing political life through decentralization and direct democracy. This would include popular assemblies, workplace democracy and referenda – as well as citizen juries to maximize participation and discourage the emergence of a professional political class.

This is not entirely an unfair accusation. Radicals sometimes live in their own subcultural bubble and, while maintaining great faith in ‘the people’ as an abstraction, are quick to negative judgement of actual human beings whom they feel are tainted by consumerism and bourgeois prejudices. We can get too caught up in the finer points of identity politics or the intricacies of inter-imperialist rivalry to bother with those folks worried about their children’s homework or searching for sales at the local mall. We need to move beyond the anti-politics of pure protest and actually start ‘proposing’ alternatives that are both viable and appealing.

A good start is rethinking our addiction to growth and embracing a policy of what people are coming to call ‘degrowth’. Degrowth is a multi-dimensional concept that has to do not only with downscaling to reduce GDP but also with providing an escape from the total domination of the economic in our lives. It seeks to promote social equity and recreate democracy on a more meaningful, decentralized scale.

It is a truism that infinite growth is an impossibility in a finite world. This is the taproot of all radical environmentalism. We are running up against the limits of growth in everything from fresh water and fertile soil to the provision for employing human labour in a meaningful way within the current market context. Increasingly, we are put in the position of having to ‘survive progress’. What was supposed to bring us prosperity and wellbeing is making life on earth more and more insecure. This ‘security deficit’ is spreading from the economics of daily life to the entire ecological framework that sustains us. The growth machine still provides unheard-of wealth for those at the top, but less and less for even those people who think of themselves as ‘middle class’.

So what would a degrowth policy framework look like? It is very much a programme of economic democratization based on the belief that material growth needs to be replaced with an economy of sufficiency. It contends that economic decisions should be taken in the public sphere by those most directly affected by them: by workers and local communities, and as part of a democratically derived notion of the public interest. Here are some basic principles.

It might be useful to think of growth-addicted capitalism as a maze and search sensible exit points at the same time as building sustainable livelihood projects to ensure species survival.

This magazine has sketched a very brief history of past alternatives to capitalism and some of the dead-end streets that have ended in failure, co-optation or worse.

But it has also, I hope, teased out some of the threads of possibility from which a future alternative might be woven. These are various and the richness of their diversity will present a challenge for even the most skilled weaver. There are those, such as indigenous radicalism, which draw from experiences predating capitalism and celebrate values that, in modified form, could help us live within our means. There is a utopian tradition, often disparaged by the orthodox Left, which has the potential for helping us think imaginatively about the future. There is the radical reappraisal of the commons. There are traditions of self-rule that keep reasserting themselves (most recently in Latin America) from which we can draw hope of a politics that is about more than the self-preservation of the political class.

Can such traditions learn to coexist creatively? The path, as they say, is made by walking.

Richard Swift