Undoing as Doing: Degrowth and Artistic Praxis

Image: This toolbox can be found at https://degrowthtoolbox.net/ © Alexandra Papademetriou

Understanding artistic practice as a potential catalyst for social change, the core of this text is the idea that it is, in fact, not only possible but absolutely imperative to imagine the end of capitalism and to work towards it. Using the concept of degrowth as an entry point, the aim of this short essay is to explore alternative proposals of the role art and artistic strategies can play during this time of global unrest.

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I would like to start by briefly laying out the meaning and background of the term degrowth. Emerging from the field of political ecology, degrowth signifies, first and foremost, a critique of the narrative of perpetual economic growth, and of the centering of growth as a social objective.[1] Within capitalist cultures, the concept of growth is associated across the board with improvement, prosperity, well-being: the more we – as individuals, institutions, nations – produce and accumulate, the better we are doing. And, consequently, our objectives tend to be growth-oriented. As our governments are always striving for higher GDP ratings, we also strive to work more, produce more, earn more. Those of us in the arts, too, tend to assume that the more we work and the more art we push out, the more opportunities will come our way, the more capital (financial or cultural) we will gain. At its very foundation, the continued existence of the capitalist system relies on perpetual economic development. Degrowth, conversely, points out the simple fact that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible.

Furthermore, degrowth identifies the current system as exploitative. On a global scale, this chase of perpetual growth is the driving engine behind the exploitation of the planet and the swift depletion of its natural resources. It has also been the force behind colonialism and the brutal subjugation and exploitation of human beings in the Global South for the benefit of the Global North. And, of course, those of us privileged enough to live in the Global North are not free from being exploited: overworked and underpaid, often living hand to mouth. I would argue that quite a few of us are even enthusiastically engaging in our own exploitation and self-exploitation as we anxiously fret about our productivity levels, trying to hustle our way through the gig economy to the point of burnout. But, I would like to put a pin on this thought for later, and quickly return to the term we are examining here.

Beyond this critique, degrowth also proposes possible alternatives. While it emerges from multiple streams of ecological and social thought and consequently does not stand for a single unified vision of a “de-grown” future,[2] the consensus points towards the restructuring of societies around the values of well-being of human and non-human life, equitability, autonomy, simplicity, conviviality, and care.[3] In other words:

Degrowth is thus a way to bring forward a new imaginary which implies a change of culture and a rediscovery of human identity which is disentangled from economic representations.[4]

This is something I want to stay with for the next couple of paragraphs. I would argue that we are at a point in human history in which it is absolutely imperative to rethink the values our societies are built upon, to decolonise our collective imaginary. As social inequality rises across the globe, as far-right authoritarianism continues to tighten its grip, as unmitigated climate catastrophe and mass extinction draw ever nearer, it is becoming increasingly evident to all that capitalist exploitation has life on our planet in a chokehold. It is often remarked that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism – to put it bluntly, if we don’t imagine the second, we won’t have to imagine the first.

My intention here is not to be a doomsayer, but rather to stress the urgency of the situation and the importance of action. Now, I don’t believe that you and I as individuals are in a position to overthrow the entirety of the capitalist-colonial complex, no. But I do believe that we are able to imagine, to speculate, to play with and test out alternatives within the reach of our everyday lives – and that we are able to bring others with us, to gradually build communities based on infrastructures of care and conviviality. Even within the last couple of years, the discourse around what is possible has changed dramatically. Political ideas that were considered extreme not too long ago are now increasingly becoming part of mainstream political discourse, such as universal basic income, debt cancellation, police abolition. Collectively imagining alternatives is gradually becoming easier.

And, I would argue, those of us working in the field of culture are in a unique position to do this imagining and testing; that we have more power than we are led to believe when it comes to directing shifts in culture. It has been my long-standing position that artists (and art workers more broadly), due to our particular training, have the potential to act as communicators, organisers, mobilisers, community-builders, activists. We have some freedom to be idealistic, questioning, radical even. We are also uniquely trained in communication, and our often peripheral position in society allows us to move between different groups of people, to mediate and to mobilise. We are in the position to reignite people’s imaginations about not just what alternative futures they can demand politically, but also what methods they can use to work towards realising these futures.[5]

Image: “Well-being, equitability, autonomy, simplicity, conviviality, and care” © Alexandra Papademetriou

My intention here is not to convince anyone that a “de-grown” future is the one we should all aspire to and strive for (although it is undeniably the one I am aspiring to), but rather to point to the avenues towards social change proposed by the degrowth movement, and more importantly to the dual role of degrowth as both critique and proposition: as negation, as undoing, but also as a call to join forces in order to create something better.

Change is not something that is meant to be accomplished overnight. It is work that must be done step by persistent step, fought and won in a myriad of small battles across all facets of life. And I would argue here that in order to work towards a society based upon the values I mentioned above (well-being, equitability, autonomy, simplicity, conviviality, and care), values which lie diametrically opposed to the paradigms of capitalism, authoritarianism and colonialism, we need to start by building up small areas of life free from exactly these paradigms. We need to build communities.

Within community-based strategies for social change we are able to practise the future in a much more complete sense than that allowed by making changes in our individual behaviour patterns, by being alone. Within communities we can much more clearly articulate and offer alternatives to existing norms and practices, and, to the extent that they work, they show that it is possible to live differently.[6] And we can, right now, start working towards building strong relationships with each other, as an artistic community of creators, communicators, mediators – and invest in strengthening the other communities we are already part of, local or otherwise.

And at this point I would like to return to the thought I pinned earlier about our existence in a fundamentally exploitative system. The fact is that most of us, including those of us who consider ourselves engaged in some form of activism, often find ourselves working primarily alone or with insufficient community support structures. How much more true is this for those of us working in the art world, an ecosystem built around the mythic figure of the genius individual artist! Despite the recent wave of socially engaged artistic practices and collectives entering the mainstream, the reality for most of us is that we are still lone individuals engaged in constant competition with each other: competing for work, for exhibition space, for attention, even for education. The more you win these “competitions”, the more you will continue to win, the more resources you accumulate.[7] This state of constant competition is, of course, what makes our exploitation possible to a large degree.

By bringing this up I want to further argue that those of us who are art workers engaged with social issues (or activists employing artistic strategies) will inevitably fall short in our task to propose alternative futures if we do not begin by proposing alternative methods of working in the present. And, to return to an earlier point about negation and undoing in order to do, my position is that the foundation of this endeavour has to lie at a series of rejections. The rejection of individualism, the rejection of the competitive model of artistic work, the rejection of the capitalist “work ethic” and the perpetual anxiety over being sufficiently “productive”. On the other side of this, I propose that we begin restructuring our practices to centre notions of community, solidarity, mutual care, and well-being.

The process of making art itself can be a form of praxis when offering an alternative to capitalist artistic production. Before creating public discourses around the subjects of post-capitalism, for example, or of the value of community, or even of the politics of care, our projects can be designed in and of themselves with community and care as the core values.

In practical and yet very simple terms: Do we, for example, fully acknowledge the contributions others have made to the realisation of our projects? Do we work with or within non-competitive frameworks? Do we invest in building an environment of mutual support and mutual trust for and with our collaborators? Can we use our platforms to bring to the forefront the voices and needs of the marginalised? Are there ways in which we can use our positions of privilege strategically to redirect institutional resources to those who need them? Are there social or material barriers (to community, to action, to participation) set for others that we can work towards taking down? Whoever you or I may be, can we use our particular skill sets to contribute to our communities?

And, in more radical terms, Peter Gelderloos offers four practical questions for assessing whether an activist tactic or movement had genuine liberatory impact, questions which could easily apply to artistic activist strategies with the goal of undoing the current paradigm:

In sum, the four basic criteria are:
whether [it] seized space for new social relations;
whether it spread an awareness of new ideas (and secondarily if this awareness was passive or whether it inspired others to fight);
whether it had elite support;
whether it achieved any concrete gains in improving people’s lives.[8]

Of course, the questions and the criteria offered here are not meant to function as simple checklists for determining the “correctness” of an artistic or activist project – as there cannot be (nor would we want there to be) a singular definitive “correct” approach to art making that is suitable for all practices and applicable in all contexts. Rather, the questions are meant to function as bases for engaging in further discussion and development during the planning or evaluation phases of our endeavours.

Image: “We are not alone” © Alexandra Papademetriou

Here, I am tempted to remain in the spirit of open-endedness and move towards closing this text without a neatly wrapped conclusion. It would be, afterall, counterproductive to the task of bringing forward a new imaginary to simply close off the text at this point. What I would like to do instead is leave you with my questions above and invite you to start a discussion; to add your own questions, thoughts, and feelings to the table, to make space for speculation and exchange.

If there is one thing I want to return to, it is to underline the importance of even just imagining alternative futures, alternative modes of living. To many, this emphasis on imagination sounds hopelessly idealistic and naive, if not outright cringeworthy. But, why should we surrender imagination? To whom are we supposed to relinquish the possibilities of our future? I cannot help but include one of my favourite Donna Haraway quotes here where she so beautifully writes:

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.[9]

The ideas I have presented in this text are not particularly novel or groundbreaking – on the contrary, they have been, and continue to be, reiterated across (eco-)socialist spaces over the past few decades. But this is exactly why this massive change is doable: we are not alone. All across the board, we see people calling for change, calling for a society that is more humane, more caring. All I intend to do here is join these people, these voices – and I invite you to do the same.

Text and Images: Alexandra Papademetriou
References and further reading

D’ Alisa, Giacomo; Demaria, Federico; Kallis, Giorgos (eds). Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, Routledge, 2015.

Demaria, Federico; Schneider, François; Sekulova, Filka; Martinez-Alier, Joan. ‘What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement’, Environmental Values, vol. 22, 2013, pp. 191-215.

Dobson, Andrew. Green Political Thought, 4th ed, Routledge, 2007.

Gelderloos, Peter. The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy, Left Bank Books, 2013.

Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, 2016.

Liegey, Vincent, and Nelson, Anita. Exploring Degrowth, Pluto Press, 2020.

Sholette, Gregory. Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, Pluto Press, 2010.

Spade, Dean. ‘Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid for Mobilization and Survival’, Social Text, vol. 38, no. 1 (142), pp. 131-151.

Szreder, Kuba. The ABC of the projectariat: Living and working in a precarious art world, Manchester University Press, 2021.

Notes

[1] G. D’ Alisa, F. Demaria, and G. Kallis, ‘Degrowth’ in G. D’ Alisa, F. Demaria, and G. Kallis (eds), Degrowth, A Vocabulary for a New Era, Routledge, 2015, p. 3.

[2]  F. Demaria, F. Schneider, F. Sekulova, J. Martinez-Alier, ‘What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement’, Environmental Values, vol. 22, 2013, pp. 191-215.

[3] G. D’ Alisa, F. Demaria, and G. Kallis, ‘Degrowth’, pp. 1-17.

[4] F. Demaria, F. Schneider, F. Sekulova, J. Martinez-Alier, ‘What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement’, p. 197.

[5] D. Spade, ‘Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid for Mobilization and Survival’, Social Text, vol. 38, no. 1 (142), p. 134.

[6] A. Dobson, Green Political Thought, 4th ed, Routledge, 2007, p. 123.

[7] For a more thorough unpacking of this see: K. Szreder, ‘W is for winner takes it all’, in The ABC of the projectariat: Living and working in a precarious art world, Manchester University Press, 2021, and: G. Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, Pluto Press, 2010.

[8] P. Gelderloos, The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy, Left Bank Books, 2013, Chapter 3.

[9] D.J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, 2016, p. 12.