Degrowth is the radical post-Brexit future the UK needs

Written by Joe Herbert, published in Bella Caledonia on 21st November

As the Brexit negotiations wrap up and Theresa May’s deal is lambasted by Remainers and Leavers alike, it’s still far from clear what the future holds for the United Kingdom. On March 29 2019, it is due to leave the European Union.

Brexit is the first time a member state has voted to withdraw from the EU and it has caused a geopolitical earthquake, unleashing uncertainty in the UK and abroad. We don’t know what the impact on the UK will be when (and if) it actually leaves the EU. If it does so on poor terms, or via the still possible “no deal” eventuality, there are a wealth of devastating projections which may materialise.
The only thing that we can be sure of is that Brexit represents a moment of huge social, political and economic rupture. However, history tells us that such moments are also moments of opportunity for radical departure from the status quo.

Rupture as opportunity
Let’s be frank, Brexit is not a progressive endeavour. It threatens social and economic turmoil in which the most vulnerable in society will – as always – be the hardest hit. Leaving the EU could jeopardise benefits to UK citizens in the form of workers’ rights, environmental protections and food standards. The political climate outside of the EU also offers an increasingly undesirable community of potential allies and traders, dominated by the rise of the far-right in North and South America.

On the other hand, uncritical adoration of the EU overlooks the reality of what the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has described as “a regressive set of vile institutions”. It cannot be denied: the EU is a large and brutal force for neoliberalism.

From this critical stance on the EU, I still voted Remain in the referendum. I believed then – and still believe now – that regressive forces will profit from the UK’s exit and that the vulnerable will suffer. So, as we approach the March deadline, if the UK does indeed crash out of the EU, the left needs to be prepared with visions of alternative futures, and be ready to fight for them.

The growth question
The realities of a post-Brexit UK appear bleak, certainly in the short term. But separation opens the door for alternatives to the dominance of free-market fundamentalism. We could move from a society centred around financialised capital and the City of London, to one that promotes social and environmental justice in the UK and internationally.

Reports claim that Brexit will mean lower levels of economic growth for the UK. For politicians this is a horrifying prospect. But falling growth need not be feared, if it is integrated within a broader transformation of society.

The degrowth movement emerging amongst academics and activists argues that the logic of infinite growth is driving ecosystem collapse and climate breakdown. As stated in the latest IPCC report, we now have only 12 years to radically restructure society to cap global temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. If we fail, we will face catastrophic climate impacts.

Growth fanaticism centred in the City of London sidelines the rest of the UK, and damages the planet. Andy Rain/EPA.

Degrowth as a radical alternative
Degrowth argues that the wealthy and heavily polluting countries of the global north – such as the UK – must undergo a phase of managed and socially equitable economic contraction. This is necessary to downscale rich economies to within safe ecological limits.

The need for endless economic growth pushes us to produce more, consume more and make more profit. It has left our society overworked, over-stressed and plagued by extreme levels of inequality.
These dire social conditions have been blamed for the Brexit vote itself and unlimited growth also fuels climate breakdown, with the UK as a big contributor to global carbon emissions.

Simply, our slavish devotion to growth is making us miserable and destroying the planet. Degrowth could liberate us by arguing that more growth is not the solution, but the problem. We can and must live better with less, shared more fairly.

From growth to wellbeing
Degrowth would rid our society of pointless production and consumption. We could say goodbye to “bullshit jobs” – the pointless make-work that keeps workers stressed without any obvious value to society beyond enriching corporate elites. Production and consumption could be organised in service of social and environmental well-being rather than profit.

This degrowth transition could be pursued through ideas which confront the relentless treadmill of work, such as a four-day week. Poverty and inequality could be tackled by implementing a universal basic income and a maximum income. A fundamental decentralisation of the UK’s political and economic landscape could end London’s dominance by distributing more democratic autonomy to the regions.

Degrowth thus acknowledges that liberating society from the growth imperative is not only an ecological necessity, but also loosens the grip of the capitalist wage-labour market. This frees people to dedicate more of their lives to the things that really matter to them.

Is degrowth a likely future for the UK after Brexit? Certainly not in the short term. But, as Brexit and climate breakdown destabilise our politics, nothing much is certain. Only that we must be prepared with visions of a better future, and be ready to fight for them.

Image Paul Sableman