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Happiness, Degrowth and Democratic Eco-socialism

Image by Stephen Melkisethian from nnirr.org













By Devan Pillay

During the 1970s, the King of Bhutan, a small state below the Himalaya mountains between China and India, announced that instead of Gross National Product (GNP), the world ought to focus on Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a more accurate measure of ‘development’ in its holistic sense. He was not referring to the fleeting notions of ‘happiness’ which are now measured by pop surveys in different countries, but to a deeper understanding of human development in close harmony with Nature, as derived from Buddhist principles. This subsequently led to the construction of an elaborate set of indicators to give depth and practical meaning to the GNH concept, which is now embedded in the Constitution of Bhutan (see Pillay 2020).

Bhutan has promoted the concept of happiness in the United Nations and elsewhere, and the idea has spread and been reformulated into the notion of a ‘wellbeing economy’ (Fioramonti 2017). It resonates very closely with the social solidaristic ethos of traditional beliefs, such as the Native American buen vivir (Acosta and Abarca 2018) and the African ubuntu (Terreblanche 2018), all of which also inform perspectives around ‘degrowth’, currently gaining traction within Europe and Japan (Saito 2022). 


While ecological Marxism (see Foster 2009 and Saito 2017) has some differences with these perspectives, there are major points of convergence.  Marx’s theory of alienation had a strong ‘spiritual’ meaning (Fromm 1961), and his arguments for social equality and human flourishing, as well as the restoration of the metabolic rift between humans and non-human nature connected strongly with the yearnings of ancient philosophers seeking the end of human (and often animal) suffering (see Armstrong 2006; Sardesai 1982; Chattopadhyaya 1970; Bensaada n.d.; Duchrow and Hinkelammert 2012).

Indeed, the exiled Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism (from which Bhutan’s own Buddhist tradition is derived) has declared on more than one occasion: “I am a Marxist” (Smithers 2012).  By doing so, he is implicitly breaking down the ‘Chinese walls’ between perspectives around happiness, wellbeing, degrowth and democratic ecosocialism.

‘Eco-socialism’ emerged out of the debates of the 1980s between the Marxist Left (red) and the ecological Left (green) perspectives, and is thus often depicted as a red-green synthesis, which is counterposed to deep ecology perspectives, which ignore the social and privilege nature over humans (Pepper 1993).  Michael Löwy and Joel Kovel (2001), were the first to craft an Ecosocialist Manifesto. More recently, Löwy (2018) argued that eco-socialism stands against both reformist market ecology and the productivist socialism that dominated the Marxist Left during the past century. Instead, he argues for a new model of “robustly democratic planning,” such that society “takes control of the means of production and its own destiny” (1). 

In other words, in contrast to neoliberal market dominance on the one hand, and bureaucratic state dominance on the other, eco-socialism advocates the subordination of both state and market to society (i.e., the people). However, to achieve this longer-term goal, Löwy is aware of the need to fight for “concrete and urgent reforms in the near term”, without succumbing to the illusions of a “clean capitalism” (2018, 10).

All of this can fit into the logic of transformative reforms (or non-reformist reforms à la Gorz 1967), whereby partial victories combat both environmental degradation and social immiseration, and despair about the future. However, they must fit into a longer-term strategy of raising consciousness around eco-socialist possibilities, through activism from below, as part of a myriad number and variety of movements that can merge into an “overarching systemic global movement” (Löwy 2018, 10). In Latin America, these mobilisations have borne fruit in the form of new leftist governments that have broken with the sterility of 20th century productivist and patriarchal statism (Daphne 2022).  However, they still need to show that they can put their ideas into practice, in partnership (and dialectical tension) with the movements from below, which brought them to power.

If the eco-socialism Löwy (2018 and 2019) emphasises is explicitly anti-capitalist, the Economics of Happiness and wellbeing perspectives blame neoliberal ‘globalization’, not capitalism per se, for the damage to the earth and people (Fioramonti 2017).  The solution is not democratic planning (at the national or indeed global) level, but more localization of production and exchange, through small business development and cooperatives in urban and rural spaces, amongst other things. These, however, are not hard-and-fast-positions, and the distinction between being ‘anti-capitalist’ or merely anti-‘neoliberal’ capitalism is often fudged (see Olin Wright 2019).

Meanwhile, in Europe, there has been a flourishing of scholarship around Degrowth over the past decade (inspired by alternative thinking and practice in the Global South).  According to Demaria and Letouche (2019, 149) the term ‘degrowth’, after first making its appearance in the 1970s, was launched in 2001 as a provocation to ‘repoliticise’ the environmental movement in France. It initially argued that all economic growth needs to end, given the limited carrying capacity of the Earth, and the rapid advance of climate change that threatens the very existence of life on the planet.  However, in response to criticism from the Global South, the degrowth perspective has been refined. It recognises that the countries of the global North are in fact over-developed, while those of the South are under-developed and therefore need to grow certain sectors of the economy to meet the needs of human development, in harmony with the natural environment (see D’Alisa et al. 2015).

Löwy (2019) criticises the degrowth perspective for arguing against any growth, or even negative growth, in countries of the North. From an eco-socialist perspective, he emphasises the ‘qualitative transformation’ of both production and consumption:

“This means putting an end to the monstrous waste of resources by capitalism, based on large-scale production of useless and/or harmful products such as the armaments industry. Many of the ‘goods’ produced by capitalism have inbuilt obsolescence; they are designed wastefully for rapid replacement to generate profit. From an ecosocialist perspective, the issue is not so much one of ‘excessive consumption’ therefore, but the ‘type’ of consumption” (174).

In the recently published The Future Is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism, Schmelzer et al. (2022) seek to absorb all the currents of social-ecological thought under the umbrella of ‘degrowth’, by acknowledging the criticisms, and clarifying that the degrowth perspective is not arguing for degrowth in all sectors of the economy – but for aggregate degrowth, both at the national and global level. Barlow et al.‘s Degrowth and Strategy: How to Bring About Socio-Ecological Transformation (2022) takes the argument further, by considering the various ways degrowth struggles could be advanced within the state, outside the state and against the state.  While all these bodies of work acknowledge that the term ‘degrowth’ has no resonance in the Global South (where sustainable forms of economic growth to meet social needs remain critical; see Fernandes 2022), they nonetheless are forging ahead with the ‘degrowth’ label (indeed, a new Degrowth journal has emerged in 2023). 

The Japanese ecological Marxist Kohei Saito goes further, and in a book that sold more than 500,000 copies in Japan, argues for ‘degrowth communism’ (Saito 2022).  Some argue that while concepts such as the ‘Just Transition’ have been captured by corporate capital and the state, it is highly unlikely that ‘degrowth communism’ will suffer the same fate. Maybe. But the word ‘degrowth’, instead of being a point of departure for a productive dialogue, may alienate people in the Global South, and thus confine it to the concerns of the global North.

Nonetheless, all of these perspectives fit in well with the pragmatic-idealist or ‘real utopian’ framing of Olin Wright‘s (2010), where short to medium term tactical goals are pursued within the context of a longer-term idealist vision (what Antonio Gramsci [1982] called a ‘war of position’). The failures of 20th century revolutionary movements that focused on what Gramsci termed ‘war of maneuver’ – namely a full frontal attack against the capitalist or colonial state – have made left-wing movements much more cautious about pursuing the violent overthrow of the state, and the repression of opposition that often follows.

This relatively cautious approach is challenged by the more far-reaching social ecology practice of Rojava in northern Syria, where the revolutionary Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), through its various proxies, has taken power through armed struggle (not for ‘state power’ as such, but for a decentralised autonomy). While it could be argued that theirs is a special case of a liberated zone arising out of the fight against insurgents from a fundamentalist and misogynistic Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), it nonetheless shows how a political rupture opens up enormous space for social experimentation.

The imprisoned leader of the PKK Abdullah Ocalan (he was arrested in 1999 en route to South Africa, where Mandela had offered him asylum) led a significant shift away from orthodox Marxist-Leninism in the 1990s. His highly influential prison writings are inspired by Murray Bookchin‘s social ecology and anarchist perspectives (1987), and the Marxist-Feminist Silvia Frederici (2004). The revolution in Rojava, where women play a critical role in building a decentralized democratic alternative (Internationalist Commune of Rojava 2018) is a culmination of years of struggle of the women’s movement in Kurdistan (Dirik 2022). While the Rojava experience is quite recent (it was liberated in 2012), and faces fierce military opposition from Turkey, amongst other threats, it is an inspiring example of an attempt to immediately implement a radical social ecology through an anti-capitalist and feminist alternative to capitalist modernity. It explicitly rejects the traditional statist socialism that privileged oppressive hierarchies, in favour of decentralized emancipation that embeds participatory democracy and gender equality at all levels of the liberated zone (Knapp et al. 2016.  See also Hatahet 2019 on the limits to democratic decentralisation under war conditions). Dilar Dirik (2022), an activist-scholar from Rojava, captures the social ecology and eco-feminist approach of Rojava:

“Marxist-feminists and eco-feminists have long pointed out that the colonization and commodification of nature goes hand in hand with the colonization and commodification of women. Drawing on Rosa Luxemburg’s work on imperialism, many linked the parasitic nature of capitalism to the exploitation of women, nature, and colonies as free commodities to generate surplus and accumulate profit” (148-149).

Such perspectives are implicitly and explicitly part of the emerging school of thought around ‘democratic eco-socialsm’ (which is still a fluid concept).  Indeed, as argued above, democratic eco-socialism also resonates strongly with perspectives around happiness and wellbeing (and indeed ‘degrowth communism’). The key is to encourage an effective dialogue to break down the walls between these approaches, in order to build an effective counter-hegemonic movement.

The content of HKWM-Blog publications is the responsibility of its authors and of InkriT e.V. and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.


Devan Pillay is currently the Head of the Global Labour University at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa (and also based in the Department of Sociology).  He is a former political prisoner during the fight against apartheid, and was previously Head of Research, National Union of Mineworkers.  He has also worked in government, and was the managing editor of the journal Work In Progress, and a staff writer for the SA Labour Bulletin.  He has published widely on labour, politics, media, ecological Marxism, happiness and ecosocialism.


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