Criticism of growth was the principal theme of the Austrian Green Foundation’s summer academy that was held between 23 – 25 August. 150 people (party staff members, activists and green sympathisers) accepted the Grüne Bildungswerkstatt’s invitation to debate the topic of ‘growth or a radical change of direction?’ The dramatic nature of such an alternative contrasted little with the summer university’s enchanting setting: a magnificently restored lakeside medieval castle perched among the mountain landscape in the region of Salzburg that evoked the clichés of the film The Sound of Music. However, it wasn’t Julie Andrews’ voice (Edelweiss, edelweiss…) resonating under the roof of the castle, but rather a series of calls for a radical change in direction for our industrial society.

An old debate reignited

Although the economic crisis may seem to be sparing Austria, it took centre stage in the debates, raising questions from participants regarding the untenable character of our economic model. But how do we structure ‘vision’ and ‘pragmatism’ as short and long term solutions? Although Green political foundations such as the GBW or the Belgian Green foundation Etopia may be tasked with being more concerned with the long term than a political party, political responsibility requires them to envisage the long term whilst taking into account the urgency of the crisis. In this respect, the debate over growth is clearly being reignited among the Austrian Greens, even if the Goldegg meeting isn’t necessarily representative of everything that is being said, thought or done in the Austrian Green party.

The August session was part of a project called ‘Gutes Leben für alle!’ (“Good life for all’) launched by GBW in 2011, a project that echoes the concept of the Latin American ‘buen vivir’. This ongoing research and education project proposes nothing less than a new 21st century socio-political model capable of succeeding liberalism and social democracy.

Whilst the Indignants Movement may develop new types of cooperatives, without institutional change, there shall be no solution to the crisis.

The GBW has entrusted the task of formulating the general framework of debate to two German academics. First and foremost, Elmar Altvater, a well-known figure in German anti-globalist circles and the author of a book, which in 2005 had a certain impact in Germany, ‘The End of Capitalism as We Know It’. This political scientist from Berlin compared the irreversibility of the environmental destruction caused by capitalism to the reversibility of the profit flows that provoke these destructions. The environmental, economic and social crises that we are currently facing began here. The priority thus remains, unsurprisingly, in the political regulation of the financial sector. However, from Altvater’s point of view, neither the Green New Deal proposal nor the idea of ‘growth of the limits’ – as supported by a publication by the Heinrich Boell foundation do not seem to be capable of sufficiently tackling the problems at the source. The advent of a new economic model would rather come about through the development of a social and cooperative economy.

Change with or without politicians?

Another German economist, Niko Paech, is developing a typology of the debate on growth similar to that of Paul-Marie Boulanger. As with ecological modernisation that considers that some growth is desirable, ecologically speaking, Paech argues that its pursuit is not compatible, particularly with the fight against climate change. Paech also recommends developing the cooperative sector in order to move away from the logic of growth and intensification of capital which, according to him, significantly contributes to the destruction of the environment. These developments firstly require cultural and behavioural changes. Paech positions himself among authors such as Lewis Mumford, Ivan Illich or Juliet Schor for whom change should occur on more of a human or social level (he is referring to ‘significant’ change) than an institutional level (which is generally the case of Neo-Marxists critics of growth such as Elmar Altvater).

The fact remains that we can hardly envisage reforms such as the development of cooperatives and regional currencies and relocation taking place outside of any institutional and political framework; something that Paech does not dispute.

It is, after all, around the role of politicians and their short term responsibility that the debate was to be centred. Cristina Asensi, vice-president of Attac Spain and who was invited to Goldegg by the GBW, raised the point of the need to change the power balance in a country that is experiencing a recession and in which 1.7 million families are without an income source. Whilst the Indignants Movement may develop new types of cooperatives, without institutional change, there shall be no solution to the crisis.

The social compromise at the heart of welfare was designed based on the idea of sharing growth. What about when the “global” cake of production is not growing anymore? How do we reduce inequality with everything else remaining the same?

Build rescue ships?

The Austrian Green MP Bruno Rossman points out that Paech’s analysis does not offer a genuine solution to the immediate threat of the collapse of the Eurozone. Not only must we regain control of the financial markets but it is also essential to stimulate the economy in the short term through the Green New Deal. Furthermore, it is necessary to resume the reduction of working hours in order to avoid mass unemployment in countries that are most severely affected by the crisis. But how do we achieve this in a Europe where unions are on the defensive? For older trade unionist, we are not taking the potentially irreversible effects of the collapse of the Eurozone sufficiently into account. However, this short term fight must be in conjunction with a long term effort on the post-growth economy.

Paech’s argument: we can no longer; we must no longer wait for the power balance to shift before taking action. For example, the fight against the extreme right and populism must be done on the ground by developing support between people, in a cooperative spirit. He believes that by limiting ourselves to the issue of power and the power balance we are becoming trapped in a largely theoretical debate. The (provisional) conclusion of the debate was left to Volker Plass, the spokesperson for the Austrian Federation of Green Enterprises ‘Grüne Wirtschaft’: it is up to the Greens to build ‘rescue boats’ to carry people from the current economy to the economy of the future.

A journey where everything is to be (re)discovered

In her review of the academy, Birgit Mahnkopf – a German academic specialising in European issues – also insisted on the social aspect of the debate. Whilst most of the participants at the meeting seemed to be in agreement with preparing a post-growth society, they must be mindful of the reactions that such a vision may provoke in society as a whole. First of all, the social compromise at the heart of welfare was designed based on the idea of sharing growth. What about when the “global” cake of production is not growing anymore? How do we reduce inequality with everything else remaining the same? Furthermore, how to we go counter the social insecurity that the insistence on changing lifestyles may generate? According to her, part of the solution undoubtedly lays in the fact that redistribution more effectively ensures an improvement in living standards than it does economic growth. There are still many unanswered questions and the journey that the summer university has suggested still much resembles an exploration without a map, but it is up to the Greens to start by remembering the strong links between politics and the economy.

A debate that has caused a large divide

As the chairman of the GBW, Andreas Novy says, the discussion about growth forces us to make a large divide: between short term stimulus to get out of the crisis and the long term strategy to distance ourselves from the logic of growth by developing a new model of civilisation that redefines the notion of well-being and respects the limits of the environment.

So instead of holding a discussion for or against growth, we must develop a debate on the dialectic between utopia and ‘realpolitik’. Therefore it is not simple and dualist alternatives that we require but inclusive solutions that work at several levels. The role of the politician is to support the initiatives at work in the society by proposing a legal framework, for the regional relocation of the economy, for example.

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