The Future WE Want: Occupy development

The current crises underscore the need for an alternative development model that in a major way shifts away from  the dominant growth paradigm, even in its greened up form. It is an opportunity for feminists to connect three debates of recent date: 1) the care economy, 2) commons and commoning, and 3) a critique of neoliberal globalisation, and its production and consumption patterns. These three concepts are inherently linked by their own rationales that countervail the logic of  ever lasting market-growth and the preference given to accumulation of capital and material goods. An analysis by Christa Wichterich.

The analysis of the multidimensional and interlocking crises as a systemic crisis has reloaded the discourse about the globalised development model which is driven by the logic of GDP-growth, efficiency and profit maximisation. This is actually the third wave of growth critique: in 1972 the Club of Rome published “The Limits to Growth”, and in the 1990es ecological economists and ecofeminists developed a critique of unsustainable and imperialistic patterns of overproduction and overconsumption, with as alternative model a stable state and sufficiency economy (Herman Daly, Wolfgang Sachs) and a subsistence perspective (Maria Mies, Vandana Shiva, Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen).

The prevailing or proposed remedies to manage the conglomerate of crises are failing. The efforts to decouple growth of the gross domestic product (GDP) and material wealth from resource use and emissions with the help of technology, increase of efficiency as well as of  commodification of natural resources and environmental services are not successful at the end of the day. In some sectors, increase of efficiency even caused a rebound effect which offset the environmental benefits made by e.g. new technology, and lead to even more consumption. At the same time, there is no automatic link between GDP growth and on the other hand jobs and employment, redistributive policies, inclusive prosperity and the public good. On the contrary, social disparities between countries and regions and within individual societies increased as GDP grew in the wake of globalisation; the crises of social reproduction intensified.

One reason for persisting socially adverse effects is the systemic mechanism to cut and externalise social and environmental costs which grow alongside with quantitative economic growth and resource exploitation. Externalisation means that costs as well as risks are downloaded from the market and from big market players such as corporations to the private households, to local communities, and to the biosphere. Internalisation of costs is, however, not a simple solution to the problem. If, for example, prices would include ecological costs, they would increase drastically: many goods would become unaffordable for the poor, but it would not make much difference to the rich. Although the internalisation of costs would lead to prices that were more just ecologically speaking, it would result in a new dilemma of justice in the absence of a simultaneous transformation of social structures of injustice.

The proposal of Green Economics in the context of the forthcoming Rio+20-conference sticks to a similar set of technical and monetary principles solutions and shapes a green washing of growth. Shifting investments and jobs from “brown” to green sectors, from fossil fuel-driven to renewable energy sources in order to re-energize growth and profitability of global capital without giving priority to social, gender and environmental justice constitutes a greener variety of capitalism but not a veritable paradigm shift.

Nuclear power and the fall outs in Tschernobyl and Fukushima have become then and now a metaphor for the recklessness and carelessness of unfettered growth strategies. There are no easy solutions or techno fixes to repair this life-threatening technology and mode of development. A change of paradigm is inevitable which dismantles quantitative growth as key lever for development and is based on different economic relations and human-nature-relations in societies.

In this context feminists take up the key principles of the “Women`s Action Agenda 21” which was phrased as a position paper prior to the UNCED-conference 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. This “women`s” manifesto argues for a new ethics of economic activity and of the relationship with nature based on “sustained livelihood.” Women linked the concept of securing survival, whose starting point is the everyday practice of provisioning, care and social reproduction on the local level, with resource justice, for they need property rights as well as powers to control and make decisions. They demanded a remoralization of politics and the economy in light of the environmental and development crises, and equal participation rights in the process of influencing policy. Those claims are still current today and influence feminist thinking and envisioning other paths of development once again.

Presently, Spain, France and Germany are kind of reflection hubs about “de-growth”. At the same time in the whole of Europe on the grassroots level, alternative projects and practices are revitalised or re-invented. They explore and set up new ways of social reproduction and commoning at the margins or outside of the capitalist market economy: food coops and guerrilla gardening, for-free shops and free book cupboards in public parks, co-operative housing, user co-operatives and transition town projects are mushrooming. These initiatives are a kind of practical critique of the corporate-driven globalisation with its transnational value chains of production, trade and consumption. The alternative projects reclaim local livelihoods and regional circles of cooperation instead of the reckless global competition, they reconstruct a resource-preserving and -recycling respectful relation with nature instead of the care-less resource extractivism and emission increase of the growth economy.

When it comes to everyday rationality of social reproduction and alternative practices women constitute a majority. However, the discourses about development paths are again dominated by male experts who tend to forget about the gendered structure of labour, economic institutions and societies` relation to nature.

Nonetheless, many women get involved in the debates on buen-vivir-concepts, on new prosperity- and happiness indices, and on questions like: ‘Which kind of growth do we want?’, ‘How can we liberate human and social growth as well as prosperity from the tyranny of GDP-growth?’, ‘Which entry points can be identified to shape another development paradigm?

The growth/de-growth debate is an opportunity for feminists to connect three debates on which they focused in the recent past: 1) the care economy, 2) commons and commoning, and 3) a critique of neoliberal globalisation, and its production and consumption patterns. These three concepts are inherently linked by their own rationales that countervail the logic of  ever lasting market-growth and the preference given to accumulation of capital and material goods.

1) Feminist economists highlighted the rationale of the care economy, based on mainly women`s unpaid work, – social reproduction, provisioning, protection, precaution, nursing, subsistence, cooperation and reciprocity – as opposite to the growth and efficiency dogma of the markets. A crucial assumption of the neoclassical economy is that only paid labour is productive, creates value and development. Presently, the care economy constantly cushions and subsidises the market economy, secondly care work is increasingly integrated into paid labour, and subjected to efficiency standards, and thirdly it is devalued and underpaid in hierarchical labour regimes.

Care work is key to giving preference to provision and need satisfaction over profit maximisation as the ultimate goal of economic activities. For this, a redefinition of labour including all labour outside the market, remuneration and profitability is necessary. This would break up the gender hierarchical division of labour as well as the prevailing roles and norms of femininity and masculinity.

In highly industrialised and highly productive economies less and less people are needed to produce and trade goods. Full time jobs are turned into part-time, flexible and precarious employment while – due to the crisis, austerity and neoliberal policies – social security and public services are cut down. The need for care work, which reproduces life, provides social security nets, responds to the growing needs of the elderly and the environment, is in many places on an increase. To rebalance this in future, a redistribution of labour, unpaid and paid, care and market labour is necessary. Based on the above mentioned redefinition of labour this has to go hand in hand with a revalidation of labour which overcomes traditional gender stereotypes as well as the prevailing wage gaps and income inequalities, and the devaluation of care work.

2) In the context of privatisation and financialisation of natural resources and public services, a whole movement emerged around commons. This follows Elinor Ostrom`s findings about the advantages of community-driven use of resources over market- and state-controlled resource use. “Commoning” means that communities define and administrate commons from forests to care for kids, from health facilities to digital soft ware, from food sovereignty to public transport. Sharing of commons benefits more people if equal access for all social classes, women and men, is ensured, and use is regulated democratically. Local public goods and commons can be a good prerequisite for everyone being able to realize their global social rights. On the other hand commons and public goods must be protected from commercialisation and speculation; otherwise private capital owners and the rules of the market would decide about the common good and the enforcement of human rights and global social rights. Commons and commoning break with the logic of private property as root cause of individual greed for prosperity and accumulation, and open up space for more democratic decision making, economic activity in solidarity and redistributive justice, including gender justice.

3) Following the critique of corporate-driven, resource- and energy-intensive globalisation which does not sustain its living foundations but depletes and destroys them, a reversal of the obsessive industrial drive towards expansion and growth is inevitable. This should start with a downsizing of resource-, energy- and emission-intensive superfluous production in the North, e.g. the automotive and the weapon industry, and its conversion into resource-sparing and recycling industries. Trade and investment liberalisation, the global race for raw materials and financialisation of resources have to be dismantled while production has to turn from export orientation to domestic markets based on local and regional economic cycles. At the same time, giving preference to caring, sustenance and good life means that investments and labour has to be directed into the care sector, social infrastructure and environmental restoration.

Shrinking of growth structures in production has to be accompanied by a change of consciousness and individual behaviour which now are geared at ever more consumption and an imperialistic life style based on the exploitation of human and natural resources. This refers most to global middle classes who lost a sense of sufficiency and measurement what is enough. The North has to pioneer this move because of its historical debt with regard to emissions of green house gas and exploitation of resources in the global South.

Those three cornerstones of another development paradigmcare, commons and sufficiency in production and consumption – could break up the hegemonic logic of unfettered growth and quick returns on investment. Putting the economy back from its profit- and speculative-driven head on its caring feet would also imply a reversion of the monetary system to its function of change and credit.

“Occupy development” means to identify along the rationale of care and sustenance development paths that are socially and environmentally just. It further means to explore transition and transformation strategies on a conceptual and practical level in a democratic, inclusive, and gender-just way. Feminists should repoliticize development issues as citizens, and stress the emancipatory potential of the caring economy, of commons and the principle of not living at the cost of others and the nature.

Christa Wichterich, independent journalist and researcher and WIDE Plus member.