Individual Paper: Degrowth, inequality, and democracy: A Pikettian perspective
A socio-ecological transformation to a sustainable economy will require a reduction in the use of resources; a reduction in resource use is, in turn, likely to require economic degrowth. However, Thomas Piketty's recent work suggests that if economic growth declines but returns to wealth remain roughly constant then increasingly unsustainable levels of inequality result. This suggests that an ecologically sustainable transformation may lead to socially unsustainable polarisation. Moreover, historically, increasing polarisation has often been accompanied by increasingly authoritarian and populist government. In this paper, I outline the processes by which these changes are thought to occur. I begin by setting out Piketty's argument to suggest that declining growth -- a measure not only of economic activity but also aggregate income -- has historically led to increasing inequality in nongrowing economies. His central argument is that if returns to wealth exceed returns to income, then inequality between those with and those without wealth increases; during degrowth, therefore, there is a risk that the presence of any returns to wealth at all will increasingly outpace falling aggregate income, producing ever increasing levels of inequality. I then examine a number of historical cases in which declining growth does indeed seem to have led to social polarisation. These cases suggest that increasing inequality has often led to increasingly authoritarian government as elites try to maintain order by ever more coercive means and by adopting populist policies that align with a general population becoming increasingly impoverished. The paper concludes by suggesting ways in which future research into historical cases of nongrowth might provide useful insights for future degrowth policies that preserve democratic institutions and limit inequality during the transition to a more ecologically sustainable economy.
Start time: 14:30
Room: Moriskan (Spegeln)
Track: Politics of Degrowth