Rebecca Hollender
The New School, New York


A diverse set of post-growth theories, proposals, and practices are emerging out of dramatically different contexts across the Global South in response to the recognition that the negative impacts of economic growth are rooted in dominant global systems including development, capitalism, and coloniality.  The emergence of post-growth comes after decades of failed attempts by reform-based approaches, such as sustainable development, limits to growth, and alter-globalization, to meet environmental and social objectives.  While reform-based approaches provide important tools for calculating appropriate limits for growth and promoting sustainability agendas, they do not address growth’s embeddedness in dominant systems.  Also, reform measures often neglect the historical and spatial complexities of poverty, inequality, and environmental problems in Southern societies, rendering these approaches inappropriate and/or infeasible.  As a result, a number of radical post-growth theories, including political ecology, post-development, anti-globalization, anti-capitalism, capitalist crisis critique, decolonial theory, and post-ideological anarchism reject system reform and call for the creation of alternatives that address the unique circumstances of the Global South.  Despite having disparate conceptualizations of the global systems of domination, radical post-growth theories largely converge around the politics and processes of change, espousing the construction of ‘alternatives to’ via a series of radical democratic practices including open-endedness, pluriversality, and prefigurative politics.  Through an examination of the academic approaches that engage with post-growth in the Global South, this review will contribute to understanding and potentiating Southern efforts at anti-systemic transformation.  It will reveal how different radical post-growth theories (1) identify and understand the systems of domination responsible for upholding the primacy of economic growth; (2) contemplate Southern contexts and concerns; and (3) foment long-term processes of building anti-systemic alternatives.  It will identify some practical impediments to moving beyond post-growth theories to implementable proposals, policies, and practices, many of which are exemplified by post-extractivist efforts in Peru.

COPYRIGHT, American and Review of Political Economy , Rebecca Hollender

I. Introduction: The Failure of Reformist Approaches and Emergence of Post-Growth in the Global South

The Club of Rome’s seminal report on the Limits to Growth in 1972 (Meadows et al. ) called attention to the need to limit economic activity to within the biophysical limits of the planet, sparking a proliferation of principles, tools, and policies for ensuring that growth be conducted without compromising environmental and social priorities.  The incorporation of new concepts and tools for regulating growth into governance frameworks, including sustainable development [1] , limits to growth [2] , and alternatives to globalization [3] , has afforded significant progress in (1) employing economic tools in order to calculate appropriate limits for human activity and economic growth, (2) developing policies aimed at restoring the balance between economic, social, and environmental priorities, and (3) bringing environmental sustainability and social equality agendas to multilateral institutions, government legislation, private sector actors, funders, and public awareness.  However, despite their achievements, these approaches have failed to address the embeddedness of economic growth in dominant global systems, including capitalism, development, globalization, and coloniality.  By overlooking the mutually reinforcing relationship between economic growth and these global socioeconomic systems and subsystems, approaches limited to system reform leave the structural drivers of growth intact.  As a result, the root causes of social inequality and environmental unsustainability continue to be eschewed.

Individuals and communities around the world are increasingly tracing local social, economic, political, and environmental problems to dominant global systems.  In response, many civil society groups are abandoning the reformist attempts listed above, designed to merely mediate the impacts of growth, and moving toward radical anti-systemic alternatives.  This review will introduce a number of academic theories and associated practices that specifically identify the primacy of economic growth in dominant global systems to be a major factor in social and environmental problems.  Broadly labeled as “post-growth,” they posit (1) that current growth patterns cannot be sustained and (2) that the primacy of economic growth in public policy must be undone. Post-growth recognizes that growth patterns will inevitably change and proposes transition measures that could mitigate a complete economic crisis and/or ecological collapse. (Hollender 2015)

Within this post-growth framework, the review will focus on how the problem of economic growth is theorized from the standpoint of the Global South, [4] where the historical and spatial complexities of poverty, inequality, and environmental problems pose distinct challenges for constructing appropriate and feasible alternatives.  The relatively recent integration of Southern countries into growth-dominated socioeconomic systems offers a unique perspective for understanding how systemic mechanisms effectuate the permeation of logics of growth across levels of society.  The South is also of particular interest due to its leadership, both at grassroots and political levels, at espousing an anti-systemic discourse, and in contributing to the development post-growth theories, proposals, and practices, such as those outlined in this review.

Through an examination of the academic approaches that identify, analyze, and contribute to post-growth in the Global South, this review will lay the foundation for understanding how theories blend into proposals, policies, and practices for the construction of post-growth alternatives.  The following section will reveal how different radical post-growth theories (1) identify and understand the systems of domination responsible for upholding the primacy of economic growth; (2) contemplate Southern contexts and concerns; and (3) foment long-term processes of building anti-systemic alternatives.  Brief examples will be provided to show how each post-growth theory is being employed toward the gradual development of concrete methodologies, processes, and practices.  The analysis section will explain that despite having disparate conceptualizations of the global systems of domination, post-growth theories largely converge around the politics and processes of change, espousing the construction of ‘alternatives to’ via a series of radical democratic practices that offer a collective pathway forward.   It will also explore a number of the major challenges faced by post-growth proposals and examine a case-study of one alternative to development proposal in Peru.

II. Post-Growth Theories and Proposals: Systemic Critiques and “Alternatives To”

The post-growth theories, proposals, and practices examined in this review diverge in two ways: (1) in their identification of the system(s) that underpin the primacy of growth and, (2) in the extent to which they see growth as a determinant of other relationships of oppression.

i. Critiques of Capitalism and its Subsystems

The first set of theories, including anti-capitalist critiques, political ecology, and post-development trace the primacy of economic growth to its indispensability in enabling processes of capital accumulation, or in other words, making the continuance of capitalism possible. [5] These theories identify a number of processes, hierarchies, and subsystems (cultural, economic, and political) that are requisite to upholding capitalism, as well as its domination over other forms of economic and social organization.  They argue that capitalist forces simultaneously reorient these components in the service of economic growth while relying on them to expand.  By deconstructing capitalism and its subsystems (including development and globalization) they seek to identify and reverse the mechanisms by which growth permeates across levels of society.  These theoretical frameworks support the creation of a number of alternative proposals and practices that are taking hold in the Global South and beyond, including alternatives to development like post-extractivism and the commons, economic otherness, and social and solidarity economies.

a. Anti-capitalist Critiques and Post-Capitalist Alternatives

For over a century, critics of capitalism have traced the causes of global social, environmental, political, and economic problems to the capitalist system.  There are at least five characteristics inherent to capitalism that are incompatible with solving these problems: (1) the tendency toward commodification (‘marketization of social life’), (2) dependence on continued growth, (3) the tendency towards inequality, (4) the elimination of other options (‘universalization of economic contexts’), and (5) the amoral nature of capitalism and the pervasion of this into social norms. [6]

In addition, many post-growth theorists agree that the inherent unsustainability of capitalism will inevitably lead to the end of capitalist growth and they call for deliberate steps to transition away from capitalism as the dominant paradigm in order to mitigate ecological and social disaster (Heinberg 2011; Miller, Asher & Hopkins 2013).  Crisis plays an important role in the change, evolution, and expansion of capitalism, and provides a central basis for post-growth theories and proposals.  Capitalism responds to crisis by opening up new opportunities for capital to shift and expand, temporarily ensuring the system’s survival through continued growth. [7] Alongside capitalism’s constant expansion, or shifting of capital, there is a parallel shifting of burden to different areas of society. [8] Another way of seeing this process is as a continual undermining by capitalism’s economic “foreground” of the “background” conditions needed to sustain it, namely social reproduction, nature, and public power (Fraser 2014). [9] In other words, the great contradiction of capitalism is that it constantly depletes and destroys the elements it needs to survive, which explains the continuous decline in economic stability, social reproduction, environmental sustainability, and the integrity of the public sphere.

There are myriad historical and current examples of attempts to move beyond capitalism to post-capitalist societies.  However, attempts to characterize these or unify disparate anti-capitalist struggles under a single conceptualization risks oversimplifying, misrepresenting, privileging, or excluding certain proposals, as well as masking the contextual disparities faced by different groups.  “Economic otherness,” or making visible the myriad alternative approaches towards sustainability, self-sufficiency, and independence that are already taking place at local scales around the world, offers one frame for thinking about current diverse and coexisting anti-capitalist struggles without linking them into a rigid or shared transformational agenda. [10] Highlighting the existence of economic otherness can be of great utility to expedite progress from proposal to implementation of alternatives by (1) weakening the dominant, oppressive, and exclusive frameworks of capitalism, (2) providing encouragement for communities and potential agents of transformation, as well as for unwilling actors, and (3) creating platform for knowledge-sharing and exchange, by building unity through experiential diversity and shared language instead of conceptual complexity (Benhabib 1986; Cameron and Gibson-Graham 2003; Cuscicanqui 2012; Escobar 2010; Gibson-Graham 2006; Grosfoguel 2007; Gudynas 2012; and Sousa Santos, 2007).   Many practices of economic otherness have been categorized under the heading of “autonomous geographies,” a term coined by Pickerill and Chatterton (2006) that refers to “spaces where there is a desire to constitute non-capitalist, collective forms of politics, identity and citizenship.” [11] In addition, political ecology, post-development, and alternatives to development, outlined below, are examples of anti-capitalist, post-growth theories, proposals, and practices that have emerged directly from Southern contexts.

b. Political Ecology

Political ecology combines sophisticated biophysical analyses of the negative effects of economic growth, afforded by the environmental sciences, with social analyses of the institutions, hierarchies, and infrastructures that uphold growth.  Political ecology identifies the forced separation of economic processes (including political, social, and cultural) from ecological processes and physical territory, as central to the expansion of capitalism and responsible for environmental unsustainability and oppression of Southern societies.   By studying the parallel evolution of capitalist expansion and territorial separation in the Global South over time, from colonial rule to globalization and financialization, political ecology reveals how capitalism continuously generates new mechanisms that increase the separation of production from consumption.  Such mechanisms ensure the flow of resources from countryside to city, South to North, and poor to rich, all in the service of growth and accumulation.  Political ecology posits that the more that consumption is delinked from physical places, the more that the growth becomes separated from the natural and human processes that sustain it, resulting in a shift “away from circular, self-maintaining, place-base systems towards linear, unsustainable, and alienated systems of displaced corporate consumerism” (M’Gonigle 1998, p22).  As this separation becomes increasingly embedded and normalized in modern rationality, it allows the unsustainable and oppressive practices of global capitalism to go unchecked, upheld by complex series of institutions, infrastructures, and hierarchies the people, institutions that simultaneously serve and depend on capitalist accumulation.

Political ecologists question the potential of policy regulation as a tool for sustainability, arguing that regulation ultimately undermines the regulatory institutions themselves, as these are designed to uphold and promote growth agendas (Gills and Frank 1991).  Instead of regulation, they call for measures to change the power relations underlying the growth-based economy through practices at local, regional, and international levels, including community-based forms of sufficiency, innovative ecosystem management practices, demand management, implementing the precautionary principle, and adopting clean technology and industrial ecology practices.  Beyond this, political ecologists call for the construction of “environmental rationality,” (Leff 2006, p8) to place governing hierarchies and economic development at the service of sustainability, ecological integrity, and health, instead of at the service of growth [12] .

c. Post-development and Alternatives to Development

Post-development shares many elements of political ecology, but narrows the focus of its critique and analysis to the development system [13] in the Global South.  It emerged from the need to explain why, despite myriad attempts to make the development system more inclusive, representative, and sustainable, in many countries social inequality and poverty have worsened and global environmental crisis is imminent.   Post-development theorists agree that (1) development is grounded in a universal conceptualization of modernity and progress that mimics Northern models of industrialization, consumption, and economic growth, which (2) necessitates the use of top-down, coercive, forceful, or hegemonic implementation mechanisms and the elimination or cooptation of alternatives; (3) development policy furthers the global embedding of capitalist systems, norms, and institutions that serve and protect the interests of powerful elites; (4) development is in direct contradiction with its own stated environmental and social goals. (Gudynas 2012; Escobar 2010; Esteva 2013; Lang and Mokrani 2013; Pieterse 1996)

Out of post-development theory, a number of alternatives to development (A2D) theories, proposals, and practices are emerging out of dramatically different contexts across the Global South, based on new frameworks for imagining alternatives [14] . Many of the themes being explored involve restoring and incorporating traditionally excluded epistemologies, including indigenous and gender-based knowledge, into longstanding discussions of transformation:

  • Reframing historic debates about the roles of states and markets using marginalized lenses and practices, such as diverse economies (see Economic Otherness, above);
  • Building practical ways to delink development, economic growth, and well-being, for example via new indicators that go beyond material and individualistic measurements of well-being to include collective, spiritual, and ecological dimensions;
  • Exposing and overcoming the false dichotomy between environment and “development” by recognizing intrinsic values of Nature and questioning the role of technology in environmental problem-solving;
  • Reexamining definitions, relationships, and processes of politics, citizenship, and justice. (Ibid, p36-37)

In practice, the construction of A2D initiatives involves diverse actors, including communities, NGOs, academics, and policy makers.  In Latin America and Africa groups are experimenting with projects, processes, and proposals including post-extractivism, the commons, social and solidarity economies, autonomous decision-making, and alternative frameworks for defining societal priorities including Buen Vivir in Latin America and Ubuntu in south eastern Africa.  This set of interconnected, dynamic processes upholds the very principles of diverse epistemologies and plurality of methods that A2D thinking deems necessary for global sustainability.

ii. Multi-Systems Critiques

The second group of post-growth theories includes decolonial theory and anarchism, which unlike the theories examined above, do not trace the root of social and environmental problems to a single world system (capitalism), rather they see the world as made up of multiple hierarchies, or relationships of power, only some of which employ growth as a strategy of domination and oppression.  In other words, multi-systems critiques ascribe to post-growth tenants, but argue that growth is entangled in a hetararchy of “multiple and heterogeneous hierarchies, structural levels, and structuring logics” (Grosfoguel 2007) that cannot be isolated or reduced to a single system.  Therefore they posit that addressing growth or capitalism alone is not sufficient for overcoming unsustainability or social inequality.  Instead, multi-system thinking emphasizes the importance of targeting transformation at all forms of systemic domination, not only those related to growth.

a. Decolonial Theory

Decolonial theory (also known as decoloniality) argues that an analysis of capitalism is not sufficient for understanding the multiple and multi-leveled forces of domination that oppress Southern societies and destroy the environment.  Decoloniality posits that instead of attributing multiple mechanisms of oppression (growth, for example) to a singular system (capitalism) and its subsystems (development, globalization), a reconceptualization of all forces of domination found within the global colonial civilization is necessary.  In other words, instead of seeing capitalist growth logics as the singular source of environmental unsustainability and social inequality, decoloniality suggests that these (and other) negative impacts arise from multiple, entangled hierarchies that have been historically constituted, of which capitalism, or “economic coloniality,” (Mignolo 2010) is one of many. [15]

Whereas decolonial theory does not negate the problematic of growth, it does not classify growth in a category separate and above other problems of coloniality.   Rather, the primacy of economic growth is seen as being entangled with and mutually constitutive of the other hierarchies, beyond the confines of one world-system.  This entanglement makes tracing the structural origins of economic growth to one system or another akin to a chicken-and-egg game.  Instead, decolonial theorists argue for identifying and overcoming all oppressive hierarchies in the specific sites and forms where they are enacted, which requires multiple methodologies that will lead to many unique outcomes. [16] One of the methods favored by decolonial theorists in order to allow local groups to develop processes and solutions that are appropriate to their unique experiences is called the “body-politics of knowledge” methodology, which allows for encompassing all of the forms of oppression experienced by a given individual/group within all dimensions of social existence (including sexual, political, epistemic, spiritual, linguistic, racial, authority, subjectivity, labor, etc.) (Grosfoguel 2007).  By opening the methodology for identifying the determinants of oppression beyond the view that economic relationships are prominent to all others (and therefore growth a force prominent to all others), the biases of post-growth critiques of capitalism and its subsystems are traced to the current dominant subjectivity (European/Western, male, heteronormative) that perpetrates coloniality.  Including diverse subjectivities into the conceptualization of the root causes of environmental and social issues does not negate growth as a cross-cutting form of domination, however, growth is relocated as subordinate or interwoven with other forms of oppression, depending on perspective.

The implications of employing decolonial methodologies to post-growth thinking is that growth can no longer be dealt with in isolation from other hierarchies (see footnote 12), especially in contexts where the dominant colonial subjectivity is experienced as oppressive and limiting.  Hence, appropriate alternatives to growth must not override diverse forms of emancipation from multiple, interwoven hierarchies.  As a tool, decolonial theorists advocate for the creation of a universal language in which new imaginaries of liberation can be mutually understood, even as they represent pluriversal (see footnote 16) means and ends of change. In addition, grassroots practices such as bilingualism are favored that allow for inclusive popular participation, organizing around commonalities, building lasting cultural fabric, and fomenting local knowledges and knowledge-making practices, thereby challenging multiple hierarchies of coloniality simultaneously (Cusicanqui 2012).  Decolonial alternatives also envision the collective self-management of basic needs and services, based on the replacement of private property with social private alternatives, a practice increasingly taken up by anti-systemic Commons movements around the world (Hollender 2015b). [17] Decolonial theory explicitly rejects the notion that taking the state is a viable means for transformation, as the state will receive its mandate from colonial subjectivities and reoriented towards colonial priorities.

b. Post-Ideological Anarchism

Like decolonial theory, anarchism points out the limits of anti-capitalist foundations in economic determinism, or the belief that economic relationships form the basis of all others (Curran 2006).  Beyond a concern with the primacy of economic growth, anarchism is interested in cultural, psychological, and aesthetic patterns of domination (all spheres that have been permeated by growth), and identifies patterns that directly overlap with the multiple hierarchies that decolonial theorists attribute to upholding colonial civilization.  Yet, unlike decolonial theory, anarchism explicitly attributes the expansion of capitalist industrialization, driven by priorities of growth, to environmental degradation and social inequality.  In other words, anarchism deems it useful to target growth in and of itself (in line with anti-capitalist critique), as well as to examine its entanglement with other patterns of domination (in line with decolonial theory).

Anarchism has evolved over time, and the current phase of anarchism that has resonance with post-growth theories and alternatives is “post-ideological anarchism.”  Post-ideological anarchism has not lost its commitment to traditional anarchist ideals of autonomy, liberty, anti-statism, and anti-authoritarianism.  However, its openness and flexibility to multiple interpretations of ideological premises and to multiple means of change make today’s anarchism more of a methodology for advocating pluriversal processes and forms of transformation than an anti-authoritarian ideology.  As a result anarchism is frequently used to inform decolonial theory’s body-politics of knowledge, as well as anti-capitalist economic difference and autonomous geographies.   Three “logics of affinity” (Day 2005) that coalesce the post-ideological anarchist construction of anti-systemic alternatives reveal its relevance to post-growth initiatives in the Global South:  (1) the desire to work alongside institutions of domination (such as the state, corporations, development system, etc.) to disengage and reconstruct, as opposed to reform; (2) the desire to create new, multiple forms of subjectivity, and not a new totality (paradigm or counter-hegemony); and (3) a desire to focus on relations between the participants in transformation in order to create new forms of community.  A commitment to ecological sustainability has also become a core component of post-ideological anarchism.  (Curran 2006; Day 2005; Graeber 2002; Epstein 2001; Neal 1997; etc.)

III. Analysis: Post-Growth in Practice: Processes, Impediments, and Examples

i. Radical Democratic Processes as Collective Pathways to Post-Growth Futures

The post-growth theories outlined above look to the system level as their starting point for transformation, arguing that it is impossible to undo the primacy of economic growth within capitalism, development, globalization, and coloniality.  Regardless of having divergent approaches to conceptualizing global systems of domination, post-growth theories largely converge around the politics and processes of change.  For example, beyond practices of resistance, they coincide in prioritizing the construction of ‘alternatives to’ dominant global system(s).  This involves (to the extent possible) disengaging from institutions and processes, and reducing dependency on dominant systems.  In other words, the approaches agree that alternatives cannot be created via the worldviews, mechanisms, or structures of current dominant systems, a markedly different approach from reformist attempts like sustainable development, limits to growth, and alternatives to globalization.

In addition, an increasing commitment by post-growth groups to a series of radical democratic processes, including open-endedness, pluriversality, and prefigurative politics, offers a collective pathway forward.  The links to each of the frameworks, methods, and practices examined above should be apparent.

  • Open-endedness refers to a notion of success that is not anchored in concrete end goals, but rather open ideals of social emancipation and environmental sustainability. It simultaneously challenges and creates an alternative to the top-down, goal oriented, and linear processes of economic growth (as upheld by Eurocentric, male, heteronormative subjectivities), and it recognizes that the priorities of transformational struggles will change over time, allowing them to evolve and adapt according to the obstacles and opportunities that arise.
  • Pluriversality embraces the parallel emergence of multiple, anti-systemic alternatives, exemplified by the Zapatista ideal of “creating a world where many worlds fit” (Esteva 2012). Pluriversal processes are compatible with divergent, undefined, or evolving end goals, as well as different means of change.  They are grounded in the belief that diversity is essential for building ethically appropriate and technically viable alternatives (Cameron and Gibson-Graham 2003; Gibson-Graham 2006; Escobar 2010).  For example, since the crux of anti-systemic struggles is to overthrow domination, it would be contradictory for some visions and processes to dominate over others.  In addition, just as natural diversity is essential for healthy, and resilient ecosystems (Folke al., 2010), pluriversality harnesses the strength of different groups working together to create resilience in the face of cooptation or repression.
  • Prefigurative politics blends the means and ends of change through the direct exercise or embodiment of the desired change. Long referred to as making the “personal political” in feminist literature and activism, prefigurative politics takes on meaning through practice, reversing the typical order of knowing in dominant global systems, making room for other ways of being.  In addition, it requires that change happen immediately, through changes in behaviors, attitudes, and practices.  As groups of people join together to become the change they wish to see, they are simultaneously learning, creating, and replacing the capitalist structures and values they reject.  This enables the evolution of ‘alternatives to-’ forms of decision-making, relationships, communities, and eventually, systems.

The following table presents a visual representation of how the radical democratic practices espoused by post-growth theorists and activists present alternative processes for decision-making and transformational change than those offered by capitalism and the hierarchies upheld by modern coloniality.


ii. Practical Impediments to Post-Growth in the Global South

While this review supports the advancement of post-growth alternatives in the Global South, it does not overlook the significant obstacles, critiques, and contradictions of the approaches examined above.  The following section will provide an overview of the main practical impediments facing post-growth in the Global South.  These include the pervasiveness of growth, risk of cooptation, limitations of radical democratic processes, unresolved questions about the role of policy and the state in transformation, and lack of evidence and empirical studies.  These impediments will be examined for post-growth approaches in general, and not on a theory-by-theory basis.  However, deeper scrutiny of each theory based on empirical research is important for analyzing conceptual integrity as well as the viability of different approaches.

a. Pervasiveness of Growth

Post-growth approaches face considerable challenges due to the pervasiveness of growth across social, political, and economic structures and processes.   First, the dependency of human survival on growth-based socioeconomic systems places limitations on the time-frame and scale at which transitions to post-growth alternatives can take place.  For example, the limitations of using GDP as the universal measurement for success are noted by both post-growth and reform-based approaches to sustainability.  GDP is limited because it reduces well-being to an economic measurement, while masking underlying social and environmental conditions.  In response, the post-growth proposals put forth a number concrete alternatives for allowing communities and populations to determine their own appropriate measures of well-being, based on local norms and needs, such as the example of Buen Vivir in indigenous communities in the Andes, social and solidarity economies, and autonomous geographies.   However, even if subjective and non-economic definitions of well-being are taken up at a political level, this does not negate the real need by both communities and sates for financial resources.  The survival of most people, businesses, social service provision, etc. depends on acquiring goods and services that are only available through monetary exchange.  Even if post-growth proposals can gradually transition societies away from dependency on financial resources towards non-monetary forms of self-sufficiency, for example via self-provision and sharing, economic needs must be met in the meantime.  In addition, public institutions, especially in the Global South, are seriously lacking the financial resources they need in order to provide basic services, infrastructure, and social programs. Blanket de-growth prescriptions are not feasible, but rather strict criteria must be placed on where growth is allowed to happen.

In addition to the link between economic growth and survival, perhaps the biggest challenge facing post-growth frameworks is the way that growth has become embedded in cultural norms, values, and behaviors. [18] Despite the existence of myriad alternative approaches towards sustainability, self-sufficiency, and independence that are already being implemented at local scales around the world, it is not clear how locally generated solutions will achieve the scale necessary for global sustainability (Harvey 2008). Moreover, it is uncertain whether local initiatives can spread fast enough to match the urgency of the problem.  This societal permeation of growth-based logics norms has made it historically challenging for the anti-systemic efforts to reach the necessary scale for  tipping the balance of domination that allow alternatives to prosper and expand.  A number of theorists have pointed out that unless radical movements can reach critical masses, they risk becoming islands of happiness for a happy few (Harvey 2008, Marx 1967, Nordhoff 1966).  The inability of movements to increase size and participation has been explained by three main critiques: (1) the potentially alienating aspects of radical theories and practices for populations which are historically embedded into capitalist norms, processes, and structures (Skinner 1998), (2) the limits of time, resources, access, prioritization, and desirability of participating in transformational initiatives (Vrasti 2011), and (3) the failure (often deliberate) [19] of post-growth groups  to put forth a clear process and end vision for transformation, which challenges the linear, goal-oriented theories of change that prevail in capitalist and colonial societies.

Echoing this concern, Svampa (2012) states that a major challenge facing post-growth proposals, and post-extractivism specifically, is the “horizon of desirability” of such proposals in terms of lifestyles and quality of life. She calls for redefining human and social needs in a way that supports sustainability as well as cultural diversity. She suggests three possibilities for re-framing human requirements including: (1) the human needs approach (Max-Neef 1993), which includes the process by which human needs are fulfilled, (2) the economy for life approach (Hinkelammert et. al. 2005), which requires that the organization and social division of work allow for the reproduction of life over time, and (3) the ethics of care approach of eco-feminists (Aguinaga et al. 2012, Perkins 2007, etc.), which places the culture of care at the center of a sustainable society. Svampa’s proposal for redefining human needs, while necessary for the sweeping cultural transformation called for by post-growth, will not be easily accepted. This will pose a significant impediment to the possibility of post-growth.

b. Risk of Cooptation

Another challenge facing post-growth proposals is the risk of cooptation.  The cooptation of non-capitalist experiments by capitalism is one of the longstanding, unresolved concerns of radical theorists, and has been used to explain the failure of many radical projects over time.  For example, the cooptation of organic and fair-exchange movements by capitalist interests has resulted in the for-profit commercialization of organic and fair-exchange products, as well as the assimilation of the symbols and practices of the radical movement into mainstream capitalist norms in order to promote consumeristic behaviors, thus diluting the original radical principles (Thompson and Coskuner-Balli 2007).  A number of theorists have put forth concepts to explain the forces and mechanisms by which capitalism coopts non-capitalist sites and practices.  Among these are the processes of subsumption and commodification, which respectively incorporate non-wage labor and non-monetarily valued goods, services, spaces, and knowledge into the capitalist market economy (Marx 1967, 1976; Polayni 1944 [20] ).  Another way of understanding the processes of subsumption and commodification is the incorporation by capitalism of new means for creating and accumulating value, thereby allowing for its continued expansion.  Subsumption and commodification may overlap with and form part of the process of co-optation, which involves the assimilation of anti-capitalist symbols, practices, and norms into the service of capitalist expansion.  The cooptation of anti-capitalist experiments renders impossible or contradictory the continued existence of these projects, as they become vital elements in upholding capitalism.  According to traditional leftist theory, subsumption, commodification, and cooptation are driven by primitive accumulation (Marx 1967) and its modern day form of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2003), which are two of the strategies used by capitalism to continue expanding and asserting its control over non-capitalist sites, such as the Commons.  Current examples of accumulation by dispossession include the privatization of communal, untitled, and public land, natural resources, and ecological services in the Global South, via land grabbing, Green Economy [21] market mechanisms, and the expansion of the extractive development model (Algranati 2012; Hollender 2015; Langer 2011; Moreno 2012; Svampa 2012).  The risk of cooptation of decolonial and post-ideological anarchist alternatives can be imagined along these same lines, due to the pervasiveness and of current global hierarchies and authoritative mechanisms.

c. Limitations of Radical Democratic Practices

A third obstacle facing post-growth proposals are the limitations of the radical democratic forms exemplified by post-growth principles, including open-endedness, pluriversality, and prefigurative politics for confronting issues of scale and the pervasive domination of dominant systems’ structures and norms.  This concern can be traced to longstanding observations by radical theorists of the success with which capitalism erodes and overtakes democracy, posing obstacles to developing political processes that attempt to challenge capitalism.  Known as the legitimation crisis, this theory argues that capitalism contains a number of mechanisms that allow it to continually subvert and dominate legitimate democratic processes in order to obtain certain conditions from the public sphere.  Habermas (1975) offers three examples: (1) the political realm of the state is taken over by economic interests so that the political system cannot fulfill the needs of the public; (2) economic interests are taken over by self-interested politicians; and (3) the state becomes structurally dependent on capital in order to fulfill its public functions and thereby dependent on maintaining the primacy of economic priorities.  In all cases, the economy becomes its own political subject whose needs take precedence over the needs and desires of the public, a direct subversion of democracy.  While decolonial theory and post-ideological anarchism seek to address this limitation by targeting multiple hierarchies of oppression, instead of only those related to economic growth, the success of these approaches has been limited to small, contained groups and geographies.

d. Role of Policy/State

The impasse between opposing sides of the state vs. non-state debate has been a long-standing obstacle in the organization of scaled-up, post-growth initiatives.  Different post-growth advocates take different stances on whether the kind of transformation beyond dominant systems that is deemed necessary for post-growth can happen within the structures of a state.  Critical theory argues that the actions of states must be understood as a function of diverse and interdependent relationships and contexts beyond state borders, and not limited to internal political and institutional arrangements and activities (Morrow and Torres 2007).  In other words, no state can act in isolation from its wider context.  Given that the state has real needs for resources and legitimacy in order to act, not all of which are bestowed internally, it must act in accordance with certain systems in order to obtain these capacities (Ibid.).  Depending on each state’s capacity and position, this might involve subscribing to the rules of multiple and overlapping systems of domination, such as neoliberalism, globalization, capitalism, development, and hegemonic politics.

It is possible to identify both pro and anti-state voices within post-growth theories and practices.  For example, decolonial theorists and post-ideological anarchists argue that moving beyond the primacy of economic growth is impossible through state processes, and advocate for building post-growth futures autonomously, in order to eventually render the state irrelevant.   However, many alternatives to development proposals, such as post-extractivism, for which an example is provided below, argue that reforming state policy is a necessary tool for transition.  The challenge facing the feasibility of post-growth strategies that rely on intensive political intervention (such as redistribution policy) and public regulation, is that  such policies clash with the increasing corporate drive toward deregulation (Reich 2007, Shutt 1998). Blauwhof (2012) points out two obstacles to state-interventionist approaches: (1) the state is directly dependent on financial capital, which makes acting against economic growth directly counter to its interests, and (2) reforms that limit the growth prospects of businesses will eventually be evaded, overturned, or co-opted in order to return to growth. Streeck (2011) echoes Blauwhof’s arguments, stating that whereas the state’s response to capitalist crisis is increased regulation, capitalism cannot function under any restrictions on growth and expansion. This dynamic is exemplified in the expansion of extractivism by the progressive governments of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela, despite their stated intentions to do otherwise.

Outside of the state vs. non-state stances, a third voice recognizes the value of both approaches to change.  “Either can happen anywhere, just as Commons can be maintained or created anywhere. The two aspects can be complementary or contradictory.” (Midnight Notes Collective and Friends 2009, p13).  This approach acknowledges both the inevitability and the value of the persistence of both state and non-state approaches to post-growth transformation.  Just as state-focused efforts are seen to be at risk for cooptation, they are also viewed as offering real possibilities for creating alternatives.  Similarly, while the anti-state focus may be admired for ideological force, such initiatives do not guarantee the widespread participation necessary for society-wide transformation.  In addition, any attempt to be totalizing in strategy, regardless of whether it favors state or non-state approaches, threatens to be a limitation to reaching shared post-growth goals of sustainability and social equality, at least until the future becomes clearer.

e. Lack of evidence and empirical studies

It is difficult to put a measure of success as to how advanced or comprehensive these proposals and practices are, because doing so would require employing a universal evaluative framework, which is contradictory to the principles of pluriversality and open-endedness that are upheld by these post-growth alternatives.  In addition, evaluating the viability of post-growth initiatives is difficult because there are very few cases that have been implemented, or face significant obstacles to implementation, or have not been in place long enough.   Also, little has been done to evaluate the specific proposals put forth by groups who argue that growth must be limited or halted.  Empirical research with the movements, communities, NGOs, academics, and policy makers who are involved in creating post-growth theories, proposals, and practices is essential in order to gain a deeper understanding of their content, processes, and feasibility.  The discussion about the technical, political, and popular feasibility of post-growth proposals is more developed for the Global North than for the Global South.  Additional work is needed to explore Southern-oriented policy proposals and, when possible, analyze their outcomes. Such work must take up the question of political will.  The case study below on post-extractivism in Peru provides an initial attempt and additional recommendations for future research are outlined in the conclusion.

iii. Post-Growth in Practice: Post-Extractivism in Peru [22]

The following case study from Peru of an alternative to development proposal called post-extractivism will reveal the content, processes, and obstacles of one post-growth proposal that informs its theoretical framework from critiques of capitalism and specifically, post-development.

In 2011 a Peruvian civil society network, the RedGE (Peruvian Network for a Balanced Globalization – Red peruana por una Globalización con Equidad), composed of academic institutions, NGOs, social movements, and trade unions, presented a proposal to the Peruvian government outlining a set of policy measures for transitioning toward a post-extractivist economy (Alayza & Gudynas 2011). The proposal responded to the need for Peru to adopt more economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable activities and included measures for sustainable land use, strengthened environmental regulation, economic diversification, and the right of local people to be consulted (Svampa 2012). The group bolstered its proposal with calculations of the economic benefits of adopting the recommended policies, which were outlined in a study by Peruvian economists Sotelo and Francke (2011). They also provided empirical evidence of the economic benefits that resulted from the previous application of a similar measure in Chile.

Sotelo and Francke examined the viability of transitioning away from dependence on extractive industries by looking at the principal contributions of primary-extractive activities to employment, public revenue, and external sectors of the national economy. They then predicted the effects that applying strong restrictive policies on extractive industries would have on each of these sectors. First, they found that the extractive sector was not a significant source of employment (only 1.5% of the economically active population). This supported their recommendation for promoting high-employment sectors such as labor-intensive agriculture, tourism, construction, and industry. Second, they found that extractive activities were an important source of public revenue streams (22% of direct internal earnings and 42% of total tax earnings), but that these were highly vulnerable due to price volatility of commodities. Finally, they found that extractive activity revenues were most significant for the external sector, with primary exports making up 70% of all exports and with investment in the extractive sector making up 34% of total FDI.

Sotelo and Francke examined three different scenarios of restricting extractive activity. The first, a complete halt in mining, oil, and gas, was rejected because of the detrimental impacts it was predicted to have on political, economic, and social stability. The second scenario, a suspension of mining, oil, and gas projects that began operations from 2007-11, found a much less dramatic result, with only slight deteriorations in the balance of payments and decrease of foreign reserves. The third approach, which combined the second one with a tax on extractive industry profits, yielded optimal results. The tax increase would be more than sufficient to offset the earnings lost by the reduction of exports. The authors showed how a similar tax reform was successful in Chile. The benefits from scenario three included a positive balance of payments, increased foreign reserves, and increased capacity of the central bank to respond to exchange-rate appreciation. They concluded that a gradual suspension of extractive activities combined with a tax on extractive industry profits is a viable step for transitioning away from extractive sector dependence.

However, the Peruvian government has not been receptive to this proposal. Peru remains dedicated to expanding extractive activities, based on the real dependency on revenue, the lack of political will to change, and the entrenchment of Peru’s economic system in growth-based logics. Peru’s extractive sector is based on a conventional concession model, which relinquishes state regulatory control and offers preferential treatment to private businesses. As Monge (2011: 89) explains, this model is not limited to mining, oil, and gas sectors, but includes fishing, agriculture, and energy sectors as well. Private concessions are granted directly by the central government without consulting local populations and governments or environmental authorities. These challenges at economic and political levels are only a small part of the obstacles that post-growth proposals face in Peru.  Further research and analysis can reveal additional obstacles, as well as sites of potential for transitioning Peru away from an extractive development model and toward post-growth futures.

VI. Conclusion: Lessons and Future Research

Beyond the rich debates and conversations in the literature reviewed in this research, it is essential to examine whether the realities at physical sites of anti-systemic resistance and construction of alternatives coincide with scholarly perspectives.  The case-studies and Southern authors included in this review focus primarily on Latin America, which explains the frequent citing of Andean indigenous movements and Zapatistas.  Although it is possible to conduct a wider review of case-studies than that done in this review, on-the-ground research groups are engaged in building anti-systemic post-growth alternatives is scarce.  In addition, the limited existing empirical research reveals a tendency to misrepresent, romanticize, and oversimplify the realities, contributions, and perspectives of these groups. [23]

The theoretical approaches to post-growth outlined in this review form a baseline for further field research in the Global South with groups who are involved in post-growth theory and practice.  Potential field sites include groups engaged in building alternatives around post-extractivism, the Commons, social and solidarity economies, autonomous communities, Buen Vivir, Ubuntu , etc.  These initiatives, which are spread across the Global South are gaining recognition from international academic and policy audiences.  The groups engaged in their construction are made up of diverse actors, including communities, NGOs, academics, and policy makers. They form a vast web of activity that extends beyond the Global South to interact with wider transformational processes in the North.  Many ‘alternatives to-’ proposals contemplate the need to use gradual transitions in order to move towards post-growth, sustainable futures.  (Hollender 2015)

It is essential to conduct field research among the groups who are engaged in on-the-ground post-growth alternatives in order to understand the content, processes and feasibility of proposals.  It is also important to corroborate the theoretical claims examined in this review with the participants of anti-systemic transformation.  Further research should aim to contribute to theoretical debates, planning, and action regarding (1) the role of economic growth in sustainability, addressing the unique circumstances of the Global South, (2) the processes by which dominant global systems, structures, and norms can be transformed, (3) the role of and interplay between theory and action in transformation, (3) how diverse, local theories and initiatives inform and contribute to global anti-systemic transformational projects, (4) the constitutive structures, divisions, and characteristics of dominant systems, (5) how to avoid the replication of oppressive and divisive structures within emancipatory struggles, and (6) the possibility for theorizing potential futures out of present conditions.  Examining these issues requires an examination of different post-growth initiatives, as well as developing a framework for considering their feasibility.

In conclusion, the anti-systemic post-growth approaches examined in this review comprise a diverse set of theories, proposals, and practices that are emerging out of dramatically different contexts across the Global South in response to the recognition the negative impacts of economic growth are rooted in dominant global systems.   Post-growth principles hold that a truly effective approach to well-being, equality, and sustainability requires diverse epistemologies and methodological pluralism.  Alternative theories and practices, such as post-extractivism, the Commons, solidarity economies, Buen Vivir, and Ubuntu , cut across geographies and scales in the South and beyond.  The theoretical foundation provided by this review lays the basis for future field work at a sample of sites involved in struggles to build alternatives.  In an effort to contribute to understanding and potentiating Southern efforts at anti-systemic transformation, the review also provides references and methodological guidance to groups already conducting post-growth advocacy.


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[1] Sustainable development has been an influential development model since the 1970’s.  Its objective is to balance economic, social, and environmental priorities in order to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (UNDP).

[2] Examples include Jackson’s (2009) New Economics of Prosperity and Daly’s (2005) Steady State Economy, which call for a decoupling of ecological throughput from growth and GDP via socioeconomic reforms.

[3] See the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) (Cavanagh and Mander 2004).

[4] For the purposes of this review, the Global South refers to the geopolitical South, made up of post-colonial and/or “developing” countries.

[5] These theories conceptualize capitalism as a global system in the Wallersteinian (2013) historical system notion of “an integrated network of economic, political and cultural processes the sum of which hold the system together.”

[6] See, inter alia, Arrighi 1994; Beckert 2013; Boyer 2001; Gibson-Graham 2006; Hodgson 2001; Lang 2013; McMurtry 1999; Posner 2010; Reich 2007; Schumacher 1985; Streeck 2011.

[7] Recent examples, such as the financialization of capital and the proliferation of Green Economy instruments, illustrate capitalism’s creative capacity to free capital from areas of stagnation or low productivity, stretch sociopolitical normative and regulatory constraints, and create opportunities for new investment and capital accumulation.

[8] For example, the increasing economic inequality within the labor force as capital accumulates in financial sectors (Picketty 2013) and the marginalization of people from their land and resources as a result of “Green Grabbing” (Fairhead et al. 2012).

[9] Fraser’s (2014) background – foreground builds upon Marx’s earlier (1859) infrastructure-superstructure conceptualization of capitalism (Marx 1904).

[10] Examples of existing post-capitalist initiatives include local communities recognizing the value of unpaid inputs into local economies, such as care-based activities, natural resources, and ecosystem services (Perkins 2007).  Other examples include worker cooperatives, communal resource ownership and management, solidarity economies, food co-ops, etc.

[11] Pickerill and Chatterton’s research (2006) focuses primarily on examples of and with participants in autonomous geographies in Europe, but their term is fitting to describe the physical and procedural organization of many anti-capitalist, anarchist, and autonomous groups in the Global South, including the Zapatistas and the autonomous workers movements in Argentina (Chatterton 2005).

[12] This is markedly different than the reform based approaches mentioned above.  For example, sustainable development aims at balancing growth with ecological and social priorities, keeping them as equals, instead of demoting growth to one of many possible tools for meeting ecological and social goals, as is done in political ecology.

[13] The development system refers to the institutions, policies, flows of financial and human resources, programs, projects, etc. that together aim at increasing standards of living, most often through economic growth, in post-colonial and other “developing” countries.

[14] In Latin America these frameworks include conviviality, super-strong sustainability, biocentrism, deep ecology, feminist critique, the care economy, dematerialization of the economy, degrowth, interculturalism, pluralism, relational ontologies, expanded forms of citizenship, etc. (Gudynas 2012, p33).

[15] Grosfoguel (2007) identifies at least fifteen hierarchies that been continuously reconstituted since colonial times.  These include: the organization of class divisions, international division of labor according to core and periphery, inter-state system of political-military organizations under European male colonial rule, racial/ethnic, gender, sexual, spiritual, epistemic, linguistic, aesthetic, pedagogical, media/informational, age, ecological, and spatial (urban over rural) hierarchies (Ibid.).

[16] This multiplicity of methods and outcomes is often referred to as pluriversal processes and futures and has become a principle espoused by many groups that aim to convert post-growth theory into practice.

[17] All Commons struggles are broadly centered on three basic elements: reclaiming common goods, building communal relationships, and democratizing political processes.  The act of coming together to redefine relationships and practices around the collective stewardship of common goods opens concrete possibilities for moving beyond the dominating capitalist logic of growth without limits.  It offers a transformational framework that could be incorporated by any of the post-growth perspectives presented in this paper.  (Hollender 2015b)

[18] Some authors note that the pervasiveness of growth has even influenced child-rearing methods. (Streeck 2011)

[19] For example, the Occupy Movement deliberately keeps an open-ended agenda, recognizing that clearly defined, universal end-goals are exclusionary, as they inevitably privilege some models over others.  Instead, the movement prioritizes the means rather than the ends.  Members experiment with democratic organizing forms, arguing that effective socioeconomic alternatives can only arise out of democratic processes. (Hardt and Negri 2011; Sitrin and Azzellini 2014)

[20] Polayni’s (1944) fictitious commodities are an example of how capitalist markets incorporate historically non-valued inputs to production, such as labor, land, and money in its quest for limitless growth.

[21] A series of development institutions and international treaties like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and UN Conference on Sustainable Development promote the commercialization and control of natural resources and ecosystem services via their backing of Green Economy, carbon markets, carbon offsetting, biofuels, and other market based-proposals (Langer 2011; Moreno 2012; Algranati 2012; Svampa 2012; etc.).

[22] This section is a modified excerpt from Hollender 2015.

[23] There is a tendency by scholars to oversimplify or romanticize Bolivian social movements and the achievements MAS through claims that have not been backed by empirical evidence.  Many scholars eagerly grasp, circulate, and analyze the colorful discourse and personae of Evo Morales, magnifying his image as a champion of indigenous social movements and the Rights of Nature, while neglecting the underlying conflict, contradictions, and failures of MAS.  In celebrating the progressive image of Evo Morales and the exotic otherness of Bolivian social movements without examining the conflict and contradictions below the surface, scholars perpetuate inaccurate perspectives and legitimize the gap between discourse and practice.  By overlooking the negative and contradictory policies and practices of the MAS administration, scholars contribute to these tendencies continuing with impunity.  (Hollender 2015c)