Imagination and Possibility: Part 2
We can - and should - imagine a better world, and it helps if we know what is possible.
It always seems impossible …
In this three-part series on the power of imagination and possibility, I explore degrowth-aligned policies that have been implemented around the world. They serve as proof that such outcomes are attainable, provide a potential blueprint for how similar policies could be achieved and ignite our imaginations on what our futures could hold.
This piece is part two in the series. In part one I explore nationwide mining bans, car-free towns, deprivatisation of utilities, nationwide meat bans and local currencies. In this article I delve into social housing, job guarantees, the 4-day work week, maximum incomes and socialist societies. My hope is that, through seeing these alternatives to the current dominant narrative in action, we realise that degrowth-aligned policies are actually possible, even if it may not have always felt that way. To quote Nelson Mandela, “it always seems impossible until it’s done.”
1. Social Housing
Step one in implementing degrowth is releasing the wellbeing of people from the requirement of the economy to grow. This is best done by providing universal basic services, high up on the list of which is social housing. One city that does this particularly well is Vienna. Approximately half of the city’s housing stock is made up of city-owned flats or cooperative apartments, and roughly two-thirds of the population lives in subsidised social housing.
In stark contrast to many social housing projects, in Vienna the focus is on creating high quality and stylish homes and buildings that are close to public transport and the city-centre. There is a nod towards the notion of ‘public luxury, private sufficiency’, with the homes often being small, but the amenities that come with them being of a very high ‘5-star’ standard, including indoor and outdoor swimming pools, saunas, nurseries, schools, libraries, doctors, tennis courts, groceries and other shops being conveniently on site. Some of the larger complexes even have their own tv-channel where they can keep residents informed about upcoming events and community programs. The tenancies are secure, with no expiration date or risk of rental increases giving tenants little temptation to buy.
Vienna’s public council estates were built to be indistinguishable from private buildings: Bold architecture and decorative elements ensured that affordable housing was also beautiful.
Source: ‘How Vienna took the stigma out of social housing’, Politico
In many places social housing is often in areas that aren’t convenient, they tend to be poorly built and are lacking in aesthetic quality, ensuring that people want to move out of them as quickly as possible and they end up becoming ‘ghettos’. In contrast, Vienna’s city-owned housing stock is both practical and desirable. Furthermore, the city-owned housing is also available to most residents, with the qualifying cap on income being so high that 75 percent of the population qualifies.
The exemplar social housing policies in Vienna are shaped by the “political commitment that housing is a basic right”, with a general determination to keep the massive stock of public housing accrued over the last century in public hands. In Vienna, the political will is squarely in favour of providing residents with a high level of social care.
2. Job Guarantee
A federally-funded job guarantee is an important policy we could implement as we reduce production and consumption in over-consuming nations. It will release people from the need to work in harmful private sector jobs, allowing them to pursue more meaningful work within their communities, the exact nature of which would be determined at the community level. In a job guarantee, the government acts as the employer of last resort, ensuring that anyone who wants to work is able to. Through this process governments can also set a floor for minimum wages and a ceiling for maximum hours, shifting the entire economy in the process. There have been examples of a job guarantee in the Soviet Union, US, Argentina, India, Ethiopia, France and Sweden.
Additionally, there is a small village in Austria, Gramatneusiedl, that is currently in the process of trialing a job guarantee. As a part of this trial anyone who has been unemployed for 12 months or more is eligible for the program, working in either the private sector or with a non-profit organisation. Despite participants entering the scheme voluntarily, the uptake of the program has been high and it has virtually eliminated long-term unemployment in the village. Under the job guarantee, people work 16-30 hours a week depending on their caring responsibilities, medical needs and personal goals. Most people choose to do community-based work for not-for-profits, rather than private sector work. Salaries are set so that people are earning at least what they received on unemployment benefits. So far, the results are impressive:
… on a broad range of dimensions—symptoms of anxiety or depression, a sense of social inclusion, social status, financial security, and so on—the improvements in participants’ lives are statistically significant…. [additionally] the Job Guarantee costs no more per person than unemployment benefits. “It comes for free, people choose it voluntarily, and they feel like they’re better off—you would think that’s a slam dunk.”
Source: ‘What Happens When Jobs Are Guaranteed?’, The New Yorker
This scheme is set to end in 2024, however given the positive social and potential environmental impact - where employment is not linked to production and consumption - one can only hope that this is a scheme that finds a home in the policy suites of many more governments around the world.
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3. The four-day work week
In the process of implementing degrowth, when the environmentally harmful sectors of the economy are reduced or eliminated, we’ll likely need to reduce working hours across the board so that the remaining jobs can be shared around equitably. In light of this, I wanted to see if any country around the world essentially had a 4-day work week already and how it was working for them. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, at an average of 29.5 hours a week, The Netherlands has the shortest working week in the OECD. It is closely followed by Denmark, with an average work week of 32.5 hours, and Norway with an average work week of 33.6 hours. These average work weeks are essentially the equivalent of, or close to, a 4-day/week workforce.
Looking specifically at The Netherlands, the shorter working week was facilitated by a legislative framework requiring employers to allow employees to work part-time or to work flexible hours (unless there is a strong and objective business case not to). Simply by giving the Dutch the choice to work fewer hours, they do: a full half of the Dutch population is in part-time employment vs 20% of the workforce in EU member states. Broken down by sex, 26.8% of men and 76.6% of women are working less than 36 hours per week. This has benefits not only for employees, but for the entire family unit, as families are able to spend more time together. This shorter working week is a big contributor to the Netherlands consistently being ranked in the 10 top happiest countries in the world.
4. Maximum Incomes
As we move away from growth as the driving force behind our economy, and leave the oft-peddled-but-not-often-true, notion that we all benefit from a ‘bigger pie’, we’ll need to actively face into the huge amounts of inequality we see in society today. No longer will it be okay for CEOs to make 272 times that of an ordinary worker. Both minimum and maximum incomes will be needed, and should be determined democratically.
I wanted to see where this was happening already, and unsurprisingly, I found my answer in the world’s largest cooperative, Spain’s Mondragon. This organisation consists of 95 separate, self-organising cooperatives, employing over 80,000 people worldwide. Across the Mondragon network the democratically determined pay ratios average five to one, and are sometimes as low as three to one. This is in line with research showing people consider seven to one to be an ideal ratio between the highest and lowest paid workers. In some countries, such as Argentina, Norway and Türkiye, people prefer a ratio of less than four to one. It turns out that, when people have democratic input into both minimum and maximum salaries, they prefer a lot less inequality than we see in society today.
5. Socialist Societies
Degrowth leading to a steady state economy is, ultimately, the adoption of eco-socialism. Because of this, I wanted to see how people who had lived through socialism in the past had found the experience. Physicist and mathematician, Freeman Dyson, was asked about the non-scientific issues he grappled with during his life. His response to the question was that he found adapting his socialist principles to a capitalist society difficult:
In England during World War Two, I lived in a socialist society that functioned well…. Money did not matter. Everyone got the same rations of food and clothes and soap and other necessities. The rationed stuff was cheap, and there was nothing else to buy. Cars were not allowed any gasoline except for official business. It was a wonderful time to be a socialist, so long as the war lasted.… When I started to raise a family, I discovered that my socialist principles gave way to my responsibilities as a father. As a father, I needed money to take care of my wife and kids, and the more money the better. The theoretical idea of equality faded, as the kids needed a good home in a good neighborhood with good schools.
Source: Everyday Utopia: In Praise of Radical Alternatives to the Traditional Family Home, Kristen Ghodsee, p.23
In her book, Everyday Utopia, Kristen Ghodsee writes about how a tendency to focus on the family unit as opposed to society at large means that ordinary people are more easily divided when resources like housing, healthcare, and education are made scarce because of a lack of public support for them:
With everyone exhausted by the hustle needed to meet their basic needs, people tend to view others as potential competitors and refuse opportunities for cooperation that could make the system work better for everyone. By keeping our attentions focused on our private families, we also ignore the possibilities of public programs that would improve life for both ourselves and our children.
Source: Everyday Utopia: In Praise of Radical Alternatives to the Traditional Family Home, Kristen Ghodsee, p.24
Which reminds me of this image:
Image: source unknown.
This system is self perpetuating, and we’re going to have to find a way to break the cycle if we want an economy focused on people and the planet and not profit and growth.
But, I digress.
Dyson’s experience tells us that socialist economies can be “wonderful“ because they free people from the current never-ending process of monetary and material acquisition and accumulation in favour of other valuable ambitions, such as community, caring, learning, teaching, conviviality and much more.
All roads lead to more and better democracy
The very presence of some of the policies above (better and more social housing, job guarantee, 4-day work weeks) would make the attainment of the others (maximum incomes, eco-socialism) much more achievable. When people are less worried about the value of their property and salary because much of the economy has been decommodified, they are more willing to act in the interests of community and future generations. This growth-based system thrives on ‘artificial scarcity’, and when we unpick the systems that make the things we need to survive artificially scarce, all sorts of possibilities begin to emerge. But it all starts with more and better democracy, which will require grassroots movements and a strengthened labour movement. And that is something we can all play a role in.
Look out for part 3 in this series which will be published next Tuesday, 7th November.
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