This article, written by Olli Tammilehto, is a stirring paper presented in Degrowth Conference in Leipzig 3.9.2014. You can republish it in English or in any other language but you should first inform the author.

Transition to Degrowth Facilitated by Existing Shadow Society

The addiction of modern societies and their members to growth is so severe that for many it seems wholly unrealistic to wean them from it. One feels that there is no hope for change and turns away from degrowth thinking. Therefore it is worth considering some assumptions on which the hopelessness is based.

A reason to view degrowth as unrealistic is the habit to conceptualize societies and their members as integrated and functional wholes. Instead, when perceiving society and people in it as fractured, full of cleavages, the transition to degrowth seems more possible. Only part of the fragments are at a time easily visible and are considered to constitute the society proper. The rest of the fragments are kept in shadow and are not regarded as essential.

Shadow society

A common assumption making major social changes to seem impossible is that people and society really are what you see in the official institutions. Society is the state plus the official economy. People are citizens, voters, schoolchildren, students, patients, workers, employees, craftsmen, professionals, entrepreneurs, employers, owners, investors, debtors, consumers and so on. What they are or do additionally, is of marginal importance. From this perspective society is by and large a well-functioning whole which is possible to change only modestly.

But underneath and parallel to the official structures and roles, there is another world of thought, activity and social relations. Very important is that the majority of these and those dutiful citizens, workers and consumers are also mothers and fathers. When their children are small, they produce an enormous amount of food, cleaning, care and other essential services unpaid at their homes. Usually the only thing preventing them from breaking down under the workload is the help given by informal circles of friends, relatives, neighbours and peers.

The informal work by parents, unemployed, retired and other people as well as social relations supporting it, are so extensive that one can speak about an alternative economy existing in the middle of any modern society. In addition to it and partly overlapping with it, there is another already existing alternative economy: that based on material and non-material common wealth created by nature and cultures.

The informal sphere of the society is not at all of marginal importance: its proper functioning and continuing existence are often a matter of life and death. Therefore people are often ready to fight if this economy is threatened. These conflicts are widespread because from the official perspective informal sector contains only poorly utilized resources that must be brought into productive use. In the fight to defend the informal economy, alternative forms of political organizing and democratic decision making may develop.

Of course capitalism needs the non-capitalistic forms of production and wealth. Without unpaid housework and free access to social and natural common wealth, it would hardly be possible to accumulate capital. In this sense nature, homes and “leisure” are subordinated to capitalism.

But the exploitative relationship is only one side of the story. Activities at homes, voluntary work and taking care of common wealth are based on different values and logic. On the other hand, these activities cultivate and maintain different way of relating to matters, different value system. This kind of ensemble of activities that both rise from a value system and create it, can be called value practise.

Even though consumer culture has an influence on all of this, much of this shadow side of society is not permeated by the growth logic. Instead of “more”, its proclaimed, inferred, and often also realized, values are moderation, equality, mutual aid, supporting the weak and generally living well with fellow human and other beings.

Social and subjective surplus

Thus both in politics and in economy there is all the time going on a wide variety of such important activities, social interactions, group formations and other processes which are not integrated into the official institutions. The institutionalization process of the society is incomplete and open. In a way there exists ‘social surplus’ that makes society more flexible and explains many phenomena which cannot be accounted for if one looks only at official institutional structures.

The same applies on the individual level to subject formation. The personality of a woman or a man acting both in official and informal roles has many fractures. He or she is not a consistent whole. Different value practises in a way cross a person and divide her or him. One way to describe this is to say that the human personality is almost always divided to a certain extent. Only in extreme cases it is a matter of such a disorder that can be classified as mental illness.

This inconsistency is increased by the fact that official institutions are full of internal contradictions and often the dominant ideology is incapable to contain them. For instance, the official doctrines of states and companies are full of noble principles, emptiness of which is obvious for many insiders.

The “subjective surplus” is partly channelled to unofficial activities, partly it exists only as dreams and as potentiality for a future society. Thus even under the polished face of a most loyal and diligent worker and citizen there may be a surprise waiting.

Different value practices inside and among human beings and their contradictions are essential in social change. The existing non-capitalistic value practices can function as sprouts which in proper conditions grow quickly into a new social whole. When a major social change is happening, its motor is the social and subjective surplus which comes more and more from the background to the fore. The primary front-line between the old order and the new horizon is not the one between them and us. Instead it will divide almost everyone from inside. In this perspective the question of violence in major social changes takes a new light: You have no reason to kill a person if a half of him is already on your side and the other half may follow.

The collapse of the Soviet Bloc is a case of the phenomenon. At least decades before the big change the society and people were riddled with cleavages between the official and the unofficial. Anyone travelling in these countries usually came across on these fractures. Officially a person was a dutiful cleric in a state institution, but in practice he used his time to organize food and other necessities for his relatives or did voluntary work in a cultural heritage association. He was a master in double-thinking. The cleavages found its expression in political jokes circulating everywhere. People worked half-heartedly and in practice sabotage was widespread. Accordingly, the economy and political apparatus functioned poorly. When things started to change, one and the other found their oppositional side even among the party elite. Soon the hollowed-out society collapsed.

Another case is Argentine, a country resembling western Europe in many respects. The economic collapse in 2001 changed countless society women and supporters of middle class values in a few weeks to activists demanding and making a radical social change. As the official society was stagnating, a new polity and economy started to be organized on the basis of neighbourhood assemblies, occupied factories and moneyless goods exchanges.

Also the recent Ukrainian revolution shows how invisible undercurrents of discontent can quickly create a powerful movement than is able to knock down self-evident truths of Realpolitik.


When a major technological accident, natural disaster or social and economic crisis blocks normal course of society temporally and locally, the shadow society gets stronger and people start to organize survival activities and rescue operations informally. Often the strengthening is rapid and powerful. The participants experience that a new and in many respects better society is being born. This is a creative moment when social imagination and inventiveness flourish. If the scale of disturbance is large enough and the situation prolongs itself, the society enters into a “bifurcation” condition where a transition to the reformed state based on the former normal or to a new sustainable state based on the creative moment are possible.

In the history, the former transition has been the rule. But in the present situation, when even a reformed continuation on the present path seems disastrous, there are chances that social forces for a new social constellation are strong enough and the intellectual forces trying to legitimate the continuation of the past are weak enough so that social creation brought about in the crisis cannot be smashed.

Social resources and energy for such an upheaval can be tapped from the social and subjective 'surplus' created by the fractured character of the present societies and corresponding cleavages in human subjectivity. To abandon consumer society in such a process may turn out to be surprisingly painless because modern consumption, with its constant process of moving meanings from old to new commodities, is inherently dissatisfying. Economic growth and consumption utopia have been used as excuses and surrogates to prevent realizing values of democracy and equity shared by the majority of people. Hence there is a chance that out of the transformation would emerge, besides saved planet, also an equitable economy and a genuinely democratic polity.


Lisää kommentti

* Pakollinen tieto
Drag & drop images (max 3)
Powered by Commentics


No comments yet. Be the first!
Page Top
You can send comments on this article to

Back to the beginning of Olli Tammilehto's homepage