Voluntary Simplicity and Transition vs. Empire

This post is a short excerpt from a paper of mine considering the role the Simplicity and Transition Movements might play in resisting the forces of globalization and producing a degrowth or steady-state economy. 

The age of globalization is upon us, and it could be that any attempt to realize a degrowth or steady-state economy will face forms of resistance today that may not have been faced as recently as fifty years ago. We could call this the problem of ‘Empire’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000). Not only are nation-states today constrained by numerous international trade agreements and influenced by powerful global institutions, but the free flow of capital around the globe has given new power to transnational corporations which can now move their financial resources from country to country with unprecedented ease (Stiglitz, 2002). A strong case can be made that this has led to economic forces becoming more autonomous from political controls, and consequently that political sovereignty has declined (Sassen, 1996). But as Hardt and Negri (2000: xi) have argued, ‘The decline in sovereignty of nation-states… does not mean that sovereignty as such has declined.’ Sovereignty, they argue, has just taken on a new, globalized form – the form of ‘Empire’ – which can be understood as a decentralizing and deterritorializing apparatus of power which is ‘composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000: xii). The logic of rule to which they refer, of course, is the globalized logic of profit maximization.

Could it be that the materialization of ‘Empire’ means that it would be impossible for one nation-state to transition to a degrowth or steady-state economy without either violating international trade agreements or inducing, almost instantaneously, the mass exodus of capital? (Victor, 2008: 221-2). I can only indicate a response here, and it is a response based on the central normative idea that voluntary simplicity, if practiced en masse, could bring about structural transformation. If indeed it is so that Empire is slowly but steadily emasculating the nation-state, such that it is becoming progressively less likely that post-growth structural transformation will ever originate from the top down, then it follows, perhaps necessarily, that true opposition to Empire and the forces of globalization may only be possible today if it is driven from the grass-roots up (Lindholm and Zuquete, 2010; Curran, 2007). What could defy the profit-maximizing logic of Empire more fundamentally than a large, oppositional social movement based on the living strategy of voluntary simplicity? What could challenge the rule of capital more directly than thousands upon millions of people militantly embracing, yet at the same time celebrating, the tantalizing paradox that less is more?

Although still in their infancy, the fast-expanding Transition Initiatives associated with Rob Hopkins (2008) are perhaps the most notable contemporary example of this type of grassroots action. These Initiatives are primarily a response to the dual crises of peak oil and climate change (Heinberg and Lerch, 2010), but obviously there is much overlap here with the Simplicity Movement’s primary concern with overconsumption. Furthermore, the Transition Initiatives exemplify quite well the power dynamics between personal change, social change, and structural change. Those involved in Transition Initiatives often find themselves drawn into community engagement by their own sense that things must change, and by joining such Initiatives the individual strengthens the social current, and in turn this draws others in too, which strengthens the current further, and thus a ‘snowball effect’ is created. Rather than waiting for the state to act, however, Transition Initiatives just get to work, decarbonizing their own economies by relocalising them. Community gardens are often one of the first community projects undertaken by such Initiatives, and such projects might involve resisting development projects that were intended, say, to turn a vacant plot of land into a new mall. In ways such as this, Transition Initiatives engage with structure, and to the extent they succeed their impact on structures can resonate beyond immediate intentions – for example, by weakening the economic might of agri-business – opening up further space for individual and social change – for example, by making farmers’ markets more competitive – which can then produce further structural change, and so forth. Deserving of more attention by critical scholars and activists alike, these power dynamics are complex and always dialectical, but they are suggestive of ways that current structures can be resisted, destabilized, and overcome from the grassroots up.

Although framed in different terms, this is an approach that Hardt and Negri, the pre-eminent theorists of Empire, make themselves:

Militancy today is a positive, constructive, and innovative activity. This is the form in which we and all those who revolt against the rule of capital recognize ourselves as militants today…. This militancy makes resistance into counterpower and makes rebellion into a project of love (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 413).

Significantly, it is in the life of St Francis of Assisi – one of the most radical and inspirational figures in the history of voluntary simplicity – where Hardt and Negri (2000: 413) discover ‘the ontological power of a new society.’ They conclude their text with a message both of hope and opposition – or rather, hope in opposition – a message which is reproduced here in sympathy: ‘Once again in postmodernity we find ourselves in Francis’s situation, posing against the misery of power the joy of being. This is a revolution that no power will control…’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 413).

While the problem of ‘Empire,’ then, must be recognized as a real one, there is a sense in which the very nature of the problem provides further validation for the commitment to a grassroots theory of legal transformation based on the oppositional living strategy of voluntary simplicity. The logic of justification here is quite simple, even if its implications are not: so far as the power of one’s political representatives is taken away (or misused), one’s individual political responsibility increases. As Hardt and Negri suggest, this may be the only logic more powerful than the profit-maximizing logic of capital.

It was Victor Hugo who once said, ‘There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come’ (as quoted in Schultz, 1971: ix). While there are no grounds for complacency, just perhaps voluntary simplicity is such an idea.


One Response to “Voluntary Simplicity and Transition vs. Empire”

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  2. Lee says:

    This posts and other writings about the power of grass roots movements are very inspiring.

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