Plurality as basis for political action and democratic space in degrowth

by Katja Pellini.

Democracy, literally the rule by the people, is a process of collective decision-making. In today’s world this joint decision making is usually organised within the nation-states. However, in recent years – countries such as Finland, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, and the United States, to name a few, have witnessed popularity of authoritarian leaders, and neo-liberal and far right tendencies in political parties. The polarisation of politics and hostility towards people with different identities and beliefs is eroding trust in representative democracy.

It is evident that the crisis of democracy itself is a fertile ground for new lines of enquiry to emerge. Degrowth scholars and practitioners agree for democratically led transition to degrowth society, however, there are different interpretations on how it should happen, what forms of democratic governance are preferred, and what degrowth needs to do to support democratic practise and direct democracy.

My thesis is an enquiry to the thinking of German-born American historian and political philosopher Hanna Arendt (1906-1975), American social theorist, scholar, author, orator, and historian Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) and English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson (1904-1980). In my view, all of them, in their own way, were questioning the lack of plurality in the relational processes at the root of the socio-ecological crisis. Therefore, I argue that their thinking is an important source of thought for the democratic theory of degrowth.

Politics is based on human plurality, and according to Hanna Arendt (1955), missing the plurality means missing the potential for political life (Arendt 2005). In Arendt’s thinking, instituting a public space where individuals can come together as equals to deliberate on the matters that concern their collective modus of living on a shared planet means enactment of plurality. Consequently, plurality instituted in the public space of deliberation and mutual learning is at the heart of meaning-making.

Contrary to monism pluralism challenges rational, universal, and abstract thinking about ultimate value and universal truth as the basis of collective decision making. There is no universal truth. However, social diversity does not mean that it is not possible to agree; plurality is a source of equally possible alternatives among which it is possible to rationally justify a joint political commitment (Yumatle 2014). Therefore, how plurality is instituted in collective decision making, is at the heart of democratic thinking.

Our current political reality is tied to an existing institutional setup and language used to describe political relations. This setup has led to a deeply unequal and unsustainable world. Changing the political reality requires shifts in our thinking that have contributed to the socio-ecological crisis. Otherwise, the new institutions and political space will reproduce the old hierarchies.

In the thinking of Murray Bookchin our present-day ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems. Bookchin noted that when people face each other and speak about public matters together, the capacity to understand each other’s different life experience and values is cultivated. This starts to shift the hierarchical mentality behind both social and ecological problems (Bookchin 2006). Instituting political space for direct democracy was at the heart of Bookchin’s thinking and his theory of Libertarian Municipalism has inspired groups, such as Kurdish autonomous canton of Rojava, to form political communities based on deliberative practise.

Plurality was one of the most important themes of Arendt’s work. According to Arendt, political action needs a public realm, a space of appearances. In the public realm, ordinary citizens make political judgments guided by their own values and life experiences. Arendt’s thinking is pertinent when iterating the degrowth’s relationship to open-ended deliberative democratic practice compared to intentional science-based policy design. In thinking of Arendt, science-based information cannot replace public discussion. If society at large perceives that policy proposals disregard them and their values, measures taken to transform the economy as a service for a good life for all within the boundaries of the planet will fail.

Gregory Bateson’s work broadens the discourse, adding the embeddedness of the political process in a biological system and the ways of our communication with the wider ecology of life. Although Bateson is perhaps an odd choice when attempting to write about democracy, his work helps to understand the patterns of political thinking and the interrelatedness of political action and democratic practice in a wider human-ecology of life. According to Bateson, our ideas of improvement and habits of thinking are not in sync with the ways how nature works (Bateson 1972). Errors arise when information used in the political process is dissected from its context.

Plurality instituted in the public space of deliberation between people from different backgrounds as equals, means cultivating direct democratic practise. I argue that only if degrowth can cultivate plurality in political action through collective power and social freedom in direct democratic practise and between autonomous units of self-governance, can it create an audible voice and alternative political space to authoritarian regimes and tendencies in representative democracies.


Katja Pellini is an ecologist and practitioner of international development cooperation working as climate resilience specialist in a large international NGO. Her second master’s degree was approved 18.3.2024 on online master programme Degrowth: Ecology, Economics and Policy of ICTA/UAB. The supervisor of the thesis, Dr Ksenija Hanaček, contributed by reading the drafts and commenting and suggesting relevant parts of the thesis. Katja is passionate about democratic practise, dialogue and warm data. She is a founding member of Kohtuus, and continues to care for the rural railway station in the Eastern Finland.

The opinions expressed in the text do not necessarily reflect those of R&D, but are those of the author.


References/Further reading

Arendt, H. (2005) The Promise of Politics. New York: Schocken Books. (93-200).
eBook ISBN 978-0-307-54287-8

Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Pathologies of Epistemology, Jason Aronson Inc. Northvale, New Jersey London ISBN 0-87668-950-0

Chaney, A. (2017) Runaway Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness, The university of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, eBook ISBN 9781469631747

Bookchin, M. (1991) Libertarian Municipalism An Overview, 29.11.2023 retrieved from

Bookchin, M. (2006) Social Ecology and Communalism, pdf provided by New Compass; 29.11.2023 retrieved from

Yumatle C. (2024) Pluralism. In: The Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Wiley-Blackwell;

Villa, D. (2023) Hannah Arendt – A Very Short Introduction OXFORD eBook ISBN 978-0-19-253363-0