UNMAKING: a research programme on the disruption of capitalism in societal transformation to sustainability

PhD research project: Democratic praxis in grassroots agriculture movements

Democratic praxis in grassroots agriculture movements: a vehicle for social-ecological transformation? 

PhD student: Jacob Smessaert.

Supervisors: Giuseppe Feola, Hens Runhaar.

The ecological crisis, caused by capitalist development, has become a major concern for activists and scholars alike. Yet, calls for social-ecological transformation are based on very divergent views on incumbent power structures, legitimate political actors, and transformation strategies. Because of the continued entanglement between capitalism, the state, and liberal democracy, these transformation strategies should address both the overcoming of capitalism and the quest for new political configurations. 

Various grassroots movements and collectives are developing new forms of democratic praxis in-against-and-beyond capitalism. This praxis does not only cover decision-making and power distribution, but also resisting social-ecological destruction as well as prefiguring and enacting multispecies futures that are more egalitarian, inclusive and just. As such, democratic praxis, and the ideas and values it emanates from, matter deeply for the transformative potential of grassroots movements. What remains unclear, however, is how this democratic praxis at the grassroots level can effectively unmake and transform the capitalist configurations that uphold social-ecological destruction and impede egalitarian futures. 

To tackle this question, this thesis connects different strands of literature dealing with democracy and radical social-ecological transformation, such as cosmopolitics, eco-anarchism, degrowth, ecofeminism and ecological democracy. It gives a central stage to grassroots initiatives that are ‘democratic’ in the sense that they explicitly work towards collective futures that are socially just and environmentally sustainable. The empirical focus of the research lies on agri-food collectives in Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands. Through its application of participatory research methods, the project contributes to fostering new and promising alliances between researchers and grassroots sustainability practitioners. 

This thesis is structured in three parts. The first part aims to better understand which theorisations and practices of democracy are useful for fostering emancipatory collective futures in a context of ever-expanding capitalist social-ecological destruction. The second part empirically analyses which capitalist configurations are unmade by democratic praxis in grassroots collectives, and what obstacles and tensions are involved in processes of unmaking. The final part aims to theoretically ground and empirically scrutinise the emergence of multispecies autonomous political communities, as well as the tensions, negotiations and conflicts that come with these new political configurations. 


Publications within the PhD project: 

Smessaert, J., Feola, G., (in press). Becoming-interdependent: democratic praxis in-against-and-beyond capitalism in agrifood collectives. Antipode.

Smessaert, J., Feola, G., 2023. Beyond statism and deliberation: questioning ecological democracy through eco-anarchism and cosmopolitics. Environmental Values 32(6), 765-793.


Further publications:  

Guerrero Lara, L., van Oers, L., Smessaert, J., Spanier, J., Raj, G., Feola, G., (in press). Degrowth and Agri-Food Systems: A Research Agenda for the Critical Social SciencesSustainability Science, DOI: 10.1007/s11625-022-01276-y

AKC Collective. forthcoming. Anarchism and degrowth: deepening degrowth’s engagement with autonomous movements. Degrowth Journal 

Feola, G., Guerrero Lara, L., Smessaert, J. Spanier, J. 2020. Book Review: The Case for DegrowthEnvironmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 37: 381-382.