Degrowth and its Discontents: Part Two

Last year, a compilation of degrowth perspectives appeared in the form of a modest encyclopedia of sorts, titled Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era. The short essays in this book define a number of degrowth-related terms, some easily recognized as universal concepts familiar to activists across the world, like the commons, environmental justice, and peak-oil, and others that may puzzle: conviviality, anti-utilitarianism, and post-normal science. Several of the vocabulary entries define concepts, for the “new era,” that conflict with others to produce what the editors hope will be a stimulating tension.

One such unfamiliar concept defined by Onofrio Romano for the “new era” – dépense – appears as the topic of the most significant essay in the book. The term originated with Georges Bataille a French author of the first half of the 20th Century, whose translators use “expenditure” as the nearest English equivalent. Bataille wrote on many topics from philosophy to sociology to aesthetics, though he gained worldwide notoriety for his sexually explicit novels originally pseudonymously authored.

In the 30s, he wrote an essay steeped in the work of French anthropologists, most notably Marcel Mauss, who is known for The Gift, a major contribution to the study of anthropology. In The Gift Mauss describes the potlatch, a competitive gift-giving ceremony practiced by tribes in Northwest America. To expand the understanding of exchange beyond the marketplace, Mauss used the potlatch as a generic term for a variety of reciprocal gift exchanges evident in societies throughout the world.

Reciprocal gifting is the opposite of accumulation in market societies, where to grow wealth gave one power. For Mauss, on the contrary, gift-giving in traditional societies must be seen as primarily maintaining a ritualized social harmony, and at most a secondary power relationship. The gift in other words is not simply a material item, it symbolizes layers of meaning that the giver and the receiver share by being securely embedded in their society – tradition, rank, expectations and more are bundled into the act of giving. (It needs to be noted here that abundance is necessary for a highly organized gifting society. But the nature of that abundance is not exclusively a material quantum.) This sense of depth to the exchange will come up again in the discussion of buen viver (sumak kawsay), forthcoming.

Bataille expanded and deepened the work of Mauss. For Bataille the potlatch was an example of wasting a surplus, a recognizable practice, he maintained, in all societies and not limited to traditional ones. Medieval kings, for example, “wasted” resources to build enormous castles, far larger and stronger than necessary to protect their wealth and power, but solely to flaunt it. Powerful Bishops erected huge churches, in the same manner. But even the peasants had feasts and pageants that extravagantly depleted their stores of food and drink, not to mention the time they expended to festoon their villages, and themselves. And these references are just from a specific epoch in Europe. Bataille used the term waste (or dépense, again, usually translated as expenditure in English) to indicate that all societies have a need to find expression beyond what he termed the restrictive economy – the economy of accumulation and precise accounting. For Bataille the restrictive economy was nested in the general economy, which made use of the excess energy that he believed created society by introducing rituals. This social-creating energy was expansive and abundant like the sun’s energy and it created a surplus, that took a variety of forms, but that all societies made use of to mold their specific cultural traits – their brand as capitalists undoubtedly would say.

These speculations appear a bit odd to us since we are so conditioned to think pragmatically about social practices and not draw, what can be easily characterized as, fanciful nonsense. The human species, many believe, is a tool-making animal that expanded over eons to devise evermore-complicated tools, which, in turn, created the complex societies we categorize by these tool-making techniques – Stone Age, Bronze Age, etc. This view has been superseded by anthropologists but remains a popular explanation of our evolution.

If, however, we believe that another world is possible, had we better scrape away the residue of the old world, and homo habilis, and begin to imagine a more appropriate characterization of human creativity? Not a utopia, but a better way of thinking about our social lives. When Bataille first published his thoughts about how societies functioned with their surpluses, it was in the ‘30s at a time of turmoil not all that different from what we are currently living through. Everything was in question and Bataille, along with other cultural explorers (he was informally allied with the Surrealists), jettisoned conventionality to seek out new passageways to a different way of life.

It is significant that some adherents to the degrowth perspective have rediscovered Bataille’s work. There are several aspects of his thought that resonate today. One of them is his recognition of the pernicious affects of promulgating scarcity as a natural phenomenon. When scarcity assumes center-stage all the actors then grovel for the size of their roles and everybody competes by self-branding himself or herself. A perverse individualism ensues. Bataille, on the contrary, speculated that the need to circulate excess wealth was central to cultural development. To distribute and disperse the excess ensured collective participation. This is most apparent in traditional societies. As societies became more hierarchical, the powerful increasingly expropriated the disbursement, which, not surprisingly, required the acquiescence of the populace who, often, were unwilling to oblige.

Peasant uprisings, to focus on the Middle Ages, were more numerous than previously believed; nevertheless, they were limited by the social solidity of traditional practices that “enlightened despots” recognized could serve their interests; therefore, rulers benefited by maintaining social harmony. This means that the ruler allowed some of the excess produced the peasants to remain with them for their own use. With their minimal excess, the peasant staged (of course with the guidance – more or less – of secular and religious authorities) festivals and holyday celebrations. And they wasted their excess with quotidian festivities like St Monday, the typical day of recuperation from the revelry that began the night of the last day of work, usually Saturday.

To refer to a contemporary expression of expenditure, there can be no better example than the New Orleans Second Line Parades. Pondering the African origins of the second line, and similar practices, raises a fundamental question about the origin of the energy that Bataille maintains is inherent in society. Where does this energy come from? What is its origin? It is not produced from nothing, spontaneously. For Bataille, the answer comes from the inner drive of humans to work because this determines our being, defines the individual as wasting defines the society.

There is a long pedigree of philosophers, beginning in modern times with Adam Smith and Hegel through to Karl Marx and extending up to present times, who believe that work defines not only the human experience, but also the essence of our species. This should come as no surprise given that work undergirds our subsistence. No work, no money, no life – the modern mantra. The argument against work as the basis for social creativity references a longer time span before the emergence of agriculturists and posits that hunter-gatherer societies, which preceded by many thousands of years the rather recent period of agricultural societies, spent a fraction of their day working.

And the “work” they did was of a different order – more skilled and episodic – than the backbreaking drudgery of sod-busting farmers.

If Bataille’s notion of wasting the surplus based on work/energy is coherent then hunter-gatherer societies, because their energy output was less would have wasted much less. The implication of this would be that their social creativity would be diminished. Their cultures would be less complex ritualistically, they would have less nuanced interpersonal personal relations and, in sum, they would have less intellectually stimulating lives. None of this has been revealed in anthropological studies, in fact just the opposite seems to be the case. (Kenneth E. Sassaman (2004). Complex Hunter–Gatherers in Evolution and History: A North American Perspective. Journal of Archaeological Research, Vol. 12, No. 3, September 2004) For example, even the earliest occupants of Europe in the Upper Paleolithic period created extensive cave drawings that are evidence of their exuberance.

What this means is that the old presumption that human societies evolved from simple hunter-gatherer societies to complex agricultural ones doesn’t hold water. The transformation to agriculture had many causes, not the least climate change, but we can’t say that the overriding impulse was to benefit from a more leisurely life-style. One could argue that the “wastings” of large agricultural societies exceeded hunter-gatherer ones, however, the large temples, complex cities and elaborate rituals depended on a caste of priests and nobility to contrive and benefit from the wastage. And this fact is hardly a praiseworthy endorsement of Bataille’s theory! It would be the equivalent of saying that Nazi Germany exceeded the cultural complexity of rural Spain and that was praiseworthy.

Even with the most inclusive definition of work, it is difficult to imagine that Bataille’s concept of energy arises solely from the need to survive. Nor, to take the most contrary view, can we presume along with Johan Huizinga, in Homo Ludens, that humankind developed socially through play. Huizinga’s conception of play encompasses a larger field of activity than that of work and so comes closer to answering what propels Bataille’s energy. However, if we jettison “energy” and adopt the concept of “drive” – in the sense that our needs propel us to take action – we come closer to understanding the forces for social creativity in all its aspects.

The most profound analysis of human needs comes from Manfred Max-Neef, a radical Chilean economist and ecologist who, over thirty years ago, developed a system that he calls Human Scale Development. The satisfaction of fundamental human needs that apply to this discussion is the only one part of Max-Neef’s system. The other aspects include generating self-reliance and –

…the construction of organic articulations of people with nature and technology, of global processes with local activity, of personal with the social, of planning with autonomy, and of civil society with the state, where “articulations” is taken to mean the construction of coherent and consistent relations of balanced interdependence among given elements.

Max-Neef formulated his theory of human needs as a response to the capitalist (imperialist) forces of “third world” exploitation (aka “economic development”). Human needs are interrelated and interactive, and aside from the need of subsistence (to survive on the most elementary level), there is no place for hierarchies within his system, unlike Abraham Maslow’s disputed creation. As Max-Neef states:

On the contrary, simultaneities, complementarities and trade-offs are characteristics of the process of needs satisfaction.

To clarify the interactions of human needs, Max-Neef created a matrix with existential needs – Being, Having, Doing and Interacting – running along an horizontal axis and on the vertical axis are a set of value-based needs – Subsistence, Protection, Affection, Understanding, Participation, Creation, Leisure, Identity and Freedom.

These needs, which are universal (though as we will see, possibly expandable over time), are responsive to what Max-Neef calls “satisfiers.” For example, food and shelter are not needs, but satisfiers of the fundamental need for Subsistence. In the same way that healthcare in all its forms are satisfiers for the need for Protection.

Max-Neef explains further:

There is no one-to-one correspondence between needs and satisfiers. A satisfier may contribute simultaneously to the satisfaction of different needs, or conversely, a need may require various satisfiers in order to be met. Not even these relations are fixed. They may vary according to time, place and circumstances. For example, a mother breast-feeding her baby is simultaneously satisfying the infant’s need for Subsistence, Protection, Affection and Identity. The situation is obviously different if the baby is fed in a more mechanical fashion. (.. . . . )

The distinction between needs and satisfiers forms the groundwork for two important points – fundamental human needs are “finite, few and classifiable and these needs are the same in all cultures.” Cultures differ (or are defined) by the satisfiers that they choose, which may change over time, while the needs remain constant. Whether a person lives in a hedonistic society or an ascetic one the needs remain the same, though they may choose differing satisfiers. Max-Neef speculates that social evolution may have given rise to the needs of Identity and Freedom, in that order and he believes that the future may see humankind develop a need for Transcendence. Religion in his system is a satisfier of Identity, not Transcendence, which he may think applies as a need only to that tiny minority of believers (or practitioners) in all belief systems who we characterize as mystics.

But to assume that Transcendence, as a need, lies over the horizon is to discount the universality of celebratory practices, the sole intention of which is to transport practitioners to an extraordinary state of mind. Or as Bataille would infer – to a wasting of apparent reality. From the earliest archeological sites, where evidence of prehistoric brewing of alcohol was discovered, to contemporary indigenous peoples who ingest hallucinogens, and all societies in between, the desire to seek intoxication is pervasive.

Unfortunately, intoxication in Western cultures is tarred as drunkenness: the transcendence of the desperate. To assume that traditional societies, like the indigenous Andeans who drank Ayahuasca, were simply escaping the misery of their lives is to rivet blinders of ignorance to our perceptions. Amongst those with traditional lifestyles hallucinogens are not a tool of escape but entry into a finer appreciation of reality, that is, their embeddedness in Nature. Like other satisfiers in Max-Neef’s scheme, intoxication satisfies several needs – Understanding, Participation and Creation, but what makes it unique is what can only be called a need for spiritual awakening and re-enforcement through ritualistic practices with hallucinogens and intoxicants.

This cursory excursion into Max-Neef’s contribution to the study of social psychology illuminates sumak kawsay (mentioned earlier) – an expression of the Quechua people from the central Andes. Sumak Kawsay is often translated into Spanish as buen vivir or, in English, “good living” or “well-being.” These terms, by connoting an individual perspective, obscure the indigenous origins of sumak kawsay, which encompasses individuals within “the social context of their community and in a unique environmental situation.”

Studying the worldview of indigenous peoples, as best we can, means delving into how their needs have been violated and perverted by colonialism, imperialism and now neoliberalism. Needs not appropriately satisfied generate a deficit. This is less obviously the case when Understanding, or Creation, or Affection are not adequately satisfied. But with Subsistence, for instance, when shelter is an inadequate satisfier a cascade of needs are unaddressed – Protection, Affection and straight on through to Freedom. Serious deficits are often not recognized properly, but are attributed to “primitiveness” or personal incompetency, when, if clearly conceived, they reveal a socially induced poverty.

And, according to Max-Neef, these poverties lead to pathologies, like: “… unemployment, external debt and hyperinflation. Common political pathologies are fear, violence, marginalization and exile.” As an example, one of the most serious contemporary pathologies takes the form of religious fanaticism as the failure of Identity (among other needs) being inadequately satisfied.

Buen vivir signifies for degrowthers, among other things, the value of ecophilia as a basic component of a fully lived life and, by its absence in modern life, marks capitalism as a brand of ecophobia: fear of nature that leads its domination. Ecophilia, not primarily as belief, but as active engagement with Nature is a satisfier of many of Max-Neef’s needs – from Protection through to Creation (using his standard matrix). For moderns, the “love of nature” packed with the latest sportswear, or booked with wilderness tours hardly defines ecophilia, rather it epitomizes the commodification of nature as cultural poverty, if not a contemporary pathology.

Sumak kawsay, which sometimes is translated as “living in plentitude,” might be best understood as an animistic connectedness to an environment, or using Rolando Vásquez’ translation of David Cortez’ definition:

The indigenous population of the Andean region . . . conceive “sumak kawsay” or “buen vivir” as the participation of human beings in a vital collectivity of cosmic character, that is to say in close relationality . . . with nature.”

Vásquez elaborates:

. . . buen vivir [and sumak kawsay] indicates a different conception of the human, where the human is always in relation with the cosmos and with nature. This relation designates a way of being in the world that does not follow the modern modes of appropriation and representation. (Roland Vásquez Towards a Decolonial Critique of Modernity)

Does “this way of being” question the universality of Max-Neef’s matrix of needs and satisfiers? In traditional societies, interconnectivity to be properly understood requires imagining the major diminishment of the Western ego. To assume the distinctness of needs (and their satisfiers) as Cartesianism prescribes seems presumptuous. A simple satisfier like food, which for moderns may only accommodate Subsistence, among indigenous may be a satisfier for a host of needs beyond Subsistence to include Participation, Leisure, Affection, Creation and more!

The wondrousness of the so-called primitive mind inhabits the pages of Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era. The term buen vivir appears in the book under the Alliances section and for good reason. Eduardo Gudynas, the author of the essay, is a renown scholar and head of the Latin American Center for Social Ecology in Uruguay, and he sees buen vivir, unlike degrowth, as an “intercultural perspective, [that] follows more ambitious objectives placed in changing present-day cosmovisions humans, society and Nature.”

Gudynas’ perspective touches on the controversial nature of applying degrowth to the global South and deserves to be discussed briefly. Several misunderstandings regarding buen vivir need to be clarified. Buen vivir is not one indigenous formulation, but a convenient shorthand term that stands for similar views by various traditional Andean communities. These views are all place-based with subtle distinctions amongst them.

As Western influence gains ascendancy, it wrenches Buen vivir from its original indigenous context to become a hybridize term incorporating a veneer of deep ecology, social justice and feminism. But, more sinisterly, its hybridization corrupts the original intent and allows “new” economic development to enter the field ostensibly to alleviate poverty, unfortunately by adopting the same old methods of (the discredited) Western development. The old extractivism of global entities becomes the new extractivism of progressive governments. Nothing has changed regarding the devastation of the environment that indigenous peoples  fight to preserve for their continued existence.

Gudynas adopts the original meaning of sumak kawsay (or buen vivir) as “a radical criticism of all forms of development at their conceptual foundations, and a consequent defense of alternatives that are both post-capitalist and post-socialist.” (from Degrowth 2014, p.202) As understood by Gudynas, sumak kawsay does not rival, as a contending ideology, the dominant anthropocentric view that Nature serves humankind’s ambitions, but more resembles in Western terms a spiritual orientation.

The siren call of development, however, despite these criticisms proceeds apace to create a society that purportedly meets the needs of the poor – sanitation, infrastructure for power and transportation, and more – and how can degrowth offer an alternative? The standard argument is that the industrialized world will have to reign in its exploitive ways so that the global South can catch up. But, in what ways? And how? Some destructive technologies, like coal-fired power plants and petrol-fueled cars, can be leapfrogged like mobile phones did with old copper phone lines, but how can the consumerist temptation be dealt with?

Degrowthers are not oblivious of the necessity to have good answers to these questions – they recognize that they will be irrelevant without a sound program to present on a world stage. And they do have a critical analysis of economic development, and offer alternatives incorporating the commons, grassroots (libratory) technology, cultural integrity and much more. In fact, one could say, given the multiple entries in Degrowth, that the variety of alternative institutions on offer resembles a policy smorgasbord. And some might conclude, not a well-planned meal. While the editors of this compilation prefer to think of the diversity of their essays as a strength, others could see it as a cacophony of themes at cross-purposes leading to incoherence.

Probably the best interpretation is to see degrowth currently in a transitional phase and that the goal is not to develop a grand theory (an ideology of degrowth) but to develop a systematic approach based on common values with a diversity of projects all aiming to overthrowing capitalism. All the contributors to this volume agree on this point: none wants to arrange policy proposals as if they were planks in a party platform. Very likely all would agree that coherency is not dependent upon a rigid set of declarations; coherency resides in establishing first principles that guide policies and programs.

However, there must be some clarity about the formulation of first (foundational) principles – they do not spring from rejecting the dominant premise in some area and opting for its opposite. For example, with unemployment, to call for more jobs reinforces the assumption that full employment – and therefore growth – will address the fundamental issue of the jobless. What’s needed is to recognize that jobs are nothing more than a means to an end – money. Many advocates of degrowth therefore endorse a universal, guaranteed basic income sufficient to provide a modest life-style.

A similar argument could be made regarding the role of money. Relinquishing money as a store of value and implementing it as a means of exchange available to all who wish to support community interactions transforms the money function from a source of inequality to one of egalitarianism. And the same can be said of how the democratic use of resources amongst a clearly defined group – that is a commons – can transform property relations in the same way.

Thinking beyond the capitalist mentality with its fixation on jobs, consumerism and hierarchical organization opens up the subject of expanding the scope of our needs with real satisfiers and not the ersatz ones on offer.

Serge Latouche, a prominent exponent of degrowth in France, elucidates its intellectual origins in a section of Degrowth titled: Imaginary, the Decolonization Of, and in doing so also clarifies the necessity of transformative thinking. Latouche attributes the concept of decolonizing the imaginary to the French radical philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis. Social reality for Castoriadis is formulated by “imaginary significations” by which he means the representations of reality that initiate emotional responses in us. Latouche explains:

If growth and development are beliefs, and therefore imaginary significations like “progress” and all founding categories of the economy, then to get out, to abolish and go beyond them … means that the imaginary must be changed. (Degrowth, 117)

As Latouche writes, we need to change society by first decolonizing our imaginary or otherwise capitalism – or in our circumstances – neoliberalism, will change us, that is warp our sensibilities. Or worse, climate change will extinct us! Quoting Castoriadis, Latouche continues:

[W]hat is required is a new imaginary creation of a size unparalleled in the past, a creation that would put at the center of human life other significations than the expansion of production and consumption, that would lay down different objectives for life, ones that might be recognized by human beings as worth pursuing . . . . Such is the immense difficulty to which we have to face up to. We ought to want a society in which economic values have ceased to be central (or unique), in which the economy is put back in its place as a mere means for human life and not as its ultimate end, in which one therefore renounces this mad race toward ever increasing consumption. That is necessary not only in order to avoid the definitive destruction of the terrestrial environment but also and especially in order to escape from the psychical and moral poverty of contemporary human beings. (Degrowth, 118) [my italics]

Latouche picks up Castoriadis’ emphasis on limiting consumption as an endorsement of degrowth’s major theme. And a few sentences further, Latouche quotes Castoriadis again, “Western man doesn’t believe in anything, except in the fact that he’ll soon be able to buy a high-definition television set.” This remark coincides with Latouche’s note that degrowth is raging a counteroffensive against advertising’s aggression. Yet, to reduce Castoriadis’ concept of the social imaginary to fighting advertising as “the key driver of the growth society” seems odd.

If anyone else had written this article for the book it could be ignored, but given Latouche’s major presence as a degrowth spokesperson (if not founder) and that his essay delineates the praxis of degrowth as opposed to focusing on a specific political theme like many of the other essayists, it needs to be clearly understood.

It must be said immediately that for Latouche to take on advertising as an adversary is like a boxer punching below his ranking. Or is it worse than that? Latouche notes earlier in his piece that we are both agent and victim to the social imaginary that surrounds us and so to take on the admen in the name of the victims, without discussing the complicity of consumers as agents is half-baked. Furthermore, if consumerism can be addictive (as noted earlier, a pathology) then Castoriadis’ ridicule of television viewing is nothing more than a cheap shot that Latouche obviously enjoys.

On the positive side, Castoriadis’ statement that a new social imaginary needs to be created so that the economy is “put back in its place as a mere means for human life and not as its ultimate end” resonates with some of the contributions to Degrowth. More importantly, Latouche offers another quote from Castoriadis: “. . . revolution would require profound changes in the psychosocial structure of people in the Western world, in their attitude toward life, in short, in their imaginary.”

This quote is central to what revolutionary change is all about; unfortunately, Latouche doesn’t pursue this thread and instead spends several paragraphs discusses decolonization of the present imaginary and ‘exiting’ it. But we are left clueless about what is on the other side of the exit. The brief reference to paideïa – the Athenian system of educating its elite for membership in the polis – fails to illuminate the dark side. It simply suggests that with refurbished citizenship and anti-consumerism, degrowth has relevance mainly for the middle classes. For the poor, they have their own degrowth – it’s poverty.

So what to make of Latouche and Castoriadis’ “social imaginary?” What usefulness does it hold for appreciating the necessity for total transformation of our consciousness? Which, in fact, is what this is all about. Social imaginary, using Max-Neef’s criteria, coincides with the ensemble of unique satisfiers that defines a specific culture. Decolonization of the social imaginary then amounts to finding satisfiers that are better suited to meeting our needs. And finding more suitable satisfiers to transform our imaginary isn’t primarily about choosing better ideas, as important as that is, but more significantly, it is living differently!

And here is where the degrowthers fail to inspire. Worse, the editors of this volume collapse into a black hole of muddleheadedness. But to tackle their confusions we need to return to the essay by Onofrio Romano, mentioned earlier, that briefly explicates dépense, and to follow his argument, it will be helpful to understand Bataille’s thinking of dépense as a mythopoeic, or myth-making, formulation.

(End of Part Two, for Part One go here)