What we have defined as « convivial poverty » should be the global norm, given the unsustainability of the Western way of life. To do this, we must first recall that, on the one hand, economic and social development is often a vital necessity for populations that have not reached the level of the average ecological footprint that is sustainable for humanity, but that, on the other hand, development is not only economic and can also be social or cultural. It is therefore necessary to differentiate between the notion of growth, which is quantitative, and that of development, which should be more qualitative. It is thus possible to decrease quantitatively, while developing qualitatively education, culture, services, health… bringing from the outset an anticipated answer to those who constantly argue, in front of the term of « decrease », of the impossibility to decrease everything.
Basic needs, self-development and cultural identity, interdependent and synergistic, are, according to Roy Preiswerk, the three principles of a social development project(1). By meeting the basic needs of the population, for example by stimulating the production of food crops, by providing basic education, by meeting local needs before following international demand, the country becomes more autonomous and can ensure its long-term growth. The satisfaction of basic needs puts people’s expectations and their rights at the center of development, and cultural identity is thus promoted, because it takes into consideration needs that are not only material. The focus on this satisfaction is one of the foundations of degrowth, insofar as the latter seeks to create a society where essential needs are satisfied, but where individuals know how to self-limit their needs(2)The aim is to develop a « happy sobriety » (Rabbi) in a world where material resources are limited.
Development based on « self-reliance » means, in a way, a more endogenous or self-focused development based on domestic resource development efforts (through people’s participation in particular) and the country’s own knowledge. By building on the grassroots and not on the elites (often trained abroad in « developing countries »), development can take into account people’s expectations and thus meet their basic needs, notes Roy Preiswerk, and focus government attention on people’s core concerns. Each people, by developing its specific qualities, can make emerge or find in its culture, its identity, its own « genius ». Appropriate technology can be a means of discovering specific techniques or adapting outside technologies to the country’s needs. Cultural identity is strengthened through improved education, the use of the mother tongue in textbooks and by teachers, and the use of local human skills… Finally, the recognition of traditions promotes the unity of the country and is beneficial for social cohesion.
We have just briefly described the virtuous circle formed by these three pillars of local and national development. But, taken to excess, the mechanism can become a destructive spiral where self-reliance becomes a sclerosing autarky, cultural identity a nationalism with an exacerbated pastism, and the satisfaction of basic needs becomes once again a means of preserving the privileges of the richest. Vigilance and discernment remain necessary when relying on these three pillars of « development ».
In reality, this model of development, from which « selective degrowth » is now inspired, depends more on the obstacles to be removed in order to achieve it than on the truly new solutions to be discovered. Roy Preiswerk points out that the definition of the most appropriate dissociative strategy (such as self-reliance) for each particular case must be based on the available resources, ecological conditions and economic situation of the community concerned. Moreover, these sets of assumptions represent only an archetype, since some countries that do not strictly follow this model manage to develop well. » Basic needs strategies exist in combination with self-reliance (China) as well as independently (Taiwan). There are cases of dissociation without satisfaction of basic needs (Haiti) as well as cases of association without satisfaction of basic needs (the most frequent case). »(3). Based on this reference model, each country should find its own development path, choosing to focus on one of the three poles, according to its own situation.
The approach based on basic needs and appropriate technologies (autonomy and cultural identity) must not lead to a two-tier system. We can see that if the development of appropriate technology still raises great hopes, it also shows its limits, especially in the field of health and traditional medicine, which is one of its manifestations. The risk of all schemes that seek to meet the needs of populations in the short term and in a realistic way, is to drift into a two-tier social system, i.e. a system where the richest benefit from, for example, state-of-the-art medicine, while the others are content to survive with a discounted medicine. In order to avoid a two-tier health system, a complete revolution in society will have to be undertaken. This can happen either through the sum of small reforms (the reformist method of small but real steps) or through a rapid and radical transformation aiming at the redistribution of wealth within the framework of limited non-renewable resources.
In the neoliberal capitalist system, the richest manage to satisfy their secondary needs, which hinders the satisfaction of the priority needs of the poorest. The strategy of basic needs thus supposes a change in the values and laws on which our capitalist market economy is based. The basic needs strategy can challenge some of the principles of this system by introducing certain limits and rules to protect the weakest. On the other hand, it can lock the capitalist system by institutionalizing the division of society and the system of exploitation, depending on whether its application is partial or global. That is to say that selective degrowth can be a socialist and redistributive degrowth or a neo-liberal capitalist degrowth where only the poorest decrease so that the richest can continue their growth longer. And indeed, when the richest classes agree to redistribute a tiny part of their resources, it is usually to prevent the poorest from revolting.
Chombart de Lauwe shows well how the Marxist analysis of the needs in the context of the consumer society is today of a particular topicality: « what Marx calls bestialization is the reduction of the needs of the worker to the conservation of the physical life »(4). The basic needs strategy can nevertheless lay the foundation for a new political philosophy. It can allow men to change their values, preferring the values of the being to the market values. Erich Fromm writes in his book To have or to be that « the new man will privilege being over having ». The choice that humanity will make between these two modes of existence depends on its very survival, according to Erich Fromm. For our world is more and more dominated by the passion of having, concentrated on acquisitiveness, material power, aggressiveness, whereas only the mode of being, based on love, the pleasure of sharing meaningful and fruitful activities, would save it(5).
Gandhi, while being a Hindu, was inspired by the Christian heritage and wanted to give more ethics to development policies. He emphasizes the need to rely on values such as detachment from non-essential needs, adopting a life based on simplicity, and revaluing practical activities (appropriate technology). In this sense, the strategy of basic needs is close to Gandhi’s philosophy, because he considers that when basic needs are satisfied, man should not seek to increase them, but to develop the inner, social and spiritual needs. It is therefore necessary to avoid the development of a religion, « opium of the people », as Marx denounced it, which ratifies a two-tier social system. But, on the other hand, certain social, philosophical or spiritual principles can contribute to changing our vision of the world and to placing equity and ethics among the essential values of our society.
The strategy of basic needs, which is one of the principles of degrowth, will probably make it possible to establish a system that is just, if it allows a better redistribution of resources and rights. However, the limits of a development policy based on basic needs are numerous. The very definition of this notion poses problems: how to define precisely what is to be considered essential and non-essential? Any definition that is too categorical risks falling into the trap of the subjectivity of one’s own culture and personal values.
To remain egalitarian, the ecology of poverty must avoid the drifts of the neo-liberal charity model or the welfare state model of social democracy. In both cases, the needs of the poorest are more or less taken into account, but this creates a two-tier society. That is, the gap between the rich and the very poor classes remains perpetually very large. Limiting this gap therefore implies organizing society on the basis of a system that tends towards the flattest possible « pyramid » between socio-economic classes, i.e. a relatively small gap between the highest and lowest incomes and wealth.
SOBRIETY AS AN EXAMPLE
People from the working classes who manage to « live well » are those who have sufficient or adapted cultural and/or social capital, despite the ideological pressure of the consumer society. They are thus developing lifestyles based on « happy sobriety ». They are thus examples for the richest. These popular cultures, the cultures of the poor and the traditional cultures, should therefore not be considered as subcultures and be subject to opprobrium by the elites. Rather, they should be placed on the same level as the dominant cultures by being respected at their true value, i.e. as different cultures, but of equal or even superior level on certain points. The perspective is thus no longer only relativistic but also egalitarian. The classes with high cultural and economic capital, who are becoming aware of this, such as the bourgeois-bohemians, are beginning to copy some of the lifestyles of the working classes, even if there is sometimes an inconsistency between their values, their discourse and their practices (unlike the « bohemians » or the « happy poor » who manage to live in true happy sobriety and therefore have a more sustainable ecological footprint). The behavioral changes of « active minorities » can contribute to transforming the values of society by changing the lifestyles and consumption patterns of the dominant classes. This will inevitably have repercussions on other social classes who generally seek to imitate them.
When the working classes despise their traditional practices, values and know-how, they consider themselves as dominated or backward classes. This leads individuals from the working classes to seek to imitate the wealthier classes who seek to make a success of their lives through materialistic pursuits. Without a strong cultural identity (and not a warlike nationalism), without the satisfaction of basic needs and without a certain economic autonomy, there can be no sustainable social, economic and ecological development.
An attitude is based on values that when systematized and generalized becomes a policy. There is thus a balance to be found between two excessive attitudes towards poverty, which become two types of liberal policy orientations. On the one hand, there is the classic charitable attitude of equating poverty and happy sobriety with material and psychological misery, while stigmatizing the poor. Either by pitying them for their way of life, this is the more or less charitable attitude. Either by considering that they are responsible for this misery and therefore deserve it. This is the liberal capitalist policy.
The opposite excessive attitude is the naive idealist attitude. It consists in magnifying poverty by imagining that it would systematically promote a lifestyle based on happy sobriety. However, it is often synonymous with misery, i.e. the failure to satisfy essential physical, material and social needs, as well as psychological frustrations. The naive idealistic attitude can lead, voluntarily or not, to the liberal decreasing policy. It consists in advocating a degrowth for the poor, so that they can drain as little as possible of the non-renewable resources, so that the richest can continue as long as possible to grow, to consume and to bombast. This leads to a two-tier society in social, economic and ecological terms, in which the poorest would only be able to satisfy their basic needs ad infinitum, without closing the gap with the richest. This is an injustice in terms of economic equality, but also ecological, because non-renewable resources are limited in time.
Between these excesses, which are the charitable attitude leading to a liberal policy on the one hand, and on the other hand, the naive, manipulative or instrumentalized idealistic attitude leading to a liberal degrowth policy, there is a third way, that of the social policy of happy sobriety or ecosocialist degrowth. This attitude is based on the values of voluntary simplicity including a policy of redistribution of wealth and environmental justice, the latter consisting of creating laws that allow for the preservation of the environment without prioritizing the poorest. This consists in favouring, for example, systems of equal quotas of the right to consume and pollute per individual, rather than eco-taxes that put greater pressure on the economically poorest people.
- Preiswerk Roy,in IUE : Il faut manger pour vivre…Controverses sur les besoins fondamentaux et le développement, PUF, 1980, p 132.
- Castoriadis Cornélius, Les Carrefours du Labyrinthe, vol ? I à V, Seuil, 1996,vol. IV p. 137.
- Preiswerk, (1980 : 180 ; 153).
- Chombart De Lauwe P.H.., La culture et le pouvoir, Denoël, 1969, p 119.
- Fromm Erich, Avoir ou Être ? Ed. Robert Laffont, 1978, p. 170.