Degrowth as seen by those who are convinced… of growth

Décryptage d’une émission faussement neutre

Can a television channel, whatever it is — RTL, RTBF, TF1… -, which depends partly on the income of advertisers, objectively deal with subjects like voluntary simplicity and degrowth? Is making a program on this theme a sufficient guarantee when, a priori, the two « opposing » parties seem to be fairly represented, giving the impression of a form of impartiality? The decoding of the way in which degrowth is approached in a program leads us to believe that, too often, it can only be presented as a comic caricature.

The media treatment of a subject such as degrowth — questioning growth, one of the foundations of our productivist societies — may seem neutral at first glance when it is the work of a program, Question à la une, which claims to be « conducting the investigation in a spirit of « itching to scratch », in a tone that is both relevant and impertinent, and « with its foot in the door » if necessary(1) « . Yet, the question arises: how could a channel deal with voluntary simplicity in a balanced way? Even though it is abundantly filled with advertisements and lures viewers/consumers into a race for ratings borrowed from the style of the private channel RTL, for which we will dispense with critical arguments as it is a dumping ground — without, of course, assimilating the viewer of the channel to it.

She can’t do it anymore, so she pretends she can. Thus we find in the falsely objective approach chosen by the program the classic tricks of the media treatment of « strangeness »: « how many people in Belgium share the ideas of voluntary simplicity? », the journalist asks in voice-over, while we see on the screen individuals around a table filmed from a point outside the room where the action takes place. In Belgium, » the journalist continues, « it is estimated that half a thousand people officially adhere to the movement; they even form a kind of club »… In this staging, in the words used (« A kind of club », « they estimate »), the strangeness, the abnormality is suggested, voluntarily or not, in the face of a norm taken for granted, on a daily basis, by the RTBF and the media world.(2) . These « abnormals », in the sense of those who refuse and challenge the norm of the consumer society and wish to no longer follow it, are implicitly associated with a sect — a « club » -, or with individuals who must be treated: « here [dans les groupes de parole de simplicité volontaire]They tell the story of their journey of simplicity, a bit like Alcoholics Anonymous, » explains the journalist. However, if the voluntary simplicity groups claim to use methods like those used in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, the journalist plays on this ambiguity by not specifying that the similarity is between the two groups in terms of the types of organizations, and not in terms of the reasons that lead individuals to participate. From the outset, simplicits and other degraders seem to require a cure.

« it doesn’t bother you, it’s contradictory anyway? »

In this approach to degrowth, we also find the attempts to discredit that we frequently encounter, in particular the one that looks for the slightest hint of « incoherence »: « But what is this coconut doing here? », asks the journalist with affected ingenuity to a representative of voluntary simplicity who shows her the contents of his fridge. « In this food, answers this one, one appreciates also rather well some exotic fruits, of which the coconuts « …  » which travelled!  » resumes the journalist. « That have traveled, quite, and then here some olives that have traveled from Spain to here ». « That doesn’t bother you, it’s contradictory anyway? » the journalist intones in a well-known refrain. This is the great attack on the individual level that is repercussed on the degrowth and voluntary simplicity movements, and tries to make them lose all credibility, as if one had to be completely clean before washing oneself. You would own two cars in your household, fly several times a year to an exotic place, consume without questioning everything you are offered in the supermarket… there, conforming to the norm, you would not be reproached. The questioning of the consumerist system and the attempts to escape as much as possible from its grip would require a kind of perfection, an absence of contradiction; to be completely and absolutely coherent. But this tacit injunction eludes the reality of the problem we all face: we cannot completely and at once leave the mode of society that is imposed on us, and this false possibility creates the illusion of the supreme argument that discredits all contestation.

If coherence implies the union of the behaviors of the individual with his ideas contrary to the dominant system, having no incidence on the global functioning of this system, he cannot be totally foreign to it. Some people, faced with the impossibility of being « perfect », push the opposition experiments as far as possible, and are then qualified as radicals, even extremists. Thus, radicality is too often measured in terms of a minority acting differently from the mass, rather than in terms of certain moral values and decency. In this framework, we do not question the values carried by the dominant thought — consumption, cars, junk food, individualization, commodification of everything, society of the spectacle, competition and competition… -, taken as ideologically neutral, but only the deviation from this majority norm maintained by the media discourse.

The norm imposed on us is not abnormal for those who accept it, just as the journalist, acting as an individual, is subject to normative constraints. By adopting this cinematographic approach, he only responds to a dominant social logic that he reproduces and that has for him a character of obviousness, persuaded that he acts freely « with the foot in the door, if it is necessary ».

When the journalist states in voice-over: « obviously, Claire and Antoine do not lack resources, so why settle for a yurt? », the explanation of those concerned cannot escape the full power of symbolic domination that lies in the questioning — the force of which is expressed in terms like « lack » and « settle ». To ask the question is to state in filigree a second, implicit answer, the one dictated by our lifestyles and the dominant ideology: having resources, synonymous in this question with having money, necessarily implies adopting the comfortable and modern way of life as society defines what is comfortable and modern. In this standard, yurts, straw houses, domes, no car … simplicity, are lacking and are not justified if, in addition, we have the « resources ». If we don’t have them within reach, we will go into debt.

Any presentation of « off-system » actions refers, implicitly or not, to the power of the logic of the dominant system from which individuals try to escape. It is therefore never the dominant system that will be questioned in the light of the counter-examples that are put up against it, but these counter-examples that will be dismantled in the light of the dominant system; and the silent majority that results from this will have the value of sufficiency, and therefore the value of an argument in itself. The research will therefore not take the form of a questioning but of an interrogation where the individual will have to explain what he is and justify himself. In this test, any proven contradiction will implicitly nullify any basis for dissent to the dominant system. For example: since wage labor has a hegemonic place in the dominant neoliberal ideology, it is not insignificant that the journalist sharply challenges a member of a grouped habitat in the middle of an answer with a « do you work! », a « no » having undoubtedly offered her a golden « proof ».

- Arnsperger Christian: « I’m just trying to say what I think we should all do. »

- Reporter: « But that you don’t do either! »

- A.C.: « That I don’t do more than the others because we are very, very far in the other direction.

The interview with Christian Arnsperger, an academic and growth objector, takes the form of an indictment in which the interviewee has to show his total good will, which would prove his coherence. Faced with this impossibility of perfect coherence, the journalist can continue her interview and use a less accusatory questionnaire, given that the interviewee is already established in his incoherent position: « He may be in the system, but what Christian Arnsperger is advocating is a real revolution (voice-over).

The growth experts of degrowth

No questioning on the other hand on the way of life of the boss of the stock exchange Vincent Van Dessel (VVD), since this last one adopts the one, in the style high-standing decomplexed, that legitimizes and advocates the capitalist society. No need to ask him about his ecological footprint, his golf practice: « I discovered golf first in Keerbergen, near Mechelen, then in Zoute(3) « He is not « in the system », but he is in the system, and for good. You will only find coherences, which he will create even, and especially, by working in the objective world with his « friends doctors, notaries or entrepreneurs, (…) bosses of the BEL20 (…) To this band of « knokkois buddies » is added one or the other banker whom he knows well »… that of the beautiful world, fanatical of the growth, the improvement of their standard of living, the increase of their income and the hunting of the unemployed. The RTBF will therefore establish him as an economic expert — just as it routinely establishes the chief economist of Bank Degroof as a tutor for Première listeners, as does Le Soir, which frequently calls on his services.

- Journalist: « So, sweet dreamers the followers of voluntary simplicity? Here we are at the Brussels Stock Exchange, Vincent Van Dessel has been the boss for 2 years (…) According to V.V.D. encouraging degrowth equals « attention danger » (A bell rings) « :
— Vincent Van Dessel: « Degrowth is something that exists regularly. When we talk about crisis, we are actually talking about a period of « mini-decrease »; we are already talking about crisis, so you can imagine what it would be like if it was a big decrease ».

Recalling, if necessary, by the introductory expression « sweet dreamer » — a bias that once again assimilates the decreasing enterprise to something not very credible(4) ‑The journalist immediately places the interviewee in the role of a certified expert and defines the scope of the investigation and its two positions: the slob and his lifestyle; the expert and his expertise. We will offer elsewhere some counter arguments to the totally erroneous and unhealthy presentation in this period of crisis called to upset for ever this religious growth, totally false presentation therefore of the degrowth(5).

Journalist: « What does that mean exactly? »
— VDD: « It means that we are in a 1929 situation on an extreme scale. This means that we create unemployment, we reduce employment, we have people on the street, we have revolution, we have no more income(6).  »

Festival of ready-made thinking:
— Journalist: « Is it reasonable to demonize growth(7)? At the FEB, the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium, we meet Isabelle Callens, the in-house expert on the economy; growth is one of the reasons for the existence of companies, so here, we prefer to talk about the benefits of the system, such as globalization ».

« Diabolize » on the one hand, « reasonable » on the other; « To turn into a devil. To make pass for diabolical, to present in an unfavorable light » on the one hand, « who thinks according to reason, behaves with good sense and measure, in a thoughtful manner » on the other, according to the Petit Robert. All the subjectivity of one opposed to the objectivity of the other.

- Isabelle Callens: « Globalisation has had positive effects on the quality of life of people, we even look at indicators of training, level of education, level of health. Since we have globalization and access to all these resources, since there is an exchange of goods, there has been an increase in these basic indicators; I’m talking about life expectancy, people’s health, level of education. So in the long term, it brings all these things together.

- journalist: « consume less, produce less, and consequently put less people to work, that Isabelle Callens does not believe »
(The neoliberal call to order rings out, the same as with VDD)

- I.C: « I don’t understand how we can continue to support a social security system that is already in jeopardy now, by putting fewer people to work. That I can’t understand. No, but if we don’t pay taxes, we can’t pay the nurses, the teachers, our roads are already in a terrible state, how are we going to pay them, how are we going to pay our civil servants(8)? All our ministers that we need to negotiate (sic), to… I don’t know.

Voice-over: « How to pay our ministers to negotiate, a detail that our simplicits probably haven’t thought of. They are far too busy promoting the simple life » …

The journalist will not explain to us that the goal of capitalism is to increase productivity gains, and thus to reduce as much as possible the share of human wage labor; nor will she explain to us that the social security system continues to be the leitmotiv while social benefits are sacrificed on the altar of growth; nor will she tell us that there can be something other than wage labor and consumerism. Let’s ask the more than one billion poor people, losers of globalization; the Greeks, where the theater of desolation is played out, a place where the bankers and their government acolytes experiment with the worst policies. The journalist will not tell us that all this is not a matter of belief — « Isabelle Callens hardly believes in it.

Giving the illusion of impartiality by interviewing both parties, the program disregards the constancy of a context favorable to the lauders of growth.

In general, we will not be surprised by the caricature offered, if we keep in mind that a television channel, or any other commercial media, is part of a hegemonic commercial society, which strongly determines what it can say and not say, the limits not to be exceeded and the relevant impertinences.

Does RTBF, as a public channel of general interest subsidized by the citizen, have the possibility to describe more objectively and consistently alternative experiences, other ways than those of the consumer society, to get out of the fashion effect, without opposing the advertisers head on?

Alexandre Penasse


Notes et références
  1. Émission de la RTBF du mercredi 21 septembre 2011 : « Peut-on survivre sans consommer» ?
  2. C’est-à-dire que nous pensons que même si une émission de ce type pouvait contenir des éléments objectifs, on ne peut faire abstraction du fait qu’elle s’inscrit dans une grille de programme, c’est-à-dire dans un contexte prégnant en complète contradiction avec ces éléments : elle est donc un moment critique qui, même paraissant sortir du cadre accepté de la contestation, y reste tant cet «instant» se noie dans le flot continu d’une idéologie véhiculée constamment.
  3. Les citations proviennent d’un article en ligne : « Le réseau du patron de la Bourse de Bruxelles »‑l…
  4. Il faudrait, pour se faire une idée du contexte particulier qui permet à la journaliste d’appeler ainsi les adeptes de la simplicité volontaire, imaginer la journaliste utiliser cette même expression pour qualifier le patron de la bourse.
  5. Notamment cette confusion volontairement entretenue entre décroissance subie dans une société de croissance et le projet de la décroissance. « Le mot “décroissance” ne doit pas être pris pour la négation de la croissance, la croissance négative ; il constitue un slogan provocateur pour casser la langue de bois de la mythologie productiviste (…) la décroissance renvoie à une sortie de la société de consommation ». Serge Latouche, Vers une société d’abondance frugale, édition Mille et un nuits, p.32.
  6. Crise de 29 dont les hérauts du néolibéralisme usent comme épouvantail alors qu’eux-mêmes modifieraient leur comportement s’ils en avaient tiré les vraies conséquences. Le lecteur visionnera avec intérêt à ce sujet : «1929», de William Karel, reportage qui relate plus objectivement ce que fut cette crise.
  7. Imaginons à nouveau que la journaliste inverse la proposition : « diaboliser la décroissance, est-ce bien raisonnable ».
  8. En demeurant dans la logique d’une société de croissance, Isabelle Callens a raison sur ce point, même si elle ne reconnaîtrait certainement pas la révolution que cette connaissance implique. La social-démocratie s’est construite sur la croissance et les contreparties accordées au monde du travail ont empêché une nécessaire révolution socialiste qui aurait alors dû avoir lieu pour sortir le prolétariat de la misère.

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