Degrowth studies take on degrowth

Liberal capitalism’s greatest strength lies in its ability to absorb, deviate and recuperate everything. We’ve seen it with ecology (MM. Hulot, YAB & Cie). It was against this backdrop that the idea of using the word « degrowth » was born. Since capitalism is based on the accumulation of capital, this concept is virtually irretrievable:  » « Degrowth » must become the truth of all modern socialism, replied Jean- Claude Michéa to L’Humanité on March 15, 2013. This concept invites us to radically question the logic of a world founded, as Marx put it, on the sole necessity to « produce for the sake of producing », and therefore to constantly transgress « all moral and natural limits ». « The problem is that we are gradually moving away from a capitalist regime to one of shortage management. We are thus witnessing a kind of Sovietization of society(1), the consequence of which is the emergence of a nomenklatura in charge of its political implementation. Thus, what was once the clergy of sustainable development, now wrung out, is being recycled into the technocracy of « post-growth ». Its agents are working hard to position themselves in the (green) technocracy of disaster administration(2). Covid gave a glimpse of this mutation. A host of bureaucrats are now hoping to maintain their position by dreaming of themselves as Castex instead of Castex(3). When  » life is more important than anything else[4] », bureaucracy has every power to sacrifice freedoms and enjoy omnipotence. It will do so in the name of safeguarding the health of the planet and its inhabitants, following the example of the Covid episode:  » In short, » explains one of its (eco)technocrats in short pants, « we also need ‘climate containment’[5] ». In the face of freedom-destroying policies, resistance will bring together opposing forces: capitalists who want nothing more than to continue business as usual, to increase their capital, and genuine defenders of freedom.

Our degrowth, synonymous with the rejection of the reign of quantity, will then be turned against itself to legitimize the total reign of numbers and the annihilation of the Word. And so, like political ecology, Ivan Illich’s prophecy is coming true:  » The corruption of the best breeds the worst[6]. « Hence the warnings, already half a century ago, of a giant of degrowth like Bernard Charbonneau:  » Since then, the rising costs of development have spawned the « green movement ». But it too risks being co-opted by the scientific and industrial system. (…) If our species chooses survival, it will be science, following in the footsteps of MIT, that will set the limits that must not be crossed, the nature of the ills and their remedies. It’s not up to an ignorant people to say why the ozone is threatened, or how it can be conserved. And it will be up to the State, its laws and its police to impose the necessary restrictions and constraints. The ecologists will be recycled in two sectors: technocracy and the media spectacle, which allows the deprivation of nature and freedom to be internalized. They’ll fit in laboratories and ministries, energy conservation, major risk preservation, reserve management where what’s left of nature is put under a bell. On TV, they’ll show his reflection. In so doing, they will help save the Earth and the human race by sacrificing their freedom.[7].  »

The European Union, far from the citizens, is the most suitable framework for this drift. Back in the days of the Club of Rome, Eurocrat Sicco Mansholt saw no way of breaking away from growth other than through the supranational nature of the EU. The condition being the desire to  » strengthen its institutions « . The next objective was to be  » better able to impose policy on the rest of the world as well.  » The Mansholt Letter, 1972. Presenting the new edition of this famous missive, the academic Dominique Méd[i]a today drives the point home:  » most of Mansholt’s suggestions remain highly topical. The European Union is the right place to plan the steps towards carbon neutrality, the development of renewable energies […], and the protection of its industry and services. The Green Deal announced in 2019 is the beginning — to be strengthened and deepened — of such a strategy. « The emergence of « degrowth studies » is the tool of this enterprise. The term refers, of course, to gender studies or decolonial studies, with all their associated « woke » ideology. On September 21, 2022, the liberal-libertarian L’Obs, owned by billionaires Messrs. Niel, Pigasse and Kretinsky, enthused with the headline: « Degrowth studies: how degrowth has become an academic field ». This is a clear example of the mainstream media’s hijacking operation. It was the same process 25 years ago, with the crowning of Nicolas Hulot as the official representative of ecology. Degrowth studies provide a version of degrowth purged of everything that might upset the mass media, starting, of course, with its critics. And yet the latter is the prerequisite for any consistent reflection on degrowth, because you can’t access it, let alone work on it, without becoming a de facto soldier of Pfizer, NATO and McKinsey & Company. Unless you’re a service gogo, there’s no « conspiracy » here, just an observation of the interests that own them, and those who serve them. This system does allow for a few divergent opinions, but these exceptions do not invalidate the rule. Anyone who gains access to public discourse through the mainstream media must therefore be considered suspect. 

Secondly, degrowth studies carefully avoid tackling the left flank of the unlimited society, i.e. the dimension of culture and mores. Jean-Claude Michéa’s analyses of the complementarity of economic and cultural liberalism are dismissed, or more likely, combated. With his quanti-frenetic perspective, I would classify Jean-Marc Jancovici under the label of degrowth studies, but his most emblematic current representative is Timothée Parrique. This researcher boasts of having created his own university degree in « degrowth ». While such remarkable authors as philosopher Frédéric Rognon, to take just one example, have been publishing for decades in deafening media silence, Timothée Parrique enjoyed considerable exposure after the publication of a weak first essay from his thesis. Cruel, and most certainly jealous, Pierre Thiesset wrote in our columns: « Armed with his economics thesis on the subject, he became a « researcher in ecological economics » in Sweden, and can now talk about degrowth at the invitation of companies such as EDF, Orange, Airbus and Thalès, at the Ministry of the Economy, at HEC and in the media. In his book Ralentir ou périr (Slow down or perish), he welcomes this development: after the time of the pioneers [comme ce journal] who brought the subject into the public arena, the time has now come for the academy to take control(4). « The journalist from La Décroissance quotes Serge Latouche, interviewed in Kairos, on this subject:  » Ever since degrowth entered the academic world under its transnational name of degrowth and became the subject of scholarly theses, obsessive economists who want to recycle themselves into degrowth have been trying to come up with beautiful econometric models of the link between the regressing capitalist/productivist economy and the expanding convivial anti-economy. The radicalism of the original project thus loses much of its potential and militant appeal, to the benefit of career ambitions.(5) « .

Newly promoted as a « degrowthist » by the owners of the public word, Timothée Parrique proudly promised on a TV set  » convivial degrowth in the countries of the North to enable sustainable development in the countries of the South  » (Arte, March 22, 2023). Which just goes to show that degrowth studies students haven’t got a clue. Their version of degrowth is reduced to a techno-demagogic discourse that empties the word of anything truly subversive. How did degrowth come about? Its « pope », the economist Serge Latouche, has placed at the heart of his persevering and powerful reflection the refusal of the economicization of the world(6). A clever word for rejecting the reign of quantity, i.e. the reduction of the human being to his economic dimension: a producer-consumer whose fulfillment is measured by the increase in GNP, Gross National Product, growth. Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, the North American magazine that inspired Casseurs de pub when it was created, has this provocative formula: You have to kill the economists. « Rest assured, he adds, « metaphorically speaking ». Because first we have to kill the little economist in all of us, or at least put him back in his rightful place: important, but secondary. A master in the art of distortion and recuperation, liberal capitalism will produce a discourse, and agents to carry it forward, to  » subvert what is subversive in degrowth, the possibility of weaning  » and  » turn degrowth against itself(7) « . It’s a question of re-ingurgitating degrowth in the great bath of quantifiability, to turn it around as its best argument. Simply put, while degrowth aims to rehabilitate the notion of limits in order to reclaim the multi-dimensionality of our human condition, degrowth studies uses it to lock us further into a world reduced to numbers. Worse still, by equating degrowth with covidist policies, this movement endorses and theorizes the techno-totalitarianism that the precursors of degrowth have constantly warned against. 

What’s even more piquant is that members of degrowth studies regularly lecture the precursors of degrowth. Admittedly, Gorz, Ellul, Illich and company were very sympathetic, but their thinking had become somewhat dated, and  » the idea was still underdeveloped, especially as regards the economic aspect « . Is our genius in short pants thinking of Emeritus Professor of Economics Serge Latouche? This is, of course, a complete contradiction in terms. As we have explained, if we put the means — consumption, science, technology… — in their rightful place, by refusing to put them in the foreground, we are defending them. Ditto for « the first wave of decline in the 2000s. These authors have no authority in post-2008 [?] scholarship on degrowth. It’s unfair to analyze the concept of degrowth in terms of what it was then, because the concept has evolved since(8).

But it didn’t take long for Timothée Parrique to be rewarded by the system: promoted everywhere, he received the EcoloObs award in the spring of 2023. The young man’s ego is, of course, too intoxicated by the limelight to contemplate thinking against it. The weekly of the bourgeois left nevertheless notes: « When a figure emerges, (…) it generally attracts enmity. Here, nothing (…) « He attacks capitalism, but speaks less of the underlying imaginary, that of productivism, of the excess of thermo-industrial civilization. » To understand this criticism, we need to understand that some degrowthists are worried about the concept being taken over by environmental economics, whose aim is to integrate negative externalities into economic models. « Whereas degrowth is precisely about getting out of the economy, decolonizing our imaginations », explains Vincent Liegey, another French figure in the movement. But it’s one of the only ‘friendly fire’ we can count, and it’s in the bell. » (May 26, 2023). Note that for the mass media, the job is to conceal the existence of La Décroissance, a title that has been on newsstands in France and in 10 other countries for 20 years, initiator of the degrowth debate, and eminent critic of its recuperation by the « Degrowth studies » of which Timothée Parrique is the current star. « A growth model based on fossil fuels is simply obsolete, » trumpeted European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on May 15 at the launch of a conference at the European Parliament entitled « Beyond Growth », to the applause of a cohort of technos, including the inevitable Dominique Méd[i]a.

Places will be at a premium in the administration of the disaster, which, like all good political ventures, will be full of good feelings and indignation. Does this mean we should abandon the word degrowth? Of course not; that would be their greatest victory. The problem is always the same: how we define it. It’s up to us to defend ours.

Vincent Cheynet

Notes et références
  1. En 2022, les dépenses des administrations publiques françaises représentent 58,1 % du produit intérieur brut (PIB), source Insee.
  2. René Riesel et Jaime Semprun, Catastrophisme, administration du désastre et soumission durable, Editions de l’Encyclopédie des Nuisances, 2008.
  3. En voyant ou écoutant ce personnage, je ne peux m’empêcher d’être renvoyé à la logique du roman culte de Robert Merle, La mort est mon métier, 1952.
  4. Gérald Darmanin justifiant les mesures sanitaires, 13 novembre 2020.
  5. Timothée Parrique, Télérama, 6 novembre 2021.
  6. Ivan Illich (1926–2002), La corruption du meilleur engendre le pire, entretiens avec David Cayley, Actes Sud, 2007.
  7. Le système et le chaos — Où va notre société ?, 1973.
  8. La Décroissance, n° 193, octobre 2022.
  9. « 20 ans de décroissance : ébauche d’un bilan », Kairos, n° 55, juin-juillet-août 2022.
  10. C’est-à-dire le réductionnisme consistant à considérer l’humain comme un simple agent économique. Toutefois, je ne rentre pas ici dans le débat entre mon école de pensée et celle de Serge Latouche décrivant l’économie comme une idéologie occidentale dont il faudrait s’affranchir. Je renvoie le lecteur à ses ouvrages.

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