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The theme of the 21st Congress of Economists — « Growth: realities and perspectives  » — could only arouse my curiosity and perhaps reassure me: finally the question is percolating in people’s minds. The event took place at the University of Liège on November 26, in the presence of about 250 people from the academic, political, business and association sectors. Everyone received the proceedings the same day, a copious volume of 721 pages where econometrics occupies an important place, which has everything to discourage the laymen in economics… 

The three opening speeches are a festival of eco-technocratic logomachy: « new models of development », « restoration of the environment », « sustainable production and consumption », « recycling of metals », « technological leap » and even worse « ethical growth ». It starts badly, but fortunately the inaugural conference of the media Daniel Cohen reassures me. His latest essay Le monde est clos et le désir infini (published by Albin Michel) certainly opens a breach in the economist ready-to-think, and debunks faith in growth, but the degrowthist that I am remains hungry. For the French economist seems to want to distinguish himself from the mainstream while remaining within the bounds. Nevertheless, it is not enough to move them back a few dozen meters to fully convince. His erudition regularly leaves his discipline to touch sociology and philosophy, thus he compares the death of growth to the Nietzschean death of God. He questions industrialism, a « world of increasing returns » and a hierarchical system advocating enrichment, preferring a post-industrialism where horizontality would mark a certain return to the emancipatory ideal of the Enlightenment. According to him, the consumer society of the 21st century is presented in three « silos »: after-sales service, health and information and communication technologies (ICT). I’m glad I learned some things, but I’m not sure what Cohen is getting at, especially in his ambivalent relationship to ICT and the Technological Singularity. Too pragmatic? or too dreamy? 

It is then time to move on to the work in four commissions: Growth: what past, what future? Which instruments for which growth? Can we reconcile growth and environment? Which economy in a post-growth era? I decided to join the latter, led by Isabelle Cassiers (UCL) and Kevin Boulanger (ULB). Eight speakers present their point of view: Dominique Méda, Bernard Perret, Thomas Bauwens, Sybille Mertens, Stephan Kampelmann, Olivier De Schutter, Eloi Laurent and Géraldine Thiry by video-conference. A group of Belgian and French academics convinced of the impasses of growth and its alienating effects. Where can we find a way to save ourselves? For example, in the mesoeconomy, halfway between the macro and the micro, where emergent properties may arise. What to aim for? Autonomy, but we don’t get to the bottom of the question; for example, should we continue to be autonomous from nature? An opponent of growth, D. Méda nevertheless pretends to ignore the existence of the degrowth movement. His critique seems to me to be bleached, even if his proposal to replace productivity gains — which are doomed in the long run — by quality and sustainability gains is attractive. The intervention of E. Laurent is a qualitative leap. We need to change the narrative, he says, because not only is stagnant growth recognized by liberal economists, but it has exhausted its meaning and substance. However, the game is not yet won, because the powers that be are trying to revive the growth megamachine by means of four strategies: the return of Keynesianism (among the good guys), ICTs (among the technoptimists), the hypertrophy of the market sphere (among the pragmatic-cynics like Emmanuel Macron) and inequalities (among the downright bad guys). Laurent wants to find well-being and sustainability beyond growth. By reminding us of the relocalization dear to the décroissants, Th. Bauwens and S. Mertens call for local actions to address global problems. B. Perret speaks of demarketing. The only false note in this commission is that St. John’s is the only one that has not yet been approved. Kampelmann endorses two fashionable scams, the circular economy and, worse, the third industrial revolution, Jeremy Rifkin’s cherished marionette sold to European governments. I remind the participants of the indispensable and rapid decrease in the flow of materials, energy and information. K. Boulanger seems to be in favor of this idea, but unfortunately time constraints do not allow for a collective discussion of my point of view. 

The closing plenary session begins with the reports of the commissions’ work. The ideas are more or less interesting — growth doesn’t need to be stopped, it will happen by itself; without labor productivity, there is no growth — or absurd — IPAT would be a « too simple » model — or even smoky or dangerous — betting on techniques that don’t exist yet, recourse to the circular economy, to the economy of functionality, to industrial ecology. Minister Jean-Claude Marcourt arrives at the podium. His speech is a model of political rhetoric, asking pertinent questions… while carefully avoiding answering them. Also his assertions: « growth is not an objective in itself », « we must reinvent our model of society », « change the framework » and even « share the work ». After the ointment comes the acid: technical progress is a growth factor, and the Minister’s Digital Plan is an « opportunity for Wallonia ». Mr. Marcourt will not forget either the demagogic argument of health, the « opportunities of economic competitiveness », the creativity « which must be multiplied », and cites the list of innovative Walloon companies. Unfortunately! In contrast, Eloi Laurent gives the final note with a very interesting lecture, a comparison of the Chinese and American economies. The good news from this conference is that no one dares to praise the farce of the free and self-regulating market anymore. The consensus is for a market economy better regulated by public authorities. Has pure neoliberalism had its day? If so, how can we explain the fact that, in reality, austerity policies remain more than ever the norm in the European Union? Would the oligarchy remain deaf to what seems to represent a current more and more present in the field of the economy? Who will win? Neither laissez faire nor regulatory governance, let’s make it anti-productivism. 

Bernard Legros

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