Homo consumens

Les conditions anthropologiques de la décroissance

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Ihe question is no longer whether it is desirable to reduce our consumption of material resources: the answer is that we must. How to achieve this is more difficult. To respond, we must first accept the challenge. This is not only economic; it is cultural, and so integrated that, becoming naturalized, it becomes almost anthropological.

No one better than Max Weber has described this anthropological foundation of classical liberal capitalism and its associated ideology of infinite growth. The beginning of the 20th century is, it is true, a particularly propitious time. Weber wrote his Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism while still looking at the traditional pre-capitalist society. Moreover, at the beginning of the 20th century, the working class was gradually integrated into capitalism; the first social laws were passed under Bismarck in the 1880s and 1890s. At the same time, the inadequacy of a critique of liberal capitalism that is limited to a denunciation of the inequalities between owners of capital and non-owners — those who live « day by day », as it was then called, and who must find work to live. This criticism is not false, Weber tells us. But it does not go to the heart of the civilizational malaise of which capitalism is the cause.

But what is this uneasiness? Weber does not share the thesis that Protestantism encourages a materialistic spirit better suited to the demands of the capitalist world. This interpretation is simplistic and incorrect; Weber explicitly refutes it. Weber’s originality is rather to describe the capitalist mentality oriented towards the accumulation of profit as an asceticism or a discipline. This rule of life to which the individual sacrifices his existence imposes on him, at all times, to deploy his efforts towards accumulation. « Time is money », « money that sleeps is money that is lost »: those who succeed in capitalism follow maxims that make them a machine for calculating their interest.

Remarkably, it is not the unbridled search for pleasure that is at the root of capitalism. We are not here in the worlds of Mandeville or Smith, where the entire economic system is based on selfish desire: the foundation here is the monomaniacal devotion to making one’s initial capital bear fruit. There is no permanent, voracious and hedonistic search for satisfaction of personal interests. There is an asceticism, a self-sacrifice. The capitalist is not descended from the reveler; he is descended from the monk: « The Protestant Reformation brought rational Christian asceticism and its methodical rule of life out of the convents and exported it to professional life, imposing on every Christian the obligation to be a monk throughout his life. » To be good Protestants and therefore good capitalist agents, we must forget to live, devote all our energy to earning more, to accumulating more.

Weber’s thesis is perfectly compatible with the idea, put forward a few years earlier by Georg Simmel in his Philosophy of Money, according to which money expresses « the totality of goals »: a universal fungible, money can therefore be related to any end that the individual might wish to pursue, since it is in principle only a means of acquiring what makes it possible to achieve the ends that each person sets for himself. But this remarkable property is also what constitutes its danger: with the monetarization of the economy, not only can the specialization of tasks and the division of labor be accentuated beyond the reciprocal provision of services in the form of barter, but also the door is opened to infinite accumulation. The accumulation of money leaves open the question of the individual’s ends, thus not obliging him to make a definitive statement about his ultimate goals: as long as he is hoarding, in view of a future he is preparing for and to which he is sacrificing his present, he is allowed not to make a statement about the kind of existence he wants to lead. This hoarding, this accumulation, is therefore also a convenient way to compensate for a lack of imagination: if one accumulates, it is because one does not know how to spend. We wander aimlessly through life: so let’s accumulate, because one day we may know what to do with the money we have collected.

Thus Weber emphasizes the socially constructed dimension of the capitalist mentality. Man is not naturally obsessed with material accumulation, he tells us in substance: it is society and in this case the Protestant mentality, the asceticism that it promotes and expects from everyone, that forces individuals to sacrifice themselves to this unexciting task of earning money. One loses one’s life, of course, but society leaves no other choice. Because getting out of the capitalist mindset poses a problem of collective action: nobody can do it alone. Borrowing from Darwin the idea of natural selection, Weber clearly puts forward that the individual who would not play the game, who would refuse to waste his life to make his capital grow as well as possible, would be eliminated by economic competition. It is therefore necessary to take collective action, action by society on itself, to get out of the cage.

A capitalism without consumers

The reconstruction proposed by Weber (may I be forgiven this blasphemy) also has two major flaws. First, the consumption dimension is almost absent. Weber draws a similarity between the capitalist entrepreneur and the monk, both obsessed with the manic and endless quest for a life without pleasures. But Weber shows us a capitalism without consumers: his picture lacks a major element.

Yet, this element, Weber was close to putting forward. This is especially the case where he examines the transition from the « traditionalist » mentality to the « capitalist » mentality. In contrast to capitalist thinking, traditionalist thinking is one in which, once one’s basic needs are met, one no longer seeks to increase one’s earnings, but rather to reduce one’s investment in work. So it is with the farm laborer who, when the piecework wage is increased, does not work more in order to take advantage of the windfall, but on the contrary stops working once he has reached what he could be satisfied with before this increase: « The laborer paid 1 mark to mow one acre, who had hitherto mowed two and a half acres a day and thus earned 2.5 marks daily, did not, as had been expected, begin to mow three acres to take advantage of the opportunity for additional earnings when the wage per acre was increased by 25 pfennigs: Instead of earning 3.75 marks — which would have been perfectly possible — he only mowed two acres a day, because he earned 2.5 marks as before and was satisfied with that, as it says in the Bible.

Weber comments on this example in the following terms: the additional gain that the worker could have made, he says, « attracted him less than the reduction of his work; he did not ask himself how much he could earn per day by doing the maximum amount of work, but what work he had to do to earn the sum — 2.5 marks — that he had been receiving up to that point and which covered his traditional needs. Individuals who are still caught up in traditionalist thinking aim to live, and only secondarily, as a means of existence, to make money; individuals who have adopted the capitalist mentality devote their lives to making money. In order for capitalism to flourish, it is necessary to inculcate this mentality, to educate the initially resistant masses.

Weber is puzzled by this irrational behavior. Who are these individuals who do not respond to incentives, who are not driven by greed, who are so un-« economic »? Weber could have gone further down this path and added this: for capitalism to work, it must make people want to consume more, to give them the taste for more. For these workers, 3 marks were enough. They wanted to preserve time for spending, family, entertainment and rest. Weber could have said: capitalism, in order to survive, must blur the border between need and desire. It must create artificial needs so that the worker chooses to work more and more.

At the same time that Weber was elaborating his Protestant Ethics, America discovered an iconoclastic author, an unclassifiable economist, the son of Norwegian peasants: in 1899, Thorstein Velben published his Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he demonstrated the importance of conspicuous consumption. The consumer consumes the superfluous, buys luxury goods to send a signal to everyone about his social status, « to attract and keep the esteem of men », says Veblen. But this only concerns the pecuniary upper class, as he calls it: the upper middle class. This is the opposite of the mass consumption that we have known for half a century in our country. In Veblen’s world, it is to distinguish oneself, not to imitate, that one consumes in an ostentatious manner, just as the « m’as-tu-vu » do. Is the occultation of the dimension of consumption in Weber’s work due to the fact that, at the time of the emergence of capitalism, consumption was not yet mass consumption?

The commodification of the world

There is another unthought in Weber: he did not associate the emergence of capitalism with the commodification of the world, the transformation of all goods and services into objects of exchange. Here again, although he misses this dimension of emerging capitalism, Weber comes close. In a passage from Economy and Society, which he published in 1922 in the wake of his Protestant Ethics, he imagines how capitalism could have come into being. At the beginning, he says, the relationships of individuals to each other were regulated by tradition; the market world was immobile and relatively unchanging. But suddenly the son of a textile merchant who, instead of doing what his father and grandfather always did, goes to the cotton producer and his customers to try to maximize the gain all along the chain: he wants better quality cotton, larger quantities, and to better satisfy the tastes of the customers to attract more of them to him (we would say today: « increase his market share ») If only one of them takes it into his head to make progress in this way, all the others will be obliged to imitate him and transform their way of producing fabric, to increase their profit margins in order to support this new competition. When Weber says that capitalism is a constant search for profit, he forgets to add that it requires scrutinizing everyday life as much as possible to see how to make more profit. Everything that can be made profitable by being put into circulation in the commercial circuit is bound to become merchandise.

« It is no longer a question of whether it is desirable to reduce our consumption of material resources: the answer is that we must.

This progressive commodification is the dominant theme of Karl Polanyi’s major work, The Great Transformation, which appeared in 1944. He shows how labor, land and money gradually became commodities. Colonialism, he denounces, was also a way to expand into new territories, to turn them into captive markets. Today, this commodification of the world has become so commonplace that we are hardly surprised when it emerges in new manifestations: students rent out their foreheads as advertising space; agencies rent out the services of housekeepers who perform nude for a higher fee; the advice we used to seek from grandparents has become the market for professional therapists. Nothing, it seems, can escape this commodification that has become limitless: the dikes are broken.

Here, then, are Weber’s two unthinkables: the need to encourage greater consumption in order for liberal capitalism to be sustained, and the need to expand the market sphere. But these two unthinkables are precisely the two major aporias of our capitalist system. As Marx clearly saw, capitalism runs the risk of a crisis due to overproduction if it does not develop solvent markets that can absorb the excess production. But at the same time, this growth cannot be infinite, because it comes up against the limits of the planet’s capacities. The first contradiction was answered by mass consumption; in doing so, the second contradiction was accentuated and not answered.
This is where we are. We have built two prisons: one for the producer, the other for the consumer. They are closely dependent on each other. The producer’s, as Weber saw it well, forces each economic agent to be at least as productive as the immediate competitor in an endless race towards maximum profitability, on pain of disappearing. It is an irrational race; it is a source of misfortune and lost lives. The trap has closed: perform or die.

And then there is, in mirror, the cage of the consumer: trapped too, he defines his social being by what he buys. He is part of the destructive process of plundering the planet’s resources, although this complicity can sometimes disgust him. He is the plaything of objects, of which he has become the slave.

But we have lost the keys to these cages, these penal colonies for producers and consumers. They are imposed by the system, by what Weber calls « the cosmos of the modern economic order. They are not the results of a mythical human nature oriented towards gain and consumption. The walls are higher than that: changing is child’s play — it depends on us. But to change the system in which we are trapped, to change the system: this requires a collective action, an action of the society on itself, that none of us can carry out alone.
Green technologies will not be enough, by themselves, to avoid the precipice. Tim Jackson recalled the figures on which this promise stumbles: since 1990, when awareness of climate change was first raised, the carbon intensity of global growth has decreased by 0.7% per year. We are growing greener every time; « clean » technologies are gradually emerging. But at the same time, the world population continues to grow at a level of 1.3% per year and the average consumption per person grows at 1.4% per year, so that each year at the current rate, the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is 2% (1.3+1%+1,4%.7%). Green technologies, as desirable as they are, are not enough to offset population growth or the increase in average per capita consumption. Moreover, with each energy saving due to greener technologies, people free up a share of income, which is used at least in part to satisfy other consumption « needs. »
How to escape? How can we get out of this double trap that has closed on us, in our two roles as producers and consumers? What collective action can we imagine that will ensure an ecological transition? I propose to explore four avenues.

Four paths for an ecological transition based on social innovation
First proposal: to ensure the ecological transition, we must move towards redistributive policies, towards equality of material conditions. First, given the inadequacy of « green growth », i.e. an option based purely on cleaner technologies, the costs of a transition will have to be shared. It is no longer just a matter of sharing the fruits of growth, but of sharing the sacrifices. We must move towards a mobilization of efforts: a war economy, if you will, without the war. The policies that are put in place for this purpose must be seen as legitimate. However, they can only be so if they are equitably distributed among all.

« To get out of the capitalist spirit poses a problem of collective action: nobody can do it alone.

Equality in redistributive policies also helps to limit the urgency of economic growth. For, until now, growth has been the justification for not redistributing income more widely. If inequality has been tolerated until now, and even the increase in inequality over the last thirty years, it is because growth promised us to do better and better. To promote equality is to remove growth as an idol, to make it less indispensable.

Finally, equality reduces the over-consumption that is linked to the search for social recognition. What Veblen called conspicuous consumption does not only concern the possessing classes (the « leisure classes », in Veblen’s view); it is a race for recognition that exhausts us all. Researchers conducted an experiment on a representative sample of participants by asking them to choose between being relatively worse off in society A, which is rich and therefore has a good income, but in which many people have a better income than they do, or being relatively better off in society B, which is poorer on average but where they would personally be much richer than the average in that society. More than half of the participants were willing to sacrifice 50% of their income to be better positioned in the social hierarchy: in general, one prefers to be relatively well off in a low-income country than to be relatively poor in a high-income country. Our desire to possess more is not due to needs to be satisfied, but to our concern not to be downgraded socially.

There are political consequences to this contribution that an income redistribution policy can make to the ecological transition. Instead of opposing the objectives of social democracy, where we want to promote access to consumption for the greatest number of people, to the objective of the transition to a stationary economy or degrowth, we must show the complementarity of these approaches: this complementarity is real, provided that social inclusion is defined in relative rather than absolute terms of consumption.
Second proposal: any ecological transition must be accompanied by a gender policy. This is due first of all to the place that the body of the woman took in the consumer society and in its favorite weapon, the publicity: the eroticization accompanies everywhere the commodification. This is also due to the consumer choices that result, for the woman, from the imperative to be beautiful — an imperative that has become almost religious — which dictates her food choices, the place where she goes on vacation, the leisure activities she practices. Finally, this is due to the fact that economic competition rewards and valorizes behaviors that are associated, in our imaginary and subconscious minds, with male virility: this is what a sociologist like Pierre Bourdieu, in La domination masculine, or an occupational psychologist like Christophe Dejours, in Souffrance en France, show.

What gender policy can go against this double sacralization: that of the woman-object on the one hand, and that, on the other hand, of an economic competition represented as a struggle where virility prevails, and where the woman is called to fight alongside her man? The solution is not, of course, to demonize virility and sanctify femininity. And it is not a question either of saving the woman from the instrumentalization of her body by publicity, or of saving her from her cooptation by the world of work, which is on the contrary in principle desirable in a perspective of equality of the sexes. But we must question the current division of gender roles and its consequences. Making contacts with neighbors, preparing dinners, taking care of children or elderly parents: these activities are generally undervalued in our societies, because they are activities traditionally entrusted to women. The contempt that accompanies these tasks contrasts with the valorization of the man who leaves early and returns late, who earns money because he markets the service he renders to society.

The gender policy that must accompany the ecological transition must consist of revalorizing the functions traditionally associated with women, so that these functions are shared between men and women as work has been shared. Gender equality is as important in the domestic sphere today as it is in the work sphere. It is necessary to recivilize men through women: it is only at the price of this « deprogramming » of men that they will gradually be able to escape the trap of infinite economic competition.

Third proposal: we need a policy of social diversity. I borrow this beautiful expression from Christian Arnsperger. Socio-diversity is the promotion of alternatives, of more sustainable lifestyles, of small-scale local solutions: these micro-experiments include the reconstitution of short food circuits, local exchange systems, the voluntary simplicity movement, or community gardens. These alternatives must first be able to blossom, then to become a school, and finally to draw the paths of an alternative for the whole society.

This local experimentalism matters for three reasons. First, we know that the current trajectory is unsustainable, but we don’t know the exit scenario: so we need to accelerate learning in society. Secondly, these micro-projects can compensate in part for our inability to imagine other ways of occupying our leisure time than through consumption. André Gorz pointed out that we have invested in technologies that free up time, but we don’t know what to do with all this freed-up time. Endless consumption becomes a substitute for this lack of imagination: as Keynes already said in a 1928 text, Economic Prospects for Our Grandchildren, « we have been trained for too long to pay and not to enjoy ». Finally, these local initiatives, these islands of socio-diversity, help to recreate social links. We now know that, even more than tobacco or alcohol abuse, for example, lack of social ties is a major risk factor for early morbidity. The investment in local micro-projects also allows each person to be considered not for what they have but for who they are, for the services they render, for the recipes they teach, or for the skills they have acquired: from conspicuous consumption, with time, we move to conspicuous availability to others.

Fourth proposal: the community can foster the ecological transition based on social innovation. It can do so, first, by encouraging local experimentalism and by helping the social engineers who take the initiative in these micro-projects to overcome the obstacles they encounter. This requires a modest policy that serves citizen initiatives, based less on plans and strategies than on an inductive approach that rewards social innovation: policy is about helping neighbors who want to get together to create their community garden.

Public authorities must also create the economic incentives that reward sober and sustainable lifestyles, and thus encourage innovation in this direction. This can take the form, for example, of individual carbon credits. Everyone is given X amount of carbon to spend over the year, and at the end of the period, those with unused quota would be rewarded with a fund financed by those who exceeded their quota. This would force everyone to ration, and people who spend more would pay more. Or it could mean progressive pricing for water or energy: each household would pay a very low price for a certain basic level of consumption, but unit prices would be increasingly higher for each additional unit consumed.

Third, governments must provide public services that reduce the purchase and consumption of private goods, while giving more meaning to leisure: this dual function is fulfilled by the provision of self-service bicycles, the generalization of a cambio system for cars, or the sharing of lawnmowers.

Fourth, the government must systematically assess the impact of its policies through sustainable development indicators. Today, it is the imperative of GDP growth that is the obsession of our governments. But what we need to look for « with our teeth », as the saying goes, is not growth: it is well-being. And in our affluent societies, the two are antinomic: infinite growth threatens to cross economic thresholds that will ultimately endanger our very prosperity. Academics like Isabelle Cassiers are working on alternative indicators to measure company performance, other than through macro-economic indices. The challenge now is to move into practice, and to set up independent monitoring mechanisms, so that governments feel accountable when their policies run counter to sustainable development indicators.

The art of transition

Two dilemmas haunt today’s debates on the transitions to be made. First, we are constantly oscillating between, on the one hand, the recognition of the need for planning — and even, for some, quasi-authoritarian planning — and, on the other hand, the desire to encourage private initiatives to flourish: on the one hand, we know that automatic steering by the market does not work; but on the other hand, there is the admission that we do not know what to do — and that we must allow ourselves to be surprised and to reward the inventiveness of the dispersed actors in society. A second dilemma finds us torn between the hope of a patient and slow reform that spares us the pain of radical upheaval and the fear, expressed by others, that since things are not moving fast enough, we must move quickly to radical solutions.

These dilemmas must be overcome. Steering the transition from social innovation means encouraging change, guiding it — but without necessarily knowing the details of each step in advance. It also means refusing to oppose reform to radical upheaval. We must stop opposing seemingly modest changes, small-scale collective experiments, to the great upheaval of the edifice of our societies. Transition is an art form that is more music than architecture. It is not only the final construction to which one must pay attention, the model towards which one tends. In a transition, it is each step that matters, even the smallest: each micro-project has its importance in what it can teach to others. In a musical score, it is not only the last note that counts: it is each note that contributes to the harmony of the score.

Olivier De Schutter

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