Illustré par :

At first glance, the philosophical divide between modernity and postmodernity(1) seems to be heard. According to Jean-Marie Domenach, modernity is « a ‘regulating idea’ (or deregulatory idea), a culture, a state of mind (a set of aspirations, research, values) that imposes itself at the end of the 18th century […] »(2). For Myriam Revault d’Allonnes, « modernity is massively characterized by a movement of uprooting from the past and from tradition. »(3) It is credited with (re)updating and promoting the following values, goals or ideas: reason, skepticism, autonomy, emancipation, happiness, equality, citizenship, democracy, tolerance, natural and positive rights, development of knowledge and power through science and technology, causal and mechanical (no longer teleological) explanations, linearity of time, political economy, secularism, universalism, contingency, revolution, separation between nature and culture (i.i.e. dualism), anthropocentrism(4)The law, mass effects, and Progress, the new metaphysics succeeding God and tradition. Modernity has transformed both the ways of seeing the world and the world we see, defining itself It is a kind of « surpassing of itself, like the permanent questioning of its own foundations ».(5) According to Habermas’ formula, modernity will thus remain an unfinished and unfinishable project.

Postmodernity(6) emerges from the 1960s and imposes itself as a central historical paradigm after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), which symbolically closes the 20th century. It is concomitant with the advent of neoliberalism. It is attributed to the (re)updating of other values, objectives and concepts: the reign of opinion (i.e. doxa), particularism, relativism, the primacy of language (i.e. sign) over facts, deconstruction, non-separation (i.e. monism), the taste for paradoxes, competition, adaptation, arrogance, governance, security, hyper-individualism, personal development, the absence of great narratives, the lack of a common language, the lack of a common language and the lack of a common language. monism), the taste for paradoxes, competition, adaptation, arrogance, governance, security, hyper-individualism, personal development, the absence of grand narratives in favor of micro-narratives (such as that of technoscience), the return of cyclical time, the rhizome, systemism(7)The market is the regulating principle of society and ultimately the extinction of the historical process, as Francis Fukuyama claims in The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

Modernity and postmodernity at the same time overlap and distinguish themselves. What they have in common is the exaltation of change in a context of permanent crisis(8), reflexivity, monogenerational imitation as a social fact, a taste for freedom (positive in modernity, negative in postmodernity), science, technology, speed, etc. Without risk of being mistaken, we can place Marxism on the side of modernity. Liberalism successively holds both paradigms. The first liberals (1870–1970) appeared to be modern when they wanted to extend their socio-economic model to the whole planet, based on instrumental rationality, relying more and more on a techno-scientific progress presented as the new narrative of the 19th and 20th centuries. Neoliberals, who came to prominence in the 1970s, are postmodern when they refocus on the individual, promoting consumerist hedonism, relativising and encouraging all individual lifestyles, desires and fantasies, provided that they do not infringe on the freedom of others, are recognized by positive law and can be satisfied by economically solvent agents on a free market. What about degrowth? Is it modern and/or postmodern? Or is it still elsewhere?

The inventory of theological and philosophical representations in the West, whether pre-modern (Greek, Judeo-Christian), modern or post-modern, is a fascinating intellectual project to which the degrowth movement has devoted itself since the beginning, and whose primary usefulness will be to allow us to leave the conceptual framework of liberal modernity. Not everything is to be rejected, but not everything is to be preserved and celebrated under the pretext that it bears, for example, the stamp of the Enlightenment, which many philosophers refrain from criticizing for fear of being considered reactionary(9). Rejecting this modernity, the critical spirit invites us to distinguish, sort, separate. All the old distinctions are no longer adequate. Thus, degrowth goes beyond the progressive/conservative divide. Of course, she would like to see sectoral progress in agriculture, energy savings or the fight against inequality, for example. So, wouldn’t progress in agriculture take a detour through the past? The proven millennial agricultural techniques have more to teach us than the genetic modifications carried out by laboratory agronomists. Beef and horse are more energy efficient than the tractor. So, progress or conservation? More to the point, let’s see them as « progressive possibilities of tradition », as Matthew B. Crawford puts it. Crawford.


If degrowth is partly due to modernity (cf. infra), it has nothing to do with the movement of modernism dedicated to technoscience since, as the historian Marc Weinstein explains, « the modernist slope of contemporary Western civilization rests not on values that envelop power, but on the cult of power for power’s sake. »(10) Modernism evacuated, let’s see in what the decreasing(11) are attached to certain values of modernity. They recognize the unconstructible(12) and objective part of nature, its irreducible otherness. However, some objects are « hybrid », such as climate change, which is certainly a social construction but is above all a proven scientific fact recognized by 97% of climatologists, while having an equally proven anthropic origin. They appeal to « reasonable » rather than rational reason to eventually calm down certain human temptations that would lead to flirting too closely with the limits they have promised to respect. They cross-reference knowledge in all fields to make the right diagnosis that will allow us — perhaps — to get out of the civilizational impasse. They hope to universalize the consideration of the finiteness of resources, but refuse the universalization of total control of the earth’s environment, a Western idea that has brought us to the brink. They wish to articulate freedom (within ecological and anthropological limits, see below) with equal economic conditions. Let us inscribe humanity, they say, in an axiologically neutral cosmic order that must be taken as it is. For example, an earthquake is certainly a scourge, but not an injustice in itself(13). If they are suspicious of the mass effects that characterized totalitarian societies, they put the common good before individual interests. They still prefer good old-fashioned politics, despite its flaws, to technocratic-numerical-algorithmic governance. They deplore the disenchantment of the world by technoscience and no longer believe in the notion of Progress as it was theorized in the Age of Enlightenment. Finally, they propose their new narrative for the 21st century: the decrease of the global ecological footprint until it reaches a sustainable threshold(14), thus a vital transition that will concern first the rich countries.


To what extent is degrowth postmodern? At a time when man is being reified by the NBICS convergence(15), the degrowthists want to give back all its place to the human psyche, to the mystery of Being, in a perspective of re-enchanting the world. They encourage a certain reflexivity that does not suspend the necessary commitment, while recognizing that it fails to bear useful fruit so far, as Peter Sloterdijk has seen: « Humanity has a priori difficulties to learn because it is not a subject but an aggregate. […] Humanity has no self, no intellectual coherence, no reliable organ of vigilance, no reflexivity capable of learning, no common memory that founds an identity. »(16)

Everything changes on the surface, but nothing fundamentally changes. They argue for common sense — that mix of feeling, intuition and reason — to guide democratically made political decisions. They respect particular cultures because they prefer human diversity to the planetary reign of homo, be it oeconomicus, laborans, consumens, automobilis or numericus. Universalists perceive them as relativists, whereas they propose, to get out of this sterile dichotomy, the beautiful word found by the theologian Raimon Panikkar: pluriversalism. Each culture must find its own way to a decent, democratic, ecological and stable society. While they have nothing against networks per se — often « networking » themselves with their peers, even through the Internet — they are equally aware that the contraction of the globalized economy will force us to relocalize our social contacts as well as our productive activities. The networks will continue to exist on a local and regional scale without going through an energy-intensive and alienating technical macro-system. The degrowthists are suspicious of the watchword of adaptation, precisely to the iron cage of neoliberalism and economism. On the other hand, they know that humanity will have to adapt to climatic conditions and energy shortages that are becoming increasingly hostile to its comfort of life, and then to its very survival. « In fact, there are not even solutions to look for to our inextricable situation (predicament), there are just paths to take to adapt to our new reality », warn Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens(17). The relationship to security must be clarified. The degrowthists work for the true existential security of all when they advocate the immediate sharing of existing wealth, the decrease of damage, of alienated wage labor and of inequalities. On the other hand, they are opposed to the security ideology, which is a perversion of the idea of security, just as the moral order is the opposite of morality.


Where degrowth is as far from modernity as it is from postmodernity, and where it adds an essential stone to its theoretical edifice, is in its insistence on advocating a sense of limits, a sense of limits that was rather well understood in pre-modern societies and preserved them from excess(18). These societies and communities also had the capacity to act on themselves, whereas the current world-economy has lost all control over its destiny, despite its voluntarism and its algorithms. The degrowthists refute both the historical materialism of the Marxists and the end-of-history thesis of the liberals. History is always on the move (forced, accelerated), but it is not predetermined by so-called laws; and for the first time in the Anthropocene era, it must make room for a determining actor that the moderns had repressed: nature.

To conclude provisionally, let’s say that degrowth, holding both (a little) modernity and (a little less) postmodernity, is rather elsewhere: it is post-developmental and hypomodern in the sense of hypomodernity defined by Vincent de Gauléjac and Fabienne Hanique: « Stability rather than change, idleness rather than hyperactivity, permanence rather than instability, continuity rather than immediacy, consistency rather than liquidity. »(19) Is this not a fully desirable path (with multiple branches)?

Bernard Legros

Notes et références
  1. Si la définition de la modernité fait plutôt l’objet d’un consensus, il n’en va pas de même pour sa consœur la postmodernité, que d’autres auteurs préfèrent appeler surmodernité (Marc Augé), hypermodernité (Nicole Aubert, Paul Ariès, Vincent de Gauléjac, Frédéric Neyrat) ou encore modernité tardive (Hartmut Rosa, Michael Fœssel). Par commodité, nous garderons le terme de postmodernité, même si les autres ne manquent pas d’intérêt.
  2. Jean-Marie Domenach, Approches de la modernité, Ellipses, 1986, p. 14.
  3. Myriam Revault d’Allonnes, La crise sans fin. Essai sur l’expérience moderne du temps, Seuil, 2012, p. 53.
  4. Plus exactement, Hicham-Stéphane Afeissa avance l’idée d’un double mouvement de naturalisation de l’humanité et d’historisation de la nature, in La fin du monde et de l’humanité. Essai de généalogie du discours écologique, PUF, 2014, p. 95.
  5. Dany-Robert Dufour, L’art de réduire les têtes. Sur la nouvelle servitude de l’homme libéré à l’ère du capitalisme total, Denoël, 2003, p. 58.
  6. Cf. Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne, Les éditions de minuit, 1979.
  7. « Ce que l’on appelle le systémisme apparaît au cours des années 1970 comme la synthèse de la cybernétique, de la théorie des systèmes et du structuralisme », Sarah Guillet in L’inventaire, n° 4, automne 2016, p. 61.
  8. « À chaque instant, le présent doit manifester l’irruption du nouveau », in Myriam Revault d’Allonnes, op. cit., p. 51.
  9. « Abandonnant tout espoir de changement réel, la plupart des intellectuels se complaisent dans l’autosatisfaction et la célébration de l’époque moderne, poussés par leur remarquable propension à s’identifier au vainqueur et à juger le monde d’après la place qu’il leur a personnellement réservée », Matthieu Amiech et Julien Mattern in Notes et morceaux choisis, n° 8, « Le travail mort-vivant », La Lenteur, 2008, p. 19.
  10. Marc Weinstein, L’évolution totalitaire de l’Occident. Sacralité politique I, Hermann, 2015, p. 76.
  11. L’auteur de l’article se permet de parler au nom de ses pairs, en sachant que d’autres auront leurs propres vues et nuances sur la question.
  12. Cf. Frédéric Neyrat, La part inconstructible de la terre. Critique du géo-constructivisme, Seuil, 2016.
  13. Ce qui est injuste est d’être obligé de vivre dans un abri fragile à un endroit sismique.
  14. Évalué, à population constante, à 1,8 hectares par habitant.
  15. Nanotechnologie, biotechnologie, sciences de l’information et de la cognition, biologie de synthèse.
  16. Peter Sloterdijk, La mobilisation infinie, Seuil, 2000, p. 101.
  17. Pablo Servigne & Raphaël Stevens, Comment tout peut s’effondrer, Seuil, 2015, p. 252.
  18. Même si elles aussi exploitaient la nature à leur manière.
  19. Vincent de Gaulejac & Fabienne Hanique, Le capitalisme paradoxant. Un système qui rend fou, Seuil, 2015, p. 246.

Espace membre

Member area