The Buen-Vivir against the mega malls

Illustré par :

Paul Ariès

Director of the newspaper La vie est à nous/le sarkophage Editor in chief of the quarterly Les Z’indigné(e)s. Author of La simplicité volontaire et le socialisme gourmand (La découverte)

We have forgotten what the ancients knew intuitively, that trade alone does not allow us to create a society and give meaning to our lives. In Greek, a‑scholia, trade, means the lack of « scholé » i.e. leisure. In Latin, neg-otium also means the lack of otium and therefore of leisure. No society can sustainably rely on consumption, otherwise we start by consuming objects, then we consume other humans (development of all forms of violence) and we end up consuming ourselves.

So we have good reasons to refuse ourselves as consumer slaves as well as labor slaves. Shopping is not life, unless you accept a depreciated life. But while all the studies prove that the young generation, by dint of mistreatment at work, is increasingly refusing the centrality of work in its existence, these same young people, including my indignant friends, aspire to remain or become good little zealous and bulimic consumers. The growth objectors, the anti-capitalists, the anti-productivists, the anti-consumerists that we are (I don’t care about the vocabulary, I don’t have a fetish for words) therefore have good reasons (but also sometimes not so good ones) to oppose the development of mega-malls. These are the symptoms of a new age of capitalism, that of turbo-capitalism.

These megamalls are fundamentally based on a double confusion: they already confuse leisure and commerce, culture and trade, as if commerce, as if the advertising aggression and marketing that go with it, could allow us to feed ourselves humanly. Non-stop shopping, the Small as our North American friends say, is the anti-culture par excellence. The earlier one attends culture, the more hope one has of becoming a responsible adult; advertising and commerce, the earlier one attends them, the more one becomes « addicted » to brands, seeking compensation for one’s identity and narcissistic deficiencies through consumption. The geniuses of shopping have also had the idea of confusing commerce and leisure: they even speak of « shoppertainment » to designate these new modes of distribution and consumption. They simply forget, of course, that the act of play and leisure is necessarily free, not only economically but also anthropologically. This turbo-capitalism prolongs in fact the fusion of capitalism and religion with the laws of the market as new Tables of the Law, hypermarkets as new Temples of consumption, economists and advertisers as high priests and preachers of the system, sales as the introduction of a new sacred temporality next to profane time, shelves and shopping carts as objects of worship, fair trade and ethical trade as acts of grace, etc. These megamalls are designed to confuse consumers (confusion of registers, confusion of schedules with non-stop shopping, confusion of functions with parents reduced to the rank of bearers of purchasing power and not educators, etc.). The challenge is to distract (literally) individuals in order to break down their resistance to purchase, in order to blur the reference points of meaning and humanizing values. These mega malls are halfway between a traditional retail store and an amusement park. This type of realization gangrene all Europe, including Eastern Europe but the most gigantic are located in the United States and in Canada but also in certain Arab countries (Dubai). West-Edmonton in Canada is the world’s largest shopping center with 800 stores, 11 department stores, 110 restaurants, an ice rink, a church, hotels, nightclubs, 20 movie theatres, the world’s largest water park, the world’s largest indoor golf course, etc. The promoters of these megaprojects intend to multiply the recreational sequences with the only aim of distracting the individuals while stimulating at the same time their impulse to buy, their bulimia.

We therefore have good reasons to oppose these mega-malls which are all large useless projects imposed just like giant cinema complexes, airports like Notre-Dame-des-Landes, giant stadiums like OL-land, etc. We can therefore only be pleased that resistance against these projects is developing throughout Europe. These megacenters are flooding into Europe because they are declining sharply in the United States. Out of more than 11,000 malls, one third went bankrupt, not because of the crisis but because of the saturation of desire. Let’s not sulk in the face of these failures of capitalism and productivism, but let’s admit that the strongest probability is not that of the passage towards an ecologically and socially responsible society, towards an eco-socialism, a greedy socialism (as opposed to the socialism of misery and greyness of the productivist lefts), but that of the adaptation of the planet and humanity with the transhumanist currents, to the needs of capitalism and productivism. We can say it differently: despite these crises, despite the peak of oil, despite the recession, this system will not collapse by itself (at least not before having gone to the end of its own logic of accumulation, commodification and mortification).

We have nothing to expect either from a so-called moralization of capitalism or from its illusory greening. Only our ability to bring another world into being can save us. This new capitalism is not only building bigger and bigger shops, but it is transforming the place and meaning of commerce in the city and in our lives.

That’s why we are not only supporters of the small (business) against the big (business), that’s why we don’t have to insult those who work or consume there. To do so would be to maintain the illusion that degrowth would be austere, moralistic, reactionary and bigoted… It is never by demonizing the productions of capitalism that we can hope to really defeat them. Not that we should not investigate the trial of these capitalist and productivist productions, not that we should not denounce show politics and all forms of opium of the people, but we must be careful never to take ourselves for public prosecutors investigating against the little people, always less intelligent than us, always stupid and manipulated. I am convinced that people are less stupid than anguished, less manipulated than desperate. To say this is not to choose out of anguish to whitewash the convicts of work and consumption, it is to give ourselves the intellectual means to understand what capitalism really is, how it works, why we have so much difficulty in building alternatives, in experimenting with other ways of living. If shopping malls abound, if people want to spend their evenings, their Sundays, their vacations there, it is not because they are idiots and that it is up to us to « make them aware » (as the enlightened vanguard that we, the Growth Objectors, would be), it is because they find pleasure in them, it is because McDonald’s, Disneyland, the Olympic Games, the sportiness of life, give them pleasure.

Capitalism is indeed three things: it is an economic system based on the exploitation of labor and extractivism; it is also the invention of a particular way of life with its specific products; it is finally an answer to our existential anguishes such as the fear of dying or the feeling of finitude, etc. This capitalist answer is « always more » (always more production, always more consumption, always further, always faster, always bigger, etc.). We can certainly think that this enjoyment of control is a bad enjoyment since it generates the systemic crisis from which we are bursting, but we will be able to oppose it effectively only if we are able to oppose it another form of enjoyment, an enjoyment of being, by remembering that the human being is first of all a social being, by putting at the heart of our utopias, of our theorizations, of our actions, the manufacture of the human, by developing other dissolvers of existential anguish than those of the capitalist « always more ».

That’s why the question of alternatives is also vital, that’s why we must not first deconstruct McDonald’s, but propose something else (slow food, Amap, etc). To refuse to multiply these side steps, one after the other but to the point of intoxication, is not only to render oneself conceptually impotent, that is to say to understand nothing of what capitalism is and the best ways to oppose it, since it is to believe that degrowth would be to do the same thing in less, it would be to learn to tighten one’s belt, a little, a lot, passionately or madly, it is to agree to end up (like the poorly named journal La Décroissance(1) ) by doing a dirty job for the benefit of the powerful, by welcoming austerity, by even proposing to organize parties to celebrate it, but it is also to make oneself impotent on the practical level, since it is to refuse, in advance, to see the richness of the proto-ecosocialist alternatives that already exist.

I am convinced that capitalism not only makes us emotionally and ethically insensitive, but that it blinds us, that it makes other ways of living, especially those of the working class, invisible, just as it makes these same working classes invisible. In order to fight effectively against the megamalls, as well as against all the other achievements of capitalism, we must not be lecturers (« Poor bastards who dare to claim when the planet is on fire! »), but we must follow Rimbaud’s recommendation and become seers again, that is to say, our first mission is not to raise awareness, not to educate, but to make the invisible visible, to mutualize all the richness of the bubbling, polyphonic alternatives that already exist.

To say this is to accuse the majority choice of the left throughout the 20th century, it is to consider that we were wrong to voluntarily break the trade unionism with multiple bases (with the non-competitive sports club, with the Esperanto club, with the library, the cooperative, etc.), the cooperative movement (production, consumer, housing, financial cooperatives, etc.), the municipal socialism, in short everything that allowed us to create a counter-society, to create a different society. The majority of the left made this choice because they considered that anything that distracted from the only great legitimate struggle, the conquest of central power, was bad. We have to admit that we were mostly wrong, because the first consequence of this choice was to give up the class struggle in the field of lifestyles. Yes, we have aimed at spreading the capitalist way of life among the working classes; yes, we have accepted for the most part the capitalist answers to our existential anguish; yes, we have lost autonomy, our autochthony; yes, we have abandoned the working classes to concentrate on the middle classes like the false left and liberal ecology.

But not only, as the World Poverty Forum co-organized in July 2012 by sarkophage-La-vie-est-à-nous and the Emmaus community of Lescar-Pau showed, popular cultures are not dead, but we can rebuild what we have broken/destroyed. Not to rebuild identically (we will not return to the society of the 19th century, and that’s good), but to invent a new maquisarde left, which will be a school, which will inspire. We will not change society by making people feel guilty, we will not change the world by calling for responsibility (with the threat of an enlightened tyranny, of a government of the wise as Hans Jonas and Dominique Bourg and so many others say), we will change the world by making people want to, by arousing the great desire for life.

The best way to oppose the megamalls is therefore not so much to deplore their existence as to listen to all these new swear words that are being sought on a global scale to say the new paths of emancipation, new swear words that all wish to open the same door, that all testify to the will to break a kind of semantic spell: the « sumak kaway » of the Indian natives, the « buen vivir » (good living) of the Ecuadorian and Bolivian governments, the « new happy days » of the citizen-resistance collectives (a nod to the program of the National Council of the Resistance whose title was Happy Days), the « full life » of Rigoberta Menchu (Nobel Peace Prize 1992), the « prosperous sobriety », the « joyful frugality » or, still, the « high emergency needs » of the social movement in Guadeloupe, etc.

It is by developing an eco-socialism, a « greedy socialism » that we will stop believing in a singing tomorrow and start singing in the present, it is the only way to tinker together what could be a « buen vivir » in the French or Belgian way.

Paul Ariès


Notes et références
  1. NDLR : En France, il existe plusieurs conceptions et courants de l’objection de croissance dont certains sont en conflit. Paul Ariès propose un « socialisme gourmand » qu’il oppose à une vision de l’objection de croissance telle que développée au cours des dernières années dans le journal La Décroissance.
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