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« Philosophers like Condorcet, Marx, Hegel, Comte, did not understand that the historical becoming « unfolds but does not progress », that it is at worst a chain of catastrophes, at best « a parade of dead ends, a succession of blocked situations, an immobility in progress ».

Frédéric Schiffter, about Cioran(1)

Among the arguments against growth objectors, two recur with regularity: firstly, degrowth would have a « negative » connotation that would act as a repellent; secondly, it would be content to lazily take the opposite view of growth and would thus remain trapped in an economic schema that it claims to reject. Here, we will study a third one, coming from the Marxists: degrowth would lack a dialectical dimension, or at least would not take it sufficiently into account in its demonstrations. As a reminder, dialectics, in the modern sense of the term, can be summarized as follows: nothing is fixed once and for all, everything is in the process of becoming, but according to a determined law: from evil will come good, humanity is moving towards the realization of the Spirit (i.e. Reason), it is only a matter of time, so let us be patient, we revolutionaries, as Lenin recommended. 

I will try to show that the ecological limits, or the planetary enclosure(2), which are becoming more and more evident, invalidate both the theory of the invisible hand of the market(3) and dialectical materialism. For, apart from the ownership of the means of production — the main dividing line between orthodox Marxists and liberals — the common points are more numerous than either of them is willing to admit: belief in the society of abundance that will anaesthetize the evil passions of men and will come about through the omnipotence of science and technology(4) bureaucratization of life (whatever the anti-statist liberals may say); unlimited expansion of rational control, of the economy and of industry; anthropocentrism; prometheism; a taste for gigantism; universalism; the wrenching away of all traditions, of time, of space and of nature; the will to disrupt any social order that might tend to stabilize, in short, a belief in the Progress, this metaphysics of history(5)The present imperfect is only a series of temporary crises (1914–18, 1929, 1939–45, 1968, 1973, 1995, 2002, 2008, until the next one) preparing the future harmony. In other words, we are dealing with a new secular religion hidden behind « a techno-historicist discourse », according to the expression of Alain Gras(6). If some people want to re-found the idea of progress at all costs, then it is necessary to revisit its conception inherited from the Enlightenment, from Saint-Simonism and from cybernetics, and then « slim down » where necessary. A vast program! 

Today, the ecological question is inviting itself into the political economy, to take it head on. There is no need to explain its many facets here, which every citizen worthy of the name is supposed to know. After having repressed it for a long time, the capitalist oligarchy finally seems to take it into consideration, but to immediately recover it in eco-whitening and, at a more serious stage, in the « disaster capitalism » (Naomi Klein, 2008)(7) or the « biocidal capitalism » (Michel Weber, 2013)(8). Rather than a classless society, the 21st century could well be the century of the green hyper-capitalism that will forcibly adapt the inhabitants of the planet to the rarefaction of resources without touching the privileges of the rich, this eco-fascism that Serge Latouche saw coming already ten years ago. However, let us also note that the reappearance(9) of this ecological « crisis » does not suit the capitalists, because it disturbs their « business as usual  » scenario. Otherwise, how can we explain the relentlessness of their followers, those I call the « reassuranceists »(10), to underestimate or deny the global threats? Their maneuvers are a combination of denial, cognitive dissonance and unrealistic optimism, with the smoke and mirrors of the consumer-voter being the intermediate objective, and the paralysis of political decisions the final objective. Alas, the media cherish them, and we suppose that they often achieve their goal: to administer a dose of tranquilizers to the atomized individual who has no intention of giving up consumption, the passport to his integration into the dissociety. 

Why does the current geophysical reality profoundly challenge the economic theories developed since the Enlightenment? The organicist vision of the Renaissance conceived of nature as a nurturing mother that should be respected. Then the discoveries, in the 16th and 17th centuries, of Copernicus, Kepler, Bruno, Galileo and Newton changed the situation. The closed cosmos inherited from the Greeks has given way to an infinite cosmos, the naturalistic and mechanicist vision has taken hold: man is now separated from his environment, over which he is gaining the upper hand. Bacon, Descartes and Boyle launched the most ambitious program for mankind: through scientific knowledge and unbridled instrumental rationality, man was going to extend his powers infinitely over nature, subjecting it to his desires and fantasies(11). However, the said nature has always been an essential partner of humanity. For traditional societies, this was a given. In the Enlightenment, it was repressed (except for Rousseau); in the 19th century, concern for the protection of nature accompanied the triumphant Science, without however managing to slow down its advance(12) Today, the very worrying state of the biosphere is becoming obsolete, without however being totally integrated into the mental software of most of our contemporaries. 

« No god, no invisible hand of the market, no trick of History (or of Reason) will intervene to save us ». 

The free market assumes a potentially unlimited world where there is always somewhere a « backyard » capable of absorbing and satisfying the will of producers and the demand of consumers. In the past, this backyard was constituted by colonies full of raw materials and corveable labor; today, it is by technoscience, via projects of mastery of the living (genetic engineering, nanotechnologies, synthetic biology, new reproductive techniques, transhumanism, etc.), of natural cycles (geo-engineering), as well as the conquest of space which is taking on new colors. Human beings want to have the last word on nature at all costs, but technological voluntarism — or technoptimism — is condemned in principle, as the biosphere is more complex than the human intelligence it has generated. With all due respect to my Marxist friends, the same is true for dialectics as they understand it: in order to be resolved in the synthesis — resulting from an overcoming of the thesis and the antithesis — it needs the existence of a « reserve » that the finite ecosystems, moreover irreversibly degraded for some of them by man’s praxis, are no longer able to provide. Bertrand Méheust has understood this and is concerned: « It may be, after all, that the destruction of the biosphere is so « radical » that no « higher truth » emerges and that it leaves human beings with no other prospect than that of a twilight life in a world forever devastated. « (13) This perspective, distressing but plausible, is evoked in visionary cinematographic or literary works such as Dancing with the devil, Green sun, Malevil, Mad Max and The road. Even if historical materialism could work in principle, another factor hinders it: time is running out. Disturbed by our frenzy of production, nature now imposes its agenda on us. To complicate matters, it is not the linear, predictable time of experimental science and technology, but rather the chaotic one, made of positive feedback loops. The doubtful reader can read the latest IPCC report, read the philosopher Clive Hamilton(14) or listen to Professor Guy McPherson (University of Arizona), who distinguishes twenty-five of these loops, irreversible on the human time scale…(15) The time has come to stop waiting for a deus ex machina. No god, no invisible hand of the market, no trick of History (or of Reason) will intervene to save us. Let’s not count on a non-existent providence anymore. Therein lies true atheism — atheism that Marxists and liberals claim to be. Let’s just rely on ourselves… although this does not guarantee success! Accepting uncertainty represents a new form of wisdom and lucidity. 

By substituting its epistemological radicalism for ordinary positivism, degrowth proposes an operating mode that is much better adapted to the present situation, unprecedented in the history of humanity, which neither Adam Smith nor Karl Marx had foreseen. The liberal discourse and the Marxist discourse (in its dogmatic form) are outdated. For the former, how can we believe that their model would represent an « end of history »? What vanity! For the latter, the claim to branch off in another one-dimensional and universal direction — communism — is an idea that has become unattainable. Degrowth suggests rather to arouse the « bush-breeding » of resistant alternatives to productivism and capitalism wherever it is possible(16), without passing by the seizure of the State power(17). This buissonnement is well inscribed in the continuity of history, with the limit recalled by Jean-Pierre Dupuy: « […] if it is true that we make our history, we do not know what history we make »(18). To postpone the catastrophe — if there is still time -, to prevent the world from unraveling, according to the words of Albert Camus, here are more clairvoyant objectives than the illusory Grand Soir, today deprived of its historical subject, the proletariat(19). Let’s not even talk about the liberal and consumerist « democracies of constraint », condemned in the long run in their principle. More modestly, growth objectors aim for « a new frugal, egalitarian and democratic ideal of convivial coexistence » (Christian Arnsperger, 2008). Like Orwell, they give new importance to moral intuition and common sense, that faculty halfway between reason and feeling. While they believe they have a revolutionary mission, they are also conservative, in the sense that preserving the structures (economic, social, agricultural, symbolic, etc.) and ecosystems that capitalism destroys in order to extend its reach has become a matter of life and death. They seek to recreate the conditions for individual and collective autonomy. Like Jacques Ellul and Bernard Charbonneau, they make the deliberate choice of non-power, preferring the qualitative to the quantitative. Decrease is a transitional stage and necessary for our survival , which will make us move from an ecologically and anthropologically unsustainable world to a society that will recompose itself from an ecological footprint that is once again sustainable, which it will promise not to exceed. « The meaning of history is not progress, as has been believed since the 18th century, but rather the ever-increasing power exercised over and against nature. »(20)remarks the philosopher Christian Godin. It’s time for that to change! 

Let us now come to the conclusion: degrowth is also dialectical, since it adopts a thesis (growth)-antithesis (degrowth)-synthesis (a stable, democratic, ecological and convivial society) scheme. However, the differences with Engels’ dialectical materialism are also obvious: firstly, the ways to reach it are multiple (cf. above) and have nothing to do with the idea of a linear Progress; secondly, the importance of the role of nature is taken into account in order to notice immediately that once destroyed, it could no longer provide the substratum that « serves as a basis for all life, all thought, all invention » (Peter Sloterdjik, 2003); thirdly, it is not guaranteed that it happens as we wish, because there is no There is no historical necessity to move from growth to degrowth; we could fail and the human adventure would end in an unimaginable cataclysm. Let’s end on a positive note: without falling into messianism, let’s say that degrowth is a new concrete universal. An opportunity to be seized. 

Bernard Legros

Notes et références
  1. Frédéric Schiffter, Le charme des penseurs tristes, éd. Flammarion, 2013, pp. 103 & 104.
  2. Cf. André Lebeau, L’enfermement planétaire, éd. Gallimard, 2008.
  3. Théorie reprise par Hayek au XXème siècle sous l’appellation d’ordre spontané du marché ou catallaxie.
  4. Rappelons-nous le mot d’ordre de Staline : « La technique décide de tout ».
  5. « […] le progressiste, si prompt à taxer les autres de “métaphysiciens” ou d’“utopistes”, est en réalité l’archétype du métaphysicien de notre temps, prêt à sacrifier indéfiniment et à très grande échelle les intérêts réels, matériels, concrets, d’êtres de chair et de sang, sur l’autel du concept métaphysique du Progrès dont il postule (en termes métaphysiques, là encore) qu’il est la “véritable essence” de l’histoire. » in Dwight Mcdonald, Le socialisme sans le progrès. The root is man, éd. La Lenteur, 2011, p. 135.
  6. Souvenons-nous de marxistes hétérodoxes comme Walter Benjamin, qui en appelait à une interruption messianique et révolutionnaire du progrès, et Simone Weil, qui n’était pas dupe de la nouvelle oppression induite par l’industrialisme : « La société actuelle ne fournit pas d’autre moyen d’action que des machines à écraser l’humanité ; quelles que puissent être les intentions de ceux qui les prennent en main, ces machines écrasent et écraseront aussi longtemps qu’elle existeront » (in Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale, éd. Folio, 1955/1998, p. 143).
  7. Cf. Naomi Klein, La stratégie du choc. La montée d’un capitalisme du désastre, éd. Actes Sud, 2008.
  8. Cf. Michel Weber, De quelle révolution avons-nous besoin ?, éd. Sang de la Terre, 2013.
  9. Réapparition et non apparition, comme nous l’apprennent les historiens Christophe Bonneuil et Jean-Baptiste Fressoz in L’événement Anthropocène. La Terre, l’histoire et nous, éd. du Seuil, 2013.
  10. Cf. ma chronique « Corentin de Salle, un libéral-rassuriste » in La décroissance n° 115, décembre 2014/janvier 2015, p. 12.
  11. Tous les libéraux reprendront cette idée par la suite, ainsi au XIXème siècle John Stuart Mill qui insistait sur « la conscience du fait que tout ce que le genre humain entreprend pour améliorer sa condition consiste dans une large mesure à contrarier l’ordre spontané de la nature ». Cité in Jean-Claude Liaudet, Le complexe d’Ubu ou la névrose libérale, éd. Fayard, 2004, p. 137.
  12. Cf.Jean-BaptisteFressoz,FrédéricGraber,Fabien Locher et Grégory quenet, Introduction à l’histoire environnementale, éd. La Découverte, 2014.
  13. Bertrand Méheust, La nostalgie de l’Occupation. Peuton encore se rebeller contre les nouvelles formes d’asservissement ?, éd. La Découverte, 2012, p. 82.
  14. Cf. Clive Hamilton, Requiem pour l’espèce humaine, Les Presses de Sciences-Po, 2013 et Les apprentis sorciers du climat. Raisons et déraisons de la géo-ingénierie, éd. du Seuil, 2013.
  16. Cf. Michel Lepesant, Politique(s) de la décroissance. Propositions pour penser et faire la transition, éd. Utopia, 2013.
  17. Dans ce cas subsistent cependant des questions insolubles, comme celle du démantèlement des centrales nucléaires.
  18. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Petite métaphysique des tsunamis, éd. du Seuil, 2005, p. 27.
  19. Cf. André Gorz, Adieux au prolétariat, éd. Galilée, 1980.
  20. Christian Godin, La haine de la nature, éd. Champ Vallon, 2012, p. 119.

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