WE DON’T STOP PROGRESS, WE ACCELERATE IT

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Or how from a daily observation — taking the elevator or the stairs — it is possible to simply philosophize, to think about our time and to criticize the Progress. Technology today poses more problems than it solves, it encourages us to consume more and more while excluding the most fragile, and imposes itself as a religion… which does not connect. We are all « isolated together ». Walking and avoiding elevators is just one example of slowing down and spending less, for better physical, cultural and spiritual health.

Do you know the story of the fool who repainted his ceiling? Another madman comes along and says,  » Hold on to the brush, I’m pulling the ladder out.  »  » That’s good timing, » says the first,  » I just used my special Colorama paint, which also makes « express glue » as soon as you pull on the brush « . Then he changes his mind and says,  » I’ll go down first…and you can take it out anytime.  » Are you crazy?  » the other replies.

I wrote this essay(1) to think about the confused world in which we live… and to try to get out of this confusion that can make you crazy, violent or desperate. I wrote this book for people of my generation — I was born in 1963 — people who sometimes have difficulty perceiving that the conceptual bases they have known are no longer valid, which obliterates their vision of the future and what they pass on to their children. So I wrote it to facilitate the dialogue between my generation and our children, who are the young adults of today.

This book has three parts: a police investigation, a comparison between elevator and staircase, and a wider reflection about Progress and our society. The first part corresponds to the title: Elevator Failure in Social. A fatal accident caused by a broken down elevator, in a working class neighborhood of Strasbourg: the Bilal case, in 2002. In the second part, I contrast two paradigms of societies. On the one hand, the paradigm of the elevator, stemming from the modern economy — an obese economy — which supposes an industry (the elevator companies) and its lobby (the Federation of Elevators) to protect its interests and « communicate », i.e. embellish, disguise, lie and abuse our ignorance. On the other hand, the paradigm of the staircase — originating from a slender economy — which requires little expenditure, once built. And which is the occasion of a physical expenditure, this daily expenditure recommended by the WHO to remain in good health, while in an elevator, one moves… by remaining immobile. Obviously, my title strongly suggests the third part: « The social elevator is broken ». Social mobility, which was still possible 30 years ago, is no longer the case today and forces us to reconsider education, training, work, and employment… Our children spend more time on screens than playing and imagining by themselves. Once they are adults, society offers them small, humiliating jobs instead of a profession that provides pride and recognition. Humiliation is the source of violence and it is a central theme concerning the yellow vests. Blanche Gardin, a French comedian, also talks about humiliation when she talks about technology.

Originally, I was inspired by several themes that ended up coming together. The theme of the elevators often came up in the very poetic and philosophical essay La vie sur terre by Baudouin de Bodinat, which shows to what extent modernity dispossesses us of our bodies and deprives us of a certain poetry of everyday life. I was thinking that elevators — compared to stairs — had a hard time justifying themselves. As much on long distances, everyone understands that we arrive faster by car or plane… than by foot or by bike. As much on a few floors, walking still seems to have its interest. At 56, I climb the 4 floors of my building without an elevator every day, and it keeps me in shape. My guests arrive out of breath because they’re not used to it, their children come running with joy, and the delivery men, thirty-somethings, complain that we haven’t installed an elevator yet. Then, one spring day in 2015, I was riding my bike quietly through Lyon when I came face to face with an ad for SFR fiber optics:  » We don’t stop progress, we accelerate it.  » Too much was too much. We had to answer. One of Bodinat’s reflections had caught my attention, as if it were obvious: a staircase never breaks down. I did some calculations and came to the conclusion that the elevator was useless on 1–2 floors. I was interested in availability and breakdowns and I realized that elevators were subject to the same laws as most flows, in tourism, transportation, water or energy supply: a notion of admissible flow, a threshold beyond which the flow collapses. I came to the conclusion that the elevators were useless during peak periods on 5 to 8 floors, which is the majority of the buildings. This means that elevators are generally useless. If people still use them, it is mainly out of comfort or laziness.

The elevator federation’s argument is well-tested. Safety, availability, speed, comfort: prosaic themes that interest no one. The Federation wraps them in very fashionable themes, positive bonds to which we must absolutely adhere: the ecological bond (energy savings), the social bond (conviviality), the bond of modernity and sport (mobility) and the bond of solidarity (accessibility and aging of the population). The Elevator Federation takes advantage of our ignorance of the subject to trick us. This observation can be made for almost everything: elevators, « smart » meters, real estate, banking, the Internet, our work, and here… it becomes political and it is much less funny, because thousands of French people excluded from Progress (the yellow vests) have been making it known for months. They are eager to participate but find that Progress is no longer working.

In the year 2000, the futuristic prediction of the 1970s — to travel in a flying saucer — unfortunately did not come true. Instead, there were about 2,000 elevator accidents each year. This was considered to be due to the age of the aircraft, which were mostly built in the 1970s. A law for the  » modernization of elevators « , the de Robien law, has been voted. These accidents have decreased dramatically, but there are still some… and on brand new elevators. I discovered that this de Robien law had been motivated by an accident that received a lot of media attention at the time, the Bilal case. I decided to develop a whole chapter on this case, because I felt that all the human misery was hidden there.

The misery of this family, hit by a terrible tragedy… The misery of the Meinau district, which was the testing ground for the GIR(2)The misery of the French suburbs, under-supported and left to their own devices, the political misery with Chirac’s deception in 2002, the media misery (with a Pujadas in top form at the time) which foreshadowed the 2005 suburban revolt… And in a more discreet way, the industrial misery of the elevator companies, trying to take advantage of the de Robien law as a manna, in a declining market, in a context of de-industrialization of Europe, going so far as to hide the deaths in the statistics of accidentology.

For several decades, two conceptions of society have been in conflict. The growth objectors have summarized this opposition very well with their slogan  » less goods, more links « . On the one hand, the ideology of Progress and economy, research-and-investment-to-create-jobs-and-revive-growth, the wars of our democracies against barbarism (but shhh… especially for our oil), greenhouse gases and global warming (but especially… let me have my right to pollute). In short, the religion of Progress: a religion that does not connect and leaves everyone  » isolated together « , according to the famous expression of Guy Debord(3). On the other hand, there is a need to rediscover links, meaning, closeness, to get back in touch with nature, with one’s body, with one’s diet and health. So, finally, to cobble together some religiousness that really connects, a form of atheistic spirituality, with new beliefs, truly humanistic values and crossroads. A poetic vision of life, with flavor, surprises, intensity, encounters, adventures. Something that could be called « common decency », or the « good life », made of urban or rural permaculture, shared gardens, Slow Food, Fab Labs and DIY(Do It Yourself ), resourcefulness and mutual aid. In short, an enthusiastic simplicity, which involves a sharp reduction in consumption and a reorientation of one’s personal schedule. In short:  » Less TV, more workshops « . A way of life that defaults and threatens the all-powerful economy and whose repression is not long in coming… on the growth objectors, who are treated as backward-looking marginalists, reactionary nostalgics… or on the yellow vests, who are copiously beaten up and gassed, and whom the conservative media stigmatize as violent and anti-Semitic. And when you think about it, common decency is probably easier for inner-city bobos than for rural people in our devastated countryside.

On the one hand, the culture of « always more », of having, of numbers and quantity. On the other hand, the culture of « less » (this is the title of a Swiss decreasing magazine(4)), of being, of the letter and of quality. On one side the rich, the money, the finance, the speech. On the other, the poor, the human, the work, and the reality. On the one hand, the ideology of domination and violence. On the other hand, the observation of  » the end of formal domination(5) « , and the patient construction of a society of sharing and non-violence. The « minus » that was in the minority is beginning to seriously undermine the « plus ». By dint of Fakir, Merci Patron and « Nuit Debout », the former journalist François Ruffin has managed to tire Bernard Arnault, the press magnate and the biggest French fortune. So to speak, the fakir has charmed the snake. This opposition is not new. We can see there the symbol of the tao : the full and the empty, the yin and the yang, the construction and the destruction. If we are tempted to take François Ruffin’s side, should we blame Bernard Arnault? He protects his companies like a mother hen watches over her chicks. I keep in mind this singular idea: it is vain to look for culprits. It is all humanity that sinks together and, as Bodinat says, this  » dreadful tyranny benefits no one(6) « .

My book is probably not going to please our president Emmanuel Macron, he who took up the theme of Progress in his slogan for the European elections:  » Freedom, Protection, Progress « . What does this slogan mean? Brotherhood is replaced by Progress. No need to worry about others: just consume. Freedom… which one? Freedom of expression? No. The freedom of enterprise. The economy no longer wants to deal with employees, who are a burden. Protection replaces equality… why? To secure individuals in order to better protect them. The successive attacks under the Hollande era have served the political cause: they have allowed to frighten the population, so that it demands police protection. This is exactly what Bush junior did with his Patriot Act. It is a way of governing. It’s immoral, it’s very ugly, it doesn’t fit with republican values, but it’s very convenient to have peace. Just put cops everywhere and people are happy. They no longer have any inclination to challenge.

The old rigid system defends itself. He fights for his survival. But it collapses in slices, like the ice pack. And the collapse is not coming: it is underway. For decades. Before our eyes. The first wars for oil, by the American oilmen (the Bush clan). Nuclear disasters, always outside France (cock-a-doodle-doo). The demographic collapse of Russia under Yeltsin. The economic collapse of Argentina. The collapse of the Twin Towers. Then the destruction of countries presented as barbaric, led by terrible dictators, but which were in reality forces of opposition to the American omnipotence and to the dollar imposed as world currency (Iraq, Libya, Syria…). Disasters and climate refugees, who are condescendingly called « migrants »… Disasters are on the way, and there won’t necessarily be worse ones. There won’t necessarily be a nuclear war and hordes of barbarians a la Mad Max. The demographic collapse will surely take place: through a decrease in the birth rate, a probable increase in natural mortality and a reduction in longevity. And there will most certainly be a collapse of the Western economy. A collapse or a reconversion, a reorientation, a diversification.

For a long time, I considered it a catastrophe, a dreaded evil. Today, I consider us very lucky to be going through this time. There are some very nice issues at stake, some wonderful opportunities. As you might say here in Belgium, over a good beer:  » Kairos ! »

Olivier Rouzet

Notes et références
  1. Panne d’ascenseur dans le social, Le progrès contre les citoyens, Libre & Solidaire, 2019, cf. note de lecture in Kairos n°42.
  2. Groupements d’intervention régionaux.
  3. Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle, Gallimard, 1967.
  4. Journal romand d’écologie politique, cf. www.achetezmoins.ch.
  5. Peter Wagner, Sauver le progrès, comment rendre l’avenir à nouveau désirable, La Découverte, p.131.
  6. Baudouin de Bodinat, La Vie sur terre, L’Encyclopédie des Nuisances, 2008, pp.196–197.
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