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« What are we going to invent and offer to our consumption, to allow us to have a foolish job? » (1)

François Partant

Among the bones of contention frequently raised in debates on degrowth is the question of work. In short, the dividing line is between those who support shorter working hours and those who support an unconditional living wage(2). Still others see the two orientations as immediately compatible, or consecutive. But all of them are united in the refusal of the centrality of work in existence (see below). The intermingling of material, technical and moral considerations makes the issue complex, which is why we will not decide between these positions here. 

Since the neoliberal counter-revolution, entrepreneurs have regained power over the social order. Despite technological change and its immediate socio-economic consequences — the continuing increase in unemployment — paid work remains paramount in the prevailing values and expectations. The Protestant ethic that is attached to it has deeply shaped our psyche: whatever our religious obedience or our atheism, we believe or think that social status, even individual salvation, comes through work, which is seen as the best remedy to protect us from the hazards of life(3). The economy of salvation has given way to salvation by the economy, according to the formula of Max Weber. The psychosociology comes in next: a job in the company or the administration is a source of gratification and personal fulfillment. To be deprived of it is equivalent to a kind of social death, even ruin of the soul. And Axel Honneth observes that « the constant repetition of the same formulas of recognition manages to create without resorting to constraint a feeling of self-esteem inciting to forms of voluntary submission(4) « . There is therefore some imagination to be decolonized! Finally, trivially speaking, working is also granting oneself the possibility of consuming, and therefore of enjoying — on an egocentric level — and of exchanging signs with one’s fellow human beings — on a collective level (Jean Baudrillard, 1970). 

« But that’s inherent in the human condition, isn’t it? » we’ll hear. Well no, precisely, let’s forget for once the biblical episode of the Fall. Anthropologists Marshall Sahlins and Paul Shepard have relativized the place that productive work occupied in prehistory. The second states that it did not exceed seventeen hours per week in the Pleistocene(5). Early in civilization, the authors of Ecclesiastes judge work not as a tool of human solidarity, but as a source of conflict. In Greece, Diogenes and the Cynics rejected it, preferring the logic of the gift. With the Reformation, things take a more serious turn, « work becomes an end in itself, no longer a means of subsistence but a principle of existence, the destiny of man on earth fulfilling his vocation(6) « . A new discordant voice in the Age of Enlightenment with its outsider Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who sees the passage to work as the main factor of corruption and unhappiness of man in society, because work goes against the nature of it. In 1776, Adam Smith, a man of the Scottish Enlightenment, legitimized work according to a ternary vision: its social purpose is abundance, its condition is productivity and its means is productive investment. The Englishman Jeremy Bentham is even more direct: for him, the useful is confused with material production. The 19th century would develop wage labor in factories or, in the New World, extend slavery a little further. In Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx reaffirms that work is the first need of existence. It also points out that production has priority over society, consciousness and relations between people. Despite Paul Lafargue’s plea for his « right to laziness, » the consensus to mass-produce « happy slaves » (A. Honneth, 2006) has taken hold and endured. 

You don’t have to be a growth objector to see and feel the limits of the « Labour » model, part of the left is capable of it too. So what does the original degrowth bring to the debate? Alongside other key ideas — the sense of limits, the reduction of inequalities, relocalization, deceleration (see below), the decolonization of the imagination, voluntary simplicity, etc. — we have to take into account the fact that we have to be able to live in a world that is more sustainable. ‑It is therefore characterized by the rejection of the centrality of work in existence, for anthropological and ecological reasons. Let’s first look at the anthropological aspect. Firstly, to work less as an animal laborer(7), is to have the possibility to live better as a human being in connection with his fellow human beings in the various facets of life: love, friendship, care for others and for nature (care), political and associative activities, spiritual or aesthetic contemplation(8), etc. For individuals, fortunately, are far from being reduced to a set of material needs, as the ancient cynics had once again seen(9). Secondly, working less means allowing those who are entirely deprived of a « job » to make their contribution to the economic sphere and to give them something to strengthen their social identity; this is the classic idea of sharing work time that a fraction of the left also defends. Having decided this, two questions need to be asked. Firstly, the quality of jobs, when these are nowadays mostly repetitive, insipid, anti-ecological, often without any real use and/or mere complements of the machine. This quality of jobs does not necessarily follow from the abolition of private property. As Tolstoy wrote, « […] the concentration of the means of production in the hands of the capitalists has nothing to do with the sad condition of the shippers, the silk workers, or the thousands of workers who do a hard, unhealthy, and debilitating job(10). » The error of the labor movement was to aim at the appropriation and socialization of the value produced by labor, instead of seeking to abolish it. Secondly, that of a de-division of labor, to a certain extent. 

Let’s talk about the ecological aspect. Degrowth is a period of transition — a means and not an end — that will take us from an ecologically unsustainable society to a society that has regained a sustainable global ecological footprint, which it will promise not to exceed, and from which it will reinvent itself within the framework of a real democracy(11) (i.e., more direct and applicable to smaller communities). This presupposes relative social, political and technical stability, as well as the abandonment of the fantasy of linear and infinite progress as defined by the ideology of the Enlightenment. We will not be able to avoid it, it will be necessary, as a matter of urgency, to drastically reduce the flows of energy, materials and information that today saturate our world-economy, beginning with the wasteful West. To get there, there are no thirty-six solutions: first, produce less(12) (i.e. transform lesser quantities of materials) in the fields of industry and services; agriculture, which has necessarily become organic once again, will require more manpower because of the progressive disappearance of mechanization. Then, to consume less to enter a virtuous way of life made of simplicity, of sobriety, refusing the superfluous: « The simple, democratic and egalitarian life is « poor », and it is precisely in that that it is rich: it is stripped of the cumbersome and illusory ramparts that we erect for centuries against our own fears(13) « . It is also a question of relocating work in order to better control it democratically and to avoid energy-intensive transport, in other words to engage in a form of de-globalization. Farewell to the sweat shops of Bangladesh as well as to brilliant international careers! On the other hand, we can continue to rush headlong into the same productivist madness (whether from the left or the right); in this case, the earth’s ecosystem will itself blow the whistle on the end of the game. And then it will be painful! In the hypothesis of a rapid (catastrophic) collapse, salaried work will disappear, when the State will be ruined and disorganized, when paramilitary mafias will inflict their law in lawless areas, when energy supply will no longer be assured, when agricultural yields will decrease due to climatic disturbances(14), etc. Let’s hurry up and think about the parade before we get there! 

With these goals in place, the question remains as to what will drive social change. To say that collective representations must be transformed is obvious, but how to initiate the process? In an abstract and intellectual way by the education, school or not, of the young generations? By Doing (i.e. praxis) in alternatives to productivism (solidarity buying groups, collective urban vegetable gardens, local exchange services, Repair’s café, grouped housing, local and complementary currencies, etc., not to mention physical and artistic activities)? Or both? I am leaning towards the latter. Against the pragmatists, I argue that the human being is a being of logos, of language, of reflexivity, and that this constitutes an important part of his essence, I dare say. Against the idealists, I claim that thought must be based on and enriched by concrete experiments. To use a popular expression, it is a question of doing what one says, of refusing all velléité, by being inscribed in a « metaphysics of the effort » (cf. George Orwell). Then, at the same time, it will be useful to theorize what we are doing. 

Wouldn’t the question of time be decisive in a reflection on work? In late modernity, temporality is distorted, more than ever today by the tyranny of real time of the internet leading to presentism(15). In contrast to the phenomenon of acceleration described by Hartmut Rosa(16), degrowth advocates general deceleration(17). In a situation of ecological emergency, this appears to be an aporia… which, however, does not prevent us from finding concrete solutions. We need to make quick, life-saving political decisions while giving ourselves time to reflect; we need to decelerate urgently at all levels of life. First, in the private sphere, where it is least difficult to implement, because that is where the margin of freedom is greatest. (Re)starting to prepare one’s own meals with fresh and local products instead of baking an industrial pizza is a concrete example. Then in the workplace, but that’s another matter. In the second half of the twentieth century, the machine model, which used to characterize heavy industry, was progressively imported into a tertiary sector that was also required to comply with the demands of profitability and speed, under the pretext of productivity gains. And globally, the other times of existence have become dependent on industrial working time, which is given as an objective framework organizing social facts, whereas it is constructed from a system of arbitrary values that it expresses. We should not be fooled by the fact that working hours have decreased overall in Europe: it is qualitatively that economic labor has invaded our lives to the point of becoming the pillar of individual and social identity construction: « I am [ma profession]  » is a mantra heard daily. And what does it matter if the suffering at work does not cease to increase(18), persists this « mental training where the relations of force and distrust in the work are lived as an occasion of surpassing oneself and of surpassing its inhibitions […](19)  »

At the same time, the time devoted to consumption and leisure has grown in inverse proportion. These, which were supposed to counterbalance the oppressive work, were not as liberating as one would have hoped. Above all, they have had the effect of disciplining individuals even more, trapped/alienated in the infernal cycle of work and spending, but with a good dose of voluntary servitude! Producing less, replacing the producer-user couple by the community relationship (Jacques T. Godbout, 2007), legitimizing (non-polluting) activities outside of work, and above all questioning the market-productivist-hierarchical-integrated-specialized order (Surviving and Living collective) are ways to encourage degrowth. On the macroeconomic level, it is the aggregates that we need to reorganize: production, consumption, investment, trade, capital stock, public expenditure, labor, money supply. Finally, the digital and robotic surge that is gripping the planet is a worrying sign. It allows both to optimize work performance and consumerist impulses, in other words to enslave individuals even more surely to the Megamachine(20). To conclude, let’s go back to Roger Sue: « it is non-labor that is likely to revolutionize labor, and therefore the whole society(21).  »

Bernard Legros

Notes et références
  1. François Partant, Que la crise s’aggrave !, éd. Parangon, 2002, p. 181.
  2. Cf. Vincent Liégey, Stéphane Madelaine, Christophe Ondet, Anne-Isabelle Veillot, Manifeste pour une dotation inconditionnelle d’autonomie, un projet de décroissance, éd. Utopia, 2013.
  3. Nul besoin ici de faire la distinction entre le travail-corvée des ouvriers et employés, et le travail-performance des cadres. Le cycle du don est un autre remède contre les deux écueils que sont l’opulence et la misère.
  4. Axel Honneth, La société du mépris. Vers une nouvelle théorie critique, éd. La Découverte, 2006, p. 248.
  5. Cf. Paul Shepard, Retour aux sources du Pléistocène, éd. Dehors, 2013.
  6. Roger Sue, Temps et ordre social, PUF, 1995, p. 164.
  7. Selon la tripartition de Hannah Arendt, l’animal laborans consacre son énergie et son temps à la simple reproduction de ses conditions de vie biologiques, l’homo faber produit des œuvres durables, et le zoon politikon intervient sur la place publique pour participer à l’administration du bien commun.
  8. « Est-il fatal que ce soit le travail qui constitue le principe de médiation entre l’homme et ses semblables, entre l’homme et la nature ? » se demandait Jacques Ellul, in Pour qui, pour quoi travaillons-nous ?, éd. La petite vermillon, 2013, p. 12.
  9. Cf. Etienne Helmer, Diogène et les cyniques ou la liberté dans la vie simple, éd. Le passager clandestin, 2014.
  10. Léon Tolstoï, L’esclavage moderne, éd. Le pas de côté, 2012, pp. 25 & 26.
  11. Bien entendu, il est souhaitable que cette démocratie réelle se mette en place déjà pendant la transition décroissante.
  12. « […] l’homme d’aujourd’hui ne voit d’emblée dans le monde pris dans son entier qu’un matériau, il préfère s’imposer de nouveaux besoins plutôt que de laisser la nature intacte et inutilisée, et veut travailler, transformer et “achever” le monde dans son ensemble », in Günther Anders, L’obsolescence de l’homme. Sur l’âme à l’époque de la deuxième révolution industrielle, éd. L’Encyclopédie des nuisances, 2002, p. 214.
  13. Christian Arnsperger, Éthique de l’existence post-capitaliste. Pour un militantisme existentiel, éditions du Cerf, 2009, p. 292.
  14. Cf. les romans post-apocalyptiques Vicilisation, La chute de Chris Antone et La théorie des dominos d’Alex Scarrow.
  15. Idéologie affirmant que seul le présent existe, le passé et le futur n’ayant aucune consistance.
  16. Cf. Hartmut Rosa, Accélération. Une critique sociale du temps, éd. La Découverte, 2010.
  17. Cf. mon article éponyme dans La décroissance n° 83, octobre 2011, pp. 3 & 4.
  18. Cf. La décroissance, n° 117, mars 2015, p. 14 et Dominique Jacques Roth, Économie et psychanalyse. Le progrès en question, éd. L’Harmattan, 2011.
  19. Jean-Paul Curnier, Prospérités du désastre. Aggravation, 2, éd. Lignes, 2014, p. 85.
  20. Cf. Sherry Turkle, Seuls ensemble. De plus en plus de technologies, de moins en moins de relations humaines, éd. L’Echappée, 2015.
  21. Roger Sue, op. cit., p. 83.
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