© 2023 Paul Mobbs; released under the Creative Commons license.
Created: 2nd April 2023.
Length: ~2,800 words.
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To suggest that further economic growth has become near impossible is a ‘secular heresy’; one so great it automatically excludes that person from a leading role in politics or the media. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that research into degrowth gets such little attention.
French First Edition, Mille et Une Nuits, October 2007. ISBN 9782-7555-0007-3.
English First Edition (translated by David Macey), Polity Press, December 2009. ISBN 9780-7456-4617-6.
Originated by many figures over sixty years, ‘degrowth’ has become a cohesive movement over the last twenty or so. A leading figure is the French political scientist, Serge Latouch. His book, ‘Farewell to Growth’ (published two months before the economic crash of 2007), provides an introductory guide to what ‘degrowth’ represents, and why it may create a better life for many in the Western world – though I think a literal translation of the French title, “a small treatise on serene degrowth”, is more descriptive.
Latouche defines the term in the introduction:
“To begin with, ‘de-growth’ is… no more than a banner that can rally those who have made a radical critique of development, and who want to outline the contours of an alternative project for a post-development politics. Its goal is to build a society in which we can live better lives whilst working less and consuming less. It is an essential proposition if we are to open up a space for the inventiveness and creativity of the imagination, which has been blocked by economistic, developmentalist, and progressive totalitarianism.”
From my own experience, making such statements in public marks the point where people in the audience start to shuffle and fall quiet. In a media environment where economic growth is treated as an ‘incontestable good’, to even question it leaves many confused.
Degrowth represents a whole new approach to how we provide goods and services in society. As Latouche says:
“De-growth is not, in my view, the same thing as negative growth. That expression is an absurd oxymoron, but it is a clear indication of the extent to which we are dominated by the imaginary of growth. We know that simply contracting the economy plunges our society into disarray… Just as there is nothing worse than a work-based society in which there is no work, there is nothing worse than growth-based society in which growth does not materialise. And that social and cultural regression is precisely what is in store for us if we do not change direction.”
A society predicated upon constant growth, made worse in recent years by fuelling that process with debt, is fundamentally unstable. The seemingly inevitable concentration of economic power it creates also leads to greater inequality, excluding many from the profits of growth; even-more-so when states bail-out failing financial institutions, protecting the private wealth of creditors by nationalising the losses created.
Latouche explores inequality as one of the key reasons why the modern economic process is failing:
“While pauperisation in the economic sense seemed counter-intuitive in the North during the consumerist age, deculturalisation and depoliticalisation were becoming much more pronounced… the rise of mass marketing (supermarkets and hypermarkets), the car and the television surreptitiously undermined citizenship, creating a ‘second people’ who were almost invisible, had no voice, and could be readily manipulated by the power of unscrupulous media with links to transnational companies.”
At its simplest, exponential growth in a finite environment must crash at some point. The founders of modern economics, such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, foresaw this. For Latouche, the culture created by adopting growth as the primary social imperative is also at the root of the ecological crisis:
“Advertising makes us want what we do not have and despise what we already have. It creates and re-creates the dissatisfaction and tension of frustrated desire… Prime necessities have been forgotten. Increasingly, demand no longer centres on very useful goods, but on very useless goods. Advertising is an essential element in the viscious and suicidal circle of exponential growth.”
One of the psychological drives which influences human decision-making is ‘fear of loss’. Modern capitalism’s greatest success has been to make the public associate its core principles – free markets, private property, and economic growth – as being intrinsically linked to the maintenance of their own lives; and that losing these would be the end of that existence.
For Latouche, this is a failure of human imagination, which would otherwise allow us to see beyond these arbitrary restrictions:
“Once again, a certain decolonisation of the imaginary is required. Whilst they do not necessarily worship progress and modernity (which we all do to some extent), ‘decent people’ are obsessed with a fear of going backwards, which would mean poverty and humiliation for them… Their fear of being plunged back into a wretched past is, no matter how distorted their memories may be, quite legitimate.”
The alternatives Latouche examines – from greater regionalisation and local economies, to greater democratic accountability in politics and economics, to more durable consumer goods and public transport – are too complex to explore here. The key point about degrowth is that there are alternatives; and that to avoid an inevitable decline, we need to abandon the primacy of economic growth in order to fully explore those alternative approaches.
For a number of reasons – illustrated by two decades of poor growth and failing financial institutions – this is the predicament we face today: While politicians refuse to discuss, critically, the reasons why growth has reached its limits, we will remain trapped within the self-justifying rationale of a failing economic process.
With the added urgency of the ecological crisis we have moved beyond the realms of ‘reform’. We must find different, more stable mechanisms to secure our essential needs for living. That, ultimately, is the core message of Latouche’s book.
This is the first of four related reviews, the relevance of which, I’m almost certain, will escape the perceptions of quite a few – and annoy a few more who do accept the underlying theme of this series. Therefore, I think it’s worth being clear why I’m grouping these works together, which is something I’ll develop in the ‘afterthoughts’ section of each review.
From Jacques Ellul, to Albert Camus, to Guy Debord, perhaps it’s the revolutionary spirit of the French people – who as I write are once-again massing in the streets to oppose the worsening of their economic conditions – which allows French academics to depart from the approved script and think ‘outside the box’. For those who have studied ecological issues, and the long-standing debate over technological development, reading ‘Farewell to Growth’ connects many dots, allowing us to see how the assumptions and beliefs of the economic and political process obstruct real, positive change.
After the publication of my book, ‘Energy Beyond Oil’, in 2006 I began a new project centred around the then developing ideas of ‘degrowth’. I called it, ‘Less is a Four-Letter Word’. It sought to explore the growing body of research showing that a society based upon perpetual growth must – for both technological, ecological, and economic reasons – ultimately fail.
By 2011, I had given up on that project; the title I had chosen was self-fulfilling. Especially following the financial crash of 2007, people were offended by yet more criticism of a system they felt a grudging, yet necessary dependence upon. And in the height of the economic strife which followed that collapse, to consider, ‘having less’, was just too much to ask.
This is the more general problem about discussing ‘degrowth’: As Latouche outlines, across much the Western political and media environment, any systematic criticism of the core ideas of capitalism is rejected, or ridiculed; and if you persist to advance such arguments, very quickly you realise the accuracy of his words, “blocked by economistic, developmentalist, and progressive totalitarianism”.
The logic behind the modern economic process is self-referential, and is therefore not critically introspective: Any criticism results in a doubling-down upon the same failing tropes – be that technological innovation, or calls for the liberalisation of markets and business standards; which over the last seventy years have forced both painful social degradation, greater economic inequality, as well as progressively greater ecological destruction through the material demands of those states which have most zealously enacted growth-led policies.
Put simply, modern economics has become a ‘secular religion’: With all the dogma, adherence to the liturgy and sacred texts, and an institutional intolerance towards non-believers, that typifies the practise of established religions. And though it claims to be based upon reason, clearly, any process which pursues a course of action that leads to its own destruction cannot be considered ‘rational’.
It is the self-referential nature of economic theory – a belief that if the economic medicine hasn’t worked then it’s because the dose hasn’t been strong enough – which traps the public, stripped of agency by a seemingly theocratic state, within such limited horizons for change. More significantly, as the major political parties and the mass media routinely exclude those who raise well-researched criticisms, the alternative options are never openly explored – and therefore, no popular political movement supporting these ideas can emerge.
Even when relatively radical proposals are advanced from within mainstream politics the highly centralised, and elitist nature of this system conspires to obstruct change – as shown by the way the political and media establishment combined to bring-down Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, pushing a largely fabricated storyline to unseat him; and yet when that system commits the very same offences it accuses others of committing, the system’s ideological exceptionalism allows such egregious crimes to pass unchallenged – such as Keir Starmer’s failure to address racism and bigotry in the Labour Party, or the Western media as a whole failing to recognise the parallels between the invasion of Iraq and the invasion of Ukraine.
So here we are: Trapped in a representative democracy which only ‘represents’ a narrow set of economic interests; seemingly unable to escape the inevitable fate of declining economic and environmental well-being which awaits us if we stay on this ‘expansionist’ pathway.
That is why we must work from the bottom-up to popularise the ideas of ‘degrowth’ – circumventing the restrictions on debate imposed from above.
As Latouche discusses throughout the book, we can’t simply halt growth because that would hasten the collapse, and inevitably create the kinds of social strife which would amplify this crisis. Instead we need to enact measured alternatives to that process, progressively replacing elements of the existing economic and political system with more stable alternatives – to keep the essential material, social and cultural heart of society beating.
Of course, if society as a whole cannot do this, then those who are able should try to do this independently – trialling the realisable options for rapid change, to create a base of knowledge and experience for others to follow, before the greater crisis takes effect.
Arguably, this is where the ‘broad church’ of degrowth studies diverges – which, as Latouche admits, is really, “no more than a banner that can rally those who have made a radical critique of development”. This is where ‘the personal becomes political’, and where we must accept that differences of opinion must exist and be recognised.
As we “open up a space for the inventiveness and creativity of the imagination” to find solutions to our daily needs, so it opens up many different opportunities for disagreement. For this reason we must learn, as a society, to enact many different ideas simultaneously, so that we can trial as many different options as possible, relatively quickly, to see ‘what works’.
Of course, such a response does not work within the centralised, top-down, and elitist systems of control typified by liberal capitalism. Such changes don’t necessarily mean an end to markets, or self-interest, and it definitely does not require, “going backwards”; but it does mean accepting that the historic concentration of economic power created by economic colonialism, globalisation, and proprietary rights, is an obstruction to change – and freeing ordinary people of those restrictions is a precondition to allow a more diverse set of responses to enact radical change.
This is why I think Latouche’s point about radical localisation is so important. Liberal capitalism is ‘monotheistic’ – its central philosophy provides a top-down set of rules which are not open to criticism from below: That is its key power for domination; but that is also its greatest weakness – due to the inflexible, dictatorial, and unequal nature of the social impacts it creates.
The point about localism, and creating local democratic control over the economic process, is that it allows far greater flexibility – taking account of both the culture of the locality and the ecological characteristics of the area.
The modern political state inevitably gives rise to regional inequalities, as liberal capitalism centralises and homogenises to create ever-greater economic efficiency. Localisation removes that tendency for the national or global centralisation of economic power by enshrining decision-making, and the flow of wealth and resources, within as small a geographical area as possible. Of course, that will never be as ‘economically efficient’ – albeit in most cases it will be more ‘ecologically efficient’ – and so the presently-accepted norms and expectations of liberal politics and economics can no longer apply.
Which, inevitably, brings us to the issue of ‘technological progress’:
The modern idea of ‘technological progress’, which developed in parallel to the economic processes which gave rise to the belief in endless growth, is based upon physical processes limited by both the laws of physics and the availability of finite resources. All technological and efficiency measures represent a limited, and on average a diminishing return – and over recent decades the pace of new technological discoveries has consistently diminished. It is this discrepancy between ‘ideological belief’ and ‘physical reality’ which negates the idea that, ‘technology will save us’.
The dominant belief in technology and ‘progress’ is arguably pursued as a proxy; avoiding harder discussions over the very real limitations of the political and economic system which creates both human inequality and ecological destruction. This dogmatic belief – again, part of the self-referential arguments of liberal capitalism – prevents any progress being made on stopping climate change and other forms of ecological destruction; it constantly promises ‘jam tomorrow’, but that promised ‘tomorrow’ never really arrives.
In Britain, the structure of land ownership and planning laws trap most people in urban areas, where they are wholly dependent upon the economic process for all their needs. Modern urbanism, which developed in Britain in parallel to the Industrial Revolution, has now been replicated across the world, trapping much of humanity within this same, doomed system of exploitation and control.
At the same time, the current political and economic system obstructs people’s desire to change the way they live by demanding that all ideas for change conform to ‘economic’ expectations – and seeks to obstruct those with more radical ideas from realising them. Property rights, especially, and the concentration of land ownership amongst an economic elite, restrict people’s ability to change. In Britain, land ownership represents a centuries old division of the land and national wealth which, alongside the systems of planning controls, prevents people adopting the kinds of low impact, self-supporting lifestyle that would truly reduce our impact upon the global environment.
Without such radical changes to underlying assumptions, technology alone can never deliver the scale of change required to avoid ecological collapse. Structural change is essential to adapt to climate breakdown, resource depletion, and the global tensions which will result from these effects in a world which is addicted to increasing material consumption.
In all likelihood, by the time the situation becomes so bad that the economic theocracy can no longer avoid reality – as in Galbraith’s classic argument on the power of ‘the conventional wisdom’ to stall change – the catastrophic failure Latouche believes is inevitable will be unavoidable. For those trapped within urban society, separated from their basic food and material needs by a rent-extracting economic process, this very real outlook should easily overwhelm most people’s ‘loss aversion’ to create a movement for radical change. Arguably, as Latouche notes at many points, the reason this does not happen is that politics and the media does not represent the mass of the people; instead it represents the economic power of the institutions controlling the state, blocking such troublesome issues from being objectively presented via the mass media.
The degrowth movement exists to advance these difficult arguments – to take the large body of evidence as to why the current economic process is failing, and propose a range of alternatives which might avert the catastrophic failure of this system. If these arguments are not commonly heard it is not due to a lack of research evidence, or a lack of practical alternatives; it is due to the deference of our politics and media to an economic elite who dominated society today. Ignoring the arguments from the degrowth movement will not make these realities go away. Instead the inexorable decline of well-being across Western states will continue, preceding an ever-more inevitable collapse as each year passes without action to address the causes of this decline.