RAGEMAG: Degrowth: back to the future. Interview with Vincent Liegey

RAGEMAG logoPublished in RAGEMAG, 08/09/2012, by Adrien Mideau.

The snail of Degrowth has finally established itself in the gardens of the French politics and economics. But misunderstanding still abound vis à vis this concept, deliberately provocative, but most of all critical of our lifestyles. Encounter with Vincent Liegey, member of the French Degrowth Party (Parti Pour la Décroissance).

Degrowth: What on earth is it?

To begin with, the term Degrowth evokes a new multidimensional worldview, combining many different sources and approaches: it is based upon the physical limits of growth with, for example, depletion of natural resources, together with its cultural limits. Here, I allude to a critique of consumerism, productivism, capitalism, the value of work, of the showbiz society, etc … I refer to the works of Ivan illich on conviviality.

This term has gradually imposed itself as a provocative slogan intent on opening a societal debate on the fact that an infinite growth in a finite world is neither possible nor desirable.

Finally, to lift the veil on these confidential reflections, Degrowth came about as a new name for a political movement born in France around 10 years ago; it has been getting a gradual global follow up since. This movement has a collective dimension based on practical initiatives such as the AMAP, community gardens, bicycle repairs workshops, eco-villages, alternative local currencies, transition, permaculture and it is also a reflexion represented by the international research network Research and Degrowth. Degrowth unfolds throughout meetings-debates, demonstrations, civil disobedience happenings, or participation in elections in a non-electioneering way. The individual level plays an important part by choosing voluntary simplicity and the concept of the decolonisation of our imaginaries.

Finally, there are as many pathways to Degrowth as there are Growth objectors. We endeavour to nurture a diversity of approaches while building an horizontal network of collectives, endorsing one or more of the five levels of Degrowth.

Is Degrowth reactionary?

Admittedly, the term Degrowth is provocative, that is its major strength. But, far too often caricatured, we are victims of preconceived ideas that would have Degrowth as a return to candlelight and, more generally, an unbearable backward turnaround sacrificing social progress and technological development. If it were the case, we would be reactionary.

But our movement is based at once on a radical critique of growth society; radical from its understanding of the contemporary crises we are faced with and by the way we address them at the root level. From this anthropological analysis of the crisis, we are trying to design a serene and democratic transition to new sustainable and, above all, desirable societal models, From the standpoint of an opening of new living spaces, ideas, and a re-appropriation of the meaning we want for our lives, we are opposed to the “reactionaries” who defend more the status quo than a questioning. Degrowth is in no way a return to a mythicised past. This would be totally absurd. It is about building new practices opposed to an all-out individualism that is destroying our Western societies. We are trying to decolonise our imaginaries, imbued with the religion of the Economy and money and most importantly with “more is always better”.

Who are the supporters of the Degrowth movement? Is it a nebulous “bobo”?

The sociological make-up of the Degrowthists is similar to the political movements with a far Left tendency. Many young people do not recognise themselves in this societal model, they are bored at work and want to reclaim their lives by joining movements close to Degrowth. Among us are environmental and extreme Left activists wanting to give a more radical dimension to their demands.
We have to admit that a majority of Degrowth activists are influenced by the people known as “the Bobos” (bourgeois bohemian) … with a major difference though: they live according to their ideas!

Howeever, with the crisis, the movement is evolving and we are witnessing a convergence between Degrowth by choice (the rather-privileged people who can choose to build a different way of life) and an enforced recession (the austerity plans’ victims, who are forced to take over the production means to survive). A phenomenon we can see at work in Detroit and in Greece for example.

Is Degrowth fundamentally from the Left? Or does it transcend the Right/Left distinction?

Since its inception, Degrowth rests upon Left values; social and environmental justice but also solidarity as our slogan states it: degrowth in inequalities must be the first of all Degrowths! But, it at odds with a certain universalist Left, mostly French and it is therefore very critical of the cultural imperialism it represents.

Opening a debate on the Left/Right distinction might be intellectually satisfying but it is politically dangerous. This crisis pushes more and more people away and ethnic isolationism and the hatred of the Other must be avoided. Instead, an always-more populist Right exacerbates them, as we have seen in France over the last few years. It is important to remember that these are Left values, even though we remain critical of a certain self-rightuous Left, prisoner of a one-dimensional ideology!

Which of these three words defines Degrowth best: de-globalisation, protectionism, or open re-localisation? What is the role of nation-states and borders?

We cannot put de-globalisation and protectionism on the same level. Both could appeal to extreme Right movements. An open relocalisation is more appropriate because it is inscribed in an approach that is more respectful of cultural diversity and more open towards the Other.

Indeed, why protect ourselves and from whom? This is a fundamental question. An open relocalisation is desirable on obvious ecological and energy grounds (local production, biologic possibly) and even more on social, cultural, and democratic grounds: a fairer and more participative democracy is more meaningful at a local level.

What is voluntary simplicity?

Voluntary simplicity is an individual endeavour that entails questioning one’s lifestyle in order to reduce one’s ecological footprint and to make it more sustainable and more enjoyable.

Consumption and competitiveness are no longer the hallmarks of our lives and they are replaced by different values such as sobriety, conviviality or “buen vivir”.

Practically, it might mean reconsidering our mode of transport by opting for soft transports or public transports or to question our alimentation to change our food habits, to reduce our working time to have more leisure time. The latter is a precious commodity necessary to change the scope of our reflection. We must stop living in the moment and slow down, be more considerate towards the Other, reflecting… on the meaning of our lives or to free ourselves from the consuming habits created by advertising that make us believe that happiness can only be achieved by having “always more”.

Isn’t Degrowth more appropriate for the rural environment?

Degrowth is happening everywhere, in the countryside, in towns, but in schools as well, in work places or institutions, etc… It is a transition project that calls into question the devilish cycles of growth leading us into a wall. In our project we establish a balance between the occupation of space between the city and the countryside. It covers a voluntary exodus to the countryside but also a sea or tree change. Our mega-cities have entered a frightening energy impasse. Without oil, the most basic needs cannot be fulfilled within a few days. This is why we need to free ourselves from this dependency and try to establish urban and country solidarity communities as autonomous as possible, whilst maintaining links.

What is the Unconditional Autonomy Allowance (DIA: Dotation Inconditionnelle d’Autonomie)? How is it funded?

The Unconditional Autonomy Allowance (UAA) is a social and economic tool, the result of many years of discussions in the Degrowth movement. It is about the convergence of a few principles: a basic income, the concept of free usage of certain goods in certain conditions, the penalisation of misuse, the development of local alternative exchange systems such as local fluid currencies and LETs, the exit from the religion of the Economy, a democratic re-appropriation of the financial and monetary system, local currency creation and the implementation of an open re-localisation.

The UAA is necessarily coupled with a maximum acceptable income. This allowance consists in allocating to all, from birth to death, unconditionally, what we, after consultation, consider necessary to lead a simple and dignified life. Access to housing, workshops, or a piece of land is included in the allowance. It also entails free access to a water allowance, to locally produced food (through local currencies), to energy as well as public services: health, education, transports or culture and freedom of access to a free, diverse and varied information.

Lastly, The UAA is a mean to re-socialise politics and to re-politicise of society, since its content is necessarily discussed, as well as the repartition of arduous tasks inherent to its implementation. It is based on these three questions: What should we produce? How? And for what purpose?

It is not delivered in Euros but in access rights: its funding is therefore conditional to a democratic decision-making process. The matter of funding is a trick question since the issue is to know if we want to implement measures to exit capitalism and its logic of growth. In the affirmative, we have to organise ourselves in the same manner others did after WWII to impose important social measures such as Social Security in France.

Who are the political enemies of Degrowth?

The term “enemies” is not appropriate as our approach is non-violent and open to dialogue. All of us are confronted with an implicit belief but also a systemic dependence on growth. We have to deconstruct the religion of Growth, of the Economics (homo economicus) to be able to propose a project, a trajectory and a method. Degrowth proposes a transition towards new paradigms. These types of societal transformations take time. It is at once a psychological, cultural, social, economic, institutional and political transition. We are confronted with short deadlines in these times of converging crises that are both energy and economic: both are linked. We must be present in all the political fields our society to spread Degrowth and threw the seeds of reflections, criticisms, as well as projects and proposals, alternative practical experiments; in the hope that when the conditions are ripe they will bloom. We are already witnessing a convergence between Degrowth by choice and an endured recession. Lets hope that we effect a transition and minimise the negative consequences and the ills of these deadly austerity plans we reject!

Degrowth or barbarism, our “enemies” are wars, and ethnic isolationism, xenophobes and racist discourses, austerity plans as an answer to the crises imposed by the oligarchies that are fuelling this atmosphere. We are also fighting against eco-fascisms that are bound to pop up in the oncoming years. One thing is certain, Degrowth will be democratic, or it won’t happen.

You are representing the PPLD (Parti Pour La Décroissance – French Degrowth Party). But there is also the Party des Ojectors de Croissance (Growth Objectors Party), the Mouvement des Objecteurs de Croissance (Growth Objectors Movement), not to mention the Journal de La Décroissance (Degrowth Magasine), le Sarkophage, etc… The “snails” ‘ environment is quite chaotic! Where does the PPLD fit?

Vincent Liegey (left) with Serge Latouche , Emeritus Professor of Economics and Degrowth thinker 

Diversity is coherent: we rely on a great variety of sources and approaches at the project and organisation levels. Since the beginning, we have tried to address the question of how we can spread Degrowth in a coherent manner. After a few experiments, we ended up questioning our relation to power to build a movement that is horizontal, democratic and respectful of diversity, so that local groups can be autonomous. Through this diversity, these discussions, different structures, we build, we experiment, step by step, what could be tomorrow’s Degrowth societies.

Serge Latouche often mentions Einstein’s famous words: « We cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking that created them. Let’s open new spaces to live together in accordance with our principles! »

For its part, the PPLD is a collective aiming at enhancing the visibility and the ideas of Degrowth, to do a work of reflection and debate, to propose texts, press releases and ideas and to help create a network of local and autonomous collectives. We collaborate regularly with MOC (Movement des Objecteurs de Croissance – Growth Objectors Movement) and the POC (Parti des Objecteurs de Croissance – Growth Objectors Party), mainly during electoral campaigns, we also contribute to publications such as: Sarkophage , Le Journal de La Décroissance with which we have a methodological disagreement , Silence and Entropia. It is very important that we decolonise our centralising imaginary.

Are there any Growth objectors within Europe Écologie Les verts (French Green Party)? Are your ideas favorably received by other political formations such the Parti de Gauche (Left party), the Socialist Party and why not – the UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire – Union for a Popular Movement) and the Front National (National Front)?

There are Growth Objectors in most Left parties and political movements (EELV, PG, PS, the alternatives, ATTAC, Utopia, etc…). In their respective ways, they contribute to open the debates within their own structures. For example Degrowth entered the French National Assembly with Yves Cochet (Green MEP) in 2008. The Left Party received our conditional support during the last elections, mainly due to their work on ecological planning. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s openness, manifested in an interview with Hervé Kempf has played a part in this conditional support. Some Growth Objectors have joined the NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitalist – New Anti-Capitalist Party) in some electoral districts during the legislative elections. Some members of Socialist Party’s ecological commission have worked on Degrowth and the Jean Jaurès Foundation published their work. Finally, other Growth Objectors pursue their own path outside these structures. The ideas on Degrowth are expanding and we keep on following our convergence of anti-capitalist and anti-productivism Left strategies.

Finally, committed to Growth or not, European companies are edging on recession, a kind of degrowth. Does your movement wish for such an outcome?

Degrowth by choice should not be mistaken for endured recession. Austerity plans implemented and imposed upon peoples have unacceptable social and inhumane consequences! Technocratic elites, blindly serving the financial oligarchy, implement them. They try to salvage an absurd, stillborn economic system based on exponential growth and, in so doing, they are destroying education, health, environment, culture and families and citizens are pushed to suicide. This pathway is leading us to very sinister hours, even more because our states have developed a repressive police force.

We refute these austerity plans and the illusory and desperate quest for a return to a strong and durable growth. It is time to get out of this religion of the Economy and to reappropriate in a democratic manner the financial and money creation system. Lets use this last tool and others to protect ourselves and become serene and autonomous through the implementation of the UAA (Unconditional Autonomy Allowance), coupled with a Maximum Acceptable Income to initiate a democratic and peaceful transition towards a serene, sustainable and convivial Degrowth.

Degrowth does not stand for a negative growth. It is a step aside, an exit from the capitalist, productivist and consumerist logics that are socially, environmentally, humanly and politically destructive.

Bhutan has implemented a GHI (Growth National Happiness). Isn’t this small Asian country, the first country in the world to have officially chosen Degrowth?

Bhutan has contributed to open the international debate on alternative well-being indicators when it instituted his Gross National Happiness index. A few countries have followed suit, for example France with the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Report, some UN persons or Equator with inscribing the “Buen Vivir” concept in its constitution.

But changing the constitution and changing the indicators is not sufficient because it carries the risk of locking up Degrowth in a reductionist and scientist approach that would lead to another religion. This is why, even if we follow their endeavours and works, we remain critical and we remind all that it is important to go forward by pushing for a diversity of sources and approaches and the radicalism of our approach. Degrowth’ s coherence resides in its diversity and its radicalism. To push them aside would lead us into dogmatic impasses, the history of which highlights their monstrosity.

If our readers were to implement Degrowth principles now, what would be a typical day?

A typical day? Working less, live better. Reclaiming the tools for a greater autonomy. Sharing the arduous tasks to live better together. A typical day would be a mixture of sharing collective tasks: gardening, DIY, cooking, eco-construction, etc.), convivial moments (a good meal, fiesta, play), culture (reading, music, poetry, artistic creation, etc.), political and intellectual exchanges (participate in the city life through meetings based on good listening, non-violent communication, etc.). It would also involve travelling and meeting (using soft transport such as bicycle), leisure time and meditation and freedom.

Degrowth is about advancing this contemporary utopian idea that will become tomorrow’s reality. We need utopias to aim for, whist humbly admitting that we might not get there. Lets’ build the society we wish for with what we have and where we live.


French Degrowth Party: here

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, one of the founding Fathers of Degrowth: here

Collective Research anmad Degrowth: here


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