During David Cameron’s speech on austerity in the Lord Mayor’s banquet, the UK Prime Minister called for a “fundamental culture change.”
He condemned idleness and invoked the traditional British value of hard work. “Put simply,” he said, “no country can succeed in the long term if capable people are paid to stay idle and out of work.” People are trapped into unemployment by high benefits, Cameron noted: “For generations, people who could work have been failed by the system and stuck on benefits.” Benefits will be lowered, he promised, and no one will see any reward in staying idle or working less: “we are ensuring that for every extra hour your work and every extra job you do, you should always be better off.” In Cameron‘s talk, the State is the problem, not the solution; it has to be shrunk, become leaner and limit itself to setting and enforcing rules, letting markets and the private sector produce wealth. His talk was a celebration of private enterprise: “The UK economy should be based on enterprise … we need to support, reward and celebrate enterprise … make sure it is boosted everywhere, promoted in schools, taught in colleges, celebrated in communities.”
Paul Krugman comments on Lawrence Summers’ talk at the IMF where he raised the spectre of a “secular stagnation” for the U.S. economy, that is a long-term zero growth state. For Krugman this is the result of a liquidity trap, which makes state spending vital. Ideally such spending should be productive; but even unproductive spending is better than nothing, Krugman argues. The important is to get circulation going. Hide money or gold in caves and have enterprises dig it up, as Keynes proposed. Fake a threat from non-existent space aliens and spend for military protection (Krugman’s “own favorite”). Or get U.S. enterprises “to fit out all their employees as cyborgs, with Google Glass and smart wristwatches everywhere.” Even if this does not pay off, “the resulting investment boom would have given us several years of much higher employment, with no real waste, since the resources employed would have otherwise been idle.”
These two discourses, that dominate public debate in our time, the discourses of austerity and stimulus spending appear on the surface to be worlds apart. Cameron calls for an unprecedented cultural change, when in fact he re-invokes Locke’s instructions to the emerging bourgeoisie, what Max Weber later called “the protestant ethic”: work hard, and deny self-indulgence and pleasure. This way capital will accumulate and enterprises produce wealth, Cameron suggests.
In the current conjuncture there is no doubt that Cameron’s project is classist, redistributing upward. The working classes are asked to tighten their belt and accept the loss of services provided to them, free or subsidized, by the common wealth, so that the rich do not have to shoulder higher taxes to sustain the common wealth in the absence of growth. The Keynesian project instead seems to put the employment of the working classes first; its advocacy of public spending seems, at least in principle, not to be regressive (even if it is not destined to what one would normally call public services).
But, we maintain, what is common between the two discourses is more instructive than what separates them. Both Cameron and Krugman are concerned with “investment.” The former thinks that investment will be unleashed by raising the confidence of the markets that State expenditures are under control. The latter, wants the State to kick-start investment by pouring money in the economy. They differ on the “how,” but what both want is to see capital circulating and expanding again. The second feature they share is their abhorrence of “idleness.” For Cameron, the problem is the idleness of workers and the resources wasted by the State to support it. For Krugman the problem is the idleness of capital and the waste of productive resources that could otherwise be invested. For Cameron the problem is the worker who doesn’t work, for Krugman the capital that doesn’t flow.
On the contrary, we who advocate for degrowth are not afraid of idleness. Paul Lafargue’s provocative, “The right to be lazy” is our inspiration. A society that has developed so many resources surely can extend the right to idleness from the few rich to everyone, Lafargue argued in 1883, and André Gorz elaborated 100 years after. We degrowthers also are not afraid of the idleness of capital; we desire it. Degrowth involves slowing capital down. The essence of capitalism is the continuous reinvestment of surplus into new production. Wealth in industrialist societies is what can be invested again.
The spending proposed by Krugman and Summers appears wasteful and unproductive in the short-term, but is productive in the long-term: it is a utilitarian spending whose goal is to value capital, so that it does not stand idle, re-launching its circulation and growth. Worse, implicit in their proposal is the assumption that public policies must not engage with the meaning of life and the creation of a political collective. On the contrary, for us, the current socio-ecological crisis urges to overcome capitalism’s senseless growth through the means of a social dépense. Dépense refers to a genuinely collective expenditure — the spending in a collective feast, the decision to subsidise a class of spirituals to talk about philosophy, or to leave a forest idle — an expenditure that in strictly economic sense is unproductive. Practices of dépense “burn” capital out and take it out of the sphere of circulation, slowing it down. Such collective “waste” is not for personal utility or for the utility of capital. It aspires to be political. It offers a process through which a collective could make sense of and define the “good life,” rescuing individuals from their illusionary and meaningless privatized lives.
Dépense generates horror, not only among the supporters of austerity, but also among Keynesians, Marxists and radicals of all sorts, including many ecologists. Witness the reaction to the set-up for Cameron’s talk. Progressives panicked because the PM was calling for austerity while standing in a sumptuous hall surrounded by furniture crafted in gold. Instead, we are not particularly concerned with such lavish expenditure, by a public institution such as the City of London Corporation that was founded in the Middle Age. The gold of the Mayor’s Hall is an unproductive expenditure with the anti-utilitarian essence of a by-gone era that preceded capitalism. For Keynesians, what was appalling in this picture is the display of idle wealth; not for us. The contradiction is not between Cameron’s call for austerity in the midst of golden furniture; the real contradiction is between his call for an austere state, in the midst of a place that symbolizes an era during which sovereigns were not shy of dépense.
The Mayor’s Hall is a form of public dépense, which we do not want to reproduce, but that we not reproach as such. We are aware that the gold in London’s Guildhall is the outcome of the exploitation of workers, colonies and ecosystems by the British Empire. We are against such dispossessions and depletions. But our point here is about the destiny of surplus, not its origin. Social surplus might be, and has often been the outcome of exploitation, but it doesn’t have to: commonwealth can be generated without exploitation. The progressives who took issue with Cameron’s talk condemned the contradiction between the display of wealth and his call for austerity. Indeed, there is nothing contradictory to call upon between this wealth being a product of exploitation, and Cameron’s call for austerity, i.e. more exploitation of workers.
Many ecologists will find it hard to accept a non-utilitarian waste of resources, because their imaginary is so strongly wedded to the idea of natural scarcity. But scarcity is social. Since the stone-age we have had more than what we need for a basic standard of living. The original affluent societies of Sahlins did not experience scarcity, not because they had a lot, but because they did not know what scarcity means and thought they always had enough. They consumed what they gathered, and they never accumulated. Scarcity calls for economizing and accumulating; this is why the common sense in industrial society is that scarcity is the major problem of humanity. This is why scarcity is the sine qua non of capitalism. Our message to frugal ecologists is that it is better to waste resources in gold decorations in a public building or drink them in a big feast than put them in good use accelerating even more the extraction of new resources and the degradation of the environment. It is the only way to escape Jevons paradox, the fact that the more efficient we become, and the more resources we save, the more we end up consuming as their cost goes down. Accumulation drives growth, not waste. Even in a society of frugal subjects with a downscaled metabolism, there will still be a surplus that would have to be dispensed, if growth is not to be reactivated.
For those who are concerned that there are not enough resources to secure basic needs, let alone waste them uselessly, let us note the incredible amount of resources currently dispensed in bubbles and zero-sum positional games, whose aim is nothing else than the circulation of capital (in fact what Krugman calls for). Economists realize now that bubbles are not an aberration; they are vital for capitalism and growth. Think of the immense amount of resources spent on professional sports, cinema and commercial modern art, financial services or all sorts of positional consumption (the latest cars, houses or gadgets whose only fleeting value is that they are the latest). A football game is as pleasant as 50 years ago, when sports were practiced by amateurs, and a movie or a painting no better today than then, despite the huge amounts of capital that circulate to finance and market sports and arts. “Ferraris for all” is the elusive dream of growth, but when everyone has a Ferrari, Ferrari will be the Fiat of its generation. Economists have called for limits on such zero-sum competition for positional consumption, limits that would liberate resources for real growth. We instead want to liberate these resources to secure basic needs and to collectively feast with the rest to avow the political of a new era.
At the same time that capitalist discourses blame the idleness of the “factors of production” at the societal level, they foster the privatization of wasteful consumption: the individual can get drunk, spend all his or her savings at the casino, organize private parties with champagne and caviar for his or her entourage, deplete accumulated resources in luxurious hobbies or conspicuous shopping, or lease beautiful bodies of women and men for orgiastic VIP parties. All this personalized dépense is allowed in the name of the liberty of each individual to elusively search in his or her personal sphere for the meaning of life. The unquestionable premise of a modern society is the right of each person to accumulate resources beyond basic needs and use them for realizing what he or she thinks is a “good life.” As a consequence the system has to constantly grow to allow each and every one the opportunity to pursue this right, as it pretends to do in the abstract.
This central feature of modernity has affected many strains of Marxism too, which pushed the dream of collective emancipation to the extreme by means of a life of material abundance for everyone. Actually existing socialist regimes found that basic needs could well be satisfied for everyone. But in doing so, they repressed private dépense and disavowed socialized dépense (counting out military parades and ceremonies in honour of Stakhanovite bureaucrats). The hypothesis put forward here is that it was the nullification of both private and social dépense that led to the social failure and eventually collapse of these regimes.
In the degrowth society we imagine, dépense will be brought back to the public sphere, but sobriety will characterize the individual. We are inspired here by the use of the notion of sobriety by Italian Communist Party’s historical Secretary, Enrico Berlinguer, for what he called a “revolutionary austerity,” an austerity which stands at the antipode of today’s conservative and imposed one. This call for personal sobriety is not in the name of financial deficits, ecological limits or moral grounds; ours is not the Protestant call of conservatives. Our claim for sobriety is based on the premise that finding the meaning of life individually is an anthropological illusion. Consider for example those rich individuals who after having it all get depressed and don’t know what to do with their lives. Finding meaning alone is an illusion that leads to ecologically harmful and socially unjust outcomes since it cannot be sustained for everyone. The sober subject of degrowth that we envision, does not aspire to the private accumulation of things; because he or she wants to be free from the necessity to find the meaning of life individually. People should take themselves less seriously, so to say, and enjoy living free from the unbearable weight of limitless choice. Like the pianist in the movie, The Legend of 1900, the sober subject knows well not to desire a piano with limitless keys. Like the pianist, he or she will always prefer a limited vessel, to the limitless city. The sober subject finds meaning in relations, not in itself. Liberated from the project of finding individually the meaning of life, he or she can be devoted to a daily life centered around care, reproduction and leisure and participate to the societal dépense democratically determined. Anthropologically, this subject of degrowth already exists. The open question is how it can spread and replicate; but this is a political question, not an individual question.
The pair individual sobriety-social dépense is to substitute the pair social austerity-individual excess. Our dialectical imaginary is political in the deep sense of the term. Compare it to the supposedly “political” economy of Krugman, who like the character in Lampedusa’s “The Leopard,” wants to change everything (even invent aliens!), just for things to stay the same. It is indeed the paradox of the contemporary political economy that it must not be political, i.e. it must not participate to build the (new) meaning of life, the latter being an affair let to individuals and their private networks. Instead, we maintain that once basic needs have been secured, it is in deciding collectively “what to dépense” that a sense of the “good life” can be constructed and the political of a new era be liberated. The realm of meaning starts where the realm of necessity ends. A degrowth society would have to build new institutions to choose in a collective way how to dedicate its resources to basic needs on the one hand, and different forms of dépense on the other. The political does not end with the satisfaction of basic necessities; it starts there. The choice between collective feasts, Olympic games, idle ecosystems, military expenditures or voyages to space will still be there. The weight on democracy and on deliberative institutions will be more intense than now that the dogma of growth and continuous reinvestment has evaded the difficult questions of what we want to do once we have enough. The political economy will be interested in the sacred again. And the economy of austerity, for the most and private enjoyment for few will become the economy of common feast for all sober men and women.