By Bernard E. Harcourt
His utopia is that of a new civilization that masters the time of life and of labor. […] Based on a critique of contemporary work, which is constantly being reduced or degraded into precarious, intermittent and part-time jobs, the steps of this utopia can be summarized in a few words: to restrict as much as possible the time spent on producing what is necessary in today’s complex and hypertechnological production and to share it out among everyone; this will allow everyone to free up time for work for oneself, for socially useful activities, and also for autonomous individual or collective activities—facilitated by the digital circulation of knowledge—that are blossoming because they are not constrained; and finally, to put an end to the vital dependence on work by a redistribution of wealth that would be the granting of a guaranteed, sufficient and unconditional income, so that we are no longer forced to work to have an income, but to have an income to work without constraint.
— On André Gorz, by Willy Gianinazzi, in André Gorz, Le fil rouge de l’écologie (Paris : Éditions EHESS, 2015)
I was reintroduced to André Gorz by my brilliant impassioned student at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, Télémaque Masson-Récipon, who was writing his masters thesis under my supervision on the theory and praxis of universal basic income (“UBI”). Télémaque is both a scholar and an activist-organizer, having militated for UBI for years now and organized doggedly in several countries to promote UBI. We had gotten together to discuss the structure of his draft and his progress writing.
Télémaque and I were sitting at a sticky table in a corner of this gritty, cavernous bar, Le Piano Vache, down the winding rue Laplace, a stonesthrow from the Panthéon. The beer on tap was cheap, the music too loud, and a stream of people were passing through to a jazz area in the back getting set up. As our conversation unfolded, Télémaque pulled out of his backpack a stack of books he had bought for me—books I had to read. There were the André Gorz interviews called The Red Thread of Ecology, and another book co-edited by Clara Ruault—who joins us at Utopia 4/13—which consisted of an edited volume of a critical dialogue between Gorz and Herbert Marcuse. He pulled out the Cahiers du Quatrième Ordre. L’Ordre sacré des infortunés, a fascinating tract published in 1789 by Louis-Pierre Dufourny de Villiers, which I immediately read when I left the bar. It was the manifesto for the “fourth” class of society—recall that there were supposed to be only three orders in the “tiers état” structure of the French monarchy, but this fourth, invented one, was for the poor and destitute. And another book by Bruno Tardieu, Quand un people parle. ADT Quart Monde. Un Combat radical contre la misère (Paris: La Découverte, 2015) on the social movement, born in 1957 in a camp for homeless people in the Parisian banlieu, the ADT Quart Monde.
Télémaque was going through each one of the books, opening them to the right pages, telling me how and why I had to read each one. In an impassioned soliloquy that I could hardly cut off, Télémaque made me know these books were of the greatest importance to my own work, not just to his. I knew they had to be. Télémaque was working as a night watchman on the midnight shift at a small hotel in the Marais to cover his rent, and he’d brought these books for me to take. I realized how privileged I was to receive them. You only get brilliant and motivated students like that rarely. I had to read every book he gave me with care.
That was March 15, 2022. I began reading, in some cases rereading, and a few days later, I had to jump on the bullet train to Frankfurt to host the public seminar Revolution 13/13 on Hans-Jürgen Krahl with my friend Martin Saar at the Institute for Social Research, the old haunt of Horkheimer, Adorno, and the Frankfurt School.
Less than eight months later, here we are back in Paris. Télémaque was right. We must read and discuss these powerful writings on degrowth—its history, its theory, its practice.
André Gorz first used the term “décroissance” (degrowth) in 1972 as a hypothesis in an international conference he had organized in Paris, and it sowed an idea. It was picked up in 2004 (not long before Gorz’s death in 2007) by the main movement of anti-advertising and anti-consumerism campaigners in France, as a “punch word” (un mot coup-de-poing) title for their activist newspaper. From there it quickly became a polarizing slogan and the name of a large and diverse movement, many of whose members recognize Gorz as an intellectual forebearer. One point of agreement within the movement is denouncing the fetishization of GDP growth by the vast majority of governments and economists, be they neoclassical or socialist, because it does not constitute a valid measure of welfare and often occludes detrimental costs to society.
A number of political philosophers and heterodox economists developed theories and strategies of degrowth, or “anti-growth,” or “steady-state economics,” putting forth concepts such as that of prosperity without growth, “sobriété heureuse” (blissfull sobriety) or Buen Vivir. These include economists following in the footsteps of Schumpeter’s protégé Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen in the United States, as well as thinkers like Baptiste Mylondo and Serge Latouche in France, Giorgios Kallis in Greece, or Christian Kerschner in Austria. In a recent manifesto titled Degrowth, Kallis explains that it is possible to vastly shrink consumption and resource depletion on Earth without having to sacrifice well-being: “It is possible to have meaningful employment and secure well-being with much less through-put and output than is found in wealthy countries today,” Kallis writes.
The degrowth movement emphasizes the need for radical redistribution of resources and a shift in values. The problems they identify include both the excessive use of resources and their unjust distribution. Some of the strategies range from UBI to forms of cooperative work and living, to ZADs and squats, and other forms of political disobedience.
These theories and practices of degrowth constitute—as the epigraph above suggests—an utopic ideal and, in some cases, concrete utopias.
To explore these ideas and praxes, I am delighted to welcome to Utopia 4/13, at the Librairie Utopia in the fifth arrondissement of Paris a brilliant panel of thinkers and actors: Françoise Gollain, the foremost expert scholar of André Gorz’s intellectual writings, author of his reference intellectual biography André Gorz, une philosophie de l’émancipation (L’Harmattan, 2018), as well as of an excellent short general introduction to his theories André Gorz pour une pensée de l’écosocialisme (Le Passager Clandestin, 2014); Clara Ruault, another brilliant scholar of Gorz’s thought, who edited the volume on Gorz-Marcuse and joins us from Columbia University; Frederic Bosquet, one of the main instigators and cooperators of the TERA eco-village project, with a long career in Social and Solidarity Economy, managing cooperatives and participating in different ways to transition our societies to more sustainable and just ways of functioning; Alex Robin, a member of the Longo Maï cooperatives since 1974 and the founder of Radio Zinzine, a non-commercial, self governed, anarchist radio station in France; and Télémaque Masson-Récipon, a doctoral student at the EHESS and militant-organizer around UBI.
The Librairie Utopia on the Left Bank in Paris was created by the Utopia movement, which is a popular education movement. The library is a “librairie associative,” that is mainly volunteer run and staffed, and the Utopia movement organizes a yearly gathering that they call the “Utopia summer university” over the course of 2 or 3 days (the term “university” here is meant to mean something very different than a conventional university, more like the gatherings that French political parties have at the end of summer).
Welcome to Utopia 4/13!
Son utopie est celle d’une nouvelle civilisation maîtrisant le temps de vie et le travail. […] Reposant sur une critique du travail contemporain, qui ne cesse de se réduire ou de se dégrader en emplois précaires, intermittents et à temps partiel, les étapes de cette utopie peuvent se résumer en quelques mots : restreindre le plus possible le temps passé à produire le nécessaire dans le cadre de la production complexe et hypertechnologisée d’aujourd’hui et le répartir entre tous ; ce qui va permettre de dégager pour tous du temps pour le travail pour soi, pour les activités socialement utiles, et aussi pour des activités autonomes individuelles ou collectives—facilitées par la circulation numérique du savoir—qui épanouissent parce que non contraintes ; et enfin mettre fin à la dépendance vitale vis-à-vis du travail par une redistribution des richesses que serait l’octroi d’un revenu garanti, suffisant et inconditionnel, afin de ne plus être contraint de travailler pour avoir un revenu, mais d’avoir un revenu pour œuvrer sans contrainte.
— Sur André Gorz, par Willy Gianinazzi, dans André Gorz, Le fil rouge de l’écologie (Paris : Éditions EHESS, 2015)