Clara Ruault | Remarks on Gorz and Degrowth

By Clara Ruault

So for this presentation I will try to demonstrate why according to me, Gorz’s approach to degrowth is deeply rooted in his perception of self-limitation, and I will try to connect it to my current research topics. My point will be that Gorz was truly inspired by early eco-activist groups, which according to his description are quite close to what we will hear about next, that is eco-communities. Basically, I will show that Gorz was inspired by forms of cultural negations of productivism and consumerism, by counter-cultures that embodied a withdrawal from the affluent society. And this often takes the appearance of social experimentations based on self-limitation.

One of my hypotheses in my current work is that this cultural dimension of ecological criticism of society in France was perceived by leftist thinkers as a crucial political strength, capable of giving new outlooks to socialism in the 1970’s.

This cultural dimension of ecology, despite its non-political appearance, seems more important to those thinkers than the strictly political (« politicienne ») dimension. More precisely, according to thinkers like Gorz, the politisation of ecology is practically informed by scientific views, which lead  to issues such as the protection of nature and the survival of humankind—that is, an objective necessity. The cultural version of ecological criticism is more oriented towards an existential shift—that is, a subjective necessity. Indeed, the question is not how changing the collective ways of life can have a positive environmental impact, but more how ecological tools and a pacified relationship to nature, can lead to a positive transformation of life and society. And this solution is the one that was very inspiring for André Gorz, especially on the way to his theory of degrowth.

But I would like to be a little bit more precise and explain what we actually mean by this idea of cultural eco-criticism. As I said, the idea is to use ecological tools to offer a better life, to allow a qualitative shift in the existence.

The issue for this kind of cultural criticism is to determine what impairs our quality of life, and for that we also need to determine what we actually refer to when we talk about « life ». And for Gorz, the idea of life these activists defended is close to the idea of monde vécu or Lebenswelt, that is, as Gorz formulated it: « the fact that the outcome of undertakings corresponds to their underpinning intentions, or said otherwise, that social individuals see, understand and master the outcome of their action. » This is what he wrote in his famous article « L’écologie politique entre expertocratie et autolimitation ».

What is interesting is that for Gorz, these first eco activists didn’t aim to protect their environment merely as a natural background: they aimed to preserve the Lebenswelt, the monde vécu. Gorz talks about the colonization of the Lebenswelt, a phrase that he borrowed from Habermas, colonization which is made possible by the advanced industrial society—or affluent society. That is what impairs the quality of life: the loss of the meaning of the action, the loss of the intuitive connection to things and people around you, which are taken away from you by productivist and consumerist tools.

Indeed, according to Gorz, the social definition of needs and desires is the perfect tool for control over Lebenswelt. It enables productivist institutions to « channel consumers’ behavior towards a goal whose realization depends neither on their understanding nor on their approval » and « functionalize individual motivations and interests towards an outcome that will remain foreign to them » (Ecologica). That is the diagnosis formulated by Gorz. A sense of dispossession felt at an individual level, at a level that the subject can experience on a daily basis. Gorz interprets the first eco-activists as the embodiment of the negation of this « colonization », a sort of rebellion against these meaningless forms of existence.

Gorz was also inspired by many thinkers,  mostly leftist thinkers, who wrote about the dispossession of the intuitive meaning of the action through the loss of control on needs and desires. For example, in his theory of work developed in Tools for conviviality, Ivan Illich also wrote about the expropriation of life, and the irrational mechanisms that controls it.

The professionalization of certain crucial sectors, such as health, transportation, and education, leads to a situation where marketable services become the only way to satisfy basic needs and live a decent life. They prescribe new needs, experienced as absolutely necessary, so that school, healthcare system, or car market can appear as the only institutions that can satisfy them, the only possible path toward satisfaction. Indeed, professionals and experts do not satisfy a need that was intuitively experienced: they create new needs for an institutional satisfaction. That is what Illich calls radical monopoly.

Many thinkers have paid attention to the role of controlled needs, and their effect on the  quality of life. This creates, at the scale of the individual, a sense of subjective necessity for an existential shift.

And according especially to Gorz, but also to an important thinker of the New Left, Herbert Marcuse, this intuition, the one of a conscious contradiction and irrationality of our way of life, of our mode of existence, is the basis of any further revolutionary awareness. Through their mutual influence and their intellectual friendship, Marcuse and Gorz nourished each other’s reflection. That’s particularly clear with Marcuse’s theory on the « pacification of existence » that he develops in One-dimensional Man. Whereas abundance was supposed to end the fight against natural necessities and create a form of pacified existence, the affluent society creates new forms of needs, frustrations, and even austerity through the constant renewal of needs and desires by the consumption process.  It reproduces natural necessities, in an artificial way and serves as a tool for social control. Whereas technological progress was supposed to defeat natural alterity and with it any phenomenon of material lack, it creates a new fight for existence. This theory was meaningful for Gorz, who wrote at the end of Adieux au prolétariat, about productivism and affluent society: « They invent for us new scarcities, new shortages, new luxuries and new poverties, deliberately, systematically, in accordance with the objectives of return on capital. The latter has strategists at its service, who know how to manipulate our most secret motivations, to impose products by loading them with symbols. »

But as I said, there is a potentiality, a possible political strength that can emerge from a radical dissatisfaction, among these many ostensible ways of satisfaction that are imposed by the system. I precise that I use the word system to summarize different actors and different questions that are addressed by many leftist thinkers, be it institutions, the state, the market, and so on.

Both Gorz and Marcuse theorized the erasing of the critical potentiality of the working class in abundance, comfort, and well-being, but they deeply believed in this intuitive contradiction that can present itself to the individual. And they jointly identified the new revolutionary subject in this ecological criticism of society, in the promotion of an existential shift in our way of life, in order to decide what we actually want and desire. So I think that is why Gorz wished to highlight the cultural dimension of early eco-criticism. Before changing the world, we want to change our lives. That is by the way the traditional leftist goal in France, « changer la vie ».

And to go back to Gorz and his vision of cultural eco-criticism, I will add that this deeper dissatisfaction, this intuition of a new kind of contradiction and irrationality produced by society, is for him the basis of these new types of social experimentations promoting self-limitation. For Gorz, these experimentations embody the intuition of what makes no sense in our existence. It is the basis and the beginning of a collective shift. It can give birth to a collective redefinition of needs, and of the working time we are collectively willing to devote to their satisfaction. Through this process, people can master their needs and desires, and end this form of alienation by consumption and affluence, which is one of the contemporary tools of capitalist modernity.

The criticism of society these experimentations display, maybe in a sort of unconscious way, is made explicit by Gorz, who perceived this type of counter-culture and withdrawal from society as an inspiring act of negation of capitalism. What I mean by inspiring, is that for Gorz the political solution does not rely on a society based in multiple self-sufficient groups. But there is a critical and subversive potential in these first ecological movements.

Indeed, this cultural and existential shift takes place at the level of a group of people. And it is often shaped as a sort of collective withdrawal from society. So it is not a direct political fight against capitalism. Nevertheless, what is interesting is how this type of non-political criticism has shaped Gorz’s views on degrowth. What struck Gorz is the radicality of this criticism, which he perceived as a political strength, as a renewed negation of alienating modernity, maybe more than the strictly « politicienne » form of ecology that appeared in France in the 70’s. For him, cultural eco-criticism is much more subversive, and even revolutionary, than a narrow environmentalism, a narrow protection of nature. And that is why in his works, he often advocated a return to these first eco-activists. The understanding of degrowth must necessarily be shaped by some kind of critical theory, of criticism of society. And for Gorz, these first experimentations of self-limitation which bear the traces of an existential dissatisfaction and a cultural criticsm, must be the basis of any further implementation of degrowth.

As a conclusion, I would say that what is quite interesting in Gorz’s work is that he never really mentions which activists he actually refers to. So of course we can think about the hippies, in the US, or activists such as Jacques Ellul or Bernard Charbonneau in France, who call themselves « unwilling revolutionaries ». By the way, this name is quite consistent with what I have explained just before, the fact that these activists are an unconscious source of critical and revolutionary thought for leftist thinkers. But what is interesting is that the reference to the actual eco-activists Gorz refers to remains unclear and quite mysterious. So we could imagine that he refers to some form of useful fantasy, or utopia. And that is the name of your seminar, so that will be my conclusion.

Thank you!