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The Malaise of the Old Left Represents an Opportunity for Degrowth

By Vincent Liegey

These days, the degrowth movement is not interested in provocation anymore. Instead it wants to stimulate discussions amongst the people who believe that it is possible to decolonise our minds. Vincent Liegey, the coordinator of the latest Degrowth Conference says that the movement’s impact is already visible in many party programmes.

Green European Journal: What is your experience as a degrowth campaigner? Has degrowth, as a concept, become more acceptable in intellectual and political circles in the last few years?

Vincent Liegey: It has. I started my activities in the degrowth movement approximately ten years ago, and at that time the reactions were very dismissive. People either thought that we are naïve and dangerous, or that we were the representatives of an ecofascist movement…

Who were those people? The establishment? 

Our quarrels were mainly with the productivist left, but not exclusively. We also had disagreements with the pro-growth (green growth) Green movement and the Green capitalist movements. Three years ago people like Daniel Cohn-Bendit still called us crazy.

For many years it was almost impossible to question growth on the Left, because growth was seen as the precondition of progress, as well as the solution to poverty and inequality. In those years we really had to fight to be covered by the media. We were never invited to any economics panels, and most Green parties did not want to have anything to do with us, even though they used to think quite similarly in their early days. Fortunately, in the last few years it has improved.

What led to the improvements?

It all started with the economic crisis in 2008, the political crisis of the EU, and the realisation that Europe lacks an emancipatory left-wing movement. I think there were two major trends. On the one hand, there was more and more demand for radical responses to today’s challenges in European societies; on the other hand, our narrative has also become clearer and more coherent with time.

In the early years we were experimenting with provocation: we wanted to deconstruct the myth of progress, modernity and growth, as well as the addiction to growth, the modern economy, productivism, GDP, and so on. But once the doors started opening, we seized the opportunity, and started to focus more on possible solutions to today’s problems, and their implementation.

We were also thinking more in terms of dialogue rather than just critique, we were trying to connect the dots and to connect the different movements that act in the same spirit as we do, or those who might be sympathetic to our ideas. We knew that there is always a degrowth person somewhere inside a movement who can share our point of view with the rest of the team. We don’t want to appropriate any movement, but we know that many movements, such as the feminist or environmental movements, can easily be connected with the issue of degrowth. You cannot speak about inequality without thinking of sustainability, and you cannot seriously debate environmental issues without questioning our model of society, consumerism, and so on.

And what are the current reactions to degrowth?

People tend to be more and more willing to see the failures in the model of modern civilization, and they tend to accept that there is room for the kind of thinking we represent. During the Budapest Degrowth Conference, for example, we saw that degrowth has found wide acceptance amongst Hungarians. The Hungarian society is facing a very deep political crisis, with a Left that is almost dead, and a populist political right that is totally occupying the political space; so we have decided to present degrowth as something fresh and new to the audience here. In the last few weeks we have managed to give very long, good quality interviews in both the conservative, pro-government media, as well as, for the first time, in the left-wing and liberal media. I think the opinion makers have understood that even if degrowth is a very radical movement, it can bring some dialogue about an important issue that would otherwise be absent from the public discourse.

You said, this has been the first time that your ideas were published in the liberal media in Hungary, even though you have lived and worked there for almost a decade. Why?

For many years I have been fighting to get my articles placed in leading liberal newspapers, and it never worked. I spoke a lot with journalists – with some of them I used to have and still have good relationships –, but nevertheless, the idea didn’t make sense to them. They thought degrowth was absurd, and would lead to some kind of hippie-driven communism. It was much, much easier to have articles published in centre-right or conservative newspapers.

I think this has changed to some extent because the people in the left-wing media saw that we were organising our conference at a prestigious university, in cooperation with many partners, the majority of whom has nothing to do with the degrowth movement. This has showed them that, even though we are – to some extent – radical, we are far from being extremists, we are willing to talk, and to have discussions. This does a lot to open doors. And people like to read about our ideas, because we bring a new narrative to a very tough political context, where people for many years thought there was no hope for meaningful change.

At the Degrowth Conference there were politicians from a wide range of parties, not just the Greens, but also a member of the German radical left–wing Die Linke. Do you think these politicians look at degrowth as a policy issue, something that they could advocate for in their campaigns, or do they just see it as an interesting concept to study?

When you speak with members of the most Green, left or other emancipatory parties behind closed doors, they say things like: “I love the idea of degrowth, I totally agree with what you are saying, but you have to understand that we cannot talk about it publicly, because people would not understand it.”

Degrowth has always been a minority movement, but now we see that it has a huge impact on the debate about a number of issues. Let me give you one example: when we started to talk about basic income ten years ago, most of the parties were against it, and now, we can see that step by step they are starting to embrace the idea. Proposals that seemed unacceptable to many politicians ten years ago are becoming important parts of their party programmes.

Regarding the politicians who attended our panels, I wouldn’t necessarily say that they are one hundred percent degrowth, but they see that there is something interesting happening here, they see that there is a great interest in the idea of degrowth, and they want to know how they can use it politically in their respective political institutions or political systems. At the moment most politicians still don’t really know how that would be possible in today’s big, centralised institutions, but at least they have started thinking about it.

This issue is also hard for the degrowth movement. We have a mission to transform the society together, to have a dialogue, to questions the institutions, and to start a grassroots transformation process in our society, which is followed by institutional transformation. At this moment, we are only on the first level, where we are aiming to initiate transformations in the mindsets of people that can later lead to grassroots activism. I think this is very important, because degrowth involves a fundamental cultural transformation in our society, with a “decolonisation of the imaginary” (meaning: a semantic shift, a change of “software”, by which we don’t let our minds be invaded anymore by the ideas of growth and capitalism).

Do you think that there is a difference between the ways degrowth is perceived in East Europe and West Europe? I assume that many people in countries like Romania or Croatia argue that they only want to adapt to the programme of degrowth once they have become as rich as the countries of the West; do you hear this argument often?

Of course, there are some minor differences between the ways countries react to the idea of degrowth, but those depend mainly on the political context. In France, for example, I got acquainted with degrowth in a very French way: it was an intellectual, philosophical and political analysis of a problem, and a theoretical discussion about the possible solutions. We were writing books, developing concepts, and talking about degrowth, day and night. When I came to Hungary, I tried to share my philosophy with my local friends, but they weren’t interested at all, they thought this talk about the idea of degrowth was bullshit: they were already doing many things that were in line with the idea of degrowth, but they didn’t want to do it out of some abstract concept. They wanted to do it, because a particular act was meaningful for their way of life. Many of them were already self-organising with their friends and families and were doing wonderful things.

I think this diversity is an important aspect of the degrowth movement, and it helps to connect the dots, to connect all the different activities that question the current growth-oriented society – not only the political ones, but also the ones that practice degrowth by engaging in forms of production that challenge the logic of our current system.

And, of course, in these regions there is a shared belief that these countries are supposed to reach the level of the German or the Austrian economy. Many people still want to believe it, but there are also many others who have decided to challenge this logic. And at the same time there is also a degree of disillusionment in the West: people have realised that consuming doesn’t make them happier. And if it doesn’t make them happier there is no point trying to live the same life as they do.

What do people in the degrowth movement think about the EU? Do they think that the idea of degrowth could function inside the EU structures?

If you look at the people who are active in the degrowth movement, you can see that it is a very diverse, multicultural, international movement, with many members who have chosen to live in a different country, not where they grew up. When we had the degrowth event in Barcelona, it was not organized only by the Catalans, but also by Italian and French people, and many other nationalities. At the conferences in Leipzig and Budapest, you also had lots of Hungarians, Croatians, Slovenians, and so on, among the organisers. And even Americans. I think this diversity makes it very obvious that these people are for open borders, and the freedom to choose where one wants to live inside Europe. These people want to live and produce together, but without the illusion of the freedom to consume. In this context, however, institutions (neither European, nor national institutions) don’t really make sense.

That doesn’t mean that we want to reject them outright, but we do think we need to work on them. We need to have a discussion on why we need the EU, and what aspects of the EU institutions we want to keep. We, for sure, don’t need that whole bureaucratic apparatus that defines the EU as we know it today. We don’t want some bureaucrats to decide on what kinds of potatoes we are allowed to plant. That is nonsense. Instead we need an institution that fosters dialogue, an institution that allows the multitude of cultures and languages to flourish, one that helps us maintain open borders, and  protects democracy and peace.

What kinds of parties can you build a coalition with?

From the French perspective, we always worked a lot with Left and Green parties. In Spain, for example, it’s Podemos, in Italy the Five Stars Movement. There is a debate in degrowth circles about whether degrowth is a left-wing or right-wing ideology. In my opinion, degrowth is based on traditional left-wing values, such as economic equality, workers’ rights, and environmental protection, but also wants to go beyond the left-right division. The conservation and protection of our cultural and natural heritage is also a conservative value, after all.

Do you think that Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempt to bring together economists who would find a way to think beyond GDP was compatible with the idea of degrowth? Or can this be a sign that sometimes even people on the political right ask the same kinds of questions as you do?

I think this was only an opportunistic PR stunt. That particular attempt didn’t lead to anything serious; a report was published, I assume it is now on the shelves of many politicians and academics, but no one reads it anymore. Sarkozy only wanted to communicate to his voters that he was doing something. But also the question they asked wasn’t really a good question: Everybody knows that GDP is not a good indicator, but if we come up with a new indicator that still doesn’t change the shape of our society. We have a very deep institutional and economic addiction to growth and debt. Today you need growth, or you collapse. And by “you” I can mean a company, a family, a municipality, or a nation state. We need to fight this addiction to growth first, the indicators are secondary.

Can you bring some examples of people who managed to think beyond growth, and have thus proven that it is indeed possible to create a different mindset?

I can speak about my personal experience. My friends and I we are four people with different cultural backgrounds: a Hungarian, a French-Hungarian, an American, and a French one, me. We all have good university degrees, we used to have well-paying jobs, high positions in big companies, and so on. We were in a quite privileged position, but all of us decided, independently, that this was not the path we wanted to go down. Somehow we met in this process. Now, one of us is dealing with biodynamic agriculture, and another is dealing with social entrepreneurship, the re-appropriation of tools, and low-tech construction, while I deal with research, political activism and the creation of a narrative for degrowth. We all quit our jobs to start implementing projects that could question the way our societies are organised today. We have built up connections with lots of people: some of them are still more or less in the system, and others chose to totally disconnect themselves from it – some of them don’t even have health insurance anymore, and organise themselves in a way that allows them to live without money and without institutions. That is also an important aspect of degrowth: it allows you to find your personal path, by which you can get to the same conclusion as many others who question the growth-centred economic system of today.

The Malaise of the Old Left Represents an Opportunity for Degrowth