Décroissance: How the French counter capitalism

By Christopher Caldwell

Financial Times, 14 October 2011

The French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa asked an uncomfortable question on television last week: Why were the French mourning the death of Apple founder Steve Jobs with such inconsolable intensity? Mr Michéa said nothing to detract from Mr Jobs’s achievements. He asked why the early death of a gifted businessman was being viewed as a “planetary catastrophe” and tried to find an answer. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF chairman, remarked several months ago that three ideals lay at the core of socialism: hope, the future and innovation. Mr Jobs embodied those more than anyone. Mr Michéa found it bizarre that the ideals of the left should be identical to those of cutting edge businessmen. Entrepreneurial capitalism is not just a skill our society has mastered, it is at the heart of our system of values.

There have lately been signs in France of resistance to those values. One is the popularity of Mr Michéa’s books. Another is Arnaud Montebourg’s surprisingly good finish in last Sunday’s Socialist primaries. Mr Montebourg took almost a fifth of the vote on a programme of “deglobalisation” and resistance to finance capitalism and free trade. But probably the most profound current running against the capitalist stream is that of the décroissance (“decrease”) movement. Economic growth has done enough damage to our planet, says a coalition of activists. Not only must it stop, it must be reversed.

The currents that make up décroissance have been around a while. It shares a pantheon of heroes with the 1960s counterculture: the Christian social thinker Jacques Ellul, the anti-industrial German philosopher Günther Anders and, above all, the Romanian-American utopian theorist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. Entropia, the quarterly review of décroissant thinking, traces the movement’s roots back to the early 19th-century British loom-smashers known as Luddites. “What is urgent,” Philippe Ariès, a theorist of the movement, told the website Rue89 recently, “is a reconstitution of the anti-productivist left”.

Mr Ariès’s views echo those of Stéphane Hessel, the 94-year-old former Resistance fighter, whose brochure Indignez-Vous has headed the bestseller lists for more than a year now. When France was flat on its back at the end of the second world war, both men argue, the Resistance was able to call for a social security system. Why is France now dismantling that system, even though the country is producing more wealth than 65 years ago? It is a rather stupid question: the growth of benefits has outstripped the growth in wealth, to the point where decisions must now be made about what is affordable.

Décroissance is a kind of environmentalism, but it is more than that. An important intellectual underpinning of the movement is the idea that gross domestic product is a deficient yardstick for economic performance and growth. It doesn’t measure the degradation of the environment as lost wealth, nor distinguish between productive economic activity and pointless (or destructive) make-work. And we now know that the huge role of debt in a growth-obsessed economy makes any measurement of its size untrustworthy.

During the Socialist primary, Mr Montebourg was often described as the “furthest left” of the candidates. But he is better thought of as an anti-establishment candidate. His proudest boast was that he was the only candidate to have voted against the European Union’s constitutional referendum in 2005, and his appeal on some points is not so distant from that of the far-right Marine Le Pen. In an age of debt, the establishment right and left differ mainly on what mix of tax rises and services cuts to impose to make ends meet.

The décroissance movement is similarly disrespectful of leftwing and rightwing credentials. John Maynard Keynes is for them a figure of the right, since they favour “real” economic growth over the make-work they associate with stimulus programmes. They view the greens who favour “sustainable development” as similarly misled. The knowledge economy may require fewer smokestacks than the industrial economy, but it requires more computers, and these deplete rare earths and other commodities. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, hero of 1968 and of today’s Greens, is a bogeyman of décroissance.

A more important question than whether décroissance belongs to the left or the right is whether it belongs to the world we knew before the 2008 financial crisis or to the world after. On one hand, growth seems more imperative than ever – last month Barack Obama suspended the enforcement of a list of environmental regulations, hoping to wring a few more jobs out of a straitened US economy. On the other hand, the past few years show economies can contract even without politicians’ help.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

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