Farewell to Growth, by Serge Latouche

Serge Latouche is a somewhat legendary figure in the postgrowth debate. He’s a French political theorist with decades of subversive ideas behind him, postgrowth being the best known today. was first published under the title Petit traité de la décroissance sereine (Little treatise on serene degrowth) and like the rest of the book, some of the elegance goes astray in translation.

Inevitably, we participate most actively in debates in our own language, so I’m most familiar with British and American writers on green economics. There is a distinctive French stream, another in German and more besides, and these are largely closed to me. What I find interesting, when I do get to dip a toe in these other waters, is the way that culture and language shape those debates. As a Frenchman, Latouche uses words like patrimony, convivial, bricolage, or decroissance itself – and while we may understand these words, the verbal concepts that they represent have no direct equivalent in English. It just comes from another place.

The English postgrowth debate operates from the meeting point of economics and ecology, whereas Latouche’s ideas owe more to sociologists like Jacques Ellul or Ivan Illich. He draws on the political ecology of André Gorz, or the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss to examine cultural mythology, the role of the imagination, and the stories we tell ourselves as a society. As a former cultural studies student I’m at home here, but it’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because it addresses a common problem from a very different perspective. It’s a weakness because it can sound esoteric, and some readers won’t be familiar with the background concepts.

Let me illustrate with a sample sentence: “The triumph of the imaginary of globalization, which is a paroxysmal form of modernity, permitted and permits an extraordinary attempt to delegitimate even the most moderate relativist discourse.” It’s not all as dense as that, but it’s not the entry level text the author seems to think it is. There are plenty of sentences that need to be read twice.

Latouche’s purpose here is to give an overview of postgrowth and answer some common questions. So he defines it, helpfully describing his ideas not as anti-growth or pro-decline, but more “‘a-growth’ in the sense that we speak of ‘a-theism'” – a critique of belief in economic growth as progress. He traces the origins of postgrowth thinking, and the bibliography is full of names I haven’t heard but obviously need to read.

The book also addresses some important questions around politics, and argues that postgrowth is not anti-capitalist, neither is it from the right nor the left of the political spectrum. “Capitalism, neo-liberal or otherwise, and productivist socialism are both variants on the same project” he writes. “A critique of capitalism is not enough: we also need a critique of any growth society. And that is precisely what Marx fails to provide” he adds, an important point to note for those convinced that limits to growth are a socialist idea.

In terms of solutions, Latouche explores ‘8 Rs’, beginning with re-evaluate and re-conceptualize, and ending with reduce, reuse and recycle. It’s an outline that begins in culture and values, and that’s where Latouche is at his best, asking what sort of society we want to live in, what sort of people we want to be.

If you’re new to postgrowth economics, this isn’t the best place to start (maybe try Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth). If you’re familiar with the concepts already, Farewell to Growth is a useful tour of the French postgrowth movement. You’ll end up with a few more titles to add to your postgrowth reading list, and you’ll benefit from the new angles and alternative ways of describing things. I certainly did.

10 comments

  1. Jonathon Rutherford says:

    Jeremy,

    In my view the following sentence is very confused: ‘a critique of capitalism is not enough: we also need a critique of any growth society.’ How can Latouche possibly fail to recognise that the market system (i.e capitalism) has a ‘grow or die’ dynamic built into its very foundations?? In other words capitalism REQUIRES growth. Capitalism is not the only reason we have growth – it is also cultural etc (i.e the soviet union had growth because its project was always about building up a consumer industrial society)…but, still, capitalism and growth are two sides of the same coin! Typically, most ‘post-growth’ activists, in my experience, refuse to face up to that elementary fact.

    Also this notion of ‘beyond left and right’ though popular, is annoying. Do you support egalitarian outcomes in society? Do you believe in widespread and extensive democracy…and the dissolution of concentrated power? Then you are on the left! And even if you think you are not – and we can conveniently remove politics from our ‘post-growth’ movement – you will quickly find out the true reality, the minute we make any real inroads into culture/society. The rich/powerful will resist (mainly ideologically) with everything they have!

    Cheers

    1. Latouche’s comment here isn’t excusing capitalism, it’s clarifying the problem. His critique is of ‘productivism’, which can be found in both capitalist and socialist economies. I didn’t want to use the word productivist in the review as it’s probably a little unfamiliar, but that’s the heart of it.

      I’m sure you can imagine the colour of my politics, but personally I refuse to align myself either way. There are more than two sides. It’s not an either/or, left/right, divide – and the whole idea of there being only two perspectives is deeply damaging. Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I think the knee-jerk assigning every idea a place on the political spectrum is one of the biggest things holding us back – see climate change in America, painted as a leftist issue and hence disregarded or scorned by anyone to the right.

      The issues we face are too big to belong to one side or another. And solutions can come from either side. So many useful ideas are buried because people assume it’s from the ‘other side’ and therefore wrong on principle. (I had that the other week when a colleague was dismissing the guaranteed minimum income as a socialist pipe dream, when the closest we’ve ever come to it is under Nixon’s republican presidency.)

  2. Jonathon Rutherford says:

    Jeremy,

    Further to my comment above you could check out an article from the Inclusive Democracy project, spelling out the limitations of Latouche’ perspective (though I don’t agree with all of it).

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