I feel personally guilty for the pandemic. At the beginning of March, I published my PhD dissertation “The Political Economy of Degrowth”, whose introduction ended with the following words: “Let me invite you into a wild thought experiment. Imagine that in one year, it will all stop. In precisely 365 days, the economy will come to a halt. Imagine the economy gone and all of us frozen in social time, suspended between the past and the future. A societal time is up.”
I may have been wrong about forecast (not a surprise, I was trained as an economist), but my thought experiment has never felt as real as in the three months I spent under total lockdown in France. In the first quarter of 2020, French GDP decreased by 5.8%. This is the steepest fall since the beginning of national accounting back in 1949, almost four times as large as the one experienced during the first quarter of 2009 in the midst of the financial crisis. During the lockdown, 12 million private sector workers were put in technical unemployment, almost half of the working population. This is big. Economy-wise, it was the equivalent of turning off the light.
Left at home (unemployed), I found myself reflecting on this exceptional event and what it means for the future. This is what I came up with: the economy is a bit like a game. There are players, rules, objectives, and, ultimately, winners and losers. In today’s economy (let’s call it capitalism for short), points are counted in money and the goal of the game is to gather as many of them as possible. I call it the Game of Growth. Governments seek points to finance public expenditures, firms seek points to re-invest into their activity, and individuals seek points to consume. Everybody loves points, and everybody wants more points. Of course, we know that points are just points, but we are nonetheless convinced that the more points we have the better.
The truly disturbing aspect of today’s situation is that we play a game without knowing that it is a game. Just like in Jumanji, we are stuck in a game that we feel is outside of our control. The difference is that the Game of Growth has no ending. There is no outside. When you go to bed, others keep playing the game. When you’re sick and really don’t feel like playing, the game continues nonetheless. When a forest is on fire or when large parts of the ocean slowly suffocate, the game goes on. Even when you die, you pass on your points to your children as to give them as much of a head start in the game.
In rare moments, however, we get the strange sensation that there might be something wrong about the Game of Growth. I believe the corona crisis was one of these moments. Just like you would not keep playing a game with your friends if one of them suddenly had a stroke, we realised that certain things might be more important than hoarding money-points (health for example). And so, for the first time in recent history, we paused the game. For a little moment, we shun the pursuit of economic growth, acknowledging that there would be little use in having lots of money-points in a society one doesn’t want to live in.
The pausing of the rules of the economic game is the ultimate proof that the economy is fundamentally political. Certain (neoliberal) economists had us believe that the economy is a force of nature, mostly outside of our volition, and that whatever the emergency (climate change, poverty, biodiversity loss), the laws of the market can never be bent. Wrong. It can, and it has. The responses to the pandemic have shown that capitalism is not divine, and that we need a new way to think about the economy.
Here is a proposition: think of the economy as made of Lego. All rules to organise extraction, production, allocation, consumption, and disposal are social institutions. If social scientists know that “social institution” is a pleonasm (what institution would not be social?), it is worth reminding ourselves that the rules we respect so diligently have all been socially constructed. No rule was written in advance, and no rule will be written forever.
And this is the main point of my recently published PhD dissertation “The Political Economy of Degrowth”: we need to escape from the Game of Growth and design a new game altogether. This requires to understand (1) why is today’s economic system problematic; (2) what alternative systems are available; and (3) how to transition from one to the other.
(1) The problem with economic growth is that it is no longer possible, plausible, and desirable. It is no longer possible because sustained economic growth is ecologically unsustainable: one cannot both have the environmental cake and eat it too in the form of GDP. Second problem: infinite growth is impossible in a community whose capacity to replenish its ability to produce is finite – there are social limits to growth. And finally, more GDP does not necessarily rhyme with a better life, especially if it increases inequality, fails to reduce poverty, and creates unfulfilling jobs.
(2) If growthism is a dead-end, what should come to replace it? I argue that degrowth is a powerful utopia with the capacity to topple the ideology of growth. I interpret degrowth as a process of de-economisation (a reduction in the importance of economistic thoughts and practices in social life) and ask a question: What if we reorganised the economy around the three values of autonomy, sufficiency, and care? The outcome of this theoretical thought experiment is a list of 15 principles that describe the economy of a degrowth society: resource sovereignty, sustainability, circularity, socially useful production, social enterprises, proximity, convivial tools, postwork, value sovereignty, commons, gratuity, sharing, voluntary simplicity, relational goods, and joie de vivre.
(3) Degrowth yes, but how? My answer: the key, the clock, and the coin – changing property, work, and money. One must start by challenging the hegemony of private property to ensure a fair redistribution, distribution, and pre-distribution of wealth. The second transformation has to do with work and consists in spending less time in employment, changing the content (what is being produced and why) as well as the form of work (how it is being produced and by whom), and redefining work beyond wage-labour. Finally, money must change: we must transition from general-purpose money to monetary pluralism, take back control over monetary governance, and impose limits to the financial sphere.
Let’s get back to the quotation that opened this text, the last words of the introduction of my thesis. “Let me invite you into a wild thought experiment. Imagine that in one year, it will all stop. In precisely 365 days, the economy will come to a halt. Imagine the economy gone and all of us frozen in social time, suspended between the past and the future. A societal time is up. At that point, we will have to anew come to an agreement on how to organise the way we provide for ourselves. What is the good life and how should we go about pursuing it? It will be nothing short of a total re-design of the rules of the economic game.” Right now, I’m afraid that soon, we’ll be back to ‘normal’ and we’ll forget that everything culturally imaginable is economically possible. We must not forget: the economy is just a game and there are more important things in life than money-points. Most importantly, there is a pause button and we should not be afraid to use it.