A European Society with more Democracy and less Growth: a Discussion with Vincent Liegey.

Article published on Sept. 29, 2014
Article published on Sept. 29, 2014

Vincent Liegey is a French activist and writer who is also the current spokesperson for the Degrowth movement in France. This last September he has participated in the 2nd European Citizens Summit held in Brussels, an international gathering of civil society thinkers and activists that debate how European politics can be less market-driven and more open and democratic.

Mr Liegey has agreed to meet Cafèbabel to tell us more about Degrowth and its relation to democracy and the broader European project.

Can you start by telling us what Degrowth is?

Degrowth is a new political movement based on a provocative slogan with the intention of opening a debate and reminding us that infinite growth in a finite planet is neither possible nor desirable. Degrowth also means to understand in a multidimensional and interdisciplinary approach the convergence of crisis we are now facing (economic, social, environmental, energetic, political, democratic, etc…) and how they are all interconnected. If you want to provide constructive and meaningful answers to these crises, we should think in a multidimensional way and propose solutions that tackle the problems at the roots.

When thinking about these issues, we try to think about democratic, non-violent transitions to new models of society. These models aim to be sustainable, desirable and based on direct democracy and open re-localisation of production, new types of economic systems which are more convivial and autonomous.

How can the ideals of Degrowth be achieved in practice?

I think Degrowth is already happening in society. Degrowth is first about individual actions: how can I, as an individual, try to retake some freedom by changing my relation to consumption, work, politics, domination, democracy, etc…?

We could use what we call decolonisation of our imaginary: how can we take distance from a lot of conditioning by the dominant system and in particular how can I get of rid of this compulsion to always desire for more? How to tend to a society of frugal abundance? You are not frustrated if you do not desire so much, if you only desire what you really need. Our model of society is organised, through advertising, to create a desire in you for things you do not need and hence create frustrations.

There is a second level: the collective level based on concrete alternatives. We can observe a strong dynamics everywhere in the world around these initiatives: local people who try to reappropriate the local reality and invent, with lots of creativity, new ways of living, taking decisions, consuming, exchanging and producing. Movements like community gardens, transition initiatives, perma-culture and so on.

Degrowth is also active in the political world through what we call the ‘visibility’ level. We want to generate discussion about Degrowth among politicians, on the media and in civil society. This is what we do when we run in elections: we do not aim to be elected but to occupy the space offered by an election to promote our ideas. We organise public demonstrations, flash mobs, civil disobedience actions, conferences and participative workshops for educating people.

And finally, Degrowth as an academic project implements multidimensional and interdisciplinary discussion to find solutions about what kind of social, economic, psychological and institutional proposals we could develop to implement transitions. These transitions can only be democratic. We think about new models of society based on Degrowth, which could be sustainable and desirable.

Degrowth is mainly trying to deconstruct in a multidimensional way the addiction to growth. We live in societies that are materially very rich: if I think about France, we have never been as materially rich as we are right now. We also have huge inequalities, people depressed on an unprecedented scale and violence in society. That means always more is not enough for a meaningful life and for a society that makes sense.

You mentioned democracy, what is the main connection between Degrowth and democracy?                                                                   

The movement of Degrowth I support is directly connected to a will for emancipation. We want Degrowth to really implement direct democracy in society. It is not about a perfect society for the perfect humans, but a less violent society with less domination and humans as they are.

We want more of what we call ‘autonomy’. It is the idea of society where, through the educational system and the social organisation, every citizen can really be a citizen. We want a society where everybody can pose democratic control over institutions and where everybody can, either individually or collectively, define its own limits and laws.

The concept of autonomy is very close to the concept of conviviality developed by Ivan Illich,. He presents the idea that the more an institution grows the more we lose democratic control of it. It becomes counter-productive.

How do you see the Degrowth project being connected, if at all with the European project, the European Union?

The way the European Union has been institutionalised and constructed economically, socially and politically is a heritage of the last century. In particular, I would say it is the heritage of two particular lines of thinking, two main factors in its construction.

The first factor is the Second World War: Europe was always the theatre of wars, in particular in the last century with two world wars. The Second one totally destroyed Europe. It generated the will to use economy to connect countries with each other and avoid any kind of new war. In the ‘60s it was quite difficult to imagine that bordering people would connect with each other and hence economic agreements were used to connect them, creating economic common interests. This is the first factor, pacifism.

The second one is the people who created the EU institutions. They were people growing and living in the glorious thirties, right after the Second World War. A period of reconstruction and economic development. Today that is an illusionary world as is the belief that we should keep going with the same model of society: to build peace based on more economic growth. 

The EU was constructed and designed by economic lobbies whose role and power keep increasing. But there is no growth anymore. The lobbies are still here while there is no direct democratic culture around EU institutions.

We are facing the collapse of the basis on which the EU was built, with stronger oligarchs damaging local democratic serenity. Which solutions to substitute the need of growth, decrease the role of the lobbies and preserve democracy and peace?

We need open relocalisation and to apply as much as possible the principle of subsidiarity. We could relocalise production, local economic systems as for example with local, regional and national currencies while keeping the Euro. We could relocalise where decisions are taken by the people: for example the decision if a square is used for a playground, a community garden or for terrace space for bars should be taken by the people using the square. We don’t need bigger institution for that. Decisions with a broader impact require broader institutions: the river Danube runs through nine countries, you need an institution to manage the use of the Danube by all these countries.

We need institutions that think about issues that concern the people while relocalising the decisions as much as possible. We need to do this in an open way – the solution is not to go back to our own identity, whatever that might mean. The world has been globalised; we are now in contact with people from all over the world and live a liberal way of life.We have to find a balance: recover the local identities, communities and productions destroyed by development while keeping it open with a culture of hospitality. European and national institutions face the challenge of relocalisation, in particular in implementing solidarities.