André Gorz: An apology for a radical ecology

Amidst the multiplication of news of our ecological catastrophe, of proliferating extinction rebellions and proposed green new deals, and inspired by a recent posting by the lundi matin collective, we return to a seminal essay by André Gorz entitled “Their ecology and ours”: a defence of revolutionary ecology.

This is one of the false debates of the moment, from the summit of the State to the heart of so many charitable NGOs, slogans are imagined and one pretends to question the most profitable and democratic way to transition ecologically. A slight socialist penchant aside, the lucidity, sharpness, and perfect logic of this text by André Gorz come to close the discussion about the possibility of a green reformism. As we read it, we realise that for any honest spirit, the apocalypse we are experiencing was predictable forty-five years ago, and therefore avoidable; that some, blindly following their interests, have desired it. From there, we can only submit to the obvious: all those who pretend that this debate deserves to take place are only there to allow industry and capitalism to save time. (lundi matin)

Their ecology and ours

André Gorz

Ecology is like universal suffrage and Sunday rest at first, all the bourgeois and all the partisans of the order tell you that you want their ruin, the triumph of anarchy and obscurantism. Then, in a second time, when the force of things and popular pressure become irresistible, you are granted what you were denied yesterday and basically nothing changes.

The consideration of ecological requirements retains many adversaries in business. But it already has enough employers and capitalist supporters that its acceptance by the silver powers becomes a serious probability. So better, now, do not play hide and seek: the ecological struggle is not an end in itself, it’s a step. It can create difficulties for capitalism and force it to change; but when, after having long resisted by force and cunning, it will finally yield because the ecological impasse will have become unavoidable, it will integrate this constraint as it has integrated all the others.

This is why we have to ask the question straightaway: what do we want? A capitalism that accommodates ecological constraints or an economic, social and cultural revolution that abolishes the constraints of capitalism and, thereby, establishes a new relationship of men to the community, their environment and nature? Reform or revolution?

Do not answer that this question is secondary and the important thing is not to binge on the planet to the point where it becomes uninhabitable. Neither is survival an end in itself: is it worthwhile to survive in “a world transformed into a global hospital, a global school, a global prison, and where the main task of the soul’s engineers will be to to make men suitable for this condition “? Ivan Illich.

If you still doubt that it is this world that the technocrats of the established order are preparing for, read the record on the new techniques of “brainwashing” in Germany and the United States: following psychiatrists and psychologists. American psycho-surgeons, researchers at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Hamburg, under the direction of Professors Gross and Svab, explore ways of amputating individuals from this aggression that prevents them from quietly bearing the most total frustrations : those imposed on them by the penitentiary system, but also the work on the chain, the crowding in overcrowded cities, the school, the office, the army. It is better to try to define, from the start, why we fight and not only against what. And it is better to try to predict how capitalism will be affected and changed by ecological constraints, than to believe that these will cause its disappearance, nothing more.

But first, what is it, in economic terms, an ecological constraint? Take for example the gigantic chemical complexes of the Rhine Valley at Ludwigshafen (Basf), Leverkusen (Bayer) or Rotterdam (Akzo). Each complex combines the following factors: – natural resources (air, water, minerals) which were so far free because they did not have to be reproduced (replaced); – means of production (machinery, buildings) which are capital immobilized, which wear out and which must therefore be replaced (reproduction), preferably by more powerful and more efficient means, giving the firm an advantage over competitors; – the human labor force, which also needs to be reproduced (we must feed, care, house, educate the workers).

In capitalist economics, the combination of these factors, within the production process, is intended to dominate the maximum possible profit (which, for a firm concerned about its future, also means: the maximum of power, therefore of investment, presence on the world market). The search for this goal has a profound impact on how the various factors are combined and the relative importance given to each of them.

The firm, for example, never wonders how to make the work as pleasant as possible, so that the plant can better maintain the natural balance and the living space of the people, so that its products serve the ends that are give human communities. It only asks how to produce the maximum market value at the least monetary cost. And to this last question she answers: “I must privilege the perfect functioning of machines, which are rare and expensive, compared to the physical and psychological health of workers who are quickly replaceable for cheap. I must focus on low cost compared to ecological balances whose destruction will not be my responsibility. I have to produce what can be expensive, even if cheaper things could be more useful.” Everything bears the imprint of these capitalist requirements: the nature of the products, the production technology, the working conditions, the structure and size of the companies …

But here, in the Rhine valley in particular, human crowding, air and water pollution, have reached such a degree that the chemical industry, to continue to grow or even only to function, is seen forced to filter its fumes and effluents, that is to say to reproduce conditions and resources that, until now, were considered “natural” and free. This need to reproduce the environment will have obvious implications. It is necessary to invest in de-pollution, thus to increase the mass of immobilized capital; the depreciation (reproduction) of the treatment plants must then be ensured; and the product of these (the relative cleanness of air and water) can not be profitably sold.

In sum, there is a simultaneous increase in the weight of the invested capital (of the “organic composition”), the reproduction cost of the latter and the production costs, without a corresponding increase in sales. Therefore, one of two things, or the profit rate drops, or the price of the products increases.

The firm will obviously seek to raise its selling prices. But it will not do so as easily: all other polluting firms (cement, metallurgy, iron and steel, etc.) will also seek to make their products more expensive for the end consumer. Taking environmental requirements into account will ultimately have this consequence: prices will tend to increase faster than real wages, so people’s purchasing power will be compressed and everything will happen as if the cost of de-pollution were taken from the resources have have to buy goods. The production of these will therefore tend to stagnate or fall; recession or crisis tendencies will be aggravated. And this decline in growth and production that, in another system, could have been a good (fewer cars, less noise, more air, shorter working days, etc.), will have entirely negative effects: the polluting productions will become luxury goods, inaccessible to the mass, without ceasing to be within the reach of the privileged: the inequalities will be widened: the poor will become relatively poorer and the wealthier richer.

Taking ecological costs into account will have the same social and economic effects as the oil crisis. And capitalism, far from succumbing to the crisis, will manage it as it has always done: well-placed financial groups will benefit from the difficulties of rival groups to absorb them at low prices and extend their hold on the economy. The central government will strengthen its control over society: technocrats will calculate “optimal” standards of de-pollution and production, issue regulations, extend the areas of “programmed life” and the field of activity of repressive devices. Popular anger will be deflected by countervailing myths against convenient scapegoats (ethnic or racial minorities, for example, the “hairy”, the young …) and the state will only be able to control its power. The power of its apparatus: bureaucracy, police, army, militia will fill the void left by the discredit of party politics and the disappearance of political parties. It is enough to look around to perceive, in France and elsewhere, the signs of a similar degeneration.

Will you say that none of this is inevitable? Without a doubt. But that is the way things are likely to happen if capitalism is forced to take ecological costs into account without a political attack, launched at all levels, robbing it of control of operations and opposing it to something entirely different, a different project of society and civilization. For the proponents of growth are right on at least one point: in the context of the current society and the current pattern of consumption, based on inequality, privilege and profit-seeking, non-growth or negative growth can only mean stagnation, unemployment, a growing gap that separates rich and poor. Under the current mode of production, it is not possible to limit or block growth while distributing the available goods more equitably.

Indeed, it is the very nature of these properties that most often prohibits their equitable distribution: how do you distribute “equitably” trips in a Concorde, a Citroën DS or SM, apartments at the top of tower buildings with a pool, the thousand new products, rare by definition, that the industry launches each year to devalue the old models and to reproduce the inequality and the social hierarchy? And how to distribute “equitably” university titles, foreman, chief engineer or chair holder positions.

How can we not see that the main source of growth lies in this generalized forward flight that stimulates a deliberately maintained inequality: in what Ivan Illich calls “the modernization of poverty”? As soon as the mass can hope to access what was previously a privilege of the elite, this privilege (the ferry, the car, the TV) is devalued by the same, the threshold of poverty is raised a notch, new privileges are created from which the mass is excluded. In constantly recreating scarcity to recreate inequality and hierarchy, society generates more unfulfilled needs than it fills, the growth rate of frustration far exceeds that of production. (Ivan lllich)

As long as one reason within the limits of this unequal civilization, growth will appear to the mass of people as the promise – yet entirely illusory – that they will one day stop being “underprivileged”, and non-growth as their condemnation to mediocrity without hope. So it is not so much growth that must be tackled, as the mystification it maintains, the dynamic of growing and still frustrated needs on which it rests, the competition that it organizes by inciting individuals to want, each, to hoist themselves “above” others. The motto of this company could be: What is good for everyone is worthless. You will only be respectable if you have “better” than others.

But it is the opposite that must be affirmed to break with the ideology of growth: Only what is good for everyone is worthy of you, only what does not privilege or lower anyone deserves to be produced. We can be happier with less opulence, because in a society without privilege, there are no poor people.

Try to imagine a society based on these criteria. The production of virtually indestructible fabrics, shoes for years, machines that are easy to repair and able to function for a century, all this is, right now, within reach of technology and science as well as the multiplication of collective facilities and services (transportation, laundry, etc.), instead of providing for the purchase of expensive, fragile and energy-consuming machines.

Suppose in each collective building two or three television rooms (one per program); a playroom for children; a well-equipped DIY workshop; a laundry room with drying and ironing area: will you still need all your individual equipment, and will you still get bottled on the roads if there is convenient public transport to places of relaxation, bicycle parks? and mopeds on-site, a dense network of public transport for suburbs and cities?

Imagine that the big industry, planned centrally, is limited to producing only the necessary: ??four or five models of shoes and clothes that last, three models of robust and transformable cars, plus all that is necessary for equipment and collective services. It’s impossible in a market economy? Yes. That would be massive unemployment? No: the twenty-hour week, provided you change the system. It would be uniformity and greyness? No, because imagine again this: each district, each commune has workshops, open day and night, equipped with ranges as complete as possible of tools and machines, where the inhabitants, individually, collectively or in groups, will produce for themselves, outside the market, the superfluous, according to their tastes and desires. Since they will work only twenty hours a week (and perhaps less) to produce what is necessary, adults will have plenty of time to learn what children will learn from their side as early as elementary school: working with fabrics, leather wood, stone, metals; electricity, mechanics, ceramics, agriculture …

It’s a utopia? It can be a program. Because this “utopia” corresponds to the most advanced, and not the most crude, form of socialism, to a society without bureaucracy, where the market decays, where there is enough for all and where people are individually and collectively free to shape their lives, to choose what they want to do and to have what is needed: a society in which “the free development of all would be both the goal and the condition for the free development of everyone.” Karl Marx.

André Gorz, The Wild, April 1974

(We share in this post a translation from the french that is available here, with some modifications).

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2 Responses to André Gorz: An apology for a radical ecology

  1. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro says:

    This translation is a bit, let’s say, unconventional, here and there…

  2. Pingback: Enough 14Its time to revolt!André Gorz: An apology for a radical ecology

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