A historical critique of the degrowth movement from Las Indias (2): When did scarcity become a utopia?

Excerpted from David de Ugarte:

The history of the social struggle between scarcity and abundance:

“Popular utopias have always demanded abundance, and when empowered with technology, have established it in very similar terms to those we use today. Degrowth, on the other hand, only has historical roots in the Church’s reaction to feudal decomposition.

The country of Jauja is a typical example of the popular utopias of the Middle Ages and the beginning of Modernity. It’s a good reflection of the aspirations of the lower tiers of society, which were crushed by hunger and misery. Abundance, which is the end of work forced by need, free [gratis] food, and the end of conflicts and violence due to its scarcity, conjures up the image of a world we deserve to live in.
At the end of the nineteenth century, when the first “modern utopias” appeared as part of the popular cultural flowering that led to the First International, the impulse was rationalized, was argued, was developed didactically by imaginary local societies. But abundance continues to be the inspiration, the engine of hope that connects with the aspirations of millions of people. The first utopias of this time in the Western Latin world, Pensive, by Juan Serrano Oteiza (1876) and New Utopia, by Ricardo Mella (1889), were written when Prodhounian mutualism was still hegemonic in the workers’ movement. Both focused on developing a concept familiar today to readers of Juan Urrutia: the economy of abundance.

The economy of abundance appears in Mella’s book in an economically autonomous village on the Cantabrian coast, which has done away with specialization in favor of multispecialization, whose workshops are cooperatives, where the better part of production is decommodified — in other words, free [gratis] – and in which the market (known as “bazaars,” which might sound familiar) remains only to provide coordination and distribution of the extraordinary and the innovative. The conjunction paints a picture that’s very close to current models of abundance.

Abundance, the possibility of producing and working on what you want, but even more so of consuming as much as you need with no need for an external regulator (market, state, or Public Health Committee), was born in these narratives of productive capacity “liberated” from the mindset of accumulation, and a a way of life liberated from the pressures of the struggle for survival, moved by the pleasure of learning and socializing, and which, therefore, no longer needs consumption to make up for the emptiness of everyday life.

This is not at all an exclusively Iberian phenomenon. It’s the same in all the utopian literature in the world, beginning with the great William Morris, one of the most influential social writers and thinkers of the nineteenth century, dragged into the twentieth century by the academic power of Russian Stalinism. And if we take the primary South American example of this literature, the late “American anarchist city” of Pierre Quiroule (1914) (recently made 3D) the outside road that rings the imaginary city is called “Abundance Avenue.”
When did scarcity become a utopia? Only very recently, when decomposition had already come stalking, has degrowth dared to propose scarcity as a utopia, becoming the new hegemonic thought, proposing to “degrow,” which is to say, socially produce less, even though what’s produced today is not enough for everyone, however equally it may be distributed.

This very interesting and strange phenomenon takes us back to the age of decomposition of the feudal regime, when, faced with the commercial revolution of the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, the Church condemned the artisan merchant and commerce itself, spelling out “theologies of poverty” that rejected misery. This misery was produced by resistance to change on the part of the nobility, which the Church leadership was a part of. The Church would present the Second Coming as the passage to the messianic society where “the wolf will graze with the lamb.” That’s how they kicked the can down the road indefinitely. But fewer and fewer were willing to wait. New groups would try to bring about the arrival of Christ by living in community, raising up the egalitarian society of the Gospel. Soon, the Church lost its grip on the Waldensians, Joachimites, Fraticelli, Beghards, Flagellants…

The interesting thing is that the theological praise of poverty, in the hands of the peasant classes, soon became an indentity and self-recognition (the imagined community of “the poor”). And the self-identification inadvertantly promoted by this ecclesiastical message, in turn, quickly became a rejection of poverty and a violent demand for abundance. The Church soon responded with the creation of the Franciscan Order (providing an internal organizational space for poverty), the promotion of the Dominicans, and the creation of the Inquisition (to suppress “excesses”).

It’s not very different from what we see and will continue to see. Every obselete order, incapable of imagining itself and projecting itself onto the future in a way that’s useful to people, destroys social wealth with its death rattle, as long as it doesn’t change the strutures of power. It’ll promote “voluntary” poverty, which it imposes on the large majority through economic crises, the inefficient waste of resources, war, and the direct appropriation of economic rents and levies. There will be praise for degrowth, spaces created for “aesthetic” poverty, and more and more repression of those who dream of a world without scarcity. Because, in the final analysis, abundance, freedom from forced work, and multispecialization are only the pillars without which the old dream common to all times and all cultures will remain utopian — the dream of freedom.”

1 Comment A historical critique of the degrowth movement from Las Indias (2): When did scarcity become a utopia?

  1. AvatarMichael Walker

    Very counter-intuitive piece. People who talk of ‘degrowth’ today actually favour what you are calling abundance, whilst the champions of economic growth seem quite comfortable with widening inequality and misery.

    Hence the argument to cease using GDP as our yardstick since it shows only the overall result and hides the large difference in outcomes between different income quintiles, most of whom have been going backwards lately.

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