The Growth Debate and Liberalism

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Jean-Claude Michéa’s heterodox history of the working-class

The degrowth vs. growth debate is often very difficult to assess head on, especially on the socialist left. The growth position would seem to be squarely in line with progressive liberalism, a tradition that operates on the following categorical imperative: “act always in such a manner that you can consume ever more with no limit, while working ever more.”

Growth advocates such as Leigh Phillips seem to insist that growth can only be advocated on condition that a socialist ascension to power in the parliamentary governments in Europe and America—and beyond—truly occurs. The only path by which growth can be advocated is the achievement of electoral socialist success on a very large scale. At the core of this argument is a presupposition that the growth position knows something about the standpoint of the working-class.

The pro-growth position says that working-class demands for an increase in the standard of living and pro redistribution policies can be achieved with capitalist productive processes accelerated and thus capitalisms own insistence on constant growth can be harnessed and redirected so as to improve the quality of life for the broader working-class.

But what is also implied in the pro-growth position is that if there is not a resurgence of social democracy political activity and socialist electoral success, then the growth position is destined to turn into a fool’s errand because all that we will get is more disciplinary austerity. The question is centered on two conceptions of growth: growth on the terms of the status quo or growth on the terms of a well organized working-class movement that takes over the electoral and governing system.

That we now have over 200 self-declared socialist politicians in the United States has not yet convinced anyone that growth can reasonably be swayed towards a more pro-redistributionist and anti-austerity direction. As Kshama Sawant’s recent refusal to run for local office demonstrates, something is not working with the steady socialist takeover we have been witnessing.

The degrowth position would seem to offer a rebuttal to historical liberalism as defined by a pro-growth and productivist conception of the subject. This is the argument of Jean-Claude Michéa: liberalism insists on a highly circumscribed idea of the subject or citizen, one that must be in support of a constant pro-growth commitment.

Michéa is a heterodox political thinker whose book The Realm of Lesser Evil develops a theory of how to understand socialism as a historical opposition to the imposition of the liberal subject onto the working-class. Michéa will argue—in a way that will undoubtedly annoy any Spinozist to no end—that the working-class is historically locatable by its refusal of liberalism’s “unitary subject.” In this way, as Mao once said, the demands of the working-class tend to appear at first very coarse and perhaps even a bit like the Yellow Vests appear today; the working-class appears in history as a total aberration to any notion of liberal progressive hegemony.

In a way close to but ultimately distinct from that of Jacques Rancière’s notion of disagreement and ‘wrung’ forming the excluded logic of the working-class or proletarian subject, Michéa argues that through the denial of working-class values from below by liberalist elites from on high, liberalism gains its raison d être which is that liberalism forces all subjects to adapt to its “unitary” notion of the citizen. This is what makes liberalism a Spinozist construal of the subject, a subject that refuses antagonism, refuses the exception and refuses any hostile agon of rivaling and contentious forms of living that the working-class poses.

Michéa calls this unitary subject the “cybernetic cosmopolitan”, a subject that refuses the values and virtues that come from below, a subject that is devoid of common qualities entirely. The values of common decency, frugality and even pro-workerist attitudes cannot be integrated into the liberal subject who only knows “interest and strategic calculation.”

In this sense, as one of Michéa’s heroes Christopher Lasch insists, liberalism is defined by its refusal to either improve the dignity of labor for the broader working-class and by its refusal to universalize values that the working-class demands from below. Lasch wrote that the petit-bourgeois, while certainly prone to being a reactionary class of small business owners who want nothing more than to evade redistributionist or welfare state commitments, also contain a wide swath of people who are good advocates for working-class demands and interests because they advocate that values such as generosity and honesty be centered in political life.

We are experiencing a strange moment today whereby the liberal progressive position is not resolvable by the very terms that liberal progressives have historically used to settle the social peace, and those terms have historically revolved around a commitment to progress and growth. The unitary subject of liberalism only makes sense and can only have efficacy when it is centered on maximizing and advocating—often quietly and under the veil of different ideologies—a complicity with pro-growth attitudes. We thus see, at least provisionally, that the anti-growth position stands as a great heir to the socialist tradition as Michéa understands it, but the twist is that today the anti-growth position does not seem to advocate a coherent conception of where to steer collective working-class demands. Without a claim on where to steer working-class agitation that would promise a quality of life improvement for the masses, a life that is qualitatively different than austerity, the degrowth position risks abandoning its historical connection to the socialist position.

Historically, it was a fait accompli that the progressive position and pro-growth position would be at odds with working-class demands. Moreover, working-class demands extend beyond mere economic demands for an improved quality of life, they also find expression in the agonism of refusal over competing notions of the subject, its values and ways of life. In an age where it is nearly impossible to reasonably advocate the law of growth and constant economic activity due to climate catastrophe, we risk falling into a position on the left wherein we have no optimism regarding a program for ending the immiseration of the working-class by austerity. As I see it, this demand must be elevated as a principle socialist demand around which any number of programs and indeed socialist parties might push broader socialist agendas.

For Michéa, liberalism develops a man without qualities, what he calls “a derisory metaphysical residue of the struggle against all discriminations.” To advocate adaptation to liberalism’s unitary subject is to promote a certain aggressive egoism. Michéa will argue that from the Chartist movements with figures such as George Sand in the 19th century to the present, socialism from below has been marked by a grand refusal of liberal egoism. He writes that “the repulsion that liberals have for all norms laid down in common goes well beyond norms of morality, philosophy or religion”—in fact it is found in the very pretension to teach something to someone that would be apart from the laws of the Market, the rights of the individual, and strictly technical knowledge. The working-class subject is thus knowable when we locate the ways that these forms of living are identified.

Liberalism must participate in inventing and reinventing a certain type of individual egoism, a subject whose identity exceeds the contract of the family unity, who is squarely on the side of growth down to their very desire. The desire of the subject that liberalism produces is a subject that is bent towards narcissism, is bent towards an omnipotence towards the world. What is most useful about Michéa’s analysis here is that he is situating socialism in a way that is subversive to the core but in such a way that is reflective of a communitarian socialism, and indeed a virtue-based version of socialism which will of course make any Marxist run for the hills out of all of its implied moralism.

Michéa argues that if liberalism were to reach the point where it was forced to abandon its central tenet—pro-growth—then liberalism and the liberal ruling class would be unable to pacify the social bond. In other words, we can say that the formula of liberalism is class rule in the name of growth at the expense of working-class immiseration, but when you remove growth as a reasonable basis by which the ruling class can center its justification for the adoption of its unitary subject, then liberal advocates effectively fall into a representational crisis. This is the crisis that we have been experiencing since 2016 and arguably longer back. This is a crisis that forces us to ask what sort of collective solidarity is required to achieve our political goals. It seems to me that the growth debate points to all the right questions.  

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