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Carlos Taibo: “Living better with less only makes sense if we have already radically redistributed the wealth”

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(Interview by Guillermo Martínez, originally published in Spanish at Público. Translated with permission by Amelia Burke, and reviewed by Steven Johnson, Mark H. Burton and Manuel Casal.)

If the planet is going all to pieces, and all indications are that it is unless we change some parameters and structural dynamics, then something will have to be done. The de-growth theory, which Carlos Taibo (Madrid 1956) prefers to call a “perspective”, offers some answers to how, when and why society should try to soften as much as possible the effects of a climate crisis that is pressing ever more urgently upon us. The writer and de-growth theorist brings the idea home, and relates it to another of the most pressing realities facing the Iberian Peninsula, in his recently published book Iberia vaciada. Despoblación, decrecimiento, colapso [Emptied Iberia: Depopulation, De-growth, Collapse] (Catarata, 2021).[1] At the same time, the author has distilled twelve years of work in his book Decrecimiento: Una propuesta razonada [De-growth: A Reasoned Proposal] (Alianza Editorial, 2021), a revised and updated edition of another book published some years ago. Público talks to him about subjects such as ecofascism, the culture of constant hurry, and the need to respond to climate change with transition to a non-patriarchal and self-managed society.

Guillermo Martínez (GT): You write, “the de-growth perspective tells us that, if we live on a planet with finite resources, and we do, then it does not seem to make much sense for us to continue to aspire to unlimited growth”. This idea, although it seems entirely logical, does not appear to be widely taken to heart. Why?

Carlos Taibo (CT): The logic of growth marches in lockstep with the logic of capital. It is just one of the elements which, in the rich countries, the advertising industry, the media, and the education system have drummed into our heads. Just how difficult it is to step outside this logic is demonstrated by the fact that we persist in defending it even when we know that it gives rise to countless assaults on equality and the environment while promoting an abrasive individualism.

Even so, I don’t rule out the possibility that concern over the impending collapse will end up provoking radical changes in our behaviour. In this sense, the consequences of the pandemic may open our eyes to our coming future of collapse.

GM: In Reasoned Proposal you show how the developed capitalist economies have grown exceptionally at the same time as they destroyed jobs. By the same token, de-growth would cause a huge loss of jobs. How does your perspective address this problem?

CT: The solution is two-fold: Develop those sectors of the economy that meet unsatisfied social and environmental needs. And in the conventional economic sectors that remain, share out the workload. The combination of these factors would allow us to work fewer hours, enjoy more free time, develop our often neglected social life, and reduce, when possible, our excessive levels of consumption. I believe that all of this is a far more desireable way of life than the slave-like one that is imposed upon us now.

Iberia vaciada. Despoblación, decrecimiento, colapsoGM: In Emptied Iberia you affirm that “any real answer to capitalism in the 21st C. must, by definition, pursue de-growth, democratic self-management, the end of patriarchy, and international solidarity. And what might happen if this is not the case?

CT: What would happen is that, in the aggravated circumstances of a likely unavoidable collapse, many of the defects which plague the left, and which inhabit our institutions today, would continue in place. These include the normalization of poverty caused by capitalism, the worship of productivity and competitiveness, weak and compliant unions, authoritarian and personality-centered leaders, and the harmful legacy of a patriarchal society, ethnocentrism, and short-term thinking. How much time we spend talking about corruption, and how little we devote, indeed, to the profit-driven system that gives rise to so many ills.

GM: Can we really live better with less? Why?

CT: We won’t have any other alternative. Besides that, there are three things we must consider. The first highlights that, having left the initial stages of development behind, the hyper-consumption to which the inhabitants of the rich world frequently devote themselves has little or nothing to do with well-being. The second draws our attention to the fact that, once our basic needs are satisfied – and I admit that this point is more controversial than it might seem – then our well-being has far more to do with relational benefits, those which arise from relating to other people, rather than from the material goods offered by the supermarkets. Third, and last, the idea of “living better with less” only makes sense if we have already radically redistributed the wealth.

Colapso. Capitalismo terminal, transición ecosocial, ecofascismoGM: Emptied Iberia follows on from your previous work, Colapso [Collapse], which in 2020 was published in its fifth edition. You add that, in the face of the environmental collapse, there are two possible reactions – the movements for ecosocial transition, or eco-fascism. In what form have those two reactions expressed themselves in recent years?

CT: Let me clarify. In the first instance, I don’t believe that they would be the only responses we can likely expect in the face of collapse. I really wanted to analyse those two because I feel they would contribute to enriching the debate at hand. With regards to movements, it is easy to see a surge in autonomous spaces which are demanding self-management, de-commercialisation, and, hopefully, de-patriarchalisation of all relationships. Here in Spain, in recent years, the phenomenon has picked up steam, though not enough, in the wake of the 15-M movement.[2] Nor should we overlook the importance of the numerous mutual aid groups which arose last spring during the lockdowns.

Regarding eco-fascism, and without leaving the subject of the pandemic, I believe that the strata of power which have started toying with authoritarian solutions to address what they understand to be an excess of population, have gleefully observed the formidable exercise of voluntary servitude to which we have all submitted. Looking beyond the pandemic, it is still very noteworthy how circles which are formally denialist with respect to climate change and the depletion of energy resources, are taking actions based on a very different assumption. Trump is one example, trying to purchase Greenland from Denmark.

GM: You say that the world of the car and high-speed trains, sectors familiar to the greater part of the population, summarise well many of the aberrations which de-growth would like to respond to. Why?

CT: They epitomize much of the insanity of our societies. They give rise to a culture of constant hurry and hyper-mobility. They are at the heart of projects which draw from a ferocious individualism. They show no respect for the environment. And, as is becoming increasingly clear, especially with respect to high speed trains, they are within the reach of only a few. How pitiful it is that the strength of an economy is still measured in terms of car sales and the opening of new, and unsustainable, high-speed railway lines.

GM: The problems which plague us, as you say, are the environmental and resource limits, climate change, the depletion of energy resources, the attacks on food sovereignty, and the losses in biodiversity. Do you consider one of these to be more urgent than the others?

CT: Climate change and the depletion of energy resources, without a doubt. The pandemic has certainly helped us to see how certain factors that were thought to play relatively minor roles have taken on huge importance, and may even be bringing us to the verge of collapse.I’m thinking of, to look no further, the pandemics of health, society, care, finance, and repression. We need to pay attention, nevertheless, to the repercussions of a paradox: It will be the most depressed regions, at least at first, that will come through the collapse in better shape. And that is crucial to understand in relation to the “emptied Iberia”.

GM: According to the de-growth perspective, the Global North needs to reduce its levels of production and consumption. What principles and values would we have to make that reduction possible?

CT: The main ones pertain to escaping capitalism and its rules as soon as possible. But with regard to the principles and values stressed by the de-growth perspective in particular, there we have, without a doubt, the recovery of our social life which has been robbed from us, the flourishing of creative forms of leisure, sharing the workload, a reduction of much of the infrastructure that is now in use, the restoration of local life, and, finally, at the individual level, voluntary moderation and simplicity. Behind these lie, most assuredly, democratic self-management and mutual aid.

Decrecimiento. Una propuesta razonadaGM: ‘Women, care, de-growth’ is the title of one of the chapters in De-growth: A Reasoned Proposal. These themes are also dealt with in Emptied Iberia. In what way are these three elements you mention intertwined?

CT: No emancipatory project, as de-growth aims to be, can shirk the task of dismantling patriarchy and ending the marginalisation, both symbolic and material, of women. We only have to look at the fact that 70% of the poorest people and 78% of illiterate people on the planet are women, and that, according to estimates, they do 67% of the work in exchange for a mere 10% of the income.

I have always thought that, by virtue of their connection to the work of caring for people, and despite the joys and tribulations that entails, women have a readier and more fluid comprehension of what the de-growth perspective means. Perhaps this is because, just as eco-feminism stresses, they are decisive in sustaining a way of life which fortunately escapes the mercantile logic of capitalism. If the “emptied Iberia” has resisted, it has been largely thanks to women.

GM: We live in a capitalist society which for many years has revolved around neoliberalism. Why is it not possible to defend de-growth and be a capitalist at the same time?

CT: I don’t say specifically that it cannot be done. In France and Italy there are businessmen who toy with the de-growth perspective, since they understand that the planet, effectively, is falling apart. However I don’t believe that our actions will be meaningful or effective if we do not question, as the version of de-growth I’m defending does, all of the artefacts which surround capitalism: heirarchy, the mythology of progress, exploitation, productivity, competitiveness, consumption, and, of course, growth itself.

We certainly have a lot to learn about this from pre-capitalist societies. We must place in the foreground future generations, women, inhabitants of the Global South, and members of the other species with which we share – on paper, at least, despite many of our actions to the contrary – the planet.

Photo Copyright: Libros de la Catarata
© Libros de la Catarata

Translators’ Notes

[1] “Emptied Iberia”, or “Iberia vaciada” in the original Spanish, refers to the vast areas of the Iberian Peninsula that have experienced significant de-population as a result of mass migration to the cities.

[1] “15-M” stands for “15 de mayo” (May 15th), the date when the movement internationally known as the “Indignados movement” started in Spain.

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Carlos Taibo is a professor of Political Science and Administration at the Autonomous University of Madrid. He is a member of the editorial board of Sin Permiso, has published articles in diverse media and is the author of thirty books in Spanish and Galician, most of them concerning transitions in contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, as well as on topics of geopolitics and Degrowth. Available in English is his book Rethinking Anarchy: Direct Action, Autonomy, Self-Management (AK Press, 2018).

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