In 2019, Jacques T. Godbout wrote a review of Serge Latouche’s latest book Comment réenchanter le monde: La décroissance et le sacré, to which the latter responded. A correspondence between the two men followed, which we reproduce below (Ed.).
How to re-enchant the world: Serge Latouche on degrowth and religion (Jacques T. Godbout)
1 Over the several decades of his prolific writing career, Serge Latouche has persistently condemned the “religion” of growth, linked to faith in progress. From the very beginning of his latest book (Latouche 2019), he restates the idea of “traditional religion being replaced by the religion of economics” (p. 8).  This is the first time, however, that he has directly attacked this sacralization of the economy, which he does by taking a rather unexpected approach, via the writings of the two most recent popes on the subject.
2 After developing the idea, in a fairly brief first section, that the growth paradigm has all the characteristics of a religion, Latouche analyzes two encyclicals. He is relatively dismissive of Benedict XVI (“what is striking about the text of the encyclical is the predominance of the economic doxa over the evangelical doxa,” p. 57), but is much more positive about Pope Francis, whom he considers to be practically a degrowther. In Latouche’s view, this second encyclical represents a break with the centuries-old—if not millennia-old—tradition of the Catholic Church; it constitutes a “radical critique of the destructive effects of productivism” (p. 77), and represents a “radical change in the attitude of the Church of Rome” (p. 79). Yet in spite of all these qualities, he finds it to be ultimately equivocal and argues that it does not “pursue to its conclusion the idea of needing to break with the economy” (p. 94ff.). In the last chapter, Latouche directly (and perhaps bravely) tackles the main question of the book: Is degrowth a religion? This original and highly thought-provoking work prompted me to consider two questions following its reading.
Desacralizing the market—or growth?
3 As always in his work, Latouche’s critique of the neoliberal model is a radical one that often seems to attack the market as much as growth. Yet in adopting the growth model, modern individuals have not simply attached themselves to growth: they value the other key components of this model just as much, if not increasingly so. The theory of rational choice on which the market is based assumes that everyone knows what is good for them and that we should not impose our values on others. The idea of preference that lies at the heart of the neoclassical model is not solely a negative one. It originated as an alternative to imposed hierarchy and contains a fundamental principle of autonomy and freedom that the classical left has always sought to ignore, as so strikingly illustrated by George Orwell.  As such, the market is a key ingredient of autonomy that individuals will not readily give up (p. 114). When Latouche refers to “the market ideology as a myth” (p. 106), he is no doubt thinking more of Karl Polanyi’s self-regulating market than of all market transactions per se. But the distinction is unclear. And yet it is important, because if we want humanity to embrace degrowth, we must not ask it to give up everything the market has brought it, but solely the growth paradigm—which is already a huge ask. It is the “self-regulating market”—not the market in itself—that has produced growth as an absolute value, and this is what we need to condemn: the runaway circulation of things that resembles a cancerous cell reproducing beyond the control of an individual’s genetic code.
4 How then can we reintegrate the free agent of Homo economicus into the normal functioning of society? One thing is certain: if we throw out the baby of market liberation with the bathwater of growth, degrowth will be hard to accept. By all means let us desacralize the market, but not by rejecting all of its components—some of which are not necessarily linked to the growth model—and let us make our distinctions crystal clear. It is difficult enough to convince citizens not to panic at the announcement of low growth in gross domestic product: Why ask them to give up the legitimate benefits of this model?
5 Latouche appears to attack both the economy and growth, since he often identifies the economy with the market. This indiscriminate attack overlooks the liberating nature of the market. Modern individuals are increasingly ready to challenge the model of limitless growth. But will they be as willing to give up the freedom of the idea that the customer is always right? Should they be asked to give up the other elements of this treasured model at the same time?
What should be re-sacralized?
6 We do of course need to desacralize growth. But what should it be replaced by? In the final chapter of his book, Latouche insightfully tackles the biggest challenge: How do we re-enchant the world once it has jettisoned the religion of growth? Degrowth does not give meaning to life. It does not have sufficient mobilizing power to bring about a paradigm shift. And humans need myths, even if they do not believe in them, as Jean-Pierre Vernant has shown. Latouche explores several interesting avenues, including that of animism. But in my view, he overlooks what must be a key ingredient in any positive vision of degrowth: the gift. In order to directly challenge the growth paradigm, we must stop seeing nature simply as a resource to be exploited, and recognize all that it brings us, which is infinitely more important than what we take from it through exploitation. In other words, we need to establish a relationship of gift exchange with nature, and perceive ourselves as recipients who must give in turn. This will enable us to, in the words of Marcel Mauss, “emerge from self” and recognize “the knowledge that our true self exists not only in our own person, this particular manifestation, but in everything that lives. […] the knowledge that everything living is just as much our own inner nature, as is our own person, extends our interest to everything living; and in this way the heart is enlarged” (Schopenhauer 1909 , 483). This is the positive side of the idea of degrowth, and crucial to infusing it with a soul. This transformation of our relationship with Nature—a vision that is still part of many societies—could form the basis of a new kind of sacralization, and of new myths to replace the growth paradigm. The gift is a key ingredient in the “kind of mass conversion” (p. 110) for which Latouche is calling.
7 He concludes by reflecting that “the experiments that endure… have an almost religious dimension.” What would a religion of degrowth look like? Latouche envisages an “immanent transcendence” (p. 121). Latouche proposes that we challenge the subject-object distinction and revert to a form of animism defined by a lack of such distinction. Is he calling for a return to an archaic way of thinking? Perhaps not, given that quantum physicists such as Niels Bohr have themselves questioned this distinction (Feuer 1974). In growth societies, artists are the last remaining witnesses to this relationship of gift exchange with nature, as Latouche emphasizes in his conclusion.
8 While he praises Pope Francis’ encyclical, Latouche ultimately criticizes it for “offering merely empty words” (p. 71) when it comes to solutions. But the same criticism could perhaps be made of Latouche himself. In the final sentence of the book he refers to “democratic management of meaning,” and “citizen vigilance,” among other things (p. 123). How do we re-enchant the world once it has jettisoned the religion of growth? This is a crucial question that “unbeliever” Serge Latouche bravely and honestly tackles in one of his best books. But the answer lies through the gift. Only the gift can bring an end to the tendency to turn everything into a commodity. The vision of the world and of humanity based on the gift directly opposes the dominant model of our relationship with Nature. The former, in which we define ourselves as recipients, “simply” consists of recognizing what Nature gives to us and proclaims that economic production must be subject to the demands of Nature, rather than the other way around. This vision of the world is currently making headway, thanks in part to the work of Serge Latouche.
Response to Jacques T. Godbout’s critique (Serge Latouche)
9 I don’t think I am in any real disagreement with the reservations expressed by Jacques Godbout in his excellent review of my book; in any case, I understand them completely. To begin with, I need to clear up a misunderstanding about the title. As is often the case, the publishers wanted to impose a catchy title for sales purposes. So my editor took the title of the initial conclusion and made it the title of the book. The said conclusion therefore became the last chapter, with a different title: Is degrowth a religion? The reader who might have expected to find a genuine treatise on how to re-enchant the world will thus necessarily be frustrated, since the conclusion merely gestures to a few possible avenues of response to this vast and difficult question. That said, Godbout does not seem to have been too bothered by this, and to have understood that the book consists of a collection of essays on degrowth and spirituality, as indicated by the subtitle.
10 He does however raise two reservations, the first about the market, and the second about the gift. Here I believe it is worthwhile to provide a little clarification.
11 When I say that I am in no real disagreement with Godbout, it is because he specifies that he is attached to the real or illusory freedom that market-based relations give to individuals, but rejects the all-encompassing market of neoliberalism. In private correspondence, he has expressed his surprise at my lack of disagreement and reminded me that in 2007 I accused him of being a market apologist in his book Ce qui circule entre nous (Godbout 2007), something that had made an impression on him and which I had totally forgotten. I therefore revisited this book, which I had thought excellent and from which, incidentally, I took a significant extract that I quote in the book reviewed. It did not take me long to find the incriminating passages, as we will see later.
12 This question also forms part of a broader debate that has been raised in particular in discussions with Claude Lefort, to whom Godbout explicitly refers in the above book. What should we retain of liberalism in our desired break with the inverted totalitarianism of the market society? The stakes have been further raised by the radical ideas of our friend Jean-Claude Michéa, for whom liberalism forms a whole and who insists that it is impossible to separate political liberalism from economic or cultural liberalism. Curiously, Godbout writes toward the end of his book (p. 371): “Let me repeat in conclusion: I do not believe it is desirable to replace the dominant neoliberal paradigm.” If we take him at his word, such a statement would, contrary to his claims in the review, exclude him not only from the ranks of the growth objectors, but even from those of the convivialists, and would render any discussion pointless. No doubt we should not, therefore, attach too much importance to these words, and I will merely retain the position he states in the review: “It is the ‘self-regulating market’—not the market in itself—that has produced growth as an absolute value, and this is what we need to condemn: the runaway circulation of things that resembles a cancerous cell reproducing beyond the control of an individual’s genetic code.”
13 This question has occupied me a great deal, and I have tackled it on several occasions in recent years. The growth society founded on the capitalist economy and liberal ideology seeks to turn us all into Homo economicus, Homo consumens, and Homo laborans, etc., by freeing us from all social ties. The perversion of liberalism is that it makes us slaves (of advertising, of the media, of fashion) in the guise of a total freedom without substance—hence the idea of it as an “inverted totalitarianism.” We consent to, or even desire, our programmed servitude. Fortunately, the “formatting” of the human brain never succeeds completely because humans are not machines, and because resistance and dissent always nest inside submission.
14 It seems clear to me, however, that a society that has been formatted in this way by a quasi-totalitarian individualism will never be able to return to the mold of a holistic society/community like those of traditional societies. For better or for worse, along with free trade, we have experienced a form of subjective freedom (Benjamin Constant’s “liberty of the moderns”) that we cannot willingly give up. Godbout (2007, 351) writes that “a modern society in which it is always necessary to go through the primary link to access goods would be unlivable. Modern individuals are so used to having access to an infinite number of goods with a minimum of ties (the monetary trade relationship and the bureaucratic and professional relationship) that this would be difficult to bear.” I may phrase it differently, but my position is much the same. This is why radical democracy, inspired to varying degrees by the ideas of Cornelius Castoriadis, and which degrowth or other alternative projects seek to invent, can no longer be based on philia as understood by Plato and Aristotle, which equates to Constant’s “liberty of the ancients.” Ivan Illich was perfectly aware of this, which is also why he proposed the idea of “conviviality” as a “light” form of the impossible philia. This is in any case how I have understood the concept and incorporated it into my proposals for developing a convivial form of degrowth. And I believe this is also the basis for the convivialist project.
15 And the market? The market does indeed have a role to play here, since market exchange brings together individuals who meet for a limited operation that lies outside the ties structured by the holistic dimension of the social, the primary sociality to which Godbout is referring in the quotation above. It seems to me that what he is justifiably attached to is the preservation of this freedom of exchange: the ability to buy and sell freely, and therefore to choose, with strangers who are also interested in this same freedom. Our disagreement in 2007 was over the following statement on p. 93 of his book: “The market remains the least bad way to achieve the user’s good. We must absolutely follow Popper here and see that the market model prevails because, in this context of the producer-user split, all other solutions have proven to be worse.” His reference to the warped thinking of the ideologist Popper had the effect on me of a red rag to a bull.
16 Yet in his 2019 review, Godbout specifies that he rejects the “catallactic market” criticized by Polanyi (which I call the “omnicommodification of the world” or the “market society”), which somewhat contradicts his adherence to the neoliberal paradigm mentioned above. My position is the same, and always has been. At least since my 1994 article “Marché et marchés,” a major milestone in my work that was reproduced in my 1998 book L’Autre Afrique: Entre don et marché, which Godbout is aware of and indeed quotes favorably in a note on p. 286 of Ce qui circule. But the markets with a lowercase “m” that are studied by Polanyi and colleagues in Trade and Market in the Early Empires very much predate modernity and the emergence of an individualistic society. Marketplaces have of course always been sites characterized by a certain freedom, as shown by the example of medieval fairs. They were totally or partially free of the influences or constraints of the holistic framework—whether tribal or royal—since these places were located on the edges of the space controlled by the authority, in a no man’s land or free zone. It is no accident that the French words foire, bazar, and souk are used not only for markets but also metaphorically to mean places of disorder, or even debauchery. While such markets turn the goods and services that are exchanged there into commodities, the commodity does not impose its law on production, or on the structuring of social space and the formatting of members of the social body. Commercial exchange through haggling and customer relations does not exclude the spirit of the gift (in positive or negative terms), as illustrated by Panurge’s purchase of the sheep in Rabelais’s Fourth Book.
17 I have never envisaged excluding these markets with a small “m” from the societal reconstruction projects of degrowth. Breaking with the market economy/market society, or even exiting the economy, in no way involves the rejection of markets, which in fact predate the invention of the economy. However, Godbout’s remarks appear to suggest that his commitment to market freedom goes further than simply the existence of markets in a society that is no longer market-based. Freedom of choice in this postgrowth alternative society may indeed seem very limited compared to his expectations. It is clear, however, that a postindividualist society would have markets that would not function quite like the Berber or sub-Saharan markets studied in the aforementioned book edited by Polanyi and colleagues, since the “law of supply and demand” would play an even greater role in the absence of a custom to limit it. Is this enough to satisfy Godbout? I am not entirely sure, but am unable to picture what a kind of in-between between Market and markets might look like. He writes that the distinction between the myth of the self-regulating Market that I criticize, and the market that I might keep, is unclear. It is true that I do not make this explicit in the book in question, but I believe I do so very clearly in the 1994 article. And I would put the ball back in his court: it is his position that is unclear to me. It is up to him to specify what this “market-per-se” would consist of, this trading space more trade-based than markets but less so than the Market. I think, in line I believe with Polanyi, that the decommodification of the three fictitious commodities that are land, labor, and money—in conjunction with the necessary decolonization of the imaginary—would bring about an inverse transformation and abolish the Market (and thus the market society and market economy) in favor of a non-market society with markets. While hybrid or transitional situations might be possible in practice, I see no theoretical space for an intermediary structure.
On the gift
18 In his review, Godbout accuses me of “[overlooking] what must be a key ingredient in any positive vision of degrowth: the gift.” He is undoubtedly right as far as the book itself goes. The chapter in question, which merely sketches out solutions mentioned in the conclusion of the book, does not explicitly refer to the gift. However, although I do not, unlike my friend Alain Caillé, make the gift the alternative paradigm and the alpha and omega of both an understanding of social reality and of any alternative practical solution, not only do I not overlook it, but I have incorporated it into my programming since the publication of The World of the Gift (Godbout 1998), which had a tremendous impact on me. The world of the gift is now a key ingredient in my recipe for the society of frugal abundance and growth-free prosperity, as clearly illustrated by the third chapter of my book Sortir de la société de consummation (Latouche 2010), which is entitled “Esprit du don, économie de la félicité et décroissance” [The world of the gift, an economy of happiness and degrowth]. I wholeheartedly agree with what Godbout writes in his review, and with the wonderful quote from Schopenhauer that he has unearthed:
In order to directly challenge the growth paradigm, we must stop seeing nature simply as a resource to be exploited, and recognize all that it brings us, which is infinitely more important than what we take from it through exploitation. In other words, we need to establish a relationship of gift exchange with nature, and perceive ourselves as recipients who must give in turn. This will enable us to, in the words of Marcel Mauss, “emerge from self” and recognize “the knowledge that our true self exists not only in our own person, this particular manifestation, but in everything that lives. […] the knowledge that everything living is just as much our own inner nature, as is our own person, extends our interest to everything living; and in this way the heart is enlarged”.
20 I return to this question in a forthcoming book, L’abondance frugale comme art de vivre: Bonheur, gastronomie et décroissance (Latouche 2020), from which the following passage makes my position clear: “An important complementary component of escape from the aporias of modernity’s excess is conviviality. Just as it must tackle the recycling of material waste, degrowth must consider the rehabilitation of the deprived. Just as the best waste is that which is not produced, the best deprived are those that society does not produce. A decent or convivial society should not produce outcasts.”
21 Conviviality, a term borrowed by Ivan Illich from the great eighteenth-century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (2009) is precisely designed to restore the social ties undone by what Arthur Rimbaud described as “economic horror.” Conviviality reintroduces the spirit of the gift into social relations alongside the law of the jungle and thus revives the Aristotelian philia (friendship), while retaining the spirit of Christian agape (Bruni 2010). In this, it is fully compatible with the intuition of Marcel Mauss who, in his 1924 article “A Sociological Assessment of Bolshevism (1924–5),” appeals, “at the risk of seeming old-fashioned and a purveyor of commonplaces,” for a return “to the old Greek and Latin concepts of caritas, for which the modern ‘charity’ is such a poor translation, and of the φίλοv and κοινoν, the necessary ‘friendship’, the ‘community’ that constitute the delicate essence of the City.”
22 It is also important to ward off the mimetic rivalry and destructive envy that threaten any democratic society. For in modern society, the justice that is entrusted with the task of resolving conflicts is both necessary and improbable: necessary in order to prevent the war of all against all that would otherwise result from the disappearance of traditional ties degenerating into a widespread massacre; but improbable because it supposes equality, which is itself impossible, and a common world destroyed by the fantasy of limitless freedom. This is why the spirit of the gift, and its grace, are needed, in order for a postgrowth society to be convivial. Even when it is functional—a rarity—a purely formal justice resolves conflicts between individuals but entombs social atoms in the desert of their solitude without remedying the material and moral misery that arise, in particular from class conflict. As a moderated form of philia, conviviality would allow for the compatibility of an authentic individualism that we cannot give up with the solidarity necessary for the existence of a community.
23 This concludes my response, other than to thank Jacques Godbout for his kindly and attentive reading of my book, which has given me an opportunity to further expand on these tricky questions.
24 Dear Serge,
25 I read your response with great appreciation and pleasure. I only want to make one clarification about the comment that bothered me and that you have indeed forgotten, since it was not the reference to Popper that you had a problem with, but the one you quote again: “Let me repeat in conclusion: I do not believe it is desirable to replace the dominant neoliberal paradigm.” As you explain, you took this sentence literally, as if I could truly wish for the neoliberal model to remain dominant. I can see that the wording was poor, but I believe that in context it is clear that this was not at all what I meant. Here is where the sentence appears:
But the gift is not everything: it is not just, it is not always desirable, it is not always moral. This is why, let me repeat in conclusion: I do not believe it is desirable to replace the dominant neoliberal paradigm. Nor do I want all social relationships to be governed by the gift. If a society functioned only through the gift, it would be quickly wiped off the map, taken advantage of by all those who would exploit this attitude, but also through exhaustion of its members, since every society is equipped with a set of mechanisms to partly function in a more or less automated way and to ensure the circulation of things between its members. I simply want the gift to take its rightful place alongside other models.
27 By this I mean that I do not believe that the gift should dominate everything as the market tries to do, and that the gift is not everything, as the market tries to be.
28 I previously expressed this same idea in The World of the Gift, for example in the following:
The gift exists, and it constitutes an important system. But we are not claiming that it is the only system, nor that it explains everything. Unlike those who try to eliminate everything except self-interest, we do not deny self-interest and do not want to “drown” everything in the gift. Self-interest, power, sexuality—those three keys to the modern explanation for exchange—exist and are important. […] We recognize that the gift is neither good nor bad in itself, nor is it everywhere desirable. Everything depends on its context, the relationship that gives it meaning. There are instances when the market can be a better alternative. We have, for example, no interest in accepting a gift from someone from whom we want to keep our distance. Both the market and the state are unique social inventions. Because the gift is based more on mutual confidence than the market is, it is riskier, more dangerous, and it is likely to affect the individual more deeply when the rules are not respected, when one is taken advantage of. At the other extreme, the gift is also dangerous in that the burden of obligation can transform itself into constraint. We see children who flee their parents, trying to escape a gift that weighs them down, the poisoned gift. The modern individual remains wary, often with reason.
30 I am well aware that you are very reluctant to speak positively of the market, and rightly so in a way. But my different sensibility on this subject arises from my extensive study of the negative aspects of the relationship of professional domination in public organizations. From this perspective, the trading relationship often appeared more positive.
31 I am therefore delighted that, over a decade later, we have been able to clear up this misunderstanding.
32 Best wishes,
33 Jacques T. Godbout
34 Dear Jacques,
35 I had indeed reread the sentence on the neoliberal paradigm in context, but that doesn’t change the meaning for me, or I believe for most of the readers of the Revue du MAUSS. The wording is not simply poor but actually misleads the reader about your thinking, with which I completely agree as you explain it—skillfully, this time—in your letter.
36 It is indeed fortunate that we have had the opportunity to clear up this misunderstanding.
37 Best wishes,
39 Dear Serge,
40 Not simply poor… ! Fine, I accept your verdict… it requires correction. But unfortunately, there is no new edition in the pipeline at present.
41 All’s well that ends well. Or perhaps that begins, because the question that is ultimately raised by our discussion, and that you are asking me, is: What role should the market play in a Maussian, convivialist society? I probably assign it a bigger role than you do, but I can’t say I have a clear idea. I probably haven’t considered it enough. I only know that a modern society without commercial exchange would be a totalitarian, bureaucratic, philanthropic society, and that the market is often a kind of relief valve that prevents both state totalitarianism and the “totalitarianism” of the gift, of the recipient with no power over the giver. “Trade not aid”—but you don’t need me to tell you that, since I often quote you on this very subject: “Even more than through the market, it is through unreciprocated gifts that dominated societies end up identifying with the West and losing their souls.”
42 But has the MAUSS [Anti-Utilitarian Movement in the Social Sciences] really explored this question in depth? Polanyi’s work is an essential avenue of exploration, and surely a good starting point or foundation. I have often drawn on it, but could certainly go further. You yourself may have gone much further down this path.
43 Best wishes,
45 Dear Jacques,
46 Thank you for your message. Yes, I have occasionally used the slogan “Trade not aid” as a critique of the harmful nature of Third World aid as a form of imperialism and Westernization of the world. But contextualization is always necessary. Our abstract theoretical constructs, from the “gift paradigm” to the “Market paradigm,” are useful, but never reflect concrete historical reality. There is no eternal essence of the gift, nor even of the Market, despite the efforts of propagandists to turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies. Like you, I am as much against the totalitarianism of the gift as against the totalitarianism of the market.
47 Best wishes,