Dépense: What Is It?

Finding an effective solution to the environmental and social crises has been stymied by a lack of politically desirable, alternative social models. This has led to decades of incrementalism that has only exacerbated the challenges. Over the last five years or so, degrowth has appeared at the periphery of the mainstream as an emerging credible alternative evolving from a broad church of heterodox viewpoints that all point to a radical social transformation toward provisioning universal wellbeing within a regenerating natural environment.

Within the various degrowth perspectives, the concept of dépense is intriguing and seems desirable as it promotes a post growth society in which people’s needs are satisfied and they can enjoy any excess abundance through communitarianism, rather than practising parsimony at an individual or small group scale. The acceptance or rejection of dépense as a pillar of degrowth is a fundamental fork in the road of degrowth thinking.

The generic degrowth view, guided by the empirical evidence of ecological economics, is that resources (materials and energy) are becoming scarcer; for instance, a shift to renewable energy means less total energy will be available, minerals are becoming uneconomic to extract, fresh water supplies are decreasing in some places due to shifting climates, topsoil is eroding through over tilling and is being depleted of its life-giving qualities through excessive use of chemicals, and fish stocks are dwindling. If global production and consumption can reach sufficiently low levels of resource use per capita and global provisioning systems can be redesigned to distribute goods and services fairly, it is possible to provision the needs of all people consistent with living a good life within planetary boundaries, and thus see nature begin to bounce back. Capitalism, an engine of growth and wealth inequality, must be dismantled (or drastically changed) to avoid crucial resources being channelled into unnecessary output and ruthlessly marketed purely for the financial gain of a rentier class, causing further negative impacts on the environment and society.

Degrowth seeks to exit the growth paradigm. It rejects the moral argument that wealth maximisation leads to human progress. It promotes an economy of wellbeing based on the values of autonomy, sufficiency and care.

Degrowth is a battle against the societal values that drive growth.

Dépense is an old but lesser known degrowth idea, promoted by Onofrio Romano, but first mooted by George Bataille in the 1930s. It holds that society faces, not a scarcity of resources, but a problem of abundance of ‘energy’ in multiple forms (ie resources, such as labour and yields), only some of which is required for servile use (to meet needs). Residual ‘energy’ must dissipate, either naturally or through societal action. Societies throughout history have decided upon forms of sovereign use of ‘energy’ to avoid accumulation. That is, they have devised rituals for public creative destruction of the servile value of excess ‘energy’ to produce, instead, cultural symbolic value. Examples include community feast days, such as Thanksgiving, the building of cultural monuments, from pyramids to opera houses, and the support of a sacred class, such as Tibetan monks or even royals.

Long-time adherents of degrowth include François Schneider, whose group-living experiment at Can Decreix in France is a laboratory for radical degrowth in action. Schneider opposes dépense as wasteful. He perceives it to be in line with the right to waste (descended from the Roman law of jus abutendi), a foundational element of modern property rights, which are key to capitalism.

Romano argues that communitarian dépense is necessary for dismantling the growth regime because degrowth must reach deeper than replacing the values that drive growth, it must replace the socio-cultural construct that led to those values – individualism.

Dépense is not a trait of Western capitalist society since capitalism limits sovereign use of resources by reserving their availability as much as possible for servile use (eg as commodities) to create an apparent lack of abundance and a tension toward accumulation and the drive for perpetual growth. Accumulation overcomes fears of scarcity that are deeply seated in the modern construct of individualism, stemming from sixteenth century Calvinist doctrine, which decried waste as a sign of damnation and which broke down Catholicism and, with it, the communitarianism that had supported people’s survival through the Middle Ages. Westerners relish personal autonomy, yet miss the security and connectivity of communitarianism. Capitalism has not resisted exploiting this gap, providing thin illusions of community in the form of social media and fast fashion tribalism. The latter, of course, destroys potential for dépense in the global South, forcing local resources into servile use for global North overconsumption. Overconsumption, alcoholism, gambling and other vices are negative forms of private dépense, extinguishing energy in the economy in harmful ways.

It is individualism that demands growth, so degrowth must end individualism. Dépense is key to leaving the growth regime because it erodes individualism through enabling a systemic view on resources and the rebuilding of communitarianism, leading to a revitalisation of culture and collective freedom. Without dépense, degrowth risks mirroring the myth of growth – scarcity.

In the dépense view, degrowth is a battle for the meaning of life.

Giorgos Kallis explains: “Since limiting excessive consumption alone would fuel even more saving and investment, degrowth envisions radically reducing the surplus and deploying it for a festive society in which citizens devise new, non-harmful ways to dispense it, ways that help build community and collective meaning.”

Dépense is promising since it is aspirational. A departure toward dépense can be imagined within a shifting business mainstream. For instance, a professional consulting practice could choose to set a revenue target for the year to cover reasonable levels of income for all its workers and once that revenue target is met, no more income earning work would be undertaken. This could manifest in a shorter working week spread across the year or annual sabbaticals.  Workers’ excess hours would not be put to servile use by their employer, but would be freed for participation in a wider sharing of social reproduction work, increased leisure and sovereign use in socio-cultural projects chosen by the community.

Featured image by Harry Grout on Unsplash

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