The Harmlessness of Voluntary Simplicity

Friday, 3 July 2015: 4:00 PM-5:30 PM
TW1.3.03 (Tower One)
Onofrio Romano, University of Bari "A. Moro", Bari, Italy; University of Bari "A. Moro", Bari, Italy
The crisis of neoliberalism boosts the development of different forms of foundational economy. The circuits of formal economy marginalize an increasingly wide share of population and this circumstance stimulates the birth of always new resistance networks aimed at the satisfaction of people basic needs. But these vernacular economies are not to be interpreted has spontaneous reactions to social exclusion. More likely they are the output of a strong theoretical, intellectual, political and ideological elaboration, in most cases characterized by an anti-systemic inspiration.

As Polanyi asserted, normally in the same space and place different forms of integration (reciprocity, gift, market exchange, redistribution etc.) cohabit, but only one plays the dominant role, while the others remain residuals. Our question is: beyond the quantitative dimension of the foundational economy experiences, is it possible to envisage for them a leading role in social regulation, by imposing a logic different from the dominant one founded on market exchange?

In order to answer the question, it is necessary to explore, before any consideration on the extent of the phenomenon, the ideological plot lying at the basis of the foundational economy and particularly the reflections and the perspectives about the forms of regulation. But, due to the great variety of economic “alternatives”, it will be better to focus on a specific case, i.e. the idea and the experiences of “voluntary simplicity”, specifically developed inside the degrowth movement.

Our hypothesis is that the voluntary simplicity represents a sort of paradigm of the unsuitability of the foundational economy current expressions to counteract the dominant integration model (i.e. market exchange in its neo-liberal manifestation) and to impose a new logic to the system.

Looking in depth, neoliberalism can be interpreted as a specific declination of the “horizontalist paradigm”. Here immanence is the privileged dimension. From the analytical point of view, it is believed that the order doesn’t radiate from a central control room, but it is the ex post result of the interaction dynamics between social actors. The analytical level has a political translation: a social order is much more desirable insofar as it leaves out the subject “as is”, promoting a process of self-revelation. The more social players are free to act and interact based upon their own preferences, the more society as a whole will be happy.

Now the situation we face derives from the application of this paradigm and it seems borrowed from the beginning of the twentieth century culminating with 1929’s Great Depression. We face the classical consequences of the marketization of the factors of production (land, labor and capital). The system rejects the responsibility to deal with “habitation”, in favor of a blind social reproduction mechanism. But the current forms of foundational economy do not explicitly claim for a real society’s self-defense (Polanyi), i.e. for the “vertical” re-appropriation of the three fundamental factors of production.

Voluntary simplicity follows a “con-formist alternative” pattern, based on a double movement: first of all, it clearly and sharply denounces the harmful effects of the current regulation pattern, on different planes (economic, political, social, ecological and so on). These effects are nothing more than the manifestation of the classical problems of the horizontal form, but they are rather attributed to the “values” promoted by the system and not to its “form”.  Secondly, the suggested solutions, in order to face the drifts of the dominant pattern, always and invariably rank inside the horizontal form: the criticism against neo-liberalism is designed starting from a horizontalist perspective and the recipes to escape the crisis are taken from the same thought stream from which the regulation pattern in disgrace draws inspiration. In order to face the disasters of horizontalism, voluntary simplicity even suggests a radicalization, although in an “anti-liberal” mood, of the horizontal regulation form, i.e. its displacement onto other dimensions of social life (from the “market” to “grassroots”, for example). This radicalization and/or displacement is wrapped in the ideological ghost of a third dimension beyond the market and the State, namely the “relational” sphere. But from the point of view this alleged third dimension remains unequivocally trapped inside the horizontal plane. A paradigm shift doesn’t arise.

Voluntary degrowthers mostly displace the focus of their diagnosis in the domain of “values”. Ecological and social disruption (i.e. the inability to distribute fundamental goods and services to people and to feed social relations) are not seen as the effects of the “form” of the dominant regime but more often of its values (particularly the value of growth).

This is a losing strategy, for different reasons. First of all horizontalism is based on a clear separation between “functions” and “meanings”. A horizontal social system does not fit into a particular idea of justice. It doesn’t obey any “value”. It is indifferent to any principle, aiming only at ensuring that each singularity (the citizen and his networks) can freely play its game on the basis of its specific values: so the networks of foundational economy are well tolerated and do not challenge the dominant logic. So, in the final analysis, it is inconsistent to hope in a values reform resting on a horizontal institutional frame.

Secondly, the focus on values is harmless because the current crisis of neo-horizontalism has an eminent functional, organizational and economic nature. It hardly insures “systemic integration”. But despite the dysfunctions, the lifestyle connected with neo-horizontalism still exercises its full hegemony. It still inflames the imagination of people, their dreams of prosperity and emancipation. So horizontalism misfires on the level of systemic integration, but it still assures a strong “social integration”.

Last but not least, as Bataille teaches, in a society framed by horizontality, the individualized being or the small self-directed community are bound by the precarious nature of there existence, so the problem of their survival becomes primary: in these conditions they end up by obeying the systemic injunctions to “horizontal” competition.

These inconsistencies are only solvable by a huge intellectual work aimed at addressing the paradigm inspiring the experiences of foundational economy towards “verticality”.