Degrowth: The Mauss that roared

Bob Thomson, Paris, 4 October 2012

Decolonize our imaginations is a frequent call of the degrowth movement. (1) The metaphor of decolonization is an appropriate link between indigenous perspectives and Western critiques of our modern industrial economy and culture. Many paths to these now urgent decolonizations can be found in the alternative “cosmovisions” of indigenous peoples and the findings of Western critics of the Anthropocene. (2)

Many of the processes of economic, political and cultural colonization which have become the accepted doctrines of our Western cultural narrative are rooted in the classical economic ideas of Adam Smith (3) and David Ricardo (4). They established the basis for today’s “laws” of the “invisible hand of the market” based on self interest and competition, with their emphasis on the exchange value (price), rather than the social, environmental and cultural value of products. These “laws” have been “written” into our minds and cultures as incontrovertible truths via modern marketing and media, and by intellectual monopolies in our universities.

But David Graeber notes that “At a time when ‘the free market’ is being rammed down everyone’s throat as both a natural and inevitable product of human nature, the work of Marcel Mauss demonstrated not only that most non-Western societies did not work on anything resembling market principles, but that neither do most modern Westerners.” (5)

Mauss found that the exchange of objects within indigenous groups in Polynesia and the Pacific north-west are based on reciprocal, complementary and communal relationships between humans, rather than on strictly utilitarian cost or price “values”. (6) In the Andean/Inca “allyu” (7), kinship, geographic, linguistic and culturally based “political” factors generated communal obligations to contribute to shared public “works”, such as roads, buildings, the feeding of elites, armies, artists, priests, the elderly, the sick and emergency situations.

Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen argued in 1971, as a mathematical economist, that individual preferences were based on far more factors than price, and therefore that classical economists’ slavish devotion to only economic value, versus biological, social, environmental and cultural values, was fundamentally flawed. (8)

Indigenous peoples throughout the world have struggled against colonial domination for centuries. Navigating a complex historic path as both subjects and objects, their still incomplete and inadequate struggles, victories and defeats have nevertheless preserved a historical ‘memory’ (9) which can serve as a source of inspiration and practice for our modern struggles against the combined crises of climate change, the impossibility of endless growth on a finite planet and a culture of consumption which reduces life to physical accumulation at the expense of non-material growth.

Felipe Quispe Huanca notes: “In reality since 1952, the Bolivian colonial system has formed us as if on a shoe or hat mold, melted and molded by the heat of punishments in schools and rural educational institutions … The whites homogenize us…via … the Catholic and Evangelical churches, NGOs, political parties of both Left and Right, radio, television, the press, magazines, textbooks, the official history of Bolivia and other novels, etcetera.” (10) Similar comments have been made about the Canadian indian residential school system. (11)

These complex and mixed cultural narratives (individual, national, linguistic, racial, gendered) are both obstacles and sometimes resources to/for the paradigm shift we need to decolonize our imaginations. Bill Rees had noted: “All cultural narratives, world views, religious doctrines, political ideologies, and academic paradigms are ‘social constructs – products of the human mind massaged or polished by social discourse and elevated to the status of received wisdom by agreement among members of the social group who are creating the construct… By the time most people have reached mature adulthood they will have accepted their culture’s overall ‘narrative’ and will subscribe, consciously or not, to any number of subsidiary religious, political, social and disciplinary paradigms.” (12)

Language is an important element of our cultural narratives. For example, English is a language based largely on nouns, while Anishinabe languages (Algonquin, Cree, Ojibwe) are dominated by verbs, resulting in cultures which focus respectively on objects versus process, with a resultant tendency to objectivise or integrate nature. (13) It is perhaps no accident that English (nouns-objects) is the dominant language of capitalism, which sees all objects as something to commodify.

Guy Deutscher, notes that “When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information [e.g. Gender, timing (the future), etc.], it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.” (14)

Thus the struggles of indigenous peoples, based on different languages, cultures and world views, founded on gift and reciprocal exchanges rather than just cost/price accounting, i.e. rooted in complex cosmovisions, not just catalogue prices, provide a basis for pluralistic alternatives to the dominant Western accumulative and consumer oriented “cosmovision”, which is rapidly depleting our planetary resources on the assumption that endless growth is possible on a finite planet. Arturo Escobar argues that we need alternatives to development rather than alternative developments. (15)

In his review of Latin American approaches to “buen vivir” or “good living”, Eduardo Gudynas notes “it is one of many indigenous concepts, but one which has been written into the State constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia. It is a pluralistic concept with indigenous roots, still in construction, with many sources. While clearly wanting to break with the modern European ‘project’, it shares a questioning of development and a search for substantial change with some criollo and western critiques. It is not however, a hybridization or multi- or pluri-culturalism. Indigenous cultures are diverse, with each having their own conceptions or cosmovisions.” (16)

Gudynas notes that “Western critical positions on development also exist and have often been marginalized or excluded. Close examination shows that they too are searching for “good living”. For example, critical studies of development, biocentric environmentalism, radical feminism or the decolonization of knowledge, to name but a few. These kinds of positions are very necessary to strengthen the current stage of construction of “buen vivir”, as complements to other positions. Each brings specifics which in some cases are missing or are weaker in other streams.” (17)

These visions challenge us to decolonize our minds as well as our economies and our cultures. A synthesis of indigenous concepts of ‘living well’ with Western critiques of our unsustainable industrial ‘model’ may hold promise for a way out of the multiple environmental, economic and social crises that we face. Those of us working in the West to critique and explore ways out of our economic and cultural colonizations should increase our efforts to understand and open dialogues with our indigenous brothers and sisters, to identify common causes and paths.

Bob Thomson was an organizer of the Montreal conference on Degrowth in the Americas in May 2012 and is the author of “Pachakuti: Indigenous perspectives, buen vivir, sumaq kawsay and degrowth”, Development (2011) 54(4), pp. 448–454

1400 words


  1. Serge LATOUCHE : Décoloniser l’imaginaire : La Pensée créative contre l’économie de l’absurde Paragon 2003
  3. Adam Smith: The Wealth of Nations, 1776
  4. David Ricardo: On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation 1817
  5. David Graeber: “Give It Away”, In These Times, 21 August 2000. See also the work of the French network MAUSS
  6. Marcel Mauss: “The Gift”, 1923 (Essai sur le don. pp. 106)
  7. Allyu, Wikipedia,
  8. John Gowdy and Susan Mesner: “The Evolution of Georgescu-Roegen’s Bioeconomics”, Review of Social Economy, Vol LVI No. 2 Summer 1998, pp. 136-156
  9. See Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, “Pachacuti: The Historical Horizons of Internal Colonialism”, NACLA Vol.XXV No.3, December 1991
  10. Felipe Quispe Huanca in Chomsky et al : New World of Indigenous Resistance: Noam Chomsky and Voices from North, South, and Central America page 293
  12. Bill Rees, “Toward a Sustainable World Economy“, Institute for New Economic Thinking, April 2011
  13. Personal conversation with Mireille Lapointe and Bob Lovelace, traditional leaders of the Ardoch Algonquin, Hartington, Ontario, June 2010
  14. Guy Deutscher, “Does Your Language Shape How You Think”, NY Sunday Times, 26 August 2010
  15. Arturo Escobar: “The making and unmaking of the Third World through development”, Chapter 8, The Post Development Reader, 1997
  16. Gudynas’ review of Latin American approaches to ‘buen vivir’ is available in Spanish and English
  17. See also: Gudynas: Buen Vivir: Today’s tomorrow, Development (2011) 54(4), pp. 441–447 and Thomson: Indigenous Perspectives on Degrowth, Development (2011) 54(4), pp. 448-454

1 Response to Degrowth: The Mauss that roared

  1. Pingback: Degrowth: The Mauss that roared | Degrowth / Decroissance Canada

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