The French activist organisation Fondation Macif have recently published a short interview with Bernard Stiegler, in French, that I have translated below. In the interview Stiegler briefly restates his theory of proletarianisation in relation to (over)consumption and, in response, the creation of an economy of contribution.
My main interest in (quickly) translating this short piece is Stiegler’s ongoing development of the economy of contribution and the examples he uses to explain it. Stiegler regularly uses the example of open source code and software as a basis for the economy of contribution. Here, for example, the economy of contribution is further elucidated through 3D printing technology. We might think of these technologies as examples of the ‘hyper material‘ character of matter Stiegler suggests should form the basis of rethinking production.
I have followed the convention of including my additions/clarifications or original French in square brackets. I would also like to note that I am not entirely confident about the use of the verb ‘idealise’ here and would welcome comments [please refer to the original interview in French].
Interview: People consume more because they idealise less and less
Initiator and chairman of the philosophical group Ars Industrialis*, the philosopher Bernard Stiegler answers our questions concerning the logic of overconsumption and the emergence of a model that he describes here as the economy of contribution.
Q. Individuals consume more and more, not to meet their own needs, it seems, but for their desires. What has happened?
B.S. We must go back 100 years. The industrial capitalist system, to live, wrestles against the satisfaction of [achievable] needs and therefore must produce innovation . This is the emergence of Fordism and what economist Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’, that is to say, constant innovation. A recent example: in 1994, France Telecom completed an investigation to see if people need a mobile phone. The answer was overwhelmingly no. Today, 79% of the population are equipped with them. Why? Because we constructed a need. Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and one of the first thinkers of marketing, theorised this process in 1920. He knew that to push people to consume, you must capture their desires. And for this we need to create processes for identification. This coincides with the advent of cinema and television. On the screen, Humphrey Bogart who smokes lots of cigarettes and encourages tobacco consumption later gave his name to a verb ‘to Bogart’ – to chain smoke. Consumer capitalism is organised to artificially produce desires for things that people do not need – or that are even harmful to them.
Q. What are the implications of our tendency for overconsumption?
B.S. People consume more and more because they idealise  less and less. Desire is a social production, which transforms our drives [pulsions] for life, death, aggression, in a relation of idealisation, of sublimation. Where a drive consumes its object, a desire invests in taking care. Transforming drives through social investment is a long process of education that begins at birth. Today, industry consumes our attention and destroys that same capacity to desire by short-circuiting education. We are no longer able to invest in ourselves over time. We live impulsively in the immediacy of the present.
Q. You even say that consumption is an addiction.
B.S. I work with many psychiatrists, addictologists [addictologues], and we agree on this point: the consumption process has engendered an addictive society. A few years ago, a survey showed that 56% of French people did not like the TV they watched. This is exactly like what writer William S. Burroughs said: “I hate heroin, it destroys me but I cannot do without it.” People are totally dependent. A part of themselves totally rejects what other parts cannot do without. The problem is that people need to exist and they can no longer find a way to exist in this society. The relationship with consumer goods has become a vicious circle based on an intrinsically deceptive relation of ephemeral rewards which creates an existential vacuum.
Q. What is the risk of placing consumption at the heart of the project of society?
B.S. The system became insolvent and fell back upon addictions that destroy all of the forces of knowledge because consumerism is based on the functional opposition between production and consumption. We know nothing of what we consume, which we buy on credit and which once we have paid is fit for the bin. All of this in a context where social structures have virtually disintegrated, where the school has great difficulty in channeling the attention of young people, and where those who feel isolated and desocialised become the majority. When we created Ars Industrialis, we argued, eight years ago, that the crisis was inevitable: you cannot build a society on addiction.
Q. Which economic model can therefore replace the one we know?
B.S. This is the economy of contribution. Such an economy depends upon the investment and empowerment of the citizens. It breaks with Fordism, because it is based on “deprolaterisation” [déprolatérisation]. For Marx, the workers are proletarianised when their expertise [savoir-faire] is replaced by machines which they then [must] serve. In the 20th century, it is the consumers who are proletarianised: they lose their life skills [savoir-vivre]. Proletarianization is not financial impoverishment, but the loss of knowledge of how to live [savoir-vivre]. Consumers no longer produce modes of living for themselves, which are proscribed from them by brands. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate, speaks of “incapacitation”. He has described this process in a comparative analysis between the life expectancy of people in Harlem and that which is paradoxically higher amongst the population of Bangladesh as the latter, which have not been subjected to consumerism, have preserved their social relationships and their capabilities [capacités], that is to say their knowledge [savoirs]. The economy of contribution is what consists in the reconstitution of such capabilities.
Q. Who are the pioneers of this economy of contribution?
B.S. The economy of contribution emerged thirty years ago. It has mostly developed thanks to the web and, industrially, with free software. In the domain of energy [production and consumption], the Smart Grid gives rise to a model of decentralised and re-localised energy production and contributes to the recovery of knowledge, accountability and public “recapacitation” – to return to Amartya Sen. It is the same with the Fab Lab (Fabrication Laboratory, Ed.) developed by MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). These local laboratories make invention accessible to all by providing digital fabrication tools, the best known being the 3D printer. More generally digital technologies encourage the development of new knowledge communities. These are new industrial models and [also] indications that we live in a transitional phase, where the challenge is, in France, for the present government, to design a critical path for our society – a path where we invent real growth based on the development of knowledge [savoirs], and which exceeds the consumerist model that has become fundamentally toxic and alienating.
* An international association for an industrial politics for technologies of mind/spirit [or, following Christian Fauré: an activist association that promotes an intervention in the development of contemporary digital technoculture].
1. The phrasing of “lutter contre la saturation des besoins et donc produire de l’innovation” here may point to the economic theory of the ‘law of diminishing marginal utility‘, in the sense that the more that a consumer object is (re)produced the less value is invested in any one of the individual objects – thus creating the demand for innovation. Following this logic then, the diminishing value upsets the settled balance of needs being statisfied by a given product or service thereby opening a space for the ‘new creation of wealth’. See Joseph Schumpeter’s theorisation of ‘Creative Destruction‘, to which Stiegler also alludes in the following sentence.
2. The use of ‘idealise’ here probably follows Stiegler’s reading of Freud, where idealisation can be understood as ‘healthy’ forms of narcissism – attributing exagerated positive qualities to the self or an other. This also relates to Steigler’s reading of Lyotard, insofar as the diminution of ‘idealisation’ highlighted here is perhaps analogous to a diminution of desire and a tendency to carelessness that undermines the libidinal economy. See: Stiegler’s For a New Critique of Political Economy and The Decadence of Industrial Democracies.