Living Together

In a 1977 lecture at the Collège de France, later published in How to Live Together, Roland Barthes explored a ‘fantasy of a life, a regime, a lifestyle’ that was neither reclusive nor communal: ‘Something like solitude with regular interruptions’. Inspired by the monks of Mount Athos, Barthes proposed to call this mode of living together idiorrhythmy, from the Greek idios (one’s own) and rythmos (rhythm). ‘Fantasmatically speaking’, he says, ‘there is nothing contradictory about wanting to live alone and wanting to live together’. In idiorrhythmic communities, ‘each subject lives according to his own rhythm’ while still being ‘in contact with one another within a particular type of structure’.

Although in Barthes’ view this unregimented lifestyle would be the exact opposite of ‘the fundamental inhumanity of Fourier’s Phalanstery with its timing of each and every quarter hour’, his vision is similarly utopian. But whereas Fourier proposed a plan for an organized, enclosed community, Barthes was not so much sketching a model as seeking to define a zone between two extreme forms of living: ‘an excessively negative form: solitude, eremitism’ and ‘an excessively assimilative form: the convent or monastery’. Idiorrhythmy is thus ‘a median, utopian, Edenic, idyllic form’: a ‘utopia of a socialism of distance’. In this middle way between living alone and with others, the interplay between individuals is so light and subtle that it allows each to escape the diktat of heterorhythmy, where one must submit to power and conform to an alien rhythm imposed from outside.

Barthes’ fantasy has considerable relevance for eco-socialist visions today. The aporia he identifies – between solitude and sociality, autonomy and coordination – has parallels in the conflicts animating the ongoing argument between degrowth and advocates of a Green New Deal or its equivalents. Impelled by the intensification of the ecological crisis, the disarray of mainstream thinking and the buoyancy of the climate movement, the debate has become one of the liveliest on the left intellectual scene.

A key area of disagreement concerns the problem of technology and scale. For ‘eco-modernists’ like Matthew Huber, author of Climate Change as Class War (2022), in order to green our societies and abolish global poverty, ‘a massive social effort of public investment and planning’ is required to accelerate technical progress: ‘solving climate change requires massive development of the productive forces’. As Huber wrote on Sidecar last year, ‘solving climate change requires new social relations of production that would develop the productive forces toward clean production’. In this traditional Marxist perspective, socialist planning – new social relations of production – would allow us to deploy technological solutions currently fettered by the capitalist hunt for profits.

The Japanese philosopher Kōhei Saitō, by contrast, takes a less sanguine view of the eco-socialist potential of technological advance. According to his reading of Marx, laid out in Marx in the Anthropocene (2023), the productive forces eco-socialists would inherit are the ‘productive forces of capital’: their technological content is indissociable from capitalist relations of production. More troubling, in Saitō’s interpretation, capital’s domination over labour is not just a matter of ownership, but results from the growing socialization of production: ‘capital organizes cooperation in the labour process in such a way that individual workers can no longer conduct their tasks alone and autonomously, but are subjugated to the command of capital.’ Saitō concludes that the ‘productive forces of capital cannot be properly transferred to post-capitalism because they are created in order to subjugate and control workers’. Capitalist technology ‘eliminates the possibilities of imagining a completely different lifestyle’. According to his degrowth vision, ‘the abolition of the despotic regime of capital may even require the downscaling of production.’

Both Huber and Saitō make important, perceptive arguments about the ecological transition toward socialism, though their positions in many respects mark opposite poles on the spectrum of left theorizing about the climate crisis. Each view has limitations. While the first involves a reckless act of faith in the wisdom and agility of a future socialist leadership to deal with capitalist’s technological legacy, the second overlooks the fact that the abandonment of ‘the productive forces of capital’ and the scaling down of production would result in a de-specialization of productive activity, leading to a dramatic reduction in the productivity of labour and, ultimately, a plunge in living standards. If the potential price of the eco-modernist embrace of technological development is human alienation and techno-capitalist reification, the likely cost of the degrowth rejection of it is austerity and impoverishment.

So, just as the problem of idiorrhythmy was for Barthes ‘the tension between power and marginality’ – between excessive regulation and excessive isolation – the strategic task for eco-socialists is to define a space equidistant from the promethean excesses of eco-modernism and the ascetic excesses of degrowth communism, even if the tension may not finally be resolvable. Fantasmatically speaking, as Barthes might say, there is nothing contradictory about wanting to enjoy the riches of a technologically advanced society and wanting to develop oneself in harmony with nature. Rather than choosing between acceleration and downscaling, ecosocialism should attempt to strike a balance between these alternatives. The reification of the productive forces inherited from capital and some degree of alienation in the labour process should be tolerated only to the extent that they are put to democratically legitimate ends through planning, in order to stabilize the climate and fulfil human needs.

Once this median course is accepted as a matter of principle, the truly hard work for eco-socialists begins. The degrowth scholar Jason Hickel recently proposed a broad definition of the goals of ecosocialist (and anti-imperialist) transformation:

We must achieve democratic control over finance, production and innovation, as well as organize it around both social and ecological objectives. This requires securing and improving socially and ecologically necessary forms of production while reducing destructive and less-necessary output.

Hickel’s wording seems uncontentious, but defining our social and ecological objectives, and deciding which forms of production are necessary and which destructive, entails revolutionary change. As ecological-economist pioneer Karl William Kapp observed back in 1974:

The formulation of environmental policies, the evaluation of environmental goals and the establishment of priorities require a substantive economic calculus in terms of social use values (politically evaluated) for which the formal calculus in monetary exchange values fails to provide a real measure – not only in socialist societies but also in capitalist economies. Hence the ‘revolutionary’ aspect of the environmental issue both as a theoretical and a practical problem.

Barthes did not fully elaborate on the political implications of his ideas, but they were in his view of great importance. As he explains at the beginning of the lecture, the force of desire – the figure of fantasy – is at the origin of culture. Yet in the quest for an emancipatory balance between cooperation and autonomy – developing productive forces and transforming social relations – abstract speculation will be less important than paying close attention to our historical situation and real-world institutions. The power of fantasy is only as strong as the concrete visions it produces.

Read on: André Gorz, ‘Political Ecology: Expertocracy versus Self-Limitation’, NLR I/202.