Adloff, Costa, Kerner, Vetter: Conviviality

Conviviality by Tom Maelsa 2016

For a Politics of Conviviality


Frank Adloff, Sérgio Costa, Ina Kerner, and Andrea Vetter



After looking at the news in recent years, feelings of disappointment or even powerlessness have been taking hold for many. We saw the Arab Spring and its crackdown. Many had hoped that the 2008 financial crisis would lead to a curbing of global financial capitalism, but this hope was dashed. In recent months, the “welcoming culture” in Germany towards refugees has shifted into a policy propelled by the fear-driven and misanthropic rhetoric of the political party AfD (“Alternative für Deutschland”). Instead of an upswing of cosmopolitanism, we are currently experiencing a resurgence of identity-based concepts of community—emphatically orchestrated by some intellectuals—as well as right-wing violence and terrorist attacks on an unprecedented scale. International terrorism brings fear to our everyday lives, and the so-called Islamic State (IS) fuels this fear of Islam in general. Natural disasters worldwide testify to the coming climate chaos, and this is accompanied by rampant everyday worries about job security, affordable housing, or health.

Social change—which contributes to an increase of such conditions and sentiments—progresses, driven mainly by new technologies and transnational banks and corporations, who seek new fields to continue increasing their over-accumulated capital. At the same time, many old progress narratives—of socialism, of enlightenment, of taming capitalism through the welfare state, and of progress through technology—have dissipated. In the face of increasingly complex technical, cultural, and social changes, anxiety has become the existential, underlying feeling. From the powerless perspective of many individuals, the future no longer seems shapeable, but closed. There appears to be no alternative to financial capitalism, climate change appears to be unstoppable, social inequalities continue to grow, although everyone professes to do something about it. Moreover, economic growth is continually invoked as a panacea, although one knows that we in the global North are clearly (must be) heading towards zero growth. To a certain extent, hopes are placed on the “Internet of Things,” “green growth,” “digital capitalism,” or “Industry 4.0” as small solutions, although we also know that the technological changes—especially in the field of information technologies—will produce massive unemployment (particularly among the middle classes) and dependencies on Internet oligopolies.

In all population groups, bleak concepts of the future are palpable—the fear of losing out in comparison with others, the unease of leaving children and grandchildren a broken world. But instead of establishing a new policy of solidarity, the middle classes are fighting among themselves with questionable weapons like SUVs and luxury goods that are becoming increasingly disseminated, which make them economically—and ultimately, all of us environmentally—even more vulnerable. Those who can afford it take refuge in the consumption of a shopping weekend in Milan or in the small security of the digital media machine. Thereby, the social status of the middle class is threatened, in light of the drifting apart of income, wealth, security, and life chances.

And politics? In post-democracy, political alternatives are provided less and less with ever-growing large coalitions—the only choice is between a little more/less austerity and Keynesianism, if one is not inclined to right-wing populism. Constant change, uncertainty, and at the same time the lack of alternatives characterizes this late modern attitude towards life. This is worrying and paralyzing. If the diagnosis is correct—that GDP growth will fail to materialize in the Global North in the future—the cake that can be divided will not become larger. New social conflicts, tensions, and the fomentation of fears would thus be preprogrammed.

There are already various ideas for the direction of a fundamental social transformation. But they are hardly perceived by politicians and not incorporated in the debate loudly enough by scholars and intellectuals. That is why we want to promote a new politics of conviviality: first, because it is capable of presenting ways out of the described crises; secondly, because it inspires courage; and thirdly, because it is able to link various movements and projects—for global climate justice, for open societies and against racism, for a deeper democracy, and for alternative economic models.

Convivialité, Convivialiad, Convivialidade, Conviviality is colloquial in many European languages—its everyday meaning is most likely translated as “hospitable” or “sociable.” The neologism goes back to the 19th century, to the politician and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. With “convivialité,” he meant the situation that often arises at the table when different people come closer together over a good long meal, and time flies during lively conversation. This common reference to things and tools, which transforms and promotes the relationship between human beings, also underlies Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality (1973)—a classic of social criticism. Beginning with Illich, the concept of conviviality has subsequently found its way into other debates, such as in the debate on a new multiculturalism in the UK and in the convivialism movement in France.

The Convivialist Manifesto, by a group of French-speaking intellectuals around the sociologist Alain Caillé, appeared in 2013 and goes beyond the previous usages by making an “ism” from conviviality. From an attribute of social relations—which was developed using the example of lively dinner parties—something new has emerged: a normative belief, a transformational “art of living together,” and a political program that overcomes the major political ideologies of the 20th century. The aim of convivialists is a society in which the alliances of individuals, groups, and communities are visible in new ways, people respect each other in their diversity and thereby cooperate for the benefit of all, through the constructive resolution of conflicts.

The manifesto is full of references to social movements and cultural impulses, in which current forms of conviviality are sought. These movements struggle for the regulation of financial capitalism, for human rights in the digital age, for a small-scale and organic farming, religious dialogue, other approaches to the global fight against poverty, the strengthening of common properties, new forms of political participation, and the reterritorialization of political decision powers. Conviviality is already practically lived in a variety of social situations: in the contexts of family and friends, where what generally counts is the logic of sharing and not individual profit; in hundreds of thousands of associative civil society projects worldwide, in voluntary activities, in the third sector, in the solidarity economy, in cooperatives and associations, in moral consumption, in NGOs, in peer-to-peer networks, Wikipedia, social movements, Fair Trade, the Commons movement, and more. Until now, however, these convivial experiments have often been found disjointedly next to each other. What is still missing is an overall perspective that integrates the various groups and experiments and formulates them into a positive, concrete utopia. Everyone can campaign for more conviviality on the small-scale in every social setting, but should also look at politics and the necessary social transformations. Otherwise, the local approaches are simply crushed by the maelstrom of global economic and political developments.

A convivial society must radically call into question the idea of economic growth. New forms of economic activity are required that break the cycle of the permanent creation of increasingly more and principally unlimited needs, created by the logic of profit. This idea is discussed in the ever-growing post-growth or degrowth movement, where attempts are being made to implement it practically.

It is time—culturally and politically—to break free from the shackles of economism. Perhaps we do not need growth to lead a good life? Cooperatives, non-profit companies, and many medium-sized enterprises were never primarily focused on growth. Freed from the belief in the necessity of growth, one can also dare to finally halt the excesses of neoliberalism: stopping unnecessary trade agreements such as TTIP, eliminating tax havens, levying higher capital taxes, establishing financial transaction taxes, raising net worth and inheritance taxes, carrying out debt relief for Greece and other countries—all of these measures are included in any case as matters of urgency on the economic policy agenda, which was known well before Thomas Piketty’s work.

A convivial politics would have to lead—on behalf of the equality of all people—the fight against excessiveness on one hand, and inequality on the other hand. Concretely, this means the fight against poverty and extreme wealth. One possibility for this would be an unconditional, basic income and a maximum income limit. For example, public procurement contracts would be awarded only to companies whose board earned no more than 25 times the income of the company’s ordinary employees (instead of the current 100 times and more). An unconditional basic income would offer the opportunity to weaken our fixation on paid work. Existential fears could be significantly reduced, opening creative spaces of cooperation. On the other hand, exploding income developments would be contained at the top. Morally, this would be expressed in the fact that no one need be ashamed of his/her existence, but that the hubris for some people to place themselves above others and to evade the common good is unacceptable. The perspective of conviviality is not on belt tightening, but on the abundance that arises from limits: on the abundance that could arise if cities were not developmental spaces for capital and cars, but living spaces for people. If the ultimate goal were not trimming for global competition, but that children would finally be able to play in the streets again. If life consisted not only of wage labor but also many other ways of being active, people could stand alongside each other on an equal footing.

Now at this point, the objection immediately arises that we cannot escape global competition. The Global South is rapidly catching up, and the middle classes there and their hunger for growth are becoming greater. However, such skepticism overlooks the South’s disappointment regarding the neoliberal course of recent decades. Here, too, there is a great need for alternatives. The concentrated praise of the “new emergent middle classes” by the IMF and the World Bank is associated with severe consequences for most countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. For, a neocolonial division of labor has occurred, according to which entire societies have been degraded to suppliers of raw materials for China and the Global North. In this process, functioning supply and mobility systems were privatized and destroyed. The “climbers,” once enthusiastic about Western European and US-American consumption patterns, are already extracting a critical assessment of their most recent expansion trip: devastating environmental degradation, highly indebted families and states, frustrated expectations, and political crises are only the most visible negative consequences. Thus, with respect to the North-South relationship, a politics and policy of conviviality must focus on global redistribution. Just as the social question prevailed nationally in the late 19th century, it is now to be considered globally, as the sociologist Reinhard Kreckel showed some years ago. Citizenship rights should not be a protective fence for defending the privileges of a small portion of the world population against the needs of all others.

In recent months, the refugee issue has shown that we in Europe must engage in completely new world conditions. It is simply a question of how to live together and differ without lapsing into a pattern of “friend or foe.” Conviviality aims at coexistence in difference. It does not rely on an integration that serves the disempowerment and disciplining of the “Other,” but in everyday interactions in which people—and not categorizations—meet.

Internationally, Europe clearly has to move away from the logic of the so-called realpolitik. The EU can and should not take over the role of the global policeman—as once played by the United States—even at the periphery of Europe. But what would an effective international fight against terrorism look like, which would also enable more transnational conviviality and not less? This question is not easy to answer—but as a first step it is necessary to fundamentally review Western strategy in the Middle East over the last 100 years and to revise it. This means, first of all, an acknowledgement by the West that its policies in the region are primarily based on colonialism, oppression, arbitrary favors and demarcations, expropriation of natural resources and influence on their promotion and distribution, defense contracts, and a permanent struggle for spheres of influence. In the Middle East, modernity was mostly experienced as exploitation and despotism. Taking this seriously, one could ask troubling questions: Why do so many people feel humiliated by the West? Why is there such a large terrorism recruitment reservoir in European societies? The (post-) migrant reality of many young people in France and Belgium—but also Germany—also looks anything but convivial. Given the dishonesty and lack of ideological alternatives for productive forms of coexistence and cooperation experienced daily, the global jihad seems to represent to some young people the only ideological alternative.

A new, convivial policy towards the countries of the Middle East would thus have to begin with a rereading of the history of these regions as a failed colonial history and wrong-headed realpolitik, which is mainly due to the breach of the West’s own proclaimed values. Consequently, a new chapter of Western politics can also only be opened when the former colonial and imperial powers publicly express their guilt—for their colonialism, their racism, their eager profit interests, and their sovereignly arbitrary acts.

Such a conviviality would have nothing in common with the cultural relativism of relatively insular units, as propagated by the New Right—rather it actually aims to guarantee equality of all people under conditions of decolonization. This can only occur in the dialogue and in the acceptance of mixtures, interconnections, and ambiguities of cultural contexts under conditions of global interdependencies.

However, a new politics of conviviality would have to find its way not only between people, contexts, and cultures, but also in the relationship of people to nature. Global warming, the drastic decline in biodiversity, the capitalist commodification of nature—these difficulties can hardly be met with a technocratic “business as usual.” Conviviality also means not only trusting in technical solutions, but also finding a new ethic of the environment. A new ecology needs a politics of cultural change. It is not enough to support a technocratic project of change towards better “future technologies”: invoking the “Green Economy” or “Ecomodernism” is not possible from a convivial perspective, because technocratic projects are often part of the problem and not the solution. Instead, we need a new, broad, social debate about which technology we want. A convivial technology precisely weighs the environmental and social impacts that any technology entails and presents them for discussion. It favors ends in view and reach, which means open with respect to proprietary solutions, adaptability with respect to uniform solutions, and appropriateness in the application.

But who should advance the projects proposed here or should even want them? Is democracy not crushing itself in populist and very shortsighted demands? It is clear that democratic reform is needed—more and more people do not see themselves represented “by them up there” and are involved in politics from below. There are various suggestions as to what such a reform might look like. For example, Patricia Nanz and Claus Leggewie advocate that randomly selected citizens could debate in future councils on the future of their communities and develop concrete policy proposals on issues of energy, economics, migration, housing market, etc. The common good economy, from Christian Felber, calls for economic conventions, in which the objectives of companies are jointly determined with citizens.

We think that we need new ideas for a convivial society, and we need to bring together theories and practices that we otherwise consider isolated from each other. This requires courage and confidence in the face of widespread powerlessness. As long as post-growth for many people only provokes associations with downward social mobility, disintegration, being on a tight budget, recession, and “the decline of the West,” there will also be no escape affectively from competition-driven status anxiety and political paralysis. Conviviality sets a concrete utopia against dystopia—an awareness of the possibility of cooperation that grows from the recognition of fundamental connectedness and mutual dependency of all life on this planet. Global redistribution, meaningful activity, and appreciative interaction among strangers are thus conceivable. We should be on the search for radical future imaginations, for concrete convivial models, as well as political alternatives. Then it will be possible to symbolically connect the fundamental openness of modernity with a positively connoted future image and to create the feeling once again that more is possible than is currently realized.



Frank Adloff teaches Sociological Theory and Cultural Sociology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.

Sérgio Costa is Professor of Sociology of Latin America at the Freie Universität Berlin.

Ina Kerner is Assistant Professor (Juniorprofessorin) for Diversity Politics at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

Andrea Vetter is a cultural anthropologist and an associate at Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie in Leipzig.


Banner Image: Photo by Tom Maelsa, 2016.


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