Degrowth Meets Convivialism: Pathways to a Convivial Society

August 2, 2016

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By London Permaculture

The concept of convivialism has attracted some attention in recent years. When giving it a closer look – even superficially – it soon reveals its proximity to the degrowth concept and movement. But what exactly constitutes this proximity and where are the differences? Below I will give a short summary of what we can understand by degrowth in practical and theoretical terms. Then I will continue with the general introduction of convivialism and conclude by highlighting the – in my view – advantages of a convivialist perspective.

André Gorz was the first to introduce the French term décroissance in 1972 into the debate around ecology, the limits to growth and capitalism. He considered the contraction of economic growth necessary for maintaining the ecological balance of the Earth. Then the discussion about a new political ecology became silent for many years until the 2000s when a new round of debate arose. This time the concept of development, respectively that of sustainable development, was the focus and it was mainly Serge Latouche who set the term décroissance against the idea that there is only one development path – namely the Western one – which has to be based on the logic of an ever growing consumption of resources and goods. Starting from France and later also from Spain and Italy this was the basis for a fundamental critique of the growth-concept which in recent years evolved into critique of capitalism and consumer societies as such.

It is not so easy to identify the theoretical nucleus of the current debate around décroissance. According to Kallis, Demaria and D’Alisa it is mainly about growth-critique: "It calls for the decolonization of public debate from the idiom of economism and for the abolishment of economic growth as a social objective". Moreover it is about the quest for alternatives to the growth-ideology which, for example, is embodied in the concepts and practices of sharing, simplicity, the commons and care. The subsequent discussions focus on a variety of aspects such as ecological issues around CO2 emissions and climate change, critique of the gross domestic product (GDP) as indicator, critique of growth and acceleration, critique of capitalism, alternatives in the form of commons or cooperatives, critique of gender-based division of labour, critique of the alienation from work and nature and demands for a reduction of working time or a basic income.

These practices have in common that they all seek alternative economic systems able to function without growth and attempt to break free from the social imagery of a rationalized and growth-fuelled modernity. What is wanted is a society that follows goals other than growth for growth’s sake; a society that is autonomous in the sense that it is capable of reaching self-imposed goals; a society that is not heteronomously reigned by alleged alternativelessness and capitalist-economic principles but has public institutions that enable an autonomous self-legislation and regulation.

Does Degrowth lack a coherent theory?

According to Serge Latouche, the prophet of the French décroissance-movement, this is a genuinely political task that requires the introduction of a cultural transformation of the productivist and consumerist mentalities of the West, the development of concrete alternatives and a coherent theory. In my opinion, however, the concept of degrowth clearly still lacks such coherent theory, as its economic theory in the narrower sense is still weak. Apart from exceptions like Tim Jackson, its economic concepts are either still very utopian or set up in a too concrete-practical and localist manner. A degrowth-macroeconomics for the global era is not yet in sight.

At the same time the degrowth-debates with their not entirely economic concerns should rather open up to other discourses and social movements – for example to those who focus on social issues (social inequality of income, wealth, education and life-chances), human rights and migration, transnational relations, questions of democratic reform, the digitalization of work, technological-philosophical and ecological debates or those who generally relate to discourses of social and political theory.

Thus, degrowth faces the dilemma of either becoming a specialized economic theory, which the movement, as far as I can judge, does not want, or overcoming the economic perspective altogether and envisioning reforms in a multitude of social fields and a perspective of society as a whole – also in theoretical terms. But what exactly is the focus of an alternative model that can be juxtaposed to the idea of growth? Is there an action-theoretical alternative to the homo economicus and a social-theoretical one to the Max Weber-like capitalist-rationalist modernity? What do people strive for if not for individual utility maximization, and which principles can be the basis for a future societal order? The answers to these questions still seem quite diffuse to me. For this reason and in view of the desperately needed societal transformation, degrowth lacks in my eyes close collaboration with other concepts and movements that also advocate degrowth but in addition represent a broader perspective beyond it. Convivialism could be helpful here.

What is convivialism?

The term “coniviality”, from which “convivialism” is derived, stems from 19th century France. For the gastrophilosopher Brillat-Savarin conviviality meant when different people got closer over a good long meal and time flew over inspiring conversations. The term Convivialité (from Latin con-vivere: to live together) is quite common in contemporary France and also entered English as a loanword and technical term in discussions about living together in immigration societies. This leaning towards cooperation and the shared reference to tools that change and support the relations between people is also at the core of Ivan Illich´s "Tools for Conviviality" a classic of social critique and political ecology.

The convivialist manifesto by a group of French-speaking intellectuals around the sociologist Alain Caillé goes beyond the hitherto existing use of the term by turning it into an –”ism”. This way an attribute of social relations stemming from the example of the idea of hospitality becomes something new: a moral conviction, a transformative “art of living together” and a minimal doctrine that aims to compete with the great political ideologies of the 20th century. While the term conviviality means a practice of living together, the “ism” makes clear that on a theoretical level it has to aim at the systematization of a perspective of social and political theory ( as in the analogous difference between the terms “liberal” and “liberalism”). Therefore the focus is a double one: On the one hand we can deal with convivialism as a social-scientific or political idea, and on the other hand with conviviality as living practice.

Above all we are social beings depending on each other

Both terms, conviviality and convivialism, indicate that – in the view of the authors – we are social beings who, above all, depend on each other. Thus the subtitle of the French original – hinting at the American Declaration of Independence – reads "Declaration d’interdépendance" (declaration of interdependence). So it is all about the question of how we really want to live with each other: at the centre is the quality of social relations and that of the broader togetherness as well as the question of how we politically organize society. Thereby social relations are not seen as a means to an end, but above all as an end in themselves. Accordingly, convivialism is a firmly anti-utilitarian intellectual current that sees human beings characterized less by their desire to take than by that to give.

Another characteristic of the manifesto is that a large group of people managed to set their academic and political differences aside and carve out commonalities in the form of a minimal doctrine. In the beginning around 40 people mulled over initial drafts for roughly one and a half years until the manifesto was signed by 65 people and published in 2013. Renowned intellectuals like Alain Caillé, Marc Humbert, Edgar Morin, Serge Latouche, Patrick Viveret, Eva Illouz, Chantal Mouffe und Ève Chiapello participated in the process.

The manifesto identifies two main causes of the current crisis: the primacy of utilitarian, i.e. self-interested ideas and actions and the exclusivity of the belief in the beatific effect of economic growth. On the other hand a positive vision of the good life is juxtaposed against these developments, which is first and foremost about minding the quality of social relations and relations to nature. It is about the quest for “an alternative that no longer believes, or would have us believe, that never-ending economic growth can still be the answer to all our woes.” So the proximity to debates around décroissance, respectively degrowth is obvious here.

A synthesis of different political ideologies

On a theoretical level convivialism ambitiously strives for a synthesis of different political ideologies: liberalism, socialism, communism and anarchism. Civil rights and liberties, public social policy, radical universal equality and self-governance are to be linked up. The manifesto tries to formulate principles of a new convivial order and centrally highlights the following: “The only legitimate kind of politics is one that is inspired by principles of common humanity, common sociality, individuation, and managed conflict”. The convivial “test” so to speak consists in examining ways of social and political organization according to four questions:

a) Does it respect the principle of a common humanity and equal human dignity, or do some groups place themselves above others and externalize the negative consequences of their actions to others?

b) Does it realize the principle of common solidarity, based on the notion that the quality of our social relations is our greatest treasure?

These rather communitarian principles are pitted against two rather dissociating and individuating ones:

c) Does it respect the principle of individuation which means that we all differ from each other and want to be acknowledged and respected in our individuality?

d) Does it allow conflicts on the one hand and control them on the other so that they don’t escalate?

A politics of moderation and cultural change

These four principles can be related to a multitude of moral, political, ecological and economic issues. As is the case with degrowth, this aims at a politics of moderation and cultural change, as the manifesto does not simply advocate technological transformation projects towards better “future technologies”. It does not ask for socio-technological “solutions” but for controversial political debates.

From the principles mentioned above, three global political maxims evolve:

  1. In the name of a common humanity and sociality we need to fight against excess; concretely against excessive poverty and excessive wealth. An unconditional basic income that secures people’s subsistence is to be introduced as well as a maximal income cap.
  2. There should be a maximum of pluralism and equality between nations. Currently the West appears as a cultural hegemon not only taking advantage from unfair exchange relations e.g. in the exploitation of resources, but also seeing itself as the only one who gives to others; for example money, technology, weapons, education, democracy, literature etc.. Mutual recognition, however, can only exist when nobody appoints him- or herself the only one giving and when the positions of giving and taking change places.
  3. Conviviality needs the autonomy of a society that realizes itself through civil society organizations and self-governance. For this reason, reforms also need to essentially aim at the readjustment of the relations between state, economy and civil society.


An unconditional basic income combined with a maximal income

The manifesto formulates two very concrete political demands: an unconditional basic income and the introduction of a maximum income. An unconditional basic income would offer the chance to mitigate the Western fixation on wage labour and the related productivist habitus. Society would no longer expect concretely defined returns from its recipients and so existential fears could be diminished. This would require trust in people´s actions and abilities which could encourage cooperation. On the other hand the income explosions on the upper end would be fenced. Excess would be capped and an egalitarian reciprocity between the social classes could be re-established. Symbolically, this would express that a) nobody needs to be ashamed of his or her existence and that b) hubris is unacceptable.

The manifesto understands itself as offering dialogue; as a starting point for debates – not a final point. It should be perceived as an invitation to think about life after the neo-liberal finance capitalism. In this context, positive convivial concepts for the next decades are needed, and the manifesto rightfully stresses that we need a new attractive concept of living together which can anthropologically be anchored in a theory of gift-giving. Related to this is the question whether the term conviviality can be connoted in a positive way and attract relevant social groups such as parts of the middle classes for example.

The manifesto does not offer concrete and self-contained solutions to societal problems. It rather communicates quite a general alternative perspective and attitude; an attitude of conviviality that has a strongly affective side. Conviviality wants to convince in a positive-affective manner and open up room for possibilities and exits from the exhaustion of utopian energies. This seems a crucial advantage to me in comparison with terms such as décroissance, degrowth or economic contraction that try to attach a negative prefix to the hitherto positively connoted notion of growth. So, unfortunately, it does not sound particularly attractive and I conclude proposing: let us talk about degrowth as an economic transformation strategy which integrates into a broader reform movement towards a convivial society.

Translation: Christiane Kliemann


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Tags: building resilient communities, degrowth, new economy