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Living Together Differently!

by Frank Adloff Thursday, Mar. 01, 2018 at 12:07 PM

Modern politics must fight against excessiveness and inequality. All progress narratives have worn out. The cake will not become larger. The perspective of conviviality aims at abundance, not at tightening belts..


Modern politics must fight against excessiveness and inequality - without reveling in ideas of growth and national sovereignty

By Frank Adloff

[This article published in February 2018 is translated from the German on the Internet, Frank Adloff is a professor of sociology at the University of Hamburg and focuses on the economy and society.]

How do we want to live?

Right things have been said in the debate over a future-friendly leftist program given the situation of multiple crises in which we now find ourselves. Yes, the left must become more materialist. Capital must be regulated more strongly, the low-wage policy ended and unions strengthened. Obviously, there should be a third way between cosmopolitan liberalism and right-wing nationalism (Nachtwey in ZEIT, 1/31/2018). But is this enough? Isn't the problem that identity- and distribution-questions are very closely connected with another crisis, the ecological crisis? This threatens to be swept under the rug again in the course of the new recommended distribution policy.

However, a vision for the coming decades can only be gained when productivism, the industrialism of social democracy and the Left are radically overcome – without relying on illusionary concepts of a "green economy." A social-ecological transformation is crucial and how we can live together with (human and non-human) others, not the question of identity-politics and/or the distribution question. In other words, how can a good life for everyone be envisioned without excluding certain groups – whether the uncoupled workers of the global North or the seamstresses in Bangladesh, whether fleeing persons, bees, or polar bears – or having a good life at their expense?

All progress narratives – narratives of socialism, enlightenment, taming capitalism by the social state and progress through technology – have worn out. Therefore, referring ritually to social democracy and to Jeremy Corbyn's success in Great Britain are not enough. Redistribution is now politically right and important but not a future concept if nothing else changes in the contours of the "externalization society" (Lessenich): if we all in the North – whether privileged or not – live at the expense of the South. In all groups of the population, depressing future ideas are manifest, the fears of getting the short end of the stick and the unease of leaving a ruined world to children and grandchildren. Insecurity has become a basic existential feeling.

The future appears closed and not open from the powerless perspective of many individuals. People react to this with the desire for closed borders and homogeneous "peoples" – even among leftists. Lafontaine and Wagenknecht are only the most prominent German examples.

The cake will not become larger

What is the common answer of all political camps? Economic growth is again promised as the solution and invoked as a cure-all – even though people in the global North know we are headed for zero growth and that this growth withdrawal is also necessary for ecological reasons. The cake to be distributed will not become larger if the diagnosis is correct that a future growth of the GDP is dubious. New social conflicts, tensions and fomenting fears seem pre-programmed. The conflict between the groups that feel allied with the racism of AfD (right-wing Alternative-for-Germany) and those who champion the open society is only the beginning of threatening dislocations of German society unless there is a basic change of course. There are certainly many ideas for a fundamental social transformation. But they are hardly seen by politics and not brought to the debate loudly enough by academics and intellectuals.

New forms of conviviality (from lat. convivere, zussamenleben) must be found and remembered. Convivialite, convivialidade and conviviality is very common in many European languages. Its everyday meaning is mostly translated as sociable or gregarious. Starting from Ivan Illich's "Tools for Conviviality" from 1973, a classic of social criticism, the term conviviality later entered other debates like the British discussion around a new multi-culture and in the convivialism, coming from France. The Convivialist Manifesto of a group of French-speaking intellectuals around the sociologist Alain Caille in 2013 is innovative. An "ism" was made out of conviviality: a narrative conviction, a transformational "act of living together" and a political program that overcomes the great political ideologies of the 20th century. The goal of convivialists is a democratic-egalitarian society beyond the growth logic. In this society, the connections of individuals, groups, and the community should be made visible in a new way. People respecting one another in their diversity and cooperating – to the well-being of everyone – through the constructive settlement of conflicts could represent a real utopia of civil society self-organization and cooperation for the post-growth society.

However, the current debate about the future of the left is entangled in the dichotomous confrontation of state and market. While civil society was encouraged politically under Gerhard Schroeder, the tax promotion of foundations, elite philanthropy, was the focus of attention. Still, social movements and civil society groups sought new forms of conviviality. These movements support the regulation of financial capitalism, human rights in the digital age, a small farmer and ecological agriculture, religious dialogue, integration of refugees, different global initiatives of combating poverty, strengthening common property, new forms of political participation and re-territorialization of political decision-making power.

Practical conviviality is lived out in a multitude of social constellations: in families and friendships where the logic of sharing counts, not individual profit. This happens in hundreds of thousands of associative projects of civil society worldwide in voluntary engagements, in the third sector, in the solidarity economy, cooperatives, moral consumption, NGOs, peer-to-peer networks, Wikipedia, social movements, Fair Trade, the commons-movement and many others. These convivial experiments are often simultaneous and regarded more as a hindrance than an encouragement by politics.

Do we need growth?

A convivial society must radically question the idea of economic growth. New forms of economics could break through the cycle of permanent creation of more and more needs that are unlimited on principle – created by the profit logic. This idea is discussed in the increasing post-growth or de-growth movement. It is time to liberate ourselves culturally and politically from the fetters of economism. Maybe we do not need growth to lead a good life. Cooperatives, non-profit businesses, and many medium-size enterprises never primarily focused on growth. If one frees oneself from belief in the necessity of growth, the excesses of neoliberalism could finally be stopped. Drying up the tax havens, imposing higher taxes on capital, financial transaction taxes, raising property- and inheritance taxes and debt relief for Greece and other nations become imperative. All these pressing measures are on the political-economic agenda.

The greatest challenge for a left vision of a post-growth society is joining turning away from economic growth with the necessity of raising the material level of the under-privileged sectors. Something must be taken from the privileged much more radically if the cake shrivels and does not grow anymore. This can only happen when we liberate ourselves from the power of the economy. Abandoning the economy could be a leftist project, not only nationalizing the economy. Concretely, this means lessening the dependence of citizens on businesses and markets. To that end, a functioning public sector is necessary and new forms of cooperation between businesses, the public authority and civil society or non-profit organizations. Common goods should be preserved and redesigned, not privatized. Cooperatives (that nullify the separation of capital and labor) should be promoted and complementary regional currencies supported. Consumer goods need a longer shelf-life.

Life without cars must be made possible. Dependence on money must be reduced through forms of n on-monetary exchange, not only dependence on markets and businesses. Alternative code numbers and new qualitative parameters for judging the economy (not the GDP) are needed. Finally, we need a radically changed understanding of businesses. Public interest aspects should be considered and not only the challenge of being profitable. Businesses should be understood more as community businesses and less as private enterprises. General shared values point beyond the monetary. Ecological and social costs should not be externalized any more.

A convivial politics must struggle against excessiveness carried out on one side in the name of nature and the equality of all persons and on the other side against inequality, poverty, and extreme wealth. An unconditional basic income securing existence and maximum limits to income would be possibilities in this struggle. So public contracts could only be awarded to businesses whose CEOs earn 25 times the income of a simple employee of the firm (instead of 100 times and more). An unconditional basic income would offer the chance for weakening the fixation on paid labor. Existential anxieties could be reduced and creative spaces of life together and civil society self-organization opened up.

On the other side, exploding income developments at the top edge would be contained. Expressed morally, no one needs to be ashamed of his or her existence. Secondly, the hubris of setting oneself over others, regarding everything as feasible and evading the common good is unacceptable. The perspective of conviviality aims at abundance, not at tightening belts: at the abundance that could arise when the city becomes a human living space and not a development zone for capital and cars, when the highest goal is not training for global competition and when life does not primarily consist of paid labor. Rather, many kinds of active life could coexist.

The objection is raised that the global competition cannot be evaded. The global South rallies vigorously and middle classes and their growth become greater. Nevertheless, the disappointment of the South over the neoliberal course of the last decades cannot be ignored. A great need for alternatives and a potential for transnational alliances also exist here. The praise of the "new emergent middle classes" by the IMF and the World Bank goes along with grave consequences for most countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. A neocolonial division of labor where whole societies were degraded to suppliers of raw materials for China and the global North is connected with this. The newcomers once inspired by western European and US consumer pattern are already criticized on their most recent expansion: disastrous environmental destruction, heavily-indebted families and states, frustrated expectations and political crises are only the most visible negative consequences.

A policy of conviviality must emphasize global redistribution. Conviviality has to be in force globally today just as the social question had to be implemented nationally at the end of the 19th century. The national right of citizenship cannot be a protective fence for defending the privileges of a small part of the world's population against the needs of everyone else.

Politics from below

A new policy of conviviality must revitalize human relations to nature and not only between people and cultures. The global warming, the drastic decline in biodiversity or rich animal and plant life and the capitalist commodification of nature – these problems can hardly be countered with a technocratic "business as usual" or status quo. Conviviality means finding a new ethic of the society in which one lives. Technocratic projects are often part of the problem and not the solution. Invoking the "Green Economy" or "Eco-modernism" is not an option from a convivial perspective. Instead, we need a new broad social debate about the technology we want. A convivial technology dares to weigh ecological and social effects brought by every technology. It prefers concrete and open goals over proprietary solutions.

A democracy reform is needed. More and more people do not trust "those above" and develop a politics from below. There are different proposals for such a reform. Patricia Nanz and Claus Leggewie urge citizens to debate the future of their community in future councils and develop concrete policy proposals on energy, economy, migration, and the housing market etc. Christian Felbers's public interest economy includes economic conventions where the goals of businesses are defined with citizen input. More concrete ideas for an economic democracy are absolutely necessary.

Competitive neoliberal and individualist thinking dominant in the past should be broken without reveling in outdated visions of economic growth and national sovereignty. The industrial growth logic that is currently romanticized again was always harmful. The estrangement-criticism of critical theory or the eco-socialism of an Andre Gorz knew this. We need an ascent from the economy and a counter-hegemony of conviviality.


"Yes, Replacing Food Stamps with Preselected Boxed Food Is as Bad as It Sounds"

by Mara Pellittieri and Rachel West, Feb 18, 2018,

Republicans should disappear in November for proposing food boxes instead of food stamps. The poor have rights of autonomy and freedom that are mocked with food boxes.

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