Convivialism as a Political Philosophy

Alain Caillé, honorary president of the ICA, emeritus professor of sociology at the university Paris-ouest-Nanterre. He is the founding director of La Revue du MAUSS (Anti-utilitarian movement in the Social sciences).

This paper was written in 2014 and refers only to the first Convivialist Manifesto, but the central idea still holds, unaltered, for the Second convivialist Manifesto even though the Second has added the principle of common naturality and the categorical imperative of fighting hubris.

Photo: Nicole Baster, unsplash

In June 2013, a small book entitled Manifeste convivialiste. Declarationd’ interdependence was published in France. This text, signed by sixty-four French-speaking authors, was the result of discussions conducted for more than a year by some forty well-known alternative intellectuals, soon joined by a good hundred others around the world, and thousands of sympathizers. An abridged version of the book has been translated into about ten languages (they can be found on the website The full version has been taken up and discussed by intellectuals or activists in Brazil, Italy, Germany, Japan and Spain.

A first singularity of this convivialist Manifesto is that it is the result of an agreement between authors of very different ideological origins, let us say to make quickly from the left of the left to the center-left, but with sympathies also on the right. This agreement is the result of two shared observations:

  • The main enemy of democratic and humanist ideals is hubris, illimitation, the will of all-power, of which rentier and speculative capitalism is today the main incarnation.
  • Due to the now proven finiteness of our Planet and its resources, the regeneration of the democratic ideal cannot take place within the framework of the aspiration for unlimited GDP growth. We need to invent post-growth societies, i.e. societies that will not be based on the illusion that endless GDP growth is the only possible response to social problems. These societies will have to organize themselves around the four central principles of conviviality (results of the year of


    • The principle of common humanity.
    • The principle of common sociality.
    • The principle of legitimate individuation.
    • The principle of controlled opposition which postulates that humans must learn to “oppose each other without slaughtering each other” (Marcel Mauss).

The other specificity of the convivialist movement, on which I would like to insist here, is to say that to organize this post-growth society, it is not enough to invent ecological, technical, economic and other solutions, because what we lack most is a shared political philosophy or ideology. I hesitate on the word “political philosophy.”
The political ideologies of which we are the heirs, in varying proportions – liberalism, communism, anarchism, socialism, to give the four main names – are no longer sufficient for us today. They are not dead, but something has changed so that they are no longer in touch with the times, with the problems we have to face.

We must therefore get out of them, get out while keeping them. To get out while keeping them, this evokes a German word central in Hegel’s philosophy, which we don’t really know how to translate into French, the word “aufheben”: we must both preserve and surpass. I will come back to this word later. It is clear, however, that we have reached this point: we must preserve something from the past, including its political ideologies, and at.  the same time, we must go beyond it.

Conserving / going beyond, “aufheben” these political ideologies can be done in two ways. First, by combining them. Secondly, by going beyond them, because the spatial and temporal coordinates that served as their reference points are no longer adapted to the current era, and because the vision of man, the anthropology on which they were based, is also deficient. So these are the two questions I would like to ask here:How can these four ideologies be preserved/exceeded by combining them?

  1. How can these four ideologies be preserved/exceeded by combining them?
  2. How to try to go further?

But I will also try to say a few words in conclusion on two complicated subjects:

  • The question of the relationship between conviviality and the ideal of the left.  Is the conviviality on the left?
  • What is the relationship between conviviality and the idea of revolution, of which we are partly the heirs? Here again, my line of thought will be the same: I think we must both overcome and preserve these two ideas, the idea of the left and the idea of revolution.

Overtake by Combining

How can we overcome (aufheben) the four great ideologies of modernity, to begin with, by combining them?

To begin to answer this question, we must understand – and I only realized this after writing the Manifesto – that the four main principles of conviviality agreed upon by the signatories of the Convivialist Manifesto each express one of the cardinal values of the four main political ideologies of modernity.

The principle of common humanity takes up the central ideal of communism. The principle of common sociality, the principle of socialism. The principle of legitimate individuation is at the heart of anarchism. The principle of controlled opposition is at the heart of liberalism.

But it is also possible to translate and summarize these four principles into more familiar words.

The principle of common humanity is the principle of fraternity.

The principle of common sociality, supported by socialism, is a principle of equality.

The principle of legitimate individuation is a principle of freedom.

The fourth principle, the principle of opposition control, is a principle that can be called republican or liberal. Now, I have a little hesitation for a reason that needs to be explained right away. In the relationship between the four major modern ideologies – liberalism, communism, anarchism, socialism – liberalism in general has a dominant position, as the economist/sociologist/historian Immanuel Wallerstein has shown very well. Liberalism, understood in the broadest sense, is indeed the matrix of all modern ideologies if we understand by liberalism, the principal opposition to all traditional dominations and hierarchies, an opposition that consequently recognizes the inevitability and legitimacy of conflict and division within the social order.

Let us understand that this acceptance of social division represents an extraordinary break with any traditional social order. This is precisely what traditionalist Islam, for example, absolutely refuses. For traditional Islam, division, discord, fitna, is something absolutely unbearable. On the contrary, accepting division, believing that social division can be controlled, that it can even be fruitful, is the hallmark of all the ideologies of modern democracy. And our four major doctrines are part of this idea, in different ways and to
different degrees. Then, within this very general framework, outlined by liberalism in the broad sense of the term, we can distinguish the four ideologies I have named, including liberalism in the narrow sense of the term, the one that believes that the achievement of democracy depends primarily on private property and the market. Liberalism then merges
with what Italians call liberalism.

Why should these four principles or ideologies be combined? Because each of them, left to its own genius, tends to corrupt itself and produce monsters.

Communism left to itself, the call to brotherhood reduced to itself, produces totalitarianism. This is the well-known deviation from communism. Socialism, the principle of equality reduced to itself, produces statism and bureaucracy. Anarchism or the quest for individuation left to their own genius produce nihilism. And liberalism, left to itself, produces what dominates today, neo-liberalism; in other words the hegemony of a rentier and speculative capitalism. We must therefore combine and temper the four principles, one by one – in the same way that Montesquieu proposed balancing the legislative, executive and judicial powers – and this is obviously an urgent task.

In this line of thought, we could reverse or complete the analyses of the American philosopher Michael Waltzer, author of a famous book, Spheres of Justice, which presents modern democracy as an “art of separation,” particularly between the economic, political, religious, symbolic and other orders. In some respects, and in a opposite and complementary sense at the same time, one could say that conviviality must be an art of combination, an art of combining the principles of democracy.

This is a first way of situating conviviality within the framework of the great political philosophies inherited. I would like to add at the outset that by calling this article “Convivialism as a political philosophy,” I do not purport to state THE political philosophy of convivialism. Just as there are many interpretations of liberalism, many
political philosophies of communism, anarchism etc., there can be, and I hope there will be many different philosophical analyses of conviviality.

Going Beyond

But let’s start again. Why is it not enough to combine the four principles I have isolated, the four doctrines of democratic modernity, to temper them, one by one? The reason for this is that the spatial and temporal landmarks on the one hand, and anthropology on the other, on which they are based, are no longer sufficient.

Spatial landmarks. Even if each of these ideologies was intended to be internationalist, even cosmopolitan, it is clear that they imagined that the framework par excellence for achieving their ideal was fundamentally that of the nation-state. It could even be “communism in one country” or “socialism in one country,” etc.

First of all, a clarification: personally, I do not believe that the national framework is as outdated as many people currently think, particularly in France. The ideal of the nation is by no means dead, butit is clearly not enough to address many of the issues that now arise on a global scale, on the scale of the common goods of humanity. Moreover, the classic formulation of the very idea of nation has become totally untenable. It presupposed the possibility of superimposing on a given territorial space, at least symbolically, fictitiously, a shared origin (let us call it ethnic), a shared dominant religion, a shared culture, a single language, etc. etc. Even immigrant populations from abroad were part of this fiction. This is now largely impossible. This is the first reason why the traditional political and democratic ideal can no longer be held in its original spatial landmarks.

Secondly, we cannot forget that our four main ideologies were born in Europe, within the framework of the matrix liberalism of which I was speaking earlier, which is at the origin of modernity. They shared – and still largely share – the certainty that they possessed the truth, and that this truth born in the West was intended to spread, to be universalized on a global scale. This aim is not inherently absurd. It is clear that if we have to accommodate other cultures, other traditions than that of the West, it is not so easy within the framework of democratic aspiration since, precisely, these other cultures were not democratic. At least not in the way we understand it today. We therefore need to operate a kind of “selective sorting.” We cannot accept everything that comes from non-Western cultures, if they are based on the legitimization of male domination over women, for example, or on the naturalization of hierarchies. In India, for example, the “greatest democracy in the world”, the prevalence of the caste system makes it difficult for Indians, even academics, to accept the principle of common humanity. The Europeans, symmetrically, have difficulty accepting this rejection of the principle of common humanity.  We must therefore give
ourselves criteria to guide us.

But what is more or less certain is that even if all these difficulties, which are considerable, are addressed, there will still be something essential that comes from non-Western cultures and that we must take into account. It is for this reason, in order to dispel the idea that we could simply generalize to the world scale of the values born in the West, that the Convivialist Manifesto claims to be a pluriversalist ideal and not a universalist ideal.

Time markers. We must therefore change the spatial references of the political philosophy to be born under the name of convivialism. But we also need to change the temporal landmarks of modern political thinking. The question of progressivism appears here. Our four main ideologies operated with essentially the same representation of time. The same representation of what has been called, the arrow of time. With the idea that human history, once the blessed time of origin has passed, must or will pass from a period of misery and despair, to a present that has no real meaning except to build a more desirable future, a radiant future, whether it be an anarchist, communist, socialist or liberal future etc.

We can no longer reason like that. We have discovered the finitude of the planet, the finitude of human existence. We have discovered the need, not only to change the world, but also to change the revolutionaries themselves, and the need to preserve something, both of nature and culture. Who is the democratic people, the people in whose name we must fight? Is it only the one of the living? But which ones? Aren’t there also the living to come? Or even the living of previous generations? These are gigantic questions that I do not develop, to limit myself to saying that we must invent another relationship with time, more complex than that of our four major ideologies. And so another progressivism.

Another anthropology. Finally, the four great ideologies of modernity share, without really knowing it, the same representation of the human subject. All of them assume that if there are problems within human societies, if conflict exists between humans, it is because there are not enough material resources, not enough economic resources, to
satisfy all needs. And they conclude that if only there could be enough for everyone, then there would be no more conflict. The underlying idea is therefore that humans are beings of material need and that the drama of human existence is material scarcity.

However, this idea obviously is not correct. The needs are potentially unlimited. Durkheim put it very well: if needs are not limited by some power greater than the individual, they can never be met. Why? Because needs are never just needs, they are always imbued with desire. Desire for what? Most certainly a desire for recognition. Human beings do not only seek to satisfy material needs, they also want to be recognized. More specifically, I believe, they want to be recognized as donors (Mauss). We want to be recognized in our generosity and in our generativity, in our creativity. In our power to act (Spinoza) by giving and/or bringing out what did not yet exist (Arendt).

This does not mean that we should make a radical choice between satisfying need or satisfying desire; there is a tangled hierarchy between need and desire. But if the thesis of the primacy of the desire for recognition – at least under certain conditions – is correct, it is both good and bad news. This is good news because it allows us to loosen the hegemony of the economy and invent something else. This is bad news because it is much more difficult to manage the struggle for recognition, to use Axel Honneth’s expression, than to organize the technical production of material goods.

How to deal with the conflict of desires for recognition? To move very quickly, I would say that the main thing is not to try to suppress the desire for recognition, to curb it – an impossible and undesirable task – but rather to try to channel it in directions that are socially beneficial for everyone. To move from the quest for recognition through the accumulation of wealth on the one hand, which currently dominates, or from the quest for recognition through the accumulation of power, to a quest for recognition as a contribution to the improvement of the common humanity and the common sociality, for progress made in the order of culture, knowledge, art, conviviality, democracy, even in the order of sport, etc. pp.

That, in my view, is the main problem. It is not enough to denounce capitalism in general, or even financial and speculative capitalism alone. It must be understood that before the triumph of capitalism, producing it, there is this illimitation, this hubris, which often goes hand in hand with the quest for recognition, if it is not properly channelled.

Conclusion: the Left? The Revolution?

How can we hope to achieve such a prospect of channelling hubris? Will it be in the context of a reference to the left and a revolutionary ideal? I think that we must, once again, put these concepts back on the spinning wheel and re-examine them.

Is conviviality on the left? In some respects, if the left-wing criterion, as the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio argued, is to prefer more equality than the right at a given moment, then conviviality is radically left-wing, since it advocates a limitation of wealth and/or a maximum income, a maximum wealth etc. and that it leads a resolute war against the explosion of inequality. But on the other hand, it is clear that this simple identification of the right/left opposition no longer works, for a whole set of reasons, which are linked in particular to the scrambling of spatio-temporal landmarks, which I mentioned earlier, and to the insufficiency of the anthropology underlying modern ideologies.

We must therefore resolutely emerge from the right/left opposition, which is no longer structuring the main problems today, but keep the reference to the left when leaving it, aufheben the idea of the left. We must resolutely leave the right/left opposition, knowing that we are the heirs of the left-wing ideal. And to this ideal, we must be faithful, by surpassing it.

And I would say the same for the revolutionary ideal. Can we do without it? What can make convivialism desirable and encourage young people to mobilize for it more than for violent revolutions? That’s a big question. In a word, I believe that if we explained and detailed to what extent convivialism can lead to a society that is indeed more harmonious and fair than past societies, perhaps less exalting than the grandiose communist or anarchist ideals, for example, but indeed achievable, and protected against the risks of totalitarian, statist, nihilist or mercantile degeneration, then, yes, convivialism would appear infinitely desirable, worthy of all struggles. Mainly and in principle non-violent fights because violence erected as a legitimate means perverts the very ideal of conviviality. But it would take a little longer to show it.  And we still have a lot of work to do, all together, to make this friendly ideal more concrete and visible.