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Elements of an Ethic (a la Marcel Mauss) of Convivialist Discussions.

ARE POLITICAL, ETHICAL, philosophical, literary, and artistic polemics more violent today than a century or two ago? We can leave this question to historians. What is the case, after all, is that since the end of the Second World War they become more so every year in Western countries, countries that are in principle moderate. The reign of the media and an omnipresent Internet clearly have a lot to do with this. The logarithmic increase in channels of expression, access to which is now open to everyone without any restriction or regulation, the instantaneousness of exchanges that opens the floodwaters to the spontaneous expression of feelings without giving a moment's reflection, the acceleration of time that only leaves people wanting more, the resulting obligation to present any idea or information as briefly as possible--with the Tweet being the incarnation par excellence of this norm--all of this contributes to the reduction of public debate to the circulation of "sound bites." These sound bites are meant to connect directly with a target audience through a simple formula designed to impress on all that mediated existence is everything; that there is nothing outside of sound bites. In other words, no visibility. Every day Donald Trump is the living example of this principle. Any sentiment, however complex, must be able to be condensed into a sound bite--or, better, into the 15 minutes of a TedX. Under the reign of the sound bite, ideas no longer appear as moments in a constructed and coherent discourse, but as simple discursive parcels which, in a few words, take the place of the entire discourse itself. Thus, we are no longer obligated to read an article that has just been published--we need only retain the sound bite that summarizes it.


All of this is well known and obvious. Perhaps what is less obvious is that the sound bite is not only supposed to stand in for all discourse and thought. It functions equally well, if not better, in representing in itself the entirety of the author, the profound essence of his or her person. It acts as an author's signature--in the manner of a tag of some sort--like the expression of his or her true personality. The question therefore is not to know whether this or that idea, this or that concept, or this or that analysis helps us to think, but rather what they reveal or are supposed to reveal about their author. Is the latter good or bad? For us or against us? Has the author come to support what we think--or at least what we feel--or, on the contrary, might he or she invalidate our thoughts. Friend or enemy? Honorable or disgraceful? In such a discursive regime no complex thought is audible or even receivable. The sound bite is not there to incite thought, it aims to spark love or admiration for a tribe and in a few words condenses the hate that it dedicates to another tribe or tribes.

Let us be Girardians, at least for a moment. In the mimetic rivalry of all against all, to exist in a mediatized environment it is necessary to designate one or multiple adversaries whose impurities we will denounce and whose symbolic death we will demand. The rule of the game is to always deploy more criticism, more than criticism, critical criticism, (1) to play the role of someone who never gives up and who knows how to reveal behind the words of an adversary the repugnance of what is not said, "foul" desires, necessarily foul, retrograde tropisms or obscene, fantastically commercial provocations. Try to be more critical than me and you are dead. Simply put: in the discursive regime of sound bites, everything functions in order to find scapegoats. There is nothing to understand, for seeking to understand always comes back to justifying, when it is really about denouncing. Those who do not denounce are not with us and thus must be denounced themselves. The rules of this game of general denunciation are henceforth clearly established: to high-handed charges of populism or communitarianism, respond by throwing opprobrium on media elites, financiers, moralists, or politicians suspected of conspiracies against the people. Outside of this referential, no proposition is admissible. That which is not localizable in this system of coordinates simply does not register.

Mediatization and digitization are not solely responsible for this surge of generalized critical criticism, always more hateful and visceral. Or rather they go together with the dislocation of inherited spatiotemporal scales that brings about neoliberal globalization. What is farthest becomes nearest, here is there, there is also here, past and future are dissolved in the present, indeed in pure instantaneousness. This fog of temporal and spatial coordinates engenders incertitude on the benchmarks of solidarity. With whom are we in solidarity? Toward whom is our loyalty prioritized? From whom are we entitled to receive help? Who are our friends, and who are our enemies? Who knows?

It is this incertitude that generates the kind of panic that we sense behind the logic of the production of universal denunciation--before which tribunal?--and which fuels it. More than ever, everything dissolves into thin air, the most established ideas, the most prized values, the most solid institutions. No one knows which way to turn anymore. The Left and the Right are imploding, the church is decaying, nations too, and the entire world is bewildered.

Even if this state of stupefaction and angry powerlessness has worsened since the appearance of the Convivialist Manifesto in 2013, there is nothing surprising in this for the convivialists, since their point of departure was precisely the insight that the great ideologies of modernity-liberalism, socialism, communism, anarchism--are no longer the cutting edge, that they no longer permit us to give meaning to the present and future. It is urgent to try and find something from the shreds of meaning that still remain and from the new meanings that must be invented. The fact that those who recognize themselves as convivialists come from quite different ideological horizons, sometimes opposed, and that they have been able to agree on shared fundamental principles without attacking or suspecting each other and charging themselves with the worst of intentions, is clearly very encouraging. But we must go much further than that which has already been done so that convivialism can effectively serve as a useful compass, both nationally and internationally. To achieve this, it is necessary to enlarge the circle of the discussion far beyond the few dozen intellectuals who took it thus far on the basis of good working relationships. How can we avoid letting this discussion fall back into the rut of suspicion and systematic denunciation, these machinations that fuel the base passions of hate and helplessness? Is there an ethic to the Convivialist Manifesto that could act as a guardrail? An ethic to the discussion inspired from the four central principles of convivialism--common humanity, common sociality, individuation, and mastered and creative confrontation? Probably, but again, it must be explained. Let us try to tease out some elements.

The Idea Itself of an Ethic of the Discussion

The very idea of an ethic of the discussion comes, as we know, from the German philosophers Karl-Otto Appel and Jurgen Habermas who saw in it, at least for a time, the means to finding a rational discursive basis of social norms. The norms upon which interlocutors of good faith would agree upon--as opposed as they were at the outset, placed in a situation of ideal discussion, that is to say, not distorted by irrepressible passions or antisocial interests--would be universalizable. The ambitions of this Habermasian ethic of discussions are without question excessive. Nothing proves that it is possible to define universal standards without reference to ultimate values and thus to insert a rational term, as discursive as it may be, to that which Max Weber called "the war of Gods." Not to mention that one sometimes has the impression that the ideal interlocutors of Appel and Habermas, far from being typical humans, are meant to be masters of the entire history of political and moral philosophy in order to be admitted to the debating table; to be, in fact, German philosophers. Rather than an ethic of rational discussion, we need an ethic of respectable decent discussion for convivialism.

The rationale is provided by a formula of Marcel Mauss included in the Convivialist Manifesto as an explanation of the "mastered confrontation" principle. At the end of his famous essay, The Gift, Mauss (2002) writes, "Societies have progressed in so far as they themselves, their subgroups, and lastly, the individuals in them, have succeeded in stabilizing relationships, giving, receiving, and finally, giving in return. Thus the clan, the tribe, and peoples have learnt how to oppose and to give to one another without sacrificing themselves to one another. This is what tomorrow, in our so-called civilized world, classes and nations and individuals also, must learn" (pp. 105-106).

To learn to oppose one another without sacrificing themselves. This formula takes on meaning when we pause and consider the first part. We have to learn to oppose one another, thus we have to oppose. We are very far indeed from the hope of consensus that animates the Habermasian ethic of discussion. It is not simply that opposition among humans is inevitable. It is inevitable because the interests and points of view necessarily diverge between superiors and subordinates, the young and the old, men and women, the strong and the weak, and so on. Beyond this factual finding, the idea that is reflected in the statement that people "must learn to oppose one another" is that opposition is not only inevitable, it is also desirable. It is opposition that feeds the "fertile disagreements," opposition is the creator of life and of meaning. It is through opposition that diversity emerges; a diversity that applies to it too. This is not to say, however, that all opposition is desirable and legitimate. The latter can only apply to that which is inscribed on the target of an alliance with those who subscribe to the dynamic of giving, receiving, and returning, and not to take-refuse-keep. An alliance of life and creativity. Or, to put it another way, all forms of social collectivity are desirable and legitimate when they favor the greatest diversity within themselves, that would be compatible with their own maintenance and development--development in pursuit of the greatest creativity (others would say capabilities) for all. Anything that is inspired by this rule is welcome and admissible in the discussion.

This dynamic of giving, receiving, and returning is inspired by a wager of trust. A risky wager, to be sure. For it cannot be ignored that numerous partners in the discussion, behind displays of big principles and virtuous proclamations, hide the most unpalatable interests. These can often be purely narcissistic, but are also frequently based on material or power. These are the basic elements of critique that we cannot ignore. And furthermore, whether it is inspired by Marx, Freud, or another, critique is often based on the hypotheses that interests are unconscious and that subjects lie to themselves. This is doing them too little honor. Very often the calculations of interests are much more conscious than the critique postulates, and hypocrisy, deception, and desire to harm are much more deliberate.


Nevertheless, what the convivialists are betting on--that which must inspire an ethic of pragmatic decent discussion--is that until it is proved otherwise, all participants in a debate must be supposed to be (a) of good faith, (b) intelligent, and (c) concerned about the common weal. To put it another way, the rule that must preside over listening and reading the statements of those with whom we disagree is to apply the principle of charity. In other words, between several possible readings of a text or a statement, to choose the one that puts the adversary in the most favorable light, to systematically privilege that which seems to be the most intelligent and moral possible. In a word, a convivialist will celebrate, not fear, an opponent's intelligence and dignity. Respect for this simple, seemingly innocuous rule would avoid most petty intentions and false quarrels which through their distortions pollute public debate. This implies forbidding the use of any offensive or depreciative designation--not to mention name calling--and any imputation of the fundamental immorality of the opponent. In other words, the reductio ad hitlerum or ad stalinum, a priori or more or less mechanical charges of fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, populism, conspiracy, communitarianism, secularism, nationalism, self-imposed cosmopolitanism, rightism, leftism, born-againism, or even Bourdieuism, and so on are no longer tolerated. Unless proven otherwise--since a simple suspicion no longer suffices to disqualify adversaries--we must refrain from expressing any suspicion publicly until it is more solidly supported.

The appeal to the principle of dialogical charity--the hypothesis that an adversary is highly intelligent, honest, and respectable--does not merely have a diplomatic function. And not even principally. In reality, it would be completely counterproductive if it were a matter of hiding one's face so as not to confront real enemies and effectively condemning positions as unacceptable. This would merely be cowardice and pusillanimity. No. Its principle use is to oblige us to be even more intelligent, honest, and respectable than those who we hear criticizing, and not to dispense ourselves from having to produce evidence for criticism.


But if those whom we oppose have a reputation for being highly intelligent, honest, and respectable, why oppose them at all? It can only be because we inspire ourselves with irreconcilable values, and/or because it seems to us that they have not fully appreciated the complexity of the problem. Even in the case of discussions between those claiming to be convivialists, it is not possible to dismiss the first hypothesis because, if the agreement on the four central principles of conviviality acts as an a priori agreement on ultimate values, it does not prevent the dialogue between those who privilege, respectively, the principle of common humanity, common sociality, legitimate individuation, and controlled opposition from quickly turning into a shouting match. Or again, the debate can only be sensitive among those who come to convivialism in the wake of one of the four great ideologies organized around one of the four central principles: communism, socialism, anarchism, or liberalism.

Let us put this a bit differently. In the majority of debates one of the greatest sources of misunderstanding and incomprehension comes from the fact that the protagonists differ--often without knowing it--on the identity of the legitimate subject, or the most legitimate, in whose name they speak and from whom they make themselves spokesperson. Everyone worries about the common weal, and are in this way respectable, but not everyone localizes it in the same way. Who must be accorded respect and recognition in the first case? Which of the possible subjects must be the source of law? Is it the individual, considered as such, the one who only gives (herself) to herself, and, perhaps, to the society of individuals? Is it the person, who gives (herself) to her relations in the context of a community of personalized knowledge, and so receives in return? Is it the citizen, or the believer, the member of a large political and/or religious community, who gives herself to it and so receives in return from it? Is it finally the generic human being? Each of these points of view--or points of departure--is a priori legitimate, as long as it does not ignore the fact that the others are equally so. Which is why, it is inappropriate to attack anyone a priori. According to the accepted point of view, everyone will reason according to different scales, and because today the inherited spatiotemporal scales dislocate or deform at breakneck speed, we see ample material for dissensus. The difficulty, in effect, is to know how to combine and concretely articulate the four principles of convivialism (or the four great modern ideologies, or the four types of subject of preferential rights). They do not complement each other more spontaneously, harmoniously, or easily than liberty, equality or fraternity, for example. The goal of a convivialist discussion is to achieve consensus on the best possible combination--or the least bad--in any given context or situation, knowing that everyone is confused by the loss of inherited landmarks.

... and its opposite ...

However, we cannot hide arriving at a stage of doubt. Is not the ethic of the convivialist discussion of which we tried to sketch the principle features, despite our insistence on possible divergences and on the value of opposition, ultimately too consensual? Perhaps too kindly? Does it not function in some way as if everyone were beautiful and nice? To avoid this risk, we must now specify who does not have the right to enter the circle of the convivialist discussion, or to stay there, and why. And this is actually a great many people.

Those who do not respect the principle of discursive charity, who do not understand the plurality of legitimate points of departure, who replace arguments with insults ad hominem, and who imagine they are constantly surrounded by enemies to be destroyed (what better way to miss real enemies?), cannot be described as convivialists. Of course, those caught in the act of lying, who are compulsive narcissists, who seek improper personal interests, or who breezily say one thing and then its opposite, are also not convivialists. Above all, those who do not understand the necessity of preserving and developing the forms of social unity that permit the expression of the greatest diversity possible, do not question the unity that allows for diversity (which allows unity, etc.)--they are without doubt not convivialists.

But all this could be formulated in the context of the second part of the sentence by Mauss that we placed at the center of the present reflection. "They must learn to oppose one another," writes Mauss, but adds right away: "and to give to one another without sacrificing themselves." The most obvious and immediately accurate reading of this second clause is to see in it a critique of the invocation to an altruism that easily turns into its opposite. When ready to sacrifice oneself for a cause, one quickly feels authorized to sacrifice those who do not share our beliefs, or not enough in any case. Let us not forget that Mauss wrote The Gift the same year as A Sociological Assessment of Bolshevism, and precisely to criticize the eagerness to make others happy against their will. But let us go a bit beyond the explicit contents of Mauss's formula. Applied to convivialism, "to give without sacrificing oneself' means that convivialists are fully engaged in what they do and believe, that they give themselves wholly to this, but that they are not made prisoners to their engagement. They are not ready to sacrifice everything--to the point of not seeing that others are just as legitimately engaged in other causes. In other words they are all the more engaged because they know how to disengage. It is the faculty of disengaging oneself that makes their engagement worth it. Those who fail to disengage en route to fanaticism are far from the spirit of convivialism.


Convivialism can seem too kindly and consensual; in fact we can see that it has many potential detractors. And its tendency toward moderation borders on the most intransigent radicalism. But a genuine radicalism, not one of fakers and blowhards.


Marx, K. and F. Engels. 1844. The Holy Family: Critique of Critical Criticism. Frankfurt am Main.

Mauss, M. 2002. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Abingdon: Routledge.

Alain Caille

Universite de Paris X

Alain Caille, Sociology, Laboratoire Sophiabol, Universite de Paris X, 200 Avenue de la Republique, 9200 Nanterre, France. E-mail:

(1.) Reference is made here to the subtitle given by Marx and Engels to The Holy Family (1844) in which they settled their accounts with the Young Hegelians of the Left: Critique of Critical Criticism.
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Author:Caille, Alain
Publication:Canadian Review of Sociology
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Aug 1, 2018
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