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Towards a Convivial Society
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At the heart of capitalism lies the idea of “homo economicus”: an ever-rational human being motivated by self-interest which arguably leads societies to economic prosperity.

Drawing on French sociologist Marcel Mauss’ influential theory of “the gift”, Frank Adloff shatters this fallacy to show mutual trust is the only glue that holds societies together; people are giving beings and they can cooperate for the benefit of all when the logic of all when the logic of maximizing personal gain in capitalism is broken.

Acknowledging the role of women, nature and workers in the Global South in transforming society, this book proposes a politics of conviviality, (from Latin con-vivere: living together), for global and environmental justice as an alternative to the pursuit of profit, growth and consumption.

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The project of a politics of the gift points to the domain of civil society, the subject-matter of Chapter 9. Practices of conviviality are mostly self-organized, emerge beyond the grasp of markets and state, and are frequently utopian in character. Such utopian practices may best be put to the test, and eventually realized, in social experiments.

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Whoever speaks of the gift cannot remain silent about value, commodity, and money, the interconnections of which are the subject of Chapter 6. Following Mauss and Karl Polanyi, it is demonstrated that non-capitalistic gifts foster the capitalist economic process. No economy can do without gifts given for free; in fact, it is the non-symmetry and non-equivalence inherent to the gift that form the very basis of our coexistence. Even money contains aspects of gift giving, and it is these aspects that would become more important in a reformed money system.

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Chapter 4 focuses on which kinds of gifts exist in society and on which levels of sociality they are located. I will introduce the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary gifts, in which trust and reciprocity play quite different roles. Then, I will illustrate that gifts may be found not just on a micro-sociological level: we can conceive of them as a medium of symbolic communication that circulates in society as a whole, and constitutes a background mechanism for cooperation of all kinds.

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Chapter 3 temporarily leaves the Maussian gift and makes a detour leading towards the alternative anthropology of the homo donator. In particular, Mauss’ approach will be contrasted with the classical pragmatism of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. A model of human action is here developed that breaks with utilitarianism and the Western idea of a subject-object dualism. Moreover, it integrates affects and affective valuations into the action model, and addresses the problems of intersubjectivity, empathy, cooperation, and prosociality, drawing conclusions for normative democratic theory.

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An alternative theoretical framework is provided by Marcel Mauss, whose [1925] 1990 essay The Gift is the main focus of Chapter 2. Mauss made us understand the seminal role that gifts and reciprocity played in past societies, and still play today. His as well as Alain Caillé’s work makes it clear that gifts comprise an element of freedom and unconditionality. They cannot be reduced to either self-interest or obligation; rather, giving, receiving, and reciprocating are intrinsically linked to forms of mutual recognition.

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Chapter 5 revisits Mauss and recalls his political activism. A socialist who championed individual freedoms and democracy, his political arguments have lost none of their relevance. They are of value especially to current concepts of post-growth and a solidarity economy, which defy the traditional dichotomy of capitalism vs. state socialism. While the principle of the gift is of utmost importance in interpersonal relationships, it can have just as much impact in the realm of the economy.

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It is argued in Chapter 8 that nature does not have to be regarded as mere material, as a passive “resource” that is at the disposal of humanity. The new materialism as well as some novel approaches within the sciences already transcend this traditional view, and in the era of the Anthropocene it indeed makes sense to talk about the gifts of nature. Once we conceive of nonhuman beings as quasi-subjects, we will be able to forge alliances with “Gaia,” and a new politics of the gift can come into being.

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The first chapter examines how sociologists normally respond to one key question: what motivates us to give to others or to reciprocate a gift? It is argued that the two established approaches—utilitarianism and normativism—are problematic and fall short in explicating this phenomenon. This is because they both wrongly assume that taking comes more naturally to us than giving. They are simply too individualistic in outlook and thus fail to account for social interactions.

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Chapter 7 focuses on society’s relationship with nature, in particular as it is mediated through science and technology. The roots of the Western view of nature lie in the naturalist tradition which assumes a categorical difference between human culture on the one hand and nature on the other. However, this worldview is not incontestable: experiences of nature as an equal have always been a part of modernity, and even technology can be shaped in such a way as to be convivial—as already imagined by Illich in the 1970s.

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