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Conviviality: The Alternative to the Administrative State


On 17th February, in an article at Brownstone Institute, David McGrogan described the Trudeau-trucker stand-off as not only ‘the single most significant event of the Covid pandemic’ but as illuminating ‘the core conflict of our age.’ 

David defined this conflict as between state and society, with states across the world posing as guarantors of security and incubators of expertise in contrast with the allegedly extremist defense of human freedom and allegedly anachronistic attachment to human interaction that are, or have been, promoted by alternative sources of authority to that of the state – the family, the firm, the church, the individual. 

David’s insightful description of the core conflict of our age might profitably be reframed as a conflict not so much between state and society as between the less politically aligned phenomena of helplessness and conviviality.

The term ‘conviviality’ here comes from Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality (1973). In this book, Illich described convivial communities as those in which are made available an array of ‘tools’ – institutions, devices, systems, networks, routines – which optimize people’s autonomous investment of their energies in pursuit of their ends. A convivial society is one that facilitates rather than stifles our creative commitments and capabilities.  

An example: In The Coming Insurrection (2007), The Invisible Committee made reference to the event of Hurricane Katrina. They claimed that this disaster quickly caused to crystallize, around the ad hoc street kitchens, supplies stores, medical clinics and house building projects that sprang up, the amount and efficacy of practical knowledge that had been accumulated here and there over the course of lives lived – ‘far from the uniforms and the sirens,’ as The Invisible Committee wrote.

They continued: 

Whoever knew the penniless joy of these New Orleans neighborhoods    before the catastrophe, their defiance towards the state and the widespread practice of making do with what’s available wouldn’t be at all surprised by what became possible there. On the other hand, anyone trapped in the anaemic and atomized everyday routine of our residential deserts might doubt that such determination could be found anywhere anymore. 

According to the French collective, Hurricane Katrina was an outrage to the establishment and to the norms with which it transmits helplessness among its people, for blowing the cover on what Illich described as an ‘abundance of competence,’ that is, on the extent to which some communities continue to cultivate the convivial possibility of ‘autonomous and creative intercourse among persons and of persons with their environment’ (Illich).  

Convivial communities are directly at odds with the hubs of growing dependency that have been revealed, by Covid at least, as the globalists’ vision for future democratic societies. Such communities foster not only the willingness but the capability to make do with what’s available in pursuit of purposes and by expenditure of energies that are fully under people’s control. 

The Canadian truckers – typically self-employed, accustomed to traveling along the margins of the society to which they deliver, tight-knit and with time on their hands for listening to news of the world and for debate, accustomed to meeting adverse conditions and dealing with contingencies alone or with the support of their fellows – comprise one of the last frontiers of conviviality in our milieux; as David described them, ‘almost the last bastion of self-sufficiency and independence in a modern society,’ ‘the type of people who, seeing a problem, tend to want to find a solution for themselves.’ 

Justin Trudeau – groomed, slick, WEF-born emitter of the latest sound-bites and now indisputably craven in his desire to exert control over helpless herds – is one of the foremost puppets of the global project for the eradication of conviviality by institutions, devices, systems and programs all designed to intensify our condition of dependency under the aegis of progress, turning us, as Illich warned, into mere ‘accessories of bureaucracies or machines.’

According to Illich, modern societies tend to ‘optimize the output of large tools for lifeless people.’ Such tools – certification systems, screening programmes, end-of-life pathways, to name a few – have the effect of providing ‘best-practice’ ‘solutions’ to human life recast as a set of problems and needs, in the process alienating us from the energy and competence required for us to realize ends of our own choosing. 

Covid lockdowns surely exacerbated this effect – prising people away from the last of their autonomously directed energies. But they also revealed the extent to which this effect was already in place. 

The shutting of schools in March 2020 has been rightly lambasted as a direct assault upon the learning opportunities due to our children. Studies are now showing that the children of Covid have been hindered in their development by the suspension of their education. 

What is also regrettable, though, is that almost everyone has appeared to judge that, unless children are submitted to educational institutions, the possibility of their learning anything is all but non-existent. 

And yet, a moment’s reflection is enough to establish that most of what we know was learnt, and fairly effortlessly, outside of the formal school system, in happenstance ways, by observing others, by trial and error, by guerilla consultation of informative literature, and so on. 

The primary effect of our educational institutions, then, is not to teach us what we will know but to implant a lack of confidence in our own capacities, and in those of our children, to learn from life as it is lived and, when necessary, to gain access to the talents of those among whom we live and from whom we can acquire new understanding and skills. 

It is true, when the lockdowns happened many adults in the home were consigned to working and socializing via screens, from which activity children can learn almost nothing by observing or imitating. 

But this shows only that the tools with which we are alienated from what ought to be our abundance of competence at teaching and learning are not contained in a single institution but are ever more plural and networked, not easily untangled and rejected or brought under control. 

Clearly, ‘our’ NHS is increasingly another of Illich’s ‘large tools for lifeless people,’ who have been so distanced from their own energies and ends that the specter of asymptomatic disease is now a main driver of health policy and of people’s expectations of their health service. 

Once asymptomatic disease is accepted as a phenomenon, any last competence that we have, even at identifying whether we are sick, never mind at treating our own sickness, is eradicated in favor of large and distant instruments operated by designated professionals.

Add to this the growing consensus that immunity is an achievement best produced synthetically by the ministrations of massive health systems and the pharmaceutical industries with which they are allied, rather than by naturally existing biological defences enhanced by easily accessible understanding and products, such as good food, rest, established and cheap vitamin supplements and, yes, the odd ‘boosting’ infection – and we are fast entering a condition of such total dependency on the tools wielded by government institutions and businesses over which we have no influence that our competence in overcoming even a cold will no longer be ‘common’ but overseen and managed from afar. 

A convivial society, according to Illich, is one that ‘allows all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others.’ 

In a convivial society, progress in education should mean growing competence in the easy edification of ourselves and our children, both by the intensity and reality of our own involvements and by the accessibility of other talents for purposes of modelling and instruction, rather than a growing dependence on the ever-changing standards and curricula of institutions that never stop increasing their requirement for enrolment. 

In a convivial society, progress in health should mean growing competence in our self-care and our nurture of those around us rather than growing dependence on the judgements and products of an ever more remote service.  

Education and health do not now promote conviviality, but rather the helplessness of the populations to which they are provided as services. And certainly, in the UK at least, they are largely run by the state. 

Why not accept David’s suggestion, then, that the core conflict of our age is that between the state and those alternative sources of authority that still constitute what we might term ‘society’?

Because this would be to overlook that the state does not have a monopoly on the war against conviviality, and that it is the war against conviviality that is the core conflict of our age. 

Take two sources of authority that were named by David in his article as alternatives to the state: the family and the individual. Examined for their effect on conviviality, both are subject to doubt as to their contribution to human flourishing even if they also represent a real buttress against the encroachment of state power. 

According to Illich, the subject of human history around which conviviality has historically been woven has not been the individual, nor indeed the family, but rather the kinship group – the extended family, we might describe it as. 

Insofar as the ‘nuclear’ family and the individual have amounted to the destruction of the kinship group, they have arguably done almost as much to destroy possibilities for conviviality as has the state and its massive instruments of control.

A real shock of the Covid era was the subjection of the most vulnerable among us to the revoking of care, so much of which was starkly revealed as taking place outside of the family home – old people and those with disabilities either stranded in care homes or rejected from care homes, and young children excluded from early years’ settings.

The exposure of these frail and fragile groups to the whims of state power has been truly demoralizing. Yet, though it is easy to dream of how much better things would be were our vulnerable people to be cared for by family in family homes, the question is whether the family actively erodes this convivial option in many ways. 

The nuclear family, or the ‘family unit,’ which we now take for granted was largely a construct of the industrial age, an age in which every man’s house – no matter how modest – was his fortress-castle, the large balconied windows of pre-industrial residential architecture giving way to the small, heavily-draped, inward-oriented apertures of the Victorian street. 

In tandem with this enclosure of the family unit, the woman of the house emerged as primary, or sole, carer of all who needed care – replacing the abundance of care that had circulated in the looser arrangement of the kinship group or village community. 

As with all assaults upon conviviality, the family unit created scarcity from what had been plentiful.    

It is easy now to object to the submission of dependent family members to state institutions. It is easy to posit the nuclear family in its cozy home as having the responsibility of caring for its own. But it is precisely the nuclear character of the nuclear family, precisely the coziness of their cozy home, that can be detrimental to the abundance of care characteristic of convivial communities; if the family unit does undertake the care of its own, it does so mostly under conditions that promote a helplessness that must always be overcome and that relentlessly exploit the energies and spirit of certain of its members, mostly women. 

As for the alternative source of authority to that of the state, represented by the human individual, we who have been opposed to the Covid swelling of state power have appealed to it again and again in defense of freedoms that ought to be inalienable. 

It is also the case, however, that the human individual is an instrument that militates against the autonomous channeling of our energies to serve our ends, a promoter of just that brand of helpless dependency against which we have also relied upon it to offer resistance.  

A parallel theme to that of Covid has been that of personal identity. Questions about race and gender have been asked as never before throughout the Covid events. A curious accompanying theme, we might think – but not when we notice that the Covid-accelerated descent into helpless reliance upon mighty tools for ‘solutions’ to our ‘problems’ is further boosted by focus on individuality as identity. 

Insofar as our individuality is now advertised as defined by race- and gender-related content – lying deep within us and defining of us, though only to be uncovered and understood by a combination of professional theorizing and medical or quasi-medical interventions – it is a powerful tool for our further removal from the autonomous application of our native energies to our freely chosen projects. 

Contradictory though it may seem, given the much-heralded alleged alliance between personal identity and personal liberation, this primary mode in which the human individual is now abroad submits us to self-understanding and life-ambitions that are articulated and administered by professionals, not by ourselves. 

One of the effects of reframing the conflict of our age as one between helplessness and conviviality is its promise of welcome departure from a binarism that has proven worse than useless over the past two years – that of Left versus Right. 

Both the family and the individual have been rallying points for the political Right, not least during Covid times, for their offer of resistance to a horribly overbearing state, darling of many on the political Left. 

But the fact is that there are certain arrangements, certain institutions, certain systems, certain devices – including, in some aspects, the family and the individual – which work to erode conviviality and make us helpless, no matter whether those tools are in the hands of the state, the private sector, a single person, a communal set-up. Whatever political framework they fit into – Left or Right – they reduce us to dependents, alienated from our own energy and vision, and vulnerable to manipulation and punishment.

It is true that our landscape is clogged now with tools for helplessness – institutions that see after our needs and solve our problems, devices that we can only ever operate and that destroy our creativity but whose atmosphere of convenience and of ‘latest and best’ is very difficult to cut through. How to even imagine a life of conviviality in this landscape, let alone to realize it? 

One principle might help us here. It has the merit of being one with which most of us are painfully familiar, having lived under its shadow since the financial crisis of 2008: austerity. 

Austerity is taken to mean, and certainly has meant over the past decade and a half, a cutting back on the joys of life, on the ‘inessentials’ – tightening the belt, living more frugally, and so on. 

But in the closing paragraph of the introduction to his book on conviviality, Illich mentioned that, for Aquinas, the virtue of austerity is not pitted against joyfulness at all. It is rather the promoter of joyfulness, by identifying and excluding what is destructive of joyfulness. 

In accordance with Aquinas’s insight, we might begin to acknowledge that certain tools can and should be rejected, not in some implausible drive for frugality over progress and simplicity over complexity, but rather in pursuit of enhanced freedom and joy, in pursuit of progress in other words.  

What the truckers did despite all of the efforts of the legacy media to ignore it was to make visible – to people whose two-year battering by government-sponsored promotion of fear and suspicion had made them falter as never before, had made them question their capacities and feel only their incapacities – that we human beings are quite stunningly brave and able and capable of maintaining within our reach the wherewithal to construct our most fundamental conditions and realize our most cherished dreams. 

Images from Canada, of tables quaking under the weight of home-cooked food, of people in sub-zero temperatures lining the roadsides and bridges, of tweeted offers of hot showers and warm beds for strangers, of makeshift saunas and pop-up barbeques, of dancing and singing under threat of militarized suppression…these will not fade from our consciousness of what human beings who live freely with one another and in their environment can achieve and achieve with joy.  

‘Reconnecting with such gestures, buried under years of normalized life, is,’ so The Invisible Committee wrote, “the only practicable means of not sinking down with the world, while we dream of an age that is equal to our passions.”

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