Why Optimize for Conviviality?


Having boldly claimed in my last post that I believe optimizing for conviviality to be a good thing, I clearly have a duty to back that claim up. The evidence that I find most convincing is that I generally tend to feel very content with the parts of my life that have developed from this optimization — but since that might simply be a quirk of my personality or my circumstances, I’m going to make an attempt at an argument that such a quirk is relatively widely shared (and maybe even more than a quirk).

The heart of this argument has two basic parts: the first being that humans have social needs that can be as compelling as our physical needs; the second is that our principal economic system in the industrialized West is not very good at meeting these needs — in fact sometimes it even hinders us. (I’d like to note that I say “principal economic system” in recognition of the fact that there are subcultures, countercultures, and other communities operating their own internal economies within our broader society, some of which do much better at meeting our social needs — others not so much).

There’s also something of an additional argument that social health can help meet one’s material needs better than material wealth can help meet one’s social needs. Succinctly, it’s a lot easier to borrow money from a friend than it is to buy friendship. Obviously there are limits to this argument: people don’t really want friends who we believe are only friendly for economic reasons. In fact, I’m inclined to avoid this particular line of argument, because it’s very easy to miss the point with it; someone who pursues friendships out of a desire to have these friendships satisfy their material needs will probably find that neither their material needs nor their social needs end up being met.

Returning to the first part of the core argument I remember some of the seeds of the idea for this series of blog posts getting planted in my head a little while back, while reading The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit, by Bruce K. Alexander.

Prof. Alexander is probably most famous for his “Rat Park” experiment. This experiment was motivated by the addiction experiments in which rats in cages who were given an opportunity to consume morphine would rather do that than do the things the needed to stay alive, like eating. The original explanation for the caged rat experiments was that morphine is so powerfully addictive that its addictive impulses can override survival instincts.

The Rat Park Experiment tested an alternate theory to explain the caged rats’ behaviour: that they were so miserable in the laboratory cages, they were turning to the morphine as a coping mechanism. So Rat Park was constructed as a sort of ideal rat habitat, in which the rats had an environment that could be explored, other rats to interact with, and all the sorts of things that were known to make rats happy — also morphine. As it turned out, not only did rats placed into Rat Park not become addicted to morphine, but even rats in Rat Park that had been pre-addicted to morphine, would stop taking the morphine even though it was readily available.

Naturally, this result was viewed as a confirmation of Prof. Alexander’s theory that the rats were miserable, and after conducting an assortment of experiments in Rat Park, he turned his studies towards identifying the sort of human circumstances that functioned like the rats’ cages, to keep addicts miserable enough to become and remain addicted. Based on these studies, he wrote:

Human beings are not psychologically self-sufficient. From early childhood until old age, individuals in every culture devote themselves to establishing and maintaining a place in their society. In a contemporary manner, society’s subgroups and institutions, starting with the family, open their doors to maturing individuals at appropriate stages of development. These subgroups give as much latitude as they can to individuals’ unique preferences and needs for autonomy, but always within limits that allow each subgroup to carry out its essential economic and social functions. Following Erik Erikson, this complex, ever-changing state of interdependence is called “psychosocial integration” in this book.

When reading a few paragraphs further on that:

Erik Erikson and Karl Polanyi were not alone in recognising the necessity of integrating social belonging and individual autonomy for the achievement of human wholeness. This central fact of human nature has been recognised by countless other great thinkers as well, notably Plato, Charles Darwin, Peter Kropotkin, Alfred Adler, and Erich Fromm. The importance of this fact is acknowledged by many comtemporary social scientists who use a great variety of alternate names for psychosocial integration, such as `belonging’, `community’, `wholeness’, `social cohesion’, or simply `culture’. Most of these terms could be used interchangeably with “psychosocial integration”.

I thought of Ivan Illich’s conviviality as something that if not an alternate name, is at least a strongly related concept. (As a bit of an aside, Erich Fromm appears to have collaborated some with Ivan Illich, which shows us a bit of a thread connecting conviviality and psychosocial integration. As another aside, around the quoted paragraph, Alexander notes an apparent connection between psychosocial integration, and many conceptions of “soul”, but then sets the term aside as potentially harmful to the book’s scientific credibility.)

Another similarity between Alexander and Illich, is that they were both strongly critical of the impact modern society has on our social relations (tying in to the second part of my core argument): Illich having been broadly critical of making institutions out of activities, while Alexander focused on the institution seeming to wield the most power in society at the time of his critique: the free market (Illich was writing during the Cold War, so the dominance of the market wasn’t quite so established).

Both critiques speak to a tendency of our economic systems and their institutions, to strip people of their informal relationships, and reduce them to alienated economic actors. In Illich’s model, the resulting ongoing generation of new desires by an institutional society is compared to the punishments of Sisyphus and of Tantalus, and described as “not just evil — it can only be spoken of as Hell.” Alexander, not being a priest, instead identifies a loss of pyschosocial integration as strongly correlated to — and a likely cause of — higher rates of addiction and suicide.

While I don’t want to claim that wealth and conviviality are the only things we can seek in our decision-making, most people will readily acknowledge that it’s prudent to save some extra wealth in case of hardship. If I don’t do enough to maintain my material wealth, then there’s very real danger that some sort of economic shock could strip me of my cherished possessions, leave me homeless, or cause me to go hungry for a while. Likewise, if my ties to my family, my friends, and my community in general aren’t strong enough to withstand some sort of interpersonal shock (like certain types of death, the loss of a social space, or some sort of scandal), then the danger is just as real that this sort of shock could suck out my soul and kill me.

Even absent the general contentment that conviviality brings me, I want less to have my soul sucked out, than to have a bailiff kick me out of my home. In addition to that, society seems to be engineered to steer me towards accumulating material wealth than towards social health, so I optimize for conviviality.

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