A social concept for the 21st C

An essay by Michael Bassey

‘Conviviality’ is a way of living through which people gain quality of life and enjoy happiness by striving to be in harmony with themselves and with their social, cultural and natural environments.

This is an essay which I wrote in the late 1980s to put some flesh on the bare bones of the concept of conviviality – as described on the Home page. Inevitably some of the ideas are naïve in relation to the world as it is now, but I have chosen not to edit these out because in total these aspirations demonstrate the enduring holistic coherence of the concept.

The essay demonstrates the mind-blowing, drastic, and necessary implications of adopting conviviality as a moral position and alternative ethos to 'wealthism'.

I use the term ‘wealthism’ to denote an ethos where the driving force in society is the creation of wealth: as also described on the Home page.


[1] Suppose that work becomes more widely recognised as the joy and not the drudge of life: as that which enables people to develop their talents and to relate to their fellows as well as that which provides for the necessities of life.

In a wealthist society it is the convention to pretend that one dislikes work. 'Thank God it's Friday' is announced in many households as a preliminary to the ‘holiday’ of the weekend. Yet, some people work harder over the weekend, both physically and mentally, than they have during the week - decorating their homes, gardening, engaging in sport and pursuing leisure interests. It is part of the prevailing ethos to deplore the need to work. ‘When I win the National Lottery, I’ll stop work and put my feet up’ is the expressed ambition of millions of people.

Life is divided into work and play; play is desirable, work undesirable. ‘Roll on 5 o’clock when we stop work and go home.’ It is certainly true that work can be monotonous and soul-destroying, but need it be?

Many jobs in factories and in offices are very repetitive and tedious and not only give no chance for people to develop their talents, but are organised to give only minimum opportunities for them to interact other than for work purposes. Work is seen as the means of providing the necessities of life. A wealthist society inevitably separates work from play because of its emphasis on production and consumption. Work produces, play consumes - and, to the wealthist, this is how the world goes round. it is only in the senior positions in industry and commerce that the idea of work being expressive and self-rewarding applies. The captains of industry, the designers, the scientists and the managers, have opportunities to develop their talents and to relate extensively to their fellows in terms of their work tasks, and so have a commitment which results in blurring the distinction between work and play. For them work has more satisfactions than for the operatives working in the factories and offices which they control and, in the logic which is self-evident to the wealthist, they are paid more for their work.

Ferdynand Zweig, in his classic study The British Worker (1952), expressed his findings about attitudes to work in these words:

My worker friends often discussed with me whether a man works because he is compelled to by the necessity to make a living, or whether he works because work itself fulfils a deep urge in him, satisfies his desire for self-expression and self-assertion, and gives him a sense of dignity and self-esteem, as having a share in the community life. These discussions never had an entirely conclusive outcome. Most were inclined to think that the first proposition was truer to life, or that it was true of themselves; but they did not deny that the second would be true if they had to choose between work and total idleness. (pp97-98)

Zweig concluded that for most people the wealthist position is probably the prime mover. As he put it:

Perhaps most men believe that the function of a job, even an interesting job, is primarily to provide money for the comforts, amenities and pleasures of life. (p98)

To what extent can work provide opportunities for an individual to develop personal talents? It is easy to see how an architect, a cook, a designer, a nurse, a teacher, a lawyer, or a manager can develop personal talents through work, but it is less easy to see how a factory operative working at a routine task can do the same. Perhaps the fault lies in the nature of the work. While the wealthist manager designs work situations and allocates the work-force in ways which are calculated to maximise the creation of wealth, perhaps the convivialist manager of the future will make these same decisions with an eye to the opportunities that the work provides for individuals to express themselves and to make a unique contribution to the work. Certainly it is not easy to see how this can be done in present day factories, but it is likely that in post-industrial society there will be far fewer factories, because of a reduced demand for mass-produced goods, and since these factories are likely to be mainly automated with robotic devices, there will be fewer repetitive tasks for human operatives.

To what extent can work provide opportunities for individuals to relate to their fellows? The wealthist manager is likely to see this in terms of reducing output because the yardstick of success is production. The manager sets out to limit opportunities for workers to relate to their fellows during work hours because this is a distraction which reduces the amount of work done. There are, of course, exceptions such as factories where workers are organised in interacting teams with a manufacturing task which depends upon co-operation between the members of the team. Nevertheless most managers tend to see interaction between members of the work-force as ‘play’ rather than ‘work’ and hence tend to see this in terms of providing tea breaks and, in ‘enlightened’ companies, subsidised canteens and leisure facilities.

Schools reflect the values of society at large and so tend to distinguish between work and play - as is shown by terms such as ‘play-time’, ‘homework’, ‘play-ground’. The idea that play is desirable and work undesirable is sometimes fostered by injunctions such as ‘if you are naughty you will stay in at playtime’ and ‘unless you behave you will be given extra work to do.’ Among primary school teachers some may require their children to ‘work’ in the morning, at mathematics, reading and writing, and allow them to ‘play’ in the afternoon with creative and constructional materials - provided that the children have finished their ‘work’.

Before schools became tightly controlled by government controls there were teachers who would treat all learning activities as an integration of work and play and, provided that their pupils engaged in each of the curriculum activities at some time during the day, were not concerned when they happened. I see such teachers as convivialists, not only because of their ubiquitous view of work, but because they put emphasis on their children deciding for themselves when they are going to engage in different activities, thus training them to be autonomous.

The Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran in ‘The Prophet’ (1926) wrote of work in terms which are convivial:

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune. But ... in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life, And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life's inmost secret …

And what is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth. It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house. It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit. It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit …

Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger. And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine. (pp32-35)

[2] Suppose that fewer mass produced goods are manufactured and that more people experience the craft joy in making their own homes, furniture, clothes and food. Suppose that fewer people work in factories, that factory employment is planned in terms of job satisfaction of the worker rather than of cost efficiency of the machine and that the goods produced are robustly designed for a long life.

Industrial society requires workers to specialise in producing goods. In Adam Smith’s classic account (The Wealth of Nations 1776) of the division of labour in pin making he identified a number of distinct operations, each carried out by a different operative.

One man draws out the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head … (p12)

Smith had seen a ‘small manufactory’ where ten men working, ‘when they exerted themselves’, could make 48,000 pins in a day - an average of 4800 per man.

But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty …’ (p13)

He did not seem concerned about the inevitable tedium of such work! Karl Marx however argued that as a result of this division of labour workers become alienated or estranged from their work and from its product. Michael Argyle, in The Social Psychology of Work (1972), reported that sociologists had identified four different aspects of workers’ alienation, viz:

powerlessness - lack of control over management policy, the conditions of employment and the work process;

meaninglessness - inability to see the purpose of the work done and how it fits into the whole production process;

isolation - lack of belonging to a coherent working group; and

self-estrangement - inability to regard work as a central life interest or means of self-expression, which leads to a depersonalised detachment while at work. (pp225-226)

The industrial revolution resulted in the rapid creation of wealth and the standard of living in the industrial countries soared for nearly everyone to levels previously only known by the very rich. (There is still relative poverty in the industrial countries, but this is due to mal-distribution of resources occasioned by greed of the powerful rather than overall shortage). But now that the transition has been made to a high level of affluence, the manufacturing processes characteristic of the industrial age may no longer be needed.

The do-it-yourself movement has demonstrated to millions of people that there is intense satisfaction in craftwork at home. Enthusiasts build their own furniture, home extensions, garages, even houses, boats and caravans. Others continue the long practiced crafts of their forebears in food preparation and preservation, beer and wine making, knitting, weaving and dressmaking, gardening and home decorating. If local communities possessed communal workshops and kilns it would be possible to considerably extend the craft activities which people can practice for themselves. It is true of course that engaging in these activities requires a certain amount of wealth in order to buy tools and materials.

It is possible to conceive of much manufacturing industry withering away as domestic crafts take its place. Obviously certain kinds of manufacture are going to be needed in order to sustain domestic craft activity - for example small machine tools, screws, hinges, plastic fittings, planed wood and plastic surfaces. Likewise factories for the manufacture of televisions, recorders, refrigerators, cookers and deep freezers are going to be needed, for few people are likely to construct their own. The convivialist does not seek to domesticate all forms of manufacture, but simply to change the balance in an attempt to raise not the affluence of society, but the quality of life of its members. The convivialist believes that providing ample opportunities for developing the self-reliance of the domestic craftsperson is a way to enhance the quality of life. Obviously schools have an important part to play in this.

Where manufacture is necessary the convivialist would look for robust designs which are easily serviceable, easily repaired and long-lasting. In present day industrial society the phrase 'built-in obsolescence' leads one to believe that certain manufactured goods are designed to wear out within a planned, short period in order to ensure that the consumer buys another and so maintains the wealth-creating function of the manufacturing enterprise.

It isn’t only the worker who can be alienated at the work place. The rest of the community may be as well. This is powerfully expressed by Robert Pirsig (1984) in a passage in Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance’:

You go through a heavy industrial area of a large city and there it all is, the technology. In front of it are high barbed-wire fences, locked gates, signs saying NO TRESPASSING, and beyond, through sooty air, you see ugly strange shapes of metal and brick whose purpose is unknown, and whose masters you will never see. What it’s for you don’t know, and why it’s there, there’s no one to tell, and so all you can feel is alienated, estranged, as though you didn’t belong there. Who owns and understands this doesn’t want you around. All this technology has somehow made you a stranger in your own land. It’s very shape and appearance and mysteriousness say, ‘Get out’. You know there’s an explanation for all this somewhere and what it’s doing undoubtedly serves mankind in some indirect way but that isn‘t what you see. What you see is the NO TRESPASSING, KEEP OUT signs and not anything serving people but little people, like ants, serving these strange incomprehensible shapes. And you think, even if I were part of this, even if I were not a stranger, I would be just another ant serving the shapes. So the final feeling is hostile. (pp16-17)

[3] Suppose that technology is not used to save human labour, but to assist its use in satisfying ways which neither exploit people, nor pollute the Earth, nor wantonly consume non-renewable resources.

Two men were watching a huge excavator rapidly digging a vast hole in the land. One said, ‘In place of that machine there could be work for a thousand men with picks and shovels.’ His companion replied, ‘Or for a million men with teaspoons.’ This expresses succinctly the moral problem of technology: the problem of knowing where to draw the line on technological development and finding a sane balance between two extremes, one of which is absurd to the wealthist and both absurd to the convivialist. In wealthist terms the size of the digging machine is decided by the economics of the project: the manager looks for the cheapest way of digging the hole. Can we conceive an alternative where the decision as to how to dig the hole is based on consideration of the greatest good of the greatest number? Nobody wants to dig with teaspoons, but suppose that a thousand unemployed people were given the choice of paid employment with picks and shovels, or the dole and watching the machine do the digging, which would they choose?

Of course the question needs to be asked, ‘Why do we need the hole?’ If the answer is ‘To build a community swimming pool’, the response may be quite different from that for ‘To build a missile silo’. The wealthist manager sees no difference between the two - his task is to get the hole dug as quickly and cheaply as possible, but the convivialist manager recognises that the workforce are likely to be more sympathetic to the swimming pool and may gain greater satisfaction from the labour involved in digging it.

But it may be better to employ a hundred people using small digging machines than a thousand with picks and shovels, if this eases the work and serves best the needs of the community. This may be the appropriate balance between the big and the small.

[4] Suppose that industrial countries like the UK stop trying to become more affluent, stop consuming a disproportionate share of the Earth’s resources, and begin to become mainly self-sufficient within their own territory.

The British import-export economy is currently structured this way. In order to purchase the food and raw materials needed to supplement our indigenous supplies and thus sustain our way of life, we export manufactured goods and, increasingly, professional and financial services. On the international market we buy grain, fruit and mineral ores, for example, and pay for these by selling chemicals, machine tools and weapons. More than half of the food we buy in our shops is home grown, but the rest has to be imported - and paid for by our exports.

The cycle of importing raw materials, turning them into manufactured goods, using some ourselves and selling the rest overseas, and using the overseas profit to buy not only more raw materials but also the additional food we need, was the strategy of success of the UK for over two centuries. It helped us become an affluent society, in which all of our people, even those deemed 'poor', have reached higher standards of living than many in the rest of the world. Over the same period some other countries have done likewise. But now our industrial pre-eminence is challenged by more countries, particularly in Asia. Their industrial rise was based on cheap and abundant labour, but now the key factors are technological knowledge and, in most cases, a national ethos expressed in determination to succeed in the world's markets. Japan, for example, produces more graduate engineers and trained technicians than the UK and each company’s workforce has a cultural system involving universal loyalty to the enterprise which is rarely found in the UK.

Is it not time for the UK to become much more self-sufficient and to live primarily on the resources of our own land? We have the amassed wealth and the technology to do this; but what is lacking is the political will. Unfortunately our politicians, responding to what they perceive as the desires of the people and the pressure of the ballot box, continue to argue that we need more affluence and that therefore we must capture foreign markets, but in the long term the days of this strategy are inevitably numbered.

As a nation we are better nourished, housed, educated, cared for, protected against pain and disease, and entertained than any of our predecessors on this island and than most of the rest of the world. Why do we want more? Why are we not prepared to consolidate what we have and to establish a sustainable society so that our grandchildren and their grandchildren can also enjoy a high quality of life? Also, why do we not share what we have more equitably amongst ourselves?

At present our society is endangered by a dearth of political and world-¬moral education. Most of us are grossly ignorant of the realities of the world: of the exploitation of the ‘south’ by the ‘north’, of the squalor and poverty in which so many people exist, of the widespread inhumanity of man to man. Few have sufficient knowledge to comprehend the awful epigram (perhaps epitaph) that was coined some years ago: The Earth has cancer and that cancer is man. Most of our newspapers trivialise world events and titillate us with small town scandals. Television programmes occasionally bring the harshness of the world into people's homes, but the dead bodies of starvation or revolution seem no more real than those of the daily diet of thriller films. Some television does seek to help people to understand rather than view the world, but sadly attracts only small audiences. We blunder forward in ignorance of the major problems of a changing world.

[5] Suppose that there is less competitive advertising, so that people are under less persuasion to become more affluent.

Wealthist economic theory centres on the concept of growth: it requires a steady growth in consumption, fed by a parallel growth in production, to maintain the process of accretion of wealth.

In order to achieve steady growth in consumption, the public has to be motivated to buy more goods and so wealthist society employs specialists in persuasion who, using artistic skill and psychological knowledge, encourage people to buy, use, throw away and buy again. By subtle, and not so subtle, advertising techniques, the public are manipulated into being dissatisfied with older fashions and into striving to be 'one up' on the neighbours. TV and radio commercials, posters on hoardings, and magazine and newspaper announcements subject us to a constant barrage of persuasion about washing powders, beers, motor cars, mortgages …

Many years ago Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders (1957) warned western society in these terms:

Large scale efforts are being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences. Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness; so that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, 'hidden'… This depth approach to influencing our behaviour is being used in many fields and is employing a variety of ingenious techniques. It is being used most extensively to affect our daily acts of consumption. (p11)

Suppose it were possible to take a national decision to stop seeking higher levels of affluence, then it would become evident that competitive advertising is inappropriate. 'Competitive' advertising refers to announcements promoting one brand against another; it can be distinguished from 'informative' advertising which seeks to advise the public of new products, but not to persuade them to buy already well-known goods.

One of the problems of such a decision is that alternative ways of funding the television and radio which are currently financed by advertising revenue would be needed, and for supporting magazines and newspapers which are heavily dependent upon the advertisements they carry.

[6] Suppose that the UK becomes primarily self-supporting in agricultural food production through changes in the national diet, changes in farming practice, and by more people working the land. Suppose that by importing less food it becomes less necessary to export manufactured goods and professional services.

At present just over half of the food purchased in the UK is home grown. It would be possible for nearly all of our food to be home grown if some significant changes were made. The exceptions would be commodities from the tropics such as oranges, bananas, tea and coffee. The major changes envisaged are these:

(i) A dietary change in which less meat is eaten but more grain. The argument is this. It takes about five times as much grain to feed an animal to turn it into meat as it does to provide the same sustenance to a human in the form of grain. Thus an acre at present sowed with barley to provide animal feed, could alternatively feed five times as many people if sown with wheat for bread. It is not necessary to become vegetarian: the change envisaged entails eating meat less frequently than is the case at present.

(ii) A change in farming practice in which soil fertility is based more on crop rotation and organic manures and less on chemical fertilisers made with fossil fuel.

(iii) A dietary change in which foods are available in the shops during the local growing season, but not imported to extend that season. At present, for example, tomatoes are available in the shops all the year round: during the summer and early autumn they are home grown, but for the rest of the year they are imported from warmer countries further south, which entails both transport costs and the need to export in return.

(iv) A change in which more food is produced by the people who will consume it: in vegetable gardens, and on allotments and homesteads. When food is grown on a small and local scale there can be sufficient helping hands to tend carefully the plants - in weeding, watering, feeding and protecting from frost. It is possible to obtain higher yields per acre in domestic production than farmers can produce in mass production. The home freezer is an important part of the vegetable garden economy - enabling many fruits and vegetables to be eaten out of season.

In the UK today there are approximately 16 million families with an average of between 3 and 4 members. In terms of the agricultural land of the whole country there is roughly 1 acre of arable land, 1 acre of rough grazing and 0.75 acre of permanent grassland per family. Georg Borgstrom, in World Food Resources (1973) calculated that in addition each UK family consumes the produce from a further 2.5 acres of arable land overseas - mostly in North America, New Zealand, and Argentina - in animal products and animal feedstuffs. A self-sufficient UK would lose those 2.5 acres overseas and have to live on the indigenous 2.75 acres per family. This could be done, and it could be done without the 0.25 tons of fertiliser per family per year which is currently made from fossil oil. But it would entail the kinds of change listed above. Kenneth Mellanby, in Can Britain Feed Herself? (1975), gave an unambiguous ‘Yes’ in answer to his title. He showed that by eating less meat it is perfectly possible to provide a nutritionally balanced diet which is grown on home soil.

A change towards homestead living could happen only slowly and over several generations. In the near future only a very small proportion of the population could move into the country, settle on their own homesteads and grow their own food, but it is envisaged that with an appropriate educational programme their numbers would increase as people came to see it as a satisfying way of life.

It is instructive to examine the implications or living on a homestead as envisaged by John Seymour, in The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency (1976).

Myself, if I had an acre of good well-drained land, I would divide it in half and put half an acre down to grass on which I would graze a cow, and perhaps a goat to milk during the short periods when the cow would be dry, a sow for breeding and a dozen chickens. I would admittedly have to buy in food from outside to feed these animals through the winter, but this is preferable to buying in dairy products and meat, which would be the alternative. My remaining half-acre I would divide into four plots for intensive vegetable production, devoting a plot each to potatoes, pulses (peas and beans), brassica (cabbage family) and roots. I would divide the grass half-acre into four plots as well and rotate the whole holding every year. This means I would be planting a grass plot every year and it would stay grass until I ploughed it up four years later. I would build a cowshed for the cow, because I would not have enough grass to keep her outdoors all year. I would have a greenhouse for tomatoes and hives for bees and I would plant a vegetable patch with extra household vegetables, herbs and soft fruit. (p20)

In simple accounting terms Seymour's family is using their 1 acre of arable land for the homestead plot and the winter feed for their animals could come from their 0.75 acre of permanent grassland. His insistence on having a cow is to ensure that the land is well manured and does not require chemical fertilisers.

Seymour is a pioneer of convivial living. He says this in his book of the way to self-sufficiency:

It is going forward to a new and better sort of life, a life which is more fun than the over-specialized round of office or factory, a life that brings challenge and the use of daily initiative back to work, and variety, and occasional great success and occasional abysmal failure. It means the acceptance of complete responsibility for what you do or what you do not do, and one of its greatest rewards is the joy that comes from seeing each job right through - from sowing your own wheat to eating your own bread, from planting a field of pig food to slicing a side of bacon.

Self-sufficiency does not mean 'going back' to the acceptance of a lower standard of living. On the contrary, it is the striving for a higher standard of living, for food which is fresh and organically grown and good, for the good life in pleasant surroundings, for the health of body and peace of mind which comes with hard varied work in the open air, and for the satisfaction that comes from doing difficult and intricate jobs well and successfully. (p7)

Certainly in the near future only a small section of the population is likely to choose homestead living along the lines suggested by John Seymour. His enthusiasm has to be moderated by the recognition that it is much harder for a family to aim for family self-¬sufficiency than for a nation to aim at national self-sufficiency. Seymour’s way of life demands personal resilience and family coherence, as well as extensive knowledge of small scale farming practice.

[7] Suppose that less energy is used, and more is produced locally. Suppose that nuclear energy is rejected because of the potential long term hazards, and suppose that more use is made of wind and solar energy.

The consumption of fossil fuel could be reduced: if fewer goods were manufactured, and where appropriate these were designed for a long life; if our buildings were insulated more effectively; if more goods and foods were produced locally and foods eaten in season so that there would be less need for transportation. [Note written in 2009. Because of the now recognized dangers of global warming due to fossil fuel combustion part of this notion is now on the political agenda – which it wasn’t when this essay was first written. But nuclear energy is part of the present government’s energy strategy, alas.]

Amory Lovins, in Soft Energy Paths (1977) has shown clearly that a different energy strategy to that of today is possible without undue hardship in a society such as ours. By 'soft energy paths' he means producing energy locally in small units matched to the use for which the energy is required.

For example, domestic heating can be provided by collecting the sun’s energy on the roof of a house in solar water panels and storing this as hot water in an insulated tank underneath the house for use when required either for washing or for room heating in 'radiator' panels. This is a soft energy path: it uses sunlight (which is present whether or not we use it); it locates all the processes of energy conversion in the house; it is simple - being based on elementary principles of plumbing, pumping and insulation; and it matches the need of the house for hot water. By contrast, to provide domestic heating by electricity entails a 'hard energy path': it involves burning fossil fuel (a non-renewable resource) in a power station (polluting the atmosphere); this is a wasteful process in which only about a third of the energy released from the fossil fuel is converted into electricity and the transmission across country by power grids entails further losses. The consumer of electricity pays for fuel, power station and power grid in addition to appliances in the home, but has no significant say in decisions affecting the supply of this energy to the home.

As a second example consider domestic lighting. Electricity is the best way of providing artificial lighting in the home but, because only small quantities of electricity are required, the hard energy path involving regional power stations can be replaced by the soft energy path of domestic or community wind generators and battery storage.

As a third example consider the possibility of running vehicles on methanol produced locally by bacterial fermentation of agricultural and domestic wastes. This is a soft energy path because it utilises sunlight, stores the energy in a form which is appropriate to the end use of the internal combustion engine, and involves a technology which is suited to relatively small scale processing.

Lovins concludes his book with these words:

Sunlight leaves an earth unravished, husbanded, renewed. It leaves a people unmutated, convivial, even illuminated. Above all, it respects the limits that are always with us on a small planet: the delicate fragility of life, the imperfection of human societies, and the frailty of the human design. We can still choose to live lightly, to live with light, and so choose life itself - by capturing the Hope left waiting at the bottom of Pandora's box. (p218)

Lovins' soft energy paths are clearly convivial in that they involve people being in harmony with their physical environment.

Nuclear energy at first seemed to be a cheap and convenient way of generating electricity. Later it became clear that it is not the ‘clean’ process that had originally been expected. The convivialist opposition to nuclear energy stems from the sense of stewardship, of harmony with the future. To the convivialist it is quite wrong to bury radioactive wastes in nuclear graveyards which will require specialist caretaking for hundreds of years. But worse is the recognition that nuclear power production inevitably provides a potential source of nuclear weapons as well as providing a potential site for nuclear terrorism and that is a legacy which it is fundamentally immoral to hand on to future generations.

[8] Suppose that most people are able to own their own dwellings and that they are encouraged to build and maintain these themselves. Suppose that more people work allotments, gardens and roof gardens, and grow on them fruit and vegetables.

In a profound and fundamental way the existence of home is a basic human need. Very few people are happy to be wanderers without somewhere that they can call their own home. Nearly everybody has the need for a space which is theirs, a need for somewhere with a door to close and feel that this is where their family can be alone, and, at least momentarily, escape from the pressures and tensions of the outside world. I believe that this basic need is much more effectively met if there is also the knowledge that the home is one's own. Ownership of one's own home means security of tenure - fundamental protection against being dislodged; it means having roots in the Earth - a fundamental sense of belonging; and it also entails a sense of stewardship - a fundamental responsibility to conserve in order to pass onto the next generation that which is worthwhile.

To the wealthist, property is a source of wealth and the ownership of property is the result of purchase following success in creating wealth. The convivialist sees the ownership of property as an important human need and looks for some mechanism whereby those without home property can obtain a plot of their own. Over a period or time there could be an allocation of small-holdings in rural areas to those who at present live in the density of urban townships and who wish to migrate. Opportunities could be made for these people to build their own dwellings - not as shanty-town shacks, but as proper houses with contemporary standards of amenity. Clearly there are many difficulties in such proposals, but this is the direction which needs to be taken by a society which seeks a sustainable future. As described above, equal sharing of the agricultural land of this country would provide 1.75 acres per family and there is reason to believe this is sufficient to sustain a satisfying quality of life. While some families might choose to live independently on plots of this size no doubt others might choose to live in communal groups on larger plots; many other families, inevitably, might choose to remain in urban areas, but hopefully could be persuaded to cultivate roof gardens, house gardens or allotments.

During World War II there were 1.4 million allotments in the UK and it is estimated that the total area of allotments and gardens producing vegetables and fruit was 300,000 acres; by 1944 this provided about 10% of the food consumed. (Riley in Economic Growth - the Allotments Campaign Guide 1979). In 1979 the Civic Trust carried out a survey of urban waste land and found 250,000 acres of ‘dormant’ land in the UK’s towns and cities. On this basis, and with 10 allotments to the acre it is conceivable that two and a half million families in urban areas who at present have no land on which to grow vegetables and soft fruits, could be allotted a plot now and could contribute directly to their own domestic economy without needing to move home.

[9] Suppose that community spirit grows so that more people have a sense of involvement in their locality and of belonging to it. Suppose that communities become more self-organised and less organised by outside agencies. Suppose that communities become more caring of those of their members who are distressed. lonely, aged and sick.

The essence of a community is a residential locality where the people comprising it know one another well enough to work together on communal tasks and give each other mutual support when it is needed. Community implies a sense of belonging to a group of people, of sharing to some extent the locality, and of contributing to the resolution of local issues.

It seems to be the case that today in the UK only a small proportion of residential localities contain active communities. In part this may be because few people stay in one locality for many years at a stretch: perhaps it takes a long time to develop a sense of community. Probably more important is the absence of opportunities for community action. The Council maintains the roads, repairs pavements, provides street lighting, removes refuse, plants trees, clears litter, puts up signs; the education authority provides schools, nurseries, libraries and evening classes; the health authority ensures that there are doctors' surgeries, health clinics, district nurses, and other welfare services; the water authority provides water and takes care of sewage. These are essential services; to list them is not to suggest that we could do without them or that they should be provided by anyone other than the relevant authority - but rather to note that this abundant provision does deprive the local community of opportunities for local action. It is noticeable that community spirit grows when there is local response to an outside threat - such as planning for a too-near housing development, road widening at the cost of gardens, or closure of a local school or cottage hospital.

In a convivial society fewer people will be engaged in paid work and the day-time population of communities will be larger than at present with more people working in and around the home. They will be engaged in a variety of domestic tasks which contribute to the well-being of their families. There will be a greater need for community self-help activities to support the self-reliance of families - such as community workshops for the more difficult home-based crafts and adult schools in crafts and horticulture to share the available knowledge and skills. Whereas a wealthist community waits for the local authority to build a leisure centre, a convivialist community constructs its own. Greater opportunities will exist for local democracy to flourish and this can be aided by effective local communications such as community newsheets and community radio.

Caring within communities is another element of a convivial society. The creation of the Welfare State was the crowning achievement of the industrial revolution in Britain, although it took nearly two hundred years to materialise effectively. Sufficient wealth had been created by then to begin to provide effective welfare provision for the poor, the young, the sick and the old. Hospitals, clinics, schools. council houses and old peoples' homes were constructed in greater numbers than before, and to the traditional 'caring' professions of medicine and teaching was added a new one - social work. For those in need there was professional help available in three kinds: advice, aid and action.

As the Welfare State grew, some of its inevitable problems became apparent. To the wealthist the major problem is one of cost, for the more money that is provided, the more it seems is needed. The convivialist recognises the same problem, but interprets it differently: the more help that is given to someone in need, the more help that person may look for. To the convivialist a vital feature of giving advice, aid or action to those in need is protecting the self-reliance of the person being helped. (There is an important distinction between self-reliance and self-sufficiency in an individual. Self-sufficiency means doing everything for oneself and could imply a hermit-like existence in a solitary place. Self-reliance, on the other hand, means that one is partly self-sufficient, to an extent which varies from person to person and for one person from time to time. Beyond that one is dependent on others while retaining responsibility for oneself in terms of personal decisions affecting well being.) In terms of giving advice, aid and action it is clear that giving advice does not limit self-reliance (provided that it is offered and not insisted on), but giving aid (money) and particularly giving action (physical support) can reduce the self-reliance of the recipient unless particular care is taken to ensure that the individual remains in charge of personal destiny.

The great failing of the medical and social worker professions is that they tend to take over the personal decision-making power of those that they support and, in consequence, those supported need more and more help. Struggling to keep pace with the increasing demands for assistance, the doctors and social workers see their work more and more in terms of inert patients and cases and less and less in terms of autonomous people who need some help, but who are capable of making their own decisions. But it is not just cases and social workers, patients and doctors, who are isolated from each other as human beings. Because of the extensive state provision available for those in distress, they can become more isolated from their neighbours at times when human contact may be more important than financial or physical help. Is it possible that in a convivial society, with more people at home engaged in unpaid work, there would be more opportunities for communities to care for those of their members who are distressed, lonely, infirm or sick?

[10] Suppose that more people find the time, opportunity and desire to play sports, take exercise, write poetry, sing, make music, paint, make films, act, and generally do their own thing in active rather than passive ways.

Why is it that in contemporary society many people watch football, cricket and tennis on television, but few play these games themselves? Why is it so rare to hear people singing or making music when clearly so many people enjoy listening to music? Why is it unusual to see anybody sketching or painting pictures; most homes have pictures on the walls, but these are nearly always mass-produced reproductions and rarely originals. Why do so few people take part in local dramatics when so many enjoy drama on television, cinema screen and stage?

The answers lie in the nature of wealthist society which is concerned always with the excellence of the product (measured as its wealth) rather than with the pleasure of the process. This results in the majority of people in a wealthist society being passive because they know that their standards of playing football, cricket or tennis, of singing or playing a musical instrument, of sketching and painting, of dramatic acting, are inferior to the achievements of the professionals, the experts and the specialists. In a competitive world they have learned that to win or to be acclaimed is what matters and for those who cannot achieve excellence it is better never to try. Wealthist society encourages passivity in all of its members except the elite who excel.

Convivialists value the process of playing games - or making music, or painting or acting - as sources of harmony. Sports entail relating to others and developing oneself, painting entails relating to the cultural and perhaps physical environment, and so on. Each entails developing harmony within oneself through the satisfaction of engaging in the active process.

Attitudes towards activity and passivity develop in one’s youth. In our early years we are all active: as we grow up we may remain active, or begin to adopt a passive attitude. In this the experience of our school education is significant.

In a wealthist society education is geared to the creation of wealth and so emphasis is placed on gaining knowledge and skills in order to obtain a ‘good’ job. The wealthist claims that moral and aesthetic values are not neglected and that sufficient opportunities are available for creative and physical activities in the educational programme of schools, but nevertheless sees these as peripheral to the main objective of preparing for employment. The wealthist wants the less-able - as judged by assessment tests - to acquire such knowledge and skills as will enable them to work under the direction of the more-able in the industrial and commercial pursuit of wealth. The wealthist wants the more-able to acquire such knowledge, skills and values as will prepare them to be the inventors, technologists, managers and accountants of industrial-commercial society.

When wealth creation is no longer the prime aim of society, the educational system can shift from an emphasis on knowledge, problem-solving skills and wealthist values to concentrate on expressive and creative arts and related moral and aesthetic values. Convivialist education is concerned with the development of the individual as an autonomous being, who can be self-reliant and who can live in harmony with self, with others and with the environment. Schooling can contribute to the development of young people's natural creativity but, regrettably, today this only happens to a significant extent for a small proportion of the population.

Convivial education requires a different kind of teacher to the didactic instructor which much of the education of a wealthist society demands. The convivial teacher needs to be a student among students: one who promotes activity by being seen as active - as thinker, writer, artist, musician, craftworker, actor, sportsperson, etc. More than any other members of a convivial society, teachers need to be in harmony with their fellows, with their environment and with themselves - so that through their example and leadership others may learn to be convivial.

[11] Suppose that people learn more about how to live in harmony with their own self

An advertising hoarding showed a young woman executive, smartly dressed, with the caption, London this morning, Paris tomorrow morning, the Daily Mail every morning. Someone had scrawled across the bottom with a thick felt pen And valium every evening. In Britain today many families have at least one member who regularly takes tranquilisers - to reduce the personal tension which seems to arise from the stress of living in a wealthist society.

It is said that Samuel Pepys, living in the seventeenth century, would meet his friends at two or three of the clock - but would not have comprehended the idea of meeting someone at half-past two, or quarter to three. These terms have been common-place for well over a hundred years now, and indeed for much of the past century the hour has been further divided into five minute intervals marked clearly on time-pieces. But more recently digital clocks and watches, aided by the insistent urgency of time signals on pop radio, have caused us to measure our lives in minutes. One cynic, parodying Kipling, wrote: If you can fill each unforgiving minute, With sixty seconds worth of time well run, Yours is the world and everything that's in it, And a coronary at fifty-one.

Today there is a tremendous sense of rush. The labour saving, and therefore cost cutting, practices of industrial and commercial managers spill over into every other aspect of wealthist society. Packaged meals are advertised as ways of saving time, airlines advertise their routes as being the fastest way of getting from A to B, cars are advertised in terms of their rapid acceleration and top speed (irrespective of the legal upper speed limit) and the Readers’ Digest abridges popular novels so that the story can be completed faster. Yet what does this saving of time achieve? Instead of savouring the many facets of life, many people seem anxious to gallop past as fast as they can - and in the process subject themselves to constant stress.

Most people have a familiar sense of stress as a personal state of tension in which one is braced for action and ready to respond to what is round the corner. As such it is a natural reaction to extra physical or mental demands and is an important mechanism for dealing with the vicissitudes of life. But after the event one needs to calm down to a more quiescent level of existence. This is what many people today seem to find difficult. It may be true that the stress mechanism evolved in primitive people at a time when intense physical activity followed the state of tension - fighting or running away for survival - and that this strenuous activity dispelled the state of tension and returned the body to its normal state. Certainly some people find that exercise such as jogging or playing squash has a relaxing effect after a period of tension. This line of argument suggests that because most of today's problems do not entail intensive physical activity it is much more difficult to return to the quiescent level; in consequence some people live all the time in a state of stress - or constant strain as it is often called.

As an alternative to intense physical activity deep relaxation can be achieved through yoga, transcendental meditation, or autogenic training, for example. These are techniques which anyone can learn, provided there is an appropriate teacher available.

[12] Suppose that there is more respect for persons and that more people learn to love one another.

Conviviality entails harmony between people, which requires respect of human beings for each other. This respect is embraced - though often forgotten, in various forms, by all of the world’s religions. It is present in the socialist credo: equality, liberty, fraternity. It can be seen in the Declaration of Independence of the United States in the recognition that fellow human beings have the same entitlement as oneself to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And it is in the United Nations Charter.

However, though few wealthists will agree, it is difficult in a wealthist society for this respect to be nurtured between all people, because wealth-creating activities entail a concentration of wealth in the pockets of some at the expense of others. Wealthist activities such as creating a market, persuading someone to buy, maintaining demand, and making a profit, tend to cause salespersons to treat purchasers with less human respect than, say, they accord their own families. The wealthist’s reasons for not selling poor quality goods tend to be his respect for the law and his concern that the purchaser may not return if the goods are inferior to what he can get elsewhere. The moral argument that it would be wrong to sell shoddy goods, because this would be disrespectful to the purchaser, is rarely heard. Indeed moral arguments are often treated in a wealthist society as naive, and the business person sees nothing wrong in taking as big a profit as possible from whoever can be persuaded to do business.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the wealthist's disregard for moral arguments lies in the armaments industry, the very existence of which must represent the epitome of lack of respect for other persons. Large numbers of technologists in the industrial countries are engaged in devising and manufacturing weapons to kill and maim people (it is said that half of the world’s physicists are employed in the armaments industry). Most arms traders are motivated by profit, not by patriotism or belief in a cause.

Wealthism seems to lead to the domination of one person by another in hierarchies of power. The operative is told what to do by the charge-hand who receives orders from the foreman who is directed by the manager who works to targets set by the works director who is answerable to the managing director who reports to the company chairperson. The clerk is told what to do by his section head who is directed by an executive officer who receives orders from the district manager who is answerable to an assistant secretary who reports to the permanent secretary. Sometimes these relationships are based on mutual respect, but too often they entail the senior person dominating the junior one and enjoying the exercise of power. The wealthist justification for a hierarchy of power is that it is needed in order to be effective in creating wealth or in maintaining a system which conserves wealth.

Since conviviality is fundamentally concerned with harmony, the idea of one person dominating another is unacceptable to the convivialist. Thus if an institution is to be convivial it is necessary to establish relationships between the members based on mutual respect and not domination of one by another. It follows that convivial institutions need to be small, in order that the members can know one another and therefore develop this mutual respect. In the words of E.F Schumacher small is beautiful.


This essay was first written in the late 1980s, posted on this website in 2009 and made more accessible in November 2015.  I have not attempted to 'bring it up to date' since nearly all of it is as relevant as when first written.  MB