1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Social Dimensions of Sustainable Development

The Social and Solidarity Economy: A Theoretical and Plural Framework (Draft)



Economy is not one "natural" thing; it is always plural and socially constructed. Polanyi tought us that it was a mistake to see the economy as independent from society, as a self-regulating market. He insisted on the presence of different economic principles (market, redistribution, reciprocity) in concrete human economies. As for Mauss, he taught us that progress does not lie in seeking to replace one economic system brutally with another. Rather, economic organisation always consists of a number of contradictory institutional forms, irreducible to each other and combined with different emphasis. Starting from their approaches, the idea of a "plural economy" is intended as a framework for considering relations between these complementary forms and for resolving potential conflicts among them.

The return of the utopian experiment of a self-regulating market under neo-liberal capitalism requires us to elaborate a project of democratic transformatio. Thinking about it, we must remember the self-regulating market in the 1930s leaded to authoritarian regimes : it generated so much uncertainty that it created the ground for nazism and stalinism. We cannot repeat this terror and we have to be conscious that market ideologists have recently produced a counter-movement of religious fundamentalisms and we cannot afford the polarity of “Macworld” and “Jihad”. To avoid these dangers, the chapter argues formobilizing economic principles other than the market (reciprocity, redistribution) and institutionally embedding the market once more in a perspective of solidarity, economy as well as establishing non-capitalist enterprises, i.e. recognising diverse forms of property by using social economy and social enterprises statutes.

In order to go in such a direction, democratic solidarity is essential. It starts, as Mauss insisted in The Gift, with recognizing that modernity rests on a particular relationship between reciprocity and redistribution, between the voluntary collective actions of equal citizens and the state’s attempts to redress inequalities. Together these make up what - in Europe, South America and elsewhere - is known as the "solidarity economy" (économie solidaire). Its institutional base includes self-organisation in civil society (unions, cooperatives, mutual insurance and non-profit organisations) and social protection by public rules. It is not a question of replacing reciprocal solidarity with redistributive solidarity but of combining one with the other. By combining this solidarity economy perspective with the social economy tradition, it becomes possible to renew the conception of social change.

The twentieth century left us with two extreme cases that we should avoid in the future: a market society whose inequality was justified by an appeal for individual freedom, on the one hand, and the subordination of economy to a political will whose egalitarianism was a mask for coercion, on the other hand. Our task is to find new ways of guaranteeing a plural economy within a framework of democracy. Mauss and Polanyi agreed on the need for practical syntheses of old and new realities rather than radical reversals based on a false realism. Instead of making an abstract appeal for an alternative economy, we should be devising fresh combinations within the field of economic possibilities open to us.

Jean-Louis Laville is European Coordinator of the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy. He is also editor of The Human Economy (with K. Hart and A.D. Cattani, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010. Professor Cnam Paris, Researcher (Lise-Cnam-Cnrs).