Paris on a Rainy Day


“Societies in transition” is a nice bland phrase which can encompass a very wide range of perspectives. In the case of the recent conference I attended in Paris under that title, the perspectives were very specifically oriented around socially progressive and radical forms of transition and included keynote papers by Nancy Fraser and Hilary Wainwright (A new politics from the left?).

Co-organised by the EMES network, the conference was an explicit attempt to bring together scholarship and research on social movements, the social and solidarity economy and the commons. The attempt was largely successful, in my view, but could have been augmented by some more nuanced approaches.

First though, a few words about the phrase ‘social economy’, which is not heard very often in the UK (nor in the USA, in strong contrast to its usage in Canada). Indeed, for many in the UK their only encounter with the phrase will have been the disastrous Social Economy Alliance cooked up by a number of people who should have known better and which resulted in possibly the most deplorable attempt at political marketing, ever.

Such attempts to locate the social economy as something middle-of-the-road between left and right mirrors the continued fate of policy engagement around the third sector and civil society. It was Blair who established the Office of the Third Sector within the Cabinet Office (perhaps he thought, in ignorance, that the third sector had something to do with his – and Giddens’ – disastrous ‘Third Way’ politics, who knows?) Blair’s Office of the Third Sector was rapidly re-named Office for Civil Society by Cameron and it has recently been responsible for yet another attempted redefinition of social economy as anything funded by social investment or so-called ‘mission-led business’.

Such is the ease with which language can be captured. For this reason, the Societies in Transition conference – and most sensible people working in this area – now talk instead about the Social and Solidarity Economy, which has been defined as follows:

“Social and Solidarity Economy encompasses organizations and enterprises that: 1) have explicit economic and social (and often environmental) objectives; 2) involve varying degrees and forms of cooperative, associative and solidarity relations between workers, producers and consumers; 3) practice workplace democracy and self-management. SSE includes traditional forms of cooperatives and mutual associations, as well as women’s self-help groups, community forestry groups, social provisioning organizations or ‘proximity services’, fair trade organizations, associations of informal sector workers, social enterprises, and community currency and alternative finance schemes”. (Peter Utting, as quoted by the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Social and Solidarity Economy – see also his excellent recent edited book)

With this definition we can see more clearly why there is a growing interest – well represented at the conference –  in exploring links between the SSE, new social movements, the many various attempts to develop alternative ways of conducting economic activity, and the potential for renewing progressive and radical politics.

There were many fascinating papers at the conference, focussing on for instance the political variety amongst UK transition towns, the dark side of some eco-villages, several papers on the Buen Vivir movement in Latin America, and a group of papers on complementary currencies and cooperative finance.

However, the papers on progressive and radical politics were, for me, the least successful. In part this was because of another aspect of the conference, namely to explore the current relevance of Karl Polanyi and especially his most famous book The Great Transformation. Whilst I can see that there is a superficial attraction to applying his idea of a ‘double movement’ – in which attempts to introduce social protection against unfettered market forces are then resisted and counteracted – I am fairly confident that political theory has become far more sophisticated, notably in analysing the shifting balances of powers between the symbolic, the mediated, the legal and the sovereign exercise of illegitimate force. But that is for another day. In the meantime here is a picture of my rain-soaked trip along the River Seine.


Richard Hull


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