Social Economy, Solidarity Economy. A bit of history

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Introduction : Associationism

For Jean-Louis Laville[1], the advent of democracy in France in the first half of the 19th century saw the emergence of associationism, a voluntary association between free and equal citizens based on "an interweaving of ideas and practices". Politics is not reduced to elected representatives but to public spaces for deliberation. The economy is based on reciprocal exchanges, based on cooperation, self-organisation and mutualisation between equals. Both the political and the economic participate in the protection of individuals and groups and their emancipation, as well as in the assertion of rights. The statutes of the social economy (mutualist, cooperative and then associative) will leave behind this close combination of the political, the social and the economic, but will retain democratic decision-making, collective ownership and other important principles within their structures.


"Once modern democracy emerged, new associations started to emerge. Associationism was initially viewed as being both citizenship-related and fundamentally socio-political in two different senses philanthropy and solidarity.

The concept of philanthropy emerged as a social principle, an essential component of democratic society that helped to regulate it through the establishment of moral objectives and altruistic voluntary commitment. The objective was to provide a framework of rules and directives to enable society to manage itself to a large extent. As a result, associations and their activities were not funded by the government, but run with a high degree of autonomy, and at the same time they forged links with the authorities responsible for legislation on poverty. In addition, a large portion of the social protection was financed and managed locally, with limited central government assistance, giving rise to a host of “institutions that acted as intermediaries” between State and citizens while being at the same time “an integral part of the State fabric” (Lewis, 1997: 169).

Solidarity: a multifaceted concept

On the other hand, while part of the associations arose from a philanthropic desire for social peace, another philosophy was a republican egalitarianism reflected in a broad-based appeal to the multifaceted concept of solidarity. Referring for instance to the francophone debate, in the nineteenth century, two popular solidarity theories emerged: solidarity as a social-democratic link, as proposed by P. Leroux, and solidarity as a debt to society, as proposed by the solidarity theorists like E. Durkheim. Leroux (1851) explained the solidarity concept as follows: “Nature did not create a single being for itself. … It created all beings for each other and gave them a relationship of reciprocal solidarity.” In order to avoid competitive individualism and authoritarian statism, he believed in the value of solidarity networks on the work of associations as means of ensuring that the public spirit essential to democracy was kept alive. The solidarity concept, supported by politicians, legal experts and sociologists such as C. Bouglé, L. Bourgeois, L. Duguit, and E. Durkheim, took on another meaning at the end of the nineteenth century. Going beyond Leroux’s theory of collective involvement in human activity, the solidarity supporters spoke of a debt that generations owed to one another, a debt that would take the form of a contract or a legal form of the twofold debt to society expressed in a commitment toward our fellow men and our descendants. The concept of solidarity laid the philosophical foundations of social law and legitimized the first compulsory social insurance schemes of the twentieth century and it has been reinterpreted by the notion of sustainable development.

The emergence of social economy

From the second half of the nineteenth century onwards to the twentieth century, a different set of organizations knows as social economy (nonprofit organizations, cooperatives, mutuals) were given a legal framework, in counterpart compartmentalization and forms of economic integration contributed to the multiplication and fragmentation of subdivisions among the different components of this social economy loosing gradually the search for unity of the pioneering associationism.

The identity of the social economy organizations was consequently affected by the differences in the paths taken by the various components, differences that were accentuated by the strong synergy between State and market during the post war expansion period. But since the onset of the subsequent period of transformation, several factors have served to redefine the socio-political and economic dimensions of the civil society initiatives.

The emergence of public space and civil society

First of all, the shift in forms of commitment in the public sphere must be considered. On the one hand, general-interest activism associated with a concept for social change, involving long-term action and strong delegations of authority within federative structures, lost steam, as illustrated by the weakening of trade unions and ideological affiliations. On the other hand, the crisis in voluntarism evident in some of the most institutionalized associations was paralleled by short-term, concrete commitments by associations focusing on providing quick solutions to specific problems. The question raised here is concerning the interrelation between voluntary work and political participation. After the increasing professionalization of social services, from the 1960s onwards, people began to question a perspective, which suggested to equate the citizen to a consumer or a taxpayer. Groups started to take action outside the traditional social movements, combining co-operation, mutual aid and protest. The civil society’s role from this point of view is not just the delivery of services and jobs; it encompasses the search for forms of involvement other than occupational or political participation, and it is related to the issue of social cohesion and active society.

Moreover, the productive structure of economics is going through profound changes. Two major categories with contrasting orientations can be distinguished. Standardizable industries and services covering logistical services (large-scale distribution, etc.) and administrative services (banks, insurance companies, etc.), which moved toward mass-production activities. Dealing primarily with material goods, technical systems and the processing of coded information, these services were changed by new information technologies. Thus their development has been similar to that of industrial activities, which have been characterized by two trends: their job creation capacity is less than it was during period of prosperity from 1945 to 1975, and there is a demand for workers with higher qualifications. On the other hand, relational services, as pointed out by W.J. Baumol ( 1987), give service relationships a pivotal role because the activity is based on direct interaction between supplier and customer. The available figures show that these services are at the center of job creation. Overall, in the member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), trade, services to business, the hotel-restaurant industry, personal and domestic services, education, health care, social action and public administration account for most jobs and their share is steadily increasing. Some subsets such as education, health care and social action, social and personal community services and domestic services show a significant increase in employment, supported by strong sociodemographic trends (Borzaga, 1998).

The emergence of solidarity economy

In this context, innovative ideas were developed in civil society networks, for the most part taking the form of associations and co-operatives. They adjusted to the changes in public action in different ways in accordance, depending on the welfare state system in their particular country. Setting aside national differences, two decisive factors relating to the new forms of co-operatives and associations have to highlighted.

The civil society experiments have created original ways of fostering the trust required for certain activities to succeed. Building trust often depends on the commitment of the stakeholders (Ben Ner & Van Hoomissen, 1991), a commitment facilitated by structures that limit the opportunities for increasing personal wealth. Within this “multi-stakeholder” dynamic (Borzaga & Mittone, 1997; Pestoff, 1997), mutual trust is built through the development of reciprocity-based spheres of activity in which strategic, instrumental and utilitarian factors are secondary and where there is room for collective reflection. These spheres can be described as “micro-public spaces” (Laville, 2007) which means, that issues are submitted to a debate with a view to defining the common good for users and professionals. Mutual trust is reinforced by establishing a frame of reference in the sense used by E. Goffman, expressed, for example, in a charter. Of course, any form of service delivery can be defined as a form of co-production since consumer participation is required. But the experience of social co-operatives in Italy, of child-care co-operatives in Sweden, of community-care associations in the United Kingdom, and of “proximity services” (Laville & Nyssens, 2000) go far beyond co-production. What is taking shape here, is a joint development of supply and demand for services for the purpose not only of soliciting individual users as consumers within a private functional framework but also of integrating them as citizens in the political arena and as community and family members in an informal environment (Evers, 1997: 55). The basis for such new forms of institutionalizing services have been kinds of open spaces reserved for experimentation and discussion, formed with no interest in getting a return on investment or imposing administrative regulations, and in some cases built in reaction against such barriers.

The services were developed on the basis of the experiences of users and professionals and by their joint uptaking of an issue that had not been resolved by the private or public sector. This joint development does not mean that different stakeholders are equally involved. Sometimes professionals, critical of their traditional methods will dominate; but it may also be individuals who, for personal reasons, are familiar with the issues or potential uses of the service; in other cases it may administrators, seeking to bring about change in their institutions may take the leading role. Thus there is no equal representation of the various players in the service; instead, a mixed, pluralistic model involving a variety of stakeholders (professionals, volunteers, users, institutions, etc.) has taken shape. By establishing an intermediary third sphere, this pluralistic model, in varying combinations, makes it possible to counteract “informational uncertainty” – something which goes beyond the well known topic of “informational asymmetry” as it is used in the economic debates on markets and services. We can speak of informational uncertainty when both users and providers are unable to conceptualize the exact features of the service to be adopted before they meet. In such “relational services,” which involve close contact with the users, there is not simply informational asymmetry but a lack of definition of tasks and concepts, something, that is even more disturbing to the stakeholders.

The emergence of these civil society innovations based on reciprocity and multistakeholders has been recognized in different national laws about social and solidarity cooperatives, social enterprises, community interest companies. But if they sick to avoid a paternalistic behavior from the State, their collective aspects call for public support at a time when governments funding have been weakened by drastic reductions in the resources available from the Welfare State. So, solidarity economy which is a new theoretical approach of solidarity and public action, is in the meantime confronted with empirical obstacles" (Extract from "Solidarity Economy International encyclopedia of civil society", Jean-Louis Laville, UNTFSSE, 2022</ref>.

In the 1960s and the following decades, the solidarity economy reappropriated these demands for the democratisation of the economy and of the vivre ensemble in the face of the neo-liberal wave, the rise in unemployment and the desertification of territories. Citizen initiatives for personal services (early childhood, the elderly, the unemployed), initially isolated, will regroup and link up with researchers. Based on hybrid resources (market and non-market), bringing together very different actors: employees, volunteers, users, producers, elected officials, etc., it will express political demands for social transformation, establishing social, ecological and social justice goals for its economic activities, while basing itself on the egalitarian status of the social economy, the close link between production and reproduction of the feminist economy or the notion of the Commons.

This French approach to another model of development was then linked at the end of the 1990s with similar experiences in the rest of the world, for example, at the first meeting of Globalisation of Solidarity in Lima in 1997 and with the birth of RIPESS Intercontinental. Or the World Social Forums and the Brazilian experience [2].


  1. Livre L'Economie Solidaire en Mouvement, Editions Eres, janvier 2023, Josettes Combes, Brunos Lasnier, Jean-Louis Laville
  2. ibid