Book Review (Amin 2010)

The Social Economy: International perspectives on Economic Solidarity

The Social Economy: International perspectives on Economic Solidarity

Ash Amin (Editor)

Zed Books
£75 hbk (1848132816), £19.99 pbk (1848132824)

Reviewed by Doug Lionais, Cape Breton University (20 July 2010)

The social economy continues to attract attention as an alternative approach to organizing socio-economic life. There have been a number of books released over the past few years exploring this sector from various geographies and perspectives (McMurtry 2009, Quarter 2009, Lionais 2010). In this latest addition to the field, Amin brings together an international group of leaders to share their diverse and unique approaches to the social economy. The book provides a good cross section of cases. Most chapters are clearly written and would be approachable for students at all levels. The book will also be useful for policy makers as it provides a good glimpse at various policy frameworks and contexts.

In his introductory chapter, Amin sets out three main aims of the book, which also serve as the three main sections: 1) to position the social economy in relation to states and markets; 2) to understand the social economy as an outcome of local circumstances and context; and 3) to identify general policy prescriptions and differentiate them from policy that must remain locally specific. Amin (and Pearce in chapter 2) defines the social economy as a sphere of economic activity distinct from markets and states. He goes on to argue, however, that it is not entirely separate as it often engages with both markets and states but does so for its own social purposes. As such, the social economy is conceived here as a diverse set of practices that are the outcomes of the tension between market demands and financial sustainability and the desire for social concerns and environmental sustainability. The social economy thus forms part of a heterodox or diverse set of economic practices that often overlap, engage with and respond to other forms of economy.

A key theme of the book that is stressed by Amin is the importance of context in the success of social economy practice. The national and regional social and institutional support for the social economy have important limitations on what is possible and how the social economy can be seen in different contexts. The examples in the text demonstrate the fragility of the social economy in some contexts, its vibrancy in others, and how it is perceived in relation to, and by, the market and state has an impact on its success.

In terms of policy, Amin argues that expectations vary considerably. These expectations are both shaped by, and help shape the quality of the local social economy. The text promotes a policy perspective that sees the social economy as neither a replacement for the welfare state, nor as a way to marketize social need. Rather it promotes the social economy as a unique sphere of activity requiring unique policy supports. The support required would recognize the balancing of social and financial/market goals. Thus there is a need to avoid creating dependency while at the same time acknowledging the (sometimes) unique problems of social economy start-ups. Specific policy recommendations call for financing support, support from local institutions such as universities and a wider network of social economy organizations that create a ‘movement’. In the end, Amin argues that the social economy cannot rely on public policy alone. Rather it needs a mixture of private, NGO and government support. Fundamentally it involves thinking in different and alternative ways – away from hierarchy towards hetarchy (multiple and relational governance structures). Investments in the social economy as a unique sector of its own, in such a fashion, could alter and (potentially) transcend capitalism. As such the text invites greater discussion about the possibilities of the social economy as a potential direction for social change – one which can draw on a number of already existing international experiences.

In the second chapter, John Pearce distinguishes the social economy as a separate but overlapping sector of economic activity. Pearce argues that the social economy is based on fundamental principles such as working for the common good, priority of human resources, good governance and social ownership and use of assets and profits. Pearce also argues that two other principles, though not currently widely adopted, should be recognized as part of the social economy: cooperation among social economy organizations, and subsidiarity of decision making. The author then argues for a tilted playing field where favourable policies are developed to assist social enterprises to compete. In exchange for such public support Pearce calls for a required social accounting of social enterprise.

The remainder of the text has two parts. First, it reviews the situated practices and experiences of the social economy in a number of different contexts. Second, it explores different policy contexts and challenges in different geographies.

The second part of the book is dominated (three of five chapters) by stories connected to Gibson-Graham’s community economies project. In their chapter, Graham and Cornwell present the cases of Nuestras Raices and the Alliance to Develop Power (ADP), two community economic organizations based in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. The two examples are used to demonstrate how economic development can be construed in non-traditional ways, such as using non-traditional (non-capitalocentric) approaches as gift giving, volunteer labour, self-provisioning and local non-basic service delivery. They shift the dialogue of economic development from capitalist growth to community well being. Their argument is based on the premises that all economic activity involves ethical decision making which must balance four coordinates of decision making (necessity, surplus, consumption and commons) rather than focusing solely on economic profit. As such, the examples used demonstrate different ways of practicing the economy, though ones that are not necessarily responses to or that are reactionary to capitalistic approaches. Rather they are co-existing approaches; rendering neither as residual or marginal practices.

Jenny Cameron uses this focus on ethical decision making to present a vision of the social economy as one that is primarily concerned with economic equity, social justice and environmental concerns. To illustrate her point she presents the stories of two Australian examples of community economic practice: Sustainable Gardening Services and Flying Eagle Facilitators. The positive and creative aspects of these examples are contrasted with a conception of the social economy as purely a reaction against the negative impacts of capitalism and economic change.

Katherine Gibson makes a contribution as second author to the ‘community economies collective’; demonstrating in their writing their approach to collective construction of knowledge and action within community economies. Their chapter focuses on four social enterprises in the Philippines. The four cases highlight the importance of local context for the development of social economy initiatives. Each of the cases started from different historical precedents, with different sets of resources (both human and physical), and had different levels of interaction with outside groups such as NGOs and academic action-researchers. Each example illustrates the experience of a community making ethical economic choices in different sets of circumstances. The social enterprises here represent spaces for social transformation. Of most importance are the attitudes of local people who come to see themselves as leaders and entrepreneurs as they shift local visions from dependency to self-sufficiency. Thus, a key outcome is the process of who are making the decisions, as well the decision itself.

The importance of social transformation for the individuals involved comes through in Borzaga and Depedri’s chapter. Borzaga and Depedri report the results from a survey on employee motivations in Italian social cooperatives. They find that workers in social cooperatives are intrinsically motivated and generally have high work satisfaction. The authors suggest this is so because social cooperatives are able to offer a plurality of incentives – both intrinsic and extrinsic – and are able to align the incentive mix with the motivations of employees. Social enterprises are thus seen as organizations where tensions between capital and labour are reduced or harmonized through their structure. This leads to an understanding of social enterprise where managing human resources, rather than concerns of efficiency, may be seen as a central explanation for their existence and as a key component of their management and requirement of support through government policy.

Reporting on Argentina, Coraggio and Arroyo describe the emergence of cooperatively managed ‘recovered’ companies. The emergence of the social economy in Argentina is more of a reaction to severe economic crisis as compared to the examples from the community economies collective. They record the process of workers uncovering their own model of social enterprises as they, at times hesitantly, take over their workplaces. The Argentinian experience offers a more radicalized and reactive vision of the social economy; one that emerges out of crisis where the participants are motivated, at least initially, more out of necessity rather than an ideological connection to social transformation.

The final section of the book focuses on interaction between policy and regional articulations of the social economy. In Lechat’s chapter on Brazil, he describes (what is locally called) the solidarity economy, as one that is more alternative and oppositional than the social economy in other places. However, he notes that Brazilian social enterprises have emerged with the help of strong support mechanisms, particularly an incubation service funded by the government and run through universities that assist new start-ups. While helping with the practical problems of solidarity enterprises, Lechat argues that one of the largest benefits of the system is that it connects the social enterprise within a national network that brings greater meaning and a sense of cohesion to the movement. The institutional support has been instrumental in underpinning the solidarity economy as a system.

Mendell shares the experience of the successful social economy in Quebec. She suggests that the success in Quebec is built upon three pillars of development: social enterprise, an enabling policy environment, and leadership. The strength of each of these pillars has been co-supported and developed over the past three decades. It began with the provincial government reaching out to the civil sector to mutually develop social and economic goals for the province. Perhaps more than anywhere else, certainly more than the cases presented in this book, Quebec has been able to develop a full spectrum of institutions and infrastructure that is supportive of a vibrant social economy. Further, it has achieved an institutional stability that is resilient enough to fend off attempts to dismantle some of the provincial supports, and to become a leading figure in forming and informing policy and government action.

On the other extreme, Hausner’s chapter highlights the experience of Poland where there is a weak social economy and little hope seen for its growth. Hausner’s prescriptions for developing an authentic social economy echo the experience of Quebec in terms of developing a broad spectrum supportive institutional structure, supporting social change and local engagement.. The Polish case also requires more basic development in creating the required trust and social capital that enabled the Quebec experience to manifest.

In the final chapter, Laville’s policy prescription largely echoes Mendell’s though focus more on developing the human resource capacity of actors in social and solidarity enterprise, as well as developing a supportive environment. Laville argues that the founding of social enterprise often stems from the identification and response to a perceived problem whether that comes from a defined group of citizens uniting to solve their problem collectively, professionals assisting in the organization, or a problem of immediate urgency requiring broad collective engagement.

Overall the book achieves its aims. It sets the social economy as an important field of alternative economic practice. Particularly within the context of the current economic crisis, whether we are on the road to recovery or pausing prior to a ‘double dip’, the text places the social economy as a possible alternative approach to the current economic system . The social economy is a way to combat, redress or simply find new ways of dealing with the inequalities and unevenness of capitalistic growth. As such, the exploration of social economies presented in this text represents the potential for (and challenges to) creating new economic geographies that improve the lives of people in their places.

The text is a welcome, critical addition to the growing literature on social economies. In the context of the (ongoing) global financial crisis, this book provides an important addition to the dialogue for those searching for an alternative and sustainable future economy.

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Lionais, D. (2010) “Social enterprise and socio-legal structure: constructing alternative institutional spaces for economic development” in Fuller, D, A. Jonas, and R. Lee (Eds) Alternative spaces of economy, society and politics: Interrogating alterity. London: Ashgate.

McMurtry, J.J. (Ed.) (2009) Living Economics: Canadian Perspectives on the Social Economy, Co-operatives, and Community Economic Development. Toronto: Emond Montgomery. Quarter, J., L. Mook and A. Armstrong (2009) Understanding the Social Economy: A Canadian Perspective. Toronto: University of Toronto.