The Social Economy. Ash Amin, ed: Zed Books £19.99.
The concept of social economy is a rather vague one, and is not helped by the use of other terminology (such as ‘solidarity economy’ or ‘third sector’) to refer to the same or similar notions. Broadly, though, it describes the provision of goods and services by organisations which are neither profit-making and privately-owned nor run by the state, whether national governments or local authorities. It covers, then, at least workers’ co-operatives and various voluntary groups.
Amin argues that the present recession is an opportune time to consider alternatives to the profit system. With case studies from Italy, Poland, the Philippines, the US, Canada, Argentina and Brazil, this volume presents a spectrum of different examples, from workers taking over bankrupt companies to housing co-ops and small farmers getting together to market their own produce. The question which arises, though, is the extent to which what is described here really does constitute a ‘third way’.
It is a widespread finding that wages are lower in social enterprises than in others. A survey from Italy, however, suggests that employees in the social economy are on the whole more satisfied with their work than other workers, largely because of the importance they assign to social usefulness and helping disadvantaged people. On the other hand, social enterprises have to behave like ordinary capitalist concerns in many ways: there is still wage labour, those who arrive late for work can have their pay deducted, and enterprises may close if trading conditions are not favourable.
But many social enterprises do show that workers can organise themselves and run production without bosses and employers telling them what to do and ordering them around. It must be acknowledged, though, that this does not mean leaving capitalism behind, since they function within the capitalist economy and indeed are often supported by governments. The editor writes of ‘making money, markets and the productive system work for human development, ecological preservation, spatial equality and collective fellowship’. Noble goals, but only achievable without money and markets.