Whither the Social Economy? The View from Mont Blanc

While it may be tempting to divide the world into two separate camps, market and commons, some of the most interesting territory lies in the spaces in between – namely, in the non-capitalist, commons-based marketplace.  In France, they call it the “social economy” – the segment of commerce serviced by cooperatives and mutual enterprises.  Such companies meet their members’ commercial needs while also trying to address broader social, ecological and democratic concerns.

I spent the past three days at a gathering, the Mont Blanc Meetings (Les Rencontres du Mont-Blanc) dedicated to exploring how economic efficiency and social equity can be balanced through coops, and how the social economy can be a political force for a new vision of society.  The Mont Blanc Meetings have been held every two years since 2005 as a kind of alternative to both Davos (World Economic Forum) and Porto Allegre (World Social Forum).  The Mont Blanc Meetings are the social economy’s attempt to build an international identity, collaborate on practical projects and promote a new political vision. 

I must say, the organizers certainly chose a lovely place to meet – Chamonix, France, a small resort village nestled in the shadow of two majestic mountain ranges that tower more than two miles above the 3,000-foot valley floor.  What a combination:  European charm, good food, scenic beauty and bracing political discussion.

It was refreshing for me to discover a robust business sector that self-consciously and sincerely strives for “a fairer, more democratic, more ecological society with more solidarity.”  There are analogues in the US and elsewhere, of course, but none seem to have the scale or ambition of the Mont Blanc conference.

Yet despite its ambitions, the companies that belong to the social economy seem to be artifacts of an earlier era and European culture.  Today, lots of large, conventional companies take socially mindful business initiatives (e.g., Walmart and organic food, Google and employee well-being), blurring the line between coops and some multinationals.     

It’s an open question how internationalist the social economy might become in the future.  At this fifth convening, the Mont Blanc Meetings were dominated by enterprises from France and Francophone (African) countries.  Few seem to have close ties with the more innovative sectors of social activism today, such as Internet entrepreneurs/activists, commoners and young people. 

Therein lies a worthy challenge – for both the Mont Blanc Meetings and social activists.  Wouldn’t it be great if the business expertise, social commitment and revenues from the social economy could converge with the younger, born-digital generation that has embarked on its own journey to domesticate market capitalism?  I wonder if the cultural and generational barriers can be bridged. 

One of the best speeches at the conference came from Michel Rocard, a former Prime Minister of France, who noted that the crisis of capitalism around the world has not only not harmed the social economy, it has strengthened it by showing how durable and resilient it is. 

Rocard pointed out that the share of GDP that goes to employees has declined from 67% to 57% in France over the past twenty years, resulting in worsening inequality.  The key to solving the current economic crisis lies in addressing this problem, he said, quickly adding that unions and governments cannot fix this problem by themselves.  He sees the social economy playing a significant role because it is more directly involved in making the economy by serving its members, not profit-maximizing investors. 

Growing the social economy – and displacing old-style predatory capitalist business models – could do a world of good for social justice and wealth inequality.   But for me, the real question is whether old-style cooperatives and mutual can actually adapt to the new networked economy and culture.  The principles of mutualism are as relevant as ever, but the realities of today’s Internet-based economy and culture requires some very different business, organizational, marketing and social strategies.  Political and social action have also moved on, not necessarily focusing on the state and public policy, but rather on building one's own infrastructure and tools, often outside of the marketplace.  (Think Creative Commons licenses and viral networking.)

Is the social economy capable of making this transition?  Can it come to embrace and flourish the worldview of digital culture?

To their credit, the Mont Blanc Meetings aim to try.  They want to host future forums on other continents, diversify their international outreach, and change their internal governance.  The conference plans to participate in the Rio+20 environmental conference next May.  It wants to reach out to young people to underscore the linkages between entrepreneurship and citizenship.  

So we may soon see whether the MBM message from another historical era can resonate with the digital generation, which has its own ideas when it comes to citizenship and entrepreneurship (e.g., Kickstarter, free software, wikis, open-access publishing, social networking, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement). 

Naturally, this is where I immodestly think the commons discourse could help.  The commons offers a broad, ecumenical framework for bringing together a disparate array of cooperative projects.  It is a meta-language that avoids the whiff of proprietary control -- and yet it invites the expression of distinct identities (such as “social economy”) while encouraging collaboration with others.  Every tribe has a role to play, each has something special to contribute, and no one enjoys a privileged perch.  I will be curious to see how the social economy will evolve in the coming months and years.