Building the human economy

By | March 1, 2010

The Human Economy: A Citizen’s Guide (Keith Hart, Jean-Louis Laville and Antonio David Cattani Editors, to be published soon by Polity, Cambridge) is the first expression in English of a project that began a decade ago at the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. Much of this theoretical and practical work is unknown in the English-speaking world. There has been a series of publications: Brazil, Argentina, France (with support from Belgium and Quebec), Italy, Portugal and now Britain, with a mix of academic researchers, political activists and social networks (both national and international). Our authors are drawn from Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Peru, South Africa, Switzerland and the United States. Maybe Asia next?

The human economy is not a dream. It exists theoretically and practically, but it has been obscured by the economic models and approaches that dominate the media and universities. There are five sections: ‘World society’, ‘Economics with a human face’, ‘Moral politics’, ‘Beyond market and state’ (social economy), ‘New directions’. The movement is from our common predicament in today’s world, through the human economy as a moral and political project, to attempts to build a new institutional synthesis in practice, while always being open to imagining a better world in future.

Neoliberalism has been wounded, but is not yet defeated. One victim so far has been democracy. This book is about plural approaches to rebuilding economic democracy. Neoliberalism is at its core an Anglophone phenomenon. The US and Britain gained most from the credit boom and lost most when it went bust. The “French social model” looks better now. But I don’t just want to celebrate another swing of the pendulum from state to market and back again. It is time for the people to have their say.

The central concept is “the human economy”: an emphasis on what people do for themselves and on the need to find ways forward that must involve all humanity somehow. For in the second half of the twentieth century, we formed a world society – a single interactive social network – for the first time. Ideas alone are insufficient. Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, but the fact of our shared occupation of the planet crying out for new principles of association.

The economy, which had been represented as an eternally benevolent machine for growth, was suddenly pitch-forked by the financial crisis into the turmoil of history. One result is probably an acceleration of the global shift of economic power from the West to Asia. One certain victim is free market economics which has been holed below the water. The project of economics needs to be rescued from the economists.

Why a human economy?
Humanity is a collective noun; it is a quality of kindness, of treating all people as if they were like ourselves; and it is a historical project for our species to assume stewardship of this planet. There are two prerequisites for being human: we must each learn to be self-reliant to a high degree and to belong to others, merging our identities in a bewildering variety of social relations. One goal of the new human universal will thus be the unity of self and society.

In order to be human, the economy must be at least four things:

1. It is made and remade by people; economics should be of practical daily use to us all.
2. It should address a variety of particular situations in all their institutional complexity.
3. It must be based on a more holistic conception of everyone’s needs and interests.
4. It has to address humanity as a whole and the world society we are making.

The human economy is already everywhere. People always insert themselves practically into economic life on their own account. What they do there is often obscured, marginalized or repressed by dominant economic institutions and ideologies. Whenever we speak of “capitalism” or “socialism”, we are referring to just part of what goes on in an economy. But there is a lot more going on and economies are a lot more like each other in practice than polarised ideal types might suggest. Any program to make an economy more human is not in itself revolutionary. It builds on what is there already and seeks to gain recognition and legitimacy for what people do for themselves. The economy could take on a new direction and emphasis through many initiatives that are already established, but could do with more room to grow. But the potential of what we propose, when taken together, is a revolution.

The object of an economy was always the reproduction of human life and beyond that the preservation of everything that sustains life. It has become to make money through producing and selling things, with human life secondary, a means to that end. Traditional African societies supported economies whose object was the production of life embodied in human beings. The fastest-growing sector of world trade today is in cultural services such as entertainment, education, media, software and information. The predominant focus of the world economy may be reverting to the production of human beings.

We must rely on practical experience for information and analysis. Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi showed us a concrete road to “other economies” based on the field of possibilities already open to us. The human economy is a vision more than a social recipe, or many social recipes articulated by a unifying vision. It embraces at once what each of us does in daily life and what all of us might become as a species. Economy ought to be capable of spanning these poles in a fluid way.

Some political principles
First, market society sustained by a concern for individual freedom generated huge inequality; then submission of the economy to political will on the pretext of equality led to the suppression of freedom. Each of these Cold War protagonists called democracy itself into question. We must seek out new institutional forms anchored in social practice with a view to reinserting democratic norms into economic life. The goal of democracy in a complex society remains to reconcile freedom and equality. The market economy is legitimate, but a market that knows no limits poses a threat to democracy. We reject an over-determined view of our societies as being merely “capitalist”.

We identify three principles:

1. The economists’ view of human beings as calculating machines over-estimates the market’s ability to allocate resources, with devastating social and ecological consequences.

2. There is a need for solidarity within and between generations: horizontal and vertical. We have to tackle inequality now and care for the future.

3. Practical and theoretical work must be closely articulated. Democracy and science are the twin pillars of modern civilization.

Neoliberalism is reductive: the market was withdrawn from the domain of political action (even as it invaded public life); and the modern economy came to be confused with capitalism. Contemporary politics also sustains economic inventiveness based on a premise of democratic solidarity. This book is an exploration of that premise.

We should avoid the two pitfalls of progressive politics. The centre-left has adopted neoliberal economic policies, moderated only by less restrictive social policies. The far left wants to break with capitalism, but has no definite programme for the transition. The social rights of citizens guaranteed by the state must be consistent with encouraging forms of self-organization where solidarity has a greater role. Market contracts are not the only way of delivering equality and freedom. These also come from people living together, from the mutuality and egalitarianism of everyday life. We also need to curb the power of the capitalist corporations. This requires a new alliance of public policy aimed at regulating capitalism and coordinating redistributive institutions with grassroots movements, harnessing the voluntary reciprocity of self-organized groups.

You may doubt what difference these instances of “the human economy” might make to the world. The last section of the book considers new approaches to money, digital democracy, mobility after cheap oil, renewable energy and the struggle for emancipation from inequality. The Human Economy has come out of a dialogue between successful social experiments in many parts of the world and theoretical reflection on them. We invite you to advance knowledge along the lines we have begun and to dare to build a better world.

Table of Contents

Building the human economy together Keith Hart, Jean-Louis Laville & Antonio David Cattani

Part One: World society

Globalization Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Global public goods Philip Golub & Jean-Paul Maréchal
International organizations François-Xavier Merrien & Angèle Flora Mendy
Development Keith Hart & Vishnu Padayachee
Alter-globalization Geoffrey Pleyers

Part Two: Economics with a human face

Plural economy Jean-Louis Laville
Ecological economics Sabine U O’Hara
Feminist economics Julie A Nelson
Fair trade Alfonso Cotera Fretel & Humberto Ortiz Roca
Labour economy José Luis Coraggio
Microcredit Jean-Michel Servet
Informal economy Keith Hart

Part Three: Moral politics

Citizenship Paulo Henrique Martins
Corporate social responsibility Anne Salmon
Welfare Adalbert Evers
Gift Alain Caillé
Moral economy Chris Hann
Communism David Graeber

Part Four: Beyond market and state

Third sector Catherine Alexander
Solidarity economy Jean-Louis Laville
Community participation Marilyn Taylor
Local development John M Bryden
NGOs David Lewis
Social capital Desmond McNeill
Social enterprise Jacques Defourny & Marthe Nyssens
Social entrepreneurship Lars Hulgård

Part Five: New Directions

Community & complementary currencies Jérôme Blanc
Digital commons Felix Stalder
Mobility John Urry
Alternative energy Arnaud Sales and Leandro Raizer
Worlds of emancipation Antonio David Cattani

4 thoughts on “Building the human economy

  1. David Picard

    Hi Keith, congratulations for this project, its ambition and potential to rethink what it means to be human and to participate in humanity; one thing I noticed is the absence of tourism as – in terms of cash flows – the most important global phenomenon of economic exchange; reshaping what it means to be human at various scales and in various contexts, giving body to dreams and desires through well ‘human economies’ or rather specific economies of the human as a sign made visible for, and consumed by tourists; also giving body to the global asymmetries and forces that are formative for the roles attributed within the global tourism play. Good day, David

  2. keith Post author

    Thanks, David. I am sure you are right that tourism is a major feature of the social forces reshaping humanity. This is probably my problem and I would be glad to be told better, but I was not aware that tourism was actively linked to political projects for social development. In choosing topics, the editors were concerned to address activities that readers might want to join if they were interested in reform, improvement or whatever. I wonder if what you describe above is mainly a question of gaining a better understanding of the world through studying the phenomenon of tourism or might be linked somehow to the preoccupations of the book, theory and action etc.

  3. Michael Benton

    Keith thank you for this project/book. I just assigned it for my Peace & Conflict Studies course in the Spring. It is rare to come across a book with a global range of perspectives, critical complexity, historical depth, current relevance and very accessible for students.

    I look forward to teaching this book and learning from it.

    Thank you,


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