Article from Reporterre, by Catherine Marin, May 20, 2023
Occupations of zone at risk, Zapatistas, CSA, collective gardens… The “ alternatives are not mere safeguards against the violence of capital but invent more ethical economic models ” says Jean-Louis Laville in this interview.
Jean-Louis Laville is a sociologist, economist and professor at the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, in Paris, where he holds the solidarity economy chair. This specialist in associationism and economic alternatives to capitalism published, with Bruno Frère, La Fabrique de l’émancipation. Repenser la critique du capitalisme à partir des expériences démocratiques, écologiques et solidaires (The Emancipation Factory. Rethinking the critique of capitalism from democratic, ecological and solidarity experiences) (Seuil, 2022).
Reporterre — Why this title: The Factory of Emancipation? Emancipation, can it be manufactured?
Jean-Louis Laville — Yes, as long as we return to the deep meaning of the word. During the XXe century, capitalism has reduced it to a kind of praise of meritocracy in a completely individualistic vision: in the end would be emancipated the one who has a Rolex… However, in the XIXe century, this term was mobilized to assert a demand for freedom outside the field of capitalist exploitation (from Latin emanciparous, freeing a slave from the right to sell). To bring about this freedom, Karl Marx proposed to link action and critical theory – by the latter he meant the analysis of aspirations and struggles throughout the world. It is this alliance that needs to be rediscovered to overcome the current crisis, both social and ecological.
How to find this emancipatory movement?
It is less a question of finding it than of recognizing that it is already there, through a multitude of civic initiatives (associations, collectives, social and solidarity economy enterprises), which have been increasing in recent years.
Alongside self-organizations that have become referential such as Zapatismo, in Chiapas, or the zad (occupation of zones at risk), there is a whole set of more discreet experiences: Régies de quartier et de territoire, fair production and fair trade, Communtity Supported Agriculture (CSA) ; Structures for self-repair ; Solidarity finance ; citizen structures for energy management, enerygy production and distribution such as Enercoop ; soft mobility ; Participatory housing ; collective gardens, etc.
As we show with many actors and researchers in the book L’Économie solidaire en mouvement, those “Alternatives“ well known to readers of Reporterre are not mere safeguards against the violence of capital, they Invent most often more ethical economic models, of ecological and social scope.But they are generally invisible. In the collective mind, these initiatives are either enclaves of philanthropy or oppositions, while they participate in the very dynamics of democracy. However, without their mobilization against “big useless projects“ (Grands Projets Inutiles, in French) (highways, airports…), would the link between capitalist infrastructure and pollution have a chance to impose itself in the public debate? ? There is every reason to fear that green growth would impose its short-term logic.
In the end, these initiatives may be more and more present, but they remain depreciated. This paradox is inherited from the political framework defined by scientific Marxism.
What do you mean by the “political framework of scientific Marxism” ?
As much as we can be part of Marx’s legacy, we can only distance ourselves from what Marxism became from the Second International (1889), when it began to call itself “scientific”“. He then claimed a monopoly on the truth, favoured a military organization, directed towards the seizure of state power by the Party. And it engendered a vision that postponed emancipation to the aftermath: the post-Revolution, the post-Grand Soir…
The Marxist revolutionary schema has cast in the shadows the experiences of before 1848, which were part of associationism, a current of thought and action that considered associations to be the ferment of social revolution – it was thought then., without democratization of the economy, no real revolution -. This Marxist schema is today totally inadequate for the ecological and social transition. Because implementing it requires a lot of experimentation in all areas to relocate, clean up, restore ethics in economic activity. And therefore a partnership between public authorities and citizens’ initiatives.
Why is this issue so little debated?
We let state logic steal this story from us. To think that everything goes through the State is to forget that before the creation of Social Security, in 1945, there were in the nineteenth century mutual aid societies, ancestors of mutuals. But we would indeed have every interest in giving it a place in our collective memory, to recognize the power of associations, economic and political.
Brazilian landless people, Argentine piqueteros, Mexican Zapatistas or European peasant trade unionists who identify with the Via Campesina organization are the creators of short food supply chains and agro-ecological practices that embody a more ecological agricultural model, but also more democratic. Economics and politics are linked.
It is to rethink these links that you call critical theory – that is to say, sociological-philosophical reflection on the evils of capitalism (from the Frankfurt School to Pierre Bourdieu, Luc Boltanski…) – to be “constructive“ ?
Our position is not to condemn critical theory. With Bruno Frère, we recognize more than ever its necessity in a capitalist system that is increasingly destructive, for individuals and nature, and all the more dangerous because it gives the feeling of wanting to reform itself – yet, just look at what TotalEnergies does in Africa only to see that this is not the case.
What we regret is that critical theory has focused on the analysis of capitalist domination and alienation, at the expense of attention to the dynamics of emancipation at work, always considered insufficient to overthrow capitalism. If they described and analyzed the experiences of associative actors, researchers could produce with them a new vision of reality and possible struggles – and this is how they would find Marx’s legacy. This would encourage actors to constantly learn from each other, including through international circulations…
To better deny the neoliberal “no alternative “?
Yes, it is important today that struggles can irrigate each other to strengthen each other.
It is also essential to show that there are already other economies under construction than capitalism: more and more people live well thanks to the social and solidarity economy. There is an urgent need to put an end to the idea that capitalism is the only economy that has proven its effectiveness. ! It is a mythology that we have been made to swallow. Capitalism is an economy devoted to the return on capital and, for this reason, often predatory. We can organize ourselves differently.
Despite all the current reasons for concern, there are reasons for hope as soon as we discover the effervescence of reflections  and civic initiatives on all continents. I will soon go to the XXVth anniversary party of the Conjunto Palmeiras neighborhood, in Fortaleza, in the Brazilian Northeast. This former favela found a way to get back on its feet by launching an analysis to find out where the neighborhood’s money was going – mainly in hypermarkets, outside the community. A local currency was then set up to repatriate these expenses, and ultimately made it possible to create a significant number of jobs on the spot…
Faced with a state allied with capitalist forces, which disregards citizen debate (as was the case with the Citizens’ Convention for the Climate) or resorts to gun violence (as in Sainte-Soline), what recourse can we really find in a more critical theory? Constructive » ?
The authoritarian temptation of States, which results in criminalizing a certain number of citizen movements or calling into question associative freedoms, is very worrying for the future. But, precisely, the more these movements are subjected to hostile contingencies, the more important it is to explain their point of view and to publicize them. This makes it possible to respond to repression and intimidation with large-scale support movements, such as the one brought to the Soulèvements de la Terre (Note of June 2023 (3)).
Today’s national-state framework will not allow it to evolve towards an anti-capitalist transition: it is sitting on a sedimentation of rules that are at the service of contemporary capitalism. We need the civic movements emerging in the territories to get out of the extractivist and growth reasoning that still permeates our ways of thinking. Because they are the ones who raise the problems, and allow the debate – see all these collectives who denounce, some a tourism destructive of biodiversity, some the continuous artificialization of the land …
They are also the ones who often find the best solutions to solve a problem, as Elinor Ostrom remarked about the commons. The time is no longer to apply the same solutions everywhere, but to design changes according to territories, their geography, their climate, their culture… This is why the public authorities must establish new links with the plurality of associations, to set up a co-management of the territory .
Doesn’t this imply a new political framework?
Indeed, to find a realistic path of collective emancipation, through an unprecedented articulation between actions on the ground, deliberative processes and representative democracy. Faced with the dangers of authoritarianism, democracy needs to be deepened… Of course, this implies a state at the service of the common good, and not neoliberalism, as we know today.
But this alliance between public authorities and civil society also represents a challenge for the left, if it does not want to produce a new disappointment once in power – agreements between parties, which are therefore fragile, are not enough. If the state made greater use of taxpayers’ taxes to support promising initiatives in the territories, wouldn’t we regain confidence in the power of collective action? ?