The Political Theory Project hosted a Janus Forum called “Urban Policy in the 21st Century” Oct. 25 to discuss the future of economic policy in the United States. The two lecturers, representing a conservative and a liberal perspective on economic policy, discussed the practicality of specific economic measures — such as user-fee systems and investment in education — that might function within the hyper-capitalist framework of the United States and address as-yet unmet social needs.
As I left the Forum, I was not so much concerned with the specifics of the policies discussed as I was disappointed in the unquestioning acceptance of the underlying capitalist framework of our economic system. Perhaps this was simply not the scope of the Forum, but nevertheless I was prompted to think back to my experience in economics and political science courses and was faced with a similar absence of self-critical questioning. It becomes clear that in the field of U.S. economics there is a consensus that considers capitalism the only viable framework within which advanced society can exist. Even in the dominant discourse of political philosophy in elite institutions across the United States, we presume the infeasibility of alternative economic systems as discussion is centered on their nominal value rather than their practicality. Are these consensuses or presumptions justified, and what are the consequences of holding them if they are not sufficiently so?
The answer to at least the first part of this question seems to be quite certainly no, for there are functioning alternatives active today. Let us consider the example of Bolivia, which defined itself as a “social economy” in 2009. This serves as a real and current challenge to the rhetoric of capitalism as the only viable option. The social economy is understood to be a third-sector system that bridges the gap between the traditional two-sector public and private in order to most efficiently and fairly meet social needs. The Bolivian “plural (social) economy is made up of Community, State, private and social cooperative forms of economic organization.” In this way, the social economy recognizes both private and public interests and values both efficiency of production and fairness of distribution in ways inaccessible to either modern capitalism or socialism. The Bolivian model of the social economy is centered around the small-scale production of the commercial along with the non-commercial, linked to indigenous and traditional forms of communal organization. These economic measures are not only founded in the values of cohesion and equality, but also in larger political agendas of overcoming the legacies of the neoliberal and colonial models that governed until the election of Evo Morales in 2006.
U.S. theorists cannot even conceptualize the social economy outside of the framework of capitalism. For the American economist, the social entrepreneur is at the center of the U.S. approximation of the social economy. The social entrepreneur is the owner of the nonprofit social enterprise, and is explained by the capitalist framework as having individualistic motivations similar to those of the business entrepreneur, differing only in that social entrepreneurs focus on maximizing social impact rather than maximizing profit. In this way, the U.S. conceptualization of the social economy is still subject to the mechanism of self-interest and is reliant on the exceptionalism of certain individuals. However, in Bolivia, the state’s social or economic mechanisms are not reliant on the individual’s benevolent intentions; these individuals are seen as participants of the private sector. Instead, the responsibility for acting in the public interest lies primarily with state and community actors. In the United States, the social economy is seen not as a genuine alternative to capitalism, but rather as a means to correct the gaps left by the existing market system. As a result, the United States employs many of these means in the forms of social safety nets, for it is distinctly not organized under a purely market driven institution. However, the Bolivian social economy is substantively different, as it is not merely a correcting mechanism, but instead an overarching framework that places profit-seeking interests squarely below community interests. The Bolivian conceptualization understands that there is no space in which the private sector can be allowed to act independently from the community decision making process, and therefore the private sector only acts as one of many means by which the economy works toward collective goals. In this way, the private sector is only one contributing factor that works to achieve sustainability alongside the community, state and social cooperatives that do the bulk of the heavy lifting.
And the Bolivian system of a social economy has had many successes. Bolivia has seen some of the highest GDP growth rates in all of Latin America in the last decade. The country has reduced the levels of moderate poverty from 59 percent to 39 percent and inequality has also fallen significantly. Bolivia was even running budget surpluses from 2006 to 2014, setting its economy up for sustainability. Bolivia’s social economy is unquestionably an organization that is fundamentally different from U.S. capitalism, proving at least the potential for a successful alternative.
My intention is not to say that the United States should adopt the Bolivian constitution; if economic theorists can agree on anything, it is that the social economy depends on the society it is meant to serve. Instead, I hope to invite the thinkers in this field to imagine, for a moment, an alternative to our forms of economic organization. I’d like to question why we are so quick to accept the presumptions on which we build discussions about economic policy. At the very least, the Bolivian model urges us to include these challenges in theoretical spaces of courses and forums at institutions like Brown. If there is anyone with the privilege of imagining a reality outside of our entrenched capitalist tradition, one we might potentially be more excited to live in, it is participants in these spaces.
Marysol Fernandez ’21 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.