Four sectors and their weaving together in a ‘new’ economy

In his 2009 pamphlet, Danger and opportunity - Crisis and the new social economy [PDF here] Robin included a schema of four ‘blobs’, with 'the new social economy as a fifth blob, overlaid on them and contrasted with them. The blobs are: market economy, state, household economy and ‘grant-funded economy’. The new social economy overlaps and/or replaces all of these, weaving together new forms of practice in each sector into a fabric of changed local and global social relations, relations between sectors and relations with the planet.


Four 'grand sectors' - From Danger & opportunity

This view of four sectors and the argument connected with it perhaps has something to do with the perspective of socialist economist Karl Polanyi, a contemporary of Hayek in 1930s Vienna but until recently much less influential. Hayek lies behind some ‘roll back the state’ ultra-market extremism, but Polanyi believed that markets can only work broadly for the benefit of societies and their members if the state makes the conditions for that benefit and sets limits to market extremism.


Quite how much Polanyi there is in Robin’s blob diagram isn’t clear, and it seems particularly unclear what the nature of Robin’s ‘fourth blob’ is: the ‘grant funded’ sector. Indeed it’s not clear what the basis is, on which the four blobs are distinguished from one other, and whether the fourth blob is a well defined sector or simply an awkward residual, containing some things - like trade unions and voluntary organisations - that socialists value because of their commitment (sometimes) to resistance, wellbeing, social justice and radical change. It’s not clear either, what the different relations are in the  ‘social’ economy - the RoPs - that will give work, life and production in that regime its distinctly different, challenging and beneficial and enduring qualities as a system of FoPs: a Living Economy. These things will come in for some examination in this section.


As of November 2018, the Robin Murray group is working on a book, provisionally titled The Production of Transformative Social Thought: Essays in honour of Robin Murray. I’ve proposed a chapter for the book, on the four ‘grand sectors’, the 4th blob (reframed as the mutual sector) and the new economy as an economy organised around ‘commoning’. The outline for the chapter follows, and can be downloaded here as PDF. The chapter will develop a revised version of the four-sector schema, as below, with particular focus on alternative relations of production across all four sectors, and the productive activity of the mutual sector, as the basis for a radically ‘new’ economy.

schema §1.jpg

Four sectors and a 'new economy' - Revised (provisional version)

2019 08 28 - From economics to organising - The pivotal mutual sector

Outline for a book chapter
This chapter is intended for Section 3: The State, globalisation and social movements, alongside chapters by Mary Kaldor and Hilary Wainwright. The argument and the vocabulary weave closely together with that of the chapter on ‘formacion’ that I’m offering for Section 1, on methodology.

In Danger and Opportunity, 2009 (DaO), Robin deploys a generic background framing of four ‘grand sectors’ in an economy: state, market, household, grant-funded economy. This chapter unpacks that ‘blob map’ and, in particular, explores the composition of the oddly named and unfamiliar ‘grant funded economy’. That formation clearly has something to do with ‘civil society’ and ‘global civil society’, which have become prominent as activist formations during the post-Fordist period which Robin is analysing; but there are differences between the frames of ‘social’ and ‘civil’ economy, which should be examined. The chapter argues that this fourth and superficially marginal ‘economy’ needs to be addressed as a sector of cultural as well as economic production - where ‘culture’ is understood as a matter of capacities to know and organise; that is, as a field of production of labour power - which is fundamental both to the production of radical activist formations in civil society, and to emergent forces and relations of production in ‘the Fordisms’, and especially in post-Fordist ‘knowledge based’ capitalism.

This makes ‘the 4th blob’ of far greater historical significance in making a Living Economy, than it might seem to be if understood primarily in terms of its funding, which is the basic way in which Robin frames the four grand sectors. Rather than the secondary and variable aspect of funding, the sectors are seen in this chapter - in a thorough-going labour process mode - in terms of their production; and their relationship is framed in terms of the publicness/privateness of their production, and of the generic or particular contribution made by their production, to means of living and working. (See the 2x2 schema at the head of this outline.) The social and economic territory mapped in Robin’s schema can then be seen as an entire, diverse field of mundane, everyday organisation of necessary means of subsistence and wellbeing, addressed in practice through four distinct but systematically - rather than accidentally - related modes of material provision and access.

Forces of production is a central concept in this reframing, in three respects. First, the four-sector schema can be seen as mapping an entire system of forces of production (FoPs), which is in fact a complex weave of very many mundane, historical practices, organised in diverse, dominant or residual or emergent formations, and under various relations of production. Relations of production (RoPs) replaces ‘values’ as the pivotal concept in this perspective, and formations of activist practice (and their production), as well as forms of organisation of economic provision, become key concerns. The focus on formations as well as forms shifts the perspective well beyond the technics of ‘social innovation’, and into politicised, intentionally transformational organising.

Second, understanding the 4th blob as a sphere of cultural as well as economic production greatly expands the significance of the sector, and also the range of RoPs that need to be explicitly and skilfully engaged and brought into play by activists in producing new forces of production. Some of these forces and relations can properly be seen as emergent aspects of post-Fordist capitalist organisation, but the argument necessarily goes beyond that ‘economic’ perspective, to questions of distinct intentions, cultural modes and structures of feeling of radical activist formations, self-consciously engaged in resistance, oppositional affiliation, historical struggle and the assembling of ‘prefigurative’, counter-hegemonic forces.

And third, emphasising material provision and means of subsistence, as the basic perspective implicit in the four-blob schema, prompts detailed attention to the variety of material forms that are implicated, the different bearing of these on subsistence and wellbeing, and the materially distinct forms of FoPs that need to be actively constituted, through distinct and diverse kinds of formations. This is a thorough-going ‘labour process’ extension of the conceptualisation in DaO, arguably fully consistent with Robin’s own labour-process ‘project’ following through from the focus of the 70s in the Brighton CSE labour process group. This extension seems necessary for at least two reasons. First, it is needed to underpin the environmental thrust of Robin’s attention - pivotal for making a Living Economy - and to ground it in a basic materialist ontology for the four-blob scheme, rather than allowing it to appear somewhat ‘added on’ or external (as is arguably the case with the rather ad hoc collection of policy proposals at the end of DaO). And second, some of the central dimensions of post-Fordist economy (and hegemony) involve forms of materiality in forces of production - including algorithmic machinery, digital media, technological prosthesis - that are historically very unfamiliar and conceptually very hard to handle.

Robin overlaid a fifth blob on the four grand sectors: ‘the new social economy’, constituted in (‘social’) values. The chapter argues that this should rather be seen - from an organising standpoint - as comprising (prefigurative) constellations of forces of production constituted by particular alternative relations of production. On this basis, the chapter argues that at the centre of ‘the new social economy’ as identified ten years ago by Robin, and making a necessary integrating or foundational contribution, there needs to be a constellation of practices of commoning. Practices of commoning are emergent in the post-Fordist period and have begun to receive substantial attention in the decade since DaO, in the form of widespread and economically important forces of (cultural and economic) production organised under peer-to-peer (P2P) relations. The relations of production of ‘commoned’ forces of production are deeply - intrinsically - oppositional to RoPs of capital, of extractivist and propertarian regimes, of supremacist structures of feeling and of corporatist forms of cultural organisation. All of these are understood to be necessary features of the making of a Living Economy, and a politics of commoning is one that weaves these together in a self-conscious, systematic and profoundly radical (transformational) way which can not necessarily be expected to emerge from fragmentary formations of place-based or sectoral ‘solidarity’ or ‘social’ economy. Certainly, not from a commitment to mere ‘social innovation’ in a period of churning capitalist and environmental crisis - a continuation of the mundane churn of ‘innovation’ in society and technology over the past two centuries - in the face of the powerful ‘disruptive (social media) innovation’ championed by post-Fordist oligarchs in their struggle with other formations of capital.

Overall, the chapter advances three views whose emphases depart in some ways from the central emphases of Robin’s 2009 argument in DaO. First, the view that attention should shift from ‘economics’ (and forms - notably post-Fordist forms) to ‘organising’ (and the production of prefigurative activist formations). Second, the view that a highly developed and differentiated politics of peer-to-peer commoning is central to organising ‘beyond fragments’ in civil society, in the way that movements of ‘solidarity economy’ or ‘social economy’ aspire to.


And underpinning this dual shift of emphasis is a reframing of the puzzling and apparently minor and marginal 4th blob of grant funded economy, as the mutual sector: a major, complex ‘grand sector’, equally implicated in economic and cultural production, and in mundane subsistence and resistance as well as radical change and historical vision, historically pivotal in its relations with three other spheres which figure almost exclusively in ‘economic’ thinking: state, markets and households.


It’s where the 70s and 80s activist project of moving ‘beyond the fragments’ lives. If there’s to be a shift from economics to organising, it’s the mutual sector that does the organising. The mutual sector is where the historical answer lies to the neoliberal assertion that there is no such thing as society: it’s only a fully fledged, active, civil society - and not the State, the market or domestic consumers - that will secure the environment and initiate a Living Economy.

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