The Relationship Between Neoliberalism and the Social Economy

New social policy domains like the social economy have complex relationships with large governing rationalities like neoliberalism. Studies need to develop political analysis that more closely traces how competing policy projects are taken up by agents acting in and through the state.


Graefe, Peter (forthcoming) Retooling Social Reproduction for Neoliberal Times: The Example of the Social Economy, in The Routledge Handbook of Neoliberalism ed. Simon Springer, Kean Birch and Julie MacLeavy. New York: Routledge.

What is this research about?

Over the past quarter century, the social economy or third sector has come to play a larger role in delivering social policy, for instance in non-profits delivering home care or subcontracted employment services. For some, this is an example of how the social economy is about reinforcing the emphasis on shrinking the state and on making people more market dependent that characterizes neoliberalism. For others, this bigger role for the social economy points to the possibility of building economies on the basis of principles and values other than those of capitalist market exchanges.  This research attempts to assess how useful these analyses are for capturing the linkages between the social economy and neoliberalism

What did the researchers do?

The researcher from McMaster University explored the existing literature on social economy and its connection to neoliberalism.

What did the researchers find?

The researcher found that the current analysis of the social economy is too focused on giving the social economy a single meaning within contemporary neoliberalism. Instead, researchers should be open to thinking about the social economy as a part of various state strategies. For some, it is a way of deepening neoliberalism. For others, it is a way of stabilizing neoliberalism by dealing with social problems caused under neoliberalism. For yet others, it is an alternative project that breaks with neoliberalism, and even capitalism. Analysts can capture this diversity  by:

  • Examining the types of projects political actors undertake and the relationship of these projects to neoliberalism.
  • Assessing the ways these projects are adopted by political actors and the factors that motivate the government to support particular projects.

How can you use this research?

This research is useful for policymakers, economists, and political scientists who wish to understand the social economy. The recognition of the diverse projects by political actors can help researchers understand and develop ways to sustain alternatives to neoliberalism, either through policy-change or the creation of new projects.

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