contributos para uma agenda transformadora

30 e 31 de janeiro de 2020
Fórum Lisboa

How to rebuild solidarity in a market society - and what are the challenges for socially-innovative governance and political leaders?

Keynote address at Lisbon Govint Conference 30-31 January 2020
Frank Moulaert - Este endereço de email está protegido contra piratas. Necessita ativar o JavaScript para o visualizar.
Emeritus Professor of Spatial Planning KU Leuven, Newcastle University; Emeritus Professor of Economics, Université de Lille


Bom dia a todos.

A conference on integrated governance, on cooperation as an essential social relation to achieve socio-political transformation.

What a relevant topic but what a challenge. To come to sense about integrated governance respecting most voices and human desires in society is not an easy mission; even for people who are experienced specialists in the field like most of you.

The knowledge and forecasts about the future of our society, and especially the relationships between society, economy and nature, are immensely complex. They mix pessimism and naive optimism about the power of the market to solve all problems.  

Yet that same society, under threat of its natural, economic and socio-political boundaries, is also fertile ground of new initiatives and experiments that formulate the basis for transformation. From my perspective today,  I am especially interested in initiatives and experiments in social innovation for governance. Yet I want to build up my plea for what we coined as bottom-linked governance in three steps + a conclusion.

In this talk I want to address three topics:

- The relationship between society, economy and nature.

- The non-fake truths about the need for a renewed 'political'

- And what the political and politics can learn from socially innovative governance in grassroots organizations: the rise of bottom-linked governance

And in conclusion: some reflections on ... the 'new' super political leader, the new homo politicus - and that's a provocation, of course,

1. Society, economy and nature

 There are many ways to look at society and to analyse it. Especially relevant today are approaches that examine the conditions under which in the past, economy and society kept each other more or less together, disbalanced each other and were led on new paths to find new equilibria which then with time were dislocated once more. The birth of this type of analysis is hard to date in history of thought and practice.  But I guess that most relevant initial contributions that are helpful to understand what is going on in the contemporary relationship between society and economy should be situated from the 18th or 19th century onward. Especially the 20th century provided us with several syntheses of societal development, addressing intersections between social relations, economy, the political world, the cultural worlds and also, in more modest terms, nature. For me today a main reference is Karl Polanyi's 'The great transformation. The political and economic origin of our time'; not because he provides us with the ultimate recipe of how to reintegrate the social and the economic but because he explains clearly how an economy that throughout history till the 18th century was embedded in society, turned into a so-called market economy that step by step became the dominant social relation between people and overruled many of the properly socio-cultural bonds and ethics that were foundational to human society. Polanyi already in the 1940s, and also based on his historical analysis, saw the perverse impact of an unleashed market economy on nature and the environment. Not only because of the commodification of society, forcing humans to become economic actors only; but also because of the 'false truth' liberal or neo-liberal market economists hold on to.

In summarized terms, what did we learn from Polanyi? We learned that when different elements of society - people, nature, culture, political life, ... - are subjected to a market logic, then these elements lose their intrinsic role in the evolution of society. Polanyi used the term fictive commodities to refer to the way the marketization of society had reduced humans at work to 'labour' or 'labour force'; land as the terroir of nature and food provision reduced to a marketable commodity; and money as a means of exchange, savings and credit to a monster of market speculation. No misunderstandings here: Polanyi, with one of the finest analysis of the history of markets, is not an opponent of markets; but he analyses how highly deregulated price competition has since the Industrial Revolution destroyed the allocative function of local markets to provide appropriate use value; or, even more generally speaking, how blindly competitive markets undermined the existential roles of the economy meant to gratify the needs of human beings and society. Polanyi believed that after the wild storm of liberalism a new equilibrium between society and economy would be established, which came partly through under Fordism or Keynesianism. But this (shaky) equilibrium could only be materialised under the terms of international unequal exchange between so-called developed and developing economies - or as some called it economic and political imperialism - and high differentiation in social advantages of citizens and workers in so-called Fordist nations. 

Polanyi was too optimistic in his hope of reestablishing a balance between economy and society after the great economic crisis of the 1930s. New balances may have been reached in some, especially Western societies, but also novel imbalances were created in the Global South as we call it today. And if he had lived through the crisis of Fordism, he would have witnessed the return of liberalism, in the sheep-skin of neoliberalism with its global free trade, its revival of the liberal utopia that a free market can regulate itself and solve the financial, natural and human disasters that ensued from this wildcat capitalism.

But despite his lack of a crystal ball to forecast what would happen after the re-regulation of the market (under Keynesianism), his basic insight about the double movement, namely the economy when seeking to dominate society and turn it into a market society has bumped and will bump into a countermovement of social protection and restoration of social bonds. Counter movements are essential in the (r)evolution of society and its relationships to economy and nature.

But can we still expect a true impact of such a counter movement today? Conditions of society, economy and political world have changed dramatically since Polanyi's time but also since the golden sixties or the trente glorieuses. Most alarming is probably the commodification of personal and social ethics: market exchange may have pacified the international world to a certain extent, but it has also caused new violence and narrowed the fundamental ethics to those that are seen as inherent to market-conform behaviour based on self-interest, individualism, private enrichment, ... Even the 'market unethical' behaviour of shirking and opportunism though condemned in theory, is increasingly tolerated in economic practice. The behaviour of bankers and traders in the uprun to the financial crisis of 2008 is hard evidence here. There exists a really enlightening literature on the 'Development of Ethics', some older like the majestic book by Kropotkin, some more recent writings explaining how religious ethics have bit by bit accommodated the economy's drive for profit and accumulation, even if this occurred at the expense of growing or consolidated inequality and decreasing solidarity, respect for others, poverty relief, protection of minorities, etc. To translate this into more systemic terms: it is especially the ideological system of a society and its state that explain the preferences for social protection - and extrapolating this to nature - environmental and climate action - as Piketty and others revealed.

2. The not-fake truth about the need for a 'renewed political'

 Polanyi showed the importance of state regulation in the relationship between economy and society. He recognised the fractions in the state apparatus, defending or attacking diverse interests, causing painful fractures in society. A similar vision of the state was held by some authors as 'the state as an arena of class struggle' ; or the concept of the mixed economy as used by many Keynesian or Post-Keynesian economists. But is this State of the Post-Keynesian era still a 'State'? What do we know about that Keynesian State? Still in a Polanyi mode of analysis in the 1960s and 1970s we used to identify five functions of state economic policy. I remember the time when I was a university student in economics and was told that economic policy had to be situated and applied as a policy bundle within a pentagon of economic policy with as its five vertices: a balanced labour market, economic growth, stable prices, a reasonable income distribution and equilibrium in the balance of payments - the Jan Tinbergen school? But when I read contemporary analyses of how this pentagon has reinvented itself I am confronted with a reduction of this geometric figure to a triangle with as three vertices: flexible labour market, price competition in global markets and (micro)economic efficiency. And today even the policy making systems themselves have become subjugated to micro-economic efficiency and micro-accounting principles. Public management has overruled policy making as a broader societal mission. Several State agencies are run as private firms. And please do not misunderstand me: I am not making a plea for deliberate spending of public means, but for reestablishing a double movement - yes, again a double movement - between economic managing of public means and making resources available for reviving the political.

The political is essentially the social dynamics underlying the governance of a country, a region, a city, ... obviously including disagreement, conflict and power struggles. It involves what is usually called 'politics' as the actions of elected persons and their associates or representatives; but equally so it is "a space of contestation and agonistic engagement" (Swyngedouw and Wilson 2014). The overall space of political engagement is increasingly dominated by politics "understood as technocratic mechanisms and consensual procedures that operate within an unquestioned framework of representative democracy, free market economics, and cosmopolitan liberalism." (Swyngedouw and Wilson 2014). This domination involves more than market affirming discourse. It also means an effective 'disarming' of the state, removing some of its essential instruments in its roles as a custodian of the balance between the social and the economic: in most countries state banks and mortgage companies are gone, public enterprise and investment corporations belong to history, state roles are restricted to its 'core business'  which is increasingly regulating markets ... according to the logic of the market. Today's state is poorly equipped to take on its 'roles'. The state has sold out its furniture.  In general in its policy making, it is no longer allowed to go against free market logic, despite the fact that the market has had a devastating impact on society, political life and nature. But market failures, in this new credo, are just sins - not even capital sins - that can be washed away from the market society's soul.

To reestablish a sustainable relationship between society, economy and nature, this credo and its practice needs a historical exegesis. Not only should the geometry of the state's role in economic policy be re-extended from a triangle to a pentagon, it has to be reconfigured as an open public arena, not following codified 'good governance' principles, but giving full attention to societal problems and voices coming from any corner of society. Giving voice to the people and letting their voices have a real impact on the working of the political system and the policy priorities is a complex issue in a complex society. But complexity can never be an argument in favour of surrendering to the utopian simplicity of market allocation. Instead it should be a trigger to revise societal democracy and the place of economic governance within it.

3. The rise of bottom-linked governance

Political discontent is all over, takes on many forms; there are many triggers of discontent, it has several sources. Old and new media document uprising, mobilization at street level, self-help initiatives in response to both state and market failure, a.s.o., ...

Discontent is not only the sake of organized or spontaneous movements, however. Numerous are the critiques and sometimes more aggressive reactions of the so-called common citizens. The mistrust and increasingly also disgust of politics are growing. So many people of diverse background have lost their faith in politics, and for diverse reasons; others think of new ways to improve democracy and give the political a new life - capacitate it again to address the real problems of society. It is the experience, feeling or impression that politicians are no longer capable of solving new or even old problems: security - although the news about growing domestic insecurity is mostly fake truth; migration - as if war victims should not find a temporary new home; poverty vs. explicit, not to say obscene wealth; noise, water and air pollution; industrial complexes in agriculture and mining monopolising water and land; traffic and mobility bottlenecks; people are caught in the treadmill of a commodified labour market, they are stripped of their non-economic time and when they are 'free' they are deprived of an enjoyable natural environment that has unfortunately been disrobed of many of its goodies. Of course new forms of commodification of social relations and life experiences (generalized consumerism) stir reactions among people. These reactions range from resignation to isolation to extreme forms of compensation; but people also fall into the trap of contemporary populism that by use of the new media whips up and forges facts into dramatic and indignant misleading 'messages', affecting voting behaviour to the extent that political decision-making often misses fact-checking and leads to the wrong or ambiguous decisions.

It is partly in opposition to this paralysis of the political because of politics, but especially because of their belief in change potential, that grassroots movements, citizens initiatives, socially innovative initiatives, have risen. The variety of such initiatives is very high but most of them address very important economic, social, cultural, environmental issues.

Most of you know several of such initiatives, are part of them and understand very well why they have risen. From my own experience in action research, I can refer to the neighbourhood associations in cities across the world, short chain sustainable food growing and distribution initiatives, so-called law shops where people can receive legal advice, housing associations and their networks, environmental movements, mutual aid in work, education and health and mental health services, etc. Various types of such initiatives we analysed under the flag of social innovation as a combination of satisfaction of human needs, the (re)building of social relations of association and solidarity together with empowerment toward socio-political transformation. We launched the term 'social innovation' in reaction to the exclusively technological and economic reading of innovation.

One of the big lessons we learned from our social innovation action research is that socially innovative initiatives and social movements are great learning grounds for more democratic governance. Our work even led us to the replacement of the term bottom-up governance by bottom-linked governance.

What is meant by bottom-linked governance? The concept of bottom-linked governance was coined in the course of the EC Framework 5 Project SINGOCOM to describe governance practices that we observed or took part in within SI initiatives, organisations and networks; it was further developed in the Framework 6 project KATARSIS[1]. Empirical analysis of multi-level governance dynamics shows that inclusive governance can rarely be classified as either ‘bottom-up’ or ‘top-down’, but rather as both shaping and shaped by new, dynamic forms of conflict and cooperation across scales.  These observations led to the development of the ideas of ‘bottom-linked’ social innovation and bottom-linked governance, i.e. new forms of cooperation between actors and institutions across territorial scales in which policy (broadly defined) and other development practice are not dictated from any one level of governance but transformed and institutionalised through interaction and cooperation itself.  The concept is important as a complement or even an alternative to that of bottom-up governance, which as an ideal has a number of politically ineffective features: a guileless faith that self-governance by itself will have a significant democratisation impact on relationships with the state (or a stronger belief that there is no need for a state); and a somewhat blasé and unreflective conviction that the political system and state apparatus will uncritically adopt or integrate the bottom-up decision-making mechanisms which civil society groups set up, that the neoliberal autocracy can be overruled by the multiplication of bottom-up governance initiatives – the ‘naivety of the participation movement’, as it is often called.

This cautious attitude towards 'bottom-up only' does not mean that grassroots movements do not count. In fact, the modes by which SI initiatives, organizations and movements govern are very important learning experiences for multi-level democratic governance. There is no time now to go into detail but the analysis of how interaction between participants is organized, which modes of communication are used, how values and organizational culture are built up and evolve in an interactive way, how tensions between individuals are anticipated and disarmed through bonding and relational psychology, how growth is managed, how interactions with state agents, private actors are dealt with,... Joint learning experiences between socially innovative experiences, local government agencies, local politicians and community leaders have proved to be essential in building bottom-linked governance. And its modes operation can be inspiring for addressing the challenges rising from multi-scalarity, inter-urban and inter-regional cooperation.  We have empirically studied and theorised these bottom-linked governance dynamics through the lenses of Community Support Agriculture initiatives, neighbourhood development organizations and networks, revolts against gentrification projects resulting into community mobilization and local development strategies led by civil society, ... There is for sure your own experience which should be one of your main guides; but I still invite you to have a look at how the European networks I co-coordinated have understood the role of bottom-linked governance and the roles and attitudes individuals and groups have taken on in such experiences.

In conclusion

Which homo politicus do we need in bottom-linked governance?  I am not following Plato by the book, I am just using his label 'Homo politicus'. I am finishing this talk with some reflections on how a homo politicus could and should act in a bottom-linked governance mode, also with the ambition of mining some of the citizens' negative reactions against 'politics' and its protagonists, i.e. the politicians.  Some of the anti-political attitudes have indeed become quite personal: politicians like wealthy entrepreneurs and bankers are greedy (they pursue their own financial interest); they think they know better than generally accepted scientific knowledge (climate change); they don't listen to common people or have lost their common sense; they believe that the economy can solve all problems (the market regulates itself); politicians lack respect of common people and feel too easily threatened by strong reactions from citizens; politicians  act as if they are not political beings but actors in the 'market for votes'. Many of these perceptions are true for several politicians, but I trust and I know many politicians with a high level of self-criticism and who act responsibly in their role. Yet the seduction to act as the competent leader needs constant self-surveillance - exactly as the seduction of the university professor to believe in 'his' or 'her' knowledge, free of dialectical speculation, needs constant self reflection.

So I am closing this talk by briefly reflecting on which features of political leadership best fit the bottom-linked governance dynamics. Looking at a summary of features of bottom-linked governance as in the table, we can shed light on some desirable features.

If we project the features of bottom-linked governance addressed in the table onto the meaning of shared learning, and focus on the role of leadership in politics … politicians and ‘good leadership’ for collective learning processes, we can privilege the following features - many of which correspond to the Unbutu leadership vision:

  • Combining managerial with communicative and associative capacities
  • Being able to share leadership
  • Being able to deal with multi-vocality and diversity, from outcries of Sardines or Gilets Jaunes to the weak voice of isolated elderly in a run-down urban neighbourhood
  • Build up immunity to inequality reïnforcing power games. Political leadership is not meant to serve economic interests only or first.
  • Know the social fabric where the collective learning unrolls (develop phronesis from real participative practice)
  • Psycho-analysis to eradicate any form of paranoia and be strong enough to place radical and even insultive voices in the right context.

Radical voices often hold a lot of truth and it is important to take them seriously and collaborate with protagonists of just social demands. This will be essential if we want to move away from market society to a sustainable society.

Thank you for your attention.


Kropotkin, P. (1922 [1924]) Ethics: Origin and Development. Reprinted by Amazon in the UK.

Linssen, J. (2019) Hebzucht. Een filosofische geschiedenis van de inhaligheid. Nijmegen: Uitgeverij Van Tilt.

Moulaert, F. (2019) When innovation lost its social character. Or not? in: Van den Broeck, P., Mehmood, A., Paidakaki, A., Parra, C. eds., Social innovation as political transformation. Thoughts for a better world, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

Moulaert, F. and MacCallum, D. (2019) Advanced Introduction to Social Innovation. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Moulaert, F., & Mehmood, A. (2019). Towards a social innovation (SI) based epistemology in local development analysis: lessons from twenty years of EU research. European Planning Studies, 1-20.

Novy, A. (Ed.). (2013). Gutes Leben für alle: ein europäisches Entwicklungsmodell. Mandelbaum Ed. Südwind.

Parra, C. and Moulaert, F. (2011). La nature de la durabilité sociale: vers une lecture socioculturelle du développement territorial durable. Développement durable et territoires. Économie, géographie, politique, droit, sociologie, 2(2).

Piketty, Th. (2019) Capital et Idéologie. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Polanyi, K. (1944) The Great Transformation. The Political and Economic Origins of our time.

Stöhr, W. (1978) Development from below: the Bottom-Up and Development Inward Development Paradigm

Swyngedouw, E., & Wilson, J. (2014). There is no alternative. The Post-political and Its Discontents: Spaces of Depoliticisation, Spectres of Radical Politics, 299-312.


Dimensions of governance

Bottom-linked governance

Agents involved – Types of agencies

Inclusive (silent min- or maj-orities), leaders, collective leadership, activists, mobilization,...

Social fabric

Community initiatives, social movements, breaking through uneven power relations, …


Multi and – irrationality – Psychological complexity of human beings


Negotiating diverse values and desires


Dialogical justification

Source: Moulaert (2020)

[1] For an overview of see Moulaert and Mehmood (2019).