The social movements and political parties that built the universal welfare state in its most advanced form have failed to produce a vision for the future. Already in the late 1980s, scholars from the communitarian and critical traditions in the social sciences expected a gradual breakdown of the universal welfare state due to a combination of bureaucratization and a missing space for civil society.
Since the beginning of the new millennium, a gradual privatization and marketization of social responsibility and citizenship has intensified on a global scale, including new tools such as social impact bonds and new management methods such as bottom of the pyramid. Political parties most directly affiliated with the public welfare state were stuck in the victories of the past, unable to define a way forward, while remaining uninterested in collaborating actively with new social movements and organized civil society.
At the same time, there is a remarkable diversity and creativity found in vibrant citizen initiatives, some engaged in articulating new forms of reciprocity, others committed to social and societal goals. However, these cannot replace the vast institutions of the welfare state.
Thus, the welfare framework seems fragile if not able to link positively the institutional and redistributive capacity of the welfare state to these new citizen driven initiatives and hybrid entities that are emerging at an increasing speed. The gap between a diversity of citizen initiatives and the welfare state creates a very dangerous situation for the future of democracy as well as for the social and economic sustainability.
Accordingly, it is of outmost importance to find ways of addressing and compensating the gradual withdrawal of the universal welfare state and its mass oriented types of solidarity with more flexible types of collective efforts and citizen engagement. If the withdrawal of the universal welfare state is happening without a simultaneous investment in the institutionalization of new links between the redistributive capacity of the state and the reciprocal and collective capacity of civil society especially in social and solidarity economy, citizens will intensify their competition and fight over scarce resources between themselves. In Europe, a continent renowned for its inclusive and rights’ oriented social policies and services, a dramatic and yet silent change may be occurring without much public attention.
Research in different countries and continents is showing a converging trend of growing inequalities in multiple dimensions including housing, health, life expectancy, access to energy, pensions and education. How such multi-dimensional patterns of inequality are reshaping societies stays invisible. In Europe in general a dramatic and yet silent change is occurring without much public attention. Among other examples, in the city of Glasgow, recent research has shown life expectancy gaps up to 28 years between the richest and the poorest community.
In Spain a young professional woman dubbed her generation as “mileuristas” with no chance to ever earn more than 1,000 Euros a month and thus forming a new professional precariousness. In Denmark, a country previously known for its universal welfare system, a multidimensional process of inequality is on the rise with big variations between municipalities in terms of quality and expenditure of important social services. Even in Scandinavia, the impact of multi-dimensional inequality remains profoundly un-addressed. These examples of a deeper European process of segregation, privatization and rising inequality among regions, local communities and citizens are directly attributable to changes in policy. The seminar aims to raise awareness of the need for a complete and renewed articulation between equality and freedom, between public institutions and civil society. For this matter, the seminar has several specificities at the international level.
The seminar provides a platform to discuss the vast number of experiments and initiatives, which exist but are not considered as important contributions to a new socio-economic paradigm. Furthermore, it aims to expand our awareness of different trends in research that are rarely brought together: social and solidarity economy, conceptualized often through empirical observations in Southern countries; reciprocity suggested as principles to overcome the divide between market and redistribution shared by neo-liberal and Keynesian thinkers; social innovation promoted as an emerging people-centred approach; the commons as promoting opportunities for citizen participation and political engagement through collective action. There are also complex hybridizations between reciprocity and householding that must be better understood, as well as nation state questioning. States have hardly ever been comfortable about the autonomy of political and economic community initiatives.
The situation is likely to be worsened if we refer to minorities or groups in diaspora – as they bring different perspectives and values which do not fit in the western imagery. In this case, neither are these people properly supported by the welfare state nor stimulated by public policies to foster economic autonomy by themselves. In times of globalization, in which the flow of people is inevitable and border identities are so common, it must be questioned in detail to what extent the welfare state in Europe is capable of going beyond homogenous public policies which neither have reached marginalised groups nor fostered their capacity of economic autonomy. That is to say: Is the Global North aware of the South within itself? Are public policies suitable to subaltern groups in the North? Do they foster their autonomy?
Accordingly, the objective is to address actions of solidarity, reciprocity and social innovation with the capacity of compensating or even altering some of the negative consequences of the deep changes in the social structure and the welfare state. If unchallenged by actions of solidarity and egalitarian reciprocity these changes will gradually speed up an already ongoing process of social disintegration. Thus, it seems urgent to ask if systematic investments in programs for the advancement of the social and solidarity economy, co-production and relational types of welfare provision can change the road towards continued downsizing, privatization and disintegration of the welfare society and thus contribute to a new type of welfare state: a model where civil society is equally recognized for its political dimension in matters of decision-making, for its position in the social and solidarity economy and for its capacity for service provision delivered by the third sector?