Inicio > Economía marxista, Teoría crítica acumulada > “Social Capital And Capitalist Economies”: Ben Fine and Costas Lapavitsas

“Social Capital And Capitalist Economies”: Ben Fine and Costas Lapavitsas


The concept of social capital has become very influential in social science and is also increasingly deployed in analysis of transition economies. Its appeal derives from the attempt to relate the functioning of the capitalist economy to the non-economic relations of capitalist society. This article finds that the concept of social capital is inadequate for this purpose. By tracing the intellectual history of social capital, it is shown that the concept contains confusion with regard to both capital as economic phenomenon and capitalist social relations. Social capital conflates economy and society and hinders, rather than facilitates, analysis of capitalist society.


Keywords: social capital, social networks, post-Washington Consensus, World

1. Introduction

In recent years the concept of social capital has been very widely used across the social sciences. Despite its popularity, the concept is hard to define. The most immediate way of to explaining what is meant by it is through the popular saying, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters”. The concept of social capital therefore rests on the presumption that (inter)personal connections can be favourable to particular economic outcomes. The theoretical intention is to deploy this concept in analysis of processes and phenomena that are important to capitalist (and
other, such as transition) economies but are typically ignored by neoclassical economics.

Put differently, social relations are assumed to influence the actions of eco-nomic agents, economic or otherwise, and social capital aims at capturing this influence in theory. Thus, the aim is to complement economic with social analysis and, in particular, to explain how social capital is a necessary adjunct to economic capital.

The implications of social capital for the study of transitional economies are now, not surprisingly, coming to the fore. Mainstream policy towards such countries was initially dominated by emphasis on the economic, namely on the dismantling of previous forms of planning and their replacement by private property – a leap into capitalism. The results have been little short of disastrous, at times dramatically so – as in the case of the collapse of Russia’s industrial output. Social capital appears capable of explaining these results not so much through critical economic analysis of the imperatives of capitalism and the rush to embrace them, but by shifting attention away from the economic to the social. The lack of (appropriate) social capital can be cited as explanation of the failure of reform, in line with those who argue that the  problem has been the failure or absence of institutions in transitional economies, rather than the economic policies adopted. In other words, transitional economies need capitalism in all its aspects, and absence of one of these, from private property through democracy to social capital, is used to explain failure (Nowotny, 2002).

Perhaps the most prominent example of this sort of analysis is to be found in empirical work on social capital in Russia. Rose (1999), for instance, asks why some individuals should be healthier than others or attain higher levels of welfare, and in providing an answer more or less sets aside economic analysis altogether. Rose’s argument is that there is high (horizontal) social capital both at low levels and higher levels of Russian society, reflecting solidarity at low levels and persistent nomenclature at higher levels. But there is an absence of integration between the two, that is, little vertical social capital. This is understood to be a significant cause of the health or welfare deficiencies of present Russian society. Analysis of this type is expected to facilitate the design of welfare and health promotion by identifying the networks of social capital that enhance the effectiveness of policy, or even substitute for government programmes.

In this article we briefly trace the emergence and intellectual evolution of the concept of social capital. We give reasons why, starting from humble beginnings, it has come to a prominent position in social theory. We also argue that social capital is a deeply problematic concept, both theoretically and empirically. The most that could be said in its favour is that it has helped to increase awareness of the need to analyse the social context within which capitalist economies operate. But the concept of social capital gives inadequate guidance to those who wish to analyse the interaction of the economic with the non-economic in capitalist society.

Artículo Completo

South-Eastern Europe Journal of Economics 1 (2004) 17-34

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