Exit, Voice and Solidarity

Economic Stakeholders in Contemporary Democratic Capitalism

Dr Martin O’Neill
University of York
Dr Jurgen De Wispelaere
Queen’s University Belfast & McGill University
Dr Pierre-Yves Néron
Catholic University of Lille

The Research Idea

This research project explores key questions in the democratic governance of contemporary economic institutions, notably labour markets regulation and the welfare state. The underlying assumption is that contemporary capitalist governance marginalizes, excludes and disenfranchises large parts of the population in what has been aptly dubbed the “winner-takes-all-society” (Hacker and Pierson, 2011). The re-enfranchisement of economic stakeholders remains one of the key challenges in political theory, economic philosophy and business ethics.

This project is organized around a slightly amended version of the well-known conceptual scheme pioneered by Albert Hirschman (1970), in which disaffected stakeholders opt for either “exit” or “voice” as a strategy to regain economic sovereignty. The purpose of this project is to examine under what conditions economic stakeholders favour exit rather than voice strategies in the context of labour markets, firms and corporations, and the welfare state (social insurance, tax credits, basic income, etc.).

We are interested in discovering under what conditions each of these strategies is desirable or should be given priority, how they relate to each other in concrete economic institutions, and how to cash out these general strategies in terms of policy and institutional design. We hope to bring together experts in economic distribution, workplace democracy, taxation, welfare policy, and financial and business regulation to explore the prospects for economic governance grounded in the values of solidarity, inclusion and democracy.


The literature on exit and voice is complex and crosses many disciplines. The model pioneered by Hirschman has informed numerous studies in organisational sociology, political science, public policy, urban politics, and so on. We intend to focus primarily on research in the fields of social security, public insurance, the welfare state, workplace and economic democracy, basic income, financial inclusion with the aim of guiding political theorist, political scientists and sociologists in thinking dynamically about economic institutions and economic reform in the “Austerity Era”.

Contemporary theories of justice tend to neglect real economic institutions and their impact on economic solidarity. Crudely put, theorists of social justice are good at articulating principles of economic solidarity but tend to neglect the forms and institutions of economic solidarity/inclusion or its opposite, economic inequality/exclusion. Refocusing our attention on economic institutions and programs allows us to bridge the chasm between relatively abstract theories of justice and the research carried out by economic sociologists, economic policy analysts, and political scientists.

The proposed project will directly engage with both theoretical debates concerning the foundations of values such and solidarity and exclusion and institutional analysis, including the design of economic institutions and public policies.

The Focus

The purpose of this project is to bring together a series of scholars who share our perspective on combining political theory and institutional analysis and policy design. We have identified a number of scholars across Europe already engaged in this type of research (all have agreed to participate in the planned workshop). Each of these scholars work on different concrete topics (the theory and practice of workplace democracy, tax justice, social insurance, basic income), but they encounter similar issues in their respective research and thus share a common broader research agenda.

The purpose of the planned workshop is to facilitate the sort of conversation across practical topics and even disciplinary approaches that we believe is necessary to further our understanding of democratic economic governance. Developing a shared understanding of the particular obstacles to economic solidarity, and inclusion and strategies to overcome these, across economic institutions and policy areas is a condition for both deepening and expanding our perspective on urgently needed economic reform.

Theoretical Novelty

At the theoretical level the project will systematically examine the concepts of exit, voice and solidarity, as well as analysing the conceptual and normative relation between them. The theoretical novelty of our project lies in extending the original Hirschman model by replacing his notion of “loyalty” with the idea of “solidarity”, which allows us to expand the theoretical framework to focus explicitly on the how economic institutions, processes and policies affect workers and nonworkers (or the “proletariat” vs. the “precariat”).

However, one of the leading ideas underlying this project is that the theory will directly inform economic practice (and vice versa). Therefore our project importantly focuses on examining the practices of exit, voice and solidarity (which institutions or processes embody these notions) with the explicit intention to feed these insights back into the theoretical and normative discussion about economic justice.


This research program will address the questions mentioned before through a multidisciplinary, mixed-methodology approach. Political theory analysis will be combined with in-depth study of concrete cases or applied to specific institutions/processes. The main feature of our research is to examine the issues at hand through the lens of non-ideal political theory.


The aim of the Residential Research Group would be to start off developing the shared perspective mentioned before, but we regard this as the starting point of building a genuine long-term research group. In other words, we hope this grant kick-starts a collaborative agenda that will be consolidated in future events.

Immediate outputs include single-authored and co-authored articles and possibly the production of an edited volume on economic solidarity, based on the materials discussed at this workshop. This volume would be modelled after the collection edited by Martin O’Neill (a member of our team) and Thad Williamson, Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond (Blackwell, 2012). Long-term objectives include expanding the research cluster with more colleagues (including those from the broader list above who would not be involved in the more focussed residential workshop).