A tribute to Robert Salais’ work

Christian Bessy & Claude Didry (2022)

Report on the round table initiated by Florent Le Bot (IDHES Université d’Evry) at the occasion of presenting and reflecting on the new publication:
Christian Bessy & Claude Didry (eds.) (2022): L’économie est une science réflexive. Chômage, convention et capacité dans l’œuvre de Robert Salais. [Economics is a reflexive science. Unemployment, convention and capacity in the work of Robert Salais]. Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses Universitaire du Septentrion.

23 November 2022
16H00 Welcome
Introduction by Florent Le Bot and Valérie Boussard (IDHES Nanterre)
Presentation of the book by Christian Bessy (IDHES ENS Paris-Saclay) and Claude Didry (CMH).
16H35 Robert Salais (thanks, questions to the following speakers, etc.)
16H45 break.
17H00 Presentation of the speakers by Florent Le Bot
Intervention Jean-Louis Fabiani (Central European University).
Speech by Jean-Philippe Robé (Lawyer).
17H40 Robert Salais
18H00- 19H00 Exchange with the audience.
19H00 Cocktail.


This round table took place in a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere, without losing sight of the quality of the intellectual exchanges around the collective work coordinated by Christian Bessy and Claude Didry, in homage to the work of Robert Salais.

Valérie Boussard recalled the central role of Robert Salais in the creation of the IDHES (Institutions et Dynamiques Historiques de l’Economie et de la Société) and its interdisciplinary orientation between economics, history, sociology and law. More than a heritage to be protected, Robert’s work constitutes a matrix generating new research issues in order to respond to societal challenges.
Claude Didry then recalled his meeting with Robert Salais in 1990, when he published an article on Durkheim in a dossier of the journal Genèses devoted to “the construction of the social fact”. This meeting was part of what Jean Luciani refers to in the book as the “detour through history”, to return to the institutional dynamics around which the work of Robert Salais and his team developed. Claude Didry retains from this meeting Robert Salais’ ability to read a text, not by underlining its shortcomings, but by adopting a true reading intended to highlight its contributions. This intellectual openness that Robert Salais impelled in economics of convention (EC) was then functioning at full speed, in a CNRS Research Group, where historical, legal and economic seminars crossed. Claude Didry speaks of “a bubbling hive of activity where we thought about many things, reading the philosophical foundations of EC, around Lewis, non-modal logic or Jaakko Hintikka’s theory of “possible worlds”. Didry returns to the structuring of the book in 6 parts (work, employment and unemployment, worlds of production and dynamics of innovation, institutions and conventions, Europe and capacities, quantification and democracy), emphasizing that these parts follow a biographical logic proceeding by “reflexive leaps”, the research nourishing each time a reflexive deepening towards new objects. He also underlines the collective dimension of the scientific investigation and Robert Salais’ involvement in the design of the institutional architecture of the IDHE laboratory, created in 1997 by the CNRS, as recounted in the first part of the book. In other words, in the case of Robert Salais, it is impossible to distinguish the researcher from the organizer of the research.

Christian Bessy returned to Robert Salais’ final text entitled “Ecological crisis and reflexive economy, an opening”. This text allows us to go through all the contributions, because the author responds to each one, certainly in footnotes, but also, seizes the opportunity that the coordinators of the book had thrown him around the concept of reflexive economy:
“A reflexive economy is an economy that first looks behind itself and investigates the damage it inflicts on our world. Thus informed, it then projects itself into the future and pursues its development in a way that reduces its past ecological and human footprint. It places at its center the democratic deliberation between actors on the evaluation of this footprint and on the solutions to be engaged.” (p. 307)
This approach is based on a change of posture towards things that cannot be reduced to simple objects over which we have control. Symmetrically, it would be necessary to take hold of things, “to face them as they are”, with their multiple uncertainties, says Robert Salais, in order to generate this time a “reflexive economy”, in the sense of a learning and a mode of knowledge, allowing to “see, distinguish, know, and name the particularities of each thing in relation to the others” (p. 330). This is in line with the “theory of taking” elaborated with Francis Chateauraynaud.

The contribution of Robert Salais today in this concluding text is not only reduced to a theory of knowledge based on the perceptions of the environment giving more thickness to things. He also returns to the contribution of David Lewis (1969) to the theory of conventions and in particular the distinction between two types of convention contrasting two principles of action:
– to qualify the objects according to a general principle, from crossed anticipations,
– to identify things according to a principle of particularity, based on the engagement of the sensory faculties to know how to act in the situation.
Christian Bessy concludes on the phenomenological conversion of Robert Salais and the necessity to articulate different scales of analysis of the crisis of the sensible in the transformations of capitalism.

Robert Salais warmly greeted the contributors to the book and the participants in the round table, in particular the two discussants, Jean-Louis Fabiani, whom he met at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (WIKO) in 2007, and Jean-Philippe Robé, with whom he worked with Gabriel Colletis on the Greek crisis in 2015, imagining in particular converting the Greek debt into investment financing. Today, with the ecological transition, the problem is much the same, as it would require reforming the way finance works. In a striking manner, Robert Salais shares his feelings on the book presented in these terms:
“As I read and reread it, I am impressed by the book, even intimidated in some ways, of all the research it contains that has been done and is yet to be done. It’s not really a tribute […]. What would you say if you were like me in front of another self that is there in the book, which you can’t deny looks a little like you? It seems to you moreover less volatile than what you do. It’s very disturbing in a way. It took me a while to adapt to this kind of thing. What comforts me is that this other one is the work product of a collective. Those who are there because they belong to the work of the IDHE, but also others who are there episodically. I join Laurent (Thévenot in his text) in saying that we are faced with a collective that was constituted and built by people who felt the potentialities, the freedoms, of a pivotal period, let’s say those of the 1960s to the 1980s. Each one at his moment, each one in his way, finally assumed to put themselves together, via convergences of which they did not know necessarily, because somewhere it is not intentional”.
This is the best description of the passage from a subjective to an objective mind. He emphasizes that when reading the book, he “feels a kind of internal vitality, a pleasure, almost, I would say, of each and every one. There is a deployment of energy both in time and space that has continued until today and which I hope will continue, but! In a way, we are part of a generation that is a bit of a turning point, that has put some stones on which we can build to go further. This is not true of all the works of this generation. They are possible supports, but young people must seize them because they are the ones who will be confronted with the phenomenon in all its complex reality. I think very modestly that we have begun to lay the foundations for a new understanding of our world, to review, to propose a critique and instruments to see differently. In fact, we have all sensed, each at our own time, that the future that was predicted for us was not so admirable. And in fact, what was being prepared looked an awful lot like a closure of the future, under the apparent evidence of openness, innovation, etc., and so I think that we started to take our responsibilities in front of these choices that were closing us in and that represented denials of reality. Now, as Christian Bessy said, the economy as we know it is completely unsuited to the development of new relationships between humans and nature. We must work together between the different sciences.

Jean-Louis Fabiani took the floor, beginning by thanking the organizers of the round table for inviting him to discuss the book on the work of Robert Salais, taking the point of view of the sociologist of intellectual life: “Robert Salais, an economist for a renewed sociology”. He emphasizes the opportunities, encounters, and conjunctures that give rise to new configurations. He proposes to start from the fruitful relationship between the sociologist Jean-Claude Passeron and the economist Louis-André Gérard-Varet, which led to the famous book Le modèle et l’enquête (1995). In relation to this attempt at dialogue, he positions the economics of conventions, whose manifesto was published in the Revue Economique (March 1989) at practically the same time and which “proposes something more mobile than a paradigm, a sort of configuration, perhaps this is not the best word, around a common object, conventions […]. EC wanted to stop taking into account the fact that it was not a paradigm. The EC wanted to stop taking for granted divisions that present contingent, even arbitrary dimensions, and that we naturalize without thinking about it by putting forward in a way the defense of the disciplinary body and therefore there was in this manifesto, which is a program, a watchword, the claimed necessity to widen the field of economic research to what I call these cultural peripheries: the historical science mentioned above, but also the law central in the operation I think and sometimes neglected by sociologists after Durkheim”. For Jean-Louis Fabiani, what appears central in the trajectory of Robert Salais is the refusal to reject the statistical tools (of economists) on the pretext that the model in which these tools are used is not satisfactory. This very rich book shows that Robert Salais’ works survive the critical and reflexive turn of his activity, beginning with L’Invention du chômage in 1986, which questions, as sociologists have traditionally done since Durkheim, the historical production of social categories. He provides an image of the heroic civil servant that evokes a nostalgia for a period of fertility and camaraderie, a period that contrasts today with a field based on individual performance.
“I would like to return to the notion of “reflexivity”, a notion that I am wary of because it risks being overused and we end up putting all the facilities of autoethnography in this word. The question of reflexivity in the social sciences is vast […]. What is a reflexive return? What do we have in mind when we say that the habitus is pre-reflexive? Is it a skill reserved for the researcher or a universal property of consciousness?”
He refers to the quotation from Robert Salais, mentioned by Christian Bessy, which gives a good illustration of his posture and which leads to a better social diffusion of knowledge production. CE would propose another way of posing the problems of ecological transition that is less prophetic, less Leninist and ultimately more effective. This leads Robert Salais to redefine the conditions of our own social legitimacy, a legitimacy that is in danger because of a technostructure more and more subservient to financial capital.

It is in a more pragmatic vein that Jean-Philippe Robé underlines this financial impasse that “leads us straight to the wall”. He raises the question of how the law, and in particular accounting methods, can change the behavior of large companies (banks and investment funds), which cannot be reduced to small externalities at the margin. What has not been done in the past should now be done quickly. The only solution is to develop carbon sinks. He returns to the question of a reflexive economy:
“I don’t think that an economy as such can be reflexive itself, on the other hand organizations can have a reflexive behavior beyond the search for profit by taking into account other objectives. It is therefore necessary to democratize the enterprise in order to recreate a common good, an intermediary, between the public and the private. It is the ecological quality at all stages of the value chain that must be taken into account and impact the company. For this lawyer, it is important to introduce the replacement cost of environmental capital, the cost of creating the carbon sink, and to change the accounting rules so that these costs are charged to the company.

The discussion resumed on the need for political action in the face of the environmental emergency, given the limits of a response within the framework of neo-liberal capitalism. Guillaume Mercoeur, a doctoral student in sociology, emphasized the original dimensions of Robert Salais’ approach to the analysis of heterodox Anglo-Saxon economics in the field of climate change, and in particular the contributions of Andreas Malm. He refers to his thesis work on trade union involvement in improving working conditions and environmental issues, highlighting different levels of action over which the actors have control.
Robert Salais replied that different contributions in the book deal with reforms leading to the co-determined enterprise (Olivier Favereau), the sustainable enterprise (Jürgen Kädtler) and the enabling enterprise (Bénédicte Zimmerman).

Florent Le Bot, Robert Salais, Jean-Philippe Robé, Christian Bessy and Claude Didry