Economic peace: a paradox?

While the economy is currently generating many different forms of violence, few studies explore the links between peace and the economy. In the research work on peace, economy is often viewed as a means for peace and not as a cause of war. And yet, economic warfare is polluting both our practices and imaginary and prevents us from thinking of a different economic horizon. What if we stopped going along with the so-called undisputable chimeras of the goddess of economy and started imagining a demystified economy?

  • Ottaviani F., Steiler D., 2021, “Economic Peace as a Counterpoint to the Warfare Economy: Rethinking Individual and Collective Responsibility”, Journal of Business Ethics, first online.
  • Ottaviani F., Steiler D., 2020, « Penser la paix économique : au-delà de l’harmonie sociale, les conditions de pacification de l’économie », Revue de philosophie économique, 21(2), p. 83-113.

Fiona Ottaviani is a member of Chaire Paix économique, Grenoble École de Management :

Dominique Steiler is a member of Chaire Paix économique, Grenoble École de Management :

Our objective in exploring economic peace is to stimulate another approach of the economy: we mean to reintroduce cooperation and demonstrate that the warfare economy is in no way natural.

A pacifying vision of the economy and commerce

« The divine will does not rule social order »: this is what emerged from the Lumières after a several-century long deconstruction of the representations associated with this divine order. This modernity actually opened up space for some reflection upon human nature, social behaviours, socio-economic organisation and power relations.

However, the idea which emerged in this new space and was particularly initiated by Hobbes and Locke, was a naturalistic view of the economy and of the egoist essence of the human being.  Although the political forms of violence were exposed, the modern political philosophy (Montesquieu, Kant, etc.) put forward a pacifying vision of the economy and commerce.

Relying on a confrontational conception of the society divided into social classes, the English classical economists, Smith and Ricardo, elaborately analysed human behaviour (Smith’s focus on empathy), explored the capitalist’s limits (Ricardo’s zero growth theory) and developed theoretical tools for analysing exchanges. Besides, they laid the foundations of what will later contribute to the myth of social harmony achieved through self-regulated market, based on supply and demand and on the egoist pursuit of self-interest.

The economists of marginalism (Walras, Marshall, Menger and Jevons), forerunners of the so-called mainstream economy, took up those analyses only partially. They contributed (admittedly to a variable degree) to edge out the analysis in terms of social classes as well as the ethical reflection in economics.  In their work, they set aside the historical reflection on the dynamics of capitalism in order to explore the mechanical harmonization of interests.

Which resulted in the well-known fable according to which, if every individual pursues his/her own interest, then the invisible hand would harmonize interests in line with market adjustments. Magically guided by the invisible hand, both conflicts and power relations would be solved. From then on, the « mainstream » theory asserted social harmony, but has not provided any theoretical toolbox to explore positively the issue of power relations.

Economy: the god of war?

The myth of market-led regulation theoretically presupposes harmony. But actually, the confrontation of interests as promoted by the mainstream theory has paradoxically resulted in the development of a warlike rhetoric and warfare practices. Encouraging the pursuit of one’s self-interest and promoting the virtues of competition have led the « mainstream » theory to support the formidable imaginary of economic warfare.

That is how, if you open management textbooks, you will learn how to get into « order of battle », to « conquer markets », to « eliminate competition », to « set up targets » in line with a « strategy », etc. Even the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) of the UN use a similar vocabulary, since they come under 169 targets.

This rhetoric of economic warfare is used to make it clear to those who might consider other forms of socio-economic organisations that « there is no alternative » (the famous TINA). Economy is turned into some kind of natural entity with its own laws, whims, sacrifices which unfortunate pagans will finally have to put up with.

But the current socio-economic organisation is actually a socio-historical construct. The market does not exist ex nihilo: markets are creations meant to enable the expansion of for-profit areas. Capitalism is a socio-economic organisational system in which companies will prioritize stakeholders’ profit. 

Consequently, it feeds on market expansion. If something is not categorised as a market, it is necessary to twist it into market logic. It is clear that this process is not natural and often entails quite a good deal of intimidation and violence.

That is why and how health, education, the prison system, the army, caring for the elderly, even non-market private spaces have become market targets necessary to the expansion of capitalism and financial performance. Production has become a profit-making means (often a personal one) instead of being a means to meet collective needs. But is there really no alternative? 

Economic peace as a counterpoint

The concept of economic peace was created by researchers across several fields of study and by economic business leaders in 2012 as a counterpoint (in the musical sense of the word) to the warlike rhetoric and practices generated by the « mainstream theory ». The tune of economic warfare does exist. But it is not the only one.

The kind of harmonic proposed by economic peace is discordant with the score of war. It is not meant to replace it but focuses on the blind spots and gaps made invisible by the « mainstream » trend, which reveal human beings’ potential for cooperation and empathy.

Economic peace is not a new « divinity » aiming at imposing some specific social order. It is a non-expert stance which deliberately starts from « what is real », what makes up reality, rather than attempt to construct an ideal theory-like world.  « What is real » is of course multi-faceted as we always envisage the world through several angles.  This versatility is a strength which permits to envision a desirable horizon supported by a pluralist ambition.

This approach does not provide a well-defined route that would lead to social harmony. Economic peace is rather close to the approach of the Chilean economist Max-Neef‘s « barefoot economics » (1983 alternative Nobel prize): we need to take a fresh look at what comes up by escaping self-evident categories of regular thoughts, by throwing light on what has not been thought of yet … This contributes to remove the essentialist conception of human beings and of the economy.

Economic warfare with all its forms of power, territory or money justifies the harmful persistence of an over-individualistic culture whose damaging impact has become obvious today. Economic peace, seen not as an ideal ambition but as a space promoting collaboration and sharing, requires some individual withdrawing to further collective responsibility. It is by no means the dissolution of the individual self, on the contrary, it is a way to assert one’s place and one’s contribution to the living world.

Balancing potentials: shifting from combative to collaborative

Everybody can witness collaborative relationships between individuals every day.  Benevolent and emphatic behaviours are increasingly valued while more negative ones tend to be blamed, which clearly reveals that even the pursuit of self-interest often goes with forms of selflessness. Not all actions are equal, as shown by our capacity to approve of some – to deem them as heroic – and to condemn others as evil.

These acts of violence, of domination or indifference do question, not a supposedly evil human nature but the way the socio-economic organisation impacts our own relationship to ourselves or to others. Which potentialities do we wish to value: the peaceful interactions we are already experiencing or the constricting, even ravaging beliefs we are being imposed? Which potentialities do we favour in our interactions with others: empathy, benevolence or mandatory relationships of competition and distrust? Which human potentialities does the current socio-economic organisation encourage? What are children and citizens trained for? Which missions are the productive sectors assigned?

Consider the following question: within a single day, how many harmful actions have you identified and how many benevolent or collaborative acts have enabled you to complete everything you had to carry out? You will then probably realize that everyone has altogether a collaborative and a confrontational potential, and that both are necessary, but the proportion of both is the very reverse of what we are usually told. The number of aggressive behaviours per day is rather limited while billions of collaborative actions are required to make a town work every day!

Only a cross-cutting approach can lead to question the power individuals have to impact their social environment and the way this social environment impacts them. It is not a matter of defining the type of social contract which should be established between individuals and the social world. The challenge consists in ensuring some consistency between the individual, relational and collective levels. Individuals are not autonomous entities; they are constructed by and through their conscious and unconscious relation to the world.

Deconstructing to be able to reconstruct

The conditions necessary to build economic peace imply a number of changes at several levels: self-awareness, awareness of others, of organisational interactions, of historical relationships of domination, exploitation (colonialism, asymmetrical international rules, etc,) and relations to nature.

Away from theoretical and automatic relations focusing on one’s self, new relational and mental gestures must be introduced as well as new collective regulations which will lead to the transformation of the social structure (transforming property rules, competition rules, etc.)

These mental and physical gestures are useful tools, but, being the reflection of our social interactions, they remain constricting. Constructing these new gestures cannot be achieved without first deconstructing the old ones. We have to leave out our expertise in economics, start afresh and dare desecrate the dogma of economic warfare.


Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: all rights reserved Adèle Huguet.

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Image credits in CC:  Flaticon Freepik, Darius Dan


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Fiona Ottaviani et Dominique Steiler

Fiona Ottaviani, Grenoble Ecole de Management, Chaire Paix économique ( ; Dominique Steiler, Grenoble Ecole de Management, Chaire Paix économique (

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