Solidarity Economy: Building An Economy For People & Planet

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Above Photo: From Thenextsystem.org

We stand at the brink of disaster. The fragilities of the 2008 global economic meltdown remain, prompting warnings of another financial collapse from the likes of billionaire financier George Soros and the International Monetary Fund. Inequality in wealth and income are at historic highs, with all of the attendant dangers of concentrated Wealth and power, along withthe burdens that fall disproportionately on communities of color and low income communities. Our ecosystem is in crisis. A growing number of scientists believe that humans are fueling our headlong rush toward what is being called the Sixth Extinction—the Fifth Extinction wiped out the dinosaurs.1

This is a grim picture of a long simmering crisis that is systemic in nature and created by our own hands. And yet, crisis is opportunity. The last two major economic crises, the Great Depression and the stagflation of the late 1970s, resulted in profound shifts in the dominant capitalist economic model. The Great Recession has shaken the faith in neoliberal capitalism and created an openness to thinking about new models. It will take a fundamental transformation of our system to draw us back from the brink. The solidarity economy offers pathways toward a transformation of our economy into one that serves people and planet, not blind growth and private profits.

The solidarity economy is a global movement to build a just and sustainable economy. It is not a blueprint theorized by academics in ivory towers. Rather, it is an ecosystem of practices that already exist—some old, some new, some still emergent—that are aligned with solidarity economy values. There is already a huge foundation upon which to build. The solidarity economy seeks to make visible and connect these siloed practices in order to build an alternative economic system, broadly defined, for people and the planet.

Defining the solidarity economy can be challenging. Definitions vary across place, time, politics, and happenstance, though there is increasingly a broad common understanding. This paper draws heavily on two perspectives. The first is the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of the Social Solidarity Economy (RIPESS), which was formed in 1997 and connects national and regional solidarity economy networks that exist on every continent. The author is a member of the RIPESS Board and coordinated RIPESS’s global consultation to develop a stronger common understanding of the concepts, definitions, and framework of the solidarity economy. Through this process, RIPESS produced its Global Vision for a Social Solidarity Economy (2015) document. The other perspective that informs this paper is the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network (SEN), which was formed in 2007 at the US Social Forum in Atlanta. The author has served as SEN’s coordinator since its founding.

Solidarity Economy: Vision and Principles

The Solidarity Economy seeks to transform the dominant capitalist system, as well as other authoritarian, state-dominated systems, into one that puts people and the planet at its core. The solidarity economy is an evolving framework as well as a global movement comprised of practitioners, activists, scholars, and proponents.

The framework of solidarity economy is a relatively recent construct, though its component parts are both old and new. The term arose independently in the late 1980s in Latin America and Europe through academics such as Luis Razeto (1998) in Chile and Jean Louis Laville (2007) in France.2 The articulation of the solidarity economy was, in many ways, theory in pursuit of practice, rather than practice in conformity to a model. Scholars drew on their research and experiences to theorize and systematize a wide array of existing practices that form the foundation of “another world,” or more accurately, in the words of the Zapatista, “a world in which many worlds fit.”

We understand transformation to include our economic as well as social and political systems, all of which are inextricably intertwined. The economy is a social construction, not a natural phenomenon, and is shaped by the interplay with other dynamics in culture, politics, history, the ecosystem, and technology. Solidarity economy requires a shift in our economic paradigm from one that prioritizes profit and growth to one that prioritizes living in harmony with each other and nature.

Examples of the solidarity economy exist in all sectors of the economy, as depicted in Diagram 1. We understand the solidarity economy—and all economies—as being embedded in the natural and social ecosystems. Governance, through policies and institutions, shapes the economic system on a macro-level (e.g., national or international) as well as the micro-level (enterprise or community). Given that the solidarity economy is about systemic transformation, we are talking about change in all sectors of the economy including governance, or the state. As Argentinian economist Jose Luis Corragio put it,

When today we propose a State as a protagonist of a revolution and promoter of another economy and another territorialization, it must be on the assumption that the State itself has changed its political context, that it “governs by obeying”, following the Zapatista slogan.3

Principles

The principles of the solidarity economy vary in their articulation from place to place but share a common ethos of prioritizing the welfare of people and planet over profits and blind growth. The U.S. Solidarity Economy Network uses these five principles:

  • solidarity, cooperation, mutualism
  • equity in all dimensions (e.g., race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and gender, etc.)
  • participatory democracy
  • sustainability
  • pluralism

It is important to take these principles together. Individually, they are insufficient to undergird a just and sustainable system. It is entirely possible to have alignment in one dimension but not in others. For example, it is possible to have equity without sustainability, democracy without equity, sustainability without solidarity, and so forth. Like any healthy ecosystem, the solidarity economy flourishes with a full spectrum of interconnected principles.

These broad principles can each be unpacked to articulate a more fine-grained expression of values.

Pluralism

Solidarity economy is respectful of variations in interpretation and practice based on local history, culture, and socio-economic conditions. Pluralism means that the solidarity economy is not a fixed blueprint, but rather acknowledges that there are multiple paths to the same goal of a just and sustainable world. Thus, there are national and local variations in the definition of the solidarity economy as well as strategies to build it. That said, there is a strong common foundation, as articulated in RIPESS’s Global Vision document. It draws on the experience and analysis of grassroots networks of practitioners, activists, scholars, and proponents on every continent (save Antarctica).4

Diagram 1: Solidarity Economy Prezi – An evolving presentation created by the Center for Popular Economics. Last updated 3/29/16, https://prezi.com/y7zbactvkoxx/se-w-movement/

Solidarity

Solidarity economy is grounded in collective practices that express the principle of solidaritywhich we use as shorthand for a range of social interactions, including: cooperation, mutualism, sharing, reciprocity, altruism, love, caring, and gifting. The solidarity economy seeks to nurture these values, as opposed to individualistic, competitive values and the divisiveness of racism, classism, and sexism that characterize capitalism. The solidarity economy takes forms that are old and new, formal and informal, monetized and non-monetized, mainstream and alternative, and most importantly, exist in all sectors of the economy. Of particular note is the recognition of non-monetized activities that are often motivated by solidarity, such as care labor and community nurturing (cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, eldercare, community events, helping a neighbor, and volunteer work) as not only part of the “real” economy, but the bedrock of reproduction and essential to participation in paid work. Unpaid household production accounts for an estimated $11 trillion worth of global economic activity, ranging from 18 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in the US to 42 percent and 43 percent of the GDP in Australia and Portugal respectively.5 The solidarity economy not only recognizes the critical role of non-monetized transactions in enabling societies to function, but also seeks to support them through policies and institutions.

Equity

The solidarity economy framework emerged from real-world practices, many of which were undertaken by communities on the front lines of struggle against neoliberalism and corporate globalization.6 For example, in Latin America, the poor, unemployed, landless, and marginalized used solidarity economy practices to collectively build their own livelihoods in the devastating wake of the debt crisis, neoliberal policies, structural adjustment, and austerity. Examples include land takeovers by Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), factory take-overs in Argentina, the autonomista movements in Chiapas, Mexico, and the Popular Economic Organizations in Chile.7

The principle of equity is thus embedded in the solidarity economy through its historical development as well as through deliberate commitment. The solidarity economy opposes all forms of oppression: imperialism and colonization; racial, ethnic, religious, LGBTQ, and cultural discrimination; and patriarchy. Solidarity economy values are informed by the struggles of social movements. As a movement, the solidarity economy is interwoven with social movements focusing on anti-racism, feminism, anti-imperialism, labor, poor people, the environment, and democracy. We believe that we need to both resist and build; whereas social movements tend to focus more on resisting, the solidarity economy tends to focus more on building. Both are necessary and interdependent and we aim to foster stronger integration between them.

In the US, we need to be deliberate in our efforts to support and strengthen the solidarity economy in marginalized and oppressed communities and to be mindful of the danger of becoming isolated in relatively affluent and white communities. In order for the solidarity economy to uphold equity, it must be part of the solution to poverty and oppression for low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrant, LGBTQ, and other marginalized groups.

This is not to imply that solidarity economy practices are absent in low-income communities. Throughout time, marginalized communities have practiced informal forms of community self-provisioning, gardening, child and elder care, mutual aid, lending, and healing. Many of these practices are invisible because of their informal nature—they are not incorporated, they do not pay taxes, they do not hang out a shingle, they are not listed in a directory. In terms of formal sector solidarity economy practices, historically, there have been ebbs and flows in marginalized communities. For example, Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s recent book Collective Couragedocuments a history of thriving cooperatives in the African American community.8 Sadly, these businesses came under racist  attack and strangulation, resulting in the loss of this history until Gordon Nembhard uncovered it. In the last section of this paper on real world examples, solidarity economy practices in marginalized communities are highlighted.

Participatory Democracy

The solidarity economy embraces participatory democracy as a way for people to participate in their own collective development. Making decision-making and action as local as possible, sometimes referred to as subsidiarization, helps people participate in decision-making about their communities and workplaces and in the implementation of solutions.

The principle of democracy extends to various aspects of life, including the workplace. The solidarity economy upholds self-management and collective ownership. The RIPESS Global Vision document states:

Self-management and collective ownership in the workplace and in the community [are] central to the solidarity economy…There are many different expressions of self-management and collective ownership including: cooperatives (worker, producer, consumer, credit unions, housing, etc.), collective social enterprises, and participatory governance of the commons (for example, community management of water, fisheries, or forests).9

Therefore, capitalist enterprises, in which there is an owning class and a working class, are not included in the solidarity economy even if the company is socially responsible and operates according to a triple bottom line (social, ecological, and financial). This is because the owner ultimately has control over the enterprise and profits. The existence of worker participation in decision-making granted by management or negotiated by a union does not constitute workplace democracy insofar as it can be taken away or lost. In contrast, a cooperative structure by definition gives workers decision-making power, even if there are instances where this is poorly enacted. While the solidarity economy does not extend to capitalist enterprises, in practical terms, there are many allies and much common ground to be found among socially responsible capitalist enterprises. The long-term vision of the solidarity economy remains committed to economic democracy, but transitional process will need to build alliances while working to move allies in the direction of solidarity economy principles.

Sustainability

RIPESS has embraced the concept of buen vivir or sumak qawsay (living well), which draws heavily upon Andean indigenous perspectives of living in harmony with nature and with each other. The Ecuadoran National Plan for Good Living defines it as: “Covering needs, achieving a dignified quality of life and death; loving and being loved; the healthy flourishing of all individuals in peace and harmony with nature; and achieving an indefinite reproduction perpetuation of human cultures.”10

An important component of buen vivir is the rights of Mother Earth or Nature. The solidarity economy upholds the principle of sustainability  and RIPESS has embraced the more radical notion that ecosystems have the legal right “to exist, flourish and regenerate their natural capacities.”11 Nature cannot be seen as something that is only for humans to own and exploit. The rights of Mother Earth (nature) have been enshrined in the Constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador and have been recognized by more than three dozen communities in the US, including Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and San Bernadino, California.

Throughout the world there are practices that are well aligned with these values and others that are partially aligned. In other words, there is a spectrum of alignment. Those that are partially aligned but conflict in a fundamental aspect, include, for example, capitalist social enterprises and social investment. We see these as potential strategic allies, while also remaining vigilant of the danger of cooptation. The solidarity economy movement works to break down the silos that separate various SE practices and also to encourage allies to move toward full alignment with all of the SEvalues.

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