Can thousands of diverse, locally-rooted, grassroots economic projects
form the basis for a viable democratic alternative to capitalism? It might seem
unlikely that a motley array of initiatives such as worker, consumer, and housing
cooperatives, community currencies, urban gardens, fair trade organizations, intentional
communities, and neighborhood self-help associations could hold a candle to the
pervasive and seemingly all-powerful capitalist economy. These "islands of
alternatives in a capitalist sea" are often small in scale, low in resources,
and sparsely networked. They are rarely able to connect with each other, much
less to link their work with larger, coherent structural visions of an alternative
Indeed, in the search for alternatives to capitalism, existing democratic economic
projects are frequently painted as noble but marginal practices, doomed to be
crushed or co-opted by the forces of the market. But is this inevitable? Is
it possible that courageous and dedicated grassroots economic activists worldwide,
forging paths that meet the basic needs of their communities while cultivating
democracy and justice, are planting the seeds of another economy in our midst?
Could a process of horizontal networking, linking diverse democratic alternatives
and social change organizations together in webs of mutual recognition and support,
generate a social movement and economic vision capable of challenging the global
To these audacious suggestions, economic activists around the world organizing
under the banner of economía solidaria, or "solidarity economy,"
would answer a resounding "yes!" It is precisely these innovative,
bottom-up experiences of production, exchange, and consumption that are building
the foundation for what many people are calling "new cultures and economies
Origins of the solidarity economy approach
The idea and practice of "solidarity economics" emerged in Latin
America in the mid-1980s and blossomed in the mid to late 90s, as a convergence
of at least three social trends. First, the economic exclusion experienced by
growing segments of society, generated by deepening debt and the ensuing structural
adjustment programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund, forced many
communities to develop and strengthen creative, autonomous and locally-rooted
ways of meeting basic needs. These included initiatives such as worker and producer
cooperatives, neighborhood and community associations, savings and credit associations,
collective kitchens, and unemployed or landless worker mutual-aid organizations.
Second, growing dissatisfaction with the culture of the dominant market economy
led groups of more economically privileged people to seek new ways of generating
livelihoods and providing services. From largely a middle-class "counter-culture"
-- similar to that in the Unites States since the 1960's -- emerged projects
such as consumer cooperatives, cooperative childcare and health care initiatives,
housing cooperatives, intentional communities, and ecovillages.
There were often significant class and cultural differences between these two
groups. Nevertheless, the initiatives they generated all shared a common set
of operative values: cooperation, autonomy from centralized authorities, and
participatory self-management by their members.
A third trend worked to link the two grassroots upsurges of economic solidarity
to each other and to the larger socioeconomic con-text: emerging local and regional
movements were beginning to forge global connections in opposition to the forces
of neoliberal and neocolonial globalization. Seeking a democratic alternative
to both capitalist globalization and state socialism, these movements identified
community-based economic projects as key elements of alternative social organization.
At the First Latin Encuentro of Solidarity Culture and Socioeconomy, held in
1998 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, participants from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Peru,
Nicaragua, Bolivia, Colombia, and Spain created the Red latinoamericana de la
economía solidaria (Latin American Solidarity Economy Network). In a
statement, the Network declared, "We have observed that our experiences
have much in common: a thirst for justice, a logic of participation, creativity,
and processes of self-management and autonomy." By linking these shared
experiences together in mutual support, they proclaimed, it would be possible
to work toward "a socioeconomy of solidarity as a way of life that encompasses
the totality of the human being."
Since 1998, this solidarity economy approach has developed into a global movement.
The first World Social Forum in 2001 marked the creation of the Global Network
of the Solidarity Socioeconomy, fostered in large part by an international working
group of the Alliance for a Responsible, Plural, and United World. By the time
of the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai, India, the Global Network had grown
to include 47 national and regional solidarity economy networks from nearly
every continent, representing tens of thousands of democratic grassroots economic
initiatives worldwide. At the most recent World Social Forum in Venezuela, solidarity
economy topics comprised an estimated one-third of the entire event's program.
Defining solidarity economics
But what exactly is this "solidarity economy approach"? For some
theorists of the movement, it begins with a redefinition of economic space itself.
The dominant neoclassical story paints the economy as a singular space in which
market actors (firms or individuals) seek to maximize their gain in a context
of scarce resources. These actors play out their profit-seeking dramas on a
stage wholly defined by the dynamics of the market and the state. Countering
this narrow approach, solidarity economics embraces a plural and cultural view
of the economy as a complex space of social relationship in which individuals,
communities, and organizations generate livelihoods through many different means
and with many different motivations and aspirations -- not just the maximization
of individual gain. The economic activity validated by neoclassical economists
represents, in this view, only a tiny fraction of human efforts to meet needs
and fulfill desires.
What really sustains us when the factories shut down, when the floodwaters
rise, or when the paycheck is not enough? In the face of failures of market
and state, we often survive by self-organized relationships of care, cooperation,
and community. Despite the ways in which capitalist culture generates and mobilizes
a drive toward competition and selfishness, basic practices of human solidarity
remain the foundation upon which society and community are built. Capitalism's
dominance may, in fact, derive in no small part from its ability to co-opt and
colonize these relationships of cooperation and mutual aid.
In expanding what counts as part of "the economy," solidarity economics
resonates with other streams of contemporary radical economic thought. Marxist
economists such as Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, for example, have suggested
that multiple "modes of production" co-exist alongside the capitalist
wage-labor mode. Feminist economists have demonstrated how neoclassical conceptions
have hidden and devalued basic forms of subsistence and caregiving work that
are often done by women. Feminist economic geographer J.K. Gibson-Graham, in
her books The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It) (1998) and A Postcapitalist
Politics (2006), synthesizes these and other streams of thought in what she
calls the "diverse economies perspective." Addressing concerns that
are central to the solidarity economy approach, she asks, "If we viewed
the economic landscape as imperfectly colonized, homogenized, systematized,
might we not find openings for projects of noncapitalist invention? Might we
not find ways to construct different communities and societies, building upon
what already exists?"
Indeed, the first task of solidarity economics is to identify existing economic
practices -- often invisible or marginal to the dominant lens -- that foster
cooperation, dignity, equity, self-determination, and democracy. As Carola Reintjes
of the Spanish fair trade association Iniciativas de economía alternativa
y solidaria (IDEAS) points out, "Solidarity economy is not a sector of
the economy, but a transversal approach that includes initiatives in all sectors."
This project cuts across traditional lines of formal/informal, market/non-market,
and social/economic in search of solidarity-based practices of production, exchange
and consumption -- ranging from legally-structured worker cooperatives, which
engage the capitalist market with cooperative values, to informal affinity-based
neighborhood gift networks.
At a 2000 conference in Dublin on the "Third Sector" (the "voluntary"
sector, as opposed to the for-profit sector and the state), Brazilian activist
Ana Mercedes Sarria Icaza put it this way: "To speak of a solidarity economy
is not to speak of a homogeneous universe with similar characteristics. Indeed,
the universe of the solidarity economy reflects a multiplicity of spaces and
forms, as much in what we would call the 'formal aspects' (size, structure,
governance) as in qualitative aspects (levels of solidarity, democracy, dynamism,
At its core, solidarity economics rejects one-size-fits-all solutions and singular
economic blueprints, embracing instead a view that economic and social development
should occur from the bottom up, diversely and creatively crafted by those who
are most affected. As Marcos Arruda of the Brazilian Solidarity Economy Network
stated at the World Social Forum in 2004, "a solidarity economy does not
arise from thinkers or ideas; it is the outcome of the concrete historical struggle
of the human being to live and to develop him/herself as an individual and a
collective." Similarly, contrasting the solidarity economy approach to
historical visions of the "cooperative commonwealth," Henri de Roche
noted that "the old cooperativism was a utopia in search of its practice
and the new cooperativism is a practice in search of its utopia."
Unlike many alternative economic projects that have come before, solidarity
economics does not seek to build a singular model of how the economy should
be structured, but rather pursues a dynamic process of economic organizing in
which organizations, communities, and social movements work to identify, strengthen,
connect, and create democratic and liberatory means of meeting their needs.
Success will only emerge as a product of organization and struggle. "Innovative
practices at the micro level can only be viable and structurally effective for
social change," said Arruda, "if they interweave with one another
to form always-broader collaborative networks and solidarity chains of production-finance-distribution-consumption-education-communication."
This is, perhaps, the heart of solidarity economics -- the process of networking
diverse structures that share common values in ways that strengthen each. Mapping
out the economic terrain in terms of "chains of solidarity production,"
organizers can build relationships of mutual aid and exchange between initiatives
that increase their collective viability. At the same time, building relationships
between solidarity-based enterprises and larger social movements builds increased
support for the solidarity economy while allowing the movements to meet some
of the basic needs of their participants, demonstrate viable alternatives, and
thus increase the power and scope of their transformative work.
In Brazil, this dynamic is demonstrated by the Landless Workers Movement (MST).
As a broad, popular movement for economic justice and agrarian reform, the MST
has built a powerful program combining social and political action with cooperative,
solidarity-based economics. From the establishment of democratic, cooperative
settlements on land re-appropriated from wealthy absentee landlords to the development
of nationwide, inter-settlement exchanges of products and services, networks
of economic solidarity are contributing significantly to the sustenance of more
than 300,000 families -- over a million people. The Brazilian Solidarity Economy
Forum, of which the MST is a part, works on an even broader scale, incorporating
12 national networks and membership organizations with 21 regional Solidarity
Forums and thousands of cooperative enterprises to build mutual support systems,
facilitate exchanges, create cooperative incubator programs, and shape public
policy. Building a Movement
The potential for building concrete local, national, and even global networks
of solidarity-based support and exchange is tremendous and yet barely realized.
While some countries, notably Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Spain, and Venezuela,
have created strong solidarity-economy networks linked with growing social movements,
others have barely begun. The United States is an example. With the exception
of the Rural Coalition/Coalición Rural, a U.S.-Mexico cross-border agricultural
solidarity organization, the United States has been nearly absent from global
conversations about solidarity economics. Maybe it's harder for those in the
"belly of the beast" to imagine that alternatives to capitalism are
possible. Are alternative economic practices somehow rendered more invisible,
or more isolated, in the United States than in other parts of the world? Are
there simply fewer solidarity-based initiatives with which to network?
Perhaps. But things are changing. An increasing number of U.S. organizations,
researchers, writers, students, and concerned citizens are questioning capitalist
economic dogma and exploring alternatives. A new wave of grassroots economic
organizing is cultivating the next generation of worker cooperatives, community
currency initiatives, housing cooperatives and collectives, community garden
projects, fair trade campaigns, community land trusts, anarchist bookstores
("infoshops"), and community centers. Groups working on similar projects
are making connections with each other. Hundreds of worker-owners from diverse
cooperative businesses across the nation, for example, will gather in New York
City this October at the second meeting of the United States Federation of Worker
Cooperatives. In the realm of cross-sector organizing, a broad coalition of
organizations is working to create a comprehensive public directory of the cooperative
and solidarity economy in the United States and Canada as a tool for networking
It takes no great stretch of the imagination to picture, within the
next five to ten years, a "U.S. Solidarity Economy Summit" convening
many of the thousands of democratic, grassroots economic projects in the United
States to generate a stronger shared identity, build relationships, and lay
the groundwork for a U.S. Solidarity Economy Alliance. Move over, CEOs of the
Wishful thinking? Maybe not. In the words of Argentinian economist
and organizer Jose Luis Corragio, "the viability of social transformation
is rarely a fact; it is, rather, something that must be constructed." This
is a call to action.
Ethan Miller is a writer, musician, subsistence farmer, and organizer.
A member of the GEO Collective and of the musical collective Riotfolk, he lives
and works at JED, a land-based mutual-aid cooperative in Greene, Maine.
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