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What is Solidarity Economy?

The recent presidential election lay bare a deep dissatisfaction over a political system and economy “rigged” for the 1%. But while some place their hope in a mythical white past, many others are calling for a “new economy”—one that is more just, sustainable, and democratic. These desires for deep, transformational change come not just from those who are dissatisfied, but even more from those communities that are simply struggling to survive. These dreams arise from those making Black Lives Matter, from immigrant workers making poverty wages, from ex-prisoners locked out of the mainstream economy, from tenants barely able to make rent, and from communities being displaced to make way for the 1%.

Calls for a “new” economy in lower-income communities and communities of color are not new. In fact, our communities have long innovated collective strategies for survival, such as mutual aid, community organizing, self-help, and cooperatives of all kinds, showing us that not only is another world possible but it is already here in bits and pieces. These practices have been embedded in black liberation movements, the early labor movement, and many other progressive movements in the US. In other parts of the world, particularly Latin America, movements have been fighting for and implementing these strategies explicitly as “solidarity economy”.

In this report, we use the term solidarity economy to refer to visions, strategies, and practices towards a more just, sustainable, and democratic society. We prefer this term to “new economy” not only because the work we are talking about is not new, but also because it names a core value. “Solidarity” invokes that idea that we are all in this together and that there are common bonds between all human beings (and living beings on Earth). The term is not yet widely heard in the US but we use it here to signal our inspiration by solidarity economy movements across the globe.

Solidarity economy is a movement aspiring to transform the system that is commonly called “capitalism” or simply “business as usual”. With the downfall of the Soviet Union and China’s rise in the global economy, the capitalism versus communism framework has become outdated. In the twenty-first century, it may seem that US-style capitalism (what some call neoliberalism) is the only system left. But what we need is a long-term vision of transformation that is not stuck in old paradigms of either socialist revolution or endless capitalism.

In seeking transformation, we must keep in mind that the systems we want to change are not only economic, but also political and cultural. Capitalism is not only an economic system, but also a political system supported and enabled by government (belying the rhetoric of free markets). And it is also a powerful set of ideas—an ideology—that shapes our view of the world and what we believe is possible.

We expect that attempts to build solidarity economy will have to contend with powerful forces associated with capitalism. Because we do not have the luxury of creating solidarity economy in a vacuum, we must build solidarity alternatives at the same time that we struggle to reform the political, economic, and ideological systems that are making life so difficult for so many.

Unlike some social change theories, we do not believe that there is a single path for transformation beyond capitalism. Nor is solidarity economy simply a wholesale replacement of capitalism. Rather, transformation will have many roots and sprouts, each situated in their own place, figuring out how to meet needs in ways that are more just, sustainable, and democratic. This report examines eight cases of solidarity economy movement across Massachusetts.

Courtesy of YES! Magazine, Photo by Paul Dunn

Solidarity Economy is a Transformational Movement

Solidarity economy is more than just cooperatives and other alternative economic institutions. We view solidarity economy holistically, as a social justice movement. Like other movements, it is shifting our consciousness not only to uncover root causes and what is wrong, but also to expand our vision of what is possible, and to inspire dreams of the world as it should be. It is building power, not just to resist and reform the injustices and unsustainabilities produced by current systems, but ultimately to democratically control and govern political and economic resources to sustain people and the planet. And it is creating economic alternatives and prototypes for producing, exchanging, consuming, and investing in ways that are more just, sustainable, and democratic.

Seeing all these three dimensions of solidarity economy together will help us build pathways towards transformation rather than more dead ends. Capitalism, itself, is a multi-faceted system of economic institutions, political governance, and ideology (or world view). If we want to truly transform and go beyond capitalism, then we must confront it in all three of these dimensions: consciousness, power, and economy.

All too often, we can become trapped into capitalist ways of thinking and doing – what some call capitalocentrism.i This limits our imagination of what is possible to only capitalistic ways and relegates other ways to “pipe dreams” or as contrary to human “nature”. It does so in part by making invisible the multiple and diverse economies that actually exist and that we already use to meet our needs and care for each other. Economies that involve gifts, trade and barter, producing for self, and mutual assistance (just to name a few) are not perceived as “economic” because they do not involve market exchange using money or do not treat goods and services as commodities.

Even in the US, we are all involved in non-capitalist economic systems. This includes those of us who grow our own food in a garden or take care of our own children or elders instead of paying others for those goods and services. Indeed many of these non-capitalist ways are what make survival possible for our communities and make life meaningful. Some of these activities are explicitly rooted in values of democracy, sustainability, and justice. They are solidarity economy already in action.

Furthermore, the capitalist mindset separates economy from society and nature. It is as if economy exists apart from people, communities, government, and the planet we all share. It sees economy as its own machine, running on the logic of profit and market competition. Solidarity economy movement is about reclaiming diverse economies and reintegrating society and nature with economy.

The work of envisioning the future and “making the road by walking” means undoing the capitalocentrism that grips our political and economic institutions and our culture and beliefs. We are in a period where the contradictions between what capitalism promises and what it delivers are stark and growing. There is increasing recognition that the current system is broken and possibly dying. In lower-income communities and communities of color, these realities have been obvious for generations. Yet, we struggle to envision transformative pathways.

We are not starting from nothing. The seeds and sprouts of this movement already here, established on ground laid by previous struggles and liberation movements in the US and beyond. There is a long tradition of African American cooperative development strategies espoused by leaders from W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey to Ella Jo Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer.ii Many immigrants in our communities come from Latin America and the Caribbean where solidarity economy and cooperative movements have long been active.

What we see happening in lower-income communities of color in Massachusetts is an emerging solidarity economy movement. It aspires to transformational change. It is creating alternatives for the future, while at the same time resisting and reforming current systems. The movement is challenged externally by political and economic forces that seek to further exploit and marginalize our communities. It is challenged internally by capitalist thinking and outdated theories of change. Yet, there are opportunities both within and beyond our communities to make headway towards a solidarity economy, by shifting consciousness, building power, and creating economic alternatives.

i See J. K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It) (University of Minnesota Press, 1996) and A Postcapitalist Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

ii See Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (Penn State University Press, 2014).

Three-Dimensional Framework for Solidarity Economy Movement

We use these three dimensions to help us assess the trajectories of solidarity economy movement. While each dimension is its own lens -- a way to see one facet of solidarity economy movement -- transformation involves movement across all three. While any given effort may emphasize one particular dimension over the others, movement work affects all three dimensions simultaneously.

Consciousness

Winning “hearts and minds” is a common refrain for social movements. Movements for justice are not just driven by people angry at the way things are, but by people with a dream of how the world should be and the belief that it can be achieved. Those visions and beliefs are key resources for action.

Consciousness can be assessed on several levels:

  • Desire for transformation – To what extent is there acknowledgement of the need for transformative change and how is this desire being expressed? To what extent is there an analysis of capitalism or existing structures and an attempt to undo capitalocentrism?

  • Articulation of vision – How is the vision being expressed? To what extent is there a broader solidarity economy frame?

  • Theory of transformation – What are the ideas about how transformative change can happen?

One can have a desire for transformation, but not have a clear articulation of vision. One can have a vision, but not have an idea of how to get there. Also, one may be practicing solidarity economy values but not link their actions to a broader vision.

Development of consciousness happens in varying ways. Some initiatives are explicit about a solidarity economy vision, while for others it is embedded. The work of building consciousness can involve:

  • Popular education and leadership development – facilitates people coming to their own understanding of the structures that create the conditions they are fighting to change and develop their vision for the world as they want it to be.

  • Mapping – makes visible the solidarity economy initiatives that already exist or are in formation and help them find each other.

  • Planning and strategy – incorporates an analysis of broader structures and transformative vision into organizing, advocacy campaigns, and building of economic alternatives.

  • Communications – articulates vision and transformative pathways for internal and external audiences.

 

Note that consciousness is always in process and interacts with the other two dimensions. Our thoughts and awareness are shaped by the relative positions of power we exercise and the institutions that we are a part of.

Power-Building

Movements also say they are “flexing their muscles” to describe their exercise of power to achieve change. “Building power” is a common phrase in the mission statements of many movement organizations. Often times, the conception of power is limited to the political realm, where power is exercised in elections and policy advocacy. In this narrow interpretation, power-building may seem disconnected from solidarity economy because it is about resistance and reform within the confines of what is politically feasible today. But power-building must also be embraced as a fundamental aspect of solidarity economy movement if our goal is transformation.

Organizing resistance and mobilizing for reform builds our democratic muscles. But while these muscles are well exercised in protest, they must also be trained to exercise collective control over the economy and government. Power-building for transformation necessarily involves changing the very nature of our political and economic institutions in terms of who controls them and towards what ends. We still must fight against the policies that advantage and steer public resources towards capitalist enterprises that exploit and oppress lower-income communities and communities of color, but we can work at the same time to win supportive public policies and resources for alternative economic institutions.

Power is built within organizations, as well in coalitions, networks, and movements. Power-building is most often associated with community organizing for political and policy campaigns, but can also happen through the startup and governance of alternative economic institutions, such as cooperatives and mutual aid associations. We see power-building on several levels:

  • Resist – organizes communities to defend against threats and attacks and the injustices perpetrated by government and corporations.

  • Reform – builds power for incremental change, in order to improve immediate conditions. Although reform campaigns are not, by definition, transformative, they are critical for mobilizing and involving large numbers of people, thus creating opportunities to develop consciousness and solidarity with others in and beyond their communities.

  • Govern and Control – exercises democratic community power directly. This aspect of power-building is frequently expressed through ideas of “community control”, “self determination”, and “independent political power”. This power can start in small ways in our own organizations and local economies, but must also be extended to reclaim the broader economy and government.

  • Connect and Assist– catalyzes movement growth by building the connective tissue among movement strands and provides assistance of various kinds to build movement capacity. Through coalitions and networks, relationships are built across difference (racial/ethnic, cultural, and other) and solidarity is fostered across diverse constituencies.

Economic Alternatives

The third dimension features the cooperatives and community-owned businesses that are often at the forefront of conversations around solidarity economy. Ultimately, solidarity economy is no economy at all, if it does not feed, clothe, and house us and meet other needs. Many efforts are under way, such as the US Solidarity Economy Network and the New Economy Coalition, to make visible and categorize the diverse array of alternatives that put people and planet over profit and strive to produce, consume, and exchange in ways that are more just, sustainable, and democratic.

The diagram below is a common one used by the US Solidarity Economy. It depicts a conventional economic cycle often used for capitalist economy. But it uses terms that emphasize a broader and more diverse set of economic activities, not just ones that are capitalist. For instance, profit (or accumulation) is named surplus. Within each sector are some examples of solidarity alternatives. The economic cycle consists of the following sectors:

  • Creation – includes nature and culture -- what humans inherit to steward for future generations. In capitalist terms, this category would be natural resources (or natural capital).

  • (Re)Production – includes not just things we grow and make, but also humans reproducing ourselves.

  • Exchange/Transfer – includes markets of various kinds, but also non-market, non-monetary exchange.

  • Use (Consumption) – includes the different ways we consume to live.

  • Surplus – this is not just profit but also savings and investment (financing) of money and wealth, as well as other forms of surplus (such as composting and recycling).
     

i Figure adapted by Libbie Cohn from Ethan Miller, “OCCUPY! CONNECT! CREATE! - Imagining Life Beyond "The Economy" (part seven),” GEO 10, Grassroots Economic Organizing (October 2011). http://www.geo.coop/node/729