There is no alternative to free-market capitalism, Margaret Thatcher used to say, and about this, like so many things, she was wrong. In fact a variety of alternatives are functioning quite well, and a number of them are succeeding by operating according to the principles of the Solidarity Economy.
What is the Solidarity Economy? It’s a movement that has brought hope to a world disillusioned by capitalism and too often unaware that economic activity can be conducted with respect for human decency and the planet on which we live. Its five key principles are solidarity, sustainability, equity in all dimensions, participatory democracy and pluralism.
The Solidarity Economy isn’t a new idea, even for the United States. Economic practices that fall under the umbrella of the Solidarity Economy have been happening for a long time. They have been growing in recent years. Most people, often including the people practicing the alternatives, aren’t aware of how much alternative economic practice is already happening around them. The project of the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network (US-SEN, ussen.org) is to bring together the people who are practicing the principles of the Solidarity Economy (solidarity, sustainability, equity in all dimensions, participatory democracy and pluralism), disseminate best practices for achieving these principles, and encourage the deepening of economic practices along all these axes.
To the extent that we can speak about a Solidarity Economy movement, it consists of people working to connect islands of Solidarity Economy activity and help them to grow. Chief among these people in the United States are the activist members of US-SEN, especially Emily Kawano, the executive director of US-SEN and the Center for Popular Economics. US-SEN was formed at the first U.S. Social Forum, in Atlanta, Georgia in July of 2007, at which the Solidarity Economy was a major program track. The network held its own gathering, the U.S. Forum on the Solidarity Economy, in March of 2009 in Amherst, Mass. The new book Solidarity Economy I: Building Alternatives for People and Planet, Papers and Reports from the 2009 U.S. Forum on the Solidarity Economy, published to coincide with the second U.S. Social Forum in June 2010 in Detroit, is the second produced by the network. (The first, Solidarity Economy: Building Alternatives for People and Planet, Papers and Reports from the 2007 U.S. Social Forum, is also available for sale).
The practices outlined in the book cover a wide range of economic activity, from agriculture to finance. What they share is the application of one or more of the core principles mentioned above. One of the most important examples of functioning alternatives that fall within the Solidarity Economy sphere is Mondragon, a network of worker-owned cooperatives comprising everything from manufacturing to health and education, operating and expanding in the Basque country since 1956. It employs nearly 100,000 people, mostly in Spain, and had €33.5 billion in assets at the end of 2009.
In the United States, there are many examples of the Solidarity Economy operating on a more modest scale. Community supported agriculture (CSA), the selling of shares in a local farm’s produce, has grown in the last decade in response to the dominance of agribusiness in food production. An example is the Food Bank Farm in Hadley, Mass., which also provides food to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, of which I was a member. Another Solidarity example: community land trusts, in which land is commonly owned and houses are individually owned, but sale prices are capped. Consider, for instance, the Champlain Housing Trust, which operates in three Vermont counties to develop affordable housing. Worker-owned cooperatives, in which the workers make all the business decisions democratically, can be found all over the country. An example that incorporates sustainability as part of its mission is the Green Worker Cooperatives in the New York City borough of the Bronx.
The role of these initiatives is certainly up for debate. Consumer cooperatives are vulnerable to criticism as being somewhat exclusive. Some models of cooperative housing are not particularly sustainable. But the wide variety of Solidarity Economy practices ensures that successful models are emerging, with success based not just on economic viability, but on social and ecological responsibility.
The transformative power of the Solidarity Economy is that it can grow within the current economic system, eventually replacing it with a more human way of providing for society’s needs. Humans are inherently intelligent, creative and cooperative. That humanity can come up with a better system than capitalism should not be in doubt (though of course there is no shortage of doubters). That humanity desperately needs to change its way of doing things, especially in the “advanced” countries, becomes more obvious with each new environmental disaster and each new sign of climate change’s growing impact on civilization. The Solidarity Economy is a good candidate for how humanity can find its way through the growing crisis in its economic life.