The solidarity economy

Thomas Masterson | June 25, 2010

New BookThere 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.

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3 Responses to “The solidarity economy”

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  1. Comment by Tweets that mention The Solidarity Economy « Multiplier Effect -- Topsy.comJune 30, 2010 at 8:52 pm   Reply

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Eiichi Morino, Thomas Masterson. Thomas Masterson said: The Solidarity Economy: http://www.multiplier-effect.org/?p=316 via @addthis […]

  2. Comment by Curt DoolittleJuly 1, 2010 at 2:18 pm   Reply

    You can use meaningless terms while conveniently relying on a lack of detail to gloss over yet another permutation of communal sentiments, but no matter how many times you rephrase the same tired fantasies, you will not alter the hard reality that will face any participants in this fanciful silly Marxist doctrine. 1) incentives. 2) competitiveness 3) limits to consensus on means and methods 4) bureaucratic corruption 5) slowness of the system.

    These are good models for knitting circles, volunteer organizations, the uncompetitive, and the dull and ignorant, for whom market signals in the form of prices are too abstract to synthesize, and who do not have to manage scarce resources. In other words they are good for small networks within a capitalist system for the purpose of organizing members of a permanent submissive underclass.

    Any system capable of the current productive diversity must be of necessity incomprehensible. The market exists to handle incomprehensibility. And it functions despite incomprehensibility, anonymity, compassion or care. Within the wealth that is generated by capitalism, it is certainly possible to carry vast numbers of people who consume the benefits of the market without participating in it.

    But make no mistake that such fantastic extra-market lifestyles are luxuries provided BY THE MARKET, not alternatives to it.

    But if you want to throw the poor kiddies a bone so that the can lie to themselves that they’re special and principled rather than impotent and subsidized i suppose amidst the political discourse its no more harmless or harmful than any other drivel.

  3. Comment by Thomas MastersonJuly 6, 2010 at 2:40 pm   Reply

    Thanks for writing (sort of)! In response to the substantive comments you made about the post:
    – Lack of detail: it’s a fair cop, but this is an introduction to the topic, not intended to be a detailed breakdown. There is going to be a lack of detail in a short post about any topic as broad as this. Anyone who wants to know more could read the books.
    – List of hard realities: well, sure. But I don’t see how, other than by assumption, you come to the conclusion that these things are being ignored.
    – Good for small networks: this makes me wonder if you read the post. In which I use the example of Mondragon, which employs about 100,000 people. If that’s a small network, I’m ok with a bunch of those, rather than what we have now.
    – Markets: it seems that you are employing a straw-man here, since I never discussed alternatives to markets, but to free-market capitalism. Note that even in capitalism, a huge component of the decisions that allocate resources are made within large bureaucratic organizations (corporations and states). Note also, that the alternatives under discussion are not Soviet-style centralized planning, which, reading between the lines, you seem to think is the case.

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