Emerging Theory and Practice of the Solidarity Economy

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* Book: (Vishwas Satgar (ed) The Solidarity Economy Alternative: Emerging Theory and Practice, Durban: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2014



Ethan Miller:

"Core conceptual developments can be found in the first two parts of the book. The opening essays by Vishwas Satgar (chapter 1) and Michelle Williams (chapter 2) are concerned, in particular, with articulating a notion of solidarity economy as a “counter-hegemonic political economy” (p.4) that stands in direct opposition to capitalist power formations. Both authors elaborate strong distinctions between solidarity economy approaches and those of the “social economy” that have been widely adopted at a policy level in Canada, Europe and South Africa, often aimed at the social inclusion of marginalized communities. Social economy approaches, they argue, merely attempt to include people more equitably within an ultimately unchallenged capitalist power structure, while solidarity economy organizing is aimed at challenging and undoing that very structure. This is a strong distinction that not all versions of solidarity economy organizing emphasize. There may, in fact, be a significant tension between the authors’ desire to draw such a line and their simultaneous commitment to an open process of “becoming”.

When does an attempt to articulate shared values and commitments cross over into the dangerous territory of a politics of purity and exclusion? How might attempts to draw these lines close off possibilities for seeing revolutionary dimensions in surprising places? These are questions that haunt all solidarity economy efforts.

Chapters 3 and 4 both suggest a much “messier” conception of where revolutionary struggle might be cultivated, each seeking to rethink a core concept that has animated conventional social thought. Hilary Wainwright (chapter 3) outlines a notion of human labor as a commons, a collective “capacity to create” (p.65). Traditional Left movements, she argues, have often devalued the creative power of labor and thus resorted to vanguardist or managerial approaches to economic reform. To truly embrace a notion of “labor as applied creativity in practice” (p.87) is to recognize multiple spaces of political potentiality and to reclaim social labor in all of its diverse forms as a site for decommodification and the reconfiguration of markets and enterprises along noncapitalist lines. One cannot so easily distinguish a “social” from a “solidarity” economy in this formulation. Marco Berlinguer (chapter 4) similarly scrambles distinctions and argues for a “new ecology of forms of production and reproduction” (p.103) that would enable and strengthen the viability of new modes of non-profit and even non-monetary value creation. This requires that we “expand our notion of ‘economy’” (p.103) by rethinking competition, developing new ways of measuring diverse economic activity, and rendering autonomous grassroots economic initiatives more visible and viable through networking and association (p.118-120). Both authors are intent on supporting efforts that overcome capitalist relations, yet their strategies avoid clear lines between who is “in” and who is “out” of a solidarity economy movement, and instead seek possibilities wherever they might emerge. Such an approach resonates strongly with work by J.K. Gibson-Graham and associates on the ethical construction of “community economies” (Gibson-Graham 2006; Gibson-Graham et al. 2013).

But how, exactly, might radical transformation unfold in practice without a singular ideological bloc marching arm-in-arm toward the revolution? Euclides Mance’s essay on the Brazilian solidarity economy movement (chapter 6) constitutes an important, though only suggestive, contribution in this direction. For Mance, solidarity economy organizing is a process of constructing concrete, broad and inclusive networks for the cooperative provision of livelihoods. He sketches a framework for assessing local and regional needs, conceptualizing diverse economic flows, and identifying opportunities for the construction of “solidarity economy-based circuits” (p.166) that might progressively transform the ecosystem of viability for a “liberation economy” (p.163) beyond capitalism. This is the closest that we come in The Solidarity Economy Alternative to an elaborated theory of capitalism’s supersession and a potential “roadmap” for the kinds of organizing that would constitute such a broadly transformative dynamic. Mance’s essay suggests a whole array of challenging work yet to be done around the relation of solidarity economy theory to broader currents in radical political economy and social theory, particularly around questions of power, material dependency, affective investment, complex emergence, and scalar network dynamics. Can noncapitalist processes actually outcompete capitalist enterprises? Or does this theory of change still rely on the conventional Marxian hope that capitalism will effectively defeat itself? Is there some other way that we need to think about evolutionary process that would bypass either a vision of a gradualist replacement or a total revolution? Solidarity economy struggles often emphasize consciously-shared values as a point of connection, but what is the role of intentionality in radical social change? What if capitalism might be ultimately overcome by complex convergences of precisely those forces that never appear as its self-professed enemies? These are questions that neither Mance nor others in this volume raise, but that future solidarity economy scholarship must in some way engage.

Moving from such theoretical work into the realm of on-the-ground practice, of course, is no small challenge, and this collection looks unflinchingly at both the possibilities and pitfalls facing specific marginalized communities as they struggle for more liberatory forms of livelihood. The remaining six chapters of the book focus, in various ways, on place-specific practices of economic organizing. Ana Margarida Esteves’ study (chapter 5) of the US Solidarity Economy Network (USSEN) is perhaps the least satisfying of these case studies, as its focus on the aspirations a relatively new national organization seem quite speculative and may come at the expense of a more concrete engagement with some of the innovative grassroots solidarity economy organizing emerging around the United States.

In contrast, Esteves’ second essay (chapter 7) on the Brazilian solidarity economy forums and their associated political dynamics provides a nuanced look at the complexities of local, regional and national politics in solidarity economy organizing. Offering important cautions for solidarity economy organizers everywhere, she observes how the relatively horizontal “open spaces” (p.178) of early state-level solidarity economy organizing in Brazil were increasingly hierarchized and bureaucratized through their integration with national organizations and policy structures. Thus another key question: how should SE engage (or not engage) the state?

The final section of the book opens a series of sustained reflections on the South African context. Satgar (chapter 8) provides an overview of the political context in which the solidarity economy seeks to intervene; Mazibuko Jara (chapter 9) critiques South Africa’s neoliberal agrarian regimes and calls for a mass movement of smallhold farmers; Andrew Bennie (chapter 10) offers case studies of the development of a local solidarity economy network and an agricultural worker cooperative in two rural townships; and the volume concludes with Athish Kirun Satgoor’s exploration (chapter 11) of the complex dynamics of a worker-led factory occupation in the south of Johannesburg. What stands out in all of these essays is both the power of a solidarity economy perspective to convene the creative passions and urgent necessities of communities-in-struggle, and magnitude of the challenges posed by concrete attempts to construct stable forms of solidarity-based livelihood in the face of inequality and oppression. The nascent South African solidarity economy movement appears here as a beautiful and fragile hope, something which presents no guarantees and is built only through courageous, persistent, and detailed work. It is the linkage of this work across multiple spaces and places–something this collection of essays itself embodies–on which a solidarity economy approach hangs its transformative hope." (https://radicalantipode.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/book-review_miller-on-satgar1.pdf)


Ethan Miller:

"Despite some presence in Left political thought and practice since at least the Spanish Civil War (as economía solidaria), the term “solidarity economy” has only begun to circulate in English within the past ten years. This collection of essays is a welcome addition to a small but growing body of literature that explores the theory and practice of solidarity economy organizing.

“Solidarity economy” (SE) is a complex term that dances between multiple valences. It is, at once, a description of actually-existing cooperative economic practices; an articulation of shared values and transformative aspirations; a rallying point for connection between diverse activist efforts; a vision for what might emerge from such collaboration; and a loose theory of change that eschews singular, totalistic revolutionary models in favor of a more decentralized, experimental, emergent and plural approach. The Solidarity Economy Alternative touches on all of these dimensions, providing both an engaging introduction to solidarity economy organizing for those unfamiliar with the terrain, and a more detailed set of reflections and case studies that can usefully inform the work of on-the-ground SE organizers.

While the essays in the book are written in a scholarly mode, this is not primarily an “academic” text. It is intended, quite overtly, as a practical yet conceptually-savvy exploration of the challenges and possibilities of solidarity economy organizing as a means to transform widespread relations of exploitation and oppression, overcome capitalism, and constitute a new paradigm of liberatory economic and social organization. The essays emerge out of a 2011 conference organized by the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Center (COPAC) in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the book’s contents reflect this context.

The collection is built around a clearly shared set of concerns, well articulated by the editor, Vishwas Satgar, in his introductory chapter: in the context of global economic crisis, as more and more people are excluded from the spoils of capitalist accumulation and subjected to its multiple violences, new spaces are opening in which communities can begin to take control of their own livelihoods, construct cooperative forms of production and exchange, and connect this work with others through transformative social movements. What are these spaces of possibility? How might this “activist current coursing its way through various grassroots practices” (p.26) be convened and strengthened? What forms of organizing and organization are needed to help solidarity economy projects thrive? What challenges and dangers do these initiatives face, and how might these be overcome? What might truly synergistic connections between SE initiatives look like, and how can these connections constitute a robust, transformative social movement?

These questions are variously engaged throughout the book. What all authors share in posing their tentative answers is an understanding of the solidarity economy as an open, experimental process of political construction and struggle. Neither a structural blueprint for an alternative system nor a rigid dogma to be adopted or imposed, a solidarity economy is “a series of experiments, becomings, emergent possibilities and prefigurative practices” (Michelle Williams, p.51). This common perspective, along with good editorial work, makes for a collection that hangs together with unusual coherence for an edited volume.


The Solidarity Economy Alternative, in many ways, reflects the wider state of solidarity economy work around the world. It is a complex tapestry woven of deep commitments to radically-democratic organizing practice; a yearning for a world beyond capitalist exploitation and oppression; a set of propositions and strategies that are at once inspiring and speculative; a deep ambivalence about questions of “who’s in and who’s out” and whether or how to draw such lines; a variety of “theories of change” that remain only tentatively explored; and a messy yet powerful mix of specific projects and examples in which people are already trying to do in practice what we have yet to more fully elaborate in theory. Like the movement out of which it emerges, this book raises more questions than it answers. At the same time, it constitutes a substantial space of engagement within which such questions can become sites for action, connection and learning. I would, in summary, encourage anyone interested in the construction of liberatory alternatives to capitalism to dig into this book–and then to go beyond it." (https://radicalantipode.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/book-review_miller-on-satgar1.pdf)


From the chapter by Hilary Wainwright: From Labour as Commodity to Labour as a Common?

"Resistance to alienation takes many forms: from the refusal to work, humour, sabotage and conventional trade unionism, to a variety of struggles for and experiments with alternatives in and against state and market. An alternative conception of labour, as part of a wider alternative economics, will help us to understand and where appropriate generalise from and explore the potential of these scattered experiences, whether in public, private or civil spheres.

Are there theoretical tools developed in other contexts of the search for an alternative socially-framed economics that can help with such a rethinking?

Using the framework of the commons

The growing movement of thought and the diverse initiatives around the idea of the commons provide one source of inspiration worth exploring (though not a ready-made framework to be applied in a simplistic way).

The scope of commons thinking has widened tremendously in reaction to the incessant drive to commodify goods that had previously been held in common. These range from natural resources and services that historically have been taken out of the capitalist market and organised through public or civic organisations, such as health, education, science and, more generally, knowledge (libraries and archives, for example), to the newly-created digital commons, under constant threat of new enclosures.

At first sight, labour, understood in terms of the application of the human capacity to create, would seem profoundly individual and therefore inimical to organisation as a commons. On further reflection, though, human creativity, with its individual and social dimensions inextricably intertwined, is a distinctive commons that is key to the possibility of a commons-based political economy.

The writer and activist on the commons, Tomasso Fattori, traces the shared characteristics that make the framework of the commons useful for understanding the character of diverse phenomena, without artificially squeezing them into a category implying homogeneity. In an article reflecting on the wider significance of the successful struggle for the referendum vote in Italy to defend water as a commons (‘a political and cultural revolution on the commons,’ as he describes it) Fattori says: ‘The commons are what is considered essential for life, understood not merely in the biological sense. They are the structures, which connect individuals to one another, tangible or intangible elements that we all have in common and which make us members of a society, not isolated entities in competition with each other. Elements that we maintain or reproduce together, according to rules established by the community: an area to be rescued from the decision-making of the post-democratic élite and which needs to be self-governed through forms of participative democracy.’ (Fattori 2011)

In the light of these reflections, does it make sense, is it useful, to think of labour as a commons?

Consider the human capacity to create, with Fattori’s definition in mind. It is a capacity that is shared by all humanity – indeed it is what makes us human; a capacity that is a powerful social force, a necessary condition of the life of many other commons; and which, though in one unique moment is individual-centered is also socially shaped. Dependent in good part on the nature of education, culture and distribution of wealth, it can be nurtured and developed or suppressed, undeveloped and wasted. It is socially realised (whether or not this distributed potential is achieved depends on the nature of the social relations of production, communication and distribution) and socially benefited from (who in society benefits from the creativity of others again depends on the economic, political and social relations).

Perhaps we could draw on Marx’s contrast between the bee and the architect indirectly to reinforce the point about human creativity as a particular kind of commons. If we were like bees, then we and our product might be part of the natural commons – with beekeepers as the custodians, cultivators of the commons. But as the equivalent of architects, with the capacity to imagine and to create according to our imagination, we embody a different kind of commons: the commons of creativity.

Of course human creativity is not new! But mass awareness – self-awareness and full social recognition – of creativity as a universal potential, is the result of the steady, albeit uneven, rise over the past 40 years or so of an insistence, in practice, on cultural equality, in addition to the long tradition of demands for economic and political equality. Additionally, the widespread transcendence of a dichotomy between individual and collective and the emergence of both a social individualism and an associational understanding of collective organisation has helped to lay the basis of understanding creativity as a commons.

Reclaiming the tradition of Ubuntu

Again, this social individualism is not new. In many ways, it is a reconnection, from the circumstances of struggling in and against 21st-century capitalism, with the ethical tradition of Ubuntu. ‘You are a person because of other people,’ as a delegate to the Solidarity Economy Conference that led to this book put it. Or as Archbishop Tutu explains: ‘Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness.’

By naming this creative capacity, this characteristic of all of humanity, as a commons, by highlighting its social as well as individual character and the associative, social conditions of its realisation, we also lay the basis for reclaiming the products of this capacity. These include those that in a certain sense have been appropriated by the state or by capital – such as ‘social capital’ and other forms of ‘free labour’ that are so vital to today’s informational capitalism.

Another implication for our own organisations, political and economic, is the importance of building into them the nurturing and development of this commons. We need to do this in both a prefigurative sense and as an immediate means of strengthening their transformative capacity.

The perspective of labour as a commons opens up ways of seeing and understanding the wider potential of existing practices in the solidarity economy in achieving transformative gains in the broader social, public and private economy. An example here would be the importance of learning through and reflecting on practice; thinking of creativity as a commons leads to asking how we could envisage economic arrangements that build self-development, education, reflection and regeneration into daily life across what is now divided into education, work, consumption and personal life.

Understanding labour and the potential of human creativity as a commons changes our view of employment. We can see this already in practice in parts of the solidarity economy where workers are never seen as ‘redundant’ and the aim is always redeployment and retraining. We also see how the scandalous waste of human creativity now evident in capitalist economies across the world has been a driving motive in the explosion of resistance from 2011 onwards, led often by the young unemployed. (Mason 2012)

Human creativity as a commons also points to the importance of thinking at many different levels of economic and social relations and of inter-connecting them. So it leads to asking what institutional conditions for nurturing and realising creativity might mean at a micro level for how enterprises or urban spaces, for example, are organised; what it might mean at a macro level in terms of, for example, a means of livelihood beyond or autonomous from waged labour (what some have called ‘a basic wage’); and what it could mean at a mix of micro and macro levels – for example, in terms of legislative frameworks for the organisation of time. (Coote 2010)

In this way seeing labour as a commons challenges tendencies towards enterprise or community egoism or atomism (a tendency in parts of the social economy as well as in capitalist enterprises) and emphasises the importance of solidarity and flows of mutuality between different elements of attempts at a solidarity and commons-based economy. More generally, it provides the basis for a strong antidote to the possessive individualism that has been so rampant in recent years, without counterposing a reified collectivism. (Macpherson 1964)

Institutional design

A further tool generated by the idea of human creativity as a commons is the means of institutional flexibility to negotiate and live permanently with the tensions between the collaborative dimension of creativity and the varying necessity for individual autonomy, introversion and self-reflexivity. This flexibility and ability to value the duality of human creativity and therefore social well-being is often missing not only from a statist understanding of socialism but from many conceptions of collectivity in the labour and co-operative movements.

The creative commons licence is a good illustration of how it is possible to recognise and value the dimension of individual creativity (and with it a certain sense of ownership) and at the same time protect both the individual and the wider community against the worst consequences of taking a creation out of the commons and into the commodity market. (Berlinguer in this volume)

A combination of these tools could help with institutional design in the solidarity economy, able to deal with a complex of factors. Here I can draw from my own experience of a solidarity economy media enterprise, Red Pepper magazine, an institution based on a multiplicity of interconnecting interests. Its organisational design has to recognise a diversity of sources of support, monetary and in kind, some from organisations, some from individuals, all of whom expect some accountability. It also has to recognise several sources of creativity, the importance of a collaborative editorial process and yet the dimension of individual decision-making at different levels of the project, and at the same time meet the need for a relatively coherent identity. The notion of creativity as a commons seems key to developing a sufficiently flexible, transparent and constantly negotiable form of governance to deal with this complex combination of interests and imperatives."