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September 1, 2006


By Ethan Miller, Dollars and Sense

Is the raw capitalism in American society the best possible outcome
for our well being? Surely not: It's time to think about an economic
system that makes us happy people.

This article is reprinted from the July/August 2006 issue of Dollars &
Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice.

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 economy.

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 capitalist order?

To these audacious suggestions, economic activists around the world
organizing under the banner of economia 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 of solidarity."

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

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 economia 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 economia 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, and

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/Coalicion 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 and organizing.

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 Business Roundtable!

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.