Global Studies Association Conference Notes – Part 2 – Solidarity Economics


The highlight of the second panel I attended on the World Social Forum was the presentation of Mike Menser on the internationalization of solidarity economics.

First, let me provide a primer on solidarity economics with the examples of Via Campesina . the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST ) and Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (Wikipedia ). Solidarity economics starts from the World Social Forum that "another world is possible" and applies to it to economics. The idea is that it is possible to organize economies around principles different than that of global capitalism. According to Ethan Miller , these alternatives already exist:

"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."

The principles that all these initiatives share are meeting the basic needs of their communities, justice and democracy. Solidarity economics is the idea of joining all these disparate initiatives and create a network that would give them more activist and political power.

"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."

Like dependency theory, solidarity economics has its roots in South America, in the 1980s, as a result of three trends, according to Miller:

"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. (…)

A third trend worked to link the two grassroots upsurges of economic solidarity to each other and to the larger socioeconomic con-text [sic]: 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."

The general idea is that the current global capitalist system and its corresponding globalist ideology and global institutions are un-democratic and pays close to no attention at all to issues of social justice. In 1998, the main actors in the solidarity economics met in Porto Alegre (where else??) to lay the foundation of their networking for the promotion of economic alternatives. In 2001, this networking grew global and broadened its scope to become the first World Social Forum. In spite of the diversity of topics addressed at the WSF, solidarity economics still represents a central focus.

How do we define solidarity economics? According to Miller, Solidarity economics is first defined by what it is not: the maximization of individual gain, as in orthodox economic theory:

"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."

And human needs and desires go way beyond just profit maximization (see GSA notes – part one on that topic). And as Miller puts it, what sustains us when the economy fails us are the three Cs: care, cooperation, and community. In very Durkheimian terms, it is social solidarity that sustains us and constitutes the basis of society and community. So, theorists of solidarity economics explode the meaning of economics to reconstruct it in a radical way:

"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."

So, the point is to detect or create economic practices that foster solidarity, justice, participatory democracy and sustainability. Existing ones are often invisible in productivity, growth and GDP statistics collected by global institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF or the WTO, although such economic practices are often the backbone of the so-called "legitimate" or "formal" economy. Miller quotes Brazilian activist Ana Mercedes Sarria Icaza

"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 self-management)."

As opposed to the one-size-fit-all, top-down prescriptions from global economic institutions, solidarity economics stem from grassroots, local movements. So, there is no unique blueprint for solidarity economics, just initiatives and experiments that work more or less well, but always with a focus on participation, justice, democracy and self-management.

[Mike Menser took a bit of heat from the audience for his inability to provide such an all-encompassing model. At the same time, other people blamed him for bringing up disparate initiatives that cannot be replicated. As I told him after the session, you can’t win: if you present a model, you get criticized for not recognizing the diversity of solidarity economics; if you present a wide array of initiatives, then, you get attacked for not providing a general, easy to replicate model.

And as Mike Menser indicated, depending on geographical location, the focus of solidarity economics movements is different:

  • In South East Asia, it is mostly driven by women (see micro-credit)
  • In Latin America, it is mostly labor unions and indigenous peoples
  • In Africa, it is mostly street vendors
  • In the European Union, it is mostly coalitions of workers/farmers/unions

The main relevant critique that was made came from Manfred Steger suggesting that quite often, we are not really seeing the alternatives rather than falling back on Marxist positions and that is a danger that these economic alternatives movements should be concerned about (see Hugo Chavez and his domestic spying laws, on which he had to backtrack).]

so, what are these initiative? Well, I already mentioned them at the beginning:

La Via Campesina (The Way of the Peasant) is a network of peasant organizations resisting the forced globalization of agriculture and the rise of the agribusiness sector and its Frankenfood at the expenses of local producers. It pays special attention to the plight of women and indigenous peoples.

MCC The Mondragon Cooperative Corporation is a workers cooperative in the Spanish Basque country. It has grown dramatically from its cooperative origines to now include schools and a university and over 150 companies. It is one of the world’s largest workers cooperatives.

MST Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST , Wikipedia ) is one of the largest social movements in South America and focuses on land reform and redistribution on a continent where it is not uncommon to have the vast majority of the land in the hands of few companies or few rich (mostly white) families. MST usually operates through land occupation.

The Take On this, there is no better documentary than Naomi Klein’s The Take (Amazon ).

3 thoughts on “Global Studies Association Conference Notes – Part 2 – Solidarity Economics

  1. Pingback: Noreena Hertz’s Co-op Capitalism Sure Looks A Lot Like Solidarity Economics | The Global Sociology Blog

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  3. Thanks, socprof, for an interesting post. I’ve also been learning about solidarity economics for the last few years as I got my master’s, and especially when I researched the WSF, SE, and MST.
    I’m also acquainted with Mike Menser, having come across him at the Radical Political Economics conference in Brooklyn in 2009.
    While I appreciate the surprising and frustrating qualities of many people, I’ve been rewarded by my studies to realize that one of the particular foundations of solidarity economics, the democratic business model of co-operatives, has been around for more than a century and since shortly after the industrial predation revolution. 1844’s Rochdale Pioneers in the UK and a little later, Raiffeissen’s agro-credit unions in Germany started to create roots for the diverse grassroots struggles responding to the capitalist predations. Marx and the socialist histories are more widely known, perhaps, but this is unfortunate, I’d say. Johnston Birchall does a great job with history in his 1990s book on co-operatives, as does John Curl’s longstanding paper and recent book on US co-ops. The Annals of Public and Co-operative Economics is a fine academic journal with some interesting articles, and there’s one from 1968 on Rochdale. Joyce Rothschild has done a great job recently in another academic journal, Applied Behavioral Science. In a 2009 article, she reviews the co-op model and refers to research in which she’s identified the split between Marx and Kropotkin, I think it is.
    The co-op model had begun to arrive in Brazilian Latin America by 1889, I’ve found. As for theorists, John Stuart Mill had planted a seed or two, and Mark Lutz does a nice job discussing Social Economics in his books on the subject. William Greider’s 2003 Soul of Capitalism makes a nice pair with Lutz’s work, in that both discuss David Ellerman’s legal theories justifying co-ops. There is more where co-op theory comes from, and Anna Milford does a nice job in a 2004 article on fair trade, and Jaroslav Vanek spent years writing articles that deserve to be mentioned.
    The solidarity economy movements and WSF are new manifestations, but I am happy to say that all the limelight is not as rootless as some might think. It’s Adam Smith versus John Stuart Mill and Robert Owen, as far as that goes.

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