Applied Solidarity Economics

Denis Colombi has some interesting considerations regarding the connections between solidarity economics and art / culture (hey, look who posted about solidarity economics before it was cool to do so!). As usual, I’ll summarize as best I can Denis’s points and add my comments when relevant.

There are already common images when it comes to solidarity economics: fair trade, microcredit of the Grameen Bank-type, local exchange systems. In his post, Colombi focuses more on different sectors: cultural and artistic production while locating solidarity economics squarely in the field of economic sociology. Following Polanyi, sociologists emphasize the plural character of the economy organized around three poles: (1) a market economy where resources are allocated by the market based on financial interests, (2) a non-market economy where allocation is based on public policy, and (3) a non-monetary economy where social relations sustain exchanges and activities. Solidarity economics belongs to that third pole (as does nousehold economics).

It is certainly true that the first pole dominates in Western capitalist societies, but not because it is some sort of "natural" or "default setting" but as socially and historically-constructed product. Solidarity economics allows us to rethink the connections between society and economy, whose political, ideological or even academic separation is problematic as they are thoroughly interconnected and interdependent.

But solidarity economics is not just a mode of analysis. It is a political project as well, dedicated to the citizens’ reappropriation of economic behavior. In particular, solidarity economists reject the disembedding of economy from society where individuals are reduced to basic behavior: consume, produce, save, and where a full understanding of the system is left to "experts" such as the economist or the politician. Against such a disembedded view, solidarity economists reestablish the agency and understanding of people’s actions and work to make visible the actual and always present (only ideologically hidden) social embedding of economic behavior as invested with meaning by social actors who modify their behavior based on such meaning (how very interactionist!).

Solidarity economists’ goals do not limit their analysis and action with the third pole of economic activity. They also work toward the hybridization of the market and non-market poles. In this sense, solidarity economics is not simply what’s left unaccounted for once after allocation through the market and non-market poles; it is a thorough social project that touches upon domains beyond the economy that seeks to overcome the three poles conception. But what is still unclear, for Colombi, is the exact place of solidarity economics with respect to the market and public policy.

[And here, let me plug again my own post: in his post, Colombi deplores the lack of "fleshing out" of solidarity economics… my own post provided specific projects that were already up and running with their own institutional structures.]

So, we know that market economy’s basic principle is profitability, that of public policy is… hell, who knows… actually, referring to French cultural policy since Malraux, Colombi posits it as excellence (as defined by expert groups who allocate funcing). In both cases, solidarity economists note the lack of public participation or expression of desires and values thereby locking artistic production in spheres of either elitism or conservatism, both stifling innovation. So, solidarity economics has an uphill battle not just against the market and its profit principle but also against the public economic sector.

In the art and cultural domains, as Colombi underlines, the conditions might be favorable to solidarity economics thanks to UNESCO agreements signed by nations on cultural diversity that public policies are expected to support. These UNESCO agreements refer to the equal dignity of all cultures and the idea of free choice when it comes to individual cultural participation. Therefore, cultural rights become a necessary part of cultural policy as long as they do not diminish others’ dignity (take that cultural relativists and supporters of FGM in the name of culture). From this perspective, then, both the market and public policy become tools to satisfy individual cultural rights rather than producers of cultural goods at the exclusion of people. But they are not the only and exclusive tools, there is a place here for solidarity economics to carve a space as well. Actually, it might be a more adapted tool to satisfy cultural rights.

But all in all, Colombi seems frustrated with what he has read of solidarity economics especially when it comes to the social construction of economic institutions and how solidarity economics can take its place compared to the market and public policy (again, I’d be curious to read what he thinks of the examples I have discussed in my own post). Beyond economic sociology, there is also the question of social movements: what of the mobilization of actors around common principles and projects? What modes of collective action(s) are necessary? Is there a need for a hot cause / cool mobilization? Which groups work are involved in this (beyond the usual suspect of the alter-globalization movement)? What identity production needs to emerge here?

For Colombi, solidarity economics still has a long way to go… heck, it probably needs some academic anchoring too, and I don’t see that happening.

One thought on “Applied Solidarity Economics

  1. There’s a woman in Planning at Champaign Urbana who does a lot of work in applied solidarity economics (although she doesn’t call it that), named Elizabeth (Betsy) Sweet. She’s currently working with Latinas as they set up alternative means of making a living.
    I also have to add that, while there is no institutional support (in fact, there are lots of institutional barriers), poor women have been engaged in solidarity economics forever! Moms trade WIC milk for tamales or child care; they buy cars together; they support each other between welfare checks (this is anecdotal from my life as a welfare mom). I know it’s old, but isn’t this what Carol Stack was writing about in All Our Kin? There are all sorts of ways to create institutional support for solidarity economics, once we decide that poor people have created great strategies for managing and changing an economy that is punitive.

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