By Derek Wall
A number of disparate groups and individuals have decided that the path to liberation will come from building the solidarity economy. The solidarity economy involves the creation of a network of cooperatives, social centres, community gardens and grassroots trade unions. This is an economy that works to move the production and consumption of vital goods and services beyond both profit obsessed capitalism and a bureaucratic state. It is owned by us, the community, not by a minority of wealthy shareholders. It has at least three functions: 1) Practical solidarity which is closely linked to the concept of base building 2) The creation of ecological forms of production 3) The construction of a new society based on innovative values and practices. This isn’t abstract theory: it is being built now and you can help with the construction.
Practical solidarity means supporting those in need and those in struggle. Warm words and political pamphlets don’t feed the hungry, help prisoners or build capacity for change. One element of the solidarity economy is providing social centres that can be used, in part, to promote activism. They can act as a meeting place, provide offices for campaign groups and host food banks. As well as providing solidarity networks, practical action can help convince people that a new society is possible. The US film maker and musician Boots Riley has argued that movements have been too reliant on what he calls ‘spectacle’; by this he means an event that gets media attention, such as direct action. He argues that we also need to build long term capacity for change. This is the essential characteristic of base building: helping to create, deepen and sustain a culture of resistance. It reflects the practice of the Black Panther Party and other African-American revolutionaries, who in the 1960s and 1970s put on free breakfast programmes for children, and other solidarity projects. Social movements and campaigns, like Occupy, Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, are vital; efforts to build a network of social centres and community projects can help to maintain them over the long term.
The ecological element comes from producing in an environmentally friendly way: promoting permaculture, renewable energy generation, tool libraries, cycle repair and low energy transport. Cooperation Jackson, whose members recently undertook a speaking tour in the UK, are an excellent example. Kali Akuna from Cooperation Jackson has bluntly stated “We are at the midnight hour, and it’s eco-socialism or death.” Jackson is the largest city in Mississippi, and is known for its militant African-American population; it has been an important site of civil rights struggles and is now in the forefront to resistance to Donald Trump. Today it is the site of a major experiment in solidarity economics that aims to go carbon neutral as swiftly as possible.
The solidarity economy is militant and plural. It is militant in that it is directly building dual power, creating new institutions that challenge the state. Plural because it draws in anarchists, Marxists, eco-socialists and other groups and tendencies besides. It is based not on a narrow prescriptive ideological understanding but on practical action. You might argue that it is inventing the future.
Increasingly, radicals have been putting their hopes in figures such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who aim to win elections on a progressive policy platform. The historical record shows that left leaders have often achieved little once elected. It is not merely that they may be corrupted but it is also that state isn’t something that can easily be picked up and used as a tool for positive social change. The array of forces presented against Corbyn range from the army to the media, and even the US government: US politician Mike Pompeo has ominously said he would attempt to block a Corbyn government. The British media are in full attack mode already, while at least one General has suggested a military coup will be necessary if Jeremy were to enter Downing Street. To resist and to go beyond the electoral left, which is defined as extremism by our billionaires, we need to organise. A solidarity economy contributes to the creation of organisational capacity.
Another element of this approach includes base-building trade unions. The International Workers of the World, a radical union, mobilised millions of workers in the early 20th century. Promoting anarchist, left libertarian and grassroots approaches, they are growing again. Acorn is another example, an international tenants’ union that uses direct action to challenge abusive landlords.
New technologies such as three-dimensional printers open up the possibility of automated low-cost community production. The practice is increasingly obvious, but a lot of the theory had been anticipated in the work of the late, great Elinor Ostrom. Elinor, who died in 2012, was the first (and, so far, the only) woman to win a Nobel Prize for economics. She won it for her study of the commons – collectively owned forms of property. In 1968 the biologist Garrett Hardin wrote ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, where he argued that common land would be degraded because human beings could not work cooperatively to conserve resources. Elinor put much work into researching the practical ways of building trust so that collective ownership could work. She was also a keen advocate of co-operatives and would no doubt have been inspired by the notion of solidarity economics.
There are various discussions about modern monetary theory, universal basic income, fully automated luxury communism, etc. To varying degrees, these may be part of a path to a better society; however, the solidarity economy is something that is being built now, and it doesn’t involve developing a policy that we hope some benevolent government will put into practice if we ask nicely enough. The virtue of the solidarity economy is that it helps to build up the forces necessary to achieve change by getting people involved and promoting activism. We learn best from practice and experience, this is how ideas are best transmitted and learnt.
Don’t believe me? Well why not visit a social centre like the Cowley Club in Brighton, with its vegan food bank, English lessons for asylum seekers and punk picnics, all inspired by Harry Cowley. Harry Cowley, a grassroots social activist from the 1920s to the 1970s, fought the fascists, moved the homeless into squats and in his later years mobilised pensioners. Or, if you are in the US, take a look at the work of Philly Socialists, which includes the creation of the Cesar Andreu Iglesias Community Garden, named after a Puerto Rican writer and trade unionist.
Solidarity economics isn’t a perfect solution. Cooperatives can fail, community organising can be hard work and such approaches have not always proved sustainable in the past; however, it is a way of building the capacity needed for potentially revolutionary change, and doing so in way that rejects dogma and supports community involvement. And, wherever you look, the solidarity economy is diverse, dynamic and growing.
We can build a path to liberation, and maybe, even in an increasingly unjust and chaotic world, enjoy doing so.
Derek Wall teaches political economy at Goldsmiths College and is a former Principal Speaker of the Green Party of England and Wales. His books include Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals (Pluto) and Hugo Blanco: A revolutionary for life (Resistance/Merlin).
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