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Solidarity and Participatory Economics Friends or Foes?


In a recent article appearing on ZNet, Ethan Miller argues passionately and effectively on behalf of a movement that has developed in Latin America and to an extent also in Europe, called “solidarity economics.” What is this movement about? And what is the connection, positive or critical, between solidarity economics and the other post capitalist vision so prevalently presented on ZNet, participatory economics?

The solidarity economics movements seeks to unite what Miller calls “thousands of diverse, locally-rooted, grassroots economic projects … such as worker, consumer, and housing cooperatives, community currencies, urban gardens, fair trade organizations, intentional communities, and neighborhood self-help associations” or “islands of alternatives in a capitalist sea.” Their glue for unity is the idea of economic projects fostering solidarity and democracy. The connection they seek is “horizontal networking” including “webs of mutual recognition and support.” The aim of all this is in Miller’s words to “generate a social movement and economic vision capable of challenging the global capitalist order.”

On first reading this certainly seems like it would be a movement parecon advocates would support and wish to relate to, indeed a movement parecon advocates would like to be a part of. For participatory economics proposes a set of key institutions – workers and consumers councils, self managed decision making, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning – precisely conceived to deliver an economy that generates by its operation both solidarity and democracy, and even more, empathy and self management.

So given the congeniality of shared purpose that ought to unite solidarity and participatory economics, why haven’t the two gotten together, or more together, since there some ties already?

By their own self definition the solidarity economists say they have in common with one another “a thirst for justice, a logic of participation, creativity, and processes of self-management and autonomy.” What could be more in tune, as well, with the shared commitments of participatory economics? From my perspective, at least, so far this seems like a perfect match.

The difficulty in getting more together must rest, if it has any basis at all, in some additional commitments of the solidarity economy folks, or, one might as easily say, in some additional commitments of parecon. Supposing serious differences do exist, it just rests on which commitments ought to be retained, and which jettisoned, in order to be most effective together.

Solidarity economy advocates seek “self-organized relationships of care, cooperation, and community.” So do advocates of parecon, so that is not a problem.

Miller quotes J.K. Gibson-Graham, who 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?” Parecon is very much about constructing workplaces and communities that embody the seeds of the future in the present, though it is also about fighting to alter existing institutions, as well. There is no problem lurking here, either, I think.

But then we come to what may be a difficulty. Miller says, “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.” Under one reading of this sentence, parecon has no disagreement, and indeed asserts it, very aggressively. But, Miller might mean something else. If his formulation implies that we don’t need certain key institutions if we are to have an economy that is participatory, that engenders solidarity, that is equitable, and in which there is real democracy or even self management, then I would have to disagree with him just as I think most advocates of parecon would.

An economy of the future will have an allocation system. All economies do. If it is markets or central planning, then that economy will not be a solidarity or participatory economy.

An economy of the future will have a division of labor. All economies do. And if this includes sequestering empowering work into the hands of a few while most do only rote and obedient work, the future economy will not be a solidarity or a participatory economy.

To have solidarity requires classlessness. Solidarity won’t be extensive if some own the economy and others only labor in it. It won’t be extensive if some rule the economy and others only obey in it.

So yes, we need an economy which is the product of the will of its members, of course. And we need an economy that is created by an open and hugely democratic process, of course. But we also need an economy that arrives at institutions that attain its stated aims – or else the aims will only be nice rhetoric, disappearing once contrary institutions push them aside.

Miller quotes Marcos Arruda of the Brazilian Solidarity Economy Network saying that “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.” I find this way of presenting what I hope is Arruda’s point somewhat strange. How is it that solidarity economy activists are critical of markets and of private ownership unless they have thought about these, very carefully, and not simply experienced the pain? Indeed, a huge number of people experience alienation or poverty but don’t reject markets, capital, or other adverse institutional structures, because they haven’t thought seriously about the origins of the ills that they suffer or, I suspect more often, they think there is no alternative, having not thought closely about that. People thinking and the ideas that emerge are not our enemy, unless it is too few people or poor ideas.

In fact, most anything humans do arises in considerable part from their ideas which are often initially held or at least made coherent and presentable for assessment by only a few folks, most desirably after much discussion, testing, and debate. It seems to me the kind of sentiment Arruda offers may have a confusion in it. He wants to say, I think – or perhaps I should say, I hope – that solidarity economics is not imposed by a few on the many and is not an abstract creation of impossible features but, instead, is a well conceived campaign rooted in what is both possible and desirable. But Arruda’s words seem to me to have, whether he means them this way or not, an underlying inclination to denigrate thought and to imply that if something is thought through carefully, and especially if something is debated, proposed, and then strongly advocated, it must be elitist. This seems to me to be a suicidal perspective which rejects good thinking as well as elitist thinking. More, the fact is we have all been engaging in activism for quite some time now. It may well be that it is the thinking side of the balance between thought and action, not the activism side, that has gotten too short shrift, at least when we are talking about putting forth an alternative to capitalism, markets, corporations, etc. Plenty of thought, often quite redundant, goes into discussing what’s wrong with the current world. But not much thought, when you consider it, goes into what we want in place of the current world, not just to ameliorate pain today, but to replace it with liberation tomorrow.

Similarly, Miller quotes another solidarity economy advocate Henri de Roche as noting that “the old cooperativism was a utopia in search of its practice and the new cooperativism is a practice in search of its utopia.” I don’t get this formulation either, I must admit, though it is an artful turn of phrase. Doesn’t one want to connect thought and practice? Whether ideas arise from dreams or from wishes or from sober assessments of experiences, or whatever else, of course the key point is that we should test them in the cauldron of experience, and refine and improve them based on lessons so attained. But regarding practice and vision our attitude has to be “both and,” not “either or,” doesn’t it?

Miller notes that “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.”

Again, I think maybe I don’t get it. First off, no proposer of an economic model has ever to my knowledge suggested that all economies should in all features mimic the model. In fact, there has been no model offered, ever, that specifies all features of an economy. Models typically, instead, specify some key institutions. The advocate of a model says that an economy we would like – a solidarity economy or a participatory economy, for example – needs to flexibly incorporate those highlighted features if it is to achieve what it seeks.

For example, if you want classlessness, the pareconist says, you can’t have markets, central planning, private ownership of productive property, or corporate divisions of labor. And, having rejected those options, as a result of thinking carefully about their implications and measuring them against shared values, parecon then offers as an alternative participatory planning, social responsibility, and balanced job complexes. And isn’t this doing exactly what it means to pay serious attention to our experiences and to try to distill from them insights bearing on how we ought to conduct economics? If solidarity economy advocates would agree that it is, then there is every reason to hope for increased relations between these two approaches. But it will be hard to have ties if solidarity economy advocates say that the minute someone argues on behalf of some particular type of institution, say balanced job complexes or participatory planning, arguing that this is part of what people should strive to create instead of simply advocating whatever plurality of diverse choices people freely make, then that person has foregone connection to building a better economy. I have encountered both types of attitude in my own experiences with solidarity economy advocates, so I am not sure which is more prevalent.

Suppose movements in some place and time work to “identify, strengthen, connect, and create democratic and liberatory means of meeting their needs,” to use Miller’s description. Suppose they then think over their experiences and become convinced that to accomplish meeting needs consistent with their values requires certain new institutions. Would these activists be wrong to think things through in such a manner? If they did so, should they not say what they conclude? And isn’t such a conclusion quite plausibly correct? And if it is correct, wouldn’t it help to inform others about it when they also try to develop experiments in better economic organization or try to win changes in existing workplaces and communities in accord with better economic organization?

Suppose a group sets up a workers coop of the sort that solidarity economy tries to link. These activists work hard and long and discover that despite all participants’ commitments to full democracy, and even to self management, as long as old corporate style divisions of labor are in place, these virtues are stunted and even obliterated. So the members then consider this realization and conceive of a new division of labor, let’s say balanced job complexes, and enact them with great success. Wouldn’t it make sense that they make this known and urge that this new way of apportioning labor be incorporated into future experiments in better economy, to avoid the experiments succumbing to internal class divisions? Suppose as time passes and initial euphoria and intensity decline and these activists endure considerable backsliding and difficulty in their attempts to act in a solidaritous manner, internally and regarding those who relate to their product. Unlike others who experience this trend, however, this group thinks hard about it and decides it isn’t due to a flaw in their commitments, but is instead an imposition from the market pressures all around them. So they then also think through the operation of the market as it imposes on them behaviors contrary to their inclinations and conducive to old style decision-making and divisions of labor, and they come up with a critique of the market and with a proposal for an alternative to it, let’s say participatory planning. Shouldn’t they make their judgments known to others, too. Shouldn’t they urge, hoping for debate and discussion to test their insights, that experiments in the construction of solidarity economics need to be anti-market and to understand its ill effects and work on by-passing them, ameliorating them, or even replacing markets to eliminate those effects? If the answer to all these questions is yes, then, again, it seems to me that solidarity economics and parecon ought to be able to break bread and much more.

Miller says, “Success will only emerge as a product of organization and struggle.” Well of course success in building a new economy depends on organization and struggle, and any advocate of parecon, or for that matter any advocate of any vision for a better economy or a better society, will agree. Then Miller quotes Marcos Arruda, once again, saying this time that “Innovative practices at the micro level can only be viable and structurally effective for social change if they interweave with one another to form always-broader collaborative networks and solidarity chains of production-finance-distribution-consumption-education-communication.” Miller then adds, “this is, perhaps, the heart of solidarity economics — the process of networking diverse structures that share common values in ways that strengthen each.” Okay, this is excellent, is my reaction. But shouldn’t the common values be made explicit and doesn’t producing in a good way mean that we have to have an opinion about what organizational structures and methods in fact constitute producing in a good way? And doesn’t the same hold for distribution/allocation, and consumption? And, as well, shouldn’t we be fighting for improvements in the larger economy too, in workplaces and in communities, as well as constructing our own new projects?

Solidarity economy or participatory economy? My answer is both. Solidarity economy is way ahead in developing ties among practitioners of change and also in addressing highly detailed aspects of experiments in change. Unity between these movements, solidarity economy which is quite large and parecon which is much smaller, would help parecon greatly regarding understanding and elaborating such ties and connections, and regarding committing to them, as well. But I think participatory economics has something to lend this potential union, too. Parecon, I think, is out in front at having seriously assessed experiences in alternative economy and extracted from them insights about the central logic both of markets and capitalism, and especially of a better alternative economy writ large.

Parecon certainly urges the need to build experiments in future organization today, which is what solidarity economy centrally emphasizes. No problem there. Parecon also urges the need to organize and fight for changes inside existing economic institutions, which I suspect solidarity economy agrees is centrally important, even though it doesn’t itself emphasize that. There is probably no problem here, either. Parecon urges that a few key institutions are necessary if an economy is to foster solidarity, equity, self management, etc., and that certain others must be rejected, if those are the goals. This, however, may be a problem, though I can’t see why it ought to be. Pareconists should have no problem, at least in my view, relating to a movement that contains lots of people who think differently about these matters, or who even think markets or private ownership have a place in the future, supposing the people are open to discussing these claims. Is solidarity economy equally open to incorporating and relating to the work and ideas of people who do have strong ideas about future institutions, both those favored and those rejected? If so, let’s get together!

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