[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
If you want to change the world, you must take power." (Tariq Ali)
If you want to change the world, you must change yourself so that you can remake power." (anon.)
THE MAINSTREAM ECONOMY IS REELING, BUT IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE?
Back in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher famously proclaimed her TINA – There is No Alternative doctrine. Two decades later this doctrine takes on a new and even grimmer meaning, in the midst of the catastrophic global failings of her privileged economic system, trans-national corporate capitalism. For those failings are today both more severe and more widely recognized than at any time I, at least, can recall.
But if there are no alternatives, what then is to be done? Few would want to revisit or experiment with state-controlled economies. Are we doomed to be colonized by giant oil companies and an interventionist military empire which supports and is supported by them?
Not according to the practitioners and advocates of what is called "Solidarity Economy"(SE), who bring us the good news that there are living, breathing, and growing alternatives – a great many of them! – already rooted across the globe and in our own daily lives. Their response to Margaret might well be
"TAMA": "There are Multitudinous Alternatives!"
The SE family is extremely diverse and open-ended: it includes, for example, micro- and small scale local enterprises, neighbor-to-neighbor exchanges, online as well as face-to-face barter arrangements, and CSAs – community supported agriculture projects, as well as such vast associations as the Italian Legacoop (League of Cooperatives) which generates about 5% of that country’s GNP, Mondragon, the Basque consortium of over 200 worker-managed and owned cooperatives, now in its 60th year, and La Via Campesina, The Peasants’ Way, a cross-national federation of small farmers and agricultural workers with branches on four continents.1
There are no party lines or ideologies one must espouse to join this family, only the refusal to operate on a strictly for-profit basis where those who supply investment capital control those who supply their own labor. Instead, these new alternatives are bound together by very general values, such as mutual aid (solidarity), economic justice, respect for individual self-direction and cultural diversity, local self-reliance, environmental sustainability. But these are not rigidly or uniformly defined, much less enforced by any elite or vanguard.
A Growing Phenomenon
In a recent article, my friend and co-conspirator Ethan Miller briefly sketched the origins and development of the "solidarity economy approach"2. He sees it arising in the 1980s, blossoming in the 1990s, and continuing its worldwide growth since then. At the first World Social Forum in 2001, Ethan tells us, SE entered the global stage with the formation of the "Global Network of the Solidarity Socio-economy". By 2004 at the Mumbai WSF, this Network had
…grown to include forty seven national and regional solidarity economy networks from nearly every continent, representing tens of thousands of democratic grassroots economic initiatives worldwide. At the…recent World Social Forum in Venezuela, solidarity economy topics comprised an estimated one-third of the entire event’s program.
Ethan’s article recognizes that "it might seem unlikely" that "thousands of diverse, locally rooted, grassroots economic projects [could] form the basis of a viable democratic alternative to capitalism". And it concedes that these alternative islands currently exist in a hostile capitalist sea, where they are "often small in scale, low in resources, and sparsely networked". But he speaks for the SE community in an "audacious" claim that courageous and dedicated grassroots economic activists worldwide…are planting the seeds of another economy in our midst….and [generating] a social movement and economic vision capable of challenging the global capitalist order…"
A Sympathetic Critique
"It’s not the story of the battle. It’s the battle of the story." (Patrick Reinsborough)
I’m a participant in and partisan of SE, having helped start and run food, artisan, and worker cooperatives. I share the hope that its multitudinous expressions are also harbingers of another far more equitable, liberating, and democratic economy. Can it really "challenge the global capitalist order"? If anyone tells you that she or he knows the answer to this question, do not trust anything else they say.
After all, SE as a self-conscious, world-wide movement is less than two decades old: hardly enough time to reach a definitive assessment of its potential or even to measure its impact thus far. A less premature and more useful inquiry, I believe, would begin by identifying SE’s distinctive strengths (assets, achievements) and then proceed to indicate how those could be expanded so to realize more of its potential. Let’s start with SE’s strengths, of which there are at least the following four.
First, and what for me is most distinctive and exciting, is what might be called SE’s "constructivist" or "agency centered" account of economic institutions. To get at this, recall poet Muriel Rukeyser’s statement: "The world is not made of atoms, it is made of stories." Applying this to the "economic world", we find that the very common belief that a single homogenized economy called "capitalism" prevails in this or that country or across the globe is, ultimately, just one story among many.
This constructivist perspective is clearly expressed in another of Ethan Miller’s papers, in which he encourages us to leave behind "a story that makes us feel small and powerless", and which "has hidden from us our own power". In that new and empowering story, we would view
capitalism, with its free markets, its "jobs" and "wages"… as only one part of how we actually create and maintain livelihoods in our families and communities. When we peel away the misleading idea of one giant "Economic System," we can begin to see the workings of many different kinds of economies that are alive and well, supporting us below the surface.3
In A Postcapitalist Politics, another fountainhead source of both the theory and practice of SE, Gibson-Graham discuss the problems faced by Argentine factory workers involved in the "Take", the initiative which began in 2001 to take over abandoned factories and recuperate them under worker control. The main obstacle faced by these workers, according to Gibson-Graham
…was not the state or capital…but their own subjectivities. They were workers, not managers or sales reps or entrepreneurs, and as one of them said, "If they had come to us with 50 pesos and told us to show up for work tomorrow, we would have done so.4
In other words, they had swallowed the capitalist story and their place within it. To move beyond this story, a first step in helping construct a solidarity economy, required what these workers came to call "a struggle against themselves"; that is, they found that
…combating capitalism [involves] refusing a long-standing sense of self and mode of being in the world, while simultaneously cultivating new forms of sociability, visions of happiness, and economic capacities.5
For both Ethan Miller and Gibson-Graham, SE starts with the familiar "reluctant subject" – often, ourselves! – whose sense of self and agency is constricted by living inside stories fabricated by others. Its aim in this is to move us from pervasive but disempowering stories to ones which reveal previously hidden options and help us realize more of our own capabilities.6 Beyond this, approaches such as those of the Asset-Based Community Development method are utilized. These enable participants to reframe not only themselves but their neighborhoods and communities – to tell themselves different stories about these – from what is missing or defective to what can be identified as resources and strengths.
The assets-based portrayal invites communities to begin thinking about what they can do to mobilize what they already have. While assistance might be garnered from the outside, it is sought as a second, not a first resort, and only after community members have decided how they can manage additional resources themselves.7
Concretely, this constructivist first step has been an essential first step for most SE initiatives: for example, for a lone Basque priest and a few technical school students, faced with the devastation of a civil war, to reject both capitalist and communist frameworks and see themselves as "social inventors" of what has become the Mondragon enterprise system of inter-connected worker owned and run cooperatives, which now produces more durable goods than any other single Spanish manufacturer and has only lost two enterprises in its six decades.
It was also essential, in 1965, for a handful of Tokyo housewives distressed by the high prices and low quality of supermarket foods to reframe themselves as "organizers who could broker contracts" between households, neighborhoods, and small farmers for affordable and organic dairy products, grains, and produce. Calling themselves "Seikatsu" (roughly, "peoples lives"), their system of consumer and worker cooperatives now serves over 300,000 members in several Japanese cities. (http://www.seikatsuclub.coop/english/)
A second and related asset of SE initiatives is the (comparative) ease with which they can be started, at least within so-called liberal democracies. The growth in CSAs in the USA is just one example; by some estimates, there are now close to two thousand, up from only about sixty in 1990. (http://newfarm.rodaleinstitute.org/features <http://newfarm.rodaleinstitute.org/features/0204/csa2/part2.shtml> ) A 2007 USDA survey indicated that "…12,549 farms in the United States reported marketing products through a community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement". (http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml <http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml>) These, like the greatest majority of solidarity economy projects, including Mondragon and Seikatsu, began with little or no outside capital; they are built on human labor and other locally available or community-based resources, and their equitable exchange. They required no unusual permission or forms of support from the mainstream political establishment. Furthermore, as already mentioned, joining the SE family does not involve pledging allegiance to any party lines, ideologies, sectarian leaders, religious or ethnic factions, etc.
Of course, under repressive regimes, alternatives of any sort are never easy to introduce; here, civil disobedience and constructive non-violent resistance have often proved necessary. This is evidenced by the case of the MST (Movimento Sem Terra) in Brazil, a SE initiative which has forcefully occupied almost 20 million hectares of otherwise unutilized land and settled well over 1 million formerly landless people, helping them co-create housing, agriculturutal, and educational cooperatives. (For other similar cases, see Vandana Shiva’s Earth Democracy, esp. chapter 5.).
A third strength of SE is that several of its most prominent initiatives can be seen as pioneers of new, upscaled, and highly participatory forms of democracy. This includes, among others, the Brazilian participatory budget process, now exported widely across the world (information at www.participatorybudgeting.org <http://www.participatorybudgeting.org/> ); the afore-mentioned MST, as well as the Mondragon, Italian, and Seikatsu cooperative organizations; and La Via Campesina, which describes itself as [an] international movement of peasants, small- and medium-sized producers, landless, rural women, indigenous people, rural youth and agricultural workers. We defend the values and the basic interests of our members. We are an autonomous, pluralist and multicultural movement, independent of any political, economic, or other type of affiliation. Our members are from 148 organisations) in 69 countries. (http://www.viacampesina.org)
All of these, in strikingly different ways, are what workplace democracy and anarchist activist George Benello called "working models" of what democracy looks like when it is "upscaled" to enable meaningful participation (beyond occasional voting) for populations which number in the millions. That is, they have invented opportunities for all participants or stakeholders to shape the priorities and practices of large-sized communities; devolved authority to smaller or more local groups; and reframed the core task of larger units as that of facilitating leadership in and enabling collaboration among what emerges from below.
The range of these pioneering models is also worth noting; from landless peasants to middle class housewives, to university educated and computer-savvy worker owners and cooperative developers; and across national and continental borders. Moreover, they have achieved these goals and have been walking their reinvented democratic talk for multiple decades: they are here today, and for the long haul.
Fourth and finally, SE offers something unique to those joining its ranks: the opportunity to make, or begin making, a living, to share in the development and utilization of economically essential resources – while contributing to the creation of a genuinely new and better world.
Of course, not every SE initiative by itself can guarantee participants a living income, or a mortgage-free home with a computer or laptop in every room. Some come close; the Mondragon or the northern Italian cooperatives have standards of living above the European average. Others, such as local currencies, or housing cooperatives, may provide only a part of one’s economic needs; they must be supplemented to yield the missing components of economic security. A worker cooperative may offer a decent income, plus a portion of the enterprise’s surplus revenues, to all of its members, but they will still need a CSA and an energy coop….to combat inflated market prices of essential material goods.
Nonetheless, especially in these grim times of more than 10% unemployment, the co-op is still a good start.
These then make up some of what could be called the "SE Advantage": its constructivist and "subject-focused" approach to understanding economic life; the relative ease with which its initiative can get started; its capacity to build and maintain working models of highly participatory democracy across both geographical, educational, and class boundaries; and its ability to sustain us as we attempt to build a new world for all of its inhabitants. In my own view, these are advantages over not only (what Thatcher and the like tell us is) the status quo, but in comparison with many more familiar forms of "social change"; e.g., those aimed at either reforming that status quo through conventional electoral politics or at overthrowing it by means of violent uprisings. Possibly, my suggestions for strengthening SE, which follow, may convince you of this.
SEIZE THE TIME! Suggestions for Strengthening SE
"We are at a moment where we could face decades of darkness or an opportunity for real fundamental change. While I’m heartened by what we’re doing, I know that we are way behind the power of the Low Road, and we are losing at this point." Dan Swinney, veteran solidarity activist and Founder-Director of Chicago’s Center for Labor and Community Research8
Of course, these assets and achievements, by themselves, cannot establish that SE is on a straight or fast track to displacing global capitalism, rightly identified by Dan Swinney as "the Low Road". That system remains in control of most of the world’s economic resources. Moreover, it is sustained by an immensely powerful coalition of wealthy nation-states, headed by the still-imperial and excessively militarized USA – a point I return to below.
Nonetheless, global capitalism is visibly reeling from its own internal shortcomings, so this seems to be an auspicious time to ask ourselves just how this nascent movement can gather more strength. Perhaps John Dewey’s famous maxim about democracy needing a rebirth in every generation is germane here, and this generation of SE activists and advocates is ready to create their own versions of SE. In any case, if enough of us imagine that instead of "decades of darkness", there is a fertile "opportunity for real fundamental change", we may self-fulfillingly produce that very opportunity.
Here are three suggestions which I think would help SE become more of what it can be.
First, a variety of ongoing forms of SE education and outreach need to be developed. At least in the USA, but a degree elsewhere, the term itself is still relatively unknown, and almost nothing about the practice is taught in so-called higher education, much less in the public schools.9 Curricula need to be developed, and allies found to use them within formal educational institutions.
More specifically, workshops offered through organizations or institutions focused on "adult" or "continuing" education, e.g., at community colleges, might be worth exploring, especially as these attract people who have been down-sized or are looking for career changes. At the University of Connecticut, where I work, some of us have launched a "Creative Community Building" program through the Continuing Studies division (www.creativecommunitybuilding.org <http://www.creativecommunitybuilding.org/> ). In this program, which offers a Bachelors degree, academic faculty join with veteran practitioners, including some in the solidarity economy, to instruct and provide career counseling in many forms of democratic engagement and grassroots social change. We have found Continuing Studies on our campus to be an extremely open and welcoming location, focused as it is, not on academic disciplines and highly specialized publications, but on assisting non-traditional learners chart their own education. The same may well be true on other campuses.10 In addition, however, SE practitioners and advocates need to create their own educative alternatives, be these neighborhood-based workshops, summer camps, or full-scale "schools of constructive resistance". As things stand now, education about SE, even when offered to sym- patico social change groups, takes place mainly at large scale events, e.g., Social Forums, which occur maybe once every two or so years, may not be accessible or attractive for most people.
Secondly, I’d recommend an increased focus on building what are called "support organizations", that is, ones which offer crucial resources for starting, maintaining, and growing SE enterprises. As things now stand, primary SE enterprises, those providing crucial economic products or services, are often on their own, unable to find allies, educational materials, business expertise/advice, or financial assistance. The result is that many disappear almost as quickly as they began.
This appears to be the case with local currencies, which require immense administrative, coordinative, and marketing efforts – frequently under- or uncompensated – to stay alive. Even Ithaca Hours, the grandmother of such projects in the USA, has lately suffered from severe attrition. (http://www.ithacahours.org/ <http://www.ithacahours.org/> ) After peaking at around 4000 individual and 400 business members in the later 1990s, this past decade has seen membership drop off to about 900. In that same period, most of the roughly 50 community barter systems encouraged by the Ithaca initiative have closed their doors. (http://www.jgpress.com/inbusiness/archives/_free/000636.html <http://www.jgpress.com/inbusiness/archives/_free/000636.html> )
In addition, there seems to be a disinclination or indifference towards growing the SE as a whole. (Or maybe, it’s not yet clear just whose responsibility this is.) If a SE venture in your neighborhood or town is meeting the needs of its members, why should it care about starting new or replicated enterprises elsewhere? This issue was brought out forcefully to me by Tim Huet, a Bay Area cooperative developer and activist, at a workshop he gave in 2006. There, Tim asked participants to compare the slow, halting replication of Cheeseboard, the highly popular cooperatively-owned and managed cheese and bread cafe in Berkeley, with what might have happened had Cheeseboard been privately owned. In the latter case, the entrepreneurial owner(s) would have had humongous incentive to develop dozens, maybe even hundreds, of additional Cheeseboards (or, maybe, Cheesebucks?) in and around Berkeley. But where, Tim asked, was the incentive to do this within a well-functioning cooperative that was already doing quite well for its four dozen worker owners?
Yes, Tim granted, aversion to growth is not an iron law for co-ops. Notable USA exceptions include Equal Exchange, the ever-expanding Fair Trade cooperative and Cooperative Home Care Associates, which has grown from less than twenty worker owners in 1985 to well over a thousand. Both of these have in fact actively and successfully sought growth, making it part of their mission. But these co-ops, he said, were exceptions that "prove the rule".
Moreover, especially in the early start-up phases of an enterprise’s life, it may be difficult to find time, resources, or enthusiasm to support like-minded initiatives in other places, or network developers and wider associations across regional or national borders. Local solidarity may then degenerate into a form of "Only In My Backyard" (OI-MBY), or, at least, tend to discount efforts to collaborate with far-flung allies or to develop a global, as opposed to a narrowly provincial, consciousness.
Fortunately, venerable members of the SE family can offer examples of how to cope with these problems of keeping individual SE enterprises afloat and nurturing the entire movement’s growth. This includes the already mentioned up-scaled MST and LVC, which span entire countries or function on several continents, and which have continued to expand their ranks, without compromising their commitment to grassroots forms of democracy. LVC, for example, offers membership services and programs which include training workers in sustainable production techniques, fair-trade agreements, conservation, gender equality, and the implementation of banking and credit policies that support the aforementioned initiatives and programs.11
In addition, there is the worldwide cooperative movement which promotes solidarity and provides assistance on many levels, in part through commitment to a set of seven guiding principles. These include: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community (ILO R193, art. 3 (b)). The SE community might want to consider a process of constructing a similar set of guiding and cohesion-building principles (or an expanded one, see page 8 below).
Beyond these impressive larger-sized organizational ways to grow SE, there is another, more direct and face-to-face approach. Let’s return to Equal Exchange and Cooperative Home Care Associates, the exceptions to the velvet rule of cooperatives to be indifferent or averse to growth. Both of these have actively and successfully sought growth; in fact, they have made it part of their mission. How so? What has allowed them to be so exceptional?12
Perhaps the reason is that both ventures have chosen to step beyond their own membership, join forces across organizational boundaries, and work to transform an entire industrial sector and undo a systemic injustice.
To put this differently: They are both co-ops with what we might describe as a mixed or double mission: to serve their members- and to serve another constituency as well. In the case of Equal Exchange, this was the constituency of small family farmers chiefly in the southern hemisphere, and routinely exploited by the established systems of finance, production, and distribution of agricultural products. For Cooperative Home Care Associates, this additional constituency was the huge home health care workforce in the USA (close to a million by some estimates), whose workers were kept at the very bottom of the health care industry by avaricious home care agencies.
This second growth-furthering model might be called "horizontal or grassroots solidarity" to distinguish it from the previous cases, which rely more on distant networks, associations, technical assistance providers, etc. Each of these two cooperatives sees itself as committed not only to its own survival, but as a support organization as well – a creator of cooperative opportunities for, or a direct collaborator with, others now under-served or exploited by the mainstream capitalist economy. As such, they work directly with those constituencies, without calling on outside intermediaries.
This notion of "horizontal solidarity" leads me to my final suggestion: that SE encourage more "cross sector" or "cross organizational" collaboration between its own family and a host of other participatory or grassroots democratic pioneers. A brief story from the Creative Community Building(CCB) program just mentioned can help set the background for this suggestion.
Last semester CCB offered an undergraduate course in "Creative Democracy and Community Building" featuring four experienced practitioner instructors with distinct approaches to of progressive social change. These ranged from community organizing as understood by Saul Alinsky and the Midwest Academy (www.midwestacademy.com <http://www.midwestacademy.com/> ); Gandhian non-violent resistance and constructive social programs; building a cooperative economy; and community-based citizen dialogue, engagement, and decision-making. Long before this course began, it was clear that the practitioner instructors were fascinated by the mix of approaches, but knew little about – and had rarely if ever collaborated with – those outside their own.
CCB’s goal in offering this course was to offset this sort of narrow specialization within groups aiming at fundamental progressive change. And this is the heart as well of my final recommendation for SE: to emphasize the importance of reaching beyond our usual organizational comfort zones. The underlying assumption here is that no single progressive vision or strategy will suffice to create a genuinely just, democratic, earth-friendly, and peace-based world. This applies to SE as much as it does to any other grassroots democratic movement. In short: if SE is to get closer to its goal of effectively challenging global capitalism, it must find allies with whom it can exchange experience and wisdom, as well as engage collaboratively.
In speaking with fellow cooperative activists about this need to collaborate across organizational borders, I have found it useful to propose an additional eighth principle, one that would supplement the now canonical seven mentioned above. Framed to refer to SE, and not just to cooperatives, this would read as follows:
SE enterprises COLLABORATE TO BUILD A JUST, FULLY DEMOCRATIC, AND PEACE-BASED SOCIETY.
They collaborate with a diverse range of other grassroots democratic or citizen-shaped groups to build, and share power in, a fully democratic society whose institutions, resources, and opportunities are accessible equally by all, and where non-violent dialogue and conflict resolution are widely used to prevent and manage conflicts.
As stated, such a broad principle can be fulfilled in many diverse ways. One which particularly appeals to me involves collaboration between SE and the many grassroots groups who have pioneered newly invented forms of grassroots democratic governance, e.g., those I described in "Democracy’s Dilemma", my previous Re-Imagining Society paper, as creating novel forms of direct democracy and shared governance.
Doubtless, this specific suggestion will raise eyebrows, if not more hostile reactions from many within the SE community. I have, after all, just embraced the "G-word", or something closely akin to it. For there seems to be a tendency, or at least an inclination, within SE to scorn any and all collaboration with governments, political parties, and the pseudo-representative institutions which now pass for democracy.
These feelings are certainly understandable, but let’s see what happens to them when we apply the same constructivist approach to "government" that SE employs towards "capitalism". That is, "government", with its "heads of state", its "political parties and officials", its "law and order", its "jails" and "judges", its occasional "voting"…. is but one part of how we actually create and maintain peace and resolve conflicts, exercise and develop leadership, construct stable relationships and harmonious communities, etc. in our daily lives. The notion of a single all-encompassing and homogenized "political system" is a convenient fiction – one of those disempowering stories – for those who occupy and control what we can call the official system of government. When we look underneath the surface of that fiction, we will see a vast spectrum of unofficial governance arrangements: arrangements by which discord is turned into accord, authority and leadership are legitimated, and peaceable, orderly and secure communities are maintained. Working examples are not hard to find, whether these be drawn from the council processes of First Nations across Turtle Island, from community mediation and restorative justice approaches to
"crime" that have begun to flower in the past three or four decades, from Quaker and other consensus-based decision-making, from the tradition of developmental leadership in the "beloved community" of the civil rights movement, from methods of social inquiry such as participatory action research that share control over how and what knowledge is obtained, from citizen-initiated peace-making initiatives, and from charrette, study circle, and other community vision and planning processes.13
In almost all of these, power and authority are shared, rather than exercised unilaterally by some single elite or dominant institution. Moreover, these unofficial forms of governance typically utilize little or no physical coercion, nor do they threaten any; they rely, rather, on developing relations of trust, mutual aid, reciprocity, inclusive forms of consensus building, and on temporary and revolving allocations of power, authority and leadership. We might speak of these, then, as expressions of solidarity governance(SG), in contrast with the predominantly coercive and hierarchical structures of official government systems.
SE, by itself, cannot I believe transform or vanquish the US empire or the current nation state grip on "legitimate authority". But this is something that must take place if there is to be an effective "challenge to the global capitalist order"; if the state is not also and equally challenged, capitalism will still have its major source of funding and militarized support. The state’s power, as Hilary Wainwright has put it, must be "reclaimed", i.e., remade so that it is exercised authoritatively by the "rest of us" and not just elected officials, and its goals include providing a voice for, and fostering leadership from, every stakeholder. This is no short term objective, but it avoids the twin simplicities of "taking" and "avoiding" power, both of which ultimately leave "the rest of us" as marginalized and disempowered as we are today.
The tasks of envisaging and giving life to a "reclaimed" state, of remaking power, require more than one set of hearts, minds, and constituencies. SG can teach us how it has (a) brought entire communities together, including entire states within the USA, to reach widely accepted decisions which carry "emergent" authority, and (b) managed to persuade legislators, mayors, and other political officials to embrace (many of) those decisions. On the other hand, SE will be needed to (a) help transform reluctant or disempowered subjects into active initiators of social and political change, and (b) reach out to those whose impoverished conditions or excessively demeaning and demanding jobs leave them little time and less motivation for democratic engagement. In addition, while SG approaches like the PB can generate funds for SE, SE initiatives can help economically sustain those now engaged "voluntarily" in citizen-shaped forms of governance.
No doubt, much more can be said about whether and if so, how, collaboration between SG and SE can take place. But from my perspective, having been active in both movements for decades, there is no major obstacle or downside to this collaboration, and indeed, the two share so much and supplement each other so well, that they seem to me made for each other.
The good news is that such collaborations, though still rare, are not unknown. The Participatory Budget process (PB), which got its start in Brazil, is perhaps the most familiar of such cases. It enables ordinary citizens and community-based organizations to allocate portions of a town or region’s budget; typically this has been confined to new community improvements (e.g., new schools or more health services), but the potential is much wider. On some accounts, there are now over 3000 municipalities and larger political units using various forms of the PB throughout both Latin America and Europe, with some having emerged on other continents as well. Though it has often encountered conservative resistance and other obstacles, there appears to be widespread agreement that the PB is a step towards both reducing economic injustice and facilitating active citizen participation in governance.
In the USA, there is an unusual opportunity for SE to collaborate with a federally mandated and funded agency, the Cooperative Extension System which is typically housed in what are called Land Grant Colleges and Universities. Some SG groups (though none from SE) have already partnered with cooperative extension educators in seven northwestern states to offset rural poverty throughout this region.14
In my own experience, cooperative extension educators often work from an empowerment model of community economic development that could blend readily with SE principles and practice. For example, at UCONN, CCB has begun to partner with our cooperative extension department, in part to develop a "Farm School", where live-in students would learn about and practice sustainable farming; in this way, they’d be prepared for careers where SE and SG are appreciated, rather than in corporate agribusiness. This empowerment model, according to Scott Peters of the Cornell University extension system, is part of a "mainstream tradition of educational organizing" that has nurtured three sorts of learning:
1. Instrumental learning that helped people improve their technical skills in farming, nutrition, and other areas;
2. Communicative learning that helped people understand each other’s views, problems, hopes, and interests; and
3. Emancipatory learning that developed people’s leadership, confidence, and courage and enabled them to act together to change the world in ways that furthered their values and ideals.15
This tradition, and their presence on so many campuses and within so many local communities, makes cooperative extension educators ideal collaborators with SE initiatives; and such collaboration would set a useful precedent for other federal agencies and programs.
How, though, might SG-SE collaborations be up-scaled so as to take a real bite out of the unsavory operations of the current nation state? One admittedly visionary strategy would be to reshape the federal budget so that a sizeable – and increasing – portion of tax revenues were returned directly to local towns or neighborhoods ("No taxation without local direction"?). To use the USA as an example, this could start with each of 60,000 small communities of 5000 residents receiving annual allotments of $1 million to support locally-designed initiatives which (a) promoted community economic self-reliance (SE) and (b) were chosen by inclusive processes of face-to-face dialogue and decision-making (SG). Recipient communities would need to match the federal allotments, either by their own funds (perhaps using local currency, at least in part) and/or in-kind contributions of time, talent, and supplies. The total amount of "locally-directed federal revenues" involved here would be $60 billion, which sounds awesomely immense, but pales next to the bailouts, stimulus packages, and other infusions to corrupt banks and bankrupt corporations the feds have already approved this past year or so. (The program might be called "Citizen Allocated Public Revenues", or CAPR.)
In order to honor citizen control over public revenues, these federal allotments would be made directly to the locally-designed initiatives themselves; the approval of mayors, town councils and other entrenched government officials would be sought, but would not be required. Larger scaled projects, such as those providing renewable solar or wind energy to statewide populations, or the building of earth-friendly CAD-CAM industrial workplaces, could be supported by combining federal allotments from several small communities. Should federal level oversight seem desirable, a council of delegates chosen by the grassroots communities themselves, and outside the official political party electoral system, could be called upon to provide it. Local initiatives could also be asked to utilize SE and/or SE support organizations approved by this same Council, or by wider associations and a regional group within it.
Sixty billion dollars annually would not of course undo the Empire or the global capitalist order, but the amount could be increased steadily as kinks and stumbling blocks in this CAPR experiment were identified and corrected. And in any case, the advantages of such a visible and, we can hope, successful experiment would not be lost on people, and would generate their own momentum for much more of the same.
How, though, to get such a countervailing strategy up and running? To be sure, a tough question. Part of me sees a long haul stretching through decades of ground level SE and SE organizing (and collaboration), percolating eventually into municipal and state administrations, and ultimately to those we elect to create federal policies. The very first part of this lengthy haul, as I see it, might well involve these two reinventions of democracy bridging their differences and becoming allies in this process of grassroots organizing.
In addition, though, I have a strong sense that there has rarely been such an optimum time as the present for up-scaling innovations which can transform both the economy and our ways of governance. There is confirmation of this feeling in the very recent and still passionate dialogues and negotiations between the federal Office of Public Engagement and the entire community of organizations and individuals involved in "citizen dialogue and deliberation". These have yielded agreement on a set of public engagement principles and are aimed at constructing continuous collaboration to strengthen the many varieties of SG at numerous levels in the USA political system. (For an update, and to access this constructive process, see the web site of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation: www.thataway.org <http://www.thataway.org/> .)
SE activists and advocates might want to review these exchanges to see how their own "advantages", principles, and best practices could become known and connected – here and now – to the missions of state and federal agencies focused on "community economic development", e.g., HUD (Housing and Urban Development), USDA (Department of Agriculture), EDA (Economic Development Administration), and several others. No doubt, this second "seize the time" option must be supported and sustained by the first, otherwise we are in danger of speaking only for a tiny part of the landscape. But the reverse seems to me equally true: how better can we become widely recognized as an attractive alternative than to place our agenda and achievements on every visible public stage?
1. For basic information on CSAs, see http://www.localharvest.org/csa/ <http://www.localharvest.org/csa/> ; newfarm.rodaleinstitute.org/features/0204/csa2/part2.shtmlon the Italian LegaCoop, http://www.legacoop.it <http://www.legacoop.it/> ; on Mondragon, http://www.mondragoncorporation.com/ <http://www.mondragoncorporation.com/> ; and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NORmQ8zaL1c <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NORmQ8zaL1c> ; LVC, www.viacampesina.org/main_en/ <http://www.viacampesina.org/main_en/> . In depth articles can be found at the Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) website: www.geo.coop <http://www.geo.coop/> , and in the anthology, Solidarity Economy, edited by Jenna Allard et al, and published by Changemaker Publications in 2007.
2. Miller, E. "Other Economies Are Possible", in Dollars and Sense/Grassroots Economic Organizing, July/August, 2006. Other quotations in this section are from this same article.
3. Miller, E. "Solidarity Economics: From the Bottom-Up and the Inside-Out", at http://www.geo.coop/node/15 <http://www.geo.coop/node/15> .
4. Gibson-Graham, J.K.(2006). A Post-Capitalist Politics. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
6. There is a strong connection here to the liberatory (and constructivist) pedagogy of Paulo Freire, through which the illiterate or semi-literate are enabled to see that written language is not an externally imposed code only the gifted or formally educated can comprehend, and to use it to expand their own sense of themselves, their own verbal creativity and political agency.
7. Gibson-Graham, J.J. op. cited.
8. quoted from Solidarity Economy, op. cited above.
9. One hopeful initiative is Austin Polytechnical Academy, a new public high school in a low income and African-American neighborhood of Chicago. Its aim is to promote "career paths for young people in high skilled production, management, and ownership of manufacturing companies", and part of its curriculum enables students to visit and learn from the Mondragon cooperatives. See here, Dan Swinney’s article, "High Road Community Development and the Solidarity Economy", in Solidarity Economy, op.cited.
10. An article by and about the CCB program appears in the New Village online magazine: http://commons.newvillagepress.net/commons/new-village-online/current-issue/ <http://commons.newvillagepress.net/commons/new-village-online/current-issue/>
11. Menser, M. (2008) "Transnational Participatory Democracy in Action: The Case of La Via Campesina". Journal of Social Philosophy. Volume 39, issue 1.
12. Actually, there are many other exceptions, both within the USA and, even more so, outside of that context. For examples, see the Italian "social cooperatives", which number in the high thousands and which typically include as stakeholders, both the providers and the beneficiaries of social services. On this see "Social Cooperatives in Italy" by Renate Goergen of the Italian legacoop.
13. For starters on the vast field of solidarity governance: on "restorative justice and community mediation", see www.restorativejustice.org/articlesdb/articles/7338 <http://www.restorativejustice.org/articlesdb/articles/7338> ; www.mrjc.ca/ <http://www.mrjc.ca/> ; www.nafcm.org/ <http://www.nafcm.org/> ; www.voma.org <http://www.voma.org/> ; on "developmental leadership", see Mary Belenky et al, A Tradition that Has No Name, esp, Part 3, "The Development of Voice in Public Life" (Basic Books, 1997); on "participatory action research", see MD Anisur Rahman’s People’s Self-Development (Zed Books, 1993); on "citizen-initiated peace-making", see Harold Saunders’ Public Peace Process (Palgrave, 1999); and on "community visioning and planning", see Hilary Wainright’s Reclaim the State (Verso, 2003), Matt Leighninger’s The Next Form of Democracy (Vanderbilt University, 2008) and the previously mentioned paper of mine, "Democracy’s Dilemma". For additional examples, especially from non-Western countries, see John Gaventa’s fine article "Strengthening Participatory Approaches to Local Governance: Learning the Lessons from Abroad" in the National Civic Review, Winter, 2004.
14. See here the Horizons web site: http://www.nwaf.org/Programs.aspx?pg=Programs/Horizons.htm, which is also sketched in my article, "Democracy’s Dilemma".
15. Peters, S. "Rousing the People on the Land", in the Journal of Extension, June, 2002.