Social solidarity economy

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The solidarity economy is a growing international movement dedicated to creation of new economic structures and organisations based on principles of cooperation, solidarity, social responsibility and mutual aid. It lacks any coherent programme or standard definition, and varies widely in nature from place to place around the world. It strongly overlaps with interests and action in areas of business, economics and livelihood in community-led movements such as permaculture, Transition and ecovillages.

Defining Solidarity Economy

According to an EU-funded report by SUSY, a network of national solidarity economy organisations in 23 EU countries:[1]

The solidarity economy ... pursues the transformation of the neoliberal capitalist economic system from one that gives primacy to maximizing private profit and blind growth, to one that puts people and planet at its core. As an alternative economic system, the solidarity economy thus includes all three sectors – private, public and the third sector. The solidarity economy seeks to re-orient and harness the state, policies, trade, production, distribution, consumption, investment, money and finance, and ownership structures towards serving the welfare of people and the environment.

Most writers on the solidarity economy concur that it consists of deliberate attempts to create self-organised alternatives to dominant economic structures. Solidarity economy initiatives emphasise values of cooperation, inclusion and mutual support and make explicit the political dimensions of economic interchange by drawing attention to the social dimensions of economic activity.

Ould Ahmed notes that solidarity economy is less a fixed concept than a paradigm for practice, characterised by six main features:[2]

  • Recognition of the importance of factors typically excluded from conventional economic analysis (environmental, social etc.)
  • Emphasis on cooperative and associative rather than competitive and individualistic logics
  • Promotion of worker self-management, often in cooperatives and associations
  • Integration of marginal and subaltern people and groups, especially the poor and unemployed
  • Political as well as economic equality
  • Democratic autonomy on the part of individuals, in other words solidarity through voluntary association based on individual free will

These six characteristics in turn derive from two interdependent principles: reciprocity and democratic action. The combination of these principles brings economic interactions and decisions about their governance into the sphere of public debate in ways that ensure accountability, visibility and inclusion.[2][3]

With a closer focus on solidarity enterprises and other organisations, Markus Auinger identifies three crucial principles:[4]

  • The democracy principle: equal decision-making power for each person within the organisation, supported by wide sharing of data and background information
  • The identity principle, or removal of the distinction between capital and labour through worker ownership
  • The solidarity principle, of equitable and mutually supportive relationships both within the organisation and with wider society

Social Solidarity Economy

According to a thinkpiece for UNRISD (the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development) by Emily Kowana, the solidarity economy overlaps with the more radical end of the social economy. Part of the social economy fulfils a stabilising role for capitalism by delivering vital functions in care and social provision not catered for by profit-led enterprise, thus reducing exclusion and minimising possibilities for social unrest. The other seeks fundamental reform of the economic system in order to prioritise social over fiscal goals and environmental and social ethics over market logic, in line with the more transformative agenda underlying solidarity economics.[5] The term 'Social Solidarity Economy' encompasses this area of overlap, and refers to the combination of the solidarity economy and that part of the social economy that seeks to be transformative rather than conservative of the existing economic system.

The Réseau intercontinental de promotion de l’économie sociale solidaire (RIPESS) promotes, undertakes and coordinates action, advocacy and scholarship in support of the social solidarity economy. The RIPESS charter states a number of key values: humanism; solidarity, mutualism, cooperation and reciprocity; social, political and economic democracy; universal equity and justice for all, including in relation to gender, race, ethnicity, class, age and sexuality; sustainable development; pluralism, inclusivity, diversity and creativity; and localism or subsidiarity, meaning decision-making and management on as local a level as makes sense.[6]

Activities of Solidarity Enterprises

The 2015 SUSY Report conducted case studies of 55 solidarity enterprises in 23 EU member states and nine other countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The surveyed enterprises covered a range of sectors, including production, service provision, cultural activities and campaigning. Specific areas of work include: agriculture and/or organic food production (34 of 55 businesses surveyed), fair trade (16), critical consumption (15), sustainable lifestyles (14), reuse, recycling and redistribution (11), provision of eco-friendly goods and services (9), sports and recreation (6), international development cooperation (5), responsible tourism (5), local welfare services (5), ethical finance (4), energy conservation (3), maintenance and repair (3), renewable energy and green technologies (3), non- monetary exchange systems (3), and open/free information technologies (2). Many enterprises cut across these categories, either because they combine multiple activities or because their emphasis is on integration and/or organisation. In terms of activities, 42% were involved trade and services, 29% in production and processing, 17% in consumption and 12% in distribution. The vast majority of organisations surveyed achieved high levels of beneficial environmental and/or social impact (respectively, 44 and 45 of 55 organisations), with most also showing high impacts in terms of participation/self-management (33 organisations) and working in networks (36) and a smaller number in communication and advocacy (17).[1]

Diversity of the Solidarity Economy

The solidarity economy is not a uniform phenomenon, but encompasses a range of autonomous local responses to experienced deficiencies in dominant economic structures and processes enacated by governments, often guided by International Financial Institutions. According to a review by Ould Ahmed, the movement first arose as separate developments in France and Latin America during the 1980s, later spreading to the UK, North America, Asia and Africa following the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001.[2] The movement has identifiable predeecessors and influences going back up to at least the 19th century in the form of grassroots responses to economic precarity among marginalised groups in Latin America and cooperativism and other forms of organised labour in Europe.[7]

Local, national and international solidarity economies and associated enterprises are highly varied in form, reflecting the diversity of economic and political conditions experienced around the world and the priorities that motivate local action.[3] In the Global South, particularly Latin America, these responses have tended to be survival strategies on the part of those excluded from the formal economy under authoritian regimes and/or those dedicated to market-led models of national development. In Europe and other industrialised settings they have tended to be reactions against systemic patterns of social marginalisation and commoditisation of care. What they have in common in an explicit repoliticisation of the economic sphere in ways that emphasise values of sharing, mutual support, inclusion and democracy and attention to the qualities of interrelationship that support these. They thus represent a joint call for democratisation of both economics and politics to reflect collectively articulated notions of the common good.

The solidarity economy can be seen to have emerged from a number of distinct strands or currents. These include worker self-management initiatives across the industrialised world; popular economy and landless movements in Latin America; proximity services seeking to address common social problems in many Western European countries; the fair trade movement in its 'south-south' and 'north-north' as well as 'south-north' forms; and various initiatives in solidarity finance, community currencies and ethical banking.[7] Their strength, and transformational potential lies in their insistence on viewing economic activity as a means to strengthening democractic participation and social solidarity, in the service of humanitarian and, in some cases, ecological goals rather than fiscal or other quantitative goals. Various proximity services initiatives have been supported by national and EU financial and administrative support, including through the LEADER programme and certain job creation schemes. Such support has often been at the costs of reproducing the very systemic and cultural structures the initiatives seek to challenge, demonstrating the inseparability of their social goals from the requirement for political and economic transformation.[7]

In Europe, a survey conducted by SUSY in 2015 showed the solidarity economy to have different emphases in different countries and regions. Northern and Eastern European countries showed a stronger emphasis on the more conventional social economy, and in many cases have a longer history of legal regulation. More autonomous and self-directed forms of organisation more in keeping with the concept of social and solidarity economy tend to be more prevalent in Mediterranean countries, particularly France, Italy and Spain. Both of these contrast somewhat with the situation in many Latin American countries, where the specific notion of an economy explicitly geared towards solidarity originated (since the 1970s), from the start emphasising social inclusion and more recently converging more upon the European model through the adoption of legally recognised organisational forms such as cooperatives, mutuals and associations. Across the 55 enterprises surveyed, most were cooperatives (15), associations, NGOs or foundations (13), social enterprises (9) and private enterprises (5); among the others, ten were districts or networks under various legal forms and two were informal groupings with no defined legal form.[1]

Scale of the Solidarity Economy

Brazilian solidarity economy practitioner Euclides Andre Mance reports that in Brazil in 2007, the solidarity economy encompassed, wholly or partially, 1.2 million workers, with 1,250 solidarity enterprises having appeared in the previous five years.[8]. He emphasises the emergence of networks and the creation by these networks of enabling mechanisms such as solidarity finance, which enable organisations to interact primarily within the solidarity economy and hence move towards creation of a viable practical alternative to the capitalist economy. In some cases, such networks are actively supported within national government via formal institutional arrangements, notably creation of a Ministry for Community Economy in Venezuela and a State Secretary for Solidarity Economy within the Ministry of Labour in Brazil.[4] Solidarity economy principles have thus become embedded within state strategies for job creation and economic welfare.

The 55 enterprises surveyed in the SUSY report directly or indirectly employed around 1500 people, with a total of 13,000 involved in one way or another. The authors caution that these figures both underestimate the total numbers of beneficiaries (some of which are opaque to the survey methods used in the study) and take no account of the SSE's ability to expand in response to social needs. Financial data are also potentially misleading: a total annual turnover of €92 million across the 55 enterprises is skewed by a small number of very large organisations. The authors suggest a median figure of around €300,000 to be a better reflection of the typical size of such operations. Across the EU, the SUSY report suggests that in 2015 the solidarity economy employed 15 million people, up from 11 million in 2002-3 and representing 6.5% of the total labour force. This excludes the increasing numbers of people involved in rapidly growing movements in solidarity purchasing and solidarity consumption, and community-supported agriculture.[1]

Solidarity Economy and Resilience

Promoting resilience through the development of self-regenerative commons ecologies.

Solidarity economy theorists have argued that, in order to promote the resilience of Solidarity Economy practices in the face of pressures to conform to the requirements of capitalism, it is necessary to promote institutional incentives for their convergence into organisations and networks based on similar practices and goals.[9] One outcome is emergence of “local cooperative ecosystems”, though the development of “commons ecologies” (de Angelis 2017: 15, 22).[10] Such commons ecologies are the result of concrete practices that configure balances of stocks and flows (material and non-material resources and patterns interchange of these resources among different elements of the system in ways that develop and reproduce the social power necessary to sustain and give forms to the commons system. The economic and ecological circuits through which matter, energy and information consequently move lead to synergetic forms of coordination across organisational scales in the commons, maximising their self-regenerative capacity and their autonomy in relation to capital's monetary fluxes.[11] Similarly, in the field of regenerative enterprise, local and regional economies are postulated to operates as enterprise ecologies based on coordinated interchange among differentiated enterprise of various of the 8 forms of capital, in ways that maximise resilience in the system overall.[12] In several geographical regions where regional solidarity economies have matured to such a degree that cooperatives and other forms of social and solidarity enterprise trade predominantly with each other (rather than capitalist firms), in relationships of cooperation rather than competition, demonstrable increases in resilience are a recurring outcome; this reflects a strong correlation between the seven cooperative principles and seven key principles of social-ecological resilience (diversity, modularity, social capital, innovation, overlap, tight feedback loops, ecosystem services).[13]

The Healing Biotope model promoted by Tamera ecovillage (Healing Biotope I) in Portugal, is an example of deliberate establishment of a commons ecology that interconnects the development of self-regenerative economic and ecological circuits of value via strategic promotion of water, energy and food autonomy at the regional level. This happens through technologies and strategies of ecosystem management based on permaculture, solar energy and biogas, as well as the development of a regional food autonomy network.[14]

The “Healing Biotope” model is the foundation of a community-building strategy based on collective participation in the commons. This results from sharing among community members of water and energy produced within the community’s boundaries, as well as food produced organically, either in the community's own soil or by an emerging regional food autonomy network based on exchanges between intentional communities and small and medium-sized organic and biodynamic farms in the region. This is supported by a strategy of ecological regeneration founded upon permaculture, low carbon architecture and technology based on off-grid renewable energy sources.[14]

According to data from the ORIGIN research project, in 2015 Tamera produced 45% of its electricity consumption over the year from onsite renewable resources, with a goal of achieving complete energetic autonomy during the following decade. The community also started moving towards water and food autonomy in 2007 with the development of a regenerative methodology for land management and food production, known as a water retention landscape (WRL). A WRL recovers eroded soils for farming by increasing their capacity to retain rainwater via construction of a system of lakes, ponds, swales, terraces and rotational grazing ponds.[15] In Tamera, WRL is the basis for an autonomous water supply, as well as food production, regeneration of topsoil, pasture and forest, and local enrichment of biodiversity. Sources from Tamera's Ecology Team indicated that, based on this strategy, Tamera became self-sufficient in terms of water supply and management in 2009.[14] Michal Kravcik, one of the external experts that contributed to development of Tamera's WRL, claims that it can contain or even reverse climate change by increasing the capacity of the soil to return water to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration.[16]

Tamera started moving towards energy autonomy in 2006 with the creation of Testfield 1 Solar Village, where research in the field of solar energy and biogas is undertaken, assessed and integrated into daily life. Research includes the use of solar energy in the development of vortex implosion-based technologies, aimed at supporting the creation of energy autonomous communities. Testfield 1 supports experimentation by Sunvention International GmbH, led by physicist Jürgen Kleinwächter, which is developing and test driving an energy autonomy system for pumping water, powering greenhouses and processing and storage of food. Kleinwächter’s inventions are integrated into everyday life in the Solar Village, where they are complemented by elements like Scheffler mirrors, and biogas digesters developed by engineer Thomas H. Culhane. This work advanced further in 2014 with the inauguration in Testfield 1 - Solar Village of “Biosphere III”, a research initiative that aims to develop strategies for community living based on the use of these technologies along with adaptation of consumption habits to what can be provided by the regional food autonomy network.[14]

Challenges and Limitations

SUSY Report pp.15-17

Solidarity Economy and Community-led Initiatives

Mance is careful to distinguish solidarity enterprises from both localised forms of capitalist enterprise and the assumption by capitalist enterprises of social responsibility, both of which still focus on capital accumulation rather than creation and redistribution of social value.[8] This highlights clear overlap with entrepreneurial activities promoted in movements of community-led initiatives such as the Transition movement's Reconomy project and the concept of regenerative enterprise developed within the permaculture movement. Enterprise is also a key feature of ecovillages, many of which are legally constituted as solidarity enterprises and support businesses that operate along solidarity principles. The GEN-led Sircle project documented many of the ethical and operational principles of such enterprises and on this basis developed the Evoneers Journey as an important learning resource.

Bauwens and Niaros (2017) argue that the urban commons promote the development of productive communities which “create social power that constrains traditional business models and pressures them into some kind of adaptation with the expectations of the commoners”.[17] Such argument can be applied to any commonized public space, managed as commons, regardless of whether it is located in an urban or rural area, which promotes the publicization and performance of counter-hegemonic identities and economic practices.[18] These commonized public spaces often combine museum and market functions. They are spatially situated focuses of construction, manifestation and reproduction of place-bound practices of commons-based provisioning (Op. cit.). That is the case of institutions which self-identify as museums, such as Ecomuseu de Barroso1, a multi-sited ethnographic museum located in the villages of Montalegre and Boticas, in the northeastern Portuguese region of Trás-os-Montes. It is also the case of organizations and networks which, although not identifying as museums, end up having similar functions of preservation, publicization and education about natural and cultural resources. One example is Cooperativa Terra Chã2, located in the village of Chãos, municipality of Rio maior, part of the central Portuguese region of Ribatejo.

Ecomuseu de Barroso is a central initiative of a regional sustainable development strategy which regards demographic desertification, environmental degradation and cultural de-characterization as interrelated phenomena. It aims to reverse these trends by classifying, preserving and giving visibility to natural resources, as well as material and immaterial cultural heritage, in a network of preserved natural sites and monuments, as well as the museum of the village of Montalegre, which is used for the exhibition of local ecological and cultural heritage, educational initiatives and publicity of local touristic accommodation and other facilities. The project also includes a network of restaurants and privately and government-run shops, which sell products by subsistence farmers and artisans of the region.

Cooperativa Terra Chã is a cooperative of subsistence farmers and manufacturers that includes a collectively managed bed-and-breakfast and restaurant, which are used as sites of exibition and commercialization of culinary and manufactured goods, made from products by local subsistence farmers and manufacturers. Like Ecomuseu de Barroso, Cooperativa Terra Chã is supported by the municipality as a central project in the regional development strategy. This cooperative promoted the re-emergence of commons-based forms of provisioning that were nearly extinct due to rural exodus. That is the case, for example, of village-level cooperative cattle herding, a centuries-old tradition which was nearly extinct in the 20th century and re-emerged thanks to the synergies promoted by Cooperativa Terra Chã.

Both projects are part of regional development strategies in which the municipalities are directly engaged in the commoning of publicly and privately-owned spaces, which were turned into sites of publicization, performance and commercialization of goods and services which represent commons-based practices of provisioning that are significant of the region’s cultural heritage. Such strategies contribute to expand the scope of commons-based production, as well as the spaces within which it can reproduce itself, by promoting contact and exchanges between the agents of commons-based practices of provisioning and consumers.

The Transition movement has many examples of the Social solidarity economy in practice. See Economic Impacts of the Transition movement and Social cohesion and mutual aid impacts of the Transition movement.

Solidarity Markets as Spaces for Economic Transformation

Promoting Solidarity Economy requires an adequate regulatory and policy environment, aimed at promoting a deliberate and organized shift towards a sustainable and equitable economy. When these conditions are not fulfilled, it is necessary for the grassroots to engage civil society and the state in reimagining economic policy, regulation and practices. Central to the bottom-up construction of counterpower is the promotion of “alternative spaces” (Fois 2019: 108) where cooperative and regenerative practices and technologies are experimented with, enacted and coordinated.[19] These alternative spaces include traditional settlements, as well as intentional communities such as ecovillages, transition towns and other community-led initiatives of sustainability. It also includes temporary or permanent public spaces that promote the diffusion and mainstreaming of social and ecological technologies developed in such “alternative spaces”, with the purpose of promoting production re-localization, food system reterritorialization and other regenerative goals. Among such public spaces are Solidarity Economy markets, which besides being spaces of commercialization are sites of learning and mobilization, through formal and informal processes, around cooperative practices, technologies and organizational forms.

Esperança/Cooesperança, a poverty reduction project based in the municipality of Santa Maria, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, which organizes Solidarity Economy markets at various scales and regular time intervals, provides insights on how such spaces support the bottom-up construction of counterpower by intentionally promoting the co-production of networks of trust and collaboration between otherwise segregated realities: That of consumers from predominantly mainstream backgrounds, whose cultural capital and disposable income predisposes them to favour substantive over instrumental considerations in their consumer choices; and that of producers issued from minority, countercultural or otherwise socially and economically marginalized groups, including shantytown dwellers, indigenous as well as afro-descendent communities and colonos, families of subsistence farmers issued from the land distribution to German and Italian immigrants in the early 20th century (Sarria Icaza and Freitas 2006).[20] This happened through a holistic methodology of formal and informal processes of learning and mobilization known as Mística, inspired by Liberation Theology and based on the three-phased synergetic process of Observation, Judgement and Reflection developed by Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, founder of the Young Christian Workers international movement (Castelhano 2017).[21]

The support of Cáritas and the Pastorais Sociais, the social intervention structure of the Diocese of Santa Maria, contributed to the engagement of social movements such as Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra/Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) and Movimento dos Pequenos Agricultores/Small Farmers’ Movement (MPA). These movements supported the project with technical assistance for producers on organic agriculture and regenerative technologies, demonstration and commercialization of products in thematic fairs, and the involvement of Esperança/Cooesperança in the organization of marches, protests and other performative activities, some of them hosted at the project’s permanent marketplace, which contributed to its visibility in the public sphere. The support of the Catholic Church. It also facilitated connections with agents in privileged institutional position in the state and international civil society, as well as their engagement in overturning regulatory constraints and mobilizing funds for the development of the project. This process continued despite the rotation of political parties and elected officials at the municipal, state and national levels of government. At times when public funding decreased, such counterpower promoted the mobilization of support from within civil society and the state that allowed the activities of the project to continue without major disturbances.

Solidarity Economy by Country


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