One definition of solidarity from the Nuttall Encyclopedia that seems robustly relevant to our times is, “a community of interest or responsibility; also that community of being which binds humanity into one whole, so that each affects and is affected by all.”
The dominant economic system of the last 40 years has divided and fragmented us. The question is whether the concept of solidarity can help us forge a new economic system that “binds humanity into one whole.” Aristotle defined economics as the management of household resources for the benefit of the householders. Might not then solidarity economics be defined as the management of our community—the regional and planetary commons —for the benefit of people and planet? Let’s explore the conceptual terrain and then some initiatives that reflect this approach.
Social Economy? Solidarity Economy? Clarifying the Conceptual Blur
The social economy evolved conceptually from a categorisation of human economic activity into three broad systems of the economy: the private, the public and civil society. Each of these systems is distinguished by very different values, priorities and logics. Distinguishing the First System are private ownership and the profit motive. In theory, its actors range all the way from microbusinesses to multinational corporations; public service and the planned provision of goods and services, usually through some kind of government authority, distinguish the Second System; self-help, mutual aid, and reciprocity distinguish the Third System—its actors infuse their economic activities with social purpose.
These hard and fast distinctions are simplistic; in reality the boundaries between the three systems are blurred and interactive. But it is significant how much creativity within the Third System originates in failures or inaction on the part of the other two systems. This is particularly the case for the ‘social economy’ where social purpose is embedded in market-based trading. Co-operatives, credit unions, some forms of community economic development, community land trusts, trade unions, fairtrade, nonprofit associations, and charities—all are intended, to an extent, to defend people, communities, and regions that have been marginalised by ideology, market failure, and inadequate public policy.
In contrast to economists rooted in the ideological assumptions of free markets, free movement of capital, and free trade, social economists argue that reciprocity should be the central principle around which markets, trade, and capital are organised. They claim that community and societal benefit should be a fundamental component of any value proposition, and that the homogeneity and centralised corporate power of mass markets—focused on growth and profit maximisation—are a central part of the problem.
Some advocates look upon the social economy as a construction site for strategies, tools, and institutions that can challenge the hegemony of the first and second systems. Seen in this way, the social economy aims to socialise the first and second systems, unlocking the possibility for their transformation.
I argue that the solidarity economy should not be conceptually conflated with the social economy. If you think of the three systems as being wedges of a big circle distinguished by their values, priorities and animating logic, the solidarity economy would be a relatively small circle cutting across all three systems.
Why do I think this is important? Quite simply, time is not on our side. The challenges we all face are huge, urgent and complex. Alliances need to be built across the three systems. The idea of the social economy transforming the other two systems as a way forward is naïve. The solidarity economy presumes that in all three systems there are people, organisations, networks, businesses, and governments that are beginning to perceive the world differently. Each system, to one degree or another, has creative actors who (imperfectly) share the values of social justice, inclusiveness, ecological sustainability, and deeper, democratic forms of participation. They are seeking and developing dynamic ways to express these values in practical, policy and political terms. Viewed this way, ‘solidarity’ is much more than a concept.
First, it is a framework for the co-production of strategies that strengthen the resilience of communities, regions, and societies. Second, it elevates the idea of advancing the common good together rather than going it alone. Third, solidarity is a vital motivational resource, and a renewable one. It is a resource that we need to nourish within ourselves and with each other in order to sustain the effort required to navigate transition in the turbulent times we live.
Actors in the solidarity economy are striving to be ‘glocal’ in their approach. This means locally and regionally building alternatives that advance a fairer, low carbon economy. But it also means organising in ways that build the collective capacity to animate, educate and agitate to change the systems, national and global, that block the diffusion and scaling up of impacts being demonstrably achieved.
This collaborative impulse is critical, since innovations demonstrating the benefits of more localised sustainable food systems may be restrained or even undone by agribusiness subsidies and the World Trade Organization’s rules that treat food as an industrial commodity. To think otherwise is naïve. The world’s largest social movement La Via Campesina is a prime example; it has organised global capacity to advance food sovereignty and security in the regions where people live.
Federating into networks, coalitions and movements with a shared agenda and greater capacity is key to advancing the solidarity economy, as transition to a fair, low carbon future is meeting fierce resistance. Forging allies across the three economic systems is vital and necessary.
If solidarity economics is to be transformational, if it is to shift the economic paradigm, it will be through joined up global actors and movements working to change from a) growth to resilience, b) competition to co-operation, c) efficiency to sufficiency, d) right to possess to well-being, e) the freedom of markets to fairness and equity, f) concentrated private ownership to decentralised and democratic ownership, g) the inalienable rights of private property to the commons, and h) our right to dominate nature to our dependence on it.
These are not theoretical propositions. They are choices about what is most important as we co-construct a collective capacity to address the challenges before us. Keep them in mind whilst reading the three cases I have selected.