The seeds of a commons-based enterprise economy are already well-established in the form of the social solidarity economy (SSE). This consists of enterprises based on cooperative and other inclusive and democratic organisational structures that exist in order to create social, cultural and/or environmental value, with income generation a means towards these contributions to the common good rather than an end in itself. With over two million reported such organisations in Europe, making significant contributions to employment and provision of goods and services at national levels and continent-wide, the SSE is already a major economic and social force, organised through the European chapter of the international RIPESS network and numerous national and regional associations. Our key proposal here is that it already offers a basis for transition to a sustainable and equitable economy that does not undermine or put at risk employment, livelihoods or the provision of essential goods and services.
Evidence for this potential lies in the demonstrated success of SSE in overcoming the effects of economic marginalisation elsewhere. Solidarity movements in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America provided economic alternatives essential to the survival of large sectors of the population excluded from the mainstream economy under partisan and dictatorial regimes. In Greece, Portugal, Spain and other places particularly hard hit by the 2008 financial crash and ill-judged austerity measures that followed, solidarity actions have buffered the effects on those worst affected by the collapse of national economies.
Creating a post-growth, commons-based, regenerative economy at the speed necessary to avert social and ecological disaster will require rapid dismantling of the growth-dependent, market-led, socially and ecologically destructive economic structures on which most people in Europe depend. In order to achieve this shift without disrupting the provision of essential goods and services, we propose a structured and concerted shift to a new type of enterprise economy compatible with post-growth economic conditions. Enterprises of the kind that predominate now, structured to maximise financial revenues, to compete with each other under so-called 'free market' conditions and incentivised to externalise ecological and social damage, are an inappropriate model for a fair and sustainable society. New and emerging models of solidarity enterprise and solidarity economies at local and regional scales provide workable and proven alternatives, which should be actively supported and encouraged.
Esperança/Cooesperança, a poverty reduction project based in the municipality of Santa Maria, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, organises regular Solidarity Economy markets. They do this in order to promote social inclusion by supporting income generation among disadvantaged groups, as well as wider regenerative goals such as relocalisation of production of food and other essentials. As well as being sites of commercial exchange, they support the bottom-up construction of counterpower by intentionally cultivating trust and collaboration between shoppers from predominantly mainstream backgrounds predisposed towards ethical consumption choices and producers from minority, countercultural or otherwise socially and economically marginalised groups, including shanty-town dwellers, indigenous and afro-descendent communities and colonos, subsistence farmers descended from early 20th century German and Italian immigrants. As alternative social and economic spaces, such markets provide a venue for civil society engagement with the state and economy and the creation and coordination of socially and ecologically regenerative activities.
The solidarity movement in Greece arose as a response to severe hardship experienced by large numbers of people in the wake of the national economic crisis and subsequent introduction of austerity measures and enforced sale and privatisation of public assets and services associated with the 2011 financial bailout. It consists of multiple self-organised initiatives for the cashless provision of basic goods and services, including food, medical care and education, and support for victims of redundancy, foreclosure and withdrawal of state services, all organised on a voluntary, participatory and democratic basis. The solidarity movement arose as a grassroots response to this, people and communities self-organising to create alternative systems of provision based on principles of equality and fairness.
In addition to providing for immediate material needs, the Greek solidarity movement also demonstrates working alternatives to the neoliberal model that so dramatically failed the country and its people. These alternatives emphasise participatory, people-centred democracy through an emphasis on collaborative working, use of cooperative structures, and commitment to inclusive decision-making and organisational processes. They additionally constitute a material basis for these more democratic institutions to scale up and form structures for national level governance not tied to unsustainable and inequitable social and economic models. In this way, the solidarity movement could act as a vehicle not just to challenge and even assume political power, as Syriza did in Greece, but to model and enact an entirely new form of power rooted in principles of popular and participatory democracy.
Building on lessons from Brazil, Greece and elsewhere, and as part of a concerted effort to create a regenerative, commons-based economy, systematic support for the social and solidarity economy is necessary. Appropriate support measures include legislative and fiscal enablers such as supportive legal and administrative frameworks and taxation regimes that incentivise shared ownership, inclusive decision-making and entrepreneurial activities that promote growth and regeneration of common pool material, social, natural and cultural capitals. Such measures need to avoid coercive tendencies and creation of dependencies; for example fiscal support could be targeted at particularly vulnerable stages such as start-up and buffering fluctuations in income and expenditure rather than seek to provide ongoing revenue. Above all, enterprise needs to be embedded within frameworks for inclusive governance that ensure it understands and responds to collective needs within the communities it serves.
- Sarria Icaza, A.M., Freitas, M.R (or.g). 2006. O Projeto Esperança/Cooesperança e a construção da Economia Solidária no Brasil: Relato de uma experiência. Porto Alegre: Cáritas Brasileira.
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- Fois, F. 2019. Enacting Experimental Alternative Spaces. Antipode 51(1): 107-128.
- Solidarity for All, 2015. Solidarity is people's power: towards an international campaign of solidarity to the Greek people. Athens: Solidarity for All.
- https://www.counterpunch.org/2016/03/11/building-alternative-institutions-in-greece-an-interview-with-christos-giovanopoulos/. Accessed June 15th 2018.