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.
Social and 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. The term 'Social and 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 and 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.
Defining Solidarity Economy
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:
- 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.
With a closer focus on solidarity enterprises and other organisations, Markus Auinger identifies three crucial principles:
- 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
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.. 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. 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.
Solidarity Economy and Resilience
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. 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.
- Kawano, E., 2013. Social Solidarity Economy: Toward Convergence across Continental Divides. UNRISD thinkpiece.
- RIPESS, 2015. Global Vision for a Social Solidarity Economy: Convergences and Differences in Concepts, Definitions and Frameworks. RIPESS working paper.
- Ianelli, M., Del Vecchio, E., 2016. Transformative economy: Challenges and limits of the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) in 55 territories in Europe and in the World. Sustainable and Solidarity Economy, Firenze.
- Ould Ahmed, P., 2015. What does ‘solidarity economy’ mean? Contours and feasibility of a theoretical and political project. Business Ethics: A European Review 24, 425–435.
- Dacheux, E., Goujon, D., 2011. The solidarity economy: an alternative development strategy? International Social Science Journal 62, 205–215.
- Auinger, M., 2009. Introduction: Solidarity Economics – emancipatory social change or self-help? Journal für Entwicklungspolitik 25: 4–21.
- Laville, J.-L., 2010. The Solidarity Economy: An International Movement. RCCS Annual Review.
- Mance, E.A., 2007. Solidarity Economics. Turbulence: ideas for movement 2007: 1–9.