Becoming Human: Fight And Build – Envisioning Solidarity Economies As Transformative Politics
by Penn Loh and Boone Shear
The following article appeared in Nonprofit Quarterly on December 14, 2022. It was adapted from a more extensive journal article that appeared in Sustainability Science on June 25, 2022. A bibliography is included at the end of this article.
In early 2018, more than 100 people gathered for an event on building the solidarity economy in a local union hall in downtown Boston. The event was hosted by the newly formed Center for Economic Democracy (CED) and allied community groups. Two days earlier, about 50 organizers, activists, and educators were 90 miles west, in Springfield, having initial conversations about developing a statewide solidarity economy network.
Both events—as well as two others held in Amherst and Worcester—involved Kali Akuno, co-founder of Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, who was brought to Massachusetts to engage with folks involved in solidarity economy activity. Towards the end of the evening, Akuno asked, “Do you have a shared analysis…of where you want to go and a shared program and strategy of how you are going to get there?”
In social justice movement spaces in the United States, analysis typically refers to a type of “power analysis” that assesses relations of power among decision makers, local institutions, community members, and perhaps flows of capital. A type of analysis that community organizing groups in Massachusetts have been adept at (see: Loh and Erlich 2021, Pastor et al. 2010), it has led to many movement victories. Yet, movements rooted in critique often remain wedded to existing systems, leaving little space to imagine ways to build beyond those systems.
Akuno and Cooperation Jackson brought an example of how fighting against the world as it is could be strategically joined with building transformative, solidarity economies that could, as Akuno explained, help to move us beyond “the protest model that we had been invested in for the past 30 years.”
Solidarity Economics as Transformative Politics
Solidarity economies are most often associated with ethical, cooperative economic practices, like local currencies, community land trusts, community gardens, fair trade, and cooperatives. These practices and their associated values—cooperation, sustainability, justice, interdependence, autonomy—make possible a transformative vision. Here, we focus less on economics than politics—exploring the solidarity economy’s potential to uncover and/or advance ways of being that are unrecognized or suppressed by the dominant reality (Lyon-Callo and Shear 2019).
As Audre Lorde (1984) famously said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” However, we also find synergy with Walsh and Mignolo (2018), who suggest that transcending, in addition to dismantling, is an important strategy. In this sense, the solidarity economy is not about “the economy,” but rather about imagining, building, fighting for, and defending the conditions from which we can realize and embrace our interdependence with other people, beings, and planetary life systems.
The Limits of Conventional Thinking
Today’s global capitalism represents itself as the only possible reality. Bodies, minds, practices, and relations are subjected to and assembled into an order that shapes what is desirable, actionable, and possible, forming the terrain upon and limits through which social change takes place.
Ecological destruction and historic inequalities stem from much more than moral failings, government inaction, lack of knowledge, or elite interests. Woven through the fabric of reality itself are centuries of colonial violence, capital accumulation, patriarchy, and white supremacy.
Breaking out of this paradigm is not easy; it involves more than a shift in belief or subjectivity and something deeper than ideological struggle. It involves breaking free of the notion that there is only a single reality—one world.
A transformative politics seeks to go beyond not just capitalism, but the idea of economic development itself. Instead of alternative development, it seeks alternatives to development.
But the current one-world paradigm is losing coherence, as the edges and foundations of other worlds—already here or still on the horizon—become more visible. The Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, describe their vision as a “world in which many worlds fit.” In the US, other worlds, other ways of being, can be clearly seen in Indigenous struggles to protect sacred land from enclosures and extractions (Whyte 2017); the calls by climate justice activists to “change everything” (Klein 2014); ongoing cooperative survival practices and liberation strategies (Nembhard 2014); the freedom dreaming (Kelley 2002, Love 2019) of frontline communities; the efforts of community organizers to invoke relational and emergent practices (Brown 2017, Sandler 2019); and the abolitionist, intersectional struggles for Black lives (Gilmore 2021).
Three Political Orientations
The political orientations that our work often takes can trap us in a one-world mindset—or lead us beyond it. The reformist (or neoliberal) orientation remains rooted in capitalist growth models—for example, enterprise zones to attract investment and create jobs. A social justice approach recognizes systemic shortcomings and promotes alternative ways to do economic development, such as hiring preferences and living wages. A transformative politics seeks to go beyond not just capitalism, but the idea of economic development itself. Instead of alternative development, it seeks alternatives to development (Escobar 2018, 2020). That is, it aims to advance other worlds that are not beholden to capitalist ideas and categories, where we can co-create different realities rooted in interdependence and solidarity.
How might solidarity economies empower communities to lead their own transformations towards other worlds?
Among advocates of solidarity economy, all three tendencies exist. The phrase, “solidarity economy,” can describe a coherent economic system that would replace capitalism, or it can refer to cooperative economic practices that have always already existed. For some, the phrase indicates economic reform and for others radical transformation. In some locations, solidarity economy is institutionalized and recognized by the state but in others involves civil society and informal practices. Common to all efforts is a politics that seeks economic justice and advances relations, institutions, and practices that put people and planet over profit. These include “things like cooperatives…community land trusts, alternative currencies, time banks, and so on—that privilege cooperative rather than competitive, behaviors, that are democratic rather than hierarchical, that seek to bring together rather than individualize, and that reveal rather than conceal sociality and interdependence” (Shear 2019).
Much is at stake in how this movement assembles and advances. What and who does it include or exclude? How and by whom are decisions being made? How might solidarity economies empower communities to lead their own transformations?
From a Matter of Concern to a Matter of Care
To explore how the solidarity economy movement might move towards a transformative politics, it can be helpful to look at two registers. First, solidarity economy activists expose the capitalist economy as a matter of concern (Latour 2004), highlighting diverse economies and economic possibilities, but within existing structures. In a second register, the solidarity economy becomes a matter of care (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017), attending to how relations and values are enacted and maintained. Here, activists orient towards a transformative politics, where the goal of building a particular “economy” forms part of a more fundamental effort to create the conditions in which communities can realize their wellbeing through solidarity, autonomy, and interdependence.
Recent critiques of the community land trust (CLT) movement reveal how some trusts have become more of a tool for individual home ownership and affordable housing production than building community and changing relations between people and land (DeFilippis et al. 2019, DeFilippis et al. 2018). The solidarity economy remains in the grips of dominant politics to the extent that it over focuses on the growing, connecting, and scaling up of institutions and value chains (Hudson 2020). Pursuing scale at the expense of solidarity economy values and relations can leave the movement vulnerable to cooptation by the state (Sutton 2019) or multi-national corporations (RIPESS 2015).
Avoiding these pitfalls brings us to the solidarity economy as a “matter of care.” Care involves attention to the arrangement and doing of all the things necessary to maintain, transform, or cultivate particular worlds.
Fight and Build: Solidarity Economy Movement in Massachusetts
Massachusetts is a wealthy state with some of the highest levels of inequality and racial segregation in the United States. Our efforts have strong bases in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield—the state’s three largest cities. Boston is the academic and financial center of the New England region, with a dense network of nonprofits, funders, community groups, and social movement infrastructure. Worcester and Springfield are, to varying degrees, post-industrial cities and have less extensive networks of nonprofits and movement infrastructure.
Many US solidarity economy activists have labeled their approach fight and build. Fight and build can suggest a dual orientation: attending to the world as it is and a transformative politics that is building other worlds. Importantly, a discourse of fight and build has centered the needs, interests, and knowledge of frontline communities, bringing a social justice politics to the solidarity economy.
Building the Solidarity Economy Initiative
In late 2014, eight community base-building organizations in Massachusetts (mostly in Boston) came together with several progressive funders to envision and develop strategies towards solidarity economy. Over a year-long design process, the cohort held quarterly half-day sessions to build “shared analysis around the need to drive political, economic and cultural transformation in tandem, in order to move towards a shared vision for an equitable and abundant future that does not replicate capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.” Over the past five years, the grassroots cohort has grown to include nearly a dozen organizations, and the quarterly sessions continue. SEI member groups have launched various solidarity economy projects, including the Boston Ujima Project, the Chinatown Community Land Trust, the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network, (Matahari Women’s Worker Center, and the Center for Cooperative Development and Solidarity, which supports Latinx immigrant-led cooperatives in East Boston.
SEI was set up as a learning space, prompted by recognition that grassroots strategies for policy change often failed to achieve transformation. As CED Executive Director and SEI co-founder Aaron Tanaka has often stated, “We can’t co-op our way out of capitalism.”
This space of deep relationship building and radical imagining in support of world building can be simultaneously thrilling, unsettling, and challenging. Monique Tú Nguyen, Executive Director of Matahari, describes how SEI is filling the “heart space” and “practicing patience and community.”
The COVID pandemic has shown how the relationships and shared values cultivated in SEI can create conditions for transformation that go beyond politics-as-usual. With emergency aid from the City of Boston Resiliency Fund, six SEI members (along with three other community partners) formed a consortium to assemble wellness kits for families with COVID-positive members across Boston. This mutual aid project took shape quickly, as groups mobilized to respond to immediate needs. Instead of buying commercially available face masks, they sourced 2,500 masks from a newly formed sewing cooperative in East Boston.
At the same time, an emphasis on relational practices has come into tension with a mindset of economic growth. For SEI groups, which are all nonprofits, using the master’s tools means navigating the nonprofit-industrial complex (Incite 2007), in which they are tethered to and potentially constrained by their funding sources. Their efforts to birth cooperative businesses face the same exigencies of all small businesses in capitalist markets to compete and be efficient.
Yet, winning incremental reforms can create resources for building collective solidarity, which might be described as “non-reformist reforms” that create logics and rationalities that are different from those of the dominant formation (Akuno 2017: citing Gorz). SEI is approaching and embodying solidarity economy as a matter of care.
Boston Ujima Project: Envisioning New Worlds
Perhaps the clearest example of this transformative politics to emerge in Massachusetts is the Boston Ujima Project. Led by and for working-class and frontline communities of color in Boston, Ujima is an effort to build a local solidarity economy ecosystem centered around a democratically controlled investment fund. Ujima—a Kwanzaa principle meaning collective work and responsibility—is assembling an array of enterprises, philanthropic resources, cultural and education efforts, and relational, democratic decision-making practices to build a Black-led solidarity economy.
Founded in 2016, Ujima’s founding members included City Life/Vida Urbana, a housing justice organizing group; Boston Impact Initiative, a local impact investor; CERO, a Black and Latinx worker cooperative that came out of a green jobs campaign; and NAACP Boston, established in 1911 as the first chartered branch of this national racial equity organization.
Nia Evans, Executive Director at Ujima, was serving as the volunteer chair of the NAACP branch’s economic development committee when she was first introduced to the initiative. What attracted NAACP Boston to Ujima, according to Evans, was that participants had an opportunity to both invest in a development fund and vote on how it was allocated.
Ujima’s decision-making and governance structure are a critical part of its world building efforts. While the project receives capital from impact, philanthropic, and individual solidarity investors, these providers do not make decisions for Ujima. Rather, members from working-class neighborhoods of color in Boston (Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan) govern the fund and Ujima itself.
Ujima’s focus on relationship building also helps to bridge ideological differences amongst its stakeholders. Evans describes Ujima as a world-creating project. She says Ujima is “what’s next because we’re doing it. We’re trying our best to create the future.”
The solidarity economy movement has rapidly evolved over the last decade in Massachusetts. It reveals that the economy is diverse and dynamic, an assemblage in the making—in which practices, values, relations, and institutions beyond capitalism might be enacted.
At the same time, diverse elements of the solidarity economy are caught up in multiple political projects with differing political orientations. Just like reformist politics, a social justice politics can become mired in making policy demands on the state.
The central question for actualizing a transformative politics is how solidarity economy elements are created, assembled, and advanced. Addressing this question, we argue, is a matter of care.
In Massachusetts, as we have shown, SEI and Ujima are, in their own ways, advancing a transformative politics, though not without tensions and challenges. It is a tricky matter to use the master’s tools to assemble new worlds. SEI groups have created spaces for learning about, discussing, and practicing solidarity and advancing solidarity economy projects. Yet, they are still nonprofits, in part dependent on the grants provided by SEI’s funding partners.
That the current economic and political paradigm is losing coherence and fracturing in different ways is bringing more attention to and creating opportunities for solidarity economy activists. But the grip of the one-world order is still strong.
There are a few ways that solidarity might build new worlds.
- First, we must attend to and care for our practices and relationships.
- Second, do not confuse form with function. Structures (such as cooperatives) do not exist beyond the relations (cooperative or non-cooperative) that enact them.
- Third, be attentive to the continual slippages and ruptures in the current economic and political paradigm. These provide opportunities to advance solidarity economy principles and practice.
- Finally, we must support and learn from alternative worldviews that already exist. In these alternatives, there are many tools and concepts that can inform and strengthen solidarity economy work.
In short, solidarity economy efforts can help to build and strengthen other worlds. Non-capitalist formations like cooperatives and community land trusts propose different logics and possibilities than their capitalist counterparts, but they do not guarantee conditions and practices beyond the dominant paradigm.
Ultimately, solidarity economy movement is not about economy at all, but about the potential for solidarity economy to be part of a politics that can fight for, assemble, and advance the conditions through which communities can remake themselves.
About The Authors
Penn Loh is a senior lecturer and Director of the Master of Public Policy Program and Community Practice at Tufts University’s Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. He partners with various community base-building organizations in the Solidarity Economy Initiative, Right to the City Alliance, and Center for Economic Democracy (where he is also a board member).
Boone W. Shear teaches in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is a member of several solidarity economy organizations in the state, and lives with his 16-year-old daughter, Rose, and their dog friend, Wes, in Easthampton. His teaching, research, and politics coalesce around critical investigations of capitalist modernity, and especially efforts to defend, organize around, and cultivate post-capitalist efforts and initiatives.
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