A Shareable Explainer: What Is the Solidarity Economy


Photo: Shareable

A Better World Is Possible

The following article, A Shareable Explainer: What Is the Solidarity Economy by Emily Kawano appeared originally in Shareable, on May 2, 2024. It is reposted here under Creative Commons License (CC BY-ND-NC 4.0).

We stand at a historic moment—a crossroads in the history of humanity and Mother Earth. Rarely has there been a convergence of so many crises, from climate catastrophes to fascism.

These are scary times, but crises also create opportunity. The last two major economic crises, the Great Depression and the stagflation of the late 1970s, resulted in fundamental shifts in the dominant capitalist economic model. Today, people’s faith in the status quo is shaken. There’s a growing openness to new narratives, new models, and new paradigms: the solidarity economy offers a transformative pathway to a new system beyond capitalism.

What is the Solidarity Economy?
What are the key elements of the Solidarity Economy?
What are “imaginal cells” of the Solidarity Economy?
What are examples of the Solidarity Economy in the United States?
What are examples of the Solidarity Economy internationally?
How is the Solidarity Economy different from the Sharing Economy?

What is the Solidarity Economy?
The solidarity economy (SE) is a global movement to build a world that centers people and the planet rather than maximizing private profit and endless growth. It is not a blueprint theorized by academics in ivory towers, but is grounded in concrete practices that exist all around us. Some practices are old, while others are emergent innovations. Some would be considered alternative, while others are quite mainstream. There is a large foundation upon which to build. The trick is to connect these currently atomized practices so they work together to transform our whole economic system (and indeed world). 

The image below lays out a definition of the solidarity economy that draws on both the US Solidarity Economy Network (USSEN) as well as RIPESS, the international solidarity economy network, which led a two-year international consultation process to build a shared understanding of the SE.

Photo credit: US Solidarity Economy Network and RIPESS

What Are the Key Elements of the Solidarity Economy?
While there is a tremendous latitude within the solidarity economy to encompass a wide range of approaches—grounded in the local realities of culture, language, history, political-social-economic contexts, and the environment—there are elements of the solidarity economy definition that apply across these specificities:

1. The solidarity economy is a framework

2. This framework connects solidarity economy practices (see below for examples)

3. Solidarity economy practices are aligned with solidarity economy values:

  • Solidarity
  • Participatory democracy
  • Equity in all dimensions: race, class, gender, abilities, etc. 
  • Sustainability
  • Pluralism (meaning that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach, or as the Zapatista say, “A world in which many worlds fit.)

4. The solidarity economy is post-capitalist

  • All of the values above articulate a post-capitalist vision. The solidarity economy holds that we cannot achieve the just, sustainable, democratic, and cooperative world that we seek by reforming capitalism. We don’t reject reforms, but it’s imperative to see them as part of a longer-term process of fundamental system change. In the absence of this, reforms alone can end up strengthening capitalism. 

5. The solidarity economy is an international movement

  • The solidarity economy is an international movement. The movement includes RIPESS, an international solidarity economy network of continental networks, the International Labor Organization (ILO), which runs an annual Social Solidarity Academy, and the United Nations which has a solidarity economy task force. Bolivia and Ecuador also include the solidarity economy in their constitutions, and several countries have national policy frameworks supporting the solidarity economy. 

What Are “Imaginal Cells” of the Solidarity Economy?

Awakening to a Different Vision
When a caterpillar spins its chrysalis, a magical process begins. Its body starts to break down into a nutrient-rich goop. Within this goop are imaginal cells, and these imaginal cells have a different vision of what they can become. They are so different, they are attacked and killed by what remains of the caterpillar’s immune system.

Yet, surviving imaginal cells begin to recognize each other as having a common purpose and vision of becoming. They begin to cluster together and can survive the immune system attacks. As they continue to come together, they start to specialize—some become an eye, some a leg, some the body, and some the wing—until what emerges from the chrysalis is an entirely different creature—a butterfly.

The solidarity economy is currently akin to isolated imaginal cells. The vast foundation of solidarity economy practices don’t yet recognize each other as holding a common vision, so the clustering and specialization—equivalent to forming an ecosystem—is not yet realized. The solidarity economy provides a framework for these imaginal cells to recognize their common vision, to come together and operate as a wholly different, post-capitalist system and world!

Photo: US Solidarity Economy Network and RIPESS

What Are Examples of the Solidarity Economy in the United States? 

Defunding the Police and Participatory Budgeting
In Seattle, Washington, the city allocated $30 million to a participatory budgeting process that gave community members a say in how the money should be used. Twelve million dollars was directly diverted from the Seattle Police Department, while the remaining $18 million came from the Mayor’s Communities Initiative Fund.

Community Land Trusts
Community land trusts (CLT) are nonprofits that hold “land on behalf of a place-based community while serving as the long-term steward for affordable housing, community gardens, civic buildings, commercial spaces, and other community assets…” according to the International Center for Community Land Trusts. Among the many strategies to develop CLTs, municipal public sector support for community land trusts can significantly increase the supply of permanently affordable housing. A recent report on CLT-municipal partnerships cites three dozen examples of cities providing support through funding, technical assistance, donation of property, staffing, helping with regulatory hurdles, and more.

Local Solidarity Economy Ecosystems
The imaginal cells of the solidarity economy are already clustering, but what will it take to go to the next stage of building and creating connections between existing and emergent solidarity economy elements to give birth to a new post-capitalist system? In the U.S., there are nascent efforts to build local solidarity economy ecosystems. 

Cooperation Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi has built a Community Production Center, with cutting-edge technology such as 3D printers and other forms of digital fabrication; they have formed a community land trust, holding a considerable amount of land for affordable housing and farming, as well as to preserve important historical sites of civil rights and Black liberation struggles. The group has a community center that provides a space for gathering, community education and training, and childcare and purchased a shopping plaza for a food co-op and other co-op businesses. 

There are statewide solidarity economy networks that seek to connect the ecosystem, including the Massachusetts Solidarity Economy Network (MASEN), the first statewide SE network in the U.S., the Virginia Solidarity Economy Network (VASEN), and others. 

There are also local ecosystem enablers like the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Inspired by the Mondragon Corporation in Spain, the Arizmendi Association is a worker cooperative that runs a chain of bakeries and a construction business in the Bay Area. The model emphasizes democratic governance, shared ownership, and equitable work conditions.

What are Examples of the Solidarity Economy Internationally?

In Brazil, the term “economia solidária” gained prominence as various social movements and community organizations sought alternatives to the neoliberal economic policies of the 1980s and 1990s. These initiatives were focused on creating economic systems based on solidarity, cooperation, and social welfare, rather than purely on profit and market competition. Brazil now has one of the most extensive networks of solidarity economy enterprises in the world, supported by strong government and social movements. The Brazilian Forum of Solidarity Economy facilitates numerous initiatives, including worker cooperatives, community banks, and fair trade organizations. The government has also implemented supportive policies and national programs to promote the solidarity economy.

In Quebec, various initiatives including community economic development financial institutions (CEDIFs), cooperative housing, and social enterprises have grown into a major sector of the economy. The region has a supportive ecosystem that includes government policies and a network of support organizations dedicated to fostering the solidarity economy.

Italy has a rich tradition of cooperative businesses, particularly in the Emilia-Romagna region. These cooperatives span across sectors such as agriculture, retail, manufacturing, and services and produce a third of the region’s GDP. 

Japan’s solidarity economy features consumer cooperatives, which are particularly strong in several food sectors. These cooperatives are known for promoting local and organic produce and for their role in disaster resilience, providing support and resources to communities affected by events like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. In the past 100 years, Japan’s cooperative movement has grown from its humble start to become an economic powerhouse with over 65 million members and over $135 billion in annual revenue.

In Kenya, informal savings and loan groups known as “Chamas,” a form of Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs), have become widespread throughout the country. These groups play a critical role in providing financial services to communities often underserved by traditional banks. Additionally, Kenya has seen growth in cooperative movements in agriculture and housing, empowering small-scale farmers and low-income families.

How Is the Solidarity Economy Different from the Sharing Economy?
The sharing economy, as it was initially conceptualized, focuses on the sharing of access to goods and services, often facilitated by digital platforms. While it includes community-driven sharing practices like car-sharing, tool libraries, and community gardens (which we love at Shareable), it has unfortunately become associated with extractive commercial platforms like Uber, Airbnb, and Lyft. Although sharing resources often leads to more efficient use of assets and reduced consumption, many commercial sharing platforms have been rightfully critiqued for prioritizing profit without necessarily fostering genuine communal sharing or ensuring fair labor practices.

Here are some key differences between the sharing economy and the solidarity economy:

  1. Profit orientation: While the solidarity economy actively seeks to downplay or redistribute profits to stakeholders and community members, the sharing economy, particularly in its commercial form, often centers on profit maximization for platform owners and investors.
  2. Community engagement: The solidarity economy is deeply rooted in community engagement and empowerment, aiming to improve local resilience and economic democracy. The sharing economy does involve community members but often as consumers or service providers within a profit-oriented framework.
  3. Governance: Solidarity economy initiatives typically involve democratic or participatory governance, with stakeholders involved in decision-making. In contrast, many sharing economy platforms are governed by private entities with centralized decision-making.
  4. Sustainability and equity goals: The solidarity economy explicitly aims for social and environmental sustainability and equity. While sharing economy platforms might contribute to resource efficiency, these outcomes are not always the primary goal, and the effects on equity can be mixed.

The convergence crises has created a rare opportunity to push for a new system beyond capitalism. There is a huge foundation of imaginal cells that already exist within the current system and new ones are emerging all the time. Many of these imaginal cells already see themselves as part of a transformational process. While there is still much to be done, we can see the emergence of a metamorphosis into the solidarity economy.   

Acknowledgement: Additional contributors to this explainer include Steve Dubb, Mike Strode, Paige Kelly, and Tom Llewellyn

About the Author

Emily Kawano

Emily Kawano

Emily Kawano is a founder and co-coordinator of the US Solidarity Economy Network and has served on the board of RIPESS (the Intercontinental Network for the Social Solidarity Economy).

“A Better World Is Possible” is an occasional feature of the Amherst Indy that offers snapshots of creative undertakings, community experiments, innovative municipal projects, and excursions of the imagination that suggest possible interventions for the sundry challenges we face in our communities and as a species.  This feature complements our occasional column by Boone Shear, who writes Becoming Human.

Have you seen creative approaches to community problems or examples of things that other communities do to make life better for their residents that you think we should be talking about? Send your observations/suggestions to amherstindy@gmail.com.
 See previous posts here.

Spread the love

Leave a Reply

The Amherst Indy welcomes your comment on this article. Comments must be signed with your real, full name & contact information; and must be factual and civil. See the Indy comment policy for more information.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.