Community, Economics, and Solidarity

Overview for Section I
Michael Johnson

As editor of this Theme I am bringing together two of the worlds I thrive in: intentional communities and solidarity economic organizing. I have been a member of the Ganas intentional community since 1980, and for the past six years I have been very active in the world of grassroots economic organizing: researcher and consultant with the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-ops in western Massachusetts, a co-founder of SolidarityNYC in New York City, and as an editor with GEO itself.

The world is filled with alternative lifestyles and ways of earning livelihoods. Awareness of them is quite dim and scattered, however. Even people living these different lifestyles and practicing different ways of producing, distributing, and consuming goods and services are surprisingly unaware of each other. Mainstream media is, well, radically mainstream. In our Fall 2013 Theme GEO Newsletter seeks to fill and bridge some of the gaps that MSM’s radically exclusive approach creates.

Intentional Communities (ICs) are unique and vital for they are both a major form of alternative lifestyles and alternative economics. Activists of every stripe need to know about them and to understand the power of community and cooperation their varying models offer.

The Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) is the primary network for ICs in the United States, nurturing “connections and cooperation among communitarians and their friends.” Their site notes that “intentional communities have for many centuries been places where idealists have come together to create a better world.” Like-minded people form them in order to live and work together in cooperation for shared goals. Virtually all of these communities value sharing highly. They are not only local alternative economic institutions, but alternative cultures. Many of them also emphasize democracy, equality, sustainability, and other primary values that hold for solidarity economics as well.

Today there are a lot of different names and frameworks for alternative economic practices and institutions that are quite different from standard profit-making businesses and large corporations. There’s new economy, solidarity economics, community economies, sharing economics, commons economics, sacred economics, and so on. This is a kind of “blessed unrest” that sees very basic connections between political and economic movements for social change but from different perspectives. (Confusing, yes; but major transitional periods in history are very confusing.)

GEO chooses to identify with the “Solidarity Economic” framework for three reasons. One, it fosters a robust approach to networking through bottom-up, grassroots organizing. Two, its scope takes in a diverse range of empowering institutions and practices, and it is already a coherent global movement. Three, inter-cooperation is the defining feature of Solidarity Economics. If we stated it as a formal principle, it would look something like this:

Solidarity Economic enterprises and organizations collaborate to build a just, peace-based, and fully democratic society. They collaborate with a diverse range of other citizen groups to build, and share power in, a fully democratic society whose institutions, resources, and opportunities are accessible equally by all, and where peace-building and peace-making are widely used to prevent and manage conflicts.

ICs, SE, and all the approaches to alternative economics share the conviction that the whole idea of “economics” should be oriented toward cooperation and solidarity. The energy they are putting into making this conviction a reality is tending to make political activism deeply economic. Folks are seeing social justice as an economic phenomenon, economic equality as a social dynamic, and both as political.

These connections can’t be missed in intentional communities. Members are face-to-face 24/7. Intentional communities are not just social and political institutions. They are full- blooded economic institutions. Just as they are alternative ways of living, they are also alternative ways of “making a living,” primarily through cooperation, ways that “put people and the environment above profit” but not at the expense of being economically unsustainable. As such they have much in common with worker co-operatives, consumer co-operatives (such as food), land trusts, local currencies, permaculture groups, barter systems, gifting, community gardens, and so on.

Almost all forms of solidarity economics are involved with some form of “community” as a central focus. The whole thrust of solidarity economics is to ground economics into functioning networks of local communities that are intentionally fashioning common visions locally, regionally, and beyond. Further, many of the solidarity economic activists are deeply interested in forming cooperative households, housing co-operatives, and intentional communities.

Now, take a careful look at the FIC name. It is often misread as the “Fellowship of Intentional Communities.” The mistake flows from identifying FIC with what we can refer to as the ‘formal’ intentional communities: ecovillages, cohousing communities, residential land trusts, communes, co-ops, and housing cooperatives. The actual name, however, expresses a much broader intent: “Fellowship for Intentional Community.” It is an inclusive term for all “projects where people strive together with a common vision.” Nothing could be more aligned with solidarity economics.

The FIC grasps this common core saying:

[intentonal communities] come in all shapes, sizes, and locations. In addition, they share many similar challenges — such as defining membership, succeeding financially, distributing resources, making decisions, raising children, dividing work equitably, and choosing a standard of living. Many wrestle with questions about right livelihood, spiritual expression, land use, the role of service in their lives, and so on. In various ways members collectively own the properties they use for their living and working together.

Grassroots economic activists are, to a very large extent, unaware of the breadth and depth of the IC movement, nor of how much they themselves have in common ICs. Likewise, many of the members in formal intentional communities don’t realize how much they have in common with these activists and their varied alternative economic institutions like worker co-ops, food co-ops, land trusts, alternative currency, barter networks, and so forth.

For example, SolidarityNYC describes SE as embracing a wide array of economic practices and initiatives that share common values that stand in stark contrast to the values of the dominant economy. Instead of enforcing a culture of cut-throat competition, they build cultures and communities of cooperation. Rather than isolating us from one another, they foster relationships of mutual support and solidarity. In place of centralized structures of control, they move us towards shared responsibility and democratic decision-making. Instead of imposing a single global monoculture, they strengthen the diversity of local cultures and environments. Instead of prioritizing profit over all else, they encourage a commitment to shared humanity best expressed in social, economic, and environmental justice.

GEO’s Fall 2013 Theme is an effort for both movements to see each other and recognize they are very much fellow-travelers.

And this recognition is beginning to happen. A group interested in forming an ecovillage in New Jersey recently reached out to the United States Federation of Worker Co-operatives to request a basic workshop on worker co-ops. Solidarity economic activists in New York City are exploring ways to develop intentional communities there.

GEO Volume 2: