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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

OCCUPY! CONNECT! CREATE! - Imagining Life Beyond "The Economy" (part five)

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October 21, 2011
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by Ethan Miller 

Previous: Part Four: "From Economy/Nature to a Community of Life"...

Principle 3. Beyond "the Market" and "the State"

There is a world of possibility beyond "the market" and "the state," and our economic politics must stop see-sawing back and forth between these two poles. We must work, instead, to cultivate forms of livelihood and governance that embody our aspirations for justice, democracy and solidarity.

More market! More state! More market! More state! Is this not the repetitive debate of mainstream economic politics over the last dozen decades? The see-saw goes up and down, the liberals and the conservatives posture with their latest pet economic theories, and the business-as-usual of exploitation and world-eating continues on. Have we had enough of this yet?

We can find one source of this ridiculous game in most economics 101 textbooks. There are only two ways to organize an economy, they say: the "free market" or the "command economy." Market or state. Capitalism or communism. Yep, that's it.

Who gave these people a PhD? (Oh, right. I almost forgot. The same elite institutions that produce most of the world's ruling 1%).

It is crucial for us to recognize that our imaginations and our economic possibilities are stifled by this radically oversimplified way of thinking. Those in power don't mind, of course, since either option ends up with a similar result: a tiny portion of the population controlling, managing and benefiting from a vast majority of its resources. This is built into our historically-inherited story of "the economy" itself. In its representation as a huge, unified system of commodity production and financial accumulation, the two options for maintaining coherence are starkly clear. Either order emerges magically from the self-organizing dynamics of a "free" competitive market, or order is imposed from a centralized point of command. And so the market and the modern state emerge together, twins separated at birth.

One effect of this story is to make "markets" seem inevitably linked with "capitalism." The term "capitalist market" ends up seeming redundant, and to be for (or against) one is to be for (or against) the other. This is the convenient link that allows the story of capitalism to swallow the entire domain of decentralized coordination between free agents. This is the link that makes every form of economic organization other than capitalism (and its double, the command-economy) invisible.

But this is the link that we have to break. Capitalism is a specific way of organizing production: a separation of working people from our abilities to meet our own needs, and a relation of wage-labor in which workers have neither ownership nor control over the profits we create. Markets are a form of exchange in which sellers and buyers meet to trade products using some agreed-upon medium of exchange.i Capitalism requires markets, but markets do not require capitalism. This does not at all imply an endorsement of "alternative" markets as a grand and equitable solution to our economic struggles. It is simply to say that we do not yet know what kinds of markets we can create. Markets are animated by all kinds of dynamics, depending on the institutions that participate in them and the rules that are set up to structure them. What kinds of "solidarity markets" might emerge from a network of exchange among worker- and community-owned businesses? Among businesses structured to meet the needs of their members and not to maximize profits? In a culture in which the love of "markets" runs deep, and in which this love can be seen as an expression of the desire for legitimate freedom, we must take these questions seriously. What would it look like to sever capitalism from markets in our public politics? We can meet the pro-marketeers not with another demand for state control, but with a challenge: let's take the ethics of democracy and freedom all the way into the heart of the exploitative capitalist firm. Let's transform that, and then see what forms of freedom we can make together.

The other side of this coin, the side of the state, presents us with a similar trap we need to avoid. We have been handed an image of "the state" as a single, unified, coherent thing.ii You are either for it or against it. To advocate for one function of the state is to ally yourself with all of them. The state is either the bureaucratic boogeyman working to destroy our freedom and steal our hard-earned money, or it is the singular leverage point for progressive politics, the great protector of public goods and the provider of social resources. We either work to abolish it, or to restore it to some mythic, past democratic glory.

This story narrows our political and economic possibilities by hiding two key things. First, it hides all of the complex differences that exist "inside" the big box that we call "the state." All kinds of different and conflicting relationships, politics, interests, and functions get bundled together in this package-deal. Take taxes, for example: sometimes taxes are a form of social solidarity, a way for wealth to be fairly redistributed for the benefit of the current population and for future generations. Sometimes taxes are a form of exploitation that extracts further wealth from working people and subsidizes elite business schemes. Sometimes (though rarely) taxes are a way to finance community-based and democratically-controlled livelihood institutions (cooperatives, for example). Sometimes taxes are a way to finance the plunder and military colonization of other lands. The question is not "state or no state"; it is this: whose values are institutionalized in the specific programs of a specific state? Does a given element of the "state" help or hinder in forming the conditions of possibility for new forms of democratic and equitable livelihood in our communities?

But perhaps even more importantly, our oversimplified story of "the state" hides all of the possible ways that we might imagine and struggle for the transformation and decentralization of many state functions. Budgeting, service provision and the protection of public goods (among other things) might be placed directly in the hands of the communities that are most affected by them. What does the state need to do, and what does the state need to coordinate, but delegate to a more direct and local level? What can we remove the state from altogether, and do for ourselves?

These questions might seem terrifying if you've been thinking that the problem of "neoliberalism" is its assault on the state. But the problem of neoliberalism is, more accurately, its agenda to "privatize the benefits and socialize the costs. It is a project of social theft and enclosure. The state appears as its target, and as something we must absolutely defend, only because we have conceded the entire terrain of possibility to the old state/market divide! Might we imagine a more inspiring politics that sees the widespread public critique of the state as an opportunity to experiment with new forms of grassroots democratic practice? Might we learn to selectively defend and fight for certain elements of the state while remaining true to an aspiration for maximum direct democracy? Might we move from privatization to cooperativization?

And this points to the final problem of the state/market divide, and one that is likely clear by now: there is an entire universe of livelihood practices and institutional possibilities that are neither part of "the market" nor part of "the state." It is this huge space-in fact, the space in which most of us live, most of the time-that is rendered invisible when we reduce "the economy" to its old twin forms. This space has been called "the social economy," the "third sector," and "civil society." But these terms fail to capture the diversity and scope of all that we make and do outside of the market and the state: all forms of gifting, sharing, collective-doing; in fact, all forms of the work of living itself. Neither job nor handout: this is how we occupy our world.

What does this all mean?

It calls for an approach to livelihood that refuses to concede our imaginations to the narrow story of the market and the state, and yet also refuses to abandon these two realms as spaces of political possibility. This is part of the collective, creative escape from the trap of dependency: the need to live in the present so that a future might be possible. Our task is to identify and create sites, institutions, and practices in which values of equity, cooperation, democracy, pluralism and solidarity are enacted-in markets, in states, in any realm of life-and to link them together. This is the approach of a "solidarity economics," emerging from grassroots social movements around the world.iii

Next: Part Six: "From Necessity to Possibility" and "From 'The Economy' to Economic Solidarity and Democracy" (principles #4 and #5)...


The full version of Occupy, Connect, Create can be downloaded here (as PDF): 


i This is a distinction that comes from Karl Polanyi, The Livelihood of Man. New York: Academic Press, 1977.

ii For some theory that supports this critique, see Timothy Mitchell, "The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics." The American Political Science Review, vol.85, no.1, 1991.

iii For more on "solidarity economics," see the resource library at

Gratitude to Kate Boverman, who inspired this piece and provided crucial ideas and support, and to Michael Johnson, Annie McShiras, Cheyenna Weber, Len Krimerman and Anne O'Brien for their excellent thoughts and edits.

Ethan Miller is an activist, educator and researcher working to cultivate and support movements for solidarity-based economic transformation. He works with Grassroots Economic Organizing and the Community Economies Collective, and has lived for the past ten years at the JED Collective and Giant's Belly Farm in Greene, Maine. Ethan is currently on a hiatus in Australia, working on a PhD at the University of Western Sydney with the Community Economies Research Group.

Email Ethan at: leaving.omelas (-at-)










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