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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

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

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October 21, 2011
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by Ethan Miller

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


What is it "to occupy"? What is this charged word that is spreading like wildfire and inciting us to reclaim public space? It reminds some of us of invasion, colonization-as in "an occupied nation." At the same time, the #Occupy Movement is pointing toward a different sense of the word: something more like a taking back, a holding of space in order to open it up toward new collective possibilities. From its Latin roots, "to occupy" can, in fact, mean to seize a space against the status quo and to turn it towards something new. To occupy is to construct a space in which we can engage in the craft-the occupation-of enacting the world we long for.i

We need to understand and to enact "occupation" in the widest sense possible: to seize every single space that we possibly can-physical and conceptual-in which to exercise collective power and experiment with new forms of collective life. This is also about making visible the spaces that we have already occupied, the practices and forms of life in which we are already rooted and which we already share in common. Think of us as water; think of our spaces of occupation as the cracks into which we flow. These are the footholds from which we launch each new moment of creative action.

The brilliance of #OccupyWallStreet is to create a common public space that is more than protest-as much a space of creation as it is of opposition. And this is what our emerging movements must be: not just protest movements, not movements clamoring only for our demands to be met, but movements actively working to build the world that we wish to live in. Nobody will do this for us, and nor would we want them to.

So: we can begin by mapping and strengthening the transformative economies of our current #occupations. These are, indeed, sites where other ways of living are being birthed, public laboratories and collective schools in which we are learning how to live together, how to do democracy, how to transform ourselves, and how to enact livelihoods-real occupations!-without the economy of Wall Street. The many hundreds of #occupations holding spaces around the U.S. and the world are opportunities for us to experiment with and to demonstrate the kinds of relationships and institutions we seek to create. Imagine: in place of coercive jobs that we begrudge or even hate, working groups based on affinity and organized collectively; in place of isolated meals (or lack thereof), community kitchens where we share food together; in place of corporate media, forms of information-sharing that we create and control; community self-management at every turn. What can these structures evolve into? What might it look like to link them across occupations, creating or strengthening regional, national and international networks of popular education, democratic practice, media, healthcare, food distribution, mediation and alternative economic imagination?

And let's map our other "occupations," too. Where are the spaces in our communities in which people are actively constructing relationships and institutions of cooperation, mutual-care, solidarity and democracy? Let us map the #occupation support groups, the grassroots neighborhood associations, the community centers, the economic and social justice organizations, the land-care and ecological defense groups, the housing cooperatives, the community gardens and farms, the worker-owned businesses, the farmer's markets, the mutual-aid support groups, the community-based nonprofits, the credit unions, the grassroots foundations, the artist collectives, the free schools, the community currency and barter networks, the public squats, the informal spaces of sharing and collaboration, the community-based health centers, the land trusts, the public parks and libraries, and every other space or structure we can possibly find. These are our roots. These are our commons. This is the ground from where we begin.

From here, we must create new occupations. Reclaim new public spaces and open them for community, convergence, conversation and common creation. And then let's go further: inspired by those who have occupied their foreclosed homes and refused to let them go; inspired by those who reclaim un-used lots and abandoned building and transform them into new spaces of community; inspired by workers in Argentina who occupied their factories and called them their own (shouting, with words that have kindled our imaginations, "Occupy! Resist! Produce!"); inspired by the landless workers movements in Brazil and elsewhere who organize occupations of land, taking it back from the 1% and creating vibrant, multi-generational cooperative communities. Let us begin to imagine all of the ways that we can construct new commons, shared spaces and pools of resources, on which we can begin to build different kinds of livelihoods.




We are only as strong as our connections with others, and the work of building other forms of livelihood cannot be done alone. Remember "the trap": our creative escape, if it is to work, has to be collective. We will do it together, or we will not do it at all.

Our occupations, then, must be about making connections at every step.

First, linking our work across multiple issues: building relationships of solidarity between people struggling against Wall Street financiers, predatory lending, corporate personhood, military action, the prison-industrial complex, the many faces of racism, the ongoing colonization of indigenous land and culture, climate change, the ecological devastation of industrial and factory farming, islands of plastic collecting in our oceans, toxic waste in low-income communities, privatization and slashing of social programs, decaying public infrastructure, and skyrocketing foreclosure and unemployment.

All of this work of linking is being done, effectively and compellingly, by many groups, and we need to support each other as much as we can at every turn. This is not about creating a single image of "The Man" that unifies all experiences of exploitation and oppression together into one giant, coherent system or conspiracy (this would cover over both the complexity of how it all connects, and the fact that power is never that coherent-let's not give them too much credit, here!). Rather, we are engaging in the work of learning to hear each other's stories, to connect with each other's differences, to take responsibility for our own complicities, and to build solidarity across many kinds of work and struggle.

Second, linking our many practices and institutions of cooperative livelihood together in webs of mutual support: This is the task of the emerging solidarity economics movement. Here, our work is to begin building concrete, material relationships of support and exchange among initiatives working in multiple sectors of economic life: projects that are caring for and defending creation (the gifts of the earth: all that from which we draw our livelihoods, but which exceeds human agency); forms of production; types of exchange and distribution; forms of organized consumption; structures for saving and allocating surplus (recycling and financing); and practices of democratic economic governance (decision-making, rules and agreements). We need to connect diverse initiatives engaging in these forms of work in order to build new, synergistic ecosystems of livelihood, to pool resources and create shared support structures, and to build collective and organized economic power.ii



Third, connecting the work of solidarity-based economic organizing with the broader work of building diverse, multi-issue social movements: we must integrate economic alternatives into social movements, and social movements into economic alternatives. Social movements must become the lifeblood that flows through the veins of newly-connected forms of livelihood. They are the base which sustains these projects, and at the same time the base which these projects are able to increasingly sustain. Organizations working for economic, social and ecological justice can act as sources of accountability for emerging solidarity economy networks that face cultural and economic pressure to adopt "market values." And reciprocally, solidarity economy networks can infuse social movements with concrete examples and experiences of their values in action. These linkages offer ways for oppositional social movements to strengthen their critiques and demands with an increasing commitment to building new economies and ways of life. 



And fourth, the work of linking multiple forms of transformative work: defense, offense, creation, and healing. We must connect the work of defending our lives and communities from colonization and injustice, the work of actively opposing oppression in all forms, the work of healing together from trauma and hurt,iii and the work of imagining and building alternative ways to live together and meet our needs as integral parts of a holistic movement for transformation. We cannot afford to divide ourselves along these lines, and we must cease to participate in a culture of activism which tries to place final judgments on the importance, effectiveness, or "radicalness" of our diverse forms of work. We need each other. We need each other's differences. We need the many different things that each of us has to offer. This is about relentless humility: we do not know how to make the changes that we need to make, and we will only discover the paths together.




The work of occupation and connection must become the work of creation: the creative, collective construction of forms of livelihood and community that might enable us to imagine a day when Wall Street can topple without bringing suffering millions with it. This is our way out of the trap. It is not a naïve notion of "dropping out" (as if everyone had the privilege to do this, or the privilege to choose otherwise), or a dreamy hope of evading hard work and struggle. It is, rather, about recognizing that the work of breaking out of our dependence is a necessary site for our creative action.

We need housing, food, water, clothing, education, healthcare, love and dignity. How will we organize to create these for ourselves? How will we learn to create and live in new forms of face-to-face relationship and community so that these things can be shared? How will we imagine and fight for institutions and policies that will enable our work of building these forms of livelihood together? How can we learn from those who have gone before, and those who are here now in our communities, experimenting with collective and democratic ways of life? What kinds of support structures of connection, collaboration and common work can we create through which to sustain this emerging work? How will we move the spaces of #occupied parks to the spaces of a re-occupied world?

There are two views that we must keep in sight, never letting go of either.

The first view is the need to build and fight for stability and security for ourselves, each other, our families, our communities and those with whom we're connected around the world, here-and-now. This is where we demand (and the list can go on): equitable social policies, demilitarization, restructuring of financial systems, debt forgiveness on multiple fronts, trade policy oriented toward economic justice, public investment in post-carbon conversion and ecological restoration, free education for all, and fiscal policies which significantly and progressively redistribute wealth from the 1% to the rest, particularly those who have been systematically excluded even from the shrinking "middle class." This is where we work, recognizing our dependency on that which we must transform, for job creation. But not just any job creation: we must demand public (and private) resources to help us develop new kinds of jobs:

  • Locally-rooted jobs: it's time to refuse the myth that jobs must be given to us by huge, "outside" forces which are unaccountable to our needs, our stories and our places. We need jobs that build on and enhance local and regional strengths, and that reflect the aspirations and values of our specific communities.iv

  • Cooperative jobs, worker- and community- controlled jobs: it's time publicly proclaim that a society in which a majority of people spend their days working under the rule of dictators (bosses) and learning to obey orders rather than think for themselves cannot be a democratic society. We need jobs that embody, in their daily workings, the kind of broader society we wish to cultivate.v

  • Ecologically-restorative jobs: it's time to be serious, too, about forms of employment that are not dependent on the ongoing destruction of the ecological base upon which we all rely. "Green jobs" that seek to sustain our current levels of consumption and production in a "sustainable" form will not do. We must create forms of work that are synergistic with our common habitats.

Beyond (but supported by) our demands, then, we must take the initiative in creating locally-rooted jobs in workplaces that we own, manage and share together, and that enhance the resilience, stability and health of our ecological communities.

At the same time, we need to keep the second view in sight: a world of livelihood beyond employment. We must shift from simply asking how we might create more (or better) jobs to asking about how we can progressively create the conditions in which we no longer need them.

First, how can we begin to build a world in which the unpaid labor of birthing, parenting, caring for elders, building community, creating art, working for justice, and defending and restoring our ecosystems can be supported as shared social goods? What forms of accounting would make this work and its value publicly visible? What structures for supporting each other and sharing surplus can make this work more viable and sustainable?

And second, how do we re-common the enclosures that created our dependency on wage-work in the first place? How do we construct forms of direct, collective access to our means of subsistence? How do we make growing our own food, gathering and sharing resources collectively, producing for ourselves at home and in cooperative communities, building our own housing, providing our own non-monetized networks of support and care, all the more possible and viable? Life beyond "jobs" is not for everyone, and nor does it need to be. But it must become an ever-more available option. Let us keep our eyes on this prize: the possibility of diverse, dignified, democratic and cooperative livelihoods available to all.

Do we know how to make this possible? Not yet.

But we can say this: It is time to launch the largest explosion of practical experimentation that our society has ever seen.

To do this work, we must all begin to imagine our lives differently. What does it mean to stand on the edge of everything we once took for granted and choose to step into the unknown? Alone, this work is terrifying. Together, it becomes an adventure in living. We need to begin imagining lives in which our forms of security (if we have them at all) do not lie in the structures held up by Wall Street or beholden to the banks and corrupt governments. We need to begin exploring the possibility of new forms of security, new forms of resilience. Not in banks or retirement funds, not even in money, but in relationships, in community, in commons, in common skills, common land, common resources, and common movements of people experimenting, imagining and building a different life together.

This creative experimentation cannot ignore the work of long-term visioning, the work of developing and debating blueprints and maps for the future we seek to create; but nor can we get stuck in the all-too-common and dangerous demand for "an alternative." There is no singular "economy," and there will be no singular alternative. This is a path of many paths, and the work of many hearts and minds. We are a movement, not a destination.

This is going to be a hell of an adventure.


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



i Occupy: from ob - capere (Latin). The "ob-" can mean "in the directions of, towards," and at the same time "against," or "in a direction or manner contrary to the usual" (as in "obverse"). Capere is "to take, to seize." At the same time, "to occupy" is "to employ, to make use of, to exercise one's craft." (from the Oxford English Dictionary)

ii A larger version of this circle, with descriptions of many of the initiatives listed on it, can be downloaded here. For more on solidarity economy linkages, see Ethan Miller, "Solidarity Economy: Key Concepts and Issues," in Emily Kawano, Tom Masterson, and Jonathan Teller-Ellsberg (Eds), Solidarity Economy I: Building Alternatives for People and Planet. Amherst, MA: Center for Popular Economics, 2010. 

iii See Yashna, "Communities of Care, Organizations for Liberation."

iv See, for example, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).

v Check out the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives for more information.

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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