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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

The Social Forum and The Solidarity Economy: A Dialogue

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January 2, 2008
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By Len Krimerman and Bob Stone, GEO Collective

LEN: As folks head towards the very first US Social Forum in Atlanta questions arise: other than convening a rich mosaic of progressive organizations and activists, does the social forum movement have a mission to bring about "another world," and, if not, should it now adopt a strategy for doing so?

In their Fall 2006 GEO article, Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone address precisely these questions. Arundhati Roy and others stayed away from last year's Caracas World Social Forum WSF, because "'s just become too comfortable a stage...we have to come up with new strategies." Betsy and Bob claim that the needed strategy is already embodied in practices of groups central to the WSF. Rejecting both the "stand pat" notion of the WSF as an open but unengaged space for dialogue, and Hugo Chavez's call for a "Fifth International" united by a "uniform [i.e., Marxist?] ideology", they offer a third option: that the WSF be used by its constituent social movements [to focus] "on building regional and global solidarity economies". The WSF would thereby avoid rigid ideologies and divisive party building, while moving beyond the stand pat's "comfortable" inaction.

In Bob and Betsy's view, both national and regional manifestations of the WSF do have a world-changing mission: to support the growing edge of economic solidarity alternatives to corporate capitalism - that is: "all types of coops, mutual aid and barter networks, social currencies, credit unions, fair trade, and community gardens". The various social forums might jointly launch cross-border "buy coop, boycott multi-nationals" campaigns to "bolster the solidarity economy" and thus help "shift production from patriarchal capitalism to worker-control".

I am drawn to this proposal, but with some concerns. One arises from the diversity of the "social movements" which started and still animate the social forums. Most may be in some degree "anti-capitalist", but not all are. More important, many are not engaged in or part of the "solidarity economy", being primarily focused on, e.g., abolishing racism or sexism, replacing militaristic foreign policy with citizen-initiated peace processes, offsetting global warming, ensuring the human rights of immigrants, or of gays, lesbians, and trans-sexuals - to name a just a few of these movements.

To privilege alternative economic arrangements therefore seems at least to discount many "non-economic" comrades, or to demand their allegiance to a uniform and partisan economic strategy. Betsy and Bob do see a democratic and self-managed economy as a "non-partisan and even a non-ideological goal on which anarchists, socialists, and other WSF constituencies already demonstrate convergence." However, what makes it the most important social forum priority, rather than one of many equally worthy "Yeses"?

A second, and related, question is how to interpret the "building economic solidarity" strategy. Bob and Betsy explicitly reject acting "in the political sphere"; in their view, "party-building....would be divisive" and taking "state power" is not "a privileged means [of changing] the world". Despite this, they still endorse the Brazilian participatory budget process - whereby civil society groups become active stakeholders in, rather than passive spectators of, governance. And they claim that "Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution" - in which state power is most certainly central - "may be showing the way", i.e., may illustrate how to build a vibrant, oppositional, democratic replacement of capitalism.Â

There is then some ambiguity in what Betsy and Bob are proposing as to whether, or in what form, they accept Tarik Ali's famous dictum, "You cannot change the world without taking (and I'd add, â??remaking') power."

To address these concerns here's a two-fold friendly amendment to the solidarity economy proposal: The mission of social forums would still be to promote solidarity economies, but in ways that (a) foster collaboration and mutual aid between those economies and other non-economic constituents of civil society, and (b )involve collaboration on reclaiming the state, that is, on building and strengthening direct, inclusive, citizen-shaped forms of governance (see here Tom Atlee's The Tao of Democracy, and Matt Leigninger's The Next Form of Democracy).

The rationale: No part of the alter-globalization movement can succeed without the trust and assistance of the rest; hence, none should presume greater priority; rather, all the Yeses need to find ways to support one another. Moreover, the new world we are building, including its new economic forms, needs solidarity governance - the empowerment of citizens in the allocation of public revenues and in the setting of public priorities; e.g., providing free access to higher education, rather than building ever more prisons.

BOB: While we agree that Brazilian "participatory budgeting" is an exemplary form of democracy, you see the need for additional political/governmental measures, if social change movements are to have the resources they need to challenge the dominant corporate economy. What do you have in mind?

Our option is clear and familiar. The social forum movement originated in Porto Alegre's solidarity economy. And fully a third of the WSF Caracas program treated some aspect of the solidarity economy. To further build the solidarity economy by buying and working in it rather than in multinationals, is hardly to embrace a "highly partisan economic strategy." By contrast, to go political, switching energies from the solidarity economy to "solidarity governance," is a major change.

Pursuing political power so as to direct public resources to solidarity economy initiatives differs markedly from those initiatives as such. Is the political turn you contemplate worth the diversion? How does the pursuit of power you advocate differ from "party-building"?

Going political also puts the cart before the horse. Far from being an end in itself, political/governing/legal power is a means to ends realized directly by WSF-linked social movements like the solidarity economy. That is, solidarity economies build "another world" now. They are even politically effective without entering electoral politics. The global anti-Iraq war demo of Feb. 15, 2003, which consolidated world-wide opposition, was a paradigm. Other cases include:

â?¢ the WTO deadlock at Cancun in 2003 that endures today.
â?¢ Argentina's 2004 defiance ending the IMFs "aura of invincibility."
â?¢ almost unanimous halt in 2005 to Bush's FTAA at Mar de Plata.
â?¢ five new socialist or indigenous presidents in Latin America.
â?¢ virtual foreclosing in 2006 of all Doha Round trade talks.

These political victories issued from politically independent social movements. Typically, the indigenous movement that got Morales elected can challenge him if he deviates from the revolutionary path and sells out; a party committed to him can not.
Are we talking past each other? Is there a distinction between exercise of what I've called political/governmental/legal power and what you call "solidarity governance"? The solidarity economy is both means and end. Even if ordinary citizens in civil society pursue a direct voice in shaping government decisions, isn't that a mere means to what is directly if only partly built in building the solidarity economy?

Perhaps you could expand a bit on "solidarity governance."

LEN: I think we are largely, maybe 80%, in agreement. Let me clarify how "solidarity governance" arrangements are distinct from and often conflict with building political parties and electoral politics. For examples, consider the participatory budget as well as the very wide range of citizen dialogue and deliberation, community visioning, and other non-violent peace and conflict resolution initiatives (e.g., and for many more illustrations). In general, rather than relying on or lobbying elected officials, these all reconstruct public authority by creating durable and institutionalized opportunities for direct citizen democracy.

Solidarity economies are for sure both means and end. But so are the collaborative and power-sharing initiatives- based on mutual trust and nonviolence far more than force - involved in solidarity governance. They too "build another world now"; prefigure and advance us towards the emerging future. That future world, it seems to me, must have as full a democracy in its procedures for mediating conflicts, assuring stability, and defending itself against external threats as it does in its economic arrangements. Just as the varieties of solidarity economy help abolish the abuses of capitalism, so also processes of governance help eliminate abuses of the current police-prison-military state.

Moreover, I would question whether solidarity economies, by themselves, can displace or even substantially constrain global corporate capitalism. For that, I think, we also need to take and remake political authority: the phony "free market" thrives on government intervention (farm subsidies to agri-business, for example) backed by military power. Absent citizen control of public revenues and governance, solidarity economy initiatives will remain within a severely uneven playing field where corporations get several hundred billion dollars annually in corporate wealthfare and perpetual military contracts from a garrison state.

It is therefore not a diversion to transform state power, but one essential focus among others of a viable strategy to turn the solidarity economy from a tiny thorn into a tumultuous threat. (This is why I've been advocating an 8th cooperative principle, one which embodies the two amendments to your solidarity economy proposal; i.e., cross-organizational collaboration and the reclaiming of political power by citizen groups: see here GEO issue #74)

Finally, the "political effects" and "victories" you cite are remarkable and hopeful. But they seem primarily negative, and, possibly, largely symbolic. The World Bank and IMF keep up their dirty work daily, even if their major conferences deadlock. For all of its vision and resistance, Seattle 1999 did not decrease suicide rates of Indian farmers facing terminator seeds, subsidized western imports, and patents of indigenous seeds. Massive protests are and will be essential; the dominant system must be confronted everywhere. But these do not, by themselves, create a new way of meeting, on a daily and reliable basis, the common needs for stability, equity, and freedom from threats and offenders addressed by solidarity governance arrangements.

BOB: Len, The relatively small differences between us may finally be sharpening. They come down to the elephant in the living room: capitalism, and what comes first in moving beyond it.

We agree: it's a waste for social forums to pursue a global alliance of political parties aimed at state power. That path has led to a dead end. Instead, you advocate "solidarity governance," distinct from and often conflicting with political parties, "shifting" authority and resources from "official government" to an array of citizen groups promoting or protecting public goods: participatory budgeting assemblies, community study circles, indy media, human rights, women, peace, and the like. Solidarity economy growth will not by itself "provide us with access to public resources" needed to move beyond capitalism.

But as so far described, Len, your strategy is less likely than ours to move us beyond capitalism.

Who would have the authority to transparently "shift" resources to civil society groups if not the "official government"? But even if all such groups were somehow to get those resources and flourish, trans-nationals would still control the lion's share of the means of production. Workers would still be made to accept exploitation in order to meet their needs. Civil society groups might protest but so long as "official government" protects property rights, investors, not workers, will be securely dominant.

Moreover, profit comes only from organized cooperative labor - which is therefore itself a major part of the capital needed to start a co-op. This is why fully democratic production (and distribution and investment) need not await "solidarity governance" or future Chavez's. After a financial collapse, Argentina showed this in 2002, as video documented in "The Take" and "Hope in Hard Times." The reality is that solidarity economies must prove they can meet needs better, in order to create the political constituencies needed to "shift" resources.

"Solidarity governance" is no magic wand for ending capitalism. There is unfortunately no substitute for workers and farmers directly creating among themselves the new economic relations that make up solidarity economies. Perceiving this, the Chavez government wisely expropriates only bankrupt, abandoned or otherwise troubled enterprises whose employees have already initiated solutions. Because the solidarity economy meets needs more efficiently due to being more just, each new case of economic democracy de-legitimates ambient capitalist practices, a strategy Venezuela is pursuing. But co-ops, credit unions, fair trade and barter networks, and other parts of the solidarity economy can all be built now, without a Chavez. "Solidarity governance" can be an important result, consolidating a democratic economy, but only if pervasive self-management by workers shows the way by establishing a new paradigm.

Perhaps starting at the upcoming US Social Forum in Atlanta, were the social forum movement to fully back the solidarity economy it has nourished, and call for boycotting multinationals (and other tactics we proposed), the surge in demand for solidarity economy goods might jump start global economic democratization. An Argentina-like collapse on a global level could lead to fascism if no alternative, like Argentina's recuperated factories, is visible. The lesson? Build an alternative before the collapse - perhaps reaching out to start an inter-American solidarity economy.

In the end, Len, we seem to disagree on the order of the tasks and not on what is to be done.

LEN: Some concluding comments:

1. Solidarity governance is not a replacement for solidarity economy, but a partner with it. It is valuable both for itself and because it can contribute to the growth of solidarity economies.

2. And it is a needed partner; without it, the state will continue to pump capital and other resources into corporate capitalist iniquities, and solidarity economy will not grow beyond marginality. The resources of solidarity economy are still tiny after more than a generation of development; one probable reason is that we have for the most part left the current state unchallenged and in the hands of politicians and their corporate cronies. If so, the call to social forums for "fully backing the solidarity economy" should also include creating solidarity governance.

3. On the whole, I don't believe in "ordering" social change. This seems to implicitly demote some and privilege other equally valid ends or initiatives, and as such, to keep democracy from fully unfolding. There is more than one ultimate priority or final end embodied in what a genuine and full democracy looks like.

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