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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Solidarity Economy Roads

Chapter 11 - The Road of the Spirit

Article type
GEO Original
November 11, 2019
Body paragraph

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12

Translated by Matt Noyes

(Thanks to Emi Do and Leo Sammallahti – MN)

[Translator's note: In this chapter the author considers the relationship between spirituality and economy. Materialism and consumerism, reasonable orientations for those immersed in the intensely competitive world of modern industrial capitalism, or neoliberalism, have provoked searches for spirituality and a sense of community but have also led seekers to avoid the economy as a sphere of engagement. A contradiction then emerges between the spiritual or religious values many people espouse and the “conception of the world and of life... made manifest in our practical activity,” especially economic activity. We can resolve the contradiction in one of two ways: by thinking and acting in ways that are well adjusted to the dominant social and economic reality, or by translating “faith and love... into acts that affect people, groups, and societies in their real daily lives.” This implies a commitment to building “another way of doing economy and another type of development,” as we have seen. We can hear in this chapter echoes of the “creative maladjustment” to exploitation and injustice described by Martin Luther King Jr, an attitude characteristic of those who walk the roads of solidarity economy. - MN]

Chapter 11

The Road of the Spirit

The troubled and contentious relationship between spirituality and economy

In many parts of the world, after decades of domination by materialism, both theoretical and practical, people seem to have begun seeking to recuperate the spiritual dimensions of human existence. Materialism’s rise was the result of a centuries-long process in which the center of gravity of cultured thought and collective awareness shifted from the realm of values to that of facts, from idealism to pragmatism, from philosophy to positivist scientism. It is as if, after being too long submerged in the material preoccupations of life, we surfaced, feeling anew and with urgency the need to find a transcendent meaning for life and the desire to project our consciousness toward new and higher experiences.

Clearly, people’s heightened preoccupation with the material dimensions of existence is closely related to economic tendencies and trends that have prevailed for an entire human epoch. The tremendous dynamism acquired by economic processes disrupted human activity and re-oriented it toward the search for progress and material well being. In a world of accentuated economic competition between individuals, social groups, and nations, each person and each social subject find themselves compelled to focus their attention and efforts on the achievement of economic success, to which is tied prestige and hopes of self-realization in various facets of social life. In each moment in this highly competitive framework, people and groups must choose between advancing or retreating, surpassing their neighbors or being left behind, standing out or being displaced.

For the winners the acquisition of increasing levels of wealth provides satisfaction and motivation enough. As they obtain more and more, each new acquisition produces a state of excitement and pleasure; but it quickly fades. New objectives appear – a new goal, a new status, a higher level than the one already reached – requiring new effort and lending fullness to their existence if only for a moment. Having more and more, climbing the social ladder, they go along ticking off the steps of a life lived under the permanent pressure of the unrelenting demands of success. Even if the quantity of goods available or the degree of satisfaction of objective needs is in reality unchanged, the possibility of slipping back, sinking down one level, missing an opportunity, becomes a source of fear and anxiety: are others getting ahead and beginning to look down on you?

The poor, on the other hand, who find themselves on the margins of this dynamic of constant enrichment, see their lives settle into a state of precarity and lack, facing the daily struggle for existence, with a horizon only as far away as tomorrow. Their existence constantly threatened, they turn all their attention to the here and now, to securing the basic needs of their own families. They have no time for spirit, for elevating themselves above the plane of daily existence in pursuit of transcendent values and ideals.

Certainly, not everyone is swept up in materialism and consumerism. There are people, communities, churches, and institutions keeping alive the spiritual dimensions of humans and society, promoting solidarity and communitarian spirit and developing experiences that transcend individualism and the sole pursuit of material well being. They do it on the basis of different philosophical conceptions and religious beliefs; in Latin America the most wide spread and common are Christian-inspired.

For a long time these searches for spirituality and the feeling of community arose in a certain antagonism with the economic world, or at least kept a careful distance, suspicious of its dominant tendencies. In effect, economic structures, activities, and behaviors often contradict the values and principles defended by Christianity, humanism, and spirituality in general. Observing economic reality through the optic of these values and principles, one sees: severe exploitation of human beings and their reduction to a mere factor of production; the exacerbation of individualism in social relations; the search for material riches and economic success as goals that supplant the rational pursuit of happiness; the subordination of people to the supposedly objective laws of the market or the central plan; and the alienation and objectification of the subject. It is in the economy that we can measure how great can be the distance separating the Christian message from the actual practices of its adherents and their real forms of thought and feeling.

So, when it comes to the economy, these spiritual and communitarian quests develop a more or less systemic critical attitude with the result that a dedication to business and entrepreneurial activity has come to be regarded with suspicion, especially among the youth and in popular sectors. Relations with the economy have tended to be mostly external and conflictual: on the one hand, denunciation of economic injustice and exercise of moral pressure demanding corrections to the established ways of operating, on the other, social action as a way to palliate the poverty of those who suffer marginalization and injustices, through aid, training, and conscientization, or by seeking to recover the value of labor and overturn its objective subordination to capital through worker organization. But it was difficult to conceive of carrying out economic activities as such, building and managing a business oneself as a mode of putting the Christian message into practice, as a particular vocation for Christians seeking to make evangelical values concrete, to live their principles and commitments.


The spiritual demand for another form of economic organization

For some time, threatened by the secularizing tendencies of modern culture and positivism’s invasion of all spheres of social, economic, and political life, people seeking spiritual and religious meaning tended to retreat into the interior spaces of conscience and the sphere of private life. But the situation has changed substantially. Already several decades ago it became clear to Christians that it is not possible to live one’s faith and love in an interior space alone, that faith and love must be made manifest and translated into acts that affect people, groups, and societies in their real daily lives. They soon understood that it is not enough for the few who have rejected the predominant hedonistic materialism to bear witness and to act, because spirit in general and Christianity in particular are inherently called to universality.

The first sphere in which this aspiration to make Christian and spiritual values and principles present in “the world” was expressed, was politics. Christians never completely abandoned politics, as evidenced by the existence of political parties aligned with or informed by Christian doctrine. Alongside its action in the political sphere, and closely related to it, Christianity developed a consistent presence in the world of communications. Today engagement in and intense dedication to communications and politics is regarded by Christians as fully legitimate, and promoted. The same engagement and dedication are not yet found in the economy and the world of business, where religion and spirituality are met with deep reservations and where the necessity for profound renovation and transformation that flows from evangelical demands has not been deeply considered. As a consequence, the focus of action has been to develop the consciousness of individual owners, in the hope that having assimilated the postulates and values of Christian social doctrine, they will bear them in mind when making specific decisions as they manage activities and organizations.

But the problem is much more profound. On the one hand, the valorization of work by Christians and spiritual people is not sufficient, as important as all the efforts to dignify labor and obtain fair treatment for workers undoubtedly are. They are not sufficient because in the economy labor can only exist in relation to the other necessary elements of production, combined and organized with them in economic units or enterprises, all the elements forming parts of a complex economic system of production, distribution, and accumulation. On the other hand, it is not enough to raise the consciousness of owners, even if it is important that their decisions come to be influenced by human and Christian values and principles. It is not enough because they operate in a type of organization – a business – and a form of economic articulation – the market – that so powerfully shape them that they can only act and make decisions in conformity with the dominant economic criteria. To do otherwise would result in losses and ultimately exclusion from the market on grounds of inefficiency.

What is now becoming clear, at least to those who aspire to live in an economy aligned with spiritual and Christian values and principles, is the necessity of committing oneself in a communitarian or associative way to the creation of a new type of business, organized on the basis of a special economic rationality according to which the forms of property, distribution of gains, treatment of labor and other factors, accumulation, expansion and development, and in general all the relevant aspects are defined and organized in accordance with requirements that stem from those principles and values. It is increasingly clear that it is necessary to initiate and develop processes of transformation in the global economy, as much through the presence and activity of these very alternative businesses as through actions that take place on the level of the market and economic policies which impact the global economy and its dynamics of development.

We are thus called to join the quest for another way of doing economy and another type of development, called to think of economy and development in new ways.

It comes as no surprise, at this point in our journey, that the new modes of organizing and carrying out economic activities of which we speak travel the path of solidarity economy. Spiritual and religious searches to promote values of love and solidarity between people, raise up human work as an expression of the dignity of the person and the source of important virtues, foment a sense of community, highlight giving and contributing as higher expressions of kinship, promote a certain detachment from material goods and responsible consumption based on a basic and equilibrated satisfaction of human needs, all of these are at home in the very nucleus of solidarity economy.


Economic behavior and forms and levels of consciousness

The spiritual road to solidarity economy has even deeper roots that become apparent when we reflect on the subtle ties binding life to consciousness, and personal and social behaviors to forms of thought and feeling. As we know, this is a crucial problem for any spiritual quest which does not limit itself to a purely intimate dimension but would rather direct itself to the concrete life of people and society.

The question can be posed in the following terms. In whatever time and place, humans are born and live their lives in a world not of their creation, under specific historical circumstances and conditions that demand of them, and impose on them, certain modes of behavior, certain ways of acting and relating to each other. We “must” adopt these ways if we are to find a place and function in social life. As a part of social groups formed and acting within given economic and social structures, we “take on” particular cultures: values, ideas, feelings, ways of being, etc. A conception of the world and of life is made manifest in our practical activity and implicitly shown for what it is, a system of beliefs and relatively coherent values, given objective form in the organizations and institutions in which we participate.

As individuals we may not be conscious of the conception of the world and the values and beliefs we are manifesting. We may not even accept them theoretically but still we act in conformity with them, or, better, within the margins of acceptability they permit. When someone acts differently they expose themselves to the risk of social “punishment” in the form of exclusion, isolation, social rejection, loss of opportunities and prestige, etc.

Often the forms of thinking which are implicit in our actions are in contradiction with our explicit ways of thinking, with the values and ideas we received from our families, schools, or other agents of diffusion in the cultural milieu, not to mention those we develop for ourselves in our own minds. In that case, we can say that there is a contradiction between our consciousness – our way of thinking – and the way we act, or more precisely, that in the same person two forms of consciousness are at work, one which is implicit in our ways of acting and our social relations, and another that we make explicit in the sphere of intimacy and verbalize in our personal relations.

The great majority of people find themselves in one of two situations: either their thinking and feeling are in sync with the dominant world view that permeates practice and the given social and economic relations, or they have a splintered consciousness in the terms we have just explained. In the first case we see an a-critical union of thought and life; in the second, a splintering of our theory and practice, our ways of thinking and acting.

Many Christians, and, generally, people who explicitly profess beliefs and values with the character of spirituality and solidarity, find themselves in the latter situation adopting the individualistic and materialistic ways of behavior and relating to others demanded by the dominant economic forms. It should be said that this contradiction admits of many nuances and that does not always occur in the same way and with the same degree of contrast in all areas and dimensions of life. In some spaces of experience greater coherence may be achieved, for example in family life or within small reference groups. But it must be recognized that the dominant economic culture permeates so many activities that removing oneself from the requisite behaviors implies sacrifices and costs so great that few people are ready to assume them.

The division between ways of thinking and acting also carries costs which we pay in the form of internal tensions, fundamental contradictions, feelings of guilt and frustration, loss of self-esteem, and the feeling of inauthenticity. The higher the level of development of our spirituality and the greater our comprehension and appreciation of the beliefs and values to which we consciously adhere, the more intense the costs. But sooner or later, with more or less intensity, the need to “live what you believe and think” arises from these beliefs and values.

It is the search for coherence and authenticity, for unity of theory and practice. But the only way to proceed is by leaving behind the behaviors that embody modes of consciousness that stand in contradiction to our explicit consciousness, and beginning to act in accordance with the latter. It is the construction of a new unity of theory and practice in which it is no longer practice that controls but theory, a new unity of theory and practice in which our actions no longer playing the leading role. In place of the unity achieved by those whose thoughts are aligned with their actions simply by virtue of being well adapted to the dominant social relations and systems of action, we need a unity directed by theory, or, if you will, by the thought and values that we seek to make real and practical as we travel a new social and economic road. Naturally, it is a road that has to be created, a path of practice adequate to a higher spiritual and religious consciousness, in the construction of which concrete expressions of solidarity economy emerge.


Header image by Richard and Elaine Chambers. CC BY-SA 3.0



Luis Razeto Migliaro (2019).  Solidarity Economy Roads:  Chapter 11 - The Road of the Spirit.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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