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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Making a Living in the Solidarity Economy

February 1, 2015
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by Josh Davis

A lot of us have high hopes for the Solidarity Economy.  Ideally, we'd like to be able to support ourselves and our families by building wealth for the community, as opposed to extracting wealth from the community—which seems to be the modus operadi of the system we currently have.  We'd like to be able to use our time and energy to build and maintain an economic system that works for everyone, instead of working within the current economic system to take care of ourselves, first, and then trying to use whatever time and energy remains to build something better.  It's difficult to build an alternative economic system while the majority of your time is spent toiling within the system you're trying to replace.  

If the Solidarity Economy movement is going to be sustainable—if it's going to thrive—it's also going to have to figure out how to pay the bills.

To put an even sharper point on it, if we're really concerned with changing our economy, and not just talking about the possibility, we can't continue to rely on volunteers and the spare capacity of people who have to earn their money in the capitalist system (which amounts to the Solidarity Economy receiving a subsidy from the capitalist economy).  To the extent that people can't make a living in the Solidarity Economy, we are failing as a movement.  

This conundrum has been on my mind a lot recently, and on the minds of others as well, if my twitter feed is any indication.  Commons activist and founder of the P2P Foundation, Michel Bauwens has recently made an appeal for a crowdfunded wage (a minuscule $1200/month) and more than one of my recent conversations with cooperative, commons, and solidarity economy practitioners and activists has included some mention of the difficulty of making even the barest of livings in the alternative economic sector*.  

Those few of us fortunate enough to get a little remuneration for our work are largely dependent on foundation grants to provide that income—foundations whose fortunes rise and fall with the value of their stock portfolios, and who are inundated with more requests than they can fulfill (not to mention being often unwilling to pay for salaries, which are seen as 'overhead').  This is not a sustainable situation, nor an adequate base upon which to build an alternative economic system. Impressive strides have been made so far, but if our movements can't figure out how to create more paying jobs than they currently do, we will be doomed to perpetual obscurity...and justifiably so.  If we can't even take care of our own, we probably don't deserve to exist.

One way for more people to be able to devote more of their time to the Solidarity Economy—and less to the capitalist one—is offered by crowdfunding platforms such as Gratipay, where Bauwens has made his appeal.  If just half of his 9,000+ twitter followers pitched in just $0.50 per month, he would vastly exceed his goal.  The only problem is that so far, apart from four people, no one has seen fit to pay anything at all—and while a lot of little donations can add up to a respectable sum, the same is not true when summing non-donations.  Nine thousand times zero is still zero.  

We've had the same experience here at GEO, trying to earn a little income from eBook sales in an effort to ease our reliance on grant funding.  While we've had 154 downloads of our three currently available eBooks, only 6 people so far have seen fit to offer us anything for them—a somewhat disappointing 3.9% (my hearty and heartfelt gratitude to those of you who did pitch in something, and to everyone who has made a donation to GEO). 

While we're happy to make our content available for free to all who would like to use it, the facts of the matter are that if we don't make enough money from them to continue to pay for at least part of the considerable amount of time spent creating them, then those of us making them are going to have spend more of our time painting houses, waiting tables, or filling a cube, instead of creating value for the movement. 

So the first thing that we can do is to pay something, however small, to the people and organizations who are creating the content and doing the organizing work that is fundamental for building the Solidarity Economy.  If you value what they do, set up a recurring small donation to lend your support.

Another thing we can do to make working in the Solidarity Economy more feasible for more people, is to start getting creative and intentional about using our various projects and enterprises to provide for basic needs without the necessity of money changing hands.  The more things a person can procure through non-monetary means, the less cash-flow they need to maintain an adequate standard of living.  Timebanks and alternative currencies are especially promising in this regard.  

For instance, a movement-wide alternative currency that was accepted by all co-ops could allow someone like Michel Bauwens to do his work for the commons and get paid partially in that currency, using something like FairCoin.  He could then use the FairCoins to buy groceries at his local food co-op and the food co-op could in turn use them to pay (for instance) the Gaia Host Collective for  website hosting.  Gaia Host could then use them to pay for lunch at Red Emma's, or to have Prospera come and clean up the office.  By supplementing his income through a system like this, Michel would be able to save whatever actual cash people donate for those things that absolutely require it, while minimizing the amount of money that needs to be raised each month to provide a decent standard of living.  

If we make a commitment to doing these two things—giving a little cash for the value that solidarity economy activists, practitioners, and organizers create; and creating ways of meeting needs outside of the cash economy—then there is a chance that we can make the Solidarity Economy more than just a pretty phrase and a noble sentiment, but instead a grounded and practical system that can provide for the needs of the people who devote themselves to it.  It's possible, but it's going to require a lot of us to step up and to put our money where our mouth is—if only 50 cents at a time.

* There are good, sustainable jobs in the Solidarity Economy, of course, especially in the worker co-op sector--just not nearly enough!


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