With this post, I am introducing a new series here on GEO – occasional blog posts around the themes of solidarity economy, the commons, and abundance.
I come from a background in geography, which I think is highly appropriate for a site called GEO, because “geo” means the Earth; as geographers we study the relationships between people and the Earth we inhabit. The grassroots of course are in the earth too! My special concern for many years has been how we can build an environmentally sustainable and socially just economy. This has led me to write about “economics of abundance,” to get connected with solidarity economy people, and most recently to co-found the Commons Abundance Network. I will write more about this in later posts.
So what is the connection between solidarity economy, commons, and abundance? Why am I bringing these three together? The point I’ll make here is that together, solidarity, the commons, and abundance provide us with the human virtues, the institutional means, and the vision or goal that directs our efforts. All three are necessary, and they complement each other.
Solidarity is the readiness to stand together, to help each other out, recognizing our interdependence. Workers struggling to get collective bargaining rights, a bunch of people joining together to create a cooperative, local people banding together to get industries to reduce their pollution, are all examples of solidarity in action. Ultimately, solidarity is a human virtue. It requires certain skills of cooperation, and a collaborative attitude that doesn't just pay attention to immediate individual benefits, but also sees the longer term collective good. Without this virtue, social struggles and equitable economic structures will never get off the ground.
The commons is a type of social institution which puts economic democracy and solidarity into practice. The commons are things we share – we share the air we breathe, the water we drink (which comes from rain, rivers, groundwater, the sea), businesses we collectively own (i.e., cooperatives), the infrastructure of cities which we all use, and many other things. But the commons is more than that – it also means that we collectively manage these shared resources or assets, that we share in the responsibilities as well as the benefits, we share ownership. And here I don't just mean the “feeling” of ownership like institutions like the World Bank talk about when they talk about “local participation.” I mean real, legally recognized, shared ownership, so that a business cannot simply pollute the air, for example, without payment to all those who together share in the use of that air, or a cooperative is truly owned by its members who can effectively participate in decision-making.
The commons seeks to ensure that everyone obtains benefits from a shared resource that are roughly commensurable with the work that they put in, or simply with their right to live (for example, we should all be able to breathe clean air regardless of whether we have worked for it!).
The third term, abundance, is the most challenging of the three terms, but it can potentially mobilize people behind a transformative vision. Many people associate “abundance” with profligacy, with satisfying the wildest dreams of avarice. But those dreams never get satisfied, they don’t provide real contentment. Pursuing such dreams actually traps us in scarcity: the rich always want more (so they're not satisfied, they feel they don't have enough), and in their pursuit of greater wealth, they create material scarcity for everybody else. In fact, the capitalist economy runs on scarcity, it requires what I call “scarcity-generating institutions” to ensure that consumer demand constantly outpaces production, while there are millions of people lacking independent sources of livelihood, willing to work for whatever wages are on offer. In the process, this economic system depletes or degrades the natural resources on which we all depend, creating increasing resource scarcities.
True abundance is when we all have enough to live well, and a diversity of living things with which we share the planet can likewise live well. It also means that we live in such a way that future generations will be able to live well too. In Latin America, this is referred to as buen vivir. It requires asking ourselves what we really need, want, desire, and it demands a recognition that trying to get something for our individual selves alone often sacrifices not only the collective good, but our own individual well-being as well. It requires solidarity and the commons.
Abundance, then, is the goal toward which we are working when seeking to build an “economy for people and the planet.”
So, without solidarity, there can be no commons, and without commons, no abundance – but conversely, a vision of abundance can help motivate people to work together in solidarity, and to build commons institutions. Different people may prefer one of these words over the others, or direct their efforts toward one rather than the others, and that's all to the good (nobody can do everything). But in the end, we have to recognize that they are all needed, and need to work together!
GEO blogs are part of our mission to provide a platform for co-op practitioners and solidarity economy organizers to share their thoughts and experiences with a wider audience. Any views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do no necessarily reflect the views of the GEO Collective. If you would like to start a blog on GEO, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.