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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Community, Economics, and Solidarity

Overview for Section I

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GEO Original
August 27, 2013
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The mutual need for seeing each other

The world is filled with alternative lifestyles and ways of earning livelihoods. Awareness of them is quite dim and scattered, however. Even people living these different lifestyles and practicing different ways of producing, distributing, and consuming goods and services are surprisingly unaware of each other. Mainstream media is, well, radically mainstream. GEO's Fall 2013 Theme seeks to fill and bridge some of the gaps that MSM’s radically exclusive approach creates. This theme focuses on the connections between intentional communities and solidarity economics.

The Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), the primary network for intentional communities in the United States, identifies itself as a fellowship for all kinds of intentional communities. Note their name carefully: Fellowship for Intentional Community. (Emphases added.) This includes both the more formal ones—such as ecovillages, cohousing communities, residential land trusts, communes, co-ops, and housing cooperatives—and “projects where people strive together with a common vision.”

The more formal intentional communities are unique and vital for they are both a major form of alternative lifestyles and alternative economics. Activists of every stripe need to know about them and to understand the power of community and cooperation these ‘formal’ models offer. They need also to take note that the intentional communities movement embraces “projects where people strive together with a common vision.” In both of these regards, nothing could be more aligned with solidarity economics and most other forms of alternative economics.

Grassroots economic activists are, to a very large extent, unaware of the breadth and depth of the intentional community movement, nor of how much they themselves have in common this movement. Likewise, many of the members in the more formal intentional communities don’t realize how much they have in common with these activists and their varied alternative economic institutions like worker co-ops, food co-ops, land trusts, alternative currency, barter networks, and so forth.

Today there are a lot of different names and frameworks for alternative economic practices and institutions that are quite different from standard profit-making businesses and large corporations. There’s new economy, solidarity economics, community economies, sharing economics, commons economics, sacred economics, and so on. This is a kind of “blessed unrest” that sees very basic connections between political and economic movements for social change but from different perspectives. (Confusing, yes; but major transitional periods in history are very confusing.)

GEO chooses to identify primarily with the “solidarity economic” framework for three reasons. First, it fosters a robust approach to networking through bottom-up, grassroots organizing. Second, its scope takes in a diverse range of empowering institutions and practices, and it is already a coherent global movement. Third, inter-cooperation is the defining feature of Solidarity Economics, not only between humans but with non-humans as well. If we stated it as a formal principle, it would look something like this:

Solidarity Economic enterprises and organizations collaborate to build a just, peace-based, and fully democratic society. They collaborate with a diverse range of other citizen groups to build, and share power in, a fully democratic society whose institutions, resources, and opportunities are equally accessible by all, and where peace-building and peace-making are widely used to prevent and manage conflicts.

Core convictions and core connections

The intentional community movement, solidarity economics, and most of the other approaches to alternative economics share several core convictions. One, that the whole idea of “economics” should be oriented toward cooperation and solidarity between humans and with non-humans. Two, that economic networks need to have strong roots in flesh-and-blood communities. Three, that locals need to be networked across and upward for the sake of increased opportunities, empowerment, ecological balance, competence, and efficiency.

The energy that all of these approaches are putting into making these convictions reality is tending to make political activism deeply economic. Folks are seeing social justice as an economic phenomenon, economic equality as a social dynamic, and both as political. The more they know about each other, the more than can explore collaboration and mutual support.

These connections can’t be missed in the more formal kinds of intentional communities. Members are face-to-face 24/7. Intentional communities are not just social and political institutions. They are full-blooded economic institutions. Just as they are alternative ways of living, they are also alternative ways of “making a living,” primarily through cooperation, ways that “put people and the environment above profit” but not at the expense of being economically unsustainable. As such they have much in common with worker co-operatives, consumer co-operatives (such as food), land trusts, local currencies, permaculture groups, barter systems, gifting, community gardens, and so on.

On the other hand, almost all forms of solidarity economics are involved with some form of “community” as a central focus. The whole thrust of solidarity economics is to ground economics into functioning networks of local communities that are intentionally fashioning common visions locally, regionally, and beyond. Further, many of the solidarity economic activists are deeply interested in forming more formal intentional communities like cooperative households, housing co-operatives, and “communes.”

The FIC strongly shares this wide embrace and emphasis on “community”:

"Communities come in all shapes, sizes, and locations. In addition, they share many similar challenges — such as defining membership, succeeding financially, distributing resources, making decisions, raising children, dividing work equitably, and choosing a standard of living. Many wrestle with questions about right livelihood, spiritual expression, land use, the role of service in their lives, and so on. In various ways members collectively own the properties they use for their living and working together."

Compare this to how SolidarityNYC describes solidarity economics as embracing

"a wide array of economic practices and initiatives that share common values that stand in stark contrast to the values of the dominant economy. Instead of enforcing a culture of cut-throat competition, they build cultures and communities of cooperation. Rather than isolating us from one another, they foster relationships of mutual support and solidarity. In place of centralized structures of control, they move us towards shared responsibility and democratic decision-making. Instead of imposing a single global monoculture, they strengthen the diversity of local cultures and environments. Instead of prioritizing profit over all else, they encourage a commitment to shared humanity best expressed in social, economic, and environmental justice."

So GEO chose to use its Fall 2013 Theme to help both movements see each other and recognize how they are very much fellow-travelers. And this recognition is beginning to happen. A group interested in forming an ecovillage in New Jersey recently reached out to the United States Federation of Worker Co-operatives to request a basic workshop on worker co-ops. Solidarity economic activists in New York City are exploring ways to develop intentional communities there.

Michael Johnson: Entered a Kansas monastery in '63, left in '66; entered law school in NYC in fall of '67 and left in winter of '67; became an 'outside agitator' at Columbia in April of '68 and discovered that the far left can be as top/down as the middle and right...deeply involved in group dynamics and community organizing in NYC '68-'73...bottomed out in Phoenix '73-'76. A member of the desegregation unit of Austin school system '76-'80.Co-founded an intentional community in Staten Island, NY in '80, in part an experiential research center in democratic culture...still there 33 years later...immersed in the worker co-op and solidarity economy movements since 2007 with the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (New England), GEO, and the Community Economies Collective. Right now he is focusing on developing a network of groups committed to exploring personal and cultural transformation--the Becoming the Change project.


Michael Johnson (2013).  Community, Economics, and Solidarity :  Overview for Section I.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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