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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Solidarity Economy Roads

Chapter 5 - The Road of Social Participation and Self-Management

Article type
GEO Original
May 14, 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: Having previously identified the participation of workers in decision-making as the key to the emergence of solidarity in labor and the recuperation of work’s “rich meaning and content,” Razeto deepens and expands his analysis of participation and self-management. A “bottom-up” analysis of management, power, and authority – understood as a gift the subordinated make to those in power – enables a powerful critique of centralization, bureaucracy, delegation, and co-optation. It also supports a strategy of recuperation, decentralization, and social dissemination of power, on the level of both the workplace and the economy and State, in which those subordinated in existing power relations are necessarily the protagonists. Incorporating the principle of subsidiarity, the link is clearly made between participation and solidarity economy, which is characterized by “less separation between directors and directed, a minimal concentration of power, and a maximum deployment of the capacities of all.” - MN]

Chapter 5

The Road of Social Participation and Self-Management

The societal demand for participation: motivation and contents

A fourth road to solidarity economy begins with the search for social participation – participation in the most varied arenas of social life – by people, groups, organizations, and communities. The marginalized, the poor, the young, women, people in general want to participate as protagonists in the organizations to which they belong and in the different spheres of economic, social, political, and cultural life in which important decisions are made that affect their lives.

In contemporary societies and states power and authority have become concentrated in a small number of people and groups, leading to initiatives to increase social participation in various decision-making bodies. For the great majority of people participation is limited to being a functional part of large systems, structures, and organizations, fulfilling a determinate role but having no access to control over them, nor any influence on their objectives, functioning, and overall course. Consequently, people feel alienated and estranged from the systems that make use of them, while they live in a condition of marginalization and estrangement with no chance of having an impact on the systems and structures on which their lives depend.

This situation derives from three sources: the reigning forms of property in the economy, the prevailing institutional regimes in the political order, and the modes of communication in the cultural order. The excessive size of economic, political, and cultural institutions and organizations in contemporary societies has also come to have a powerful influence: human beings are lost in them, feeling like minuscule components of a great de-personalized mass.

These lived experiences of marginalization and estrangement, engender a constant emergence of bottom-up initiatives seeking to spark, promote, and organize social participation at different levels, giving rise to social organizations in which the widest variety of types and modes of functioning are adopted.

As a result of their radical marginalization, the force of concentrated power they confront, and the absolutely preponderant role which the State has come to play in modern societies, people’s searches for participation typically generate adversarial processes and find expression in the form of social struggles, especially focused on the political and institutional arena. Hence the struggle for social participation has come to be understood as part of a larger process of “conquest of power.”

The point of departure for analysis has long been the idea of the State, the institutional form which by its nature concentrates power, the exercise of authority and legitimate violence, and the full responsibility for the maintenance of social order. Given this conceptual starting point, social participation has not found genuine expression (or has not been recognized) except to the degree that it has shown up on the level of political life and state power.

Recently, for different reasons, the belief that the State is the principal arena of participation has weakened, opening up space for the search for new forms of social participation, especially in the zone known as “civil society.” Among the reasons for this weakening is the fact that the democratic States themselves have lacked the power to accommodate social participation at the levels required or demanded by social organizations.

The growing awareness of this structural problem is causing a modification in the perspective within which participation is being sought: rather than as a path of struggle leading to seizure of central power, participation is seen as a force for decentralization and social dissemination of power. This is the tendency to regionalization and the reinforcement of the so-called “local powers,” in which citizens can find possibilities of more direct participation.

Participation understood in this way finds a powerful source of strength in the conviction that it not only directly benefits the people and organizations that exercise it but also enhances the efficiency and the effectiveness of decisions. Programs and action plans are more perfect when aligned with the felt needs of the population and to the extent that the subjects tasked with carrying them out understand and adhere to their objective, aware of their role and place in putting them into practice.

Programs and action plans always have an economic component, even in those cases in which their meaning and direct content is of a social, political, or cultural nature. The making of decisions and the organization of the necessary means for carrying them out is in fact a process of management and administration which, as we know, is both a function and a factor of production. It is precisely in management – as a function and factor of production – that participation introduces a real and significant element of solidarity.

Management, power, and authority

Participation is a process of social integration that occurs at the level of the most complex, delicate, and central of the elements of any organized system, and the most crucial of human and social relations: management and relations of power and authority, respectively.

To deeply understand the meaning of participation and its relation to solidarity we need to examine more carefully the meaning and origin of authority, power, and management, and how they came to be concentrated.

Management1 is expressed in the adoption of decisions relative to the functioning and activity of a given organization; it is the power that manifests in the economy as the capacity to direct and coordinate one’s own action and that of others, integrated in a company or determinate economic structure. We have to do, then, with a factor that is essentially human, a reality that is social and subjective.

The simple and elemental form of power, constitutive of any structure or complex system of management, is a relation between subjects, one of whom is in a position to hold others accountable for carrying out the decisions that emanate from his or her will. It is, then, essentially, a relation of domination and subordination, in which one subject orders and others obey. A hierarchical situation is established, in which the members of an organization are differentiated into director and directed.

Power as such is not an attribute possessed by a subject independently from those over whom it is wielded, it is a relation. Nonetheless, the person wielding power possesses a particular attribute that enables them to make themselves obeyed: authority.

As a social relation, power is not unidirectional. It does not flow only outward from the authority to the subordinates but implies also, and at the same time, a relation of those who are subordinated to the authority in question. Management, as a form of direction, does not take place unless in some way and for some reason those who are supposed to act in accordance with the decisions made by the authority subordinate themselves and obey. Thus is posed the decisive question of the legitimacy of power and authority. The strength and quality of management are at stake here, as much because legitimacy influences the decisions taken as because it influences the degree of precision with which they are carried out.

Abraham Lincoln said, “no man is good enough to govern another man, without the other's consent.”2 Nonetheless, as a social relation of domination and subordination, power can be based on various forces, the fundamental ones being coercion and consent.

On the one hand, those in a superior position dispose of a variety of means – physical and material, administrative and economic, psychological and cultural – by which to make themselves obeyed. On the other, they can make their subordinates voluntarily accept their decisions, make them consent and adhere to the decisions, and even consider them their own.

The greater the degree of conscious and voluntary adhesion of subordinates to a system of management and its decisions, the greater its legitimacy; the more management relies on vertically exercised force and coercion, the less legitimate its authority is perceived to be.

This shows that legitimacy does not emanate from authority itself, it is conferred upon those in authority by those who are subordinated. The attribute of authority is a gift the director receives from the directed. The basis of the legitimacy of authority, then, resides in the fact that each person, no matter how subordinated they may be, is a subject and as such conscious and free, master of themselves, responsible for their own acts. By giving to another the right to decide on one’s own actions, the subject transfers something intimate and substantial of themselves, part of their consciousness and will. The subject thereby reduces the margins of their own freedom while enlarging those of the other. Hence, authority, the attribute which legitimizes the power of the one who gives orders, is built from the ground up.

We see then that power is a relation between distinct subjects possessing complementary attributes: the one giving orders has the authority provided by those who obey, who have the capacity to legitimize authority. The strength or weakness of the director’s power – in other words, the consistency and quality of the nexus between directors and directed – depends on the consistency and quality of their respective attributes. On these depend the distance, closeness, or separation that exists between director and directed. Qualitatively superior connections – those based on consensus and free adhesion – bring the directed closer to the director and vice versa, while relations based on coercion and force separate and counterpose them.

Participation, self-management, and solidarity

Understood in this way, the legitimacy of power and management are susceptible to degrees of perfection. A first level is defined by the simple acceptance of authority and the decisions it makes. Whatever its origin, the fact that subordinates accept an authority without resistance is itself constitutive of some elemental degree of its legitimation.

The delegation of power represents a higher level of legitimacy. To delegate is first to recognize that the person who carries out an activity is naturally entitled to make decisions concerning it; people who possess this primordial right then decide, consciously and voluntarily, to transfer to another the faculty of making decisions about some of their activities, within certain parameters.

Participation in decision-making by those who are managed by others marks an even higher level of legitimation of power. This participation implies a special perfecting of management, as it assures personal involvement in the making of decisions by those who have to carry them out, leading them to acquire a greater understanding of and more information about that which is to be done. It is worth noting, moreover, that participation in management constitutes a true school of management, which incentivizes and cultivates the aptitudes and qualities of numerous members of the organization, enhancing their conscientiousness, will, and freedom as subjects.

Self-management is the highest level of legitimation of authority, in which the management of activities is effected directly by the group of subjects interested in their realization. Here all separation between the director and the directed disappears, because the people who carry out activities are the ones who decide to do them according to their own objectives and respecting certain norms and procedures to which they have autonomously agreed.

From the standpoint of solidarity economy, it is interesting to examine the roles played by participation and self-management in the making of the road along which solidarity is incorporated into the global economy, and how they contribute to the formation and development of economic units and processes that operate on the basis of solidarity.

As forms of legitimation of authority that generate particular modes of relation between director and directed, participation and self-management give rise to, and themselves constitute, special modes of management and direction. Participation can be defined, in its essence, as the cooperation of the directed in the exercise of authority, cooperation in decision-making, or member cooperation in the management system of a complex organization. Self-management is more than this. It is the full exercise of management and direction, in the form of association and solidarity, by all the members of an organization operating as a single social subject.

Understood in this way we can see how participation incorporates solidarity into the economy at whatever level of the organization and economic structure it occurs. Participation makes solidarity present and operational in management, which is a highly relevant and central economic factor and function. In the same way, through self-management solidarity and cooperation are constituted as the managing or leading elements of economic units and processes in which it is established.

Participation and self-management are at once expressions of solidarity and the means by which it is created and reinforced. They are expressions of solidarity in that in and through solidarity an integrating activity occurs which leads people to commit themselves to a common project and enterprise and assume and share responsibilities in its realization and development. Participation and self-management presuppose or configure an associative or communitarian collective subject which reveals and makes felt its consciousness and will, its ideas, objectives, interests, and aspirations, as it makes decisions with respect to activities and processes which concern it.

Participation and self-management create and reinforce ties, relations, and values of solidarity among those who put them into practice in organizations implicated in or affected by that practice, and by the decisions themselves that emanate from this intermediation. Referring to solidarity in the labor process we showed how doing something together and committing ourselves to the realization of common work leads to the establishment of relations of friendship and comradeship between workers who share a task and complement each other’s skills.3 This is also seen, and more intensely, when the shared activity consists of deciding the destiny of the organizations and processes in which it occurs.

We say that the shared activity is carried out even more intensely in this case because management essentially implies a process of constant communication, of exchange of experiences and information, of seeking consensus through the placing in common of each member’s objectives, ideas, interests, and aspirations. An approximation of the consciousness and will of the intervening subjects is produced in the process of participation, as people search for the most appropriate decisions, to the point where a common consciousness and will takes shape. And even when this will is not fully formed, the fact is for a majority decision that predominates over other minority positions to be adopted, those minority positions have to be taken into account and, typically, will influence and to some degree modify the initial will of the promoters of the dominant position.

In sum, and at the most profound level of their meaning, participation and self-management bring cooperation and solidarity to bear on nothing less than the most elevated of human activities: the exercise and experience of freedom. We now consider how this problem presents itself in the particular conditions of contemporary society.

Civil society and political society, bureaucracy and representation

At the start of this chapter we pointed out that power and management are highly concentrated in contemporary societies and economies. By examining how this came to be we can understand the type of relation that has been established between economy and power, and then identify ways of reversing the tendency toward concentration and the role that solidarity economy can play in this process.

The organizing processes that coincide in generating a tendency toward concentration of decision-making power in few hands share two characteristics: the growing complexity of the systems and subsystems through which activities take place, and the progressive expansion in size of organizations.

As a result of the growing complexity of systems and organizations, coordination and management come to require a combination of qualities and specialized knowledge that only a few experts possess. Management is constituted as a technically complex function requiring a particular type of professionalism. Likewise, the great size that companies and organizations have come to have, typically involving significant quantities of people, becomes an obstacle to participation in the adoption of decisions which have to be made in an efficient way in a reasonable time.

Two natural human inclinations come on the scene to influence these structural conditions. On the one hand, the greed for power, on the other, the tendency to shirk responsibilities in the interests of convenience. Though in a certain sense mutually contradictory, these tendencies reinforce each other negatively: the greed for power of some turns out to be functional for the convenience and avoidance of responsibility of others, which in turn encourages the former’s ambition for power.

From the moment that power is highly concentrated it becomes more important to possess: the few who have it obtain very significant privileges and advantages, and the many who do not remain subordinated and confined to very restricted spaces of liberty. At the same time, power becomes harder to obtain. Thence the particular exacerbation in contemporary societies of struggles and competition for power among groups and people who desire it, and the exclusion of everyone else who remain cloistered in their private activities. Struggles among those seeking power tend to further its concentration, because power is lost when it is not held and used. The disinterest of the many facilitates this dynamic; they delegate to those in the struggle for power a very important part of their freedom and their rights to decide.

As a consequence of this dynamic of struggle and concentration, the State centralizes management of the social order, tending to amplify to excess its powers and authorities. At the same time politics is organized as an activity primarily dedicated to the conquest and exercise of power, in which few actively participate. In this way, politics and the State rise above the daily habitual life of the people, constituting a particular political society of great scope and power, which separates itself from and imposes itself on the private social, economic, and cultural activities of so-called civil society.

The democratic ideal represents a search for organic articulation between political society and civil society, in which their separation is overcome by means of the application of the principle of representation of civil society by political society. The aspiration is that the prevailing interests and ideas of civil society will be represented by the government of the State, in its legislative and executive powers, in a relation that is supposed to be guaranteed by the citizens’ delegation of their will to authorities selected through popular election.

This political regime is as functional for those who seek political power as it is for those who have no desire to take on social responsibilities. For the former, it substitutes a civilized institutional pathway for the struggle for power, amplifying at the same time the opportunities for many interested parties to accede to management and administrative activities at some level of the hierarchy. The latter are permitted to delegate their responsibility while receiving a solid justification for their disengagement.

Now, having become the most perfected form of State organization that has ever existed in history, and, probably, ever theoretically conceived by large societies, representative democracy is beginning to show its structural limits and is suffering successive crises in all of its practical conformations. Its principal limitations and problems originate in, or are directly or indirectly related to, the economy and have much to do with the problem of participation. These are problems of representation as much as efficiency.

We can summarize the problem of representation in the following terms:

Representative democracy is a political model for organizing free people, individuals with economic liberty and the capacity of initiative. But in the modern economy individuals capable of economic initiative are few and far between, while large social groups find themselves on the margins of property, lacking ownership of certain fundamental economic factors, and thus relegated to the margins of economic liberty, forming a proletarian mass, subordinated and vitally dependent. Moreover, societies are made up not only of individuals but of groups and social classes, each with its particular functions and interests, each with very different stocks of economic and political power. The inequalities that result from the capitalist organization of economic liberties generate profound divisions in civil society that spill over into political society, producing struggles and social conflicts that the representative State is not always in a position to mediate and resolve. Typically, political power is concentrated in economically powerful sectors, at the same time that very large subaltern groups perceive their interests, aspirations, and culture to be very poorly represented in the State and its institutions.

The problem of efficiency of the State in the exercise of its functions can be posed in this way:

Liberal doctrine supposes that the free play of the market will determine the optimal allocation of resources and the just distribution of revenues, the efficiency of the whole being guaranteed by the lack of state interference in its functioning. Historical reality contradicts this belief and the State has come to assume ever greater functions and responsibilities. Public bureaucracy has developed significantly in modern States, with the consolidation of permanent groups of functionaries that escape the control of representative mechanisms and pursue their own interests, in contradiction with the postulated representativity of the State. Together with the principle and system of representation a principle and system of bureaucracy emerges which obtains its legitimacy not from the will of the citizens but from the technical competencies it demonstrates and the efficiency it shows in the exercise of its functions. This bureaucratic element tends to lead to disproportionate growth of the State, which finds in the expansion of its public functions and activities an opportunity to gain increasing growing social and economic affirmation.

Thus, demands for social participation can not be adequately satisfied in the framework of the given economic and political structures without profound structural transformations and processes tending to democratization of the economy as much as the State.

To begin with, an energetic recuperation of the theme of liberty and the value of the person seems necessary. If the economy and democracy are in crisis it is not due to an excess of individual liberties but to restrictions and insufficiencies that diminish them.

Naturally, the problem of liberty is not posed in the terms of liberalism. Today the affirmation of personal freedoms must confront the problems of bureaucracy, massification, concentration of power, and marginalization with respect to the indispensable factors needed for the development of creative initiatives. The challenge is to extend these freedoms to social sectors that have never known them, and to develop individuals in whom it is not the possessive and competitive spirit that is dominant but the consciousness of solidarity.

For the subordinated multitudes the road to individual freedom runs, largely, through the formation of intermediary organizations, communities, and associations through which they can gather the resources and factors necessary for the deployment of economic projects and initiatives in which to expand management capacities and competencies they have not previously had to develop.

The strengthening of civil society, the expansion of its autonomy with respect to political society, the democratization of the economy and the market, the shrinking of the State in its scale and functions, the decentralization of power – all of these are also necessary, it seems. Participation constitutes a decisive element in the direction of all of these processes, and solidarity economy makes an effective contribution.

Building solidarity economy through participation

We now see how solidarity economy is built through participation and how this can be a road of expansion of spaces of liberty, strengthening of civil society, democratization of the economy and the State, and decentralization and dissemination of power in society.

The participation of workers in the management of enterprises, of communities in the processes of development that affect them, of citizens in the decisions of the public sector, etc., implies a progressive expansion of the field of action and responsibility of the subordinated, increasing the control they exert over their own living conditions. These are processes through which those with the capacity to delegate the attribute of authority instead recuperate it for themselves. As a result of participation, power becomes increasingly dispersed and decentralized.

In reality, the only truly effective mode of decentralization and dispersion of power is its progressive recuperation by those who don’t possess it. If power is not an inherent attribute of those who possess it, then they are not the ones who can distribute it. The effective decentralization of power has to be accomplished from the bottom up, not from the top down. Certainly, if management and direction were delegated to others by the few who perform them more people could be involved in them; but they would only be acting in the name of and at the order of those few who conferred the attributes upon them. They would have to account to them for their activities and could have the attributes revoked should they adopt decisions that do not correspond to the desires and intentions of those directing them. To be clear: participation should not be confused with cooptation.

Of course, if power is a social relation, its social dissemination could be facilitated to the extent that those in whose hands it is concentrated were willing to share it and curtail their own attributes. While the recuperation of power by subordinates does not have to be achieved through conflict, they will always be the protagonists of the process. Participation, like liberty, is a process inherent to the subject who assumes it, the one who develops and grows through its practice.

That said, a process of social diffusion of power effected in this way does not give rise to atomization and dispersion of society into independent subjects lacking all articulation, but rather to a new type of order and organization of society, in which social order is constructed from the bottom up. True, each individual recuperates control and power over activities and experiences which can be realized independently; but not only these require direction. Many activities can not be realized by people on their own but require the organization and association of various interested people, each contributing according to their distinct capacities and skills. Naturally, the management and direction of activities appertain to the group, which can establish some form of decision-making system that combines delegation and participation in a proportion that they consider appropriate and efficient. Other activities, and more ambitious processes, require the joint operation of various groups and organizations, coordinating and cooperating in some way, in which some directive functions will be necessary. Society is articulated from the bottom up on this road of aggregation and integration of wills, finally reaching the level of global society where decisions made are of interest to and affect everyone in the collective.

In this bottom up construction of life and social order, management is organized according to the criterion of subsidiarity: everything that can be done by an individual or small group should be managed by that individual or group; those activities that can not be realized by the smaller organization but require the joint work of people and social organizations on a broader level will be managed on that level. Thus, social order is built up from the small to the large, in conformity with the criterion according to which the management of activities falls to the members at each level of organization that has a meaningful unity. This is the most perfect form of construction of social order, because it permits the greatest development of capacities and the maximum deployment of potentialities of each person and community.

In the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI defines the principle of subsidiarity in the following terms: “it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do...”4 This is precisely because the performance and direction of activities and processes embody the capacities of those who carry them out and direct them; on the contrary, if someone who could carry out and direct an activity does not do it but rather transfers or delegates the responsibility to a higher-level organization, it will be the latter that sees its forces amplified and its power augmented, while the former will lose capacity through atrophy, laying the bases for a relation of domination and subordination. The result: a diminution of liberty in the person or small community and a rise in power for those who manage the larger society.

The solidarity economy is distinguished by the bottom up mode of organization and development in which various people or multitudes organize and cooperate to realize determined activities, gathering the capacities and resources necessary for organizing and carrying out that which a person alone is in no position to do.

In the solidarity economy this kind of cooperation takes a horizontal form, without the establishment of relations of domination and subordination, because the participants in an activity constitute an association or shared community, a collective subject, and all who comprise it participate in its activity and management.

This principle of participation and solidarity complements and perfects the principle of subsidiarity, which by itself is not sufficient to assure people’s growth because even if an organization is directed internally and does not delegate responsibility for what it can do itself, if there exists a separation in the organization between those who carry out the work and those who direct it, the same effect occurs: over-empowerment of those on top and arrested development of those who remain subordinated.

As solidarity economy is characterized by a minimum of delegation and a maximum of participation, a social and political order is built with less separation between directors and directed, a minimal concentration of power, and a maximum deployment of the capacities of all. The logic of participation leads to the road of the solidarity economy, a road that is traveled by the practice of participation itself.

But, can it not be said that this whole conception of participation and cooperation in the exercise of management is utopian, given that the real people called upon to participate lack the capacities and competencies required for efficient management, and often even lack the interest and will to participate? We have to recognize this reality. Our analysis has shown, however, the exact cause of the situation in which people’s capacities are subdued and limited, and their desires and will to participate are constrained: the concentration of power and the lack of participation. So the argument against participation is really another reason for organizing – with urgency and priority – a process that will generate both participation and the people’s capacity and interest to make it happen.

Moreover, taking into account the importance and priority of human development that is achieved through participation, we can justify some transitory losses of efficiency with respect to the material processes implied. What is important to take away from this is the fact that participation should be built methodically and constructively, since in the initial phases when people and groups present very low levels of capacity for carrying out the work the costs in terms of efficiency can turn out to be excessive. It is optimal, then, to advance in participation from the small to the large, the lower to the upper, in a process of learning and progressive extension of management capacities and competencies.

The road of participation follows an ascending course in which the first steps are riskier and more difficult that those that follow. The key is to establish participation and take on its burden initially at levels that are not so complex as to make it impossible for people and groups to come to terms and make decisions in an adequate way, but sufficiently demanding as to generate a challenge and stress that causes participants to expand their capacities.


1 Razeto distinguishes between gestión which refers to the management and supervision of an enterprise, and dirección, which he uses in the broadest sense of the term, “as a function of decision-making in an institution and of conducting or guiding, counterposed to being directed, and as a consequence, subordinated.” (personal communication, April 6, 2019) - MN

2 Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. October 16, 1854 - MN

3 See Chapter 4, The Road of Labor. (MN)


Read: Chapter 6 - The Road of Transformational Action and Social Change


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Luis Razeto Migliaro (2019).  Solidarity Economy Roads:  Chapter 5 - The Road of Social Participation and Self-Management.  Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO).

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