Solidarity Economy Alternative Emerging Theory and Practice

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Vulnerability to corporate power

This is to leap ahead. My purpose at this stage is to emphasise how the absence in social democratic politics of a self-conscious ally on the inside of production contributed to the ease with which, from the 1980s onwards, the corporate drivers of financialisation cut through the system of social provision and protection instituted in the aftermath of the war against fascism. Without such a knowing and organised ally with shared goals active on the inside of both private and public economies, governments of social reform were vulnerable to corporate pressure, and defenceless in the face of the corporate restructuring of production that was central to this process of financialisation.7 The growing power and mobility of transnational corporations provided the decisive ‘push’ factor, pursuing profits across borders, also in expanding financial markets, and fleeing the restraints, pressures, and obligations of place (Barnett and Müller 1974).

Governments of both left and right deferred to corporate power – though they were not without levers to challenge the process had there been political confidence in a different direction for production. Corporations have to invest somewhere; they also need markets, and depend on governments for infrastructure and even for subsidies. But without a sustained and productive source of power on the inside, the possibilities for deploying these external and national government levers to control this ‘meso’ level of economic power was limited (Holland 1975; Pantich and Leys 1997; Callaghan 2000).

    1. An economic underpinning for democratic politics

There are lessons to be learnt from this for how we think and organise vis-à-vis production. But these lessons cannot involve a return with hindsight to using the government instruments available in the post-war years, or to many of the forms of trade union organisation that were effective then. State institutions have been dramatically reshaped over the past twenty years throughout the US-dominated world. Behind the dismantling of the welfare state and the marketisation of its material core of public utilities and services lies the way in which corporations, often through consultants of various kinds, have effectively occupied governmental institutions, dramatically and possibly mortally in the US and UK, destroying democratic politics as we have known it (Leys 2002; Crouch 2011; Leys and Slater 2012).

The practical search for forms of political economy that strengthen democratic politics has become urgent, therefore, in the face of economic actors whose power is beyond the reach of liberal democratic institutions alone. This requires a democratisation of democracy. It requires reconfiguring the relationship between politics and economics so that democratic politics is not paralysed by corporate power. Such a goal points to working for a politics embedded in economic relations that, in the words of the First Brazilian Solidarity Conference, puts ‘the whole human being, rather than private capital, at the centre of economic development’.(E. Mance in this volume) At the root of this must be a conceptualisation of labour – and with it, of knowledge and of equality. This requires a view of labour as other than a mere factor of production, and of workers’ creative capacity as other than alienated as a commodity (Lebowitz 2008).

The emphasis on the struggle to overcome alienation and realise human creative potential continues to be fundamental to attempts, old and new, to create democratic, associational alternatives to capitalism. The founding principles of the Mondragon co-operatives, for instance, make this clear in their declaration in their Basic Principles under the heading 'Labour Sovereignty ' that ‘labour is the principal factor for transforming nature, society, and human beings themselves’.(The Basic Principles of Mondragon 1987 ) This reconceptualisation of the importance of labour is possible because a new understanding of human creativity has spread in practical ways in recent decades and is now, for many social, cultural and technological reasons, resurging in new ways whose dynamic remains uncertain.

  1. From labour as commodity to labour as a common?

Resistance to alienation takes many forms: from a refusal to work, humour, sabotage, and conventional trade unionism to a variety of struggles for and experiments with alternatives in and against state and market. An alternative conception of labour, as part of a wider alternative economics, will help us to understand and where appropriate generalise from and explore the potential of these scattered experiences, whether in public, private, or civil spheres.

Have theoretical tools been developed in other contexts of the search for an alternative socially framed economics, that can help with such a rethinking?

    1. Using the framework of the commons

The growing movement of thought and the diverse initiatives around the idea of the commons provide one source of inspiration worth exploring (though not a ready-made framework to be applied in a simplistic way).

The scope of commons thinking has widened tremendously in reaction to the incessant drive to commodify goods that were previously held in common, accessible to all and the responsibility of all. These range from natural resources and services that historically have been taken out of the capitalist market and organised through public or civic organisations, such as health, education, science and, more generally, knowledge (libraries and archives, for example), to the newly created digital commons, under constant threat of new enclosures.

At first sight, labour, understood in terms of the application of the human capacity to create, would seem to be profoundly individual and therefore inimical to organisation as a commons. On further reflection, though, human creativity, with its individual and social dimensions inextricably intertwined, is a distinctive commons that is key to the possibility of a commons-based political economy.

A writer and activist on the commons, Tomasso Fattori, traces the shared characteristics that make the framework of the commons useful for understanding the character of diverse phenomena, without artificially squeezing them into a category implying homogeneity. In an article reflecting on the wider significance of the successful struggle for the referendum vote in Italy to defend water as a commons (‘a political and cultural revolution on the commons,’ as he describes it), Fattori says: ‘The commons are what is considered essential for life, understood not merely in the biological sense. They are the structures which connect individuals to one another, tangible or intangible elements that we all have in common and which make us members of a society, not isolated entities in competition with each other. Elements that we maintain or reproduce together, according to rules established by the community: an area to be rescued from the decision-making of the post-democratic élite and which needs to be self-governed through forms of participative democracy’ (2011).

In the light of these reflections, does it make sense, and is it useful, to think of labour as a commons?

Consider the human capacity to create, with Fattori’s definition in mind. It is shared by all humanity – indeed, it is what makes us human; it is a powerful social force, a necessary condition of the life of many other commons; and, though individual-centred, also socially shaped. Dependent in good part on the nature of education, culture, and the distribution of wealth, it can be nurtured and developed or suppressed, undeveloped and wasted. It is socially realised (whether or not this distributed potential is achieved depends on the nature of the social relations of production, communication and distribution), and socially benefited from (who in society benefits from the creativity of others again depends on the economic, political and social relations).

Perhaps we could draw on Marx’s contrast between the bee and the architect indirectly to reinforce the point about human creativity as a particular kind of commons. If we were like bees, then we and our product might be part of the natural commons – with bee keepers as the custodians and cultivators of the commons. But as the equivalent of architects, with the capacity to imagine and to create according to our imagination, we embody a different kind of commons: the commons of creativity.

Of course, human creativity is not new. But mass awareness – self-awareness and full social recognition – of creativity as a universal potential is the result of the steady, albeit uneven, rise over the past 40 years or so of an insistence, in practice, on cultural equality, besides the long tradition of demands for economic and political equality. Additionally, the widespread transcendence of a dichotomy between individual and collective and the emergence of both a social individualism and an associational understanding of collective organisation has helped to lay the basis of understanding creativity as a commons.

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