Solidarity Economy Alternative Emerging Theory and Practice

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Reclaiming the tradition of Ubuntu

Again, this social individualism is not new. In many ways it is a reconnection, from the circumstances of struggling in and against 21st-century capitalism, with the ethical tradition of Ubuntu. ‘You are a person because of other people,’ as a delegate to the Solidarity Economy Conference that led to this book put it. Or as Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains: ‘Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness.’ (2000)

By naming this creative capacity, this characteristic of all of humanity, as a commons, an highlighting its social as well as individual character and the associative, social conditions of its realisation, we also lay the basis for reclaiming the products of this capacity. These products include those that in a certain sense have been appropriated by the state or by capital – such as ‘social capital’ and other forms of ‘free labour’ that are so vital to today’s informational capitalism.

Another implication for our own organisations, political and economic, is the importance of building into them the nurturing and development of this commons. We need to do this in both a prefigurative sense and as an immediate means of strengthening their transformative capacity.

The perspective of labour as a commons opens up ways of seeing and understanding the wider potential of existing practices in the solidarity economy in achieving transformative gains in the broader social, public and private economy. An example here would be the importance of learning through and reflecting on practice; thinking of creativity as a commons leads to asking how we could envisage economic arrangements that build self-development, education, reflection, and regeneration into daily life across what is now divided into education, work, consumption, and personal life.

Understanding labour and the potential of human creativity as a commons changes our view of employment. We can see this already in practice in parts of the solidarity economy where workers are never seen as ‘redundant’, and the aim is always redeployment and retraining. We also see how the scandalous waste of human creativity now evident in capitalist economies across the world has been a driving motive in the explosion of resistance from 2011 onwards, led often by the young unemployed (Mason 2012).

Human creativity as a commons also points to the importance of thinking at many different levels of economic and social relations, and of interconnecting them. So it leads to asking what institutional conditions for nurturing and realising creativity might mean at a micro level for how enterprises or urban spaces, for example, are organised; what it might mean at a macro level in terms of, for example, a means of livelihood beyond or autonomous from waged labour (what some have called ‘a basic wage’); and what it could mean at a mix of micro and macro levels – for example, in terms of legislative frameworks for the organisation of time (Coote 2010).

In this way, seeing labour as a commons challenges tendencies towards enterprise or community egoism or atomism (a tendency in parts of the social economy as well as in capitalist enterprises), and emphasises the importance of solidarity and flows of mutuality between different elements of attempts at a solidarity and commons-based economy. More generally, it provides the basis for a strong antidote to the possessive individualism that has been so rampant in recent years, without counterposing a reified collectivism (Macpherson 1964).

    1. Institutional design

A further tool generated by the idea of human creativity as a commons is the means of institutional flexibility to negotiate and live permanently with the tensions between the collaborative dimension of creativity and the varying necessity for individual autonomy, introversion, and self-reflexivity. This flexibility and ability to value the duality of human creativity and therefore social well-being is often missing not only from a statist understanding of socialism but from many conceptions of collectivity in the labour and co-operative movements.

The creative commons licence is a good illustration of how it is possible to recognise and value the dimension of individual creativity (and with it a certain sense of ownership) and at the same time protect both the individual and the wider community against the worst consequences of taking a creation out of the commons and into the commodity market (Berlinguer in this volume).

A combination of these tools could help with institutional design in the solidarity economy, able to deal with a complex of factors. Here I can draw from my own experience of a solidarity economy media enterprise, Red Pepper magazine, an institution based on a multiplicity of interconnecting interests. Its organisational design has to recognise a diversity of sources of support, monetary and in kind, some from organisations and some from individuals, all of whom expect some accountability. It also has to recognise several sources of creativity, the importance of a collaborative editorial process, the dimension of individual decision-making at different levels of the project, and the need for a relatively coherent identity. The notion of creativity as a commons seems key to developing a sufficiently flexible, transparent, and constantly negotiable form of governance to deal with this complex combination of interests and imperatives.

  1. The creativity of labour in historical perspective

Before we get carried away with designing a system of co-operative labour, like latter-day Owenites, we must follow the familiar but wise adage that men and women make their own history but not in conditions of their choosing. What conditions do we inherit that shaped the character and consciousness of the struggle for the realisation of human creativity? In this section I want to situate the changing practical understandings of labour today in the context of a transition opened up by the rebellions of the late 1960s and early 1970s and by the first signs of financialisation, both of which marked and in different ways produced the breakdown of the post-war settlement.

I will draw on the work of two political economists whose work is grounded in studies of capitalism in the longue durée, namely Carlota Perez and Giovanni Arrighi.

Perez focuses on the relationship between financial cycles and the emergence of what she calls a techno-economic paradigm. Such a paradigm emerges through a process of connected innovations leading to a technological revolution that in turn transforms behaviour, activity, and organisation across the economy and eventually society, including patterns of consumption, and the resolution of social and environmental challenges (Perez 2003, 2009). She does not explicitly discuss the issue of labour or social movements beyond an implied reference to the importance of public pressure on governments. However, the scope of her notion of a techno-economic paradigm provides an excellent framework for developing grounded ideas about the potential of labour as human creativity for a new mode of economic development.

Arrighi, too, has a theory of financial cycles, which concerns the differing institutional and geo-political interrelationships characteristic of each cycle. For the purpose of this chapter, the strength of Arrighi’s argument lies in his analysis of the historically varying role of social movements in relation to financial crises. Particularly significant here is his theory of the distinctive importance of the rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s both for the origins of contemporary financialisation and for the irreversible changes in relations between management and labour, men and women, colonised and coloniser (Arrighi 2004, 1999).

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