The second sphere of struggle against the alienation of labour are commercial initiatives with a social purpose. These exist in an uneasy relationship with the capitalist market – part of the market but with goals that go beyond it. This involves enterprises entering the market with social goals, either in terms of the purposes of their production or services, the way they are organised, and/or the way they are owned or financed. Enterprises of this kind have existed throughout the past century in a variety of forms – including the co-operative movement, mutuals, and not-for-profit companies – which have until recently been marginalised and sometimes corrupted.
The social goals of these kinds of enterprises have been under relentless pressure from the tendencies of the capitalist market towards centralisation and concentration, and the emphasis on economies of scale in both market and state. A part of the transition pointed to earlier in this chapter has involved a distinct trend, visible across the economy, towards decentralised, distributed production that creates potentially favourable – but also ambivalent – conditions for socially purposeful and even transformative enterprises, or enterprises associated with movements for social change, to grow once again.
The tendencies of capitalist markets towards concentration and centralisation have not suddenly abated. On the contrary, in terms of finance and also contracts with the public sector, to cite but two key areas, the tendencies towards monopoly continue apace. But energy and resource scarcity, the opportunities for new markets in diversified niche products, and the lowering of set-up, co-ordination and transaction costs resulting from the ICT revolution have all meant that decentralised production units are generally the most economical. The emphasis in business is now on systems and networks (Bauwens 2012; Castells 2000; Benkler 2006and Berlinguer in this volume). This context of distributed or decentralised production is, as many have pointed out, a disputed terrain, marked by a division that can be crudely described as between contexts where control is firmly vested with companies driven by profit and on the other hand those forms of co-ordination where community or social values predominate.
This contested terrain is also evident in the subcontracting of public services to competing companies, including sometimes parts of the public sector itself, transformative solidarity enterprises or apolitical non-profit companies of various kinds, as well as profit-seeking corporations. Here a variety of experiments are under way involving new and hesitant alliances between parts of the solidarity economy, trade unions, and municipalities to effectively recreate a chain of public or social value10 (Olin-Wright 2010; Murray 2012; Wainwright 2012).
The conflict is most significant in the sphere of immaterial production, where, on the one hand, companies such as Google and Facebook use business models that do not return value to those who create it, and, on the other, there is commons peer-to-peer production in which value is created by productive users or ‘produsers’ in a shared innovation commons of knowledge, code or design (Bauwens 2012). Experimental forms of production and design are now being developed that apply many of the principles, including new institutional design, from this sphere of immaterial commons production to manufacturing. An example of this is Marcin Jakubowsky’s Open Source Ecology Project. (Bauens 2012 www.opensourceecology.org)
The final feature of the context for this sphere of labour as a commons in and against the market is the way in which the financial crisis has led to widespread interest in the sustainability of mutual and peer-to-peer models of finance. Mutual forms of finance have proved generally more resilient, with peer-to-peer finance on the rise (Haldane 2012). But most important for our argument is that these forms of finance are far more likely to be closely related to production itself and to be more easily subject to democratic control, including responding to the conditions that enable creativity and solidarity to flourish. Exemplary here is the way was the way that in the formative years of the Mondragon federation of co-operatives, the development bank at the heart of the federation supported individual co-operatives to be able to flourish at different stages of their development. Another example is the way in which an extensive network of credit unions in Quebec support co-operative and other social enterprises (Murray 2012).
Again, the organisation of knowledge is a central issue. Two dimensions of this are important. The first is a strong and common stress on education, with doing, training, and mentoring being built into the culture and regular routine of the enterprise. The growth of enterprises with a transformative or at least vital vision has often involved an associated development of all kinds of collaborative learning, colleges, distance, and online learning.
Secondly, a knowledge commons is an increasingly important part of the shared infrastructure of these enterprises, and this includes knowledge about the needs, desires and values of their market. In this sense, the possibilities of networking relationships between users/ consumers and producers, which are enabled by the new technology but also have their roots in a critical consumer culture, are changing the whole nature of market mechanisms. They make the classical reliance on price as the key signal of market information somewhat out of sync with a reality of complex social information flows. Are we seeing here the emergence of decentralised planning, alongside distributed production, and with it enhanced possibilities for a democratic socialising of the market without a centralised planning system? The organisation of knowledge is central to such possibilities.
The creative labour of politics?
Pursuing the thread of creative labour into the sphere of political change, the movements of recent years have in practice been challenging politics as a specialist profession, the basis of the political class ‘above’ society. The process by which politics has become a specialised form of managerial and media-centred labour in recent decades is closely associated with the corporate takeover of politics described in the introduction. As this exhaustion of existing representative forms of democracy has become more and more visible, more hollowed out both by the pressures of the market and the opaque nature of international governance, people working for social change have increasingly abandoned strategies reliant on organising through political parties, demanding simply that governments act on their behalf. Instead they are applying human creativity to daily forms of self-government, collaborating to find solutions to urgent social and environmental needs, or at least to illustrate a direction for the democratisation of democracy. They are also taking direct action to influence public opinion through symbolic action around a clear and strategic message. In this way, they autonomously rather than through the party political system, influence the mainstream political agenda.11
‘Don’t demand, occupy!’ sums up the ethos, especially since ‘occupy’ does not just imply passive disobedience but action to make something happen, for example setting up a housing co-op in squatted buildings, keeping open a centre for old people, setting up a print or food co-operative. Movements like the Brazilian Forum of the Solidarity Economy, politically committed NGOs such as COPAC (Co-operatives and Policy Alternatives Center) in SA, or the more recently formed USSEN (U.S. Solidarity Economic Network) coming out of the US Social Forum in 2007 are all instances of this politics by example (Mance,, Satgar 2008; Esteves, Satgoor in this volume). It is now a common feature of all kinds of movements, especially those that confront the power of big business, to bring together a combination of educational campaigns and working economic alternatives plus, sometimes, focused pressure on government.12
In this contrast between the activities of the political class and those engaged not simply in protesting but inventing in practice a form of resistance centred on creating alternative solutions – however partial or experimental – we see the contrast between politics as reproduction and politics as transformation. Each makes very different assumptions about the labour of politics and the nature and capacities of citizens. Robert Michels, though writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, described the assumptions that nevertheless underpin the behaviour of today’s political class (1966). He outlined what he believed to be in effect an unavoidable application of scientific management to politics involving a specialised expertise owned by a professional elite who, whatever the formal democratic procedures, become autonomous from the ‘masses’. These are understood as passive in their knowledge, capable of knowing only with which elite their interests lie. Politics is thus in effect the last redoubt of a Fordist methodology, though frequently glossed with post-modern make-believe.
What has happened episodically from the late 1960s onwards is a redefinition of politics through practice, with a challenging of the boundaries between personal and political, politics and economics, the material and the cultural. This process of redefinition has refused to respect the institutions of politics as enclosed, protected, and ‘above’ the rest of society. In a sense, following the metaphor of production, it aspires to overcoming the historic alienation of the capacity for self-government institutionalised in the liberal understanding of representative politics that reduces popular participation to the periodic vote.
The result has been a creative but uneven experience of all kinds of hybrid forms of democracy: participatory combined with representative, and sometimes plebiscitary democracy too. These popular democratic forms, stemming as they do from a belief in the creative capacities of the 99 per cent, have usually been combined with a systematic seriousness about popular education as a foundation for a new politics. What has only rarely been achieved, however, or even experimented with, is underpinning attempts at deeper political democracy with democratic forms of production (Baerlie, Dagnino13).
This returns us to the challenge of reconfiguring the relationship between politics and economics so that democratic politics is not paralysed by corporate power. Here lies the political importance of the solidarity economy, not simply as a sector or part of a sector between market and state but as a concept identifying all those struggles and initiatives that move beyond protest and beyond amelioration to demonstrate in practice – and in struggle – the possibility of a mode of production with human creativity and solidarity at its core.
Besides the determined and creative editing of Vishwas Satgar and the stimulating collaboration of all those involved in the Solidarity Economy Conference of 2011, I want to thank Roy Bhaskar, Daniel Chavez, Robin Murray, Carlota Perez, Steve Platt and Jane Shallice either for direct comments on earlier drafts, or discussions which have enriched my work.