Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Solidarity Economy: An Alternative to Capitalism?

Last week I went to this event – a discussion about the solidarity economy. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Partly in response to the Westminster political situation, where the Labour leadership is weakly held by a left social democrat with a touching faith in the ability of Parliamentary politics to bring about real and lasting social, economic and political change, despite all the historical evidence to the contrary. It seems to me that it’s unlikely that a Corbyn-led Labour Party can win a majority in Parliament; but even if it does, I find it hard to be optimistic that the ability to legislate will translate into actual power. That quote of Gramsci’s about the state being just the forward trench of capitalist power (which unfortunately I can't find at the moment) seems appropriate.

And I’ve also been reading lots of stuff that points in the direction of solidarity economics – Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism, various things by Michel Bauwens, and this rather good digest (Techno-Utopianism, Counterfeit and Real) by Kevin Carson. I’ve had the tiniest dip into Negri and his ideas about ‘Exodus’, which are at once intriguing and semi-incomprehensible – other people’s paraphrases are easier to understand.

 It seems to point in the direction of a future socialism growing within the body of capitalism, just as capitalism grew within the body of “feudal society” until it was ready to take political power. Mason, and Carson, and several others, seem to be arguing that the power of technology (3D-printing, the internet, smartphones, etc.) makes this possible in a way that it hasn’t been before. Maybe building things – specifically, economic entities like co-ops and exchanges and so on – is a better place to put energy, because it they do get built they’ll be there whoever wins the next election and the one after.
The evening was nice enough. There were some cheerful upbeat presentations of nice projects that were doing well, or were just starting out but sounded like they deserved to do well. Community Land Trusts, community benefit companies, and shared-ownership goats, multi-stakeholder co-ops, and so on.

Things that I noted were:

One of the speakers – (Tony Greenham, Director of Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing Programme at the Royal Society of Arts) wondered aloud if it mattered what this fuzzy-edged phenomenon was called. Would ‘solidarity economy’ sound too…left-wing, and put off some people who might be otherwise enthusiastic? Like Transition Town types, for example, who like resilience and localism but are put off by all those clenched fists and red flags?
It was only a passing comment, and it wasn’t at all representative of the tenor of the meeting – other speakers were insistent that this emerging movement was a political thing – but I think it goes to the heart of one of the essential ambiguities in ‘solidarity economy’ and also the heart of my uncertainty about it.

What we call this thing will shape it. ‘Sharing Economy’ and ‘Collaborative Consumption’ are now, I think, irretrievably lost. They now refer to platform capitalism and ‘servitization’, not anything outside or antagonistic to capitalism. If we use another term that’s more palatable for ‘solidarity economy’ then it will be extended and shifted to include other stuff like that. This is similar to the mechanism whereby, if briefly, David Cameron managed to co-opt civil society support groups into a substitute for and assault on the welfare state.

I have a more serious concern than the name, though. I can’t help wondering whether the ‘solidarity economy’ will become a pit-prop for capitalism rather than something that will undermine, grow within and ultimately supersede it. After all, capitalism has always managed to sit next to non-capitalist forms of production. The most glaring example, to which socialist-feminists drew attention, was the way in which the ‘social reproduction of labour’ – getting the workers fed and cleaned and ready to go back to work again – was carried out in the sphere of the household/family, outside the terms of capitalist value creation. There were no wages for housework. Something similar happens in some places (Thailand, for example) with subsistence farming alongside capitalist industry. Workers can grow some food for themselves and thus the wage rate that the market will bear can be lower, because it doesn’t need to cover the full cost of feeding those workers. The relationship between the non-capitalist slave-traders of Africa and the Atlantic economy of capitalist agriculture might be another example.

So the solidarity economy could be more of a sticking-plaster or a safety-valve for capitalism, rather than the seeds of something that will eat it from within. Co-ops and community benefit companies can take over the labour-intensive, low-margin activities that capitalism can’t do all that well or all that profitably – social care, domestic work and ‘tasks’, car-washing without machines. Capitalism can keep high-tech manufacturing, and finance.

Does this really matter, if at least some people get to run their own decently managed employment? Yes, it does. Capitalism inherently makes for a more unequal society, and that makes everyone more miserable. Capitalism thrives and depends on the creation of unmet desires – unhappiness. And its financial model absolutely requires growth without end, which is in principle incompatible with a finite planet and in practice undermining the chances that humanity will ever find a way to leave within the constraints of our environment. We really do need to put an end to it and replace it with something better, not save it from itself.

I think what follows from this is that, as a minimum, solidarity economy activities need to be consciously about something bigger than themselves.  They ought to be located within the fabric and the context of a wider movement for social change that’s about equality, empowerment, democracy and sustainability. Worker-managers in the solidarity-economy organisations ought to know why what they are doing is important, so that they can do the things that matter better. If the wider movement is going to support them, with our wallets and with our campaigns (for example, for something like that Spanish social procurement directive), then we have a right to expect something more than a new generation of small business entrepreneurs.

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