Announcing: The Solidarity Economy Network
The overall structure of the system is characterized by the hegemony of the large corporation and the centralized government agency; the character of the system as a whole is still determined by the corporate-state nexus, and the commanding heights of the system are controlled by state capitalist elites. Cooperatives and other alternative economic ventures find themselves swimming in a capitalist sea; because of their fragmentation from each other, their minimal systemic influence bears no relation to their actual numerical importance.
In an early blog post, "Building the Structure of the New Society in the Shell of the Old," I wrote:
The solution is to promote as much consolidation as possible within the counter-economy. We need to get back to the job of "building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old." A great deal of production and consumption already takes place within the social or gift economy, self-employment, barter, etc. The linkages need to be increased and strengthened between those involved in consumers' and producers' co-ops, self-employment, LETS systems, home gardening and other household production, informal barter, etc. What economic counter-institutions already exist need to start functioning as a cohesive counter-economy.
As Hernando de Soto has pointed out, the resources already available to us are enormous. If we could leverage and mobilize them suffiiciently, they might be made to function as a counterweight to the capitalist economy....
A key objective should be building the secondary institutions we need to make the resources we already have more usable. Most people engage in a great deal of informal production to meet their own needs, but lack either access or awareness of the institutional framework by which they might cooperate and exchange with others involved in similar activities. Expanding LETS systems and increasing public awareness of them is vital....
Ultimately, we need a cooperative alternative to the capitalists' banking system, to increase the cooperative economy's access to its own mutual credit.
One problem in achieving such consolidation is the sheer volume and diversity of the networked society: the information overload involved in keeping track of just what movements and ventures are out there. The only possibility for overcoming this, in my opinion, is 1) a common technical architecture for communications and exchange; and 2) organizationally, some sort of clearinghouse function for bringing the myriad bits and pieces of the alternative economy together, or at least facilitate their finding each other.
Unfortunately, the problem is not the absence of such technical architectures and umbrella organizations, but the proliferation of them. No single framework has emerged as the standard. For example, there are more concrete projects out there than I can account for providing encrypted electronic alternative currencies, P2P credit systems outside of the state capitalist banking system, etc. Just about any of them, if it could come to the top through some sort of invisible hand mechanism and become widely known among all the sub-movements out there, would be serviceable as a structure for exchange within the alternative economy. But none of them has. There are lots of good projects based on promising technology, that are largely unheard of outside a small subculture of devotees. Likewise, there are lots of attempts at creating federal organizations of worker cooperatives, intentional communities, LETS systems, and the like, many of them self-consciously aimed at providing an umbrella organization for the larger alternative economy. But again, they coexist as dozens of separate ghettoes.
One thing that might make a difference is the united support of some particular federal organization by a number of major movements within the alternative economy, so that together they might emerge as an organizational core around which the rest of the movement could coalesce. That was the approach taken by the I.W.W.'s Chicago organizing convention in 1905--otherwise known as "The Continental Congress of the Working Class." Big Bill Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners, which formed the actual labor nucleus of the movement, was joined by De Leon of the Socialist Labor Party and Debs of the American Socialist Party, along with representatives of other radical unions--not to mention the charismatic figure of Mother Jones, whose presence provided the movement with something like "the Pope's divisions" in moral weight.
Given all this prefatory material, you can understand why I was heartened to learn of this new attempt at creating an umbrella organization for the alternative economy: the Solidarity Economy Network. It emerged as a relatively low-visibility movement from a series of Solidarity Economy caucuses at the June U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta. But there's reason to hope it will emerge from its obscurity.
For example, I'm heartened in part by some of the names and organizations represented on the Coordinating Committee. Among many others are these that I recognized:
Dan Swinney of the Center for Labor and Community Research
Jessica Gordon Nembhard and Ethan Miller of Grassroots Economic Organizing
Melissa Hoover and John Parker of U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives
Cliff Rosenthal of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions
Also heartening is the fact that I received the news of this organization from Steve Herrick, a leading figure in the fair trade movement.
Here are some of the stated goals of the new organization:
1. Global movement: to join with and build the movement for transformative
social and economic justice. To develop strong relationships and exchange
between U.S. and global organizations, practitioners and solidarity economy
networks such as NANSE (N. American Network for the Solidarity Economy) and
RIPESS (Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of the Solidarity Economy).
2. Common vision and framework: To create a structure and vision that can
promote a common identity and agenda among the currently fragmented elements of
the U.S. solidarity economy. SEN will build a learning community on issues
relevant to the solidarity economy, including discussing and debating
strategies and practices, and helping each other to uphold the principles of
the solidarity economy.
I do agree that this particular point is important: there is some use for a broad, widely shared ideological vision uniting the various cooperative and economic democracy movements, like that of the solidarity economy. But the basic principles of that vision should be general and broadly stated enough to leave a wide range for intepretation; it should not be so strident or doctrinaire as to impair the basic structural function of the organization, in providing a clearinghouse for ideological diverse movements within the alternative economy. There should be room enough for Wobblies, for fundamentalist homeschoolers and Crunchy Cons, for left-leaning market anarchists and agorists, and for anarcho-capitalists like Eric S. Raymond. In other words, a highly visible venue for people trying to increase economic control over their own lives, to network and establish mutually beneficial relationships with others trying to do the same--without fear of too much ideological sermonizing.
For example, to take just one quibble I have with this item in the list of principles in their Background Statement:
recognizes the primacy of social welfare over profits and the unfettered rule of the market.
To me this begs a question, and if pushed too heavily might needlessly alienate a lot of left-leaning market anarchists who reject the unspoken assumptions behind the statement. Some of us market anarchists believe the reason the economy is presently dominated by large corporations, and characterized by pollution, waste and great disparities of wealth, is precisely that the market is fettered by corporate capitalists using the state to protect themselves from the competition of a free market. The present domination of GM, Wal-Mart, Disney, Monsanto and other corporate behemoths did not emerge from the "unfettered rule of the market." It's precisely because of the fetters imposed on the market by those privileged monopolists, that we live with an economy dominated by a few hundred corporations, instead of by a few million cooperatives. And as New Left historian Gabriel Kolko's account of the Progressive Era shows, whenever politicians start making laws with the avowed purpose of promoting "social welfare over profits," you can be sure the legislation was actually drafted by corporations with a view to their own profits.
Of course, unless pushed in a doctrinaire and divisive manner, it's not really an obstacle to collaboration. To take a parallel example, I endorse the Wobbly preamble's call to "abolish the wage system" with considerable mental reservations: namely, my understanding of the "wage system" as a system in which wage labor not only predominates, but is artificially predominant and exploitative because of the state's privileges to capital and its shackles on the bargaining power of labor. In an economy without such a wage system, wage labor would no doubt exist on an individual basis--it would just be a less prevalent arrangement, and a bargain between true equals.
Anyway, the statement continues with what I consider the most important function of all:
3. Collaboration: To investigate and develop ways to build collaborative support systems for solidarity economy development. Examples might include: coordination between solidarity economy producers, suppliers and distributors; collaborative marketing, branding and distribution; group purchasing of insurance, energy, supplies; peer support & tech. assistance.
But such a large network, with its enormous resources, can perform another very important function:
4. Visibility and public support: To raise the visibility, legitimacy and public support for solidarity economy practices through public education and media coverage.
Ideally, in my opinion, this would eventually entail the funding of a think tank, issuing position papers, pamphlets, posters, podcasts, and so forth.
I encourage anyone involved in the larger movement for cooperative economics, economic democracy, human scale technology, and the like, to pass this news along to other leading organizations in the movement, and encourage contact with the SEN. For my own part, I plan to forward this material to Dave Pollard of How to Save the World, Pierre DuCasse of EcoDema, Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives, the School of Cooperative Individualism, Brad Spangler of Agorism.Info, and the I.W.W. (and maybe more--that's just off the top of my head).