The Solidarity Economy and Economic Democracy

Geoff Gilbert 

Even though humanity possesses the wealth necessary for every person to have everything they require in order to live with material freedom and dignity, current property regimes allow for 26 billionaires to own as much wealth as 3.8 billion people around the world while billions of people around the world, including in the US, live without access to food, water, adequate shelter and clothing, health care, education, transportation, the information and communication capacities made possible by digital technology, leisure time, and other aspects of material freedom and dignity. Many grassroots movements are trying to change this by imagining and building democratic political economy planning capacity throughsolidarity economy institutions premised on transforming the legal and institutional forms through which humans can coordinate to produce, exchange, and distribute, everything that we need in order to live.

Solidarity economies are rooted in direct democracy, community power, and local control of economic institutions. They include and build upon many of the ideas in the Movement for Black Lives’ ‘A Vision for Black Lives’ and the Black Youth project 100’s ‘Agenda to Build Black Futures.’ More specifically, solidarity economies are built around local and democratically controlled institutions that own and control land, labor, and money. Land banks allow communities to democratically (re)distribute land, and community land trusts facilitate community ownership and control of land. Cooperatives create democratic ownership and control of productive capital and workspaces. And public, city-owned banks can coordinate with one another to produce the money needed to finance production for human need. Movements around the world – the Zapatistas in Mexico; the municipalists in cities like Barcelona and Jackson, Mississippi; and the democratic confederalists of Rojava– are leading the way on building local solidarity economies that prioritize production for human need over profit.

Calls to increase local power are often associated with the trappings of American white supremacy, at least in the U.S. context, but local institutions are also potentially emancipatory spaces in which we can create democracy built upon local control of key institutions of political economy. Activists are optimistic about shifting power to the local level for at least two reasons:

First, as the democratic municipalists in Jackson, Mississippi and throughout Spain argue, democracy is more possible at local levels. Democratic decision-making can be more participatory at smaller scales, and elected representatives can be more directly held accountable at smaller scales. However, the reality is that many people must coordinate across large spaces (the entire planet) in order to produce all of the things that we need in order to live. To address this mismatch between democracy being more possible at local levels and the need for many people to coordinate across large spaces, movements building solidarity economy institutions advocate that the principle of subsidiarity guide the creation of regional, national, and international institutions through which more local institutions can coordinate with one another. The principle of subsidiarity – the basis for the model for a confederated democracy comprised of local democratic institutions that the Kurds are building in the Rojava region of Syria – holds that institutions beyond the local level should only be formed when they are required to achieve goals that cannot be achieved at smaller scale or are better achieved at larger scale.

Second, emphasis on the local level creates a viable path for building power. Creating local institutions both demonstrates proof of concept and consolidates resources that can be used to build bigger institutions. As Mahatma Gandhi argued with his conception of the constructive program, a society is built through the process of building a society. Through building local democratic institutions together, people develop the capacity to act collectively and to practice democracy with one another. Additionally, emphasis on the local level allows organizers to start small and to turn small gains – the creation of one local institution or a network of local institutions – into a base from which to expand and to create more institutions. Building power in this bottom-up, cumulative manner is also similar to Antonio Gramsci’s vision of the war of position, in its emphasis on local, winnable projects avoids the zero-sum contests that can crush movements before they are ready to win big. Organizing in this way, in other words, allows for gains to be won before everything is won and for the gains to be mobilized toward further transformation.

Having introduced in this post the framework for political economy power that is animating movement efforts to build local solidarity economies, the next post will explore in greater detail the specific institutions for democratically owning and controlling land, labor, and money that movements are building.

Geoff Gilbert is a Legal Fellow with The Working World.