Social and Solidarity Economies: A Brief Introduction

Social and solidarity economies (SSEs) are forms of economic activity which aim to harness production, consumption, distribution, investment, and the state and its policies towards the welfare and equality of the people and the environment. They are rooted in the idea of the commons, the environmental and human resources available to any given community. SSEs treat the commons both as the means and ends of economic activity. In order to respect collective well-being, economic activity must not be environmentally unsustainable as this is an unfair destruction of shared resources. Neither must it be socially disruptive or exploitative, as this goes against the fundamental goal of communal and social equity. The values on which SSEs base economic development include:

1. The sovereignty of the people through social, political and economic democracy, and local decision-making and management.

2. Solidarity and cooperation both at the regional and global level.

3. Social, political and economic equity.

4. Sustainability and environmentalism.

5. Pluralism, the acceptance of diversity within the movement

SSEs stand in stark contrast to the current global paradigm, neoliberal capitalism. Because the central dynamic of a capitalist economy is the accumulation of and competition over surplus wealth by a small number of wealthy individuals, capitalism places an emphasis on a blind growth and private profit at the expense of environmental and humanitarian sustainability. SSEs seek to change this dynamic by framing economic activity not as an inescapable dynamic of rampant growth and surplus for the interest of the few, but as a social issue of determining the appropriate use of produced surplus for the common good. Because all economic activity is derived from the commons, it must also sustain and be reinvested in the commons.

A Brief History of Social and Solidarity Economies

The concept of ‘social economy’ is most commonly used in France and Québec, and its origins lie in France c. 1830. Today social economies mainly refer to the third sector, which includes enterprises such as cooperatives, mutual societies, associations and foundations. Most definitions see the third sector as complementary to the first, private sector, and the second public sector. What unites the multitude of third sector initiatives is their commitment to social aims rather than profit. Although social economies can be seen as a ‘voluntary’ part of a capitalist economy, many social economies see themselves as steps towards a more thorough economic transformation, coinciding with the aims of solidarity economy initiatives.

Solidarity economies, in turn, have mainly been developed in pre-Franco Spain and Latin America. While social economies usually aim to influence or complement the shortcomings of the private and public sectors, solidarity economies have a larger political vision of transforming the current economic paradigm from one based on profit to one based on inter-communal altruism and wellbeing. In practical terms, this transformation is brought about by practices such as favouring organic production, democratic decision making, worker-managed or owned workplaces and fair wages. In Colombia and Chile, economía solidaria was borne out of the countries’ vibrant cooperative movements. These movements did not merely seek to pursue solidarity and cooperation with groups that shared similar interests, but also largely unrelated and far smaller, local initiatives that shared their economic goal of social well-being and cross-sector transformation.

SSEs as a Movement

What distinguishes SSEs from past economic paradigms is that SSEs do not adhere to a specific economic theory or social ideology. The movement is unified only by the common goals and values of its practitioners. As a result of this pluralism, SSEs take the form of many different kinds of organisations and movements, all of which do not necessarily identify themselves as SSEs. Time banks, support groups, agreements between local food providers and retailers, and traditional industrial cooperatives are all examples of SSEs in practice. The challenge within the movement is thus to form networks and alliances for different practitioners to aid and learn from each other. Most SSE enterprises tend to be small.

Currently the most developed solidarity economy is located in Brazil, where approximately 1.8 million people are working within the solidarity economy system. The Brazilian Forum of Solidarity Economy (FBES) has met since 2001, and the government has made it official policy to fund and promote university-based think-tanks to aid and create networks amongst SSE initiatives in the country.

SSEs have formed across the globe as natural reactions to the economic and political devastation modern economic policies have inflicted upon communities across the world. Today we face two major crises. Firstly, we face the rapid growth of social and economic inequality, which has led to the erosion of democracy and popular sovereignty as national and international institutions have hijacked by the wealthy to serve their own interests. Secondly, the imperative of blind growth has led to environmental desolation, an ever-increasing depletion of resource, and climate change. SSEs seek to challenge both these trends by allowing people to govern their own lives and workplaces, and dictate the terms and goals for which they work, and by placing ecological sustainability at the heart of its mission. Furthermore, SSE acknowledges the social and collective impact that our actions have on our society and our planet, and affirms our ability to change it for the better.

Written by Oscar Jäntti who is a volunteer in the Kv-solid’s Solidarity Economy in Development Policy project.