Can solidarity economies fix everything capitalism has broken?

An illustration representing solidarity economies with pairs of hands intertwined and a row of house...
Illustration by Lorenza Centi for Mic

David Cobb considers himself a prepper, though not in the mainstream sense. A prepper is someone preparing to survive disaster, but Cobb isn’t the Purge-style, guns-and-ammo-hoarding variety. He works with Cooperation Humboldt, a solidarity economy group in and around Eureka, California. “I’m preparing my community for the climate crisis, for the shift that’s coming, as opposed to the other preppers who are hoarding guns and hoarding food,” Cobb tells Mic. “I’m preparing my community to shift collectively together.”

That shift feels particularly crucial more than a year into a deadly pandemic that forced extraordinary numbers of people into debt, homelessness, sickness, and early graves — all while the government failed to provide meaningful support and big business churned along uninterrupted. Groups like Cooperation Humboldt, meanwhile, were able to serve and sustain their communities where the government and capitalist economy failed.

What is a solidarity economy?

Cooperation Humboldt is part of a network of communities across the globe operating as and advocating for a solidarity economy, a socioeconomic model that centers care, equity, and a post-capitalist approach to productivity and communal relations. While there’s no single blueprint for operating a solidarity economy, typically, neighbors exchange skills and resources — like construction tools, land, and knowledge — without exploitation or profit motives. In Cooperation Humboldt, for example, community volunteers with the Community Health Worker Collaborative connect low-income and marginalized people with healthcare services, while others convert front and back lawns into food production gardens. Cooperation Humboldt and many other solidarity economy projects are governed by sociocracy, which Cobb describes as a series of small circles, each containing a self-governing working group addressing a single sector or area of expertise.

The solidarity economy isn’t a new idea — it originated with Spanish anarchist writer Felipe Alaiz around 1937 as part of a campaign for solidarity between isolated workers, and it earned popularity in Latin American countries in the following decades. During a recent information event hosts from the US Solidarity Economy Network (SEN) paid homage to that history when they described the solidarity economy as “pluralist,” borrowing from the Zapatistas’ phrase, “Un Mundo Donde Quepan Muchos Mundos” — a world where many worlds fit. But the concept is now gaining traction across the United States as increasingly more people fall through the cracks of late-stage capitalism, an issue highlighted by the pandemic.

Julia Ho, founder of a local solidarity economy network in St. Louis, Missouri, says we’ve been conditioned to believe that the best way to help others is via charities or social service agencies, but the pandemic shattered that illusion, as exemplified by issues like difficult-to-access rental assistance. “We think that these services are working for people, but then whenever something like this happens, we see on a massive scale that they’re not equipped to deal with the reality that people are losing their homes and don’t have food and healthcare,” Ho tells Mic. “Mutual aid has to exist because our other systems are so deeply failing us.”

Are solidarity economies the same as mutual aid networks?

Lauren Hudson, a peer educator with Cooperative Economic Alliance of NYC (CEANYC) and long-time member of SolidarityNYC, says local and regional mutual aid networks cropped up during the pandemic as a local solution to each community’s needs. “Like many forms of collective care, the ‘interest’ [in doing it] comes from our need to reproduce ourselves under capitalism,” she says. “That’s hard to do under any circumstance, and particularly difficult when the state has essentially abandoned its social welfare role during a public health crisis.”

That’s not to say that every community group created during the pandemic operates as a solidarity economy, though a solidarity economy typically encompasses such groups. Mutual aid organizations and cooperatives — the former is a community-created network to provide essential goods and services to each other, while the latter is an ownership strategy to collectively operate a business and equitably share profits — are important pieces of the solidarity economy, but both represent a means rather than an end. “A solidarity economy is far more than cooperatives,” Mike Strode, an organizer and founder of the south Chicago time bank project Kola Nut Collaborative, tells Mic. Rather than one particular strategy or solution, a solidarity economy comprises an endless breadth of approaches, tailored by and for each community and their needs. “Time banking, community land trusts, credit unions, barter networks, all of these sorts of things are ways that communities have been meeting needs, and can do it aside and beyond capitalism,” Strode says.

Ho views mutual aid as a short-term practice and tactic that allows for the building of a long-term solidarity economy. For example, when pandemic-related shutdowns made childcare difficult to access last spring, Ho’s mutual aid group assembled a list of community members who needed childcare and those who could provide it. Now, a year later, the community has expressed interest in starting a childcare cooperative to sustain the service. Meanwhile, Black solidarity economy organizers with Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi helped organize access to food, water, and shelter during the city’s recent water crisis, while suffering from budgetary restrictions tied to white flight.

Do solidarity economies make economic sense?

Critics of the solidarity economy model accuse them of unsound or unrealistic economics, an argument that skirts the fact that some of solidarity economy’s most embedded proponents are economists. Emily Kawano, the Belchertown, Mass.-based co-director of Wellspring Cooperative and coordinator for US Solidarity Economy Network (SEN), previously served as director of the Center for Popular Economics, a nonprofit organization that touts a people-over-profits approach. She explains that transforming the economy means expanding our parameters of success beyond financial profit margins, an imperative made all the more dire by the climate crisis’ promise to devastate global markets and its already-gruesome toll on living costs.

Kawano says a solidarity economy offers participants a way of existing that isn’t tied to profitability and productivity, but instead “embraces all those things that are not formal, and maybe don’t involve money, or aren’t incorporated,” the traditional market value of which has perhaps been negligible. And, she adds, it represents a shift to working and building within our own communities. “The pivot is thinking about, is there anything we could actually build collectively ourselves?” Kawano says. “Can we create our own jobs? Can we grow our own food? Can we create our own local currency? Can we establish our own mutual aid system? Could we establish a credit union that’s responsive to the needs of our community?”

Is transitioning to a solidarity economy actually doable?

These might seem like pie-in-the-sky scenarios, but Strode points out that building the solidarity economy doesn’t even require a radical, revolutionary firestorm. In fact, he believes that in many places, the model already exists unnamed and unseen. “I think communities do have time to do it, and communities are doing it already,” he says. “They’re already setting up their own free boxes, networks of exchange. They’re already doing things that make a better life for them using the minimal resources that they may have at their disposal.” Hudson agrees. “Do people call what they’re doing ‘solidarity economy?’” she says. “No, but it’s within the ethos of what a solidarity economy is supposed to be: people meeting their collective needs without legitimating state failure.”

Plus, taken in the context of thousands of years of history, similar systems are the default, while capitalism is a relatively-recent outgrowth. “Most Indigenous societies or any real culture of people come from traditions of living in a solidarity economy,” Ho says. “For me, that’s very grounded in how my grandparents and my generations before that have lived in villages and farming communities, and have found ways to resource each other and take care of each other.”

And for all the (largely right-wing) fear-mongering and knee-jerk hysterics against communal projects in the U.S., Kawano notes that as a cultural and political theory, the solidarity economy itself isn’t out of step with purported American values. “The pieces of it can be for us as American as apple pie,” she says. “It’s people working together to own their own businesses. That goes over well.”

So, where does it go from here? The solidarity economy movement is growing steadily: US SEN has more than 2,000 members on its listserv, and its recent virtual Solidarity Economy 101 event saw more than 900 participants; while a collaborative Post Capitalist Conference drew nearly 700. Cobb says Cooperation Humboldt, which was founded in 2017, counts 3,200 supporter members in their county, with between 200 and 300 active participants and a core team of 85. Cobb, who leads monthly study groups, says it used to take months to find participants; now, he has to offer multiple sessions to accommodate demand. As they continue to grow, many solidarity economy advocates are focused on the SEN’s Resist and Build program, which prioritizes pushing back on oppressive systems while simultaneously developing alternatives for the future — like Cobb’s “prepping” with Cooperation Humboldt.

Most solidarity economy organizers think the system is an easy sell. Cobb recalls learning the basic principles of solidarity economy when he was a kid, fighting with his brother and cousin over a matchbox car when his mother intervened and insisted they share the toy. “That made sense to me then as a 6-year-old boy, and it makes sense to me now as a 58-year-old adult,” he says. “All we have to do is share. There’s actually enough to go around if we share.”