Shareable publisher Neal Gorenflo and founder of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives Michel Bauwens talked with solidarity economy activist and organizer Mira Luna about the historical moment and what’s coming soon from alternative economies
Neal Gorenflo: When I met you three years ago, you described yourself as an alternative economics organizer. I had never heard such a thing. It fascinated me. How did you come to your work?
Mira Luna: I came to my work through years of environmental and social justice activism. I was disheartened by how little progress we were making because of the way the economy is structured. It was like banging my head against a wall. While studying at New College and coordinating the Really Really Free Market, I realized the wall was in some ways an illusion and there are many ways to take back your power that often are invisible to the average person- in these spaces is the terrain of solidarity economy. I wrote a Masters thesis on my work to end sweatshops and how it was hopeless, pointing to many local economic alternatives as the only real and permanent solution. I don’t believe it is possible in this context to significantly reform or topple the system from above.
Then personal and political fused. My relationship with my long-term partner fell apart because of economics – differences in class and values. I didn’t value money over relationship and he did. This became a critical point. Then I got Lyme disease and hit up against another wall – my insurance company – and spent several years disabled and going bankrupt to get better, on the edge of not being able to afford the medicine my insurance wouldn’t cover, really on the edge of death, for the sake of profit. After all my money and credit was gone, I fell into the arms of a new found community and to some degree they caught me, although I felt I could have gotten more help with a better mutual aid network. I discovered a whole new world living in the gift and barter economy, which is based primarily on relationships and shared values. I thrived in this subculture, which echoed a village type economy that still exists in some parts of the world – Mali for example. I decided I wanted to create this relationship village economy locally.
As I was recovering from my illness, I dove head-first into theory and practice of alternative economics and became an expert in local currencies. I started Bay Area Community Exchange and its Timebank, co-founded JASEcon – a network of alternative economic projects, joined the US Solidarity Economy Network board, the San Francisco Community Land Trust board which develops affordable housing coops, dabbled in the worker cooperative world, and joined my local Transition Towns group.
Michel Bauwens: What is the Solidarity Economy? How closely is it related to other ‘social economy’ formats such as what is called the ‘social economy’ in France. What are the requirements to be counted as part of that economy?
As defined by the US Solidarity Economy Network, “the Solidarity Economy is an alternative development framework that is grounded in practice and the in the principles of: solidarity, mutualism, and cooperation; equity in all dimensions (race/ethnicity/ nationality, class, gender, LGBTQ); social well-being over profit and the unfettered rule of the market; sustainability; social and economic democracy; and pluralism, allowing for different forms in different contexts, open to continual change and driven from the bottom-up.”
USSEN and the local solidarity economy network I helped develop called JASecon have a open approach that allows organizations to self-identify based on these principles. There seems to be a lot of consensus, except when it comes to organizations that identify as social or green capitalists. I think most solidarity economists, but not all are vehemently anti-capitalist but not anti-business or market (maybe anti-stock market) and they are general not communist, although some are participatory socialists. Actually, they tend to shun political ideology in favor of fluid values and principles as a frame. I would add to their definition that participation is very important – participation in decision-making, governance and in creating economic activity itself. Local, collective decision-making and voluntary action are favored over authoritarian control of the economy.
From a more spiritual perspective, the solidarity economy moves us from a “me” to a “we” economy, recognizing, like the Buddhists do, that we are all interconnected – we including the Earth and all its creatures – which the Bolivian Government recently encoded in law.
NG: Why is the Solidarity Economy so strong in some parts of the world,like the Basque region of Spain where the Mondragon cooperative is based, and weak in others?
It is stronger in areas that have a culture of resistance, community self-sufficiency, and strong communal ties. Latin America is leading the way. Poverty is a strong motivator, but the solutions are only possible because there is fertile ground for change in strong communities, like the Basques, Zapatistas and the MST. On the other hand, government has been helpful in some countries, especially in Latin America, and some local governments. Additionally, our economy in the US is so tied into a centralized power structure, it feels very challenging to escape and survive. In less developed countries there is more room for experimentation without the government cracking down, less commercialization, and more possibilities for economic autonomy. Less of their assets are tied to big banks and more are tied up in local relationships. Relationships and reputation are extremely important to Latin Americans in general so it makes sense that an economy based on relationships would thrive there. In the US, our economy thrives on the severing of relationship ties – to place, to workers, to the Earth, to each other.
NG: What impact has The Great Recession had on the Solidarity Economy? Has it been strengthened or weakened by the crisis of our economic system? Do you see it’s future improving? How big a role would it have in the overall economy?
It definitely has strengthened the solidarity economy. Crisis breeds change and most Americans and Europeans had been riding along too comfortable to rock the boat. There is a growing distrust in government as corruption and deceit become glaringly obvious, especially around the bank bailouts. A global economy and even a national economy seem out of our hands and out of control. So there is a now a strong movement towards localization to gain democratic control back, even if not yet full solidarity economy, which asks for more. As people are out of work and desperate to get their needs met, they search for alternatives that offer a more hopeful future. They are also questioning what the economy is for (if it’s not taking care of our needs), allowing the imagination to envision a whole new economy, and from there many creative possibilities emerge.
NG: Poverty alleviation and solidarity economy initiatives seem like two different streams of activity here in the US. Why is that, and how might that be changing?
Actually, they are quite overlapping. There certainly needs to more more integration, but it is happening as I demonstrated in my article “An Economy Turned Upside Down”. My understanding is that often people at the bottom of the economic pyramid often don’t have access to information about alternatives or the time or capital to implement them. They are definitely interested though as they understand the Solidarity Economy at deep personal level and through social justice organizing. I find that funders are more interested in poverty alleviation than solidarity economy projects that present a challenge to the source of their wealth. That makes it difficult to get these projects off the ground in low income communities, but I think we need to get more creative at using the resources already within these communities. If a good government or nonprofit or socially responsible business is willing to help all the better, and we are seeing that happen as well in small pockets.
In March of this year, the Southern Grassroots Economies Project brought together over thirty representatives from organizations from across the South and Midwest to discuss developing cooperative economics as a part of their social justice work, at the Highlander Center. Labor organizations like the United Steel Workers, Jobs with Justice, and the International Labor Organization have all started partnerships with worker cooperative development institutions. While traditionally worker coop development hasn’t expresses a preference for helping the most poor, this is changing. Evergreen Worker Cooperatives prioritizes hiring worker owners that have serious barriers to employment, like former incarceration and there are many social justice organizations organizing solidarity economy projects with poor people under the radar (some mentioned in my last article), especially, but not at all limited to, worker cooperative development.
NG: What are the most promising new innovations coming out of The Solidarity Economy recently?
Associations of alternative economic projects that pool resources: skills and technical expertise, knowledge, capital and material resources (like mills or butchering facilities), administration, governance and labor either within a specific sector (cooperatives, timebanks, etc) or across sectors within a specific geography. The Evergreen Cooperatives in Ohio and Banco Palmas in Brazil are an example of the former, and Sonoma Go Local is an example of the latter. These projects are very familiar with the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, which has an impressively integrative model, with its own bank, educational institutions, and participatory self-governance. The Zapatistas are also quietly building a new economy from the bottom up, using mostly their own resources but in intensive collaboration, collective governance, resource sharing, training, and so on. The US Solidarity Economy Network, emulating Brazil, is attempting to map the solidarity economy in the US. Mapping should help people find each other to grow and form stronger networks, facilitate resource and information sharing, trade, collaboration, and associative organizations, as well as connecting solidarity economic producers.
MB: Some people are advocating a convergence between open source thinking, i.e. the sharing of knowledge, code (free software), and designs (Arduino), with the solidarity economy networks? Is this happening, feasible, desirable?
It is of the utmost importance. I think open source tools can help these projects catch fire spreading across the world, by eliminating the initial or limiting barrier to implementation, which is often knowledge or money or both. Solidarity economy projects as I mentioned are intentionally or systemically under-resourced or unfunded. Sharing knowledge, code, etc. is one way to give these projects a leg up against the mainstream economy and give them access to resources they can’t afford to access. Many people with useful skills and knowledge are coming aboard the open source movement, but since they often come without a personal experience of poverty, idealism is usually the main driver for open source innovators. One problem I see with this is that people with knowledge and skills often create solutions without the input of those who will be using their tools, especially the poor, non-English speakers, unplugged, etc. It would be wise to get as much input from the groups you are trying to involve from the very beginning.
The Timebank I coordinate is an open source code project so we share code with communities that want to use our software and we ask that they share new code with us. I see more of this happening in the currency world and as more skilled techies get involved, there is enormous potential for a power shift. As Thomas Jefferson said, which is more true today, “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. Already they have raised up a monied aristocracy that has set the government at defiance. The issuing power (of money) should be taken away from the banks, and restored to the people to whom it properly belongs.” We need many currencies, all kinds of them run by democratic groups of good reputation or even individual issuing power, which happens in a mutual credit currency model like the timebank, LETS or GETS. Decentralization of knowledge, decision-making power and resources is absolutely necessary to a healthy democracy and a peaceful, relatively egalitarian society. If one group gains more power, they will game the system and shift its rules and structure to to their favor. Open source models are tools that counter this kind of power grab.
MB: The Arab Spring and the 15M movements in the Middle East and Europe, and perhaps the elections of progressive governments in Latin America, are signs of a revival of social movements in the world, in the context of an onslaught of austerity budgets. Do you see any connection or convergence?
Yes, there is both horrible suffering and amazing opportunity around the world right now. Though actually the suffering is mostly new to the developed world. This happens in many different contexts, but since the economic downturn touches nearly everyone and every issue, it is a primary motivator and target for reform and radical change.
NG: You’ve been co-leading the largest timebank in the San Francisco Bay Area for over two years. What have you learned that could help other timebank organizers?
Our Timebank appears to be different from other timebanks. There are only a couple outstandingly successful ones in the US and they were very, very well funded – one by a Rockefeller and the other by the government. However, getting outside conventional funding is notoriously difficult for timebanks, with a few exceptions of government grants. Other timebanks peter along growing painfully slow with minimal funding and still working within a traditional nonprofit framework and unable to make the transition to functioning in the new economy. While we do need $USD for some basic expenses, we try to maintain as much self-sufficiency and autonomy from the mainstream economy as possible. We pay our volunteers in time dollars and work to make those time dollars as useful as possible as soon as possible. As nonprofits are shrinking and closing up all around us, we are growing quickly, fueled by necessity and idealism, and by tapping into the solidarity economy growing all around us.
Our timebank is simultaneously a nonprofit, a volunteer worker collective, and member/consumer cooperative that combines economy of scale and a decentralized organizing strategy. We offer everyone in the Bay Area access to the Timebank and ask them to organizing their own communities using our free software and pooled organizational resources. Its like having lots of mini-timebanks under one umbrella association called Bay Area Community Exchange. All these groups are coming to me saying “I want to start a Timebank.” It takes an awful lot of work to start one so we say just “join us and do your own thing”, but under a few main principles and in communication with the larger group. As an open source project, we share code with other communities outside the Bay that want to use our software and have a Ruby programmer to tailor and maintain their system. In return, we ask that they share new code with us. There is now a group in Greece that’s interested in using our software to start a timebank. There is another organization called Hour World that hopes to provide economy of scale of financial resources, training, and software to timebanks on a national level while organizing networks amongst timebanks in a more decentralized and collaborative way than Timebanks USA as a leadership organization has done as a conventional nonprofit. Naturally, timebankers are collaborators and we can be because in our system there is abundance not scarcity. Timebanking is the closest bridge we have to the new economy and its where I find the most hope.