Properly understood and practiced, solidarity economy offers, and I would even say promises and guarantees, great satisfactions. Nothing less than a fuller life, with greater creativity, autonomy, and solidarity.
But how we get there from here? What’s the first step?
Entering into solidarity economy is not like going through a doorway, leaving one place and entering another that is totally different. It is a process, which is why it’s better to think of it as a road: as we go along we leave behind old ways of consuming, of working, of relating to others, of thinking and feeling, and take on new ways. We leave one way of life behind as we learn a better one.
But to do this we have to be in motion, we have to take steps. What the first step will be depends on the place and the situation in which we find ourselves at the outset. Some roads are smooth and others are rockier.
In most cases the first step will be easy to take, although it also requires us to make decisions, to take action and make certain small changes in our daily lives.
We start by stopping; if we stop buying some of the things we can do without we can save a little money. This gets us off the road of debt and onto the road of liberation from debt. By doing this we begin to gain economic autonomy and, at the same time, shake off consumerism, cultivating better modes of consumption as we satisfy our needs, aspirations, and desires.
This is actually very important. A person trapped in consumerism and debt is chained to capitalist logic and also dependent on the state and its public services.
So, we start by forming a savings fund; even if it is very small it is important to do it as rapidly as possible. To that end, in addition to buying fewer of the things we can do without, we can replace some of those things we do need with items we make ourselves. On one square meter of land, or on the balcony of an apartment building, we can grow a small vegetable garden. In our homes we can produce some goods or provide services to be sold.
With each unnecessary expense that we forgo, with each small bit of income we earn through our work, we create a savings fund, taking care to keep it separate from any other funds we have saved, for example money saved to buy a car, a house, a college education.
Changing our consumption habits, doing some independent work, saving money that is set aside to be used for this purpose are all important and essential learning experiences for building solidarity economy. As soon as we do these things we see how even such simple steps can begin to generate new satisfactions born of the exercise of autonomy and creativity.
Now we have a fund. The purpose of this fund is not to sit in the bank in hopes that it will earn interest. It is there to be used, by us, to be invested in solidarity economy activities and initiatives, preferably together with other people who are walking the same road.
(There are some who believe that to enter the solidarity economy you need money or grants from the federal government, the state or city, or some public entity. But those who take this path become beneficiaries of public policy, not the creators of genuine, creative and autonomous solidarity economy. Later on, in some cases and in certain situations, moneys received from the State can play a complementary role, but they cannot serve as the base on which to build a solidarity economy project.
When we say “invest” in solidarity economy activities and initiatives we are not necessarily, or even primarily, thinking of starting a business, like a cooperative. That may come later and may correspond to a stage reached further down the road. We have to start from much simpler steps, simple but indispensable.
For example, a good and important investment could be to buy a book about solidarity economy. It is essential to know this subject well, to understand the key criteria, the economic rationality, and the patterns of life that it implies. There is much to be learned in different fields. For example, in health: how to achieve greater autonomy through better nutrition. In education: how to develop one’s own and a group’s capacity for self-learning. Learning to organize and manage activities, processes, and organizations on the basis of solidarity, starting with the family itself. The process of learning is practical and theoretical, multifaceted and permanent, and like other solidarity economy practices provides its own satisfactions, pleasures, and unimagined discoveries.
(For those interested in developing their understanding of solidarity economy, I would be remiss not to recommend my own books, since I wrote them for that purpose: Solidarity Economy Roads and How to Create a Solidarity Enterprise, A Theoretico-Practical Manual. Spanish readers can find these and other works in addition to distance learning courses and events on the website of the Univérsitas Nueva Civilización http://www.universitasnc.net/universitas/)
Once we have taken the first steps with regards to consumption, savings, and work and started our own learning process, we have entered the solidarity economy; recognizing this transition is an important and meaningful step in our consciousness, and, again a source of personal satisfaction.
Next comes finding others who are on the same road with whom to launch joint projects, practical solidarity economy initiatives, in the areas of consumption, distribution, and production.
Volunteering for Fair Trade organizations, participating in responsible consumption networks, joining incubator projects for solidarity enterprises, joining groups and communities that cultivate humanistic, ethical, and spiritual values, creating and participating in study groups, all of these are good ways to find people with whom we can work, jointly cultivating our creativity, autonomy, and solidarity, and with whom we can imagine and organize solidarity economy initiatives.
I don’t know anyone who has regretted joining an authentic solidarity economy activity. This is because what matters most in solidarity economy is not economic success (which we begin to achieve anyway as soon as we begin to free ourselves from debt, save money, and invest in our own learning) but the personal and collective transformation we undergo when we exercise our creativity, autonomy and solidarity.
Translation by Matt Noyes.