By now it is eminently apparent that both Left- and Right-wing politicians alike have it wrong when it comes to re-imagining the future of “making stuff” in the U.S. The question is not just: What do we make? It is also: How do we make it?
We can begin to answer this by presenting an ideal type in the form of a purely heuristic “imagine that…” type of exercise. The conceptual distinction I wish to make is between a “predatory” economy at one end of the continuum and a “solidarity” economy at the other. I invite readers to engage this exercise of exploring both ends of this continuum, for the sake of analytical discourse and concrete possibilities alike.
Indeed, while the problems before us are manifold, it is equally the case that the answers we seek are closer at hand than it might otherwise appear.
Capitalism is predatory because it takes what it needs by force and resorts to violence.
What is a predatory economy? To paraphrase ecofeminist scholar-activist Maria Mies: Capitalists “prey” on nature, worker, woman, colony, and all manifestations of the “Other.” Capital devours the Other. The land is a “natural resource,” waiting to be consumed to manufacture things important to capitalist desires. Or, it is the exploitable units of labor time abstracted from living human bodies who actually transform these “natural things” into other “things with a price” (i.e., commodities) through the manufacturing process controlled by capitalists.
This predatory activity has always led to structural violence and is also an underlying cause of the multigenerational historical trauma experienced by members of the unjustly subjugated communities or groups targeted for appropriation and exploitation. Capitalism is predatory because it takes what it needs by force and resort to violence. In order to produce commodities, the capitalist must be able to appropriate two things that usually “belong” to someone else. One is the labor power of the human body and the other is comprised of nature’s body — the land, minerals, water, and other sources of life that must be reduced to inputs of material production.
The capitalist also relies on the unpaid labor invested into social and biological reproduction, work that is usually done by women in the household in the form of caring for the Other (future workers, etc.). The process of forcibly appropriating living labor and nature is what Marx called the “primitive accumulation” — it is the lifestyle of the capitalist; it is the everyday behavior of a predator. The predator only cares to nourish itself. It has no concern for its prey, which is a mere object, in the capitalist case, of so-called “productive consumption.”
This predatory logic is rather convoluted and mystified: I will consume you so that I can make things to sell for a profit so that I can produce more things to keep selling so that I can continue to use the products you make for me through the labor time and transformation of the land, water, and minerals I steal from you to make these things. And on and on…
The myriad place-based forms of human cooperation and co-habitation with other living organisms and the living landscapes in homeland ecosystems are the basis of the solidarity economy.
What is the solidarity economy? The myriad place-based forms of human cooperation and co-habitation with other living organisms and living landscapes in homeland ecosystems are the basis of the solidarity economy. The solidarity economy is based on co-habitation rather than development or exploitation of place.
The solidarity economy does not presume that “nature” is a “resource” to be exploited for the sake of human greed and transformed into a mere commodity, a thing with a price. The solidarity economy does not imagine that nature is a wilderness, to be kept separate from humans. The solidarity economy understands nature as our home, our “home ecosystem.” The two are not apart. You cannot take one from the other without diminishing the well being of the one left without its companion.
Solidarity is an ancient practice. As a human normative orientation it has been around much longer than notions of individuality. Solidarity derives from the oldest evolutionary urges and strategies that involve forms of mutual aid and dividuality instead of competition. Solidarity relations characterize much of the natural world and its dynamic processes of change, adaptation, and co-evalness. The social ecologists (e.g., Bookchin), informed by wise readings of Kropotkin, have argued this point precisely for some time.
The solidarity economy values cooperation and promotes mutual reliance interests: It is in my interests that my neighbor also succeeds. I find this on the acequia every day when my neighbors come through to help me get some work done. This form of cooperation and shared resources is the sinew and muscle of the solidarity economy. It eschews individual and acquisitive (selfish) interests.
The solidarity economy does not need money and it does not need to produce commodities. It is interested in producing for and through relationships; it harvests networks and their capacities instead of focusing on individualized accumulation of money wealth.
The solidarity economy is quite unlike the neoliberal and libertarian quest for individual self-aggrandizement, which distorts liberty under the guise of the hoped-for side-effect of maximizing the social good through acts of material acquisitiveness and the mindless over-consumption of the earth and its resources.
The solidarity economy is based on recognition not so much of “limits” as of “reciprocal obligations.” The notion and value of reciprocity is that it promotes pairing and coupling, and these reiterations of cooperative or complementary endeavors are the material and cultural source of resilience of social and ecological systems alike. In the solidarity economy, one does not limit consumption out of a sense of duty to the “conservation of natural resources” so that future generations can have stuff to exploit as well. One does not “conserve” one’s home; you “dwell” in it, and never alone. This is always a “storied residence” in a “mixed” community of humans and other living organisms and the watershed landscape itself.
In the solidarity economy you are in a web of relations, produced through memory, myth, ecological wisdom, and shared lived experiences in and of place. And the enmeshing of a person in a web means you are obligated to live well in your place, by which I mean without displacing Others.
It is not just what we make, but how we make it that matters.
The solidarity economy is a concept that needs to inform the unfolding and widening discussion of public policies for a new “green jobs” transformation of the U.S. economy. The liberal, progressive, neoliberal, and libertarian “solutions” and models for this transformation (for every one purports to be “green”) are problematic because none of these partisan ideologies recognize the determining role of community, place, and ecosystems in shaping and remaking these policies. They fail to allow for a working out of their rooted application on the ground through place-based watershed (not basin-wide) and land grant councils for example. Direct local participation is a pivotal principle for the flourishing of the solidarity economy.
A good place to start with the re-imagining of the proposed coming wave of work to rebuild the U.S. economy is to first eschew the idea that somehow all of this can be placed in the hands of a new breed of socially-responsible, labor-friendly, and ecologically-benign corporate citizens. Instead, I propose that the challenge is to go “green” while eliminating rampant structural inequalities of power and wealth: It is not just what we make, but how we make it that matters. Will we continue to follow the familiar individualized hierarchies of the predatory economy, or embrace the mutual aid principles of the solidarity alternative? To realize the latter, we have to scale down and we must embrace “re-skilling,” especially the tacit social skills of cooperation and the artisan craft skills that are waiting to be tapped as an unacknowledged reservoir of labor’s creative fire.
We also must learn how to recognize and value the existing virtues and strengths of the solidarity economy. Capitalist corporations do not have a monopoly on organizational form as a science or art. The wisdom of multigenerational community groups, exercised through the informal and formal associations of so-called civil society, are already an organic form of place- and network-based organization.
In this manner, the solidarity economy has economic organization, but it is not the legalistic, bureaucratic, and hierarchical form of the American corporation, that was recently declared by telluric interests to possess the same rights as individual citizens. Instead, the solidarity economy is organized as a set of localized and shifting face-to-face relationships.These exist within dense social networks that constitute themselves from actual lived experiences in which people come to “feel” responsible to share in a “common wealth,” mutually relying on each other to realize the economic potential of the community, and especially its capacity for self-reliance.
It seems hardly surprising that food production is one of the most common and also most innovative spheres of activism emerging from the emplaced and mobile webs of the solidarity economy movement. This circulation of relationships begins within bioregions but also weaves networks across geographic spaces. It is both place-based and global in its information and material flows. After all, there are “peasants” everywhere in both the city and countryside, and all of them are lively nodes in their own local solidarity economy and extended networks of mutual aid and reciprocity.
Solidarity means we do not discount the costs of our practices and modes of production for labor or the environment.
The solidarity economy privileges home-made organizations. It favors an ecosystems approach to co-habitation and not development of places. If we “green” the U.S. economy, let this also have blue, brown, and black colors: Solidarity means we do not discount the costs of our practices and modes of production for labor or the environment. It does not discount eco-racism. In this fully socialized cost-accounting, the only alternative is to “go green” since to not do so would reveal the bankrupt quality of the endeavor.
There can be no environmental protection without social justice and community-based economic resilience. The principles of the solidarity economy must define the emerging “green jobs” policies that are currently envisioned as the key to the transformation of our industrial, agrifood, and energy systems. As we seek to remake the 21st century U.S. economy, we must demand a path based on the values of social equity, ecological resilience, autonomous community-based governance, and respect for and privileging of place-based knowledge claims. Indeed, some of the first places where we are witnessing this renewal is in the old “rust belt” industrial centers where the urban agriculture and food sovereignty movements have taken root in vacant lots between abandoned buildings. The solidarity economy is rebuilding Detroit, for example, at a landscape level in a genuine grassroots “green jobs” revolution.
Everything we need to rebuild our local economies is likely already here with us, or close by and unrecognized. We don’t need new corporations or government programs. We can adapt new green methods and technologies to place-specific needs, situated experiences, and local knowledge of our own bioregions in rural and urban locales. Ultimately, what we are making is our home, and that is a priceless thing.
Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His influential books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (University of Arizona Press, 2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (University of Arizona Press, 1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.