Is the social and solidarity economy a workable alternative to traditional capitalism?

Is the social and solidarity economy a workable alternative to traditional capitalism?

The social and solidarity economy opens up the prospect of democratising the economic sphere, by generating strategies that depart from a dominant model centred on exploiting the environment and people.

(EC - Audiovisual Service)

The social and solidarity economy (SSE) is an economic phenomenon in the full throes of expansion throughout the European Union, as well as other parts of the world. This is no doubt partly the result of the 2008 economic and financial crisis and the prolonged post-crisis period, which – despite the economic recovery in macro-economic terms – has, over the last ten years, led to ever-growing inequalities, precarious employment and cutbacks in basic public services in ‘welfare societies’.

But the current growth in SSE is also the result of the crystallisation of 175 years of organisational history, enabling very diverse social sectors, at a global level, to create alternatives to traditional capitalist organisations, with a view to improving the living standards of the majority.

The social and solidarity economy – through its most commonly known legal structures (cooperatives, mutual societies, etc) – is on the rise throughout the world. Although few quantitative studies are available, the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) notes that there are currently at least 2.6 million cooperatives worldwide, bringing together around one billion people and providing at least 250 million jobs. These figures alone are strong indicators of the sector’s importance.

The emergence of SSE organisations has invariably stemmed from the ability of citizens’ initiatives to observe and define specific needs related to the various aspects of life, as well as from their ability to formulate their own, self-managed responses to those needs.

In addition to structures such as cooperatives and mutual societies, the SSE also includes employee-owned companies, job integration companies, special employment centres, fishers’ associations, ethical finance organisations, community consumer groups, exchange markets and numerous other forms of formally or otherwise defined community aggregation.

Similarly, in light of their objectives, many non-profit third sector entities (especially associations involved in addressing social vulnerability) also fall within the SSE.

Putting people before capital

And what makes those of us who take part in social and solidarity economy initiatives different?

SSE entities define themselves as spaces bound by a commitment to our context and environment; to the supremacy of cooperation over competition, and the primacy of people over capital; to democratic and participatory self-management and internal management; and the prevalence of an economic model that prioritises sustainable living. The aim is life, not profit.

Sustainability has now become a mantra permeating every aspect of public policy. Both the EU, in its numerous resolutions, and European states, through a range of policies, have defined environmental sustainability, improved employment, the fight against inequality and in favour of gender equality as pivotal aspects of their medium and long-term policies. This undoubtedly ties in with the values of the SSE.

The SSE is a phenomenon that is gaining traction across Europe, with at least two million entities throughout the EU (10 to12 per cent of all existing companies), employing around 14.5 million people in 2010 (6.5 per cent of the population in employment on the continent), spanning across the various economic sectors, from industry to agriculture, community services to housing, and consumption to healthcare management.

Yet the significance of this growing phenomenon does not lie solely in its numerical importance but stems, first and foremost, from the need for the widest sectors of society to find ways of addressing their needs based on self-organising and a conception of democracy that goes beyond its formal structures: where the economy becomes a space under citizens’ control, and their needs and means of sustenance are placed at the centre of development models, over and above mere pecuniary considerations.

SSE in the aftermath of the global crisis: solution or placebo?

From its inception, the various manifestations of the SSE have defied the challenge of global development. The sustainability challenge identifies the SSE as a key player in local development, primarily at the local, community and urban levels that we as people evolve and establish our socio-affective, economic, work and cultural relations, etc, at. From very early on, this territorial framework also provided the SSE with the ideal ground for creating responses to basic needs and – through them – to devise different – and differentiating – models of collective development.

It is on these grounds that we, as part of the social and solidarity economy, are trying to build our cooperative city model. We cannot talk of a ‘smart city’ if it fails to include democratic, environmental and feminist dimensions. Without calling into question the great contributions made by new technologies and how they have improved life in our cities, our societies or public administrations, these three dimensions cannot be left aside.

As a growing, albeit still modest and marginal citizen-based phenomenon, in countries like Spain, for example, the SSE is faced with internal obstacles that hinder its adaptation and often make it swing between playing a palliative role within a system that it criticises, and remaining comfortably on its margins. And that is where the great challenge lies: for the hundreds of thousands of people who make up the social and solidarity economy, belonging to entities with sufficient economic, professional, intellectual and other resources to optimally address their needs is, in principle, fundamental. But beyond that, the SSE opens up the prospect of democratising the economic sphere, by generating strategies that depart from the dominant model centred on exploiting the environment and people.

A challenge of such magnitude stretches beyond the SSE’s own capacities: it implies a paradigm shift in relation to the neoliberal model. Putting people’s and life’s needs and desires first implies a profound shift in the existing mechanisms for the implementation and control of economic decisions.

From an SSE perspective, the need is increasingly clear for a change in global governance models, such that supranational institutions, states, and regional and local bodies also foster and promote mechanisms in support of social and solidarity economy organisations. At the same time, the SSE must map out a work path aimed at making the sector more efficient and more permeable, with ongoing training and innovation processes, to better prepare for the changes sought.

Ultimately, the idea is to foster collective solutions that place sustainable living at the fore of all human activity, in response to the prevailing paradigms of individual entrepreneurship, unbridled profit-making and competition that fails to meet our most vital needs.

This article has been translated from Spanish.

This is an abridged version of an article initially featured in Zoom Económico, published by Fundación Alternativas. Its authors, Miguel Ángel Martínez del Arco, Fernando Sabin Galán, Ana Álvaro Moreno, Adrián Gallero Moreiras and Sandra Salsón Martín, are sociologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists and experts in programmes, networks and initiatives focusing on the social and solidarity economy.