Before I was a spreadsheet whisperer, I was an activist and researcher on the subject of the solidarity economy. This pursuit brought me to community gardens, time banks, alternative currency networks, cooperatives, participatory theatre making, labor struggles, and even a stint in Mexico City for fieldwork on all of the above. So, it comes as no surprise that I was enthralled and delighted when my friend, Dr. Andrew Zitcer, published his first book, Practicing Cooperation: Mutual Aid Beyond Capitalism (University of Minnesota press).
In addition to being a fantastic primer for readers first encountering heterodox economies, the book serves up a platter of new ideas for co-op insiders. In particular, I appreciated his openness to organizational structures that are not explicitly incorporated as a cooperative but embody cooperative principles in their missions and practices. It’s no surprise that there is tremendous innovation on the margins and even outside of these narrowly defined boundaries, and that the “orthodox cooperative” movement may become a bit stale without incorporating flexibility into the model. That’s probably taking the argument a bit too far, since there is much value in the specificity of the cooperative framework, but at the same time, there is much to be learned from a broader cross-section of creatively managed firms and collectives that could strengthen the cooperative premise and expand the impact of cooperative and adjacent models. The way Dr. Zitcer modeled this is a gift to our movements and a lesson that I think we should all take seriously!
To follow, some expository writing to compare and contract the solidarity economy framework and the open source framework. I think they fit within each other nicely but are typically not described as part of the same movement(s). At the end, some reasons why scholars/practitioners keep them separate, and why it is time to challenge those beliefs.
What is the Solidarity Economy?
The solidarity economy (alt: social solidarity economy) is notoriously hard to define, since it is a constellation of practices that exist within and beyond capitalism to put people over profit. Some definitions include “informal” and “gift” economies and, and others do not, favoring mutual aid and brick/mortar cooperative or democratically run businesses as the anchors of the movement. I appreciate the description from my professor and collaborator, Dr. Borowiak, which I quoted extensively below, that demonstrates the breadth of the solidarity economy from an international perspective.
Theorizing Social and Solidarity Economy
The solidarity (and social) economy is a difficult concept to define, if only because it is defined differently in different regions and languages.
The Brazilian conception of the solidarity economy, for example, places a heavy emphasis upon cooperatives. It also reflects the country’s long history with landless worker movements. In francophone Europe, by contrast, the term is associated with the concept “social economy” which has a longer history and includes associations and mutuals as well as cooperatives. In regions with developing and agrarian economies, the concept of solidarity economy is often influenced by and overlaps with traditional and/or indigenous economic practices. In other, more industrial or post-industrial settings it is associated with the democratic principles of modern cooperativism.
According to 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.1
What does this entail in practice? Although the question is still up for debate, there are numerous types of businesses, organizations, and initiatives that fall under the umbrella of solidarity economy as it is understood in the U.S. These include, but are certainly not limited to: cooperatives (both worker and consumer), land trusts, community supported agriculture, ethical purchasing, and community currencies. Given contemporary research’s strong research focus on mapping, developing criteria for inclusion in the solidarity economy is critical. The tension between normative and organizational approaches raises questions about what really qualifies as solidarity economy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how cooperatives & solidarity economy do an amazing job putting ends before means. In other words, the ends must further justice, dignity, and liberation for exploited people and natural resources. Cooperatives that do anything else (ie there could forseeably be cooperatives for right-wing businesses/causes; there are cooperatives that operate as cabals) are not considered part of the movement. JUST being a worker-owned firm is not enough! It must be a worker-owned firm in pursuit of social justice.
Dr. Borowiak gives a shout out to Open Source in his website, which surprised me when I went to look at it today! I was prepared to write about how open source is almost always passed over as an example of the solidarity economy in favor of more tangible aspects, like community gardens, however there it was, staring me in the face! (I think my point still stands!)
What is open source?
Fortunately for this blog post, open source is slightly easier (though by no means simple) to define. Open source technology is a model of software development and sharing where the code is transparently available for anyone to see, modify, and improve upon. People can modify their own versions or contribute back to the main branch. People all over the world can collaborate and maintain open source projects that vary in scope from tiny to massive projects. This is very different (though may seem similar on the surface) from giving away code for free or “volunteering” on a software project. Software that you use every day might be open source! Some prominent examples are Salesforce NPSP (not all of Salesforce, just NPSP), Mozilla Firefox browser, Python coding language. Open source developers believe that transparency and shared ownership lead to better products and a better working environment for collaborators.
I particularly appreciated this definition that describes open source in terms of values:
Principles of the open source way
(according to https://opensource.com/open-source-way, which I interpret as an authority on the topic, given their affiliation with Red Hat.)
Transparency. Whether we’re developing software or solving a business problem, we all have access to the information and materials necessary for doing our best work. And when these materials are accessible, we can build upon each other’s ideas and discoveries. We can make more effective decisions and understand how decisions affect us.
Collaboration. When we’re free to participate, we can enhance each other’s work in unanticipated ways. When we can modify what others have shared, we unlock new possibilities. By initiating new projects together, we can solve problems that no one can solve alone. And when we implement open standards, we enable others to contribute in the future.
Release early and often. Rapid prototypes can lead to rapid discoveries. An iterative approach leads to better solutions faster. When you’re free to experiment, you can look at problems in new ways and seek answers in new places. You can learn by doing.
Inclusive meritocracy. Good ideas can come from anywhere, and the best ideas should win. Only by including diverse perspectives in our conversations can we be certain we’ve identified the best ideas, and decision-makers continually seek those perspectives. We may not operate by consensus, but successful work determines which projects gather support and effort from the community.
Community. Communities form when different people unite around a common purpose. Shared values guide decision making, and community goals supersede individual interests and agendas.
Solidarity Economy and OSS – better together?
I have found it to be incredibly fulfilling and rewarding to work on database projects in an open source context:
- through participating in Open Source Commons with Salesforce.org
- by learning civiCRM and experiencing the Powerbase CRM project for social movement organizations
- by applauding work on Spoke and other open source technologies that meet a need for left wing political organizers
- by hosting a free, repository of Conga Composer templates and queries for anyone to borrow and contribute
- by expanding my technical skills by learning Github, YAML, CumulusCI, VS Code, sfdx, and Snowfakery
I think I saw these projects as being disparate dabbling, but now I see that there is a throughline with my enduring commitment to cooperatives, mutual aid, and self-determination. The open source principles above don’t use the language of self-determination, but I can’t help but see open source collaboration as a type of collective action in the face of a technology marketplace that does not provide the tools that we need to do our work.
Most definitions of solidarity economies do not include open source. And even the definition on Dr. Borowiak’s website is a bit vague and takes a left turn away from software development towards sharing (not a direct quote) “blueprints for anything.”
Why is this?
- are solidarity economy theorists and practitioners allergic to big tech and suspicious of the metaverse, and all that goes along with it?
- are “” unaware of the anticapitalist practices and outcomes that are baked into many open source projects and open source as a methodology?
- are “” more interested in industrial production than knowledge/software economy?
- do “” know what open source is?
- are there too many open source projects that do not have explicit social benefit?
On the other hand, why doesn’t open source seek to align more with social and solidarity economy movements and/or the vocabulary of mutual aid?
- The silo-ing of code writing as disconnected from social movements and networks
- Lack of accessibility for social movement activists who are not coders to get involved in these projects
- Lack of awareness of intersecting movements and no shared vocab
- Some open source projects/practitioners do not have a political critique and prop up capitalism / libertarianism
My experience is that the practices, products, and culture of open source technology methods are very compatible with the solidarity economy. I am going to amend my personal definition (cooperatives, community gardens, alternative currencies, etc etc) to also include open source technology. I’d love to hear from other scholars and practitioners – do you think they belong? Who else is thinking about this? Let me know!