Building the Solidarity Economy: Awakening to Our Mutuality and Shifting the Terrain of Power
At the core of our civilizational breakdown is an extractive economy that wastes both nature and people, at the same time it is Hoovering extreme wealth up to the billionaire class. But with breakdown comes breakthrough. Professor Manuel Pastor believes we’re living through a moment of profound transformation. It will come down to what we do — or don’t do — at this moment of radical change.
In this episode, we hear from Pastor on how shocks to the system are precipitating a great awakening and growing movements to transform the economy to our economy.
Manuel Pastor, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at USC and Director of its Equity Research Institute, has long been one of the most important scholars and activists working on the economic, environmental and social conditions facing low-income urban communities and the social movements seeking to change those realities. He has held many prominent academic posts, won countless prestigious awards and fellowships for his activism and scholarship, and is the author and co-author of many important, highly influential tomes.
- Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
- Written by: Kenny Ausubel
- Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
- Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
- Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
- Producer: Teo Grossman
- Production Assistance: Monica Lopez
- Special thanks to Status Coup News for use of their interviews with workers on strike
Solidarity Economics: Why Mutuality and Movements Matter | 2021 Book by Manuel Pastor and Chris Benner
SolidarityEconomics.org | Joint Project of the Equity Research Center (ERI) at the University of Southern California and the Institute for Social Transformation at UC Santa Cruz
Manuel Pastor — Solidarity Economics: Mutuality, Movements and Momentum | 2021 Bioneers Keynote Address
Solidarity Economics: Our Economy, Our Planet, Our Movements | 2021 Bioneers Panel
Bioneers Reader: Our Economic Future | Free eBook
This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.
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NEIL HARVEY, HOST: When engineers prototype a machine, they run it at high speed and high stress to see what blows out. The aim is to determine where the flaws and weaknesses are, and hopefully to correct them.
These days, it seems like everything is broken. Maybe we need an entirely new and different design.
At the core of this civilizational breakdown is an extractive economy that wastes both nature and people, at the same time it is Hoovering extreme wealth up to the billionaire class.
But with breakdown comes breakthrough. Professor Manuel Pastor believes we’re living through a moment of profound transformation. It will come down to what we do — or don’t do — at this moment of radical change.
One thing is for sure. This time is apocalyptic in the original meaning of the word, which is a revelation or an unveiling.
Manuel Pastor spoke at a virtual Bioneers conference…
MANUEL PASTOR: It’s been a very difficult last couple of years. We have been and are still experiencing the COVID pandemic, and it’s important to realize that this was a shock to our system. COVID was the disease that revealed our illnesses as a society: the racial wealth gap, which meant that communities of color were not able to survive the blows of an uneven economy; inadequate healthcare — black people died at 1.4 times the rate of white folks, and if we look at Los Angeles county and age adjust for that, we’ll see that the black death rates were twice that of white folks, the Latino death rates, three times. So COVID was the disease that revealed our illnesses of economic precarity, of systematic racial disparities, of inadequate healthcare.
However, it also revealed our mutuality. The number of people who stepped up in mutual aid societies, the food kitchens that stepped forward, communities beginning to care for the unhoused amongst them. And of course, people wearing masks, even if not just to protect themselves, but to protect their neighbors.
And we, in fact, need to think about COVID as occurring as part of three big hits to the consciousness. COVID itself revealing disparity, the murder of George Floyd and the reckoning around structural racism in the United States, and of course all of that coming on top of four years of a presidential administration that seemed to have cruelty as its main strategy, that wound up [INAUDIBLE] in xenophobia, racism and hate, and had sought to polarize the society. So where does that leave us now?
HOST: As Manuel Pastor points out, one central pivot of transformation that’s being revealed is to change our societal pronoun from “me me me” to “we.”
Manuel Pastor is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of California. He’s Director of its Equity Research Institute. He’s long been one of the most astute researchers studying the economic, environmental and social inequities facing low-income urban communities. He’s also worked tirelessly to address these systemic crises through movement building.
But, he says, the upside of the downside is that the concatenation of crises that bedevil us has shaken loose the foundational ideological assumptions about what an economy is for, and who gets to benefit.
I would argue there is no going back to what we had before. People often use the word recovery, but why would we want to go back to a normal that did not work for so many, with so many crowded into jobs that were high-risk and low pay, with so many left without a social safety net, with so many subject to racist policing, racist education, and even racist environmental conditions in terms of climate inequities. Rather than use the term recovery, we need to understand that this is a moment of transformation, and it’s going to require reimagination and restructuring to be able to get forward to a model that both recognizes the disparities that have existed, challenges inequality, and begins to lift up our commonalities.
Traditional economics, often called classical or neoliberal economics, assumes that people are selfish, they act just in their self-interest, and that markets exist to coordinate that too, and actually sometimes on the left, people think folks act in their self-interest and you need the state to constrain people.
But the fascinating thing is that people also act out of mutuality, out of concern. You know, when there’s a disaster like COVID, there are price gougers, but there’s also people who rush to the rescue of other folks. And the question is: Does our system feed the wolf of selfishness or does it feed the spirit of inclusion, and fairness, and mutuality? And that’s a really important thing that I think is wrong, both with the way we theorize and with the way we structure.
HOST: The prevailing ideology of modern capitalist economics arose in the mid-19th Century in tandem with the Industrial Revolution and the Olympian rise of the plutocratic Robber Barons and their bloated monopolistic trusts.
During that Gilded Age, a leading anti-monopoly crusader named Henry Demarest Lloyd described the ideological conflict around the plutocrats’ so-called “survival of the fittest” Social Darwinist ideology in this way:
The golden rule of business is: There is no hope for any of us, but the weakest must go first. There is no other field of human associations in which any such rule of action is allowed. The man who should apply in his family or in his citizenship this ‘survival of the fittest’ theory as it is professed and operated in business would be a monster, and would be speedily made extinct. To divide the supply of food between himself and his children according to their relative powers of calculation would be a short road to the penitentiary or the gallows. In trade, men have not yet risen to the family life of animals. It is a race to the bad, and the winners are the worst.
In fact, what Charles Darwin was referring to with “survival of the fittest” was an ecological paradigm of the survival of those best fitted to their environment, place and time.
Around the same time, the Russian naturalist and philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin reported on his studies of animal behavior in his famous book Mutual Aid. He concluded this:
Happily enough, competition is not the rule either in the animal world or in mankind. It is limited among animals to exceptional periods. Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual support. That is the tendency of nature.
In fact, Kropotkin proved to be correct. It’s cooperation and symbiosis that make the world go ‘round. The classical “survival of the fittest” economic model is less an ideology than a theology — an article of blind faith in the supremacy of the market to solve problems, and in the benevolence of billionaires. Surveying the state of the world, it’s self-evident that the invisible hand of the market has failed catastrophically.
MP: And we know in our heart that when businesses treat people correctly, that those businesses thrive. We know that if low wages and the ability to destroy the environment were the driving factors behind economic growth, Haiti would be the richest country on Earth, but it’s not.
Neoliberalism has hijacked common sense. So you know, people, when they look at their individual situation, they individualize it, like somehow it’s my fault rather than a result of the structures of inequalities. Or that markets will take care of it. Or that a tax cut on the rich will generate prosperity. There’s no evidence of that over the last 45 years that we’ve been trying it. It’s never generated economic growth. What’s generated economic growth is public investment in each other. That’s what generated the long period of economic prosperity between 1945 and 1970.
So we really need to shift our mindset and begin to realize when we work out of a spirit of mutuality, we begin to generate a more prosperous economy.
HOST: Indeed, as the late senator Gaylord Nelson, principal founder of Earth Day, said, “The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment.”
Real wealth creation is based on replenishing natural systems and restoring the built environment, especially our infrastructure and cities. It’s based on investing in our communities and workforce. It’s been shown to work best when done all at once. Restoration could become an estimated $100 trillion market. There’s plenty of work to do, plenty of people to do it, and abundant financial incentive.
When we return, more from Manuel Pastor on how to bring mutuality into the economy — and why movements matter.
I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to The Bioneers. This is “Building the Solidarity Economy: Awakening to Our Mutuality and Shifting the Terrain of Power.”
HOST: In his book Solidarity Economics: Why Mutuality and Movements Matter, which he co-wrote with Chris Jenner, Manuel Pastor lays out the kinds of mind-shifts and practical applications that can rewrite the rules at this transformative moment. It starts with reframing the term, “the economy.”
MP: When we talk about the economy, it makes it seem like it’s a set of natural laws, things given by God, the market that’s outside of us. But it’s our economy. These are the rules we make about whether to compete or collaborate. It’s a tax system that either lets Amazon go off Scot-free with no taxes or ensures that they pay taxes and treat their workers decently. We should always go back to talking about our economy, the set of rules we set up and use to either protect property or to protect people.
Second big point is that we need to recognize that mutuality actually drives our economy and stress how mutuality, fairness and inclusion can generate prosperity for the many. Now this is a really key point because even progressives sometimes seem like they accept the arguments of conservatives, that inclusion maybe a good thing morally but somehow it’s going to come at the cost of economic prosperity. But you know that when you have a society that’s underinvesting in young people, you’re not going to have more productivity in the future. You know when you’ve got a system of over-policing and over-incarcerating that you’re wasting talent that could contribute. You know when you are not legalizing people who’ve been in this country, perhaps without papers, but for quite a long period of time, you’re not only disenfranchising them politically, you’re disenfranchising them economically and you’re wasting their talent and ability to contribute. And research is showing that those metropolitan areas that are more equal, less residentially segregated, and less fragmented actually tend to grow more sustainably over time.
HOST: Those same metropolitan areas that are more equitable also experience less pollution and environmental degradation.
Manuel Pastor cites compelling statistics that reflect how vital it is to build a solidarity economy. In Los Angeles County, while the median income for white households hovers around $86,000 a year. Latino households plunge to $52,000, and black households to $45,000. It gets even worse. For households with children under the age of 5, the income median for white households is about $124,000 a year. For black and Latino households, it’s about $51,000.
Pastor says that means we’re baking racial inequality into the future — unless we act to change the terms of engagement.
MP: First, we need to center the struggle for racial equity and against racism. We need all of us to have a deep interrogation of how anti-black and anti-indigenous racism has set the terrain for othering, for xenophobia, for hate, for structural inequality that in fact affects all of us. Even immigrants who come to this country, the terrain of an inequality is set by those fundamental dynamics of the taking of land and the taking of labor to amass capital to make this country.
So, if we really want to make a world that is better, we need to center the struggle for racial equity, and take it upon ourselves to understand the deep role of anti-black racism.
But the ground truth of the COVID pandemic is that it radically amplified the Social Darwinism corrupting the economy. The richest Americans raked in the biggest upward transfer of wealth in the country’s history. Concierge service from the U.S. Treasury Department provided them with no-interest cash to capitalize on a fire sale of vulnerable small and medium-sized businesses, while also supporting lucrative stock buybacks and executive bonuses.
While the super-rich got filthy richer, struggling taxpayers received a pittance in direct assistance — and a temporary one at that. Meanwhile companies started complaining bitterly that workers weren’t showing up.
Rather than go back to crappy low-wage jobs that already were often not enough to live on, so-called “essential workers” additionally now faced mortal danger from the pandemic. It’s a nightmare scenario amounting to “Your money or your life.” Thousands of workers staged union and wildcat strikes across the country.
Archival clips courtesy of Status Coup:
“People are sick and tired of being sick and tired, as Fannie Lou Hamer said, they’re sick and tired of being taken advantage of. They’re sick and tired of the top 5 percent getting all the wealth and those of us on the bottom, you know, are struggling to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck.”
“It’s about sticking together as a team to win! These men and women who are standing in line today are really fighting for the new hires and the people of the future.”
“We still deserve human rights and human decency, and I would say that enough pay to pay your rent and get a car to work if you need to and put groceries in your fridge is a human right.”
MP: You know, the business press is calling it the great resignation, because from the point of view of employers, it’s people leaving and not wanting to come to work. But I think it would be better to call it the great rebellion or the great awakening.
What’s going on is that workers are saying, you know what, we’ve just been through this huge existential crisis where we realized what work was essential, and it was not being the manager of a hedge fund, it was being a grocery store clerk or an agricultural worker or a healthcare worker. And yet so many of those jobs are not treated with the pay, respect, a combination that they deserve.
And what I think you’re seeing is that workers are fed up. I mean, restaurant employers used to expect that people would come in for low wages, uncertain hours, and disrespected work. And now people are saying, really? And I have to risk death from COVID too? Later. I’m not coming in. So, you’re really seeing a kind of recalibration of what work means in people’s lives, and a demand for more from it.
But I also think that it’s important to realize that this comes — now it’s about a dozen or so years since the 2008, 2009 financial crisis in which capitalism ran itself into the ground and expected the taxpayers to bail them out at the mistakes they made, even as they left black and Latino homeowners, particularly, in the wind, losing all of their assets, with the racial wealth gap worsening over time.
Young people entered into the labor market in that period of time and they saw Trump get elected and mismanage this last crisis. People don’t trust the system. They know that something is wrong. They know that they deserve better. And even though they don’t quite yet have the collective means for articulating their concerns, they’re articulating them individually by deciding not to go to work, or quitting the jobs they have, or getting together with other people to demand improvements in the conditions at work.
Manuel Pastor has a practical vision for how to begin to restructure “our economy.” It grew out of prior work he and Chris Jenner had done, including an economic report called “From Resistance to Renewal: A 12-Step Program for the California Economy.”
They helped develop a dynamic suite of transformative policies to build the Solidarity Economy Movement. It’s grounded in green infrastructure, education, workforce development, housing, transportation systems, and the Care Economy for the 21st century.
MP: And that is a movement that looks at co-ops, community land trusts, mutual aid societies, everything where people come together to forge institutions, economic institutions, that center collective well-being and provide an alternative to the capitalist orientation of most of our institutions.
So you can imagine making sure that financial institutions lend to communities so that they can start community land trusts. You can imagine making it easier for worker co-ops to form, and also making it easier for them to get the capital finance that they need to be able to move forward. You can see, as happened during the pandemic, government delivering aid, often through these mutual aid societies or community-based organizations in ways that build up that sector of the economy.
That’s going to take some time, and we don’t have a lot of time. We need to scale up quickly. So the solidarity economy vision is kind of a post-capitalist vision. But we also think there’s a lot you can do with currently existing businesses. How do we reward the businesses that are paying taxes, paying decent wages, training their workers, providing paid family leave, and penalize those businesses that are not doing that? How do we take that large part of our economy that exists right now and shift it in the direction of serving mutuality.
HOST: When the pandemic paralyzed the U.S. economy, community mutual aid networks sprang up or leapt into overdrive around the country. They tried to ensure people living alone received the help they needed, such as groceries or rides to the doctor. It’s been civil society — not the invisible hand of the market — that has risen to the occasion to grow and strengthen these networks, and incorporate them into official structures where that’s been possible.
But there have to be some fundamental changes in our economy and our government policies to make a difference that really makes a difference in people’s lives for the long haul. Which is why movements matter, say Manuel Pastor.
MP: That means we need to commit to social movements. There’s a famous quote from Martin Luther King. He actually borrowed it from someone else, which is that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Let me add, Bioneers, but it requires that someone bend it. It doesn’t get the justice just on its own. That’s going to require you. It’s going to require you working with others. It’s going to require broad social movements that challenge the constellation of political power, that challenge economic and racial privilege, and insist on mutuality as the guiding principle for our economy, and solidarity economics as our framework for getting forward.
When you see how the one percent has been running away from the rest of us with its share of national income continuing to go up and social distance mounting and mounting, we know that some people do benefit, even though most of us would gain from inclusion and investment in all of us. And so we need movements like the Fight for 15, the fight for immigrant rights, the fight to house the unhoused, to make sure that we can actually change things.
We also know that the other side effect of movements is just as markets make us selfish, they teach us to be self-interested, look out for ourselves instead of someone else, and see the world as zero sum. Just as markets make us selfish, movements make us mutual, they build the habits of solidarity, intersectionality and mutual consideration that are key to make our economy function for all of us.
Solidarity economics insists that we should address the climate crisis, not just because there’s a cost benefit analysis of how that would be good for us in the long run, but simply that we need to move past an extractive relationship with the planet and understand that we must stand in solidarity with the planet, with other species, and with future generations, to make sure that we have a planet that lasts.