The motives for transformational action
A fifth road to solidarity economy starts with “social conscience” that expresses itself in action or struggle for a change of social structures.
A great quantity of human intelligence has been engaged in elaborating projects for a “new society” and in identifying the means and strategies for their realization. A great many social and political organizations propose to effect transformations in society or build new social relations, to which end they launch an infinity of actions and struggles, involving multitudes of people.
Transformational thought and action have been present throughout history and it can be affirmed that in every epoch and society there have been groups and movements that find themselves maladjusted to the existing state of things and full of desire for a better society, one that is more just, free, egalitarian, and fraternal. In any human society there exists a transformational energy generating tensions, quests, actions, and conflicts that energize society, disrupting the complacency of the established order and orienting human experience along new trajectories. It is important to understand the origin of this energy and the forms in which it manifests.
In general terms, social transformational energy is born of two elements which, upon meeting and uniting, catalyze social movement and action. On one side, energy comes from those who find themselves in an impoverished and untenable situation in the existing order, without access to the sources of power and wealth, excluded, marginalized, or subordinated. The established order does not favor them, impedes their growth and progress, allows them very little space and recognition, and keeps them in poverty. They can not be contented with this situation because they aspire to more. A contained energy emerges in them, one of protest and rebellion, which springs from feelings, interests, and growing awareness of the social or structural causes of their desperate situation.
The other source of transformational energy resides in people or groups who do not experience marginalization or injustice in their own flesh but find themselves motivated by ideas and values of a higher order; ideas and values not yet present in the established order that they want to see embodied in human and social relations. The confrontation between reality as it is and the ideas and values that tell them how it should be reveals a gap which produces a feeling of dissatisfaction leading them to conceive of change as possible and appropriate in order for humans to better realize themselves and perfect their quality of life. It is quest that can be characterized as idealistic, but is not necessarily utopian or unrealizable.
Thus, transformational energy exerts pressure for change and social transformation from below, that is from out of the experience of those who do not live the level and quality of life that the existing order permits to some, and also from above, from the desire for better modes and conditions of life than those which society has achieved.
The two energies tend to find and reinforce each other. They draw close spontaneously, needing each other in order to achieve their respective purposes. The sectors affected negatively by the existing social order find ideas and projects that lend coherence and rationality to their own aspirations and struggles in those who search for change out of idealist motives; the latter find in their counterparts the bases and social forces in which to root their transformational projects, make them concrete, and lend them social force.
The principal transformational energies of the modern epoch have been oriented towards altering the reigning, capitalist, “economic system.” The capitalist system is criticized for the structure of values which it demands and disseminates among people and throughout society (utilitarianism, individualism, consumerism, etc.) as well as the disintegrating effects that it has on social organization (division into social classes, regressive distribution of wealth, exploitation of labor, etc.), effects that derive from the concentration of property and the subordination of labor to capital.
Nonetheless, and paradoxically, the action and organization of those who seek a transformation that is basically economic have ended up channeled into the political arena. Two things explain this paradox. First, the project of economic organization that is to be substituted for capitalism has been based on the idea that the State – the political institution par excellence – should expand its economic functions and roles, with the aim of replacing private capital as the subject of the ownership of the means of production and as organizer, director, and regulator of the key economic decisions and activities.
The other reason lies in the fact that the goal has been to carry out structural or systemic change that affects economic organization in its totality, a goal that seems to be achievable only through the action of a powerful macro-social subject that can be controlled by those who initiate it (at least theoretically). In modern societies, the only reality that would meet these conditions would be the State, the entity around which practically all political life is concentrated and articulated.
To be sure, this has not been the only orientation of transformational energy in the modern epoch, but it must be recognized as the primary form, the form which has managed to draw to itself the greatest proportion of energies, organizations, initiatives, and activities tending towards social transformation. It has also been the only orientation that has been able to show tangible and patent effects in the realm of organization of society as a whole. Other orientations, which have centered on cultural activities and pursued social change starting from personal transformation, or those that have developed in the economic terrain as such, in the form of enterprises or organizations that don’t operate with a capitalist logic (for example, co-operatives and self-managed organizations), have garnered smaller proportions of social transformational energy and achieved more limited gains which have appeared precarious, unstable and reversible.
The break up and collapse of the Socialist States has affected at its roots the project of social transformation centered on the State, and the social transformational energies that had been channeled in that direction find themselves objectively to be lacking a project. Which raises the question, what social project can now orient transformational energies and actions, and, going to the root of the problem, guide our reflections on the mode of conceiving and realizing social change?
There are two aspects of the problem which we should distinguish analytically. One question regards the contents of the project: the values, relations, behaviors, and structures that we wish to promote or implement. The other concerns how we conceive of and structure action and the process of transformation.
Today, reflection on the new social project, on the modes which processes of change can assume, on the structures of transformational action and on the organizational alternatives which can promote it, is of great importance, for two reasons. First, because social change continues to be necessary, perhaps now more than before, due to the magnitude of poverty, the exacerbation of social inequalities, and the tremendous schism, occurring between societies and within them, between those who are in the vanguard of the dynamic processes and those who remain excluded or marginalized. It is due also to the diffusion of individualistic, consumerist, and materialistic behaviors that limit and distort human development. Second, because although the practical manifestations of the transformational energies that these realities and reasons constantly generate in great quantities can be diminished, the energies remain latent. Because they do not currently find adequate channels, suitable channels that orient and focus them in a constructive and efficient manner, the resulting frustration can give rise to anomic behaviors that can only have negative consequences for society.
It is in the search for a new and higher organization of these transformational energies that solidarity economy offers alternatives and hope, as much in respect to the contents that the process of transformation can push forward as in respect to the modes of transformational action and organization employed. We begin the analysis with this second aspect.
An inadequate mode of understanding the project and process of social transformation
The most important transformational projects in the modern epoch have started from the idea that change has to be global, that is, that the existing social order – understood as a “system” – must be replaced by a different one: a new type of society. Consequently, the project is to construct a determinate “model” of society. A global project of this type projects, with more or less realism, the “way society should be” in each realm: in the economy, politics, culture, social relations, forms of property, etc.
In some cases the formulation of the project for the society to be built is founded on an ethical, philosophical, or doctrinal conception: an understanding of what is just, natural, necessary, rational, and so on. The project itself arises from an intellectual elaboration and has little to do at the outset with the particular and concrete characteristics of the real, actual subjects who are called to make it a material reality. On the contrary, it tends to postulate that the change agents – people, social groups or classes, organizations, etc. – have been formed in the framework of the established “system” such that they are marked by the characteristics and relations needed in order to function in it. But, it is thought, to the degree that these subjects become aware of their situation and conditioning and decide to act in opposition to the dominant structures they can convert themselves into adequate instruments or means for the realization of the project of transformation. What makes them important is more than anything their power, the energies they are able deploy to achieve the desired object. To what degree they can “make the project their own” is also important, whether they do so because it corresponds to their interests or because they can be persuaded that this is the case. In effect, if a subject does not make the project their own it will be difficult for them to correctly align their forces. The tasks of the organizer or intellectual agent which flow from this conception of social change consist primarily of conscientization, organization, and mobilization of the subjects, who are seen as the project’s instruments or bearers.
In other cases, the point of departure for determining the global model of society to be built is a particular experience or organization in which, it is believed, the ideal project for all of society is contained in miniature. It can be a type of enterprise, a political party, church, association, even a particular type of person. It is supposed that the values and principles, the modes of thinking and acting, the relations and structures, etc. that characterize the organization are the ideal modes that need to be established throughout society. It follows that the transformational task consists of diffusing and expanding the organization’s ways of being, its particular values, behaviors, and organizational forms, through the multiplication of similar organizations, or even, in an extreme version of this conception of change, through the progressive absorption of other people, groups, activities, or social spaces.
So, whether the starting point is a certain ethical and doctrinal conception or a particular organizational experience, since the project of transformation is global, i.e., implies a reordering or restructuring of all of society (also known as “system change”), it leads to the necessity of conquering positions of power from which it would be possible to exercise influence over society in all its aspects. In modern and contemporary societies the privileged center of such power is the State; and if it does not at the moment have the power required, the task is to develop its power and make it grow so that the State can be in a position to realize the desired global changes. This is why when we think of realizing a “model of society” the necessary transformational action unfolds in the terrain of politics, oriented towards the conquest of power.
Now, conceiving of social change as a process of construction of a global model of society and trying to achieve it through the use of power presents very serious problems, problems that have to do with something essential: the consistency between what one intends to achieve and what it is possible to achieve through action carried out in this way. Moreover, this way of conceiving change leads inevitably to frustration of transformational energies because, while relevant social and historical effects can be obtained, the results that are achieved through this action do not correspond to the objectives being pursued. It is crucial to understand in depth why this is so.
To begin with it should be mentioned that any project for a global society is utopian and unrealizable. The project can not be realized – take practical concrete form in society – because it is not possible to configure reality as a whole to match a model that someone has previously elaborated, nor can reality be made to fit a particular model of organization some group has built somewhere on a small scale. There will always be other ways of thinking, other forces, other organizations working towards goals that are different from those of the project one wishes to implant, forces of opposition which have concrete effects. The most to which one could aspire, following this approach, would be to put in place for a historically brief time something like a deformed caricature of the ideal sought, which could only be done at the cost of maintaining a continuous domineering force – ideological, political, or military – controlled by one group that imposes itself on the others.
The entire history of society has proven this point and will continue to prove it. What is odd is that such approaches are considered to be realistic and efficient. True, they are capable of accumulating around them certain forces and mobilizing real social energies, but this efficiency proves to be illusory because though those forces may have impact and be capable of generating meaningful actions and accomplishments, the project itself fails to be realized. A reality is constructed but it is substantially and essentially different from what was intended.
One element which is sought as the effective medium or instrument for realizing the project, once introduced into the transformational process, inevitably steers it away from its objectives, radically deforming it: power. In effect, to change and reorganize all of society in line with a model or previously defined project it is necessary that the bearers and executors of the project in question hold and make use of immense power. But the possession of so much power implies its accumulation, which can only be accomplished through the dispossession of others of their own capacity for decision-making. If, as we saw in the previous chapter, power is the capacity to make others act in conformity with one’s own will, its inevitable first result is the creation of social relations of domination and subordination. But aren’t we seeking to replace social relations of domination and subordination? What kind of project of social change aims to establish relations of domination and concentration of power? Someone could reply that the concentration of power is only carried out as a means to later dissolve it. But any logic of concentration of power results in... concentration of power. Power does not dissolve itself. With power grows the ambition of those who have it while the powerless are dispossessed, losing even the capacity and aptitude for its exercise.
What is worse, the process of accumulation of power begins by taking power away from the very subjects – people and organizations – who we want to involve as actors in the project of transformation. In effect, they are only regarded as loyal and effective executors of the global project to the extent that they act in conformity with the plans, orders, or directives of those in charge. The putative transformers of society are obliged to begin by organizing themselves into a hierarchy in which the many will delegate to a few leaders the power to make principal decisions relative to their own action. Embedded in a logic of accumulation of power, those on top demand obedience and loyalty from their subordinates, and those below, in addition to subordinating themselves vis-à-vis their superiors, demand submission from and seek to exercise maximum control over the groups that are meant to be molded into instruments of the great social project. What kind of liberation, what kind of egalitarian society, what kind of fraternity or justice can be built this way?
The struggle for power as a path and strategy for realizing social change is, in short, ethically wrong and not conducive to the objective of global transformation in accordance with a predefined model of society. Innumerable experiences of this type demonstrate that the end does not justify the means used to reach it. Moreover, the end itself is not only unrealizable but highly questionable from an ethical point of view. In order for one or more social subjects, themselves unavoidably part of society, to consider themselves the bearers of a global project according to which all of society should be restructured, they must assume from the start that they are the exclusive possessors of truth and righteousness.
If, on the contrary, we start from the premise that truth and values find themselves distributed in society, that no-one possesses all of them, that all subjects individual and organized have legitimate ideas, values, interests, and aspirations that have a right to exist, that social homogeneity is an impoverishment of human experience while diversity, differentiation, and pluralism constitute its enrichment and are products of human creative liberty, then a road is opened to a new and distinct mode of understanding and acting for social change.
For a new structure of transformational action
A first question to analyze refers to the domain of the social organization out of which effective transformational action can be launched and, in relation to this, the importance which should be assigned to political action. With respect to this point it is essential that we fundamentally reconsider the widely-held conviction that political society is the proper arena for the application of forces tending to the construction of a better society.
Having privileged the political for at least two centuries it is time to weigh the results. What has been gained? The answer is clear: the result of so much effort, so many struggles, so much energy applied, is society as it is today. As it is! Yes, the best we have achieved is society as it is.
Obviously, the current state of society is not exclusively the effect or responsibility of those seeking social change; it is also the product of those who have opposed them and combated their efforts, as well as those who simply had different perspectives. But the people who have sought social change should recognize that even in the conditions in which we they had to act, with the adversaries they had, and the forces they faced, the best they could accomplish with the ideas, analysis, plans, actions, and methods that they practiced for so long, is reality as it exists today.
Of course this is a very unsatisfactory result. But can we at least say that we have gotten nearer to the reality we desire? Are we closer to achieving it? If we don’t change our ways of thinking and acting, on what basis can we hope for greater gains in the future? Let us look more closely at the results obtained; they show, at least partially, the effect of transformational action.
The most obvious and important fact is nothing other than the unheard of growth of the State and the greatest centralization of power that has ever been seen in history. However different and even opposed their ideologies and programs may be, no matter which political forces have been in power the State has grown. Often they cancel each other out and the State, notwithstanding the formal concentration of power that it represents, becomes incapable of adopting decisions that could have a profound impact on social and economic structures. Thus, it is no contradiction if power is concentrated in a State that is at the same time incapable of having a transformational impact on reality.
While the political struggle unfolds in a limited arena, the situation of the popular sectors remains the same, inequalities tend to continue, attempts to change the structure end up revealing themselves to be ephemeral and superficial in their results.
It becomes necessary, then, to investigate why politics has proven to be an inadequate arena for transformational action. Politics is two things: the struggle for power (to conquer and maintain it) and the action of organizing and reorganizing. It starts with what exists: political forces must base themselves in the given reality and consider existing interests and forces as bases and pillars of their struggle for power. Political organization that is not functional for the existing forces can not gain access to positions of power; likewise the conservation of positions won is contingent upon acting in conformity with given interests and realities. This is why in politics the space for utopia and for the new is very limited.
Moreover, the action of governance consists of ordering, organizing, or reorganizing the elements of the given reality. Politics organizes that which exists: it does not create new realities.
The only thing that can profoundly change reality as it exists is creating and establishing in practice – in the given, existing conditions – new realities which call into question the existing reality and, through their presence, lead to its restructuring. Creative activity is the principal and decisive transformational activity, capable of introducing effective historical innovations.
Can creativity exist in politics? Is innovation possible in this arena of social life? Certainly, but it presupposes a specifically creative type of activity which we can call, simply, culture. Creative activity in politics is certainly not the quest for power, the call to partisans to engage in demonstrations and political action, but rather a work of the intelligence, the imagination, and the will placed in dynamic tension by the search for the true, the beautiful, the just. It supposes a force concentrated in cultural spaces, a constant and exclusive dedication. Those who practice creative activity within their own political organizations are not, it seems, the ones who achieve positions of power, simply because they do not dedicate themselves to achieving it; if they were to seek power, that task too would require constant and concentrated dedication, leading them to neglect truly creative activity.
Does this mean that those who seek profound social transformation should leave politics to one side? Definitely not. Our argument aims to show that politics is neither the central nor the priority activity for those hoping to construct a better society. Politics is and should be, in the framework of a project of social transformation, a subordinated activity.
The sphere of activity that transformational action must privilege is found in the spaces of civil society, where we encounter the principal activities that are creative of new realities.
We understand by “civil society” the ensemble of economic, social, cultural, scientific, religious, and other activities carried out by people, associations, communities, intermediate organizations, businesses, and institutions that do not fall under the direct guidance and responsibility of the State. In these spaces, transformational activity takes place as a vast and multi-faceted creative process.
When we think about historical transformation from the standpoint of civil society a new mode of transformational action appears. It is not about imposing on society a whole preexisting model already present in particular realities or ideally anticipated in an ideological model. It is not about the subject-bearer of the project accumulating enough forces and power to be able to realize it from the top down. This historical transformation is about a different type of action, democratic by definition (inherently non-authoritarian), that realizes its transformational objective in and through the very act of being and doing in a different way, because it contributes something distinctively new to society.
The principal activity consists of constructing new realities in which problems generated by the necessity of change (injustices, oppressions, inequalities, etc.) disappear and the values that one wishes to infuse into human and social relations are present in a manner that is consistent and central.
Solidarity economy opens a new channel for transformational energy
When groups that aspire to profound social change find themselves disoriented; when projects that have guided struggles for a better society have been crushed; when so much struggle and so much effort oriented according to the logic of politics and power have proven to be precarious and insufficient even as a process of profound social change becomes ever more necessary and urgent, when a new mode of transformational action becomes recognizable in its contents and forms, at that point searches guided by the perspective of solidarity economy lead to an original road and a new hope that draw many to them.
We are not so bold as to claim that this is the only possible road, the only way to channel aspirations for a society better than that which exists; but we can say without a doubt that it constitutes a real and concrete path of social transformation, as fully coherent with the changes currently needed as it is with the forms of a new transformational action of the type we have intuited.
It is also coherent with the objective that has been uppermost in most social struggles, the goal of constructing a new type of economy, different from the capitalist economy which is criticized for its exploitation and subordination of labor, division of social classes, extremely unequal distribution of wealth, and exaggerated individualism and consumerism. The solidarity economy is exactly that: an economic project centered on the construction and development of new economic forms and structures at the level of production, distribution, consumption, and development.
It is coherent, too, with the values that have guided ventures and projects of social change for all of modern history: freedom, justice, brotherhood, participation. The solidarity economy crafts these values in daily life, in action. It is not derailed by supposed shortcuts that would delay its realization until the objectives of political power have been achieved and changes that are supposedly total have become possible.
Solidarity economy offers coherent channels for the motivations that generate transformational energies, and space and opportunities for growth and participation by social sectors that have been neglected and demoted in the established social and economic order. In it those who aspire to make their ideas and values concrete and infused them in social life and order find space to realize all of their creative contributions. Grounded in the same process, which is at once ideal and practical, they find in each other that which each separately lacked and needed in order to realize their goals.
Solidarity economy is coherent with the intent to construct horizontal human relations. Rather than establish links of power, the capacities of each person and each group are developed such that the actors assume growing control of the conditions of their existence. Power and control over necessary resources are not centralized but socially disseminated.
It is also coherent with a structure of transformational action which privileges the sphere of civil society over political society, such that the result of transformation turns out to be truly democratic and participatory. Solidarity economy unfolds preferentially in civil society and proceeds from the social base itself organized to address people’s needs and make the economy conform to their ways of thinking, feeling, valuing, relating and acting.
It is a matter, finally, of a distinctively creative process that permanently introduces new realities into the existing reality, and that testifies to other ways of doing things and organizing that are possible and better. Solidarity economy is made up of organizations and activities created by their protagonists, in ways that are always original because they respond to their particular problems and circumstances and utilize the means and resources at their disposition or that they create for themselves. The potential of solidarity economy is consequently vast and profound. It unfolds at the level of the most radical and intense of transformational activities, being itself a great project of social change.
The dimensions, scope, and perspective of solidarity economy remain emergent, like an embryo. It is difficult to know now where the process that has been initiated will take us. In any case, it is preferable not to know with certainty the goal that has to be reached. Better to walk in fact in the direction that one chooses, than to go along convinced that one is advancing toward a clearly defined objective while one is in fact going in the opposite direction, as has happened so many times in the politics of this 20th century. For now, we can say that the direction, the contents, the forms and projections of the project emerging from solidarity economy are the very ones revealed to us as we examine each of the various solidarity economy roads. We will return to this theme after we have covered them all.
Wherever “man” (el hombre) is used to designate humankind, gender neutral nouns and pronouns have been substituted. - MN
ABOUT THE AUTHOR & TRANSLATOR
Luis Razeto Migliaro is a leading Latin American theorist and practitioner of solidarity economy, whose work has been largely unavailable in English. For nearly half a century Razeto has worked to spread and deepen understanding of solidarity economy, a term he popularized after it was coined by a grassroots organizer in Chile.
Matt Noyes is a member of the GEO collective and a movement educator based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has a Masters in Social Economy and Cooperative Organization from Mondragón University.