Volume 46 Number 181,
April-June 2015

The Solidarity Economy in Mexico, Boris Marañón (coord.), Institute of Economic Research, UNAM, Mexico, 2013.

This work introduces exploratory studies on various experiences related to the solidarity economy, which refers to collective organizations by the people and for the people, which seek to resolve material needs with actions related to labor and income, through social relations that, according to the coordinator, aim to build communities based on other codes and representations endemic to the solidarity economy, in which equality, reciprocity, a sense of community, collective authority and sustainability prevail, instead of exploitation, domination, discrimination, deterioration and environmental depletion.

One interesting contribution of this work, in addition to the wealth of knowledge in the accounts of individual experiences, is the goal of the coordinator to stimulate a theoretical and methodological discussion on the solidarity economy. We can begin by challenging the epistemological foundation of the predominant social sciences approach: Eurocentrism, grounded in the Cartesian duality that separates mind and body, that is, reason (subject) and body-nature (object); this dualism is manifest in various contrasts, such as capital/non-capital and European/non-European, as well as in the linear evolutionist and unidirectional conceptualization that from the perspective of the European experience conceives of all of that which is not European as inferior, based on the barbaric/civilized and backwards/modern dichotomies, because this way of depicting reality corresponds to a rationality or perspective of knowledge that was superimposed on the rest of the world. Another characteristic feature of this form of knowledge is to separate the various realms of the social life (social, economic, political).

This theoretical reflection is made, principally, to show that if experiences are analyzed from this predominant perspective, social relations are depoliticized and addressed ahistorically, in a fragmented and imperial manner, which makes it difficult to understand popular economic practices, their emergence, limitations and power of social transformation. It is time for an epistemological shift to address the issue of the solidarity economy by recovering the categories of social totality, historicity and power, in order to overcome the lack of historical-structural explanations of the origin and growth of these practices, as well as the economicism and empiricism that have characterized various studies on the topic.

From that perspective, this book offers a historical overview of the factors that have converged to drive the emergence of this type of organization, in which liberation theology and the experience of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation play a main role in the struggle for social justice, the recognition of rights and autonomy and the formation of cooperatives that seek to create an economy based on reciprocity. They do not receive State support but do sell surpluses in markets – not the general markets, the solidarity markets –, and these groups also build networks of organizations of producers and members of civil society that promote a political project that is opposed to the dynamics of exclusion and social differentiation derived from capitalist tendencies.

This universe encompasses, for example, fair trade initiatives, which seek to improve the economic and social conditions of small producers through the construction of circuits of exchange that defend values such as solidarity, social justice, the preservation of heritage and respect for nature, in which organic production practices are essential to protecting agricultural ecosystems. It is clear that these initiatives have promoted the insertion of marginalized producers in the international market, through associations that establish direct relationships between buyers and producers to bypass the relations of domination and exploitation derived from asymmetric insertion in the market.

The experiences introduced in this work include organizations from the northern, central and southern regions of the country, offering accounts of various processes that highlight the differences in context, antiquity, activity, consolidation and level of insertion in the market, as well as the features and peculiarities of the members. What they have in common is that these groups were born of extreme situations (violence, exclusion, unemployment, natural disasters, etc.), circumstances in which the population had nothing more than its own strength and resources, which is why individual solutions were inviable to create alternatives and better living conditions.

The analysis of the organizations addresses three fundamental aspects: 1) the type of social relations woven among the members, beyond self-definition, the size and sector in which they are involved, the prevailing rationale, that is, if there are relations of exploitation and domination, as well as hierarchical organization or reciprocity, equality, a sense of community (collective authority) and sustainability; 2) the criteria that would lead to a change in social relations, and 3) reflections on the potential of being an alternative, even when maintaining links to the capitalist market and relations with the State.

Some of the daily practices mentioned in the case studies include: the equitable distribution of earnings; collective, horizontal and participatory decision-making; occupying positions of authority as a service, not as a source of differentiation; and organizing a large portion of productive activities based on reciprocity. Another important aspect is the diversification of activities, which implies comprehensive processes of saving, consumption, production and commercialization to make the organizations less vulnerable.

Finally, it proposes the possibility to further contextualize these experiences as alternative projects for a society based on a non-capitalist rationale, in the framework of the current crisis of civilization. It also considers that in some cases, more than just alternative forms of labor and income, these options are a way of life, because their practices include comprehensive perspectives, where it is even important to create a new language to break with the predominant proposals and practices of cooperativism.

This work undoubtedly raises a series of questions and theoretical and methodological challenges that cannot be resolved with the sharing of a few experiences, because the complexity in which these organizations are embroiled is high, especially if we take into account the political aspects of these undertakings, not only within the organizations, where there is constant tension between reciprocity and the market, but also in terms of their relationships with other organizations and participation in the local and/or national environment. We must better understand these experiences so as not to force them into the preconceived category of an alternative society, but we cannot deny that despite their contradictions and peculiarities, they are laying the groundwork for a new form of sociability and in some cases, they constitute a viable opportunity to achieve better living conditions.

This work is valuable because it proposes an analytical perspective from a critical point of view and provides guidance on how to address this topic and other topics related to the extreme situations facing broad swaths of the population: unemployment, poverty, marginalization and exclusion, to name a few.

Hilda Caballero
Institute of Economic Research – unam

Published in Mexico, 2012-2017 © D.R. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).
PROBLEMAS DEL DESARROLLO. REVISTA LATINOAMERICANA DE ECONOMÍA, Volume 49, Number 192, January-March is a quarterly publication by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Ciudad Universitaria, Coyoacán, CP 04510, México, D.F. by Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas, Circuito Mario de la Cueva, Ciudad Universitaria, Coyoacán,
CP 04510, México, D.F. Tel (52 55) 56 23 01 05 and (52 55) 56 24 23 39, fax (52 55) 56 23 00 97, www.probdes.iiec.unam.mx, revprode@unam.mx. Journal Editor: Alicia Girón González. Reservation of rights to exclusive use of the title: 04-2012-070613560300-203, ISSN: pending. Person responsible for the latest update of this issue: Minerva García, Circuito Maestro Mario de la Cueva s/n, Ciudad Universitaria, Coyoacán, CP 04510, México D.F., latest update: Feb 23th, 2018.
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