A person mid-air doing a backflip in a warehouse.
Image credit: John Fornander on Unsplash

As co-coordinators of the US Solidarity Economy Network (USSEN), we routinely face the joys and challenges of working with a wide range of social change agents and organizations to advance an explicitly post-capitalist framework.

We’ve been at this for a while. USSEN was formed in 2007 at the first US Social Forum in Atlanta when approximately 15,000 folks gathered under the banner “Another World is Possible and Another US is Necessary.” The goals, then as now, were to organize around a common vision—one that centers racial, economic, and ecological justice; strengthens ties among existing organizations; and builds a broader and better-connected social justice movement. 

But it is one thing to say that you are building a solidarity economy within a dominant capitalist economy and quite another to actually do it. A key strategy that we have found helpful in enacting our vision is the concept of “non-reformist reforms.”

Understanding the Nature of Capitalism 

Since USSEN is explicitly post-capitalist, we believe it is worth describing what capitalism is in plain and straightforward language. Simply put, it is a system in which a few owners of capital (capitalists) make money from earning profits from the work done by the vast majority of people, who must work for a wage to earn a living.

Some people believe economics is too hard for people without formal education to understand, but we disagree. It is important to note that the word economy comes from the Greek word oikonomia, which simply means “management of the home.” The owning class intentionally obscures how they undemocratically and unjustly make decisions about how the economy operates. That is why we recognize the importance of understanding—and teaching—the basics of economics.

There are resources out there that can help. Our friends at Movement Generation wrote a seminal zine, From Banks and Tanks to Cooperation and Caring: A Strategic Framework for a Just Transition.

As Movement Generation observes: 

The primary purpose of the dominant economy—what we call the Extractive Economy—is the accumulation, concentration and enclosure of wealth and power. If the purpose of a Regenerative Economy is ecological restoration, community resilience, and social equity, then resources must be acquired through regeneration. 

Like cancer, capitalism will kill its host if we do not move beyond it. 

The Center for Popular Economics, a collective of economists once directed by coauthor Kawano, works with activists and educators to demystify how the economy works and build an economy that puts people before profit. For over 40 years, they have offered a detailed definition of capitalism which points to five primary defining (and interrelated) characteristics:

  • Private Ownership of the Means of Production (the MOPs) 

In capitalism, the materials, facilities, machinery, and tools used to produce goods and services are owned by private individuals or capitalists. 

  • Wage Labor 

In capitalism, workers provide labor in exchange for a wage which is treated as just another commodity to be used to produce goods and services—and is bought and sold via the market. 

  • Profit Maximization

There is a competitive dynamic in a capitalist system that drives profit maximization supported by the false notion that this will lead to optimal outcomes. Note that class conflict is built into the system, as capitalists seek to maximize profits, generally on the backs of workers.

  • Commodity Production 

In capitalism, goods and services are produced for sale, rather than being based on need.

  • Market Allocation 

In capitalism, the decisions about what goods/services are produced, how they are distributed, what they cost, and how finance and investment decisions are made are determined by “supply and demand” with little regard for social impact. 

Taken together, these characteristics explain why capitalism creates class conflict, inequality, market failure, destroys the environment, cultivates excess materialism, and creates boom-and-bust economic cycles. 

More dangerously, capitalism functions like a cancer cell because it is premised on unlimited growth on a finite planet. In other words, we are consuming Mother Earth’s resources faster than she can replenish herself. Like cancer, capitalism will kill its host if we do not move beyond it.  

The Principles of a Solidarity Economy 

Of course, capitalism is often defended as being necessary to our existence. Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, famously claimed that “there is no alternative.” We disagree. In particular, the solidarity economy offers a very promising framework for an economy centered on people rather than profits. This framework consists of five profoundly different core principles to describe how an economy can meet people’s needs.

  • Solidarity 

This includes a broad range of social interactions grounded in the collective practices of cooperation, mutualism, sharing, reciprocity, altruism, love, compassion, caring, and gifting. 

  • Equity 

This framework opposes all forms of oppression and discrimination, whether it is based on ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else. 

  • Sustainability 

This framework understands that all life is interconnected and interdependent. We embrace the concept of buen vivir (right living or living well). 

  • Participatory Democracy 

The solidarity economy framework is premised on the notion that democracy should extend beyond elections to the workplace, policymaking, institutions, governance structures. Decision-making should be as local as possible in order to empower communities. If a decision affects you, then you should be allowed to participate in making that decision. 

  • Pluralism 

The solidarity economy framework is not a dogmatic and fixed blueprint. It acknowledges that there are multiple paths to the same goal: creating a world that centers the welfare of people and planet.

In short, a positive vision has been developed. The question is how to get there—and the question of getting from here to there, we assert, is ultimately a question of strategy, or what we call a strategic orientation.   

A Strategic Orientation Is Not a Fixed Strategic Plan

A strategic orientation and a strategic plan are related but different concepts. 

A strategic orientation refers to the overarching worldview or philosophy that guides actions and decisions toward achieving long-term objectives. It encompasses the fundamental beliefs, values, and goals that drive movement or organizational behavior and shapes its approach to addressing challenges and opportunities in the external environment. Essentially, it defines identity and purpose, setting the direction for all strategic endeavors.

A non-reformist reform is designed to [help people] in the context of a strategic orientation that’s designed to ultimately transform the entire system.

On the other hand, a strategic plan is a formalized roadmap that outlines specific actions, initiatives, and objectives designed to realize a strategic orientation. It translates the broader strategic vision into actionable steps, detailing timelines, resources, and responsibilities to ensure alignment and coherence in execution. A strategic plan typically includes elements such as goal setting, implementation, performance metrics, resource allocation, and risk management strategies. It serves as a blueprint for guiding decision-making and resource allocation across different levels and functions within the organization.

Having a strategic plan can help with the nuts and bolts. Nonprofits are often good at these. But to transition from capitalism to solidarity requires a clear strategic orientation—an orientation that we call non-reformist reforms.  

Non-Reformist Reforms: Solidarity Economy Politics in the Real World

André Gorz, a leading theorist of what was then regularly called the “New Left,” first coined the term “non-reformist reforms” in the 1960s to describe reforms that immediately improve people’s lives and also build power to achieve more systemic change. To be clear, we genuinely and sincerely honor efforts to heal whatever hurts that people have. But a non-reformist reform is designed to do that in the context of a strategic orientation that’s designed to ultimately transform the entire system. 

Consider the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program. In one sense it was a reform that fed hungry children, obviously a beautiful thing. What made it a non-reformist reform was that it was part of a deeper, more radical vision. A community garden might be merely a place to get nutritious, local organic food. But if it is part of an effort to wean a community off dependence on the corporate food production and distribution system and create food sovereignty, it becomes transformational.

Public banking, community land trusts, worker cooperatives, participatory budgeting, and universal basic income are some specific economic policies that we think of as having the potential to be non-reformist reforms, as each operates through a non-capitalist logic: centering democratic ownership and/or control and operating for public benefit rather than private gain. At the same time, all these examples can happily coexist and unwittingly even strengthen capitalism, unless they are embedded in a transformative program.

What made [the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program] a non-reformist reform was that it was part of a deeper, more radical vision.

Connecting Non-Reformist Reforms to Electoral Politics

How do you realize non-reformist reforms politically? One step that USSEN has taken toward this goal is to create a “candidate questionnaire.” The questionnaire is designed to be a practical tool to move beyond individual policies and toward a broader challenge to the current capitalist political economy.

In essence, a candidate questionnaire is meant to be used for educational purposes, not to electioneer for or against a particular candidate. It compares what different candidates running for a particular office think about important issues that might help to advance the idea of a solidarity economy. 

Note that 501c3 nonprofit organizations are not allowed to make guides that tell people who to vote for. However, they can share guides to help educate people on the candidates without picking sides.

The IRS has promulgated rules for candidate questionnaires to make sure they’re fair and unbiased. They look at things like if the questions are clear and if all candidates get the same questions and have enough time to answer. They also want to see that the candidates’ answers aren’t changed. Whether using our questionnaire or making your own, nonprofits must be careful to ask neutral questions, not ones that show what answer they think is right.

An Invitation

As mentioned above, the two of us met at the first US Social Forum. Both of us at the time sought to develop workshops and panels (Kawano around the solidarity economy and Cobb around democratic practice).

Our thinking has evolved. For instance, one of us (Cobb) initially only saw the solidarity economy as being about cooperatives, not a strategic plan to democratize the political economy. It took time to realize that the solidarity economy framework provides an opportunity to do more than create cooperatives. In fact, it offers an opportunity to engage collectively in a peaceful revolution by employing non-reformist reforms. We hope this article is an invitation for others to explore how to apply this strategic orientation in your own community.

One final note: The word “conspire” comes from the Latin words con, which means “together,” and spirare, which means “to breathe.” In its original construction, conspire literally means “to breathe together.” In that spirit, we encourage readers to conspire with us.