Longer Tables

longer-tableSolidarity economy made easy

For Bob, who already knows.

My friend wrote:

Hi Petros. I’m struggling with concept of the solidarity economy! See this [link to a 16-pages long global-cum-vague document]

IMO it tells a lovely story but there’s nothing concrete – no examples!

How might this work? within – say
* a household
* a hamlet of households
* a local community
* the wider world

Don’t take me wrong — the document my friend linked is good. I will most probably read it some time soon (in my potentially existing spare time) and perhaps even give some review here. But it seems that solidarity economy needs some more human-readable, down to Earth, explanation. So with all caveats, I make my take. 🙂

In a nutshell
(or was it a nutcase?)

Essentially, the central axiom of solidarity economy is this:

If you have more than you need,
build a longer table.

In a more formal way we may say:

  • The goal of solidarity economy is to fulfill acknowledged needs of its members, in a way that supports equity and respects sustainability and resilience of resources used.
  • It is done through sustainable production and community controlled distribution of wealth. (more in-depth article on both topics is available here)

Yes, that’s all. Everything else is an exegesis.

Of course, the goal of this text is to provide some exegesis, so we will not stop here. But really you, Dear Reader, can skip the rest. I hope you won’t, though.

Want not, waste not.

Solidarity economy is all about needs. It is focused on fulfilling them, both personally (I work to cover my needs) and communally (I help other to cover their needs, they help me to cover mine).

Which of course means that I want is no longer the key motivation. I need — a true, honest and credible I need — acknowledged by the community, becomes the core of social contract. It also means no waste — whatever is wasted, wasn’t really needed. And that means — unless proven otherwise — a breach of the deal.

Living off-greed

We’re not making a world without greed, Jacob. We’re making a world where greed is a perversion. Where grabbing everything for yourself instead of sharing is like smearing yourself with shit: gross. Wrong.
Our winning doesn’t mean you don’t get to be greedy. It means people will be ashamed for you, will pity you and want to distance themselves from you. You can be as greedy as you want, but no one will admire you for it.

Cory Doctorow — Walkaway

…not a higher wall says extended version of the meme. That of course refers to current dominant paradigm — capitalist economy — which is all about concentration of wealth and protecting it from others (the very definition of property focuses on excluding others from access to a resource).  In capitalism you can judge one’s success by the height and sophistication of the wall blocking your access to their wealth.

Greed, rationalised, objectivised and turned ideology, is the powerhouse of capitalism. And the wall, enclosing what-is-rightfully-mine, is its avatar.

Many people believe that “alternative” lifestyle is about living off-grid. It is a good start, perhaps. But the goal is to live off-greed.

In solidarity economy you will also easily see who is successful. Their tables will be the longest in the neighborhood. And they will be busy helping others extend their tables.

Accept no substitutes

There is another version of the saying, which — in my deep belief — is toxic and should NOT be accepted. It says If you are more fortunate than others…

Nope. That’s not solidarity. That’s charity.  And that’s bad. The best deconstruction of charity I know was written more than 100 years ago by Oscar Wilde, so I will not even try to compete. For my modest analysis the important part is that this mutant version drops all relationship with human needs and uses “a longer table” as a way to show success relative to other people’s achievements. There is no “know thyself” approach, honestly assessing one’s needs. There is no community endorsement. All what remains, is the old evil I grabbed more than you, disguised under equally old, Puritan version of Deus vult: market-sourced material success becoming a new Metatron.

In solidarity economy, there is no charity. We take care of each other as it goes. This week I help you, next week you help me. Mutual help is the rule, not an exception. And if one is fortunate — we all are.

Abundance helps

It is of course easier to share, if any shortages are local and abundance is a system-wide rule. Some people believe — and I tend to agree — that removing the concentration of wealth from the equation will redirect enough resources back to circulation, so we will not experience systemic scarcity anymore.
If we add to it the expected shift from I want to I need, it may be the case. Not only because of the “added value” staying with those who produce it, but also because of massive part of economy restructured from supporting global production and redistribution to serve local and regional levels.

Let’s get to it

This way or another, in abundance or deprivation, solidarity economy can be implemented the same way as any other model — through accepting certain axioms, priorities and protocols (procedures).

The central axiom we already know:

If you have more then you need,
build a longer table.

Out of it come certain conclusions :

  • The economy is about community. A single household, through its members, participates in one or (usually) several communities, exchanging resources and interacting with mutual aid system.
  • Community, either natural (local) or intentional, is a metaphorical mirror and literally public register. Community, by definition, knows its members and keeps tab on their reputation and credibility of their needs. Members who contribute their resources (metaphorically extending their tables) do it either individually (peer-to-peer) or through community, which then assigns resources to those in need.
  • Beyond immediate community, we have networking, confederation and diplomacy. As with people, communities that cultivate solidarity economy are supposed to share their surplus. Recursively, all rules apply here as well: knowing community’s own needs, participating in a network of communities, maintaining reputation, helping others directly or through pooled resources.

How could it work, as my friend asked, in microeconomic practice?

A household

This is the place where personal needs are defined. There is nothing special about it — not a real change. Home budget, as usual. Then comes second level, contribution. Again, the household decides what is actual surplus to share. We may be short of money, but long on time. So Petros offers 10-hour help in this month’s gardening and ask for support to pay  medicines for Natasha.

A hamlet of households — a local community.

If we go beyond a household, there are two assumptions (already mentioned):

  • Household, through its members, participates in more than one community. That also means that by definition the household IS a joining link between them.
  • Community is defined by mutual agreement and direct peer-to-peer knowledge (which limits the size of community).

Also, as one may expect, I consider community a confederation of members, based on subsidiarity principle. All power delegated to community should be limited in scope and time and non-destructive dissent should be respected and considered a sign of health.

Now, what happens with our example on community level? There is a registered request from Kostas, who needs help, as the olives picking starts this month. So Petros gets assigned to it.
Community has no free cash at the moment, but the open call is announced and some people chip in for this particular need and the money gets transfered to the household.

Next month Kostas, who successfully harvested his olives and made new batch of olive oil, contributes 50 liters to community pool. Person responsible for food distribution makes a recommendation to contribute 20 liters for a nearby squatter community, maintaining a safe house for women and children escaping home violence. 30 liters would be distributed inside community, according to standing list of members in need — single parents, seniors, unemployables. The rest can buy oil from Kostas at fair price, set halfway between what he can get from the wholesaler and the retail level.

In my opinion, the most important part is the peer-to-peer aspect of solidarity economy. Except for human habits, there is nothing in this model that requires hierarchical decision making. People are free to give and take individually, even without letting community know. Covering needs on peer-to-peer basis is the best way — community will know about it, but there is no need to spend time and energy on collective decision-taking.

The picture I painted here is rather extreme, in the sense that there is almost no exchange-based economy inside the community. This is of course unrealistic at large (except for some tight-woven and strongly intentional, family-like communities). The most practical way to keep and settle scores in this respect is still community’s mutual credit system, with some extras, like debt abolition protocols.

The wider world

We are now talking about two worlds. The world of solidarity economy, built as a confederated network of equal communities, tending to communicate, cooperate and coexist in a peaceful manner. And the world of competition, domination and concentration — both of power and wealth.

In the world of capitalism, communities will most probably act as cooperatives — through collective action (be it on the consumer or producer/worker side) they will play the game to earn as much as possible and avoid being ripped off. There is no single recipe for that, but some intentional communities in Europe and the Americas have good experience with it.

In the solidarity world it is quite simple. Communities will network. And there will be more than one network to participate in. Essentially, whatever applies to the relation between a household and community, applies to relations between community and networks it is in.

Of course both the scale and scope of decisions will be different, in favour of topics we now call political. But also infrastructural decisions and projects will be done this way. A very good case is a network of communities within one regional ecosystem — a river for example. In a natural way all communities are connected through a shared resource. Taking care of the river is a shared interest, with special significance for those downstream.
Possible task of negotiation and implementation of river protection system is a real challenge for community network. But is certainly possible.

Our own bootstraps

There are dozens of aspects of solidarity economy and of the process leading us to it. There is no chance to grasp them in such a short and amateur text.

But the part which is absolutely crucial, is this (replace trust with solidarity, if you need more direct message):

What the game is, defines what the players do.
Our problem today isn’t just that people are losing trust,
it’s that our environment acts against the evolution of trust.

That may seem cynical or naive — that we’re “merely” products of our environment — but as game theory reminds us, we are each others’ environment. In the short run, the game defines the players. But in the long run, it’s us players who define the game.

So, do what you can do, to create the conditions necessary to evolve trust. Build relationships. Find win-wins. Communicate clearly. Maybe then, we can stop firing at each other, get out of our own trenches, cross No Man’s Land to come together…


And yes, Stanford Prison Experiment was a scam.  🙂

Christmas Truce 1914, as seen by the Illustrated London News.

3 thoughts on “Longer Tables

  1. Thanks a lot. I like it, especially the idea and picture of longer tables.

    I will aim to read Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism

    My questions: how do you envisage the community (at the level of hamlet of households – for now)
    * controlling distribution of wealth
    * allocating tasks
    * dealing with free-riders (is tracking of effort necessary/ desirable?)
    * admitting new members

    * and might this be varied in the situation where there are limited resources and many people arriving and wanting to join

    Best wishes, and I hope you can find somewhere to live very soon.


    1. Before I try to describe how I would recommend it for the community I want to live in, there is more important thing to envision: the way communities would decide about things you mentioned (and more).
      And the shortest answer will be “in harmony”.

      We are talking about intentional community. Even if the only reason a group of people/families live in one area is coincidence, once they declare themselves a community, they assume an intention — at least the minimal one, to stay this way.

      This becomes the root of all further decisions. As long as the community is functional, all decisions should be supporting the founding intention.

      Of course, the community is a dynamic system. And, what is more important, it is immersed in the dynamic surrounding. So, healthy community will run periodic audits of their own decisions, including the founding intention. The goal of the audit will be to see if they are still adequate, considering changing surrounding and mindset of community members. This will hopefully keep them in touch with changing reality.

      As I wrote once (about hackers) occasional explosions and bad smell are the signs of life. If I think of harmony it is not the boring vision of echo chamber, where all dissent is banned, lest it destroy fragile house of glass. It is a harmony of a street band.

      So it is not about being unanimous — it is about being functional. As long as the community is healthy (in touch with reality AND functional), they will be able to answer the questions you posed. Of course, it does not guarantee that you or I would like their answers. But that’s another story…


    2. Now, how do I imagine “my” community would deal with these challenges? Hmmm… Let’s try.

      — Distribution of wealth
      This seems easy enough. People bring their own stuff into the community and either share it or not. But it is still theirs. People work for community and whatever resources are earned this way, they are community resources, shared. People do individual jobs or whatnot using community resources and the outcome is shared or not, depends on agreement. After few iterations we’ll see what patterns are favoured.
      Generally, I would expect that the accumulation of resources on community level, not private.

      — Allocation of tasks
      If there is really problem with some unwanted jobs, the next task would be how to solve it. If there is a persistent problem, all community will get involved. I would personally go for a lottery.

      — Free-riders
      Only persistent AND malevolent freeriders are real problem. And they can be pushed by the community — rather in a non-violent way — with escalation curve up to expulsion from the community.

      — New members
      This is quite simple: there will be an integration path, probably 1, 3 and 6 months stages. But generally it should be much easier to leave than to join.

      — Rapid growth, limited resources.
      Except for some dramatic circumstances, there should be a predefined limit of community size. One of factors should be the availability of resources. And as usual, it should be audited periodically (no less than once a year). If the growth is too quick, there should be a way to split the community and create a “colony” — sending a group of members, with support from the sourcing community, to establish new one nearby.


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