Commons and Comrades – Social Solidarity Economy & the Commons Conference in Lisbon 6.-8.11.2019

Notes from the Social Solidarity Economy & the Commons Conference in Lisbon 6.-8.11.2019

The atmosphere was abounding with a sense of comradeship at the second Social Solidarity Economy & the Commons Conference in Lisbon. The warm and inspiring conference counted on the presence of people from over four continents and over 20 countries, including researchers, activists, practitioners as well as civil society and public workers.

The conference days were structured in morning main panels with key speakers, followed by slots of parallel sessions with presentations of students, researchers and activists. A new innovation in the conference were all day long research derbys with research papers and the aim of promoting common publications. In this partial report we pick up on some of the themes as well as take some time to address the format of the conference.

In her opening remarks, Ana Margarida Esteves celebrated the multitude of participants and the rich content of the program. The participants, for their part, were certainly equally grateful for the work Ana Margarida Esteves, Leonardo Leal, Gil Penha-Lopes, Rogério Roque Amaro, André Girardi and Raquel Silva had done to make the conference a reality. On a sunny day under the sky of Lisbon, the conference was ready to begin.

Common discussion in the panels

Two themes from the main panels: the Hot Autumn of 2019 and What do Solidarity economy and the Commons (actually) mean to us.

It has been a Hot autumn in Lebanon, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Hong Kong, France, just to name a few. During the first panel, Donatella Della Porta spoke on the ongoing global wave of protests as a continuation of the ‘68 movements that began to build horizontal ways of organizing, and included young people and women as key players in the protests.

Today’s movements are, according to Della Porta, movements of precarious generations building a new global citizenship. The movements emerge in different places, having different traditions and history, but they also look at each other. They carry the flags of each others struggles, calling to each other for common development. And these movements produce new networks of solidarity, which continue to function long after the waves of protest.

Della Porta also made the explicit point that as we tend to focus a lot on the protesting as resisting, more attention should be given to the democratic proposals and constructive experiments in the movements. They open up new democratic spaces and ways to organise everyday life. The different ‘hot autumns’ have in common that activists meet and discuss, write a lot on ideas, and put them into practice. As such they are new forms of action, with civil disobedience here being a way to challenge the status quo but also to create new political places and solidarities.

During the continuation of the plenary a second common discussion to the conference was opened, namely what do the concepts we are using, Social Solidarity Economy and the Commons, actually mean to us. And  what the process behind these concepts is about.

Philipe Eynaud spoke of the current prevalence of the idea that market actors could have two objectives – that they could be making profits and simultaneously contribute to the social good. However, Eynaud discussed a new form of enterprise – which is not about the connecting of those two economical dimensions,but about their political dimension, their connection  to social movements, making them as actors working towards the commons form of economy.

Also Boris Maranon in his intervention addressed that the new economy we are referring to, will not be coming about in a big bang, but through everyday practices. This includes struggles against the corporate state. Civil society might need central authority, but this need not be a corporate state.

During the second morning and the second panel, Jean Louis Laville spoke on how the terms solidarity economy and the commons appear more and more in discussions, despite the fact that there is no commonly agreed-upon definition. The concepts are still a work in progress. Laville spoke of how the genealogy of the solidarity economy has seen three moments:

Firstly, as the third sector, which refers to the understanding that the third sector is a residual form of state and markets, not  challenging of their principles. Secondly, as a social economy related to property regimes. Here common interests are acknowledged and situated within the rights regimes.

Thirdly, as non capitalist enterprises which serve common interests and community based needs. Core here is not only the notion of collective property, but the practice of participation and deliberation. Coupling solidarity economy and the commons means that solidarity economy must be deliberative in action, with the challenge for us being how to make this participation real.

Laville also stressed that Northern epistemologies have made certain economies invisible, reducing our capacity to see the connection between economy and society. However, as he pointed out, ecodiversity in a sense of the economic is as important as biodiversity. (!)

Sophie Bloemen continued to talk about the participation aspect. She told about the Amsterdam municipalist vision, how it entails the desire to talk of democratising of economy, feminism and the commons. She felt that there is more awareness of power relation in the newer communities, of what is expressed in Jo Freeman’s notion of the tyranny of structurelessness. How can we really allow for the social process of democracy? This is a tension present when the state tries to facilitate participation. There is a tendency to go for an easy fix. Opportunities for brief moments of participation will be created, but they do not mount up to true in depth deliberation, commoning processes. The question for us is then, how can we work together to create spaces for people to join and participate,  which are not an easy fix.

During the third panel, Ruby van der Wekken spoke on her understanding of the concepts  based on experiences with Helsinki Timebank and Oma Maa food cooperative in Finland. They can be described as people’s processes around daily needs. They acknowledge that systemic change starts from responding to daily needs, such as food, and that systemic change occurs when entire (food, currency) systems are in the hands of people, are determined by people, meaning their production, distribution, and usage.

According to van der Wekken, solidarity economy building can then be seen as a methodology in which we make visible those systemic change alternatives around us, which have other values than monetary profit upfront.  As these alternatives work together and support each other, they give rise to new practices. By linking our food cooperatives and other exchange systems such as a timebank and our energy cooperatives etc., more commoning can take place.

Notes from the parallel sessions

In addition to the main panels, three full-day research derbys and ten paper sessions were organized during the days. Our highlights of these are, of course, inadequate, as we participated in only a part of the abundant supply.

In one of the first paper sessions, Janne Säynäjäkangas argued for the need to politicize our ontologies of resources. When natural resources are discussed, resource use is often represented in terms of quantities of emissions produced and resources consumed. The result is that the use of resources appears to be a zero-sum game, in which any gain for humanity is equivalent to a negative impact on nature, which seems to indicate an unsustainable contradiction between humanity and nature.

Säynäjäkangas argued that the understanding of resources in terms of inputs and outputs exchanged between parties on opposing sides should be understood not as a neutral scientific conceptualization, equally applicable to all forms of socio-economic systems, but as a representation of the kind of resource use characteristic to capitalism. Säynäjäkangas suggested that a different concept of resources is needed to understand non- or post-capitalistic forms of economic institutions, such as commons.

In the paper session on urban space and commons, Birgit Daiber discussed the controversy that arises when housing prices in urban areas rise to the clouds, even though the city also needs large numbers of workers to do diverse work. The urban space should be freed from the power of speculators as a common living space. Resistance can be built on the idea that people have a right to the city.

Ahmed Mori, in turn, introduced the US Community Land Trusts as organizations that build self-governing communities and resist gentrification in cities. Trusts have a role to play in providing affordable housing, and they usually involve studying and revitalizing the cultural specialties of the area. According to Mori, the creative use of legal instruments can strengthen the communities.

Nuria Reguero talked about a mapping project for urban commons in Catalonia. One of the challenges of the project has been that commons mean different things. According to Reguero, the concept of the prosumer is useful in identifying commons projects where people are not only users of a common good, but are also involved in its production. The commons mapping project has taught that commons are always locally and historically shaped. The results of the project will be presented at http://blogs.uab.cat/coproduccioprocomu.

Barbara Ferreira looked at Portuguese community groups that openly involve people in the development of local communities. Groups bridge the private-public divide and have clear positive effects on local government. As a result of the groups, local governments become more transparent, they recognize better social diversity and they distribute resources more equitably. On the other hand, open groups can also act as a means for various established and conservative interest groups to run theirs demands.

In the third research derby session, at first each presenter talked about their own work and at the following sessions a red line was drawn to connect the inputs and prepare a joint publication. It was an intriguing challenge to try and arrive into a common line of thinking on the spot, which finally was nailed down as “post-capitalist practises”.

Sunna Kovanen spoke about how the practise-theories help us to understand the slowness of changing the society by questioning the ability of people to consciously change our habits. By focusing the analysis on practise instead of ideals, values or individuals, it is possible to observe how an ordinary act such as buying food is conditioned with numerous other, already established practises. Practises such as transportation, everyday life patterns, marketing, subcultures etc. constantly precondition on what we as agents would ideally like to do. However, commons and solidarity economies are ways to enhance the political potential of practise-theories, as they bring along the analysis of how habitualized subjectivities may change and what kind of challenging emotional work does it include to cultivate reflexive, political subjectivity amidst habitual everyday life.

Paolo Graziano spoke, in turn, about radically post-capitalist practises of solidarity purchase groups in Italy. They are active in market which should not be understood as a capitalist exchange platform, but as a social construction with diverse values and practises of exchange. They have been upscaling greatly in the last years together with major meetings of political movements, making them as a practically functional alternative from consumption perspective.

Finally, Andreas Mulvard presented a survey from the field of economics which evaluated the economic performance of different formally democratically governed enterprises in Denmark. The presentation provoked major discussion as enterprises, which may formally be organised as cooperatives, may in practise function as capitalist enterprises aiming at gaining a monopoly and enhancing only the possibility to buy cheap products.

However, as a conclusion to the session a typology was drawn, where different case studies from solidarity-buying groups to worker-cooperatives and CSAs were evaluated in terms of how post-capitalism is in fact practised in them.

In the paper session on agricultural cooperatives, Alfonso Berchman introduced indigenous cooperatives from the Andes. Cooperatives protect traditional plants and safeguard people’s ability to live independently. Yagmur Kara and Gûnes Kurtulus, in turn, introduced a new wave of Turkish consumer cooperatives that have emerged since the Gezi Park demonstrations. The cooperatives have roots in the protest wave, and they express new views on ecological way of life and economic democracy in the name of food sovereignty. Alessandra Picolli reported on a participatory research with Italian agricultural cooperatives concluding that the researcher can work as a pedagogical companion in the practical processes for economic alternatives.

At the session, Ruby van der Wekken and Jukka Peltokoski talked about Finnish co-operative ‘Oma Maa’ developing a model of community supported agriculture (CSA). The case also provided illustrative remarks of how to re-read the principles of cooperative movement from commoning and peer-to-peer perspective. Whereas International Cooperative Alliance’s interpretation of cooperative principles emphasizes the operation of cooperatives in a market economy, from the point of view of commoning the economy needs to be rethought as concrete action to build the commons around the daily needs. Only a part of the action, based on open and voluntary contributing, is mediated through markets.

Most inspirationally, paper sessions also saw different contours of academic contributions, as given by ex-professional football player C. D. Fisher whose presentation was in the format of a poem on the pressures of commercialisation confronting feminine football today. The poem spoke of the tensions when wanting to move beyond merely the getting of an equal amount of the price money, to the addressing of the entire production of the game. The poem evolved into the carried out moves of football training, which evolved into dance, expressing what happens when the outside-in pressures on how to move in the football training get turned into bodily movement from the inside-out.

Finally, in a workshop on P2P technologies, researcher and entrepreneur Don Blair introduced new web applications that operate on P2P principle. PCs and mobiles nowadays have so much power that web applications do not need to communicate with central servers, but can run directly on personal devices. All the data required by the applications can be distributed as encrypted among the applications, which makes the system extremely secure. Examples of such a P2P applications included Beaker Browser (https://beakerbrowser.com), Cabal (https://cabal.chat) and Scuttlebutt (https://scuttlebutt.nz).

Some thoughts on the format

The Social Solidarity Economy and the Commons Conference was a fantastic opportunity to get together with solidarity economy actors and commoners from international networks. Even though we spoke many languages and were aware that the concepts we are using are under construction (and maybe they will always be), we had a common understanding. The spirit of common movement was palpable and touching.

As a matter of fact, while we enjoyed fully this experience, more critical discussion of the controversial issues in social solidarity economy and the commons, is also desirable in the future. In the panels, Ana Margarida was already asking questions about the role of privileged groups in the movement. There are also questions to be made about both the positive and negative relationship to the markets, the state, and for example to informational technologies. In the academic context it would be interesting to discuss about the role of researchers in the movement.

What we also enjoyed was the lack of individual ‘stars’ having monologue presentations as plenaries. Instead of that, we saw panel plenaries with groups of discussants. In the spirit of the commons, the conference was structured by group discussions. Also the diversity of panelists representing different continents, practical and academic backgrounds and genders was very welcome. Several languages were spoken and simultaneously translated.

On the other hand, the panels turned out to be rather monological anyway, particularly the opening in which the number of panelists was high and the introductions were long. Thus, the panels could perhaps have been structured better, for example by sending the panelists predefined themes and questions to be answered. Controversial topics would have forced the panelists to debate with each other. Maybe the number of participants in larger panels should have been more limited, especially concerning the diversity of languages and simultaneous translation.

And finally, maybe the notion of the commons remained only minor note, almost forgotten amidst institutional debates.

Sometimes in the academic field we also easily forget to reflect the solidarity among our own structures. Sunna compared the conference experience with “do-it-together-conferences” organised by German degrowth and solidarity economy actors. In conferences such as “feminist futures” and “Für den Wandel sorgen” (caring for the change) the organising process of the conference is open for activist-volunteers to contribute to. The paid staff and their organisations carry the legal responsibility, but activists can be giving input regarding formats and their realization via regular teleconferences and network meetings during the organising process. Formats vary from paper-presentations to workshops where one can learn from the making of non-packaged cosmetics to participatory theater as well as to lobby training with design thinking.

Also the sharing of care responsibilities at the conference is part of the philosophy and practise. The conference organises child-care, which is paid, but to which participants are encouraged to contribute by taking voluntary shifts. This way also activists with child care duties can participate. Usually the catering is organised by a political group, such as refugees and friends, who make their living with cooking for such events. The main responsibility is paid, again, to respect the care workers and contribute to their livelihoods, but participants are encouraged to take on shifts in the washing of the dishes and other organisatory help during the conference.

Such organising is, of course, a completely another kind of process than the typical organising process of academic conference. In the case of “feminist futures” the happening was co-organised with an old and established leftist foundation, and the organising was a major learning process both for the activists and the foundation. Can you really trust a catering of hundreds of people in the hands of a political group? Perhaps academia is not just quite ready for such steps, and often the organising capacities are very limited not allowing the coordination of a big volunteer network. However, it is interesting to look beyond the typical format and be open for taking our values and practises to the core of our meetings, whenever it is possible.

The Social Solidarity Economy & the Commons Conference is a unique process that brings together students, researchers and practitioners. We hope that the conference will, above all, strengthen the real movement towards a social solidarity economy in which the commons are at the forefront. At their best, universities are open spaces for discussion of theoretical concepts as well as practical solutions to the questions posed by social movements.

With this in mind, we are already looking forward to next year’s conference!

These notes were written by Sunna Kovanen, Jukka Peltokoski, Janne Säynäjäkangas and Ruby van der Wekken. Photo’s Leonardo Leal and Jukka.

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