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Worker Solidarity Confronting the Crises of Capitalism: Bottom-up Solidarity Economy and Political Ecology in South America

9 Apr 2013

Worker Solidarity Confronting the Crises of Capitalism: Bottom-up Solidarity Economy and Political Ecology in South America
This is part of a series of think pieces by scholars and practitioners working on a broad range of issues within the field of Social and Solidarity Economy. The series is being published in the build-up to the UNRISD conference “Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy”. The conference will take place on 6-8 May 2013 in collaboration with the International Labour Organization and the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service.

In times of combined social-ecological crises of capitalism there is an urgent need to link solidarity economy to the understanding of ecological processes. For example, if solidarity economy practices remain linked to oil consumption and ecologically unequal exchange, the fundamental contemporary problems of unsustainable patterns of production and consumption continue to be reproduced. Insights from political ecology are a way to fill a gap in terms of awareness about social-ecological relations in the understanding of and theorizing about solidarity economy. Concrete examples from South America reveal the importance and potential of linking solidarity economy to political ecology.

Cristián Alarcón (on the left) is a PhD researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and CEFO associate, Uppsala University.

Cristobal Navarro (on the right) is a PhD candidate at Universidad de Buenos Aires and works with "El Trafo", a group of professionals providing technical support to recovered factories in Argentina.


Solidarity economy practices, including worker and peasant cooperatives and other organized forms that constitute alternative ways of organizing production and consumption relations, should always be seen in terms of relations between labour and ecology. In the contemporary context of combined crises of capitalism (including job creation and ecological crises), arguments for solidarity economy must address the issue of how capitalism works to produce and deepen such crises and, as recent discourses on green capitalism show, how it even converts such crises into opportunities for profit.

Analytically and normatively it is important to place relations between labour and ecology at the centre of interpretations of the prospects of solidarity economy both as an academic field and as a social practice. This aim can be justified given clear signs of deepening global ecological crises. While the scale of the contemporary crises is widely recognized, it is clear that the corrective measures being taken are inappropriate. The case of climate change, and the permanent failures of climate change negotiations, is just one example of this critical situation. Yet it is not always recognized that both climate change and other serious ecological crises are rooted in the process of capital accumulation. This is why it is so difficult to see prospects for effective measures to confront growing ecological crises. In fact, solutions needed to face such crises imply radical questions about the very logic of the hegemonic system of economic growth, such as the expanding logic of capital accumulation. In addition, other recent crises have foregrounded discussions about the increasing level of inequality worldwide. It is against this wider global context that solidarity economy can play a crucial role within possible, and desirable, social-ecological transitions.

It is important to make a clear connection between solidarity economy and a critique of the political economy and ecology of capital. Furthermore, concepts that can help us to better understand solidarity economy practices are needed. Thinking in terms of the political economy and ecology of labour can capture the potential of solidarity economy practices to constitute alternative relations between labour and ecology within and across geographical spaces. This can also help to understand how these practices can play an important role in possible anti-systemic social-ecological transitions. Two examples, one urban and another rural, are presented below to support this argument.

Cooperbio: An agro-ecological peasant cooperative in Brazil

Cooperbio is a peasant cooperative with significant activities in southern Brazil. The cooperative is oriented toward small-scale production, industrialization and commercialization of biofuels and was established as a way for the Movimento dos Pequenos Agricultores (Small Peasants/Farmers Movement of Brazil) to include biofuel production in its social and economic projects. Cooperbio’s aim is to apply agro-ecological principles to land use and production, and it consciously organizes labour-ecology relations against the logic of capital. In doing so, Cooperbio aims to create sustainable ecosystems, reproduce non-wage labour and resist the expansion of agro-business (within this context non-wage labour means that workers are not selling their labour to a capitalist or a company).

The case of Cooperbio shows how productive alternatives for peasants can be brought to the local area which, in turn, may lead to significant change, including alliances, economic linkages as well as negotiations of the terms through which solidarity and labour are understood. If this is to be an alternative development path, it implies going beyond the specificity of the peasant cooperative and cooperating with other groups in the area. The combination of food and biofuel production is a key issue here. By reformulating the terms of biofuel production—as production integrated into a system of food production—Cooperbio aims to provide both food and energy security and sovereignty. This approach to bioenergy is referred to as Alimergia by Cooperbio’s representatives: “ali” from the Portuguese word alimento, meaning food, “me” from meio ambiente – environment –, and “ergia” from energia – energy. The term represents a productive process in which food, environment and energy are integrated in a systemic way.

Key to understanding Cooperbio is the incorporation of agro-ecology in its practices and the need to find an alternative to agro-business. Cooperbio’s agro-ecological approach to the production of biofuels results in a better environmental performance than large-scale and industrial production of biofuels in Brazil (Alarcón et al., 2011). Cooperbio is one example of a growing effort by agro-ecological movements to demonstrate the potential of this approach in addressing climate change (Alarcón 2010). In fact, one can even go beyond the terminology of social movements and cite these examples as cases of social-ecological movements where the social and the ecological are recognized as linked elements of land use and production of use value (use value means the ways in which things satisfy human needs). All this is understood in the wider context of providing alternative meanings for development. According to Cooperbio’s website (http://www.cooperbio.com.br/quemsomos.php):

    Recent studies show that oil will become scarce within the next 25 years. This means a problem for societies...at the same time an opportunity for humanity to build a new source of energy that can help to resolve environmental problems such as acid rain and global warming, as well as accomplish a transformation of energy that can sustain the production of goods and services essential for the social collective and that can articulate another model of development.

Recovered factories in Argentina

A second case illustrating empowerment of workers with significant social-ecological dimensions is that of recovered factories in Argentina. Prior to, and following the crash of the Argentinian economy during 2001, workers occupied factories and other companies in different parts of the country which had been abandoned by their capitalist owners. Today, many of these recovered factories are run by workers organized as cooperatives. A recent study of recovered factories in Argentina published in 2010 demonstrated the permanence of many recovered factories and other productive activities managed by workers. In some areas, the number of factories managed by workers has even grown in recent years. Also, more jobs were created in organizations managed by workers than at other types of establishment (Ruggeri et al., 2010). Though this study also points out a number of problems with the management of recovered factories that need to be resolved, from the point of view of solidarity economy practices it is important to highlight that such problems are being solved by the workers themselves. This implies a political economy of labour which is fundamentally different to the political economy of capital.

Though there is no explicit focus on ecological processes in the discussions and practices within these recovered factories, they are in fact being redefined through, for example, an emphasis on using manual labour instead of machinery. They are also reusing productive outputs and seeking more efficient energy sources in order to sustain enterprise activities. This is important when considering a central aspect of current ecological crises: production based on energy-intensive machinery and industries that generate substantial waste are in the long run either unsustainable or put new pressures on ecosystems, for example, when industrial biofuel production is based on monocultures.

The case of Industrias metalúrgicas y plàsticas argentinas—formerly one of the main private Argentinian producers of metal products and currently a landmark of recovered factories—features several of the issues highlighted above. This industry’s productive processes depend on industrial automatized machinery which implies high energy consumption and large amounts of waste. Clearly driven by subsistence needs more than ecological awareness, the workers at the cooperative have put in place productive arrangements that assure their jobs and reduce costs. One way to achieve this goal is to re-use materials formerly considered waste and seek ways of optimizing energy consumption. Although these issues are rarely framed in relation to social-ecological crises of capitalism, they become a pertinent example of the need to link a political ecology perspective to concrete everyday practices of solidarity economy productive processes. Indeed, previous academic work has identified the need for and the relevance of a more developed political ecology perspective both in the wider practice of solidarity economy in Argentina and in theoretical approaches to it (Navarro 2010). This will allow us to develop a more complete understanding of the links between ecological and productive processes, enhancing and refining the tools of a traditional political economy.

Towards a radical political economy and ecology of labour and solidarity

While these alternative practices have emerged as political solutions to address different local challenges, they also both represent an alternative development path. Both cases can be seen as prefigurative politics of workers’ organization and self-management. Within this context prefigurative politics means that workers’ organization and self-management not only show changes in the here and now but also alternative paths for the collective organization of labour and production. And this implies much more than acts of political discursivity isolated from production and consumption processes. In fact, this practice can be scaled up to encompass wider dynamics of productive forces and relations of production. In terms of political economy and ecology of labour, these two cases tell us that the power of urban workers and peasants in creating, producing and reproducing alternative ways to organize non-wage labour relations is a fundamental aspect of solidarity economy practices. As wage-labour is a fundamental characteristic of capitalism, putting non-wage labour at the centre of productive activities opens up spaces for radical and qualitative change in the organization of production relations.

Analyzing these two cases together highlights several important issues:

  • Both urban workers and peasants have sought alternative ways to organize labour processes.
  • Conceptualizations of social-ecological relations that highlight the inseparability of labour and ecology imply both deeper analyses and normative definitions of sustainability in the context of solidarity economy.
  • There is the need to place the contemporary analysis of peasant and worker cooperatives in historical perspective in order to include social-ecological relations in this analysis.
  • Special attention should be paid to the role played by class dynamics in the rise of solidarity economy, for example, peasant cooperatives opposing agro-business expansion or recovered factories self-managed by workers after capitalist owners abandon the factories.

The cases presented above illustrate instances that could potentially become productive alternatives to the logic of capitalist production. To achieve this, concrete ways of organizing economic and ecological relations are needed which are significantly different from the reproduction of capitalistic social and ecological relations. The notion of a radical political economy and ecology of labour and solidarity can be the basis for a reassessment of both peasant and worker cooperatives and of the practices and potentials of solidarity economy today. In historical terms the place of cooperatives can be repositioned and discussed in relation to older debates where the recognition of the role of cooperatives in workers’ struggles was seen as a victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property.1 Hence, to think in terms of a political economy and ecology of labour and solidarity is also a way to connect current struggles of peasant and worker cooperatives to the historical trajectory of working classes and their struggles.2

Concluding remarks: The theory and practice of solidarity economy in times of social-ecological crises

Thinking about the political ecology dimensions of solidarity economy implies:

  • The ontological issue of the inseparability of economic processes from ecological processes should be an important part of the interpretation of solidarity economy practices;
  • Analysis of social-ecological relations in the light of sustainability assessments should complement the understanding of solidarity economy practices;
  • There is also a need to understand solidarity economy practices in terms of how they contribute to transforming patterns of social-ecological relations developed through the logic of capital accumulation ;
  • Historical approaches situating solidarity economy practices in the context of conjectural crises of capitalism are needed; and
  • The kind of ecological processes being created and transformed by solidarity economy practices should inform the relationship between theory and practice of solidarity economy


Alarcón, C. et al. 2011. Linking systems ecology and political ecology – Insights from a case study in global food and fuel production systems. Paper presented at the Nordic Environmental Social Science Conference, Stockholm, Sweden, 14-16 June.

Alarcón C. 2010. "Communicating climate change, REDD and political ecology: A global land question and prospects for agroecology," Proceedings, 9th European IFSA Symposium, 4‐7 July 2010, Vienna, Austria. Available at: http://ifsa.boku.ac.at/cms/fileadmin/Proceeding2010/2010_WS3.4 _Alarcon.pdf

Navarro, C. 2010. "La Acumulación Originaria de la Economía del Trabajo. Elementos para un debate necesario." In Coraggio, J.L. and V. Costanzo (eds.), Mentiras y verdades del capital de los pobres. Perspectivas desde la Economía Social y Solidaria. Imago Mundi/Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento, Buenos Aires.

Ruggeri, A. (ed. con colaboración de Natalia Polti y Javier Antivero). 2010. Las empresas recuperadas en la Argentina. 2010 : Informe del tercer relevamiento de empresas recuperadas por los trabajadores. 1a ed. Programa Facultad Abierta, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras Universidad de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires.


1See Karl Marx’s Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association in 1864, Available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/10/27.htm

2Deepening this line of analysis obviously leads to important political and theoretical discussions that cannot be dealt with here. For example, property and ownership issues related to peasant and worker cooperatives, and gender relations should be included in such an analysis.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.