Original image by Tola Brennan

In Commonwealth Hudson Valley’s inaugural post – and in my talks on this work – I’ve called for a new economy that will organize ownership, production, distribution, and decision-making very differently from our current one. I haven’t told you precisely what the new economy will look like, how it will be organized, or how its pieces will fit together into a system. I haven’t even given it a name. This is by design.

In working with groups of many different kinds, I’ve observed that there are two distinct ways that groups can organize: around shared beliefs, or around shared values and practices. I have a strong preference.

Shared beliefs often try to short circuit questions that can’t actually be answered: what is the fundamental nature of reality? Is there an afterlife? What can we do to ensure salvation? In religion, organizing on the basis of shared beliefs is called fundamentalism. In political organizing, one name for it is factionalism. The twentieth century witnessed waves of horrific brutality as fundamentalist regimes — both capitalist and communist — tried remake their societies in accordance with “scientific” certainty about their plans for economic salvation.

Organizing around shared values and practices is different. It doesn’t require us to convince each other. There’s no disloyalty or betrayal when we disagree. Values and practices shape our whys and hows: how do we do what we do and what are the deeply felt principles that motivate and guide us? A community organized around shared values and practices has a spacious, often effervescent quality. Doing and making binds us together, while our shared values provide an emotional concurrence that animates the doing. The relationships we build in the process become the fabric and the true wealth of the community.

Within such a community, we each make our own choices about where to direct our energies, which projects we support and which ones we really want to pour our time, hearts, and energies into. With no need to agree about which projects are the most pure, appropriate, or important, we can base our choices on our own idiosyncratic criteria. What we care about, what we think will work, but also what we enjoy doing, who we like working with, or even which group meets on a night we can make it. And we can always change our minds.

Does organizing around shared values and practices prevent conflict? No! But hopefully it reduces wasteful conflict about how things will turn out. Hopefully it generates more productive conflict, as we work out tensions between our values in practice and how to continuously improve how we walk our talk.

The new economy movement that’s been growing in recent decades seems to have taken this approach — and the failure of previous doctrinaire efforts to remaking the economy — to heart. There’s a wide variety of names, definitions, and descriptions of the new economy in circulation. Many of them are based — implicitly or explicitly — in values and practices, and convey a respect for experimentation, relationship building, and emergent solutions.

The solidarity economy movement is one example. Each of the regional solidarity economic networks uses a slightly different definition, but all are based in values and a set of practices. The U.S. Solidarity Economy Network includes these six values:

  • solidarity, cooperation, mutualism;
  • equity in all dimensions (e.g., race, ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, sexuality, etc.);
  • sustainability;
  • pluralism;
  • the primacy of social welfare over profits and the unfettered rule of the market, and
  • social and economic democracy.

Of these, Americans tend to be very familiar with notions of equity, sustainability, and social welfare. The others would benefit from some unpacking. Pluralism in this context implies a wide respect for many possible forms of implementation, local experimentation, and an organic approach.

As we discussed in Re-envisioning the Commons, solidarity, cooperation, and mutualism are the oldest form of human economic organization. In the United States, they have a long history, from the mutual associations that became the modern insurance industry, to the rural electric coops that provide electricity to nearly one-half of US land area. In recent decades, however, market economies have fostered a you’re-on-your-own mentality, where individuals and families struggle to meet their economic needs, through vertical relationships with ever-larger large state and corporate institutions. Affirming a value of solidarity and mutual aid reminds us of our rich cooperative heritage, and how much more we can accomplish by working to meet our needs together. This fundamental reorientation of our economic relationships horizontally, with each other, is a key component of many new economy approaches.

Finally economic and social democracy. When you stop and think about it — which we rarely do, because we’re so used to the status quo — it’s actually pretty odd that we expect democratic organization in most parts of our lives, with the glaring exception of our workplaces. We expect to vote for our government leaders, of course. But we also routinely vote in our volunteer organizations, our clubs and leisure activities, and for contestants on TV shows. Even children often demand a vote on family matters (though they don’t always get one). But when we walk into our workplaces, we understand implicitly that we check democracy at the door. Someone else is in charge, making decisions about some of the most critical aspects of our lives, without being bound by any input from ourselves. Introducing meaningful, participatory democracy into the major economic activities of our lives is a key component of the solidarity economy and other new economy movements.

From Designing Regenerative Cultures by Daniel Christian Wahl, redrawn from an original by Ethan Miller

The shared practices within the solidarity economy movement are diverse forms of economic organization, often illustrated as a wheel of creation, production, exchange, use, and reinvestment: cooperatives, commons, open source development, DIY and family production, local currencies and barter networks, community supported agriculture and community renewable energy, credit unions, borrowing circles, and impact investing. Some of these practices are quite common and mainstream, while others are less familiar. The movement brings a coherence to what can otherwise feel like isolated good ideas, illuminating how they are linked, and how they can ultimately connect in full circle economic value chains to increasingly replace products and services sources in the “old economy”.

Other new economy practitioners are also taking the values and practices approach. The New Economy Coalition defines its work in terms of values of justice, sustainability, and democracy and a mission to lift up and learn from the many experiments and innovations by frontline communities, including cooperatives, commons, and democratic finance. The Democracy Collaborative promotes practices of community wealth building and democratic ownership, to advance values of equity, inclusivity, and sustainability. And the cooperative movement is based on a set of principles — first articulated by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers after their founding 1844 and subsequently updated periodically by the International Co-operative Alliance. Practices including voluntary and open membership, democratic control, member education and participation, and cooperation between cooperatives, advancing values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity.

None of these movements articulate a complete, ready-made system of economic transformation, or even a conviction that the methods they propose will be “enough”, by whatever standards one might judge success. Instead they promote experimentation, the networking of projects and people, and the sharing of learning, based always in a clear foundation of values. Commonwealth Hudson Valley also takes this approach. I haven’t chosen a particular new economy movement or name to get behind. Personally I like very clear framing of the solidarity economy movement in terms of values and practices. But I’ve had a few people tell me that “solidarity” for them conjures up some kind of leftist movement, and an important piece of my message is that twentieth century left-right debates are irrelevant to new economy challenges and opportunities.

My best stab at a name so far is the collaborative provisioning economy, but I readily admit it doesn’t have much of a ring to it. I intend collaborative to invoke the values of mutualism, equity, democracy, and justice and the participatory and cooperative practices necessary to enact these values. And provisioning emphasizes a reorientation of the economy around meeting needs — including needs for beauty, celebration, and meaning — rather than growing profits and hoping needs more or less get met as a byproduct. But I don’t plan on trying to sell anyone on this or any other name. Picking a favorite name for the new economy we’re trying to create is just another belief we don’t need to agree on.

There is so much we cannot know, so much that feels very heavy. How quickly will climate change, species extinction, and water shortages spread from local crises to global catastrophe? Is a collapse of our economic and political systems around the corner? Or can they limp along indefinitely, enriching the few while creating ever more precarious lives for the many? Can a policy change meaningfully shift these conditions, or are the system dynamics too entrenched for that? What will ultimately be necessary to create a more humane and sustainable economy? And can we do it in time?

Of course we want, desperately want answers to these questions. And of course we cannot have them, not with any certainty, because they concern the fundamentally unknowable future. What we need is a solid foundation for working together, creating projects, practices, and relationships that will help sustain us whatever the future holds.

In one sense, a list of values and a bunch of loosely connected projects is not much in the face of global suffering, oppression, and pending ecological crises. But it’s a foundation that can serve us well as we experiment our way forward, helping us create strong, vibrant, and flexible communities that can be resilient to whatever the future holds.