Decolonial Feminist Economics: A Necessary View for Strengthening Social and Popular Economy

Submitted by vicent on February 17, 2016

The crisis of the relation between human well-being and the capitalist economy is clear. Societies in the so-called core countries of Europe and the United States are facing the persistent deterioration of their living conditions while the capital generated by large corporations and the financial system is ever more concentrated.

The unemployment, vulnerability, and poverty faced by a large part of society in countries that used to be situated as winners on the world stage, have shown the limits of an economic theory in the service of the market. The well-being of human beings and the integration of the whole of society has been neglected by the neoliberal focus on economics of recent decades, which places the satisfaction of needs at the level of the individual, consequently, economic theory has been oriented toward the proper functioning of markets.

In Latin America, the perspectives of popular economy and social economy have challenged the individualist paradigm, focusing on the satisfaction of collective needs. Their conceptual developments result from the region’s particular context and history, thereby breaking with the universalist pretensions of orthodox economics and revealing the historical character of economic processes as well as the heterogeneity of its practices.

Feminist economics develops a similar critique of the constitution of a profoundly “male-centric” economic rationality, which privileges behaviors associated with competition and individualism, values that under patriarchy have been assigned to men. In contrast behaviors of solidarity, care, and reciprocity are considered to be extra-economic and feminine within the same gender regime.1

The interaction between feminist economics and social and popular economy reveals the importance of non-market settings, as well as understanding the different contributions and needs of women and men in this scenario. These include, for example, spaces associated with care and activities of reproduction, the existence of a multiplicity of economic practices rooted in knowledges constructed from ethnicity, gender, and territory. Therefore, their contributions expand the scenarios and alternatives for public policies that revalue existing practices.

The first part of this article briefly presents definitions of popular and feminist economics, to show how the interaction between these fields can contribute to the formulation of public policies in the city. In the second part, I make recommendations for public policy that challenge market enclosure, based on the revalorization of non-commodified settings, the continuity between production and reproduction, and the affirmation of the common.

Popular Economy: A Theoretical Contribution from Latin America

From the hegemonic perspective in the region, the principle objective of economics has been modernization. Therefore, non-capitalist economic practices have been addressed through concepts associated with underdevelopment and informality, highlighting the necessity of “overcoming” economic forms rooted in people’s historical experience and their culture, in the hybridization of the campesino and the urban worlds. Faced with this diversity, development programs, these being the generalization of the capitalist ethic, were formulated.

Anchored in political processes and the recognition of existing practices, the concepts of popular economy and social economy were developed. Although diverse approaches exist, there are common points associated with the existence of a reproductive rationality (instead of an instrumental rationality) that orients diverse expressions of labor, whether in the production of use-values or exchange-values, in opposition to activities oriented toward profit as the goal in and of itself.

The concept of the popular economy does not have a uniform meaning. Razeto defines it as the economy of the poor, who, to deal with exclusion, generate associative social forms to resolve the most pressing problems from their own initiatives and to deal with exclusion from the state.2 On the other hand, Núñez links the popular economy to associative work and cooperatives, in the rural as well as the urban environment.3 He considers that all workers are producers and that their activities are not oriented toward capitalist accumulation, but rather the resolution of personal and social needs. For this author, to the extent that the capitalist system is incapable of including broad sectors, those sectors find association and self-management as alternatives to resolve their everyday problems, but also to develop cultural expressions that challenge the practices and values of capitalism.

From another perspective, Coraggio, defines the popular economy as a heterogeneous and fragmented sector that cannot be understood in its complexity through the traditional concepts of informality or poverty, nor through its equivalence to the concepts of the traditional social and solidarity economy.4 He emphasizes the labor capacities of its members independent of their employment status and highlights the reproductive purpose of their processes and the organizational forms transcending kinship ties. Coraggio takes a critical perspective toward the popular economy associated with subordination based on gender, generational distinctions, and income differences, among others. Therefore, he believes that through processes of self-management, association, and forms of self-governance, practices of the social and solidarity economy can be consolidated, oriented by social reproduction proposing alternatives to the market-centric society driven by capitalism.

Gaiger, coinciding with Coraggio, states that “communitarian popular solidarity” does not have the qualities that Núñez and Razeto attribute to it, in which economic performance is marked by survival and immediacy; he argues that many of the popular economy’s activities (self-employment, micro-enterprises, family agriculture, etc.) are marked by subordination and vulnerability, which leads to the need to generate the associative practices characterizing the social and solidarity economy5

Despite these difficulties, elements of the popular economy’s dynamic are capable of being empowered to construct a sector focused on freely associated and self-managed labor, with the production of surplus connected to people’s living conditions.

The recognition of domestic units as constitutive elements of the popular economy– and, in turn, a way of finding a common thread with the issues of the feminist economy – owes its view of economic action to the framework of relations of reciprocity and not individualism.6. Members of domestic units turn to different strategies of hybridizing resources, combining wage labor and domestic reproductive labor (activities of care and production for household consumption), or production for the market, among other strategies. Another characteristic of the popular economy is that its accumulation levels are not unlimited and its goal is the intergenerational reproduction of its members.

The relationships that are woven to resolve common (material and symbolic) needs and their complexity increases as formal expressions of labor become scarcer and an innumerable amount of practices of communities emerge to maintain their lifestyle.7

However, domestic units, different from the conceptualization of the family in neoclassical economics – which was profoundly critiqued by feminist theory – is not proposed as a conflict-free setting, but as a space where there are rules of distribution and reciprocity with the objective of reproducing all of its members. This is reflected in the way in which women are mainly responsible for carrying out activities of care and producing use-values without remuneration. The shared goal of reproduction of all of its members coexists then with inequalities based on gender, age, income, etc. within each domestic unit and the popular economy as a whole.

From Fragmentation to Association

Analyses of the popular economy are framed in the field of Social and Solidarity Economy [SSE] that critiques the response that consumption is the only way to meet human needs. This limitation is the result of the totalization of private property and the institutionalization of the self-regulating market, which does not integrate an important part of the population. Thus, the market excludes vast sectors of the population, that have the capacity to work but cannot find remunerated activities to occupy them, and, therefore, cannot access needed goods and services because those are commodified.

In the neoclassical definition, the market is the only institution capable of coordinating economic initiatives and satisfying the needs of individuals, thus the intervention of any other institution is considered “extra-economic.” From the perspective of the SSE then it is about strengthening and developing a multiplicity of institutions for the economy’s development, where the market is not the only one considered possible.

The popular economy’s fragmentation presents the challenge of establishing collective processes, which would exceed the current adaptation to the conditions of savage competition for small and medium producers and of monopoly for the large corporations. The market left to its own becoming inevitably configures scenarios that exacerbate all inequalities.

Regaining sovereignty over the economic field implies a change of axis; in other words, it means primarily dealing with the material and social conditions that make life possible and the social transformations required to access said conditions.

The incorporation of a reproductive rationality occurs through linking the spheres of the public/private and the productive/reproductive. On overcoming these separations, which were artificially instituted by the conception of the self-regulating market, it goes from a maximum value of selfishness – guiding action in the economic – to incorporating values and rationalities that include solidarity and association. The first recognizes that the option for the life of the other is constitutive of the option for one’s own life, and the second is an alternative for breaking with the destructive compulsion and anomie entailed in the individualist competition of the market economy.8

Interdependence with the other generates a common framework between the popular/social economy and feminist economics, as they coincide in their critiques of the utilitarian paradigm and in the reformulation of the rationality that orients action in the economic.

Why is it Necessary to Talk about a Feminist Economics?

Feminist economics, in contrast to what common sense would suggest, is not the study of the economy and women: it is the study of how the economy, in its theoretical development and policies is embedded by gender relations to the point that one of its principal institutions, the labor market, is organized by the sexual division of labor. This current questions how men and women participate differently in the institutionalization of the economy.

Considering feminist economics as a reflection by women and for women has been an effective mechanism for ignoring the critiques that this field makes about the theoretical nucleus of the hegemonic economics., Thus the relevance of their contributions to the construction of an other economy or the development of an other society is made invisible. This field emerged in response to the conceptual limitations of a discipline that makes the same assumptions of universality and neutrality as the scientific paradigm.

Economic theory has been presented as gender-neutral although its prototypical agent, homo economicus, has been endowed with values associated with masculinity: self-sufficient, competitive, selfish, and calculating, its actions are developed in the public sphere of the market, while the non-economic sphere of the family has supposed generosity, solidarity, and equality.

This dichotomous vision in neoclassical theory is rooted in Becker’s perspective, who explains the situation of women facing reproductive tasks as a problem of efficiency and the maximization of resources.9 Feminist economics has widely debated this perspective, demonstrating its male-centric and heterosexist bias.10

The assumption of the rational economic man has been one of the pillars of neoclassical economic theory, which proposes it as a norm of human behavior and as a mechanism for ensuring the proper functioning of the competitive market. The adoption of this behavior as the ideal does not recognize behaviors based on other relations, such as those of reciprocity, solidarity, altruism, love, and care, among many others – those that, furthermore, patriarchal culture in capitalism associates with the universe of the feminine.11 Thus, a fictional separation is established between the logics that govern behavior in the market, considered a public sphere, and the home, relegated to the private sphere.

This pretense of universality assigned to homo economicus and its instrumental rationality, as the assumption of human beings’ relationship with the economy, is another one of the discussed aspects because it denies the presence of other types of behaviors that make up the market, such as solidarity, reciprocity, and concern for others.12 Such conducts are present in many of the previously mentioned popular economies. Feminist economics, on demonstrating that the reproductive sphere is inherent in the process, has deepened the analysis of the consequences of limiting the economic to the sphere of the market.

The conceptual development associated with homo economicus and its instrumental rationality is a perfect expression of how economic theory has internalized the values of patriarchy, to consider human beings’ dependence on care and protection for their institutions as extra-economic.

Capitalist hegemony in the organization of production, distribution, circulation, and reproduction, within and outside of the family, is closely linked to gender assignment. Patriarchy has produced a hierarchization of the social values of the feminine and the masculine. Hence, access to resources for production and reproduction would be framed by the place that men and women are assigned within patriarchal culture. One expression of this is the different activities and remunerations that women and men can access in the labor market.

That is not to say that inequality between men and women is reduced to economic determinism, but that market tendencies are socially processed, worsening or improving the situation in response to other relationships that are not structurally economic.

Therefore, one of the key contributions of feminist economics is redefining the concept of labor, given that the vision of “the reproductive” and of “care,” in their different dimensions, allows for those activities that are not directed by the market, without which human life would be impossible, to be included within “the economic.” Thus, one of the field’s current objectives is to make visible the value produced by care activities through their quantification in terms of wealth generation.13 In its reports, CEPAL has been showing that without the care work carried out by women, poverty in the region would increase by approximately ten points, and it has estimated that non-paid domestic work would amount to 30% of the region’s GDP.14

This perspective of feminist economics deepens the analysis of the contradictory and complex existing relationships between capitalism and reproductive labor. It shows that women are responsible for human life, ensuring that the production of goods is possible. This work, carried out without remuneration, encourages the wage paid by capitalists and public spending by the state to evade the costs of reproducing labor power and, thus, a part of the activity carried out in the home would not be the final moment of enjoying consumption, but a condition of existence of the economic system.15

The relation between popular economy and feminist economics shows that the naturalization of the reproductive as a feminine responsibility, and the separation between production and reproduction, generate conditions of structural vulnerability for these initiatives. The recognition and strengthening of the conditions for care are then a central factor for its sustainability.

Viewing popular and social economy from the perspective of reproduction breaks with the imprisonment of the economy in the market characteristic of neoclassical theory and expands the possibilities of action for organized actors and for those public policies committed to life and not to capital.

Contributions of a Decolonial Feminist Economics for the Formulation of Public Policies

I have been outlining approaches to popular economy, social and solidarity economy, and feminist economics, showing how these fields share a critique of the totalization of the market. Feminism argues that recognizing the importance of domestic labor and care mostly carried out by women is fundamental for resolving the artificial separation that capitalism imposes between production and reproduction. Likewise, social economy emphasizes a reproductive rationality in opposition to the ideal of competition and calculation, while highlighting the importance of use-values for meeting social needs.

The historical experience of Latin America and of Bogota in particular necessitates a decolonial perspective that makes explicit the need to investigate the political and economic processes that groups in conditions of subalternity in the region have faced. I am specifically interested in uncovering the economic experiences of indigenous, Afro-descendent, peasant, and low-income women to think from their economies rooted in knowledges constructed by situations of class, race, and territorial origin.16 In these economies, men and women’s participation is also differential. The hegemonic theory has naturalized the masculine, white, and European or North American position, therefore that diversity has been addressed based on categories of backwardness, informality, promoting an ideal of modernization that actively made those experiences subaltern. In this way, it has denied their theoretical relevance and importance in the economy.

Radically Situated Thought

This article has been written in the context of a country in the midst a peace process with one of the oldest actors of the multiple wars that Colombia has experienced. The peace process is necessary to stop the bloodshed, the war business with the United States, and the extraordinary benefits held by the country’s armed forces. In addition to the necessary debate over an economy in the service of the security of investors and the families in power whose roots go back to colonialism.

Despite the peace process, the longest war has been that of the Colombian elites against the population through plundering its resources. One verification of this is the untimely urbanization/proletarianization of a country with a strong rural identity. This process is exemplified by analyzing the composition of twentieth-century cities.

In 1938, 31% of the Colombian population was urban. In 1973, this figure had reached 73%. For thirty years, this forced proletarianization was achieved by the displacement of the peasant population to cities through means of terror.17 The height of this process occurred with the 1948 assassination of the liberal party’s presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who, with a majority of popular support, had been denouncing the violence against the population. A year before his assassination, 14,000 violent deaths had already been recorded, and following the event known as the Bogotazo, Aprile-Gniset calculates that 300,000 people were killed and three million campesinos were displaced between 1946 and 1965.18

The victims of this war have been concentrated in low-income sectors, campesino, indigenous and black populations. This longer term perspective is necessary for understanding the power of these economies and what it means to remain as a community in its own territory in the context of forced urbanization.

The dispossession of lands from those living in rural areas has continued to this day and it is estimated that five million people, about 10% of the country’s total population, have been displaced by the war. Forced displacement is key to understanding why land ownership in Colombia has a concentration of 0.87 (Gini indicator), one of the highest in the world’s most unequal continent.

The majority of the displaced population ends up in the large cities to safeguard their lives and Bogotá is the main recipient of this internal displacement. It is the country’s largest city with more than eight million inhabitants and its urban history is profoundly linked to the exodus of the campesino population.

Due to these historical factors, Bogotá has a particularly heterogeneous social and cultural composition. The city’s popular economy hosts a population with diverse trajectories of urbanization seeking improved living conditions. This population is attracted by a city with the economic and social infrastructure to offer comparatively better conditions, but that is also home to large impoverished sectors because of war and the social exclusion generated by decades of neoliberalism steadily implemented by national governments.

The magnitude of the social problems facing the city demonstrates the relevance of the many groups’ experiences in their capacity to guarantee collective reproduction, the decommodification of central aspects of their lives, and the defense of the territory where they live.19

Strengthening Non-Market Situations

In the economic field, all imagination regarding the question “What is to be done?” has been captured by the market relation. Most of the policies developed in support of the popular economy are focused on facilitating the process of integration into the market, without considering intervention on the conditions of a competition that is more acute for those who don’t have a dominant position in the system of privileges that capital produces, while the actors with the highest level of accumulation set the conditions of exchange for their products.

As we have seen, the popular economy’s organizational units (domestic units), as economic organizations aim to guarantee and improve the material conditions of reproduction and development of their members. Therefore, the mercantile path (selling with a monetary difference to buy useful goods and services to satisfy their needs) is not the only alternative to be taken into account. Needs can be met independently of the market.

Hinkelammert and Mora write:

The analysis of use-value looks at the economic process from the perspective of the conditions of possibility of life. It formulates, therefore, the question of how the product must be produced, distributed, and consumed so that human beings can live, that is, how the process of reproduction can be achieved in terms of a process of reproduction of human life. This does not imply reducing the human to the product (‘you are what you eat’), but it does mean that no human value can be realized if it does not enter into symbiosis with use values.20

Recuperating the production of use-values, whose consumption is not mediated by the market as an objective for strengthening the micro-social units, as well as the whole of the popular economy, contributes to recognizing that there are capacities of labor that in the present are not being valued in monetary terms. This implies that broad sectors of society cannot contribute with their work, nor can they depend on an income for meeting their needs. A dwelling protects although it is not produced as a commodity, clothing warms although it is not commercialized. Goods can be driven by social function that they supply and not by profit.

At the limit, the commodification of life makes it so that one cannot live without income or rent. The current development of capitalism considers a good part of the capacities of labor as excess and not useful for capital. Therefore, well-being cannot be a result of the becoming economic of the market liberated by neoliberalism, especially when the accumulation of profits is increasingly the fruit of speculative activity.

This tendency of the economy intensifies the conditions of injustice for sectors that historically faced greater inequalities, in the case of women, for example, the production of use-values takes on a central importance, given that in Colombia 31.1% of women lack an income compared to 12.6% of men. In Latin America, the figures are similar: 34.4% for women and 13.3% for men, according to the 2010 measurement by CEPAL’s observatory for gender inequality.

Defending economies producing use-values can be one of the keys for a more just society. In particular, because many of these economies tied to the land and its resources have suffered the constant pressure of capitalist modernization and the violence of primary and/or extractivist accumulation. This pressure has caused an over-representation of the black and indigenous population, of popular sectors, and in particular of women in the lowest income sector of the population.

While there are many policies that can be implemented to strengthen the production of use-value, I will mention some illustrative cases based on the principles of institutionalization of the economic proposed by Karl Polanyi and expanded by Coraggio in the field of the social and solidarity economy that broadens the income rates of capital and dispossesses groups of the necessary conditions for their material and symbolic reproduction.21

Autarky/sovereignty: In this section, I highlight policies that favor self-production of goods and services in the domestic units, for example:
Experiences of urban agriculture, community gardens, and seed exchanges.
Processes of appropriating knowledge in the field of natural medicine, prevention and care of allopathic medicine.
Housing improvement and self-construction.
Reciprocity and exchange: One of the decisive elements for strengthening use-values is linked to the form of circulation, in these cases networks based on reciprocity are a key factor in the movement of goods and services. The development of mutually agreed upon rules and of the distribution of goods and activities is fundamental in a society with a high social division of labor. The characteristics of the depersonalizing market in its capitalist form have downplayed the importance of the points of commerce as places of encounter and of relation beyond the monetary surplus. By tradition or resistance in the face of the crisis of the reproduction of life, the networks of direct barter or social currency (thus called because it does not meet the objective of accumulation) have resurfaced and are very useful for the exchange of diverse material goods and services and have encouraged participants to fulfill the dual role of producers and consumers.
Planning: An expression of the capacity to regain sovereignty over the economic is linked to the possibility of coordination at different institutional levels and in a communitarian way, and planning over time how one wants to live and the economic actions that support those plans. The possibility of decommodifying the basic scenarios of life, can lead to promoting the production of collective use values in those fields.
Practices of the Social Economy in Colombia

In Colombia, a multiplicity of experiences of the social economy exist despite the virulence of the armed conflict. It is impossible to draw a complete picture in such little space, however I will name a few experiences that are relevant for demonstrating the ability to organize an economy at the service of life.

In the Colombian Pacific, the black population’s struggles made possible a law that recognizes those communities’ ancestral rights. The extension of legally titled collective territories is approaching 5.5 million hectares. This recognition has allowed for limiting the projects of resource extraction and biodiversity that the World Bank has been promoting in the region. Arturo Escobar has rigorously shown how this population collectively regulates the use of space and the relation with nature combining the spiritual ordering, traditions, and necessities. The symbolic and cultural interpretation has implications for how these communities use and manage the territory, allowing them to co-exist with a nature that is endowed with power and agency.

In Escobar’s words:

The construction of the natural world established by black groups of the Pacific, as shown by ethnographers, may be seen as constituting a complex grammar of the environment or local model of nature. This grammar includes ritual practices such as the ombligada, structured uses of spaces, an ordering of the universe in terms of worlds and levels, and systems of classification and categorization of entities. The model constitutes a cultural code for the appropriation of the territory; this appropriation entails elaborate forms of knowledge and cultural representations […] Accordingly, the environment is a cultural and symbolic construction, and the way in which it is constructed had implications for how it is used and managed.22

Similarly, the indigenous regional organization of Cauca, called the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) was founded in 1971 in Toribio, with the goal of making such rights recognized. This organization started with a platform of struggle with the following objectives: To recuperate and expand the lands of the reservations, to strengthen the indigenous councils, to not pay the terraje, to make known the laws about the indigenous and demand their fair application, to defend indigenous history, language, and customs, to train indigenous professors to educate in accordance with the situation of the indigenous people and in their respective languages.23

This process has been strengthened over the years and today a variety of projects in all areas of life are being developed, ensuring a high level of autarky in terms of the resolution of material and symbolic necessities. Despite the ongoing violence and assassinations of its principal leader that the government, the army, the paramilitary, and the guerrillas have carried out on the Cauca’s indigenous populations, the strengthening of their organization has not only allowed for maintaining the territory but also for promoting alternatives to development and challenging the government’s neoliberal policies, in particular the signing of the free trade agreement with the United States.24

An emblematic expression of this process was the march that began in 2004 with the name “El Caminar de la Palabra” and that mobilized more than 60,000 indigenous people from throughout Colombia, who, in their long journey to Bogotá, were joined by a diverse range of social movements. They marched for six months without asking for anything from the government and demanding four fundamental points: 1) “No to the transnational economic model represented by the free trade’ agreement; 2) No to the terror and war that displaces and subdues people; 3) No to legislation of dispossession that hands over territories and destroys the Mother Earth; 4) Yes to to the enforcement of compliance with agreements with the people; and Yes to creating our own mechanisms of participation through an agenda of popular unity.”25 The organizational capacity brought into play and the process that later continued under the name of indigenous and popular minga demonstrated indigenous people’s ability to denounce the correlation between the neoliberal model and the war and displacement.26

In the present moment, a new occupation of lands is taking place. Beginning in December 2014, after the state’s failure to comply with granting land as reparation for the victims of the 1991 Nilo massacre, the indigenous took over lands in the north of Cauca that are destined for the monoculture of sugarcane for the production of sugar and biofuels. The bloody repression has left hundreds of people injured and various indigenous leaders assassinated, however the indigenous population maintains its presence with strong support from the country’s social movements.

The town of Nasa in Cauca not only has had the capacity to maintain its territory and its identity, but also has been actively proposing arrangements of construction with the black, campesino, and urban population, demonstrating the possibility of organizing a society with full respect of Mother Earth and all forms of life that inhabit it.

An Economy that Cares

Public policies’ emphasis on the conditions of reproduction is key for guaranteeing the sustainability of a popular economy that has as its main objective the conditions for the good life of its workers and domestic units.

The prevalence of market values over human and planetary life led the care of people to be situated in the policies of the field of “the social,” considered residual and as compensation for the market’s exclusionary and discriminatory effects, and which increasingly focuses on the most disadvantaged, individualizing the interventions. Thus, families, and particularly women, with their available resources, end up taking on the problems of reproduction as if they were problems of the private order and as managers of assistance programs.

The tension between the logic of profit and social well-being has been made explicit by structural adjustment programs, which show how the reduction in state spending (in programs that do not address social emergencies) has corresponded to the transfer of costs to households that are faced with the increase of mostly feminine free labor. This has reached its limits, with the insufficiency of atomized actions to reproduce the population and produce cohesion in society being evident.

Therefore, the socialization of reproduction needs entails that the state and the capitalist sector also assume the responsibilities that included citizens and skilled workers imply. Thus, it is about theoretically and practically incorporating a reproductive rationality that integrates production and reproduction, understanding as the economic process as a whole.27 This reproductive rationality replaces the utilitarian logic of homo economicus and is related to the proposals being formulated in Ecuador and Bolivia tied to Buen Vivir.

The perspective of la Buena Vida and its reproductive rationality allows for formulating a non-anthropocentric politics of care, given that land is considered a subject of reciprocity (if we protect her, she cares for us). At the same time, it opens a communitarian dimension of autonomy, collective self-organization that expands the alternatives for thinking about the politics of care.28

Toward the practical strengthening of the popular economy, it would be about promoting spaces for the increasing self-management of reproduction but with substantial resources and capacity for decision-making. Noting that in neoliberalism the responsibilities for care have been placed on communities (one example of this are the communitarian mothers), it is a question of not replicating the logic of compensation or co-participation that extracts the associative capacity and transformative power of the initiatives from women, organizational processes, and the most fragile sectors, thus depoliticizing reproduction to inscribe it in the rationality of the projects that expand the power of the market to the detriment of life.29

It is about promoting a public policy that recognizes the option for the life of the other as constitutive of the option for one’s own life, not only as a mandate of care for women, but as an alternative for institutionalizing an economy that cares for us. This supposes significant redistribution of resources and productive capacities, but also empowering the spaces of the constitution of critical popular collective actors and with another project of the economy.

The Space of the Common in the City

The creation of spaces for the common is one of the principal contributions to the construction of a city conducive to the popular economy. This means encouraging settings for reflection, deliberation, and exchange, as well as places for production and reproduction without the market’s mediation.

In the urban sphere, the common has been understood from the logic of the public. However, in many experiences “the common” does not coincide with the governmental, because there are ways of using space or knowledges that problematize the idea of property.

One example of this is the experience of recuperated factories in Argentina, where workers, given the breach of labor obligations and the threat of losing their jobs, appropriate the infrastructure to guarantee their job positions and produce without a boss. A large number of these spaces integrate neighborhood necessities into their own surroundings and, while they maintain their manufacturing activity, they also develop cultural, recreational, and educational activities.30

In this regard, the challenge lies in imagining legal forms that shelter and encourage collective practices of possession or use rights. These initiatives demonstrate the limits of regulatory frameworks oriented toward a polarity ranging from the public (understood as tied to the state) to the private, which is insufficient for the development of a social economy connected to the diversity of existing needs and possible responses that the associative can produce.

The definition of places of the common should not only be the outcome of technical planning, the activation of neighborhood histories, the routes between the rural and the urban, and the re-elaboration of identities related to the productive enable the recuperation of spaces and also the invention of new places.

Following the 2001 crisis in Argentina, as the result of the deepening of neoliberal policies, poverty rose to 40% of households in 2002, an unprecedented event in the country’s history. In this situation a diversity of experiences of the social and solidarity economy emerged and were strengthened, and many of them are still being maintained and growing. The phenomenon of the recuperated factories and enterprises continues today: the Productive Union of Worker-Managed Enterprises has recognized 350 companies employing 25,000 people.

These experiences continue as self-management of spaces of the common, in some cases with some level of (national) state recognition and in other cases with opposition (from the local government). There are many examples, such as food markets oriented toward the social economy, where food products made by cooperatives and small organic producers are sold.31 There are also practices of large-scale, cooperative and self-managed, housing construction among many other experiences in the production of goods and services as well as in the sphere of care (particularly in the areas of childcare, health, and education).32

These diverse experiences demonstrate the common has as its objective the resolution of needs through a plurality of collective economic forms. In all the cases, it has to do with securing the means for life outside of the market. The management of these spaces has been approached from a political perspective, not without tensions and contradictions, but that has given rise to forms of decidedly democratic organization and regulation where the principle of horizontality characterizes the set of initiatives.

In Colombia there are organizational processes that have enabled the conformation of networks of communitarian trade that mainly connect the production of the campesino economy with the needs of urban domestic units. The associations that compose these networks are small productive units that make decisions through assemblies. Among the most well known are REDESOL, RECAB, the Federación Agrosolidaria, the Red Colombiana de Comercialización and Desarrollo Comunitario REDCOM Nariño. REDESS operates at the national, composed of sectors of the solidarity economy from across Colombia (cooperatives, mutual societies, and some associations).

The Empresa Comunitaria de Acueducto, Alcantarillado y Aseo is found in Saravena, Arauca. Given that the privatization of public services has been a national state policy in Colombia and that in most cities the payment of these services is one of the main costs for the reproduction of domestic units, the organizational process that allows the emergence of of this initiative is emblematic, especially if improvement in the service’s quality and a just price are valued.

The city of Bogotá faces extensive challenges, while many of the named networks are present in the city, the principal economic activities are dominated by large multinational companies. The continuity of leftist governments in the city has allowed for keeping various city services public, for example, strengthening primary and secondary education, policies of community soup kitchens, and resources for strengthening popular economies, above all in the dimension of technical assistance.

However, the free market’s legitimacy in economic discourse, the idea that international integration is more important than strengthening the internal market, and the sacralization of private property are factors that limit the city government’s initiatives aiming to regulate the market and even decommodify the essential conditions of reproduction, such as the recognition of the right to water and gratuitous vital consumption, the implementation of a new trash collection model in the city that involved the creation of a public operator, taking a profitable business away from the private sector. These policies were attacked to the point that the business lobby caused the temporary overthrow of a democratically elected mayor.

Therefore, one of the principal challenges facing the city consists of politicizing and democratizing the debate around “the economic,” recovering the social construction of the economy, relating the policies of strengthening domestic units in this field instead of presenting them from the social or the struggle against poverty. Intervening in the economy, broadly understood, beyond the market, is also a right of citizenship that should fuel public debate in the city.

Therefore, the view accustomed to seeing the economic from the market perspective might consider the diversity of experiences previously considered as utopian, however, even when capitalism is the dominant mode of production, it is not the only one that exists. In fact, in Colombia the strength of social movements and the ability to sustain and reformulate struggles in the face of continuous processes of primary and extractivist accumulation, the financialization of housing, gentrification, etc. show that the economic institutions associated with the diverse world of indigenous groups, Afro-descendants and blacks, campesinos and the popular, have been capable of finding forms of social organizing where the reproduction of the collective has put limits on the war and its logics strictly associated with profit.

These experiences, which are maintained and are reinvented, have much to teach us. The broadening of spaces of the common for the social economy increases its power to restrict the market’s expansion in respect to the scenarios for life and limits the fragmentation and survival that imposes the logic of profit on the popular economy. Finally, an economy that cares for us, is an economy that has freed itself from the narrow space of the market.

– Translated by Liz Mason-Deese

This article was originally published in L’économie sociale et solidaire: levier de changement, Vol. XXII, no. 2 (2015).