In recent years people, activists, mouvements and even institutions are beginning to connect to one another, and to come together to demand political changes. And changing from the slogan Tina (There is No Alternative), to Tata (There are Thousands of Alternatives).

Tina, Tata, the solidarity economy and women

di Julie Matthaei

First published: 01/12/2012

In the 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher coined the phrase “There is No Alternative” (TINA), to affirm that the free market capitalism, based on narrowly self-interested individualism, is the only viable economic system.  People are naturally selfish and competitive, the argument goes, and only capitalism can harness our human nature to produce what we need.  Capitalism may eventually self-destruct, like the Roman Empire did.  But there is no alternative way forward, according to this view.

The very good news in this time of crisis is that the people of the world have not all been listening to Margaret Thatcher.  Instead, we have been responding, individually, in groups, in movements, and in communities, to the crises all around us in new and creative ways, and constructing ways of being and doing economics which are more in sync with our needs.  Without any grand plan, women and men across the planet are rediscovering or inventing transformative economic practices and institutions.  Their diverse practices are being shared, cross-pollinated, and developed in the “anti-globalization” or globalization from below movement against neo-liberal economics.  The 1999 Seattle demonstration against the WTO was a watershed in this development of a global civil society, because it built alliances across two great fissures:  labor and environmental activists marched together, initiating a powerful Blue-Green Alliance, and Northern countries joined with the South’s protests against the injustices of the global economic order.  The globalization from below movement has developed a proactive and visionary arm in the form of the World Social Forum movement, whose motto is “Another World is Possible.” The conscience and wisdom of this movement is being forged by the interactions of the world’s great movements – worker, peasant, women’s, anti-racist, lesbian-gay-trans, ecology, disability -- which are teaching us new ways to be and do that do not oppress others, or the earth.   Some refer to this coming together as a global civil society movement, the second superpower. 

In the past ten years, activists in these movements and progressive academics are coming to realize two things.  First, instead of TINA, There is No Alternative,  TATA --- There are Thousands of Alternatives --- actually applies.  The world’s peoples are producing an astonishing abundance of life-affirming solutions to the economic problems we are facing.  Second, as diverse as they are, these qualitatively distinct, transformative economic practices and institutions are beginning to form the basis of an economic way forward.  The people, institutions, and movements involved in them are starting to identify themselves as part of a distinct, “solidarity economy”– and beginning  to connect to one another, work to support one another, and to come together to demand the political changes we need.    

Solidarity economy institutions and practices vary by country, and especially between the North and the South.  In the North, and among the privileged classes, they have a strong focus on social responsibility to others and to earth, including fair trade and simple living, social entrepreneurship (entrepreneurship with a social mission), and corporate watch-dogging.  In the South and among the poor, they focus on peasant resistance to proletarization, such as Villa Campesina and the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement); income-generating actions such as microcredit, the creation of cooperatives of all types, and factory take-overs; and resistance to corporate encroachment, especially among indigenous peoples. They can occur within or outside of markets. 

Solidarity economy practices and institutions are identifiable by the presence of distinctly non-capitalist values.    While very few of them embody all of these values, all embody one or more of them.  Solidarity economy values include:   an anti-oppression stance, i.e. a commitment to maximizing equality, not just providing equal opportunity, in all dimensions (race, class, gender, sexuality, disability); sustainability and regeneration of the planet; social responsibility; cooperation above competition; re-localization and community development; participatory political and economic democracy; diversity; and economic human rights, particularly the right to fulfillment of basic human needs.    As the diverse solidarity economy initiatives interact, in local communities, and across the globe, these values are becoming increasingly integrated

Women have been key players in the construction of transformative, solidarity economy solutions to capitalist crises, for three main reasons.  First, women are severely disadvantaged with capitalist labor markets due to their lesser access to family income and education, because of their caring labor obligations, and because of the persistence of sex discrimination and sexual harassment.  Second, these same caring labor obligations can motivate women to extreme resourcefulness when their families’ basic needs are not being met.  Thirdly, women’s gender training to prioritize caring for others and the concrete provisioning of their needs often leads us to craft economic solutions which are distinct from capitalist ones; solutions which place the provisioning of needs above other values. 



The amazing entrepreneurial response of poor women (and not poor men) to microcredit and lending circles around the world attests to the bottled up creative energies of women.   While most of these ventures are proto-capitalist and limited in their impact, they do redistribute capital towards the bottom, and can have a transformative effect in terms of women’s and community empowerment.

Women have also been very involved in the setting up of producer and worker cooperatives across the world, many with explicit community-serving goals.  Women are well-suited for cooperatives because they are less drilled in competitive self-interest, and more used to thinking in terms of group well-being.  Conversely, because cooperatives are democratically run by producers, workers, and/or consumers, women can incorporate their need to perform caring labor more easily.  Some inspiring examples:

--  Representing a coming together of women’s, labor, environment, immigrant, and First Nation movements, the Chantier de l’Economie Sociale created a program of day care and elder care cooperatives, based on the right of all families to caring support, and subsidized by the government.[1]

-- In Brazil, the National Secretariat of the Solidarity Economy (SENAES)   implements a program to incubate cooperatives as an employment-generation strategy among the poor.  The program is staffed by university professors and social workers, and women constitute the majority of its participants. (

-- India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) organizes very low-income self-employed women producing in the informal sector in a type of producers’ cooperative/union, complete with a cooperative bank, training, advocacy, and support circles.

-- In 1965, Japanese women started the Seikatsu consumer cooperative, when their local milk supply became contaminated by toxins. Determined to find an alternative to the toxic milk they had been buying in their stores, they created direct links with farmers producing organically, innovating the direct consumer-farmer linkages that are now spreading in the U.S. in the form of community-supported agriculture.   The SC now has 600 consumer coops, with 22 million members, and has also spawned worker coops, boycotts of detergents, GMO’s, and hormones, and many other projects.

One amazing aspect of the women’s cooperative as a tool for solidarity economy transformation is that they have become a powerful vehicle for women’s feminist and anti-classist/caste consciousness raising.   In stark contrast to superexploitative low wage jobs in capitalism’s burgeoning informal sector, which force women into a supersubordinate, disempowered position, worker-owned  cooperatives work to train and empower their members.  Research indicates that women’s cooperatives actually create a feminist consciousness-raising process among their members, by providing them with a safe and supportive space in which to learn how to resist and transform the male domination they are experiencing in their homes.[2]

Another new solidarity economy form of enterprise which women across the world are heavily involved in is “social enterprise”.  Social enterprises are private businesses, traditionally or collectively run and owned, which transcend the nonprofit/for-profit divide:  while they pay a return to capital invested, they are started with, and organized around, the explicit goal of filling social needs.[3] Such enterprises are feminist in that they uplift the subordinated feminine quality of caring, which has been excluded from the core of capitalist firms, directly integrate feminine caring values into the mission of the firm.



Solidarity economy initiatives correct the capitalist focus on greed and money in another way – by refocusing the economic discourse from the generation of profits and output, to the issue of the provisioning of human needs.  As such they reflect women’s traditional work and sensibility, and build it into the core motivation for production and consumption.    Feminist economists, among others, have long proposed the provisioning of needs as the proper focus of economics, as the proper goal of economic life.[4]   

A prime example of solidarity economy organizing around provisioning is the burgeoning food sovereignty movement.  This movement, in which women play the primary role, is based on the simple demand that all people should have the right to healthy food.[5]  Farmland should be cultivated, first and foremost, to feed the people, not for export crops.  City dwellers should have access to urban gardens to grow their own food.  The food sovereignty movement opposes industrial agriculture and genetic engineering, which, although highly profitable, produce unhealthy products, pollute the environment, and destroy small farmers.  It also advocates for access to land for all those who want to farm it.  Interestingly, the movement has defined food sovereignty as requiring “an end to all forms of violence against women”.[6]

The focus on the centrality of the provisioning of needs also means that people’s basic needs have priority above relationships of private property.  In particular, if there are needy people, and resources that are unused - like uncultivated lands, or boarded up factories, or vacant homes and apartment buildings - people should be able to use them.  Land-takeovers by the MST in Brazil; factory takeovers in Argentina and elsewhere (even Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago); housing squatting and the anti-eviction movement throughout the world; all are part of this growing practice.   One of my favorite examples is when mothers in Denmark whose children needed a place to play cut down the fences surrounding a large abandoned military facility, jump-starting the development of a solidarity economy community called Christiania.  



Capitalist development began the process of women’s liberation by drawing women out of the home and into capitalist-organized labor markets.  The limits of equal opportunity feminism have channeled women’s resistance and creativity into more transformative, solidaristic economic forms.   Now women are playing a major part in creating the solidarity economy all over the world.  A key part of our contribution is to transform caring from an activity which embodies subordination and takes on the brunt of capitalist oppression, to a strong feminine activity – undertaken by men as well as women -- which emphatically and nonviolently affirms life, and refuses to collaborate in the mistreatment or abuse of oneself, of others, or of earth.   The rising of women and of the feminine represents “a radical social change that starts in the most intimate of spaces” and extends into the economy and across the planet.  As it finds creative expression in the proliferation of solidarity economy practices and institutions across the planet –  these institutions are, in turn, further transforming women out of the subordinated feminine, and teaching both women and men to relate to others and to earth in caring, mutually supportive ways.  



[1] Neamtam N. (2008), “Chantier d’Economie Sociale:  Building the Solidarity Economy in Quebec,” in Allard J., Davidson C., and J. Matthaei (eds.) (2008),  Solidarity Economy: Building Alternatives for People and Planet, Chicago: ChangeMaker (

[2] Bisno A. (2010), “Voices from the International Cooperative Movement:  The Case for the Empowerment of Marginalized Women through Cooperative Enterprises”, Wellesley College, mimeo.

[3]  Bornstein D. (2007),  How to Change the World:  Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, New York: Oxford.

[4]  Nelson J. (1993), “The Study of Choice or the Study of Provisioning: Gender and the Definition of Economics,” in Ferber and Nelson eds., Beyond Economic Man.

[5] Villareal A. (2009),  “Women and Food Sovereignty in Mexico,” Presentation at the Forum on the Solidarity Economy, Amherst, Massachusetts, March. 

[6] Patel R. (2010), Plenary Speech, Canadian Summit on a People-Centered Economy, Ottawa, May 30.

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