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Jeffrey Elkner

The Solidarity Economy


The Solidarity Economy

The Solidarity Economy, courtesy of The Center for Global Justice

Neoliberal capitalism is dead. As the first ideology in human history to achieve hegemonic dominance across the entire globe, it ruled unchallenged from its ascendancy in the late 1970s until it suffered its final fatal cerebral hemorrhage in the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Sadly, it came to so dominate our collective understanding of the world that global humanity has yet to be able to conceive of an alternative to it, of a next system with which to replace it, so we are left to suffer the rotting stench of its unburied corpse as it roams zombie like among us, devastating our planet and destroying our prospects for the future.

No place makes the evils of neoliberalism more apparent then Liberia. While signs of decay and decline are abundantly evident in my own country of the United States, here in Liberia the hopelessness of an economic system that worships profit above people and planet abounds. For Liberia to have any hope of finding its way forward economically, it will need to make the most effective use of its extremely limited resources, and an anarchic, market fetishizing economic system provides no tools for doing that. Any solution to the problem of economic development in Liberia will require effective planning and coordination at the national level. Relying on market forces and capitalist enterprises to provide such planning and coordination will surely fail, with horrible to contemplate consequences for the people of Liberia.

Another World Is Possible (And Necessary!)

What then, is humanity to do? I am deeply grateful to Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski, the authors of The Peoples Republic of Walmart, for helping me understand the centrality of the economic calculation debate in any quest for a next system to supplant neoliberalism. Their book comes as needed medicine for a political left in the United States which is mired in idealism and must find its way towards a clear, honest analysis of the concrete relations of social reproduction required to justly meet our shared human needs. As Phillips and Rozworski state in introduction to their book, "in essence, the story of injustice and its correction is a chronicle of efforts across all time to reduce inequality of all types: of haves and have-nots, of who works and who rests, of who has a say and who does not. And inequality is, in the end, a question of unfair allocation of things themselves or the result of such unfair allocation... So when we ask whether another world is possible, we are also asking: Is there an alternate method to allocate things? How would we distribute things differently? And who would decide how they are distributed?"

A concrete example of the problem of logistics and planning in overcoming obstacles here in Monrovia will help illustrate what is needed. My dear friend the Superintendent chided me for making it appear in my previous post that there might be some negligence in the shipment of the computer equipment for our education program this Summer, and I would like to apologize for any such suggestion to that effect that may have come across. He explained to me the problem. In order to ship equipment affordably, we are relying on small scale businesses that scramble around to fill a shipping container by aggravating innumerable small shipments. They can't reliably ship on a schedule, since to be affordable to resource constrained folks like us, they need to fill the containers before they can send them, so they ship when they get filled, not before. Here we see the manifest evil of neoliberalism. While I don't know the details of how they do it, it is crystal clear to me as I write this from a comfortable, air conditioned hotel that has round the clock electricity not provided by the municipal utility, and a full supply of what is needed to make me an English style breakfast of french toast, sausage, and eggs, that the rich capitalists here have ways of getting what they need got to where they need it gotten.

Those of us wanting to serve the needs of the many instead of the few, on the other hand, have no such logistical tools at our disposal. Our most sincere and well-meaning efforts, therefore, are subject to failure because we can not effectively carry out even the simplest of plans. As a long time activist in the United States, I've seen first hand the corrosive effect of the left's neoliberal reliance on NGOs to try to get anything done. In web searching for potential allies in Liberia and coming across organizations like Liberia Forward and Teach for Liberia, it appears at early glance that the situation is similar here. I came to Liberia this Summer because Isaac Zawolo was working for the government of Liberia. From my experience back in 2009 trying to develop a similar popular ICT education effort in El Salvador I learned first hand that without an effective collaboration between the popular movement and the government, this kind of effort can fail. I am counting this time on the presence of a trusted friend and collaborator within the government to give this present project a better chance of success.

The left retreat from government engendered by the neoliberal onslaught on our deepest intuitions has overwhelmed our thinking in the United States. I find myself attracted to the emerging formulation of the solidarity economy, yet as a scan of the graphic at the top of this post will reveal, the essential role of government in its formulation is conspicuously absent. Only government can provide the broad, democratic planning needed to effectively coordinate the efforts of the popular social actors to bring about a solidarity economy. While we certainly need to learn from the failures of 20th century socialist experiments in planning, we must at the same time both learn from and build upon the successes of those experiments. In its whole sale retreat from government, the left succumbs to neoliberialism. This road leads nowhere, and we need to recover from it as soon as possible to get back on a road that leads toward our liberation.

What Would "Success" Look Like?

Now is a good time to try to lay out what "success" in this project would look like for me, and to do that, I should start with two assumptions that I bring with me in this effort:

  1. Information and communication technology (ICT) has the potential to be used as an effective tool in the economic development of Liberia in a way that could further the just, democratic, egalitarian well-being of the Liberian people.
  2. Even a small, under-resourced project like this one has the potential to make a positive contribution toward what might be called people's popular capacity building.

To be honest, I am not fully confident about either of these assumptions. The first one is a restatement in Liberian terms of an assumption about ICT in general that has been haunting me my entire career as an ICT teacher. While I have always struggled to rationalize my existence and justify my life's work in terms of its contribution to the free software movement, an honest assessment would probably reveal that I have helped train more mercenary soldiers for the armies of neoliberal exploitation, intentionally or not, than I have tech cadres of the revolution. As to the 2nd assumption, my only other effort at a project like this, the aforementioned 2009 project in El Salvador, resulted in failure. Only time will tell whether this one can have a different outcome.

In an effort to learn from my previous failure, I came with a concrete minimalist program for what would define success for this project. It includes two things:

  1. Establish an educational program with a group of MCSS students that leads after four years to some of these students becoming worker / owners of the worker cooperative NOVA Web Development, or perhaps forming a Liberian based sister cooperative.
  2. Establish a viable economic relationship between NOVA Web Development and MCSS so that our partnership in this project can continue over an extended period.

With one fourth of my time here this Summer now completed, I'll finish this post with a first evaluation of the progress toward these two concrete goals.

Where We Stand At the End of the First Quarter

I have now been in Monrovia for two weeks, with six weeks left until I leave. During the second week I settled into a routine teaching three 2-hour long sections of what is essentially a basic computer literacy course to approximately 27 students. The students are eager learners, excited about having access to a desktop computer, and it is a joy to come to work each day to meet with them. While their almost complete lack of previous experience with computers makes this experience similar in many ways to the computer literacy classes I taught to English-language learners at the Arlington Career Center, my students here have much stronger academic backgrounds and are moving at a much faster pace.

That said, the students in the first two sections of the class are all graduating seniors, a real flaw in terms of the goal of building a long term relationship with at least some of them. I am here to share solidarity, not charity. I will only judge this effort as a success if it does result in the training of at least a few tech cadres for the revolution. A few students have already asked me if I plan to come back to Monrovia after the Summer is over. I answered honestly that, "It depends on the success of this Summer. If I believe coming back could build on the what we accomplish now, then I am much more likely to return." My teaching experience gives me confidence that I can get a willing and dedicated high school student to be entry level "career ready" by the time they graduate if I can work with them from 9th or 10th grade on. When I spoke to the Superintendent about coming here, I asked to be able to teach in a program for gifted 9th graders. I believed that doing that would give us the best hope of being able to train young folks who could impact the ICT educational environment at MCSS and then join the tech solidarity economy workforce when they graduated.

A development occurred at the end of the week that may make that plan possible to implement. A 16 year old 9th grader named Bendu Gbahn stopped by Thursday afternoon with another friend from Mary N. Brownell Junior High School asking if they could enroll in the computer classes. Spencer told them that we didn't have any space available, so I wrote down their information and told them I would put them on our waiting list and contact them if space became available. On hearing they were 9th graders, as soon as they left I voiced my concern to Spencer that working with 9th graders was what I had hoped to do in coming here, and that we should find a way to get them into the program. Overhearing our conversation, MCSS staffer McSimon mentioned that Bendu was class president at her school and that she was "really smart". We called her on Friday and asked her to come by to talk with us. An extremely impressive student, she confirmed her serious interest in our program and promised to bring 3 classmates with her to an orientation on Monday. We are going to move the 9 to 11 am class to 8 to 10, so we can squeeze in a new 10 to 12 class for the 9th graders starting next week. I'll write more about this as it develops.

Regarding the second goal, I don't even know what financial arrangements have been made between MCSS and NOVA Web Development. At its annual meeting last January, the cooperative decided that NOVA Web co-founder Kevin Cole and I should loose our positions as voting members of the cooperative. We took this wise decision based on the fact that the two of us have always treated to NOVA Web Development more as a "hobby project" than a business that needs to generate revenue to sustain its members, which jeopardized its prospects of becoming a viable business. If NOVA Web is going to survive, it will do so because the four current worker owners are willing and able to learn to make a successful business out of it.

So the financial relationship between MCSS and NOVA Web Development is the concern of Natalia, Stefan, Louis, and Adrian, not mine. I know that NOVA Web is providing MCSS with both website hosting and email services. I don't know what agreement they have, but I will ask at our NOVA Web monthly meeting this evening. For my part, my trip here has involved personal expenses of approximately $5000, including around $1600 for the plane ticket, $2000 for my apartment, $1000 for parts for the donated laptops to make them ready for shipping, and $400 for other miscellaneous expenses including my Liberian visa. It is important to note these costs for two reasons. A few of Isaac and my colleagues at the Arlington Career Center expressed interest in coming to Monrovia next Summer, and if that were to materialize we will need to know the costs involved. More immediately, I spent $5000 that is not available to support the cooperative as a result, a situation that I won't be able to repeat. So if my collaboration with MCSS is going to continue, it will need to be funded from a source other than my personal resources.

When I began this post I intended to share ideas for funding grants that could support development of ICT within MCSS. Isaac and I have been talking about that. Given the length of what's already been written, however, I will save that discussion for a future post, and just end this one with more on this trip's unanticipated yet most wonderful development, meeting Spencer Cooper.

MCSS IT Specialist Spencer Cooper

MCSS IT Specialist Spencer Cooper

Relying on Serendipity

I wrote about meeting MCSS IT Specialist Spencer Cooper in my first post from Monrovia, and he has appeared in every post since. Meeting him has been the unanticipated gem of my visit here, and may turn out to be reason enough for making the trip here. These past two weeks I've had the opportunity to get to know him, and have been very impressed with his interest, ability, and dedication to learning ICT. He could possibly become the first Liberian member of NOVA Web Development, and it wouldn't take anywhere near 4 years to train him.

Yesterday Spencer and I had lunch together, where I got to know more about him personally. He is 30 years old and lives with his fiancé not too far from the MCSS office. He gets up at 3 am to study, and then works all day with me at MCSS. I've watched him absorb everything I can throw at him during these past two weeks. He definitely has what it takes to be a successful ICT professional. Through his work with NOVA Web on the MCSS website and email system, he is getting hands-on training on what the coop does. During our lunch yesterday, I had the chance to tell him more about NOVA Web Development and what we hope to do as a business. He expressed interest in working with us.

Each year that NOVA Web Development survives as a business increases the probability it will continue to survive and even thrive. Spencer brings the kind of skill and dedication we are looking for in members. If we can keep the business going, it could be a real win-win for both Spencer and the rest of the cooperators to bring him into the coop.

It may also mean that together with my Summer 2019 spent in Santa Ana, El Salvador, I am unwittingly falling into the role of a roaming recruiter for an internationalist, anti-imperialist tech worker cooperative, a role I would be delighted to assume.

I have my monthly meeting with the NOVA Web Development worker / owners this evening. I'll get an update from them then, and share what I find out in future posts.