Traditional economics is built on the assumption of self-interested individuals seeking to maximize personal gain, but that is far from the whole story. Sharing, caring, and a desire to uphold the collective good are also powerful motives. In a world wracked by inequality, social divisions, and ecological destruction, can we build an alternative economics based on cooperation?
In this book Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor invite us to imagine a new sort of solidarity economics - an approach grounded in our instincts for connection and community - and in so doing, actually build a more robust and sustainable economy. They argue that our current economy is already deeply dependent on mutuality, but that the inequality and fragmentation created by the status quo undermine this mutuality and with it our economic well-being. They outline the theoretical framing, policy agenda, and social movements that we need to revive solidarity and apply it to whole societies.
Solidarity Economics is an essential read for anyone who longs for a fairer economy that can generate prosperity and preserve the planet.
Chris Benner is Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at University of California, Santa Cruz.
Manuel Pastor is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
Solidarity and Prosperity
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Origins unknown, though often identified as a West African proverb
The most important group of cells in your body is, right now, coordinating and executing a complex set of electrical impulses in the right atrium of your heart, enabling a regular rhythmic beat. The sinoatrial node, known as the heart's natural pacemaker, produces a spontaneous electrical signal that contracts your cardiac muscles. The cells in this complex group must operate together simultaneously to produce action, determining when and how fast your heart will beat, allowing oxygen exchange in your lungs, and pumping blood throughout your body.
Society also depends on the same type of collaboration toward a shared goal; as Heather McGhee puts it, "a functioning society rests on a web of mutuality, a willingness among all involved to share enough with one another to accomplish what no one person can do alone."1 Such social systems and the relationships they embody are the blood of our national and global economy - and outcomes we get are driven partly by whether we are motivated by our social heart or by economic heartlessness. For our current and future collective welfare, we must embrace the solidarity impulse that lives in each of us, and help extend that through society as a whole.
If we are, like our very own bodies, such a cooperative species, why don't we design for it?2 Part of the reason is that neoliberalism has blinded (or perhaps blindsided) us with the proposition that the economy can be best understood as being comprised of self-interested individuals. But studies show that selfishness is not innately dominant in human nature, and research demonstrates that decisions rooted in mutuality can make for a better society for nearly all of us. Unfortunately, we seem to have set up systems that encourage the worst of us and the worst in us; as Dutch historian Rutger Bregman points out, "when modern economists assumed that people are innately selfish, they advocated policies that fostered self-serving behavior."3
In this chapter, we start with noting why recognizing our instinct for mutuality is important for understanding and remaking our economy. We then summarize research showing that a lack of solidarity or mutuality, particularly in the form of too much inequality, undermines our prosperity. This leads to a question of how to properly measure prosperity: if the purpose of a well-functioning economic system is not simply the expansion of output, but rather widespread improvements in human well-being, we need better metrics than simply economic output. We thus discuss various efforts to better measure our economy, highlighting metrics that enlighten, rather than obscure, our connections, our disparities, and our common fates.
Homo Economicus versus the Real World
Ben-Gurian University economist Ofer H. Azar has tackled a question only economists might ask: why do people tip?4 For most of us, tipping is a nearly unconscious and deeply ingrained habit. But as Azar notes, "it is extremely difficult to explain tipping behavior from the perspective of a purely self-interested consumer."5 After all, if people are just about themselves, the only reason to tip would be in the hope of soliciting better service. But a higher tip cannot securely elicit better service because it comes after and not before the exchange. Moreover, research suggests that tips do not seem to vary much with either the quality of the service or the expectation of a repeat visit.
Before you take this discussion as a reason to stiff hard-working wait people, consider what might happen to our economic model if we replaced that self-interested consumer with an actual human being who just tips because it is the right thing to do. Therein lies the answer: Azar finds that the most common reason to tip is trying to follow social norms (followed by reasons such as showing gratitude, recognizing that the wait staff depend on these wages, and avoiding feeling guilty). We tip because it is fair - and we are willing to pay a cost to be an upstanding member of our society, even if it is only we ourselves who know.
Understanding tipping through individuality will lead us astray. But so too will looking at it as an uncomplicated act of mutuality. For example, other researchers found something that is not especially surprising: white cab drivers were tipped better than Black cab drivers.6 Tipping can also be a practice rife with opportunity for sexual harassment, since it can make servers hesitant to confront abusive language or behavior from customers for fear of losing much-needed tip income. Power and race, not just mutuality, also play a role. With so much that traditional economics misunderstands about the interplay of mutuality and power in this simple and quotidian act, maybe we need a new approach.
What We Don't See
Neoliberalism is rooted in the assumption of people as individual agents who are rational, are self-interested, and pursue their own subjectively defined and predetermined goals. Some theorists stretch this to take account of altruism and cooperation, but they often see this through an instrumental lens - I will scratch your back if you scratch mine - suggesting that people stick with their self-defined goals but recognize the value of compromise and collaboration in achieving those goals. For other theorists, being kind and generous toward others is seen as motivated by a desire for kudos and recognition - a self-seeking instinct - rather than because it is simply the right and moral thing to do. Such a view of enlightened or expanded self-interest is a welcome relief from pure selfishness, but it is still rooted in a frame of individual motivations and actions.
Yet the example of tipping shows us that people are not so completely atomized. Our social roles and connections are a key part of how we navigate through the world. Common norms of society - what is seen as acceptable and unacceptable, worthy and shameful - shape our values, actions, and relationships. We seek a sense of belonging and connection with others, for our psychological and material well-being. We are quietly motivated by love, caring, and social solidarity - and this is as real as any of our desires for self-fulfillment.7
This sense of mutuality has been clearly visible during the global COVID-19 pandemic. It is notable that societies with relatively high levels of social solidarity - such as Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan - took widespread actions aimed at protecting the health and safety of those most vulnerable to the disease. Countries wracked by income inequality and social fragmentation - such as the United States, Brazil, and South Africa - fared poorly. But even in countries like the US, social distancing, mask-wearing, and improved sanitation became norms deeply motivated by desires to protect loved ones, acquaintances, and even strangers.
Economists do care about the broader well-being of society. But they believe this is best achieved through accepting the primacy of self-interest and allowing markets to efficiently steer goods to consumers, labor to firms, and capital to enterprises. The underlying assumption is that the central purpose of an economy is to maximize efficiency and output. In that world, no one can be made better off without someone being worse off - and proposing a distributional change in the name of "justice" is just playing zero-sum politics. Indeed, redistributing from one group to another would be a morally indefensible "taking" and actually diminish our total productivity.
But that failure to consider who gets what leads to a definition of efficiency and prosperity that is misleading. How can it be considered "optimal" to have a market economy that wastes resources producing fancier iPhones rather than solving pneumonia and diarrheal disease (the leading causes of death among young children worldwide); that generates corrupted financial instruments rather than an educated populace; and that crunches consumer data for profit rather than coming up with creative solutions to ending homelessness?8 And what if creating mechanisms for sharing prosperity actually contributed to, rather than diminished, our collective productivity?
In that sense, celebrating individuals and markets is not just an economic model; it is also an effective ideology. One of its many evolutions, so-called "public choice" economics, portrays political leaders, government bureaucrats, and public employees as yet another set of self-seeking groups rather than stewards of the public interest; lucky for us (according to the theory) that business can meet our needs as privatized consumers versus social creatures. In short, the neoliberal narrative presents a picture in which individuals are heroes, markets are liberatory, and collective will, especially when enacted by the state, is suffocating.9 As we will see, not only is this wrong but it leads us to measure well-being inaccurately, stressing the dollars exchanged in markets rather than the care offered in communities.
What We Have in Common
To be fair, sometimes even traditional western economists agree that self-interest can lead to suboptimal outcomes. In one of the more famous examples, nearly two centuries ago, English economist William Forster Lloyd argued that, left to their own...
"Solidarity Economics offers a way out of the zero-sum politics of neoliberalism at a crucial time. It is going to be a classic of our current era."
Heather C. McGhee, author of The Sum of Us
"Economics makes us forget that solidarity is the glue that holds society together, and the force that can be harnessed for social progress. Solidarity Economics is a fascinating and much needed book to think bigger and act boldly."
Emmanuel Saez, University of California, Berkeley
"Brilliant and superbly readable."
James K. Boyce, University of Massachusetts Amherst
"'We got us' was the powerful refrain heard throughout the Black and Brown communities hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis. Behind this pithy motto were countless mutual aid networks providing supplies, care, and cash for families left reeling from the pandemic. It's against the backdrop of these inspiring acts of solidarity that Drs. Pastor and Benner put forth their vision for a caring American economy built on mutuality and driven by the social movements that have delivered for our people time and again. Indeed, as we reckon with the moral failings of neoliberalism, Solidarity Economics challenges us to center the unique potential of collectivities in shaping our economic future - one that delivers for us all, not just the wealthiest among us."
Dorian Warren, co-President of Community Change and co-Chair of the Economic Security Project
"There has never been a more critical moment to shift away from an economic approach that benefits the few to one prioritizing the greater good. We have been sold a false bill of goods over the last four decades of American policy that you cannot have a thriving economy and shared prosperity. With its focus on how we all do better when we all do better, Solidarity Economics: Why Mutuality and Movements Matter, not only smashes that myth -but provides an essential framework for how we finally reimagine and restructure an economy that works for all."
Anne Price, President, Insight Center for Community Change
"In this powerful blueprint for an equitable future, Manuel Pastor and Chris Benner provide a bold critique of conventional wisdom about who owns the economy. They challenge us to radically imagine how we can design OUR economy to be fully inclusive and guided by the principles of mutuality and solidarity, ensuring that we put people first."
Angela Glover Blackwell, Founder in Residence, PolicyLink, and host, Radical Imagination podcast