What is the solidarity economy?

The concept of the solidarity economy covers an array of very diverse initiatives and movements focused on creating and practicing “alternative ways of living, producing and consuming” (Bauhard 2014).  This includes practices such as communal living, communal kitchens, knowledge and software sharing, workers’ co-operatives, urban gardening, community-supported agriculture, eco villages, ethical financing, alternative currencies, fair-trade initiatives and others. The basic goal of such economies and the initiatives they encompass is the attainment of the common good and advocating for “a set of practices that emphasizes environmental sustainability, cooperation, equity, and community well-being over profit” (van der Beck-Clark & Pyles 2011: 6). A key feature of such practices is that they have a socially innovative character, striving to redefine the existing economic space shaped by the negative consequences of the dominant capitalist system, such as growing economic and social inequalities, destruction of the environment and of natural resources. In the solidarity economy concept, attaining the benefit of the community therefore, understandably, includes protecting the environment as a strongly expressed feature.

Precisely because of its sheer numbers and the diversity of the forms in which it appears, the solidarity economy has different names in different parts of the world, e.g. the good, alternative, green or human economy (Puđak et al. 2015) or simply other (Spanish: otra) economy (Cattani et al. 2009). Solidarity economy initiatives are often encompassed by the somewhat wider concept of the social and solidarity economy (SSE) (Laville 2010, Dash 2014, Šimleša et al. 2016). Although they are in many ways related and it is sometimes difficult to make out their boundaries, a basic difference is that a solidarity economy in relation to a social economy is significantly more focused on social capital and therefore has a greater cohesive potential for the community. In addition, its aim is not to be a mere corrective to the capitalist order, but rather to emphasise the need for the creation of an alternative to the existing capitalist system, which is why it is often seen as more radical than social economy (Kawano 2013 according to Puđak et al. 2016: 155).

While certain similar practices were known earlier (Laville 2009), the turning point for the proliferation of solidarity economy practices occurred after the start of the economic crisis in 2008, when a majority of people felt the cold insensitivity of the dominant economic system with full force (Kawano et al. 2009, Laville 2010, Simonič 2019). The crisis also incited an interest in the solidarity economy in the academic community. Researchers from different fields (sociology, cultural anthropology, economics, law…) have analysed various initiatives around the world, focusing on, among other topics, the process of institutionalising the solidarity economy (Nelms 2015) and emphasising the transformative potential that solidarity economy practices have for the individual and the community (Grasseni 2013).

The solidarity economy in Croatia

Solidary practices were part of everyday life in Croatia’s traditional culture (Vitez & Muraj 2001), but after the Second World War a new political and economic system arrived in which certain forms of solidarity were imposed from above. After another change of the political, economic and social system in the 1990’s, there was noticeable dissatisfaction with the consequences of the so-called wild privatisation processes and growing inequalities, which accompanied the sudden switch to capitalism (Čučković 2001a, 2001b, Koller Trbović 2009, Larise 2011, Budak & Rajh 2012, Ilišin et al. 2013, Rubić 2013). The 2008 economic crisis demonstrated the vulnerability of the Croatian economy in a global context, but also pointed out the deep problems that trouble the Croatian economy, independently of global economic currents. However, as in other parts of the world, in Croatia the crisis also prompted the appearance of new solidarity economy initiatives and a greater visibility of existing ones. The appearance of these “new” solidarity economy practices, shaped this time by the contemporary global context of alter-globalisation practices, took place in parallel to the country’s accession to the European Union and their acceptance was certainly influenced by the process of Europeanisation, which affected not only public policy, but also the level of identity (Radaelli 2000: 4).

In Croatia, researchers from different fields have also been engaging with diverse forms of practice which can be encompassed by the concept of “counter-hegemonic practices” and solidarity economy (Šimleša 2006, Puđak 2010, Puđak et al. 2015, Domazet & Dolenec 2016). Some of the practices that they have focused on are urban gardens (Biti & Blagaić 2013, Grbić Jakopović 2015, Rubić & Gulin 2015, 2019), intentional communities – eco-villages (Bokan 2012, Orlić i Bokan 2017), community-supported agriculture (Orlić 2014, 2015, Sarjanović 2014) and co-operatives (Babić & Račić 2011). Scholars researching the LEADER programme, which aims to support the development of rural regions mainly through local action groups (LAG’s), have analysed the potential of such approaches for development, while also pointing out the generation of further inequalities in rural regions (Lukić & Obad 2016). Results of research on social entrepreneurship show that it has become established to an extent in two thirds of Croatian counties (Šimleša et al. 2016: 280), while in other parts of the country it is only getting started, indicating the importance of the wider social context, which places obstacles to such initiatives (Tonković Bušljeta et al. 2018).