Alternative Economy: Trends, Innovations and Experiences

Edoardo Boggio Marzet and Roland Kulke

Co-operative and solidarity-based economy, ethical business: Opportunities for a new Left in Europe?

Report on the seminar in June 2010 in Palermo

Public debate, 11 June 2010

On the 11th June evening, Rosa Luxemburg foundation organised the opening event of the seminar:”Alternative economy: experiences, challenges and future opportunities”. This event was an opportunity to meet local actors, politicians and Cso with the aim to confront with a very peculiar reality such as Sicily is. After introducing the role and activities of the Rosa Luxemburg foundation, Birgit Daiber (Head of Brussels RLS Office) remarked the crucial role of alternative forms of economy to counter the systematic effects of the economic crisis, whose effects are visible in different levels. In this perspective, she observed that the Left has not been able to provide real alternative answers to the crisis, and this allowed conservative trends to maintain predominance in our societies and political scenario. To change this situation, it is a challenge for the Left.

Fight for legality is fight for democracy

A deep “cultural change” must be the main priority, according to Anna Bucco (Chairwoman of ARCI Sicilia) to trigger an effective change. A real democracy can’t be achieved if there is not democracy in the fields of economy and knowledge. Mafia is acting on cultural level and deeply caused changes within the societies where it acts. But, as remarked by Luciano D’Angelo (Coordinator of the Consorzio Ulisse and Former Counselor on Social affairs in Palermo local government) politics and State’s institutions are deeply connected with Mafia in Sicily as, to a different extent, in Italy. Political elites are too far from the citizens needs.

Along with the cultural fight for legality, Mafia should be fought on the basis of economy, as organized crime organizations are fully to be considered as economic actors. It is important to “offer” a valid alternative in order to divert mostly youths and workers from working with and for the Mafia. Unique example in Europe, the Italian legislation outlines favourable conditions for the social re-use of confiscated goods and assets to mafia. Many social cooperatives could therefore start their business, especially in the field of agriculture and food production (among the presentations Libera, Consorzio Ulisse, Lavoro e non solo ), cultural (ARCI) and tourism (Libera). Economic and social impacts of these cooperatives are particularly important in local contexts, where organized crime is deeply rooted. As remarked by Calogero Parisi (Coordinator of the” Jobs and more than that” cooperative). In his case, through the participation of many young people and specific programs for the reinsertion into labour market of mental disabled persons, the cooperative represents an important alternative and example of fight against mafia in Corleone, the worldwide known “mafia town”.

From Italy to Europe: the road towards legislative framework for the social re use of confiscated goods as a mean of fight against transnational organized crime

As mentioned before, Italy has a very advanced legislative framework. Libera, which is the largest national scale organization focusing on the fight against Mafia in Italy, started its activities for lobbying for a national law for social reuse of confiscated goods. In the early 90s, when the confrontation between the State and mafia reached, a national campaign for a citizens’ initiative legislation allowing the social re-use of confiscated goods to mafia was launched. Relying on the structure of a spontaneous and informal network of associations, NGOS and different actors, which allowed reaching the 1 million signatures necessary to present the citizens’ proposal to the Italian Parliament, Libera could start its activities.

Fifteen years later, this challenge gains a European perspective. Michele Curto (Chairman of FLARE European network) described how Mafia is a transnational and varied business most important objective of FLARE is the proposal of a European legislation for the social re-use of confiscated goods, in the same path of the Italian example. With the Lisbon Treaty, this possibility is provisioned. In December 2010, a European campaign for gathering a million signatures will be started.

In order to achieve this ambitious goal, the political dimension is very important. Member of the European Parliament Rita Borsellino (sister of Paolo Borsellino, anti mafia judge killed by mafia and co founder of Libera) made her available to support this initiative at the European Parliament. Mafia, as economic actor, promoted the current economic model and was not affected by the crisis but, on the contrary, they are making profits over that. At European level, she notices how within the definition of “Security”, key point within the European international strategy, the definition of organized crime is not included.


The opening event was shaped on the local dimension. Speakers’ background was related to the Sicilian local ground and mostly aiming at presenting practical and political experiences of cooperatives’ social businesses and the engagement civil society for legality and against organized crime. On the contrary, the seminar:”Alternative economy: experiences, challenges and future opportunities” was characterized by an analyses of different forms of social economies, bringing the debate to a more detailed and theoretical level. Different examples of forms of alternative of social economy were introduced in a comparative level, fostering high level discussion with the participants.

Alternative Economy: Co-operative and Solidarity based Economy
Seminar, 12 June 2010

From theory to praxis, this European seminar for researchers, politicians, activists and practitioners will focus on recent research and theories linked to these Alternative Economic theories, discuss recent evolutions and trends, successes and failures and confront some relevant experiences. Case studies and innovative models such as Ethical finance, Social economy enterprises to manage the common goods, worker take over’s and new economic citizen participation, social enterprises to combat organized crime will be analyzed to understand their social transformation impact. Bringing together different stakeholders in Palermo (It), the seminar will particularly focus on experiences from the Mediterranean area and will reflect on possible actions to create stronger political alliances for a larger dissemination of such experiences to enhance social impact and transformation.

Ethical Finance

Ethical Finance takes an outstanding position in the discussion of the social economy sector. This is also due to the recent experiences with highly un-social banking behavior, with its effect of the leverage problem. Sara D’Aulerio from SEFEA (from Società Europea Finanza Etica ed Alternativa) and FEBEA (European Federation of Ethical and Alternative Banks and Financiers) demonstrated that an overall investment sum of 6 mio. Euro is executed with 4 mio. Euro equity capital. This point alone shows that ethical banking contributes very much to a sustainable economy as no leverage problem appears. The further discussion showed that the business model of Banca Etica is not only a solution to prevent economic crisis, but delivers urgently needed social functions during the “normal” capitalist times, too. Banca Etica is at the forefront of the struggle against Mafia, as it works against the basic rationality of Mafia networks: the black economy and its lifeline the black money, which has to be laundered. Banca Etica is the only banking institute in Italy which stands completely against the attempts of money laundering. Despite the attempt to maintain the economy clean, Banca Etica also finances start-ups which have huge problems to get resources otherwise. Investment will be strengthened in future in the areas of sustainable housing, organic agriculture and renewable energy. Marco Caravell (Libera Terra Mediterraneo) added to this discussion that getting a job is not a matter of equality, merit or effort, but it too often just a concession by a local mafia boss. What the left just wants would thus be a “Just and clean economy as a goal”.

Une Extension du domaine de la lute – The quest for a Social Internet?

Jean-Rémy Cazeaux from WECOOP in France made another point for a transversal useable resource – the internet. He claimed that the Social Economy until now has wilfully, or rather criminally neglected the internet so that it is, until now, mostly in the hand of capitalists. The internet has thus become an important battle ground in the last years, and this trend has to be answered accordingly by the Social Economy actors. Non-profit oriented social platforms could help to bring people together and to help to connect the civil society.

The importance of education

Stanislao Di Piazza added that education questions regarding the struggle for a clean economy are very important. Banca Etica has very often noticed that adults in general, and shop keepers in particular open accounts with the Banca Etica because of the pressure of their own children, who were taught about Mafia problems in school.

Education is highly relevant for the sustainability of the Social Economy Sector for another reason. The knowledge on alternatives to the neoliberal capitalism has been rooted out through the change in the economic istutes in the universities in the last decades. Germany might be the most radical example of this, but its not easy to find scientists who work on alternatives in other countries, too. As Elisabeth Voss said (and practices with the journal Contraste), the cooperatives offer institutionalized knowledge on different opportunities to live and produce.

Another facet of education must be the struggle against the consumer culture. A topic which was brought up in different contexts. One reason for the recent mortgage problems is the fact that people tend to believe that it is necessary to buy flats or even houses although the income makes it clear that the prices are too high. This consumer culture is one reason for the decay of the cooperative movement in the 1980s.

Intelligent Networking

The creation of jobs by the job seekers themselves is also the main aim of Coopaname Lyon. With the help of public funds it is possible to train people to become enterprise leaders. Interestingly Coopaname had to change its approach after two years as the trained job seekers did not want to leave the centre but wanted to have a further cooperation with each other. There is no equal pay – everybody is responsible for his or hers own turn over, but together maximum security is sought for all small enterprises. Joseph Sangiorgio concludes that this is a very intelligent way to organize small cooperatives into larger networks so to secure security, the possibility to work together with sustainable job creation.

The paucity of cooperation – inside the movement and with (potential) allies, especially with the trade union

A topic which was discussed from the first presentations onwards was the fact that the represented civil society organizations at the seminar did not know much about others present at the seminar, although the regional or thematically proximity might have been pretty close. West European civil society organizations working in the field of the Social Economy seem to be not enough connected to each other. Much less we naturally know about comparable organizations from the other World Regions, even from the USA, which are after all culturally very close to Western Europe. Marie France Boutroue (CGT) noticed that the Social Economy sector and its actors largely keep to themselves. Members of the European Parliament have problems to get into contact with the relevant organizations of the Social Economy. She calls for actions to strengthen both the visibility of the Social Economy actors and the cooperation with the trade unions as “Trade unions can’t do everything when the Social Economy organizations do not ask for help.”

Another point where the Social Economy sector has to work on is the training for its members. Enhanced training is important for better management qualities across the movement, but also to develop the ability for cooperation with other sectors of the Social economy and the trade unions.

Be persistent…

Marco Caravell (Libera Terra Mediterraneo) made clear that it is not an easy task to work successfully “on the ground” for the broader aims of the social economy. It took years of work with the local famers until his cooperation could develop close relations to the local populations really based on trust. Today farmers ask for jobs at the cooperatives as they pay social security to break the social exclusion. The cooperatives of Libera Terra does not only pay guaranteed minimum prices to the famers for their products but it also heavily works for the steady development of the quality of these products. Marco Caravell stated that funds of the European Union have been very helpful for the development of the Social Economy in Italy.

The necessary evil? The European Union and the state administration

The importance of the European Union and the availability of its funds was part of one strand of discussion which dealt with the relations of the actors and organizations of the Social Economy with the state. It is obvious that the state in Western Europe poses problems to the Social Economy, otherwise there would have not been the need to meet and to discuss strategies for the future promotion of alternative ways of production. On the other hand it became clear that without the active help of different fractions, sectors etc of the state administration the Social Economy could not at all blossom. The state has two ways to purse positive influence on the development of the Social Economy: 1. providing funds, especially for start ups, 2. to ensure the sustainability of this sector via adequate legislation, which ensures that the legal form of a cooperative is not changed into limited corporations after a few years and the change to the second generation. Marcialla Grazia mentioned this especially for the Italian case. Here cooperatives have started to change under the enormous pressure of the competition to use new contracts which offer far less rights to workers.

Gone with the Wind? – The intermediate institutions

For that reason Giuseppe Carozza (Piattaforma des sociale) argued strongly in favor of the cooperation of the Social Economy with political parties. As parties are the most important intermediate institutions between the citizens and the state it is of highest importance that their exist parties who really represent the majority interests. Until know there would no political party exist which successfully represent the interests of the people. Raf Verbeke added from the perspective of the trade unions that these also heavily depend on contacts and support in the political system, especially now in times of the crisis.


Birgit Daiber expressed the hope that the Social Economy will play an influential role in the near future as it is less exposed to the financial crisis due to its sustainable economic model. More than ever the cooperation between different left actors like cooperatives, trade unions and left parties is necessary.

Short theses of the participants

For the organization of the Seminar “Alternative Economy: Co-operative and Solidarity based Economy, Ethical Business: Trends, Innovations and Experiences” we would like to ask every participant kindly to write short theses of not more than one page. We ask every participant to respond to four questions with the focus on the special field the participant is working in. So no general answers are expected but very specific ones, profiting from the expert knowledge of the participant in his or her sector.

1. Every one of you works in the field of the solidarity based economy with a particular project. What is the contribution of this one special project to the democratic innovation of the sector it works in? Example: If you work in the field of ethical finance, what is the direct impact of your cooperative on the democratic structure of the financial system itself?

2. What is the positive impact of your specific project on the larger capitalistic economy? What are the trajectories of your impact? What are the “mainstream” institutions of our societies you influence most? Are these trade unions, local administrations, civil society networks or other actors like the judicial system or political parties?

3. What are your personal experiences concerning failures of your project and barriers to successful working? How has the wider framework of your project to be changed that failures and barriers can be avoided in future? Where should be the next concrete steps being taken, for example: in the legal framework or rather should social awareness rising projects being provided? What do you expect from the main social actors (political parties, trade union and employee associations)?

4. What do you think that your own project could do better in future to connect to other areas of the solidarity based economy?

See also:

>> Alternative Economy – Conference Page
>> Backgroundpaper on Alternative Economy

solidarity_based_economy_in_europe.pdfPDF file