The Opposite of Capitalism

What is the Solidarity Economy? Read on to find out

By Molly Minden

He once smuggled arms into Georgia. Accidentally. He has done teach-ins at the current Occupy Movement. As a grad student at Duke, he participated in sit-ins against sweat-shop labor.

His name is Craig Borowiak and he is a political science professor at Haverford College.

“As an activist but also as a scholar, the phenomenon of the anti sweatshop movement is fascinating to me” he said.

A small wiry man with grey-blue eyes, he sat at the head of his desk and gently folded his hands together in thought. His desk was covered in stack of paper and folders. Leaflets about international study and global governance floated around in the piles.

His walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves about democracy and globalization and social movements. Books about ecovillages and cooperatives and accountability stacked up against the shelves. The huge text right in front of him read “Government and Climate Change.”

Behind him hung finger painting with red and purple dots on yellow paper. On the shelf beside it sat a picture of a beaming woman with wavy black hair and thin lips. Borowiak’s life partner, Nilgun Uygun, teaches anthropology at Haverford. In the picture, she clasped her arms around a grinning child, also with dark hair and dark eyes- their eight year old son. The three of them live on Haverford’s campus.

In his early forties, Borowiak is an associate professor. But he doesn’t research William Faulkner’s metaphorical articulation or the politics of the Carter administration. His work is rooted in the here and now.

Borowiak didn’t even know what the Solidarity Economy was until five years ago. He thought it meant simply paying people well and treating people well.

He was interested so he started studying it. He discovered many different definitions, but all with the core idea of people over profit.

He started mapping out where the solidarity economy was in Philadelphia. The point was to see that it existed. In Philadelphia alone he mapped over two-hundred solidarity economy organizations onto his research website.

For him, it is a presence to be reckoned with.

Yet it’s still a hard movement to define.

“There is no single definition,” said Borowiak.

In Brazil, the definition is different than Canada. In Argentina, the definition is different than in the United States.

But Borowiak’s map includes everything from artist and childcare cooperatives to community development companies. They are organizations that work outside traditional capitalism.

Soon, the online map will use open-source software that anyone can edit and contribute to. This software is about collaboration, not competition. The software itself is part of the solidarity economy.

Since Borowiak started this project, a global mapping initiative of the solidarity economy has also emerged. Borowiak pulled out a pamphlet with a world map on it. Color coded dots marked the solidarity economy around the world, from food coops to community land trusts.

Yet the map was a little different than the everyday world maps. South America was at the top and Canada and China were at the bottom. The map had been flipped so that North was South and South was North. The United States was less prominent.

Borowiak pointed his index finger at Australia. No longer “down under,” Australia sat at the very top of the map. This map presents a vivid and different way of looking at the world.

“It’s deliberately upside down. Or right side up,” said Borowiak. If you can see the world differently, why shouldn’t Australia be at the top? The map itself shows the importance of changing your perspective.

While most people see capitalism, Borowiak sees cooperatives and grandparents taking care of their grandkids. He sees friends trading cookies for tutoring sessions and non-profit organizations. He sees the Solidarity Economy. Looking at the solidarity economy instead of at pure capitalism means changing your worldview.

For Borowiak, it means asking a lot of questions, too.

“What is the history of this movement? How transformative is it? Is it going to be niche? Can it ramp itself up?” he asked himself.

Borowiak sees potential to scale up. The movement is already growing. Each year there are more cooperatives and community supported agriculture shares around the world.

Yet studying activists and social movements can be hard. Should Borowiak join the cause or study the cause?

“I experience a tug of war on my life,” he said. He rested his strawberry blonde beard in his hand as he spoke.

Borowiak majored in philosophy as an undergraduate at Carleton College, and loved deep discussions. He described himself as “very interested in political philosophy and moral philosophy. I was very interested in mastering, so to speak, the canon.”

It wasn’t until after school that his activism began.

He took three years off from school for adventure. “I did some exploration in the world and I realized I have some pretty intense commitments to real world,” he said,

Then, while in graduate school at Duke University, he found inspiration in the emerging movements of fair-trade, anti-sweatshop, and the global justice protests in Seattle.

“I got so excited,” he recalled. “I just got caught up in it. Because I had that moral philosophy core, global justice became my centerpiece.” He was an activist.

But even within the Solidarity Economy, there are tensions between activists who have an agenda and scholars who want to research for the sake of understanding.

Borowiak calls himself both an activist and a scholar.

“I’m committed to the solidarity economy,” he said, “but my scholarship comes first.” First and foremost, he wants to learn about these movements.

At the same time, he continues to act. He joined a credit union to support local, non-profit business. For him part of being an activists is living what you believe in. Borowiak believes in the solidarity economy.

He’s also trying to use the solidarity to help the Occupy Wall Street movement.

A few weeks ago, he was at a conference in Montreal about the solidarity economy. Occupy Montreal coincidentally started the very weekend they were there, only three blocks from the conference.

“Let’s go and learn about them. And let’s have some of them come here,” Borowiak said.

The conference organized a field trip to visit Occupy Montreal. Borowiak made some handouts describing the solidarity economy to distribute at Occupy movements.

His message: “We can say no. We can protest. We can say this is not what the system should be. But eventually you have to provide an alternative.”

Cooperatives are an alternative. So are non-profits and credit unions and bartering. All of these alternatives are part of the Solidarity Economy.

Borowiak recently sat on a panel of Haverford faculty members talking about the Occupy Wall street movement.

“His explanation of the potential implications of Occupy going forward gave me hope for the future impact of the movement” said student Gemma Donofrio.

Borowiak certainly uses his teaching to inspire.

“In some ways my teaching has this activist component. Mostly I want to build awareness and understanding about conceptual frameworks,” he said.

When it comes to his students, he’s excited about getting them to learn but he tries hard not to preach. He likes discussion.

“It’s been that one class that I can bring up in all my other classes,” said Haverford Sophomore Emily Northrop. “We talked about globalization and the environment and borders and maps. It has come up in environmental sciences and geology. It ended up coinciding at the end with my anthropology final.”

“I get students working on projects,” said Borowiak of his Solidarity Economy course. “I love this idea, conceiving the course as a collective project.” He smiled softly and brought his hands together. “This is a new field,” he said. “Let’s share. Let’s challenge each other.”

“He spends a lot of time with students,” said Haverford alumnus Caila Heyison. Before graduating last year, Heyison wrote her senior thesis with Borowiak. “He was very willing to talk through problems, give me some direction to go in,” Heyison.

Borowiak continues to push his students. Many of them choose to take his classes because they also believe in the power of the Solidarity Economy. But Borowiak doesn’t let them believe in it without thinking.

“I confront them with the counter arguments. If you want to critique capitalism, you need to understand capitalism,” he said. He pushes his students to consider opposing arguments.

He’s also known for explaining complex concepts like Marx’s Communist Manifesto with chalk stick figures to help illustrate the complexity. He has found a way to engage his students.

But that engagement discussion moves beyond the classroom. In previous years, Borowiak took part in the Borowiak-Mendelsohn debates, described by some as “an academic boxing match.”

Barak Mendelsohn, a fellow political science professor at Haverford suggested the two of them host public debates. While Borowiak studies social movements and democracy, Mendelsohn studies terrorism. They would get into friendly arguments in their offices and even while playing squash together. They decided to show off their academic jousting.

“In my experience, Haverford students tend to be conflict averse,” said Borowiak. “Too often I saw students conflating disagreement with conflict.” He frowned. “As if disagreement is about disrespect. We wanted to model that disagreement can be a form of respect.”

Part of learning at a place like Haverford is engaging in hard conversations.

Although he admitted in some ways the debates were “sparring, almost adolescent,” he also said they were meant to show “we can be colleagues who respect each other and sustain disagreement.”

The debates had a message to the students: disagreement can be good. He believes strongly in the solidarity economy, but he wants to be challenged.