In Conversation with the Editors

Francisco Pérez is a solidarity economy activist, educator, and researcher. Ciera Michele Peters and Mark Hernandez Motaghy from Fortunately, engage in a conversation with him about why artists need the solidarity economy and why the solidarity economy needs artists. Francisco is the former director of the Center for Popular Economics, a nonprofit collective of political economists whose programs and publications demystify the economy and put useful economic tools in the hands of people fighting for social and economic justice. He is currently an assistant professor of Economics at the University of Utah and a senior economist at the Center for Economic Democracy.

Mark Hernandez Motaghy: I first discovered your work at Media Tools for Liberation, a series of virtual workshops that were hosted by You Are Here (YAH) in 2020, focusing on the use of art and media to uplift movements. You co-presented with Nati Linares, a co-founding organizer of Art.coop, and an advisor to Fortunately.

At the beginning of the talk, you mentioned that Fred Ho was your mentor. I found this interesting because Fred, as a composer, and you, as an economist, are examining alternative economic systems from different perspectives. Could you talk about Fred’s mentorship and how their work as a revolutionary saxophonist has influenced your work in the solidarity economy?

Francisco Perez: Fred Ho was a real inspiration. I've been thinking a lot about him recently because he was, in many ways, my introduction to left political spaces and a lot of debates about strategy and organization and how to change the world. Before that, I, like many folks on the Left, thought of art as trivial. I was working at the Museum for African Art. I was exposed to artwork. But I thought this was a distraction, a hobby, or something on the side, not the real work of changing the world. Fred was basically like, you're not going to have a revolution without artists. Period. There's going to have to be a key component of all of this that is led by artists, and that includes a whole new form of art. We are going to have to change people's consciousness, values, and ways of relating to each other and to the world.

Fred emphasized the notion of alienation, which comes out of Marxist philosophy. I do workshops with different groups of people, and I find that artists are attracted to this idea. “Alienation” is a big word that means you're estranged or distanced from yourself. For example, if you grew up going to the supermarket like me, the chicken came in a plastic bag with the guts in a little plastic pouch inside the chicken. But then I would visit my grandmother in the Dominican Republic, and I would see her kill a chicken with her bare hands, chop its neck off, twist it, throw it into a boiling vat of water, pull the feathers out, and cook it for lunch or dinner. I realized I was super alienated from the land.

We're alienated from the work that we do, which is the context that Marx is usually talking about. When solidarity economists talk about this to other people, we don't start with the question, “Do you feel alienated?” We start with, “Have you ever been bored at work?” Or, “Have you ever just wished it was Friday?” Because you don't control your work.

My dad was a baker. He was allowed to . . . even notice my words, “he was allowed to.” He was allowed to bring the pastries he cooked home on our birthdays but on no other day. Even though he's the one who sat there in the summertime in front of a hot oven, baking cookies and cakes and other pastries, those things belong to his boss. They belong to the company. Not to him. He never baked at home because he saw that as something outside himself. Baking is what he did for money. It's not what he did for love or for himself.

So we’re alienated from the land, we’re alienated from our work, and we're alienated from each other. There's a debate now about loneliness versus solitude. Are people just happy being alone? Whichever way you cut it, we are alone, especially in American society. Nati and I are trying to raise kids, and it really does take a village. If you don't have a village, that shit becomes really fucking hard. Ultimately, we’re alienated from ourselves. We have epidemic levels of depression and anxiety. Alienation is very real, thinking of what capitalism does to our spirit. Artists are necessary for doing that healing work and helping to dis-alienate people, to help heal and connect. How do we reconnect people to the land? How do we reconnect people to each other and then to themselves? How can people join our work in organizing for the solidarity economy?

Diagram by Zoë Pulley, referencing Susan Jahoda and Caroline Woolard of BDAMDAPhD's adaptation of the Solidarity Economy diagram by Ethan Miller, dimensions variable, 2023.

MHM: On one of your presentation slides, you had a quote from Fred that read, “I have no bourgeois aspirations, like a classical musical composer would. My hope is that my music would inspire revolution.”

FP: I'm actually not sure if Fred would have been down with the solidarity economy. In fact, I'm ninety percent sure he would not have been. There's this big tension on the Left in politics. If you ask people, “What do you think a post-capitalist Utopia looks like?” They'll usually give you some version of the solidarity economy. But then, if you ask them, "How do we get there?" This is where Fred and I would disagree. Fred would say, "You're not going to co-op your way out of this. You're not going to co-op your way to revolution. That shit is a distraction in the moment." It's one of those “Wait 'till after the revolution, brothers" types of things. I wanted to invoke Fred for the revolutionary art, but he would probably not be down with what we're trying to do right now [laughs]. Real talk, he wouldn't have seen it as a viable revolutionary strategy. A lot of people agree with him. 

Cierra Peters: I'm curious about where your desire for this work comes from. What was the impetus to become a radical economist?

FP: I grew up working-class, a child of Dominican immigrants in New York City. Life made me a radical socialist. I did the readings later. I love books, but you don't have to read to understand this shit is fucked up. I grew up in a community where I saw a lot of people working very hard and not getting anywhere. They were still poor, still under the threat of eviction, seeing what life looks like at the bottom of American capitalism, which is unstable, insecure, precarious, and often violent. This was also the tail end of the crack epidemic in New York City. I grew up in a context where the margin for error was basically zero.

There's the liberal story of kids who don't have an education and need more resources, but there's no villain. We don't blame anyone. Poverty is just an accident that happens. Then there’s the radical story that we are poor because these other motherfuckers are rich. I'm not buying the liberal story that there's no villain. There's a fucking villain. We know who's doing this stuff and who profits. I was like, well, if not capitalism, then what? 

Growing up in the Caribbean community, people talked a lot about Cuba. I went for the first time in 2007, right after college. It made me want to cry in both good and bad ways. Around that time, my friend Aaron Tanaka handed me a book called Parecon by Michael Albert, which described a democratically planned economy. So, not capitalism, not markets, not Marx's 'anarchy of production,’ but democratic. So basically, Cuba, but if the people voted on the plan. Things have changed a lot, especially since I first went in 2007. The economy is less planned than it used to be. At the time, the elite of the party-state decided what to produce, so you were going to get trucks and guns, which they justifiably needed to defend their revolution. But if you ask most Cubans, they probably would have been like, we want paint for our houses, or new construction so I don't have to live with my ex or my mom or grandmother for the rest of my life. Something that was actually responsive to people's desires.

I have these debates with friends of mine who are very skeptical. As this movement grows, there's always a right-wing criticism that this shit is just unrealistic. They argue that humans are selfish and greedy and will never like to help one another out or care for each other, and blah, blah, blah. But there’s a left-wing criticism that if you have co-ops and land trusts in a capitalist society, they're just going to get swallowed up by capitalism, or they're going to exploit themselves in order to compete in capitalist markets so that they become virtually indistinguishable from a typical capitalist business. We've seen a lot of these big co-ops like REI. Or they're just going to disappear; you'll have your own little worker-owned coffee shop, and then it will close in three or four years. 

I get that this is a serious challenge. My take is that you can't wait until after the revolution. You have to start practicing this stuff now. You can't just microwave a co-op sector and the land trust sector after some mythical moment of revolutionary victory. You have to have some sense of how that shit works, even given all the contradictions and issues you're having now, because otherwise, you're going to end up in a similar situation where you don't have a worked-out alternative. And therefore, you're either going to fall apart, or you're going to turn to some authoritarian, top-down solution where you're like, we're just going to impose this. You couldn’t even try to impose co-ops. We can't impose co-ops. That shit’s not going to work. 

Later on, I went to Venezuela in 2011. It was really fascinating to see an actual revolutionary situation where that shit was unfolding. It wasn't in the past. It wasn't in the future. It was the present. They were trying to build some elements of a democratic or planned economy. It's one thing to study and be like, these are the issues we can anticipate based on theory and history. It's another thing to be like, this is what people are trying to work with right now, in real, concrete terms at this factory, in this town, at that assembly. It just made it much more real. My journey took me from the hoods of New York to fancy schools in Boston to Cuba and Venezuela, and then later to West Africa. I'm just trying to piece it all together and make the case that we should be flexing these democratic muscles.

MHM: I don't want to overlook your work in popular education. I'm thinking about that line Mark Fisher famously quotes, “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” I'm curious to hear how you’ve facilitated discussions about alternatives to capitalism to a broader audience.

FP: I really appreciate the question. First, because I came from a working-class background. I don't want to learn all this stuff, go to college, get a PhD, and then have these conversations with the five other PhDs who write about West Africa, too. The whole point is to share this knowledge with other people, which means you have to “make it plain.” What does this mean for regular people? What does this mean for people's day-to-day lives? If you can't explain to someone why it's important, then it isn't important. If you can't explain this to your family, neighbors, or community, then why are you doing it?
Secondly, the reason I appreciate studying history and anthropology is that both give you a sense of human possibility. Anthropology looks at different cultures, and history looks at cultures in the past. What you realize is that human beings are strange and have come up with a lot of different ways of relating to each other. All kinds of ways of being. And one of the difficult things is that people tend to naturalize what they have now. They think what we have now is all there ever has been or all there ever will be. Pick up any history book, even a conservative one. You'll see that that shit is not true. 

Part of what we try to do in some of these workshops—my favorite one is “Flavors of Socialism”—is to show there are other ways of doing this. To me, the biggest challenge talking to the working class is not convincing them that shit is fucked up. They already know that. When I talk to my middle-class students, I'll get pushback with them being like, "Capitalism is freedom. Capitalism has created all this wealth." Obviously, working-class people are not monolithic, but in working-class audiences, you get a lot less of that. Instead, you get a lot of, "Yeah, I know this is fucked up, but it's never going to change." 

That's why I latch on to the artists who are the consciousness shifters. I can tell you, "Look, there are different ways of being; let's talk about the different ways; let's come up with a fun, interactive way to learn about different ways of being." What I cannot do, or at least haven't figured out yet how to do, is be like, "And we can make a change here." Because that's something to do with the spirit, people's collective psyche. I don't know how you move things on that level, which is why I've enjoyed working with artists and want to keep doing it. Maybe they can't do it either. But if anyone can, it would be this group of people who have the ability to operate at that wavelength. Writing journal articles is not going to do it. Academia is not going to do it. I'm not even sure if popular education can do that. That is either an artistic thing or, to open up a can of worms, a religious thing. You have to talk about moving people's spirits.

CP: How does the solidarity economy benefit from the active participation of artists?

FP: Nati and I, we always say, "Artists need a solidarity economy. A solidarity economy needs artists." We should actually make bumper stickers for this. The concept of artists needing a solidarity economy is easier to understand. We're the canaries in the coal mine of the gig economy. We're already experiencing all the forms of precarity: the low and infrequent pay, that you should work for free and for clout, all of that nonsense that we get from what used to be called the sharing economy, but is really the Uber and Airbnb economy. I've been surprised by how many artists are like, "I'm creative, but not when it comes to politics. I got to pay my bills. I'm not buying into your utopian vision of a solidarity economy." 

The concept of a solidarity economy needing artists is usually harder to prove to people. You're not going to create a solidarity economy without having artists at the forefront of that movement. We need ways of shifting consciousness. I get into these debates about the symbolic and the material, or in Marxist terms, the 'superstructure' versus the 'base.' However, there are limitations to moving the superstructure. It's easier to get a film like Sorry to Bother You made than to unionize Amazon. Obviously, I think unionizing Amazon would have a much bigger impact on the lives of people who work at Amazon. If I had to choose to live in a world where the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) gets a good contract with Amazon or Boots Riley gets to make Sorry to Bother You, I would rather have Amazon organized. But having the Sorry to Bother Yous in the world getting made will hopefully push young people out there to become labor organizers, for example. 

That kind of impact is hard to measure because it isn't tangible, but that doesn't make it any less valuable. When I worked in NGOs in West Africa, we would have to identify what they called key actors. Nowadays, we call them the influencers. Who are the core people in the community who other folks listen to? Traditionally, in many of these regions, they are the imams if it's a Muslim village or there might be a council of elders. Often, it’s the school director or the most highly educated in the community. And then there are the folks who punch far above their weight, where if you convince this one person, they’ll bring ten other people with them. 

If we perform a similar analysis for American society, one of those groups will be artists. If one or two percent of the population might be professional artists, a much larger percentage are people who do art not for pay and have some other day job. If you were to convince these one or two percent of people, then they would bring a lot more folks with them. You could actually amplify this message. Again, that is not sufficient. That alone isn't going to get us there. But it will, hopefully, push the movement along. So I feel like artists can play that key role. I hate the term “influencer” because of the way it's been corrupted, but artists are influencers. They do influence people. They do that consciousness work. The alternative is like starting some church of the Left, which might also be the way to go. It's going to require either getting the artists involved or creating some left religious movement to get people thinking and acting in different ways and sustaining struggle. 

CP: There’s a lot of grounded work between you and Nati, between you and the Center for Economic Democracy, and between you and the Center for Popular Economics. How much, or what role, do collaborators play in your organizing, education, and anything else you might think of as your creative or social practice?

FP: My academic work is lone wolf work. I chose academia because I didn't want to be part of a team, and I also resent the fact that it encourages this individualism. Because of that, all the work I do outside the classroom is always done with a collaborator. I don't do anything by myself, and I wouldn't even try to. I wouldn't even pretend to. It wouldn't be possible. It wouldn't be fun. It wouldn't be effective. With my work with artists, I usually collaborate with Nati, and we also collaborate with artist collectives. If anything, I learned from those experiences that we should have collaborated even more. 

I'm a big sports fan, so I'm like, this is all a team effort. I'm either the point guard or the power forward. You play your role on the team. It's my job to set screens and rebound, and then somebody else is going to shoot. It's more about finding out where you fit in. Each of you brings something, but together, you all bring something else that none of you individually could deliver.