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In the Struggle over Urban Space: The Solidarity Economy Movement and Urban Utopianism in Hong Kong

New Community

Terence Yuen, Pauline Chan, 2016

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Summary :

Like in many other metropolises, alternative economic practices in Hong Kong have been grown out of the contradictions of advanced capitalism and they take a variety of forms including producer and consumer co-operatives, Local Exchange and Trading Systems (LETS), community-supported agriculture (CSA), the fair-trade movement and the like. There is no question that the small city-state, dominated by hegemonic market forces and the wicked power of property and finance capitals, leaves very little space for the continued survival of these alternative economic practices. Yet, the very existence of highly resilient projects devoid of mainstream market logic manifests rich and diverse political imaginations, and they are, in effect, heterotopias occupying urban spaces co-existing with those dominated by capital.

To social economy practitioners, a utopian vision is embodied in the political and economic praxis they endeavour to promote and realize. Yet, absent any well-travelled paths for practitioners and economic participants to follow through, there is no guarantee that the heterotopias of alternative economic praxis could live up to their utopian vision and resist co-optation or elimination by capitalist market forces; indeed, the movement could lose its vibrancy and emancipatory potential and degenerate into localized, reactionary practices. It is telling that the solidarity economy is mostly ignored by the ‘serious’ economists as a realistic, tenable movement in altering the course of neo-liberal economic development, let alone fulfilling the overarching ambition to remake the capitalist market system.

In his 2000 book Spaces of Hope,geographer David Harvey, by way of elucidating the inherent defects and difficulties of utopian imaginaries anchoring on either spatial form or social process, advocates that building a utopianism that is “explicitly spatiotemporal” as the only way to rescue “any pretence at utopianism whatsoever” (Harvey 2000:182). Calling it spatiotemporal utopianism or dialectical utopianism, Harvey suggests that the production of space and time must be incorporated in the formulation of any utopian vision, and it implies that any political project bearing utopian vision must contemplate the question of spatio-temporality as an integral part of the movement’s internal dynamics that contributes to and provides for the “conditions of possibility” for instigating political translation and transcendence.

Of course, after our experiences of the last decade, this ‘utopianism’ has to be linked to the explosive development in social-media-based forms of relationality (with its potentials and pitfalls) and with the growing opposition to the globalised corporate system of political-economic globalization. There are the growing signs of its fragility and impending collapse, as we can witness the rapidly spreading protest movements and their sometimes violent suppression on the one hand, and the global financial tsunami and the various permutations of states’ crisis management on the other.

Both sides offer a sense of what Harvey’s spatio-temporal possibilities are up against and a good contextualizing of his socio-geographical contribution. Adding some of its earlier origins and contemporaries, including Henri Lefèbvre, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri - Ursula Heise (2008) describes the growing deterritorialization of the human experience and suggests the need for eco-cosmopolitanism as a necessary complement to re-localization. The multiple World Social Forums in different places have also clearly shown the need for the acceptance of the specificity of the diverse local ‘spatialities’ and their potential for the anchoring of instances of the social economy (Ramos, 2012).

As a movement of movements, the social and solidarity economy[i] has a clear vision “to put the economy at the service of human beings, rather than putting human beings at the service of the economy” (Neamtan 2010:241). Participants in solidarity economy movements would certainly embrace utopian visions in the sense that they all believe “another world” is possible. Against this formulation, this paper aims to serve two purposes. First, in the next section, the core values and key attributes of the social and solidarity economy as a pluralistic and yet cohesive social movement are examined and its potential in building a sustained spatiotemporal utopianism explored. In the third section, the Social Economy Action Research Project initiated in Hong Kong since the middle of 2010 is introduced, with a brief analysis of early case findings that offers insights into the potency and practicability of the urban utopian vision it carries.