Imaginal Cells of the Solidarity Economy

The discovery of imaginal cells, or discs, goes back to the 1600s, but the metaphor of imaginal cells was popularized by Norie Huddle in her 1990 book Butterfly. The story of a butterfly’s metamorphosis provides a lovely and useful metaphor for the metamorphosis from a system of capitalism to a postcapitalist system: the solidarity economy (SE).

Awakening to a Different Vision

When a caterpillar spins its chrysalis around itself, a magical process begins. First, its body starts to break down into a nutrient-rich goop. Within this goop are imaginal cells, which were present all along within the caterpillar but had been dormant. These imaginal cells begin to express a genome inherited through evolution, a genome that is different from that of the caterpillar.1

These imaginal cells, in other words, have a different vision of what they can become. They are so different, in fact, that what remains of the caterpillar’s immune system views them as foreign interlopers, and attacks and destroys them.

Common Vision and Clustering

Yet, surviving imaginal cells begin to recognize each other as having a common purpose and vision of becoming. They begin to cluster together, and are able to fend off the attacks of the immune system. More and more of the imaginal cells find each other, come together, and survive. The surviving clusters find other clusters, and continue to come together.

Cooperation, Integration, Emergence

As the imaginal cells continue to coalesce, they start to specialize into their preprogrammed expression. Some develop as an eye, some grow into a leg, some become the body, and some the wing. These pieces work together, each integrating with the others, until what emerges from the chrysalis is an entirely different creature—a butterfly.2


The solidarity economy (SE) is a big tent that embraces many coexisting visions of democratic, postcapitalist economic systems. The framework, which emerged in Latin America and Europe in the 1990s, rejects state-dominated authoritarian forms of socialism, instead affirming a core commitment to participatory democracy. Furthermore, it is explicitly feminist, antiracist, and ecological, and advocates for economic transformation that transcends all forms of oppression, not just class. In contrast to the narrow self-interest, competition, and struggle to dominate others that are at the heart of racist, patriarchal capitalism, the solidarity economy is centered on a culture of solidarity, mutuality, caring, and cooperation, including social responsibility, economic human rights, and the rights of Mother Earth. SE institutions include cooperatives (worker-owned, consumer, producer), public banks, community land trusts, alternative currencies, and time banks.

In 2013, the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network (USSEN) and RIPESS, an international solidarity economy network, led a two-year international consultation process to build a shared understanding of the framework.3 While there is a tremendous latitude within the solidarity economy to encompass a wide range of approaches grounded in the local realities of culture, language, history, political-social-economic contexts, and environment, there are elements of the definition that apply across these specificities:

  • The solidarity economy is a framework.
  • This framework connects solidarity economy practices.
  • SE practices are aligned with SE values:
    • Solidarity;
    • Participatory democracy;
    • Equity in all dimensions—race, class, gender, abilities, etc.;
    • Sustainability;
    • Pluralism, meaning that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach—or, as the Zapatistas say, it’s “a world in which many worlds fit.”
  • All of these elements articulate a postcapitalist vision. SE holds that we cannot achieve the just, sustainable, democratic, and cooperative world that we seek by reforming capitalism. We do not reject reforms, but we do insist on the importance of seeing them as part of a long-term process of fundamental systems change. In the absence of this, reforms end up strengthening capitalism.
  • SE is an international movement that includes: RIPESS, an international solidarity economy network of continental networks; the ILO (International Labour Organization), which runs an annual Social and Solidarity Economy Academy; the United Nations, which has a task force on the solidarity economy (the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Social and Solidarity Economy—or UNTFSSE); Bolivia and Ecuador, countries that include the solidarity economy in their constitutions; and a number of other countries that have national policy frameworks that support the solidarity economy.

The rich foundation of solidarity economy practices are like imaginal cells. Currently, they are in the equivalent of a dormant stage within the caterpillar of capitalism. However, the convergent crises of the pandemic, climate change, the racism and violence that have sparked the widespread racial justice uprisings, the economic divide, and the alarming slide toward fascism also create opportunity. People’s faith in the status quo is shaken. There’s a growing openness to new narratives, new models, and new paradigms. In this context, many of the solidarity economy’s imaginal cells are shaking off their dormancy, awakening to a different vision of becoming.

What will it take for the solidarity economy’s imaginal cells to complete the metamorphosis into a postcapitalist system that operates with a different set of values and logic? We do not need to “wait for the revolution,” because SE practices already exist all around us today. Our task is to make these practices visible, and to grow and connect them. Like the imaginal cells, we can think of three phases: (1) awakening to a different vision; (2) recognizing others as sharing a common vision, and clustering; and (3) cooperating, integrating, and emerging.


This article comes from the Summer 2021 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, “The World We Want: In Search of New Economic Paradigms.”

Art: Detail of Untitled, from the series “Capitalism Is Killing Us/Black Utopias” By Aisha Shillingford /


Going Further:

About the Lead Author

Emily Kawano
Emily Kawano
Emily Kawano is Co-Director of the Wellspring Cooperative Corporation, which is seeking to create an engine for new, community-based job creation in Springfield, Massachusetts. Wellspring’s goal is to use anchor institution purchases to create a network of worker-owned businesses located in the inner city that will provide job training and entry-level jobs to unemployed and underemployed residents through worker-owned cooperatives. Kawano also serves as Coordinator of the United States Solidarity Economy Network. An economist by training, Kawano served as the Director of the Center for Popular Economics from 2004 to 2013. Prior to that, Kawano taught economics at Smith College, worked as the National Economic Justice Representative for the American Friends Service Committee and, in Northern Ireland, founded a popular economics program with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

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