Diverse Solidarity Economies in Unlikely Settings

The Diversity of Solidarity Economies: A View from Danish Minority Gangs

In a recently published article, The Diversity of Solidarity Economies: A View from Danish Minority Gangs, CEI member Christina Jerne explores solidarity economies in the unlikely setting of Danish minority gangs.

The gangs that Jerne studied have their roots in the neighborhood-based groups that emerged in disadvantaged urban areas inhabited by a high number of ethnic minorities, and have come to define themselves as resisting what they frame as “the Danish way” (the majority culture). 

Jerne says, “Minority gangs represent a form of ethnic resistance to cultural assimilation; this is an act of rebellion against marginalization and a form of counter-citizenship.”

One of Jerne’s aims in writing this piece is to explore how solidarity economies operate in settings that are very different from the those that are usually associated with solidarity economies, such as third-sector non-profit organizations, social enterprises, cooperatives and mutual aid associations. 

She says, “Other kinds of solidarity economies are also being built for, and by, some of the most marginalized people in the world, such as criminal enterprises and informal transnational street businesses but these are rarely included in debates on solidarity economies.”

Jerne focuses on practices of reciprocity and pooling (or redistribution) within the gangs, drawing from eighteen months of fieldwork conducted in high-security prisons and a variety of sites in the Copenhagen region (including courtrooms, markets and cafes).

The reciprocity practised by the gangs involves open and tacit relations—open in the sense that there is no ‘contract’ between gang members about what will be reciprocated and when; and tacit in the sense that the ‘debt’ that is owed is not spoken about and instead is an ambiguous element in the relationships between gang members.

The minority gangs see themselves as participating in a form of reciprocity that is very different to the prevalent reciprocal relations in Denmark in which exchanges are based on explicit and symmetrical ‘rules’, for example when families or work colleagues agree on the amount of money to be spent on Christmas gifts and establish a mechanism to ensure that each person gives and receives one gift each. 

Jerne explains, “the gangs' shared norm of refusing to make debt explicit means that solidarity is strongly linked to potential obligation and to a duration that implies bearing the weight of debt for a long time, perhaps even ‘for life’ as many gang members hope.  The sacrifice here lies in spreading one’s material and emotional resources over time by rendering them ambiguous.”

If relations of reciprocity are open and tacit, those associated with pooling of resources are clearer, and one of the examples that Jerne uses to illustrate this is the distinction between the everyday car and the special occasion car. 

The everyday car is owned by a gang member or leased through pooled gang money, and it is used for everyday activities such as running errands, taking children to school, taking family members to the doctors. The special occasion car is stolen and used for violent and illegal activity such as kidnapping, collecting ransoms, delivering illicit goods (especially weapons or bigger drug loads). 

The rules around these two types of cars cover factors such as who can access and use the vehicle, and who cares for and takes responsibility for the vehicles. For example, in the case of a special occasion car the thief is responsible for the vehicle to the extent that if they are caught, they are legally responsible and will be the one to serve a jail term, but in return for this sacrifice they gain status in the gang, extra money during imprisonment, legal assistance, and even care of their family by other gang members (and their families). 

Through these mechanisms of reciprocity and pooling, solidarity between gang members is being fostered, while simultaneously gang members are distinguishing themselves from the prevalent Danish norms. 

Jerne highlights that her intention is not to defend gangs and especially the violence they use and harm they generate, including violence and harm against other ethnic minorities who often live in close proximity to the gangs. However, she is interested in showing how the societal-level of solidarity that is hoped for in a national-level setting such as Denmark is reliant on homogenisation of society’s members and their adoption of the dominant culture. There are risks with this form of solidarity. 

Jerne says, “a culture of solidarity that is only open to submission to ‘one’ way of being will automatically produce both frustrated submission and violent opposition. Solidarity can also be a site of struggle, not only against individualism and accumulation (as exemplified by social enterprises, cooperatives, mutual aid organisations and the like), but also against other cultures of solidarity.” 

Jenny Cameron

Photo by Logan Meis on Unsplash