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Sowing the seeds of a new economy

Practical alternative economic models are rapidly taking shape in practice in Catalonia. Are the indignados finally harvesting? asks Peter de Jong

August 7, 2014
14 min read

Solar_panels_in_Ogiinuur“Try one, they’re extremely tasty”, says Jordi, throwing one of the fruits of his orange tree in my direction. The orange-bricked terrace behind his Barcelona apartment is full of sustainable, self-reliant projects in every corner. Eggshells and coffee grounds fertilize an olive tree; a dumpster doubles as a compost heap; wooden trays grow all kinds of vegetables. Jordi has invited me over to see his latest addition—a square-metre solar panel. It hums quietly in the sunlight on this beautiful Spanish morning.

A full-time psychologist, Jordi is also an active member of various cooperatives throughout Spain and one of the founders of alternative media outlet La Marea. “This solar panel supplies around ten percent of my total energy consumption,” he calculates. “It’s not that much, but it has its political purposes.”

He points to the slogan on a poster hanging from the panel’s mount: ‘#DeSolBediencia’. It is a play on the Spanish words sol (meaning sun) and desobediencia (disobedience), and the name of a recent campaign by ECOOO, a Spanish energy cooperative working towards ‘solar revolution’.

By collectively buying up large numbers of solar panels, ECOOO can offer them at low-cost to citizens wanting to generate their own electricity. At this point, it is a risky proposition. A few weeks ago the Spanish government announced an extra tariff on self-produced energy—and an intention to search homes to catch those avoiding it.

Domestic energy production is just one of many alternative forms of economic activity being explored by people like Jordi. In a country severely hit by the financial crisis, overall unemployment stands at 26 per cent, rising to 55 per cent among the young.

Different economic models are taking root, with experimental projects across all sectors: production, distribution, consumption and services. In Catalonia alone, you can find initiatives on: food and drink (Cooperativa Integral Catalana’s econetworks, cooperative bars, consumer cooperatives); alternative currencies, finance and banking (the Ecosol, the ECO, Fiare Banca Ética, Coop57); culture and media (La Ciutat Invisible, La Marea, La Directa); housing (Okupa squatted houses, the PAH movement); telecommunications (Som Connexió); and energy (Som Energia).

Projects typically work on the basis of a cooperative model, in which its socios (members) are at the core of the decision-making process. Responding to the shortcomings of the business-state nexus, they evolve around a set of principles: sustainability, solidarity, locality and transparency.

The signs are that it works. Numbers are growing quickly, local branches are being created and second-level, economic infrastructure facilities are popping up to help support new initiatives.

Green shoots

The renewable energy group Som Energia (Catalan for ‘We are Energy’) is one of the rising stars, offering green energy direct to the public. But that is only part of the story, according to co-founder Gijsbert Huijink. “Our aim is to transform the Spanish energy model, to become 100 per cent sustainable, renewable, and self-sufficient,” he says.

The cooperative was conceived when Huijink and his wife wanted to connect their Catalan cottage to the electricity grid of a neighbouring farm. They were shocked by the price of the operation. “So I started looking into the possibility of my own installation, and ended up buying our  first solar panel,” he says.

“I became fascinated with the subject of renewable energy. It seemed a good idea to connect with other individual energy producers and set up projects together. It’s been possible in countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark for a long time. Such a cooperative structure did not exist here. I decided to start one myself.”

Huijink put the idea of Spain’s first renewable cooperative to his students at the University of Girona, and things got rolling quickly. An organizing group was formed, the legal cooperative structure established, and members started dropping in.

“First, most of new members were activist, it fitted with anti-nuclear attitudes for instance,” he explains. “Later, as the crisis hit, we got more and more people motivated to join in rejection of the oppressive oligopoly which controlled the energy market. It was swallowing up all kinds of small, traditional enterprises, while energy bills rose to astronomic heights—all with the consent of the Spanish government.”

As Som Energia was getting off the ground, the indignados-movement began to gain momentum. The massive protests and square occupations starting 15 May, 2011, created an atmosphere in which more and more people grew interested in doing things differently.

Huijink remembers: “In the first three months of our existence, we were happy with each new member. After that, we started growing by 10 to 20 members a week. In the summer of 2011, we welcomed around 50 a week.”

The flow of new members rapidly generated investment opportunities for the cooperative. With each new member making a €100 deposit, Som Energia was able to start production and built its first photovoltaic plant in 2012. At the time of writing, there are more than 14,000 members, energia-socios. In addition to five operating photovoltaic arrays, their first biogas installation opened in 2014.

Som Energia got its first start-up loan from finance cooperative Coop57. Xavi Teis, a member of that group, thinks the 15-M movement has already achieved two major things. “First, it has mobilized lots of people who were not politically active before. But, second, it has also generated a public search for alternatives to the conventional economic system.” He is enthusiastically pointing the tip of his pencil to the steep line graph showing the increase of annual member contributions to Coop57 since 2011.

“A lot of people who become socio of our cooperative, tell us they don’t want to put their savings in the hands of corrupt bankers,” Teis says. “They would rather join us, knowing their money will only be used to support projects that are creating social value—which is exactly our criterion for an investment.”

As growing numbers put their savings into alternative and ethical finance initiatives, the demand for loans from credit-seeking startups is skyrocketing. In the first quarter of 2013, Coop57 granted the same amount of credit to projects as during the whole of 2012, five times as much as in 2008.

Xavi Palos, one of two permanent employees of the Xarxa d’Economia Solidaria (XES)—a  network organization for alternative economy initiatives in Catalonia—also recognises the boom that followed in the crisis and 15-M protests. “In those three years we’ve witnessed an explosive increase in all kinds of new projects,” he says. “The first activities we organized, such as debates, had a maximum of three hundred visitors. The latest Solidarity Economy Fair got around 12,000.”

Historic roots

It would be wrong to attribute the rise of alternative economy practices solely to the indignadomomentum. Much of the social infrastructure underpinning these projects dates back to long before 2011.

Ferrán Aguiló, an experienced, silver-bearded cooperativista, currently works as a cooperative consultant. But he has been active within the alternative economy sphere since the early 1990s. While confirming the 15-M effect, he places the current developments within the wider historical dynamics of Catalonia.

“The cooperative movement, which constitutes an important part of the whole of the alternative economy, has been present here for years,” says Aguiló, sitting in the meeting room at Can Batlló, a squatted factory site turned into a flourishing community center. “The neighbourhood of Sants, for example, has an long story of working class struggles and cooperativism stretching back to the early 20th century. These new projects are a result of various factors which have been around the city since the end of the Spanish Civil War.”

He draws a link between the clandestine neighbourhood associations which operated during the Franco dictatorship, though to the Okupa-squatters and, most recently, the indignados. “All these experiences have been consolidated at the level of the neighbourhood, and are now building towards the establishment of a more social economy,” he adds.

During and after the indignadooccupations of the Plaça Catalunya, Aguiló and members of groups such as Coop57, the XES, and the Cooperativa Integral Catalana participated actively in assembly meetings, sharing their experiences with the newest generation of change-minded citizens.

Didac Costa, founder of the Cooperativa Integral Catalana, a grassroots counter-power organization aiming to integrate alternatives in all sectors of the economy, describes their involvement: “Although we did not organize the indignado- protests, we were present at the squares. At the beginning, the 15-M movement achieved huge turnouts, but lacked foundation, substance and continuity. We were there to support the movement as ‘everyday professional revolutionaries’, talking to people about our ideas on the economy, legal issues, and sharing the histories of our own projects”.

When the squares emptied, this process of knowledge exchange continued within the neigbourhoods, in established community spaces such as the civic centers common across the Catalan capital. These continue to be the places in which people become politically active, in which campaigns are designed, debates take place, and new projects are born.

In the case of Som Energia, for example, the Barcelona branch regularly gives presentations on the project in civic centers. They also hold frequent cervezas energeticas (debate sessions among the members of local Som Energiachapters), open opportunities for local groups of co-op socios to discuss their positions on specific strategic issues of the cooperative.

Branches of government

The blossoming of the alternative economy is increasingly being recognized by the Spanish authorities. They are generally hostile in their responses to the phenomenon. Stories about repressive government actions are rife within the alternative scene. Police actions against confrontational tactics such as squatting or bank occupations—as in the case of the Platform of Those Affected by Mortgages (PAH)—are well-known.

Since one of the main characteristics of the alternative boom is the origin in discontent with government practices, the authorities’ initial position is often one of neglect or rejection. This is especially the case with the conservative Partido Popular national government in Madrid. Som Energia is strongly resisting the government’s proposal for new national energy legislation, which protects the interests of major energy suppliers and makes renewable energy start-ups very difficult.

At the local level however, the stance of government institutions seems to be changing. Slowly and carefully, relations between the alternative economy and local governments are being constructed. “We always critically evaluate proposals from the government, in order to protect our independent position,” says Palos.

“When the government of Barcelona noticed the success of our Solidarity Economy Fair, they wanted to get involved,” he explains. “We’ve told them they could get a stand at the Fair, like any other entity wanting to participate. They can join meetings on subjects they find interesting, but only on the basis of equality with other participants.”

Aguiló has also experienced the growing attention of political institutions: “The political parties are increasingly taking us into consideration. They refer to us in debates and occasionally invite us to talk about political issues.”

In the run-up to Madrid’s Dignity March against unemployment in the spring, Aguiló was invited to take part in meetings of trade union representatives and members of the Catalan parliament. Recalling these events, he says: “Participating in such meetings is rather interesting. Not only to clarify your opinion, but also to take notice of how these institutional democratic representatives seem to be caught up in very non-productive discourses.

“ [Political parties and trade unions] take up problems like unemployment by endlessly talking about long-term solutions—improving education to create opportunities in the labour market, that kind of thing. My approach is much more direct. I’m pointing to specific sectors, and looking at how to offer immediate solutions for the problems we face today.”

Not everyone within the alternative scene is enthusiastic about talking to political representatives. The more radical element of Costa’s Cooperativa Integral Catalana keeps officials at a distance. On the trade unions, he says: “They once were very important, but they have become too much co-opted by the system. In Catalonia, around 80 per cent of the people are member of the CNT (the largest trade union).  Their logic simply does not fit ours. The model of the trade unions is based upon asking your superiors for a raise or better working conditions. We do not ask. We don’t have a boss. We are autogestionarios—we govern ourselves.”

As the fallout from the crisis continues, an interesting additional dynamic is evolving. Alternative economy projects are taking over tasks traditionally carried out by the state, but which it now fails to provide. The factory buildings of Can Batlló, for example, were taken over by the community when the local government failed to meet the deadline given by citizen groups after two years of non-action. It is now a community space with municipal gardens, a library, bar, and a programme of  debates, films, and music throughout the week.

Fruitful partnerships

Coop57, on the other hand, demonstrates that the activities of the alternative economy movement and the government can work side-by-side. It regularly issues loans to projects which have seen their subsidies cut.

“Not necessarily to help out the government, but simply because we think it is important to keep certain initiatives alive,” says Teis. Although issuing this kind of loan is Coop57’s main function, they are expanding their activities to become a permanent partner in municipal efforts to construct local social and solidarity economies.

“We want to involve local governments, by making them integrate and promote our norms of solidarity in their activities,” adds Teis. “If the local administration has to contract a company for the provision of a public service, we think it is important they favour enterprises with social character above others.”

In fact, the first agreement of this kind has been recently signed. In December last year, the Catalan municipality of Molins de Rey decided to participate. Negotiations with other local administrations are currently taking place.

Although Coop57—together with colleagues throughout the alternative scene—are making progress, they are clearly still in the process of development. Cooperativa Integral Catalana works hard to construct spaces in which new ideas on autonomy and self-organization can be stimulated and turned into projects. Fiare Banca Ética wants to start offering bank accounts as soon as possible. Som Energiais preparing the future independence of its many local groups, to ensure the local focus of their organization won’t get lost amid their rapid expansion.

When asking about the viability of the alternative economy scene, founders, participants and observers emphasize, however, that there is a lot of work to be done. They are especially concerned with the robustness of the system. Extending into new sectors of the economy is important (Som Conexió, the telecommunications cooperative has just begun operations), but consolidating existing activities and maintaining the network is crucial.In this regard, the financial services of Coop57, the consulting practices of Aguiló, and the opportunities of new communication media are even more important.

As Costa says: “We are at the point of strengthening connections between the alternatives that have been created, so that we can one day show people that there is an alternative to the conventional economic model, and that this alternative system actually already exists.”

“It is a long road we have embarked upon,” adds Palos. “We have to consolidate existing projects in these times of heavy crisis. But we are sowing the seed of a new kind of society, a new kind of economy, which I am convinced we will achieve someday. And even while that day may be in the distant future, we show that is no utopia any longer.”

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