In Catalonia, in recent years, a myriad of enterprises and organisations have emerged which prioritise putting people, planet, and social justice at the centre of their socio-economic activity, rather than capital and profit-maximisation. This phenomenon is referred to in Catalonia as the social and solidarity economy (SSE); other labels include the ‘solidarity economy’, ‘social economy’, ‘co-operative and solidarity economy’, and ‘transformative economies’. Historically, the SSE has its roots in pre-capitalist commoning and nineteenth century co-operatives, associations, and mutual aid societies, all of which constitute collective responses to societal needs or risks in the areas of food, care, health, housing, work, culture, education, and social security. Today, this approach to organising enterprise and socio-economic activity is finding renewed relevance among civil society actors, public policy makers, and academics who see the SSE’s potential for developing societies that are not characterised by systemic inequalities and global crises. The Catalan solidarity economy proposes a transformative development model based on values that include democracy, equality, social and economic justice, sustainability, and concern for community. It defines itself as a movement that seeks to construct an economy in the service of life and, in this sense, its aims intersect with feminist perspectives towards economies.
The wider Catalan SSE framework encompasses several large ‘families’: the third social sector (non-profit service delivery organisations), mutual societies, the co-operative movement, as well as diverse community economy initiatives including care economy projects, agro-ecological consumption groups, exchange networks and time banks, community currencies, urban gardens, and citizen management of public facilities. At the Catalan territorial level, the broader SSE encompasses approximately 7,422 organisations, 139,202 working individuals, a social base of 2.5 million people, and a turnover of €7,853 million. These statistics back the declaration made on a movement postcard – Una altra economia
és possible ja existeix! which translates to: Another economy is possible already exists!
My recently completed PhD thesis traced the evolution of the Catalan co-operative movement and the solidarity economy between the years 1975 and 2019. The aim has been to understand better how social actors have contributed to the concerted growth of this socio-economic transformative movement since the 1990s. The thesis is based on qualitative interviews conducted with forty-two individuals across twenty-two worker co-operatives located in and around Barcelona Province. The analysis compared the experiences of these architects, legal- finance- and organisation-professionals, social scientists, economists, authors and journalists, software and multimedia designers, musicians and music educators, and audiovisual technicians. Drawing on these participants’ experiences, the thesis pursued two lines of enquiry. The first line of enquiry was to understand how these service-sector professionals and technicians came to view co-operative self-management (autogestió cooperativa in Catalan) as a meaningful and viable way to organise their working lives, especially in the context of the employment crisis that began in 2008. The second line of enquiry investigated how the participants approached the tensions involved in sustaining their ethical values while navigating multiple objectives (social and economic) and pursuing quality of working life in capitalist market environments that are often unfavourable to such aims.
When I arrived in Barcelona in 2015 to carry out the fieldwork, Catalonia was still experiencing the effects of an economic, social, and political crisis which had seen unemployment in Spain increase from 1.94 million in December 2007 to 6.28 million in April 2013. This was the highest level of unemployment Spain had experienced since the 1970s. With the bursting of the domestic housing credit bubble in 2008, what had begun as a financial crisis cascaded into the real economy. Ordinary citizens were shouldering the full burden of this systemic crisis through the destruction of jobs, severe household indebtedness, and massive mortgage foreclosures and evictions. The political response to the crisis involved austerity measures applied to public budgets, bank bailouts, and structural reforms in finance and labour markets, all of which demonstrated a blatant unwillingness to break with the prevailing neoliberal agenda.
Yet this systemic crisis also opened up possibilities for social change as those civil society activists who viewed systemic change as imperative began to self-organise. Civil society mobilisations were taking place across Spain, particularly from 2011 onwards. Citizen groups were seeking to reinstate and expand social rights, protect public services, and to ‘take back democratic control’ of public institutions and make them more accountable. This grassroots democratic renewal brought to the fore a generation of social activists who had participated in ‘counter-project’ events between 1994 and 2004 in Barcelona: the mass demonstrations against the Iraq War, the World Bank, and European Council summits. For these individuals, the worst excesses of global capitalism had alienated them from their city home. A post-Olympic Barcelona now experienced rampant mass tourism and real estate speculation that disrupted local social life and displaced residents. These activists were responsible for the emergence of new social movements such as alter-globalisation, environmentalism, pacifism, feminism, as well as NGOs, co-operatives, and alternative media outlets. In response to the 2008 crisis and a delegitimised traditional party politics incapable of responding to people’s needs, these citizen networks and political organisations ushered in the so-called ‘new politics’, which was characterised by socially progressive electoral platforms based on a decentralised and participatory democracy. Political successes resulted, including for the anti-austerity party Podemos in the 2015 Spanish general election, the Junts pel Si platform in the 2015 Catalan parliamentary elections, and the left-wing electoral platform Barcelona en Comú in the the 2015 Barcelona Municipal elections.
These political platforms have created a political-economic climate more favourable to the development of SSE ideas. From around 2015, the SSE entered what could be described as an expansive phase, which has included normalising the SSE through its integration within mainstream institutions and general socio-economic policies. Political will especially at the local Municipal level has supported enabling SSE policies that have a long-range, cross-sectional, and mainstreaming approach and which have been co-constructed with movement actors. The SSE has been promoted ‘as a powerful engine of socio-economic transformation that responds […] to the multiple problems, challenges, and needs of the city’.
As my thesis documents, this expansive phase represents the culmination of concerted movement building by committed co-operative movement actors beginning in the 1980s, if not earlier. Between the late 1970s and mid-1990s, factory takeovers and self-managed firms were established in the industrial sector as a response to economic crisis and pervasive unemployment. These experiences marked not only the beginning of a rediscovery of legal forms that enabled worker self-management but motivated strategies by co-operators to shift self-management from a marginal and defensive position to one of agency in innovative economic and social progress. By the late 1980s, the co-operative enterprises formed by professionals and technicians in the rapidly-expanding services sector had started to be viewed as potential social actors who could help realise this objective.
From the mid-1990s onwards, a more ideologically and politically motivated movement was beginning to take shape, notably through the Xarxa d’Economia Solidària de Catalunya (XES), the Catalan Solidarity Economy Network, which was formally constituted in 2003. The XES is committed to realising social transformation through systemic change. For over a decade, a key strategic objective of the XES and the Spanish-wide Red de Redes de Economia Alternativa y Solidaria (REAS) has been to advance economic democracy, conceived as a decentralised and democratic social market populated by collectively owned and managed entities. Unlike the Basque region’s co-operative group Mondragón, which operates in large-scale manufacturing, economic activity in Catalonia consists predominately of SME’s located within the services sector. Collaboration, intercooperation, and territorial and sector-based networks have therefore been the main strategies adopted to achieve greater scale and benefit from synergies between SSE entities.
XES members have been co-constructing movement-specific social institutions, including training and enterprise advisory services, with the goal of supporting entities to sustain both their substantive values and enterprise viability. Knowledge has been collectively generated and circulated in fields spanning feminist economics, degrowth, social auditing and impact methodologies, the procomún (digital and knowledge commons), and ethical finance. These co-operators have demonstrated a clear will to recover the historical hope of the progressive left by creating organisations and socio-economic systems that act as real and viable alternatives to capitalist models, profit-maximisation objectives, and hierarchical management styles. The solidarity economy proposal represents, therefore, the will to rethink socialism in search of greater efficiency and, above all, greater democracy.
The service-sector professionals interviewed for the thesis identify with the XES and its broader ethico-political project. The majority initiated or joined worker co-operatives between the mid-1980s and mid-2010s. Their role in bringing about systemic change is demonstrated through co-operative case studies, including in legal services; ethical insurance brokering; journalism, communication, and web technology services; and architecture, urbanism, and co-operative housing services. Across each of these sectors it is shown that a neoliberal capitalist market and business logic can compromise the realisation of professional ethics and personal values. These professionals are instead reclaiming the etymological meaning of the term profession, that is, ‘to profess something that defines one’s fundamental commitment’. They have been adapting cooperativism to their own occupation-specific concerns regarding professional ethics, quality of working life, and the contribution they might make towards developing a more just, equitable, democratic, and sustainable society.
Based on their experiences, I developed an occupation-specific framework that draws on existing moral behaviour models and this framework guided the discussion of how co-operative members have been reimagining and remoralising their profession, cultivating moral agency, and sustaining their multiple objectives. Members have been going beyond their professions’ self-regulation mechanisms to radically rethink the enterprise models, social responsibility, and organisational arrangements needed to realise their professions’ social roles. Their co-operative models foreground indispensable elements of the ethical world, such as the freedom to act and to choose and to take responsibility for one’s choices, as well as durability over time.
The Catalan SSE proposal is viewed as a long-range proposal, given that its goal is to contribute to reconfiguring society and economies based on solidarity economy principles and values. It does not, nor cannot, offer panaceas for moments of crisis. Its consolidation requires manifold communicative actions to foster dialogue and social consensus on both the need for and the existence of alternatives. This movement has generated an enduring and plausible social reality that has been attracting individuals from increasingly diverse occupations and backgrounds. Cornelius Castoriadis describes such ‘innovative ideas’ within the social and political ambit as having ‘contagious effects’ and this is indeed cause for hope and optimism.
The set image is ‘IV Catalan Solidarity Economy Fair, 2015’
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Author: Emma Lees
Dr Emma Lees is a social scientist and honorary affiliate of the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney. Her PhD thesis traced the evolution of the Catalan co-operative movement and the solidarity economy between the years 1975 and 2019. This research has recently been submitted to a University Press. She is a Student-at-Law with the Legal Profession Admission Board, and a member of the Community Economies Research Network (CERN). Her current research extends her thesis lines of enquiry to service-sector professionals and technicians in Australia.