The « opportunities » of the crisis

Décryptage de trois alternatives espagnoles pour penser hors-système

« Building Utopia » is a travel-reporting project about self-management, popular power and democratic participation, started by two young Belgians. It is a committed journalistic project that aims to make discover inspiring alternatives in Spain and Latin America. To be continued on

The current crisis represents a concrete threat to the well-being and dignity of millions of people. But it is also a new opportunity to promote alternatives to the existing system, moving towards a post-capitalist and post-productivist society. An overview of three Spanish experiences. 

For several years now, « the Crisis », whether experienced or perceived, has been omnipresent, conveyed in our daily lives by the media, and well anchored in our representations. According to the dominant doxa, it should justify deprivation and austerity for a people who are supposed to accept it. Some, however, have decided to take a different look at this unprecedented historical situation, and to consider the crisis as an opportunity to change paradigm. It then provokes the need to stop, in order to find new solutions to increasingly acute problems, and represents the opportunity, perhaps unique, to rethink the functioning of a bumpy system. 

In this respect, Spain, one of the European countries where the economic crisis is hitting hardest, is showing experiences that run counter to the measures advocated by the Rajoy government. But this crisis also highlights places that have long made a different choice than that of mainstream capitalism. 

We were able to meet with three Spanish initiatives, one born out of this crisis, the others that appeared longer ago. Among them: the Andalusian village of Marinaleda, an exemplary result of a collectivist revolutionary struggle; the 15M movement (known as the « Indignant ») which, particularly in Madrid, affects a large number of people in the daily struggle for social change; and finally, the Catalan Integral Cooperative, which underlines the urgent need to propose global alternatives to the current economic and political system, and thus shows the relevance of an ambitious project such as this. 

maRinalEda, a fRaGilE rEpair 

The Andalusian village of Marinaleda is famous in Europe for having realized its utopia. In 1991, after 30 years of collective struggle, the inhabitants of this village, until then very poor, managed to collectivize part of the land of a rich landowner. With these, they created several agricultural cooperatives that allowed, over time, to give work to almost all the inhabitants. 

Beyond the struggle for land, the village has put in place a series of measures to ensure that everyone has access to basic rights. Each worker earns an equal and decent wage, whether employed in the cooperative or in the commune. These modest salaries are compensated by numerous free or low-cost services: daycare for 15 euros per month, large-scale sports facilities, free cultural activities, etc. From the housing point of view, the village has created a pioneering social housing system of self-built houses. It gives the possibility to the inhabitants to build their own house at a very low price, thanks to a subsidy for the materials, the free loan of the land by the commune and the collective construction of the houses by the self-builders. Currently, for a village of about 3000 inhabitants, there are 350 « social » houses (200 of which are self-built) 

An economic and social utopia then, but also a path towards a political utopia. Everything in Marinaleda, from the budget to the fight for rights, is decided in assembly. The majority of the rights obtained over time have been achieved through collective struggle, and thanks to a strong solidarity between all the inhabitants. If the charismatic mayor, Sanchez Gordillo, has an important weight in the village, it is nevertheless the assembly that is sovereign and that ultimately decides on the political, economic and social choices of the village. 

The different arrangements, desired and implemented by the inhabitants and their representatives, have made Marinaleda a relatively prosperous municipality. But since 2008, like all the villages in Spain, it has been affected by the economic crisis. On the one hand, there is less work. On the other hand, many young people who had left to earn their living elsewhere returned because of the lack of jobs. So there are fewer jobs for more people. The village policy helps limit the impact of the crisis: work is distributed among those who need it and the housing system has strongly prevented speculation. The village resists thus for the moment to the « desahocios ».(1) that take place throughout Spain. 

But there is no miracle in Marinaleda and, as elsewhere, the crisis is felt. Thus, new rules have been introduced, such as the obligation to be domiciled in the municipality in order to be included in the work allocation. However, the available housing is starting to run out, as most construction has stopped. These measures are understandable, they aim to reserve the little work that there is for the inhabitants. But at the same time, they partly close the « utopia towards peace » (coat of arms of the village) which wants to be a model. Thus, people regularly arrive with the hope of staying, whether to find work or to share the utopia. Many leave disappointed, as Marinaleda cannot currently offer them what they are hoping for. On the one hand, because there is not enough work, on the other hand, because the utopia of Marinaleda is a utopia by and for Marinaleda, born from the will of poor day laborers to get out of poverty. 

The crisis shows new limits to the model developed so far by the municipality, not only to the visitors but also to the inhabitants themselves, to the councillors and to the mayor. The victories achieved and the measures implemented have certainly made Marinaleda an enclave guided by non-capitalist principles. But these efforts have focused on economic redistribution and social justice. The current crisis and the energies it makes available, could be the opportunity, for such a pioneer village, to deepen this will of social transformation and to extend it to domains until now neglected, like consumption, education, environment… In order to consolidate the still fragile rampart and to remain a utopia for all… 

Sanchez Gordillo is well aware of this:  » We are in this debate. It seems to us that there must be a before and an after to this crisis. It’s time to provoke new ways of doing things (…). I think we can still improve on the path we are on. We must bet on ecological agriculture, on formulas where economic wealth is put at the service of human beings, on ways that deepen direct democracy ».

MadRid: the 15m, more than just indiGnation 

On May 15, 2011, in Madrid, a demonstration against austerity measures and political corruption gathered tens of thousands of people. Above all, this rally triggered an almost two-month occupation of the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s central square, by thousands of organized citizens, and the creation of hundreds of similar encampments in Spain and around the world. The Puerta del Sol encampment has thus become the symbol of a large-scale, self-organized social movement. Every night for weeks, people from all walks of life gathered for hours to talk. What do they have in common? A fed up with the economic crisis and the will to change things. Or rather, the will to change things. 

From the very beginning, one of the great characteristics of the movement was its horizontal organization and its functioning in assemblies. No leaders, no hierarchical structure, sovereign assemblies open to all, a collective learning of a new practice of democracy. From the beginning, it was also about going beyond a simple protest. While the commissions organized the daily life of the open-air occupation, dozens of thematic working groups (economy, education, politics, health…) reflected on solutions to problems exacerbated by the crisis and denounced by the movement. 

When the Sol camp dissolved, 15M did not disappear. Most of the working groups, commissions and neighborhood assemblies continued. A year and a half later, every day, dozens of meetings, assemblies, and activities related to the 15M are taking place all over the city. The participation of thousands of people, some of whom had previously been completely uninvolved in any kind of activism, in popular assemblies, has instilled in Madrid, and elsewhere in Spain, a real assembly culture. « People have learned. We all learned from the early days when those who wanted to talk talked « , explains Luis de Toma la Tele, one of the media of the 15M. It is now natural for many Spaniards to meet in groups of 20, 40, 60, 100 for several hours to discuss an event to be organized, a political decision to be made or a problem to be solved. 

The continuity in time, with all its vigor, of this new form of democracy, makes the strength of the 15M, which the movement also undeniably draws from all the groups that, from there, struggle on a small scale to solve concrete problems, local facets of the crisis. On the ferment of the 15M many actions are growing, like the new self-management network of Madrid. Others are getting stronger. Thus, the citizen initiatives coordinated by the platform of people affected by a Mortgage(2)which aim to prevent evictions, have gained in strength over the past year and a half. All these initiatives have in common that they propose a different attitude towards the crisis, no longer waiting for help from above, but taking matters into one’s own hands and organizing together for the desired changes. As Javier, an activist of the 15M, says, « the objective is not about a concrete measure. The objective is to change the system. With the conviction that, collectively, it is possible. 

the Catalan Integral Co-operation, a GloBal alternative to the system 

Concrete projects for creating alternatives tend to deal with limited areas or to act on a (very) small scale. Since 2009, the bet of the Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC) is to seek a global alternative to the current system. Through experimentation and direct action, it tries to imagine and put in place a set of economic and human relations that would ultimately allow people to live outside the rules of the market and state control, outside of capitalism. 

If the project is large, the idea of an integral cooperative is relatively simple: to create a vast network of initiatives, concrete projects and solidarity enterprises that would take up all the basic elements of an economy, namely production, consumption, financing… By articulating cooperatives, social currencies, self-employment and collective action, the goal is to create a space of cooperative and solidarity-based economic relations between people and economic actors, which allow to satisfy all the individual and collective needs of its members. Thus, the idea of integral cooperative refers to the desire to make alternatives applicable in all dimensions of life and, in the long run, to build a global counter-hegemonic alternative. Joan is part ofAurea Social, one of the local self-managed spaces where the CIC is deployed. Faced with the magnitude of the project, he is enthusiastic: « What can we do? Have a negative view of the crisis or see what we can do to build? « .

In terms of practical organization, the idea of the integral cooperative is based on a decentralized and self-managed structure. It thus articulates spaces of self-organization at different levels, according to the territory of action of the project: 

(1) Autonomous projects carry out a concrete activity, such as collective living initiatives, productive activities (agricultural, industrial, post-industrial) and non-productive activities (of free education or health for example); 

(2) Local self-management nuclei - or local integral cooperatives — are spaces of interaction based on proximity, where initiatives interact with a high degree of trust. They can take place in a neighborhood, a village… 

(3) On a larger scale, there are the bio-regional self-management networks (a municipality, a valley…) where the different components of the network are linked. It is an economically more structured and autonomous level, where their own social currency often circulates. 

(4) Finally, the Integral Cooperative itself is above all a frame of reference and coordination, where collective tools are created (legal, computer, financial…) that will serve all local processes. The cooperative has no legal status. On the other hand, under its wing, several tool cooperatives have been created that give legal coverage to a whole series of activities and allow, in a way, to « protect self-management » before the law. For example, one of these tool-cooperatives seeks to acquire buildings (donations, purchases at less than market price, renting…) in order to make them into social projects or to fight against bank expropriations. Another, CASX(3)is an interest-free financing cooperative. 

The CIC already has a large number of cooperators, both individual and collective. Between two and three thousand people are active, directly or indirectly, within the network created by the cooperative. Of course, it is under construction. Launched in 2009, this is a long-term process. The ambition being to cover all the fields of human life, the projects are numerous and multi-directional. At present, many are stimulated by the needs that the crisis no longer allows to be satisfied by traditional means (social security, unemployment benefits, etc.). Initiatives such as the opening of the first self-managed holistic health center in Barcelona or the cooperative housing network respond, right now, on the one hand to concrete needs, and on the other hand to the desire to concretely change the ways of doing things, of treating oneself, of eating, of financing oneself… of living. 

In other areas, in some regions, few or no projects have yet been developed. There is still a lot of work to be done and, despite the abundance of projects and initiatives, there is still a long way to go before the holistic proposal that this new way of doing things becomes a reality. Nevertheless, it already has the great merit of being one of the rare initiatives to dare to consider the alternative in a global way, while putting at the heart of the process the idea of self-management and participation of all. 

the faCe oF nuAgeS 

Perhaps the crisis will be beneficial. By creating the need for new solutions, it forces people to open their eyes. A growing part of public opinion is thus becoming aware of the unsustainability of the system and is beginning to consider the need to leave capitalist society and its productivist system. 

In times of crisis, structures that resist, in different ways, against the misdeeds of the system, become the evidence. Others are created, necessary, sought after. Emancipating. The essence of the current crisis is that « austerity » will come from the States. The alternative will therefore have to be sought elsewhere, differently…and collectively. 

Edith Wustefeld and Johan Verhoeven 

Notes et références
  1. Expulsions de leur logement, organisées par les banques,
de gens qui ne savent plus payer le prêt contracté. Les gens se retrouvent sans logement, tout en continuant à devoir rembourser leur hypothèque, la maison ayant perdu de sa valeur en raison de la crise. Plus de 500 expulsions ont lieu quotidiennement en Espagne.
  2. Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH)
  3. Cooperativa d’Autofinançament Social en Xarxa (Coopérative d’autofinancement social en réseau)

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