The Catalan Integral Cooperative: The Simpler Way revolution is well underway

A review of The Catalan Integral Cooperative: an organizational study of a post-capitalist cooperative (2017), by George Dafermos

Many would agree it is now abundantly clear that a just and sustainable world cannot be achieved unless consumer-capitalist society is basically scrapped. It is a society that involves levels of resource use and environmental impact that are already grossly unsustainable—yet growth is its supreme goal. The basic form the alternative must take is mostly small, highly self-sufficient, and self-governing communities in which we can live frugally but well, putting local resources directly into producing to meet local needs without allowing market force, the profit motive, or the global economy to determine what happens.

Unfortunately, even many green and left people do not grasp the magnitude of the de-growth that is required.  We will probably have to go down to around 10% of the present rich-world per capita levels of resource use. This can only be done in the kind of settlements and systems I refer to as The Simpler Way (TSW, 2018a). Most of the alarming global problems now threatening our survival, especially ecological damage, resource depletion, conflict over resources and markets, and deteriorating social cohesion, cannot be solved unless we achieve a global transition to a general settlement pattern of this kind.

For some time, the ecovillage and transition towns movements have been developing elements of the alternative we need to build, and there are impressive radically alternative development initiatives in the Third World, notably the Zapatistas. But the Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC) provides us with what I think is the most surprising and inspiring demonstration of what can be done and what we need to do.

In George Dafermos’ recent report, “The Catalan Integral Cooperative: an organizational study of a post-capitalist cooperative” (2017), we learn that while only begun in 2010, the cooperative now involves many hundreds of people and many productive ventures, 400 of them involving growing food or making goods. Although there are far more activities than those within the CIC, its annual budget is now $480,000.

It is not just about enabling people to collectively provide many items for themselves underneath and despite the market system—it is explicitly and deliberately about the long-term goal of replacing both capitalism and control by the state. These people have not waited for the government to save them, they are taking control over their own fate, setting up their own productive arrangements, food supply systems, warehouses and shops, basic income schemes, information and education functions, legal and tax advice, technical research and development, and even an investment bank. Best of all is the collectivist worldview and spirit, the determination to prevent the market and profit from driving the economy, and to establish cooperative arrangements that benefit all people, not just co-op members.

We are in an era in which the conventional economy will increasingly fail to provide for people. What we urgently need are examples where ordinary people—not officials or governments—just start getting together to set up the arrangements gearing the productive capacity they have around them to meet their collective needs. The remarkable CIC shows that people everywhere could do this, especially in the many regions neoliberalism has condemned to austerity, poverty, and stagnation.

Among the principles stated in Dafermos’ report are:

  • A focus on social justice, equity, diversity, mutual support, cooperation, inclusion and solidarity, and the common good
  • Focusing on the transformation of the whole of society, not just on securing benefits for members of the participating cooperatives
  • People contribute according to their capacity to do so
  • Getting rid of materialism; and aiming at satisfaction with “non-material living standards” and toward a sufficiency that does not seek accumulation as an end
  • Applying resources directly to meeting the needs of people in the region
  • Above all, getting rid of capitalism, where the long-term objective is “to be an organizational platform for the development of a self-sufficient economy that is autonomous from the State and the capitalist market”

The CIC is not a central agency running everything. Rather, it is an umbrella organization facilitating, supporting, and advising the activities of many and varied cooperatives.  It is atypical in establishing projects that benefit all people in the region whether or not they are members of the CIC or associated cooperatives.

Thus, the CIC is creating an economic system which contradicts and rejects the mainstream economy. It is an economy that is not driven by profit and self-interest, or what will maximize the wealth of those with capital to invest. There is social control over their economy, that is, there are collective decisions and planning in order to set up arrangements to meet community needs. People work to build and run good systems—not to get rich.

Non-monetary forms of exchange are encouraged, including free goods and services, barter, direct connections between producers and consumers, and mutual giving.  The CIC regulates the estimation of fair prices, and informs producers of consumers’ needs. There is a LETS-type currency, the ECO, which cannot be converted into euros, and cannot be invested to yield interest. About 2,500 participate in it.

The CIC’s financial operations do not involve any interest payments. Loans are made for the establishment of ventures that will enable people to begin producing, but no interest has to be paid on these. In this radically subversive economy is about enabling the creation of socially necessary production, not providing lucrative profits to the rich few who have capital to lend. They refuse to regard things like food as commodities, that is, as goods to be produced and sold to make a profit 

In effect, they have their own investment bank. The committee entitled “Cooperative of Social and Network Self-financing’” deals with savings, donations and project funding in order to “finance self-managed individual or collective projects aiming at the common good”. It has 155 members. Contributions to this agency earn no interest, so “it is truly remarkable that the total amount of deposits made in the last four years exceeds €250,000.”

It is especially noteworthy that emphasis is put on the sustainability of activities, permaculture, localism, and de-growth. National and global systems are avoided as much as possible and local arrangements are set up.  As advocates of the Simpler Way emphasize, unless rich-world per capita levels of resource use can be cut enormously, then sustainability cannot be achieved. But this cannot be done unless there are local economies and happy acceptance of frugal lifestyles. Frugality is an explicit goal of the CIC.

The creation of commons is of central importance. There is much “Collective ownership of resources to generate common goods.” Some lands have been purchased by cooperatives, and some donated by individuals. Each of these commons is managed by a committee.

Many items are distributed through the “Catalan Supply Centre”, a network for the delivery of the products of many small producers across the entire Catalonia region to twenty one self-managed “pantries” all over Catalonia. Twenty-one thousand products are listed and 4,500 pounds of goods flow through them each month from the cooperative’s farmers and producers.

About ten committees oversee other crucial areas. There is a technology committee responsible for the development of tools and machines adapted to the needs of member producers. One committee facilitates “self-employment” and the exchange of knowledge and skills, and helps job seekers to match their skills to jobs using an online directory of self-managed and cooperative projects in Catalonia. That is, they have set up their own employment agency, independent of the state.

“Their form of government is a direct, deliberative, participatory democracy involving decentralization, self-management, voluntary committees, … and no bureaucracy and no top-down ruling or domination. In all meetings the goal is consensus decision making.”  “[T]he quality of the agreements is a great success, and there hasn’t been any major decision-making conflict in all these years.”

No aspect is more remarkable than the concern to set up public services. The intention is “to displace the centrally-managed state apparatus of public services with a truly cooperative model for organizing the provision of social goods such as health, food, education, energy, housing, and transport.”

Considerable effort is being put into “spreading the model.” “The members give talks in various parts of the country. As a result integrated cooperatives are being established in the Basque Country, Galicia, Madrid and other regions of Spain and France.” In 2017, the Athens Integral Cooperative began.

The huge significance of all this could easily be overlooked. In a world where capital, profit, and market forces dump large numbers into “exclusion” and poverty, and governments will not deal properly with the resulting problems, these people have decided to do the job themselves.  They are literally out to build an alternative society, one that is independent of both capital and state. This is part of a global emergence of an “integral cooperative movement”, and I see it as the greatest threat capital faces today. The neolibs have gone too far. Too many snouts in the trough for too long, achieving what Michael Chossudovsky (2003) identifies as the greatest wealth transfer in history.  Three Americans are now estimated to have half of all American wealth. The anger and disgust is now getting out of control and the large numbers forced to endure “austerity” are likely to opt for this alternative instead.

Issues arising for transition theory and practice

The main question arising is, how can this kind of grassroots, local initiative lead to “socialism”? That is, how is it supposed to get rid of capitalism?  This question is studiously ignored by the ecovillage and transition towns movements—at least, in my attempts to get them to deal with it—have failed. Their strategy is just to do something alternative, anything, in your town and eventually it will all add up to the existence of a beautiful, sustainable, and just world. The red left rightly scathes at this; they want to know how precisely is the spread of your community gardens and clothing swaps going to lead to us taking state power and tipping out the capitalist class? The (scant) literature on the CIC does not seem to indicate what its answer might be.

Simpler Way analysis has a detailed answer to this question (see TSW, 2018b.) Whether it’s satisfactory is of course open to debate, but the essential themes are as follows. Given that there must be radical de-growth there has to be transition to mostly small, highly self-sufficient, self-governing collective local communities, in which people are happy to live very frugally.  This is not conceivable unless there is enormous cultural change. This has obviously occurred within those working in the CIC.  However it is not likely to occur within mainstream consumer-capitalist society until the global situation deteriorates into irremediable depression, which we could see within a decade if Nafez Ahmed’s very plausible analysis of Failing States (2017) is correct. When the supermarket shelves are getting bare people will realize that they had better get down to the community gardens pretty fast. If by then we in the simplicity movement have done our job well, they will find enough examples of the sensible way to go.

But these towns, suburbs, eco-villages, and CICs will see that they need some crucial inputs from the wider national economy, and that it has to be radically restructured to focus on providing these. Local communities will firstly demand that states shift priorities to the required new vision, but as they increasingly get used to establishing and running their own arrangements as the CIC is doing they will firstly take functions away from the state, and secondly they will increasingly force it to shift to a basically anarchist form.  They will push in and in time, transform state agencies into being merely administrators of policies decided down at the grassroots level.

This is not a prediction, and it is not likely to happen. Indeed, it is likely that the outcome will be fascism or barbarism. But our point is that this is the transition vision that it makes most sense to work for.

As I see it, all this constitutes a strong case for anarchism, both regarding the goals this revolution has to be for, and the means most likely to achieve them.

The main implication here is that at this stage of the revolution it is a mistake to focus on trying to take state power, or in fact to fight directly against the capitalist class. At this stage, the focus should be on achieving the huge cultural change, spreading the Simpler Way ideas and values that have to be widespread before the required national and global structural changes can be made.  The best way to do this is to join things like the CIC. If and when that job is done well, getting control of the state will not be difficult, and will be seen as a consequence of the revolution.