Sacred Headwaters #48: TINA Pt 2 – Catalan Integral Cooperative
The Catalan Integral Cooperative is a network of co-ops in the Catalonia region of Spain that aims – explicitly – to build a decentralized, post-capitalist economy based on cooperative ownership.
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Issue #48: TINA Pt 2 – Catalan Integral Cooperative
We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.
As Ursula Le Guin said, it’s hard to imagine that humans could live any other way than the competitive economic system of globalization and capitalism. But around the world, people are proving it’s possible in any number of different ways, creating solidarity economies based on cooperation and democracy and opening the window to an array of possible futures most of us can’t even imagine.
This is the second issue of a series challenging the concept of TINA: “there is no alternative.” The phrase itself was popularized by none other than Margaret Thatcher, who used it quite sincerely along with lines like “there’s no such thing as society” to thoroughly establish herself as the comic book villain of neoliberal capitalism, but the concept itself runs much deeper than her usage. The writer Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism establishes the importance of TINA to the political context of the modern era: whether we are able to admit it to ourselves or not, the vast majority of us can’t seriously conceive of a different world. Capitalism has established itself in our minds as the only functional economic system available despite its astonishingly short lifespan when viewed within the timescale of human existence.
The rationale for actually arguing that capitalism is the only possible governance structure varies, but it typically follows one of two intellectual traditions with roots in early western political theory. Either humans are by nature egotistic, competitive, and ruthless – fighting a “war of all against all” (Hobbes) – or humans were corrupted by technological development (agriculture), setting an inevitable course for a society built on hierarchy and domination (Rousseau). Either way, there is no alternative. Popular modern writers like Yuval Harari and Jared Diamond take various paths to reach (and propagate) the same conclusion: the course of human development through today was, essentially, out of human hands, and, as such, the system we have today – “the end of history” – is the only system we could possibly have.
Much of this newsletter’s content has been critical of capitalism, of neoliberalism, and of the utter failure of status quo strategies and institutions to mitigate climate change and ecological collapse. That criticism is much deserved, as evidenced by the inexorable climb of atmospheric carbon (and methane, and any number of other metrics). But if we can’t even conceptualize, let alone actualize, better ways of doing things, what’s the point?
In this series (which I introduced from a somewhat different angle in the last issue, before realizing that it would become a series), we’ll challenge capitalist realism and the TINA assumption by learning about current, historical, and theoretical alternatives – how societies can operate by entirely different principles. At the same time, we’ll ask how the cultivation of these alternatives actually drives change today, at a time when it is so urgently needed. Some alternative systems actively challenge capitalism while others carefully shy away from confrontation – which ones actually have the potential to shape a path towards an ecological civilization?
Issue #47: TINA Pt 1 - Building Alternative Systems – Transition Towns (Feb 28th, 2022)
Issue #48: TINA Pt 2 – Catalan Integral Collective (Mar 13th, 2022)
This particular issue focuses on the Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC), a network of co-ops in the Catalonia region of Spain that aim – explicitly – to build a decentralized, post-capitalist economy based on cooperative ownership (of housing, of businesses, of distribution networks, etc.) that can fully satisfy the needs of everyone in the region without dependence on a broader capitalist system – or on the state. For most of us, what this means will be hard to imagine (thanks to our TINA-based ideological conditioning). Le Guin’s The Dispossessed makes an effort at imagining this kind of society – and it’s worth a read on its own – but the CIC is, of course, real, not fiction. This issue will look predominantly at what the CIC is and how it operates as well as touching on its explicit broader mission of replacing state capitalism as a system of social organization with something more just and more ecologically sustainable.
What’s CIC? (5 minutes)
This is one of the rare English language pages on the CIC’s website today and it explains the basic principles and structure of the CIC, emphasizing that it is at its core an attempt to fully reconstruct society “in a bottom-up manner,” free of hierarchy and domination and based on direct, participatory democracy. Much of the page is dedicated to an understanding of the cooperative structure from a legal perspective: basically, the CIC exists as a network of “integral cooperatives” that themselves exist within the specific context of the Spanish legal system. The CIC leverages this legal system to facilitate all sorts of economic activity by using “mixed cooperatives” that incorporate both consumers and producers into one member-driven organization operating for the common good. These cooperatives also own physical property; as we’ll read about in more detail below, this includes things like housing projects, workshops, community spaces, and more.
The CIC seems to have restructured significantly in 2018 in an effort to further decentralize itself into a more locally focused bioregional structure. It is difficult to find current, detailed information on what exactly this means, but there is something of a retrospective and an explanation on the website (translated here).
The Catalan Integral Cooperative: an organizational study of a post-capitalist cooperative (45 minutes)
George Dafermos, P2P Foundation, 2017. Alternate link.
If the “What’s CIC?” page left you wondering exactly what its title asked – what does the CIC actually do? – this report contains the answers. Dafermos spent a few months in Catalonia conducting interviews and site visits and compiled this detailed ethnography of the CIC. The report situates the CIC in both its regional context (Catalonia has a rich history of opposition to oppression by the Spanish state, of anarchist organizing, and of cooperativism) and its historical one (following the financial crisis and global imposition of austerity). Most importantly, the report goes through the operations of the CIC, what each of its ~12 “core committees” manage, how they govern themselves, and what services they provide. It also explains how the CIC – which, from a legal perspective, doesn’t actually exist – operates in a federated manner, supporting and working with autonomous projects (including ecovillage-like communities like Calafou) and other cooperatives and collectivities. Perhaps one of the CIC’s most interesting practical challenges to the capitalist ecosystem is the use of an alternative currency called the “eco” (which, notably, is used by many in Catalonia, not just CIC members) and the organization of a distribution network that allows locally managed buyers’ networks to operate stores supplied with goods from small producers throughout the region.
For Dafermos, one of the most exciting things about the CIC is that it is an “open cooperative,” meaning that it explicitly aims to provide all of its services to everyone, not just its membership, and refuses to enclose common resources, including cooperative-produced knowledge. This marks a sharp contrast from many other cooperative enterprises.
The Catalan Integral Cooperative: The Simpler Way revolution is well underway (10 minutes)
Ted Trainer, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 2018
There’s a bit of repetition here with Dafermos’s report (if you’re strapped for time, just read this one), but I’m including it because Trainer makes a case for why the CIC matters and what the path to the sustainable, post-capitalist society it strives for might actually look like. The CIC sprung out of the financial crisis and was a response to austerity, like so many leftwing movements of the period; it was a way to provide for people and communities when states withdrew. While GDP numbers seem to suggest that many northern economies are thriving today, the reality on the ground is different – many never recovered from the economic impact of the financial crisis and the pandemic only amplified that. The rapidly rising cost of living and the related faltering of supply chains – driven by both pandemic-related concerns and climatic disruption – could very quickly progress to a point where far more of us, even in the global north, are struggling day to day. What happens at that time – and we’re arguably living in that time right now – depends on the work we’ve done beforehand. According to Trainer, that’s where things like the CIC, and potentially the Transition movement, come in. If we’ve built these systems in advance that provide public services without the involvement of the state and prioritize local, circular economies, we can hope for a smooth transition from failing capitalist oligarchy to decentralized direct democracy. If not, well, as Trainer puts it, “it is likely that the outcome will be fascism or barbarism.”
The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.
I’m far from the first to think Antonio Gramsci’s words are as applicable to our time as they were to his.
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