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European austerity seeds governance alternatives

[A report by Patrick Chalmers.]*

‘If representative democracy is only to choose every four, or five, or six years the person who’s going to do everything they want without taking popular will into account… we are in a sort of trap and I think that’s certainly the case today for Europe and elsewhere.’

When Enric Duran stole nearly half a million euros from Spanish banks in 2008, it wasn’t really about the money. His act was more a two-fingered salute to global capitalism and its capture of representative democracy.

Despite the Robin Hood comparisons, the bearded Catalan didn’t hand the cash to victims of his target banks’ reckless lending. There wasn’t enough, in any case. He and his friends used it, instead, to explore different ways of doing society’s business.

Five years later Duran is on the run, though it seems he’s barely jogging. More important are the numbers joining Catalonia’s Integrated Cooperative, a grassroots counter-power movement seeking answers to the question dogging political thinkers and activists the world over. With today’s systems of government so in bed with business and money – just what are we to put in their place?

Enric Duran, speaking, and Nuria Guell at Occupy Catalunya Square in Barcelona, June 2011. Wikimedia/Zoraida Rosell. Some rights reserved.

Enric Duran, speaking, and Nuria Guell at Occupy Catalunya Square in Barcelona, June 2011. Wikimedia/Zoraida Rosell. Some rights reserved.

Building alternatives

Barcelona’s Aurea Social seems too posh a place from which to plot a global revolution, let alone bring it into being. Less so when you find its occupants are under imminent threat of eviction. Tucked away near the towering spires of Gaudi’s Sagrada Família, the premises carry all the trappings of their intended design as an upmarket health clinic. The previous owners gave the keys to the cooperative before defaulting on their loans.

So, while there is plenty of yoga on offer, the classes are open to all and jostle for space with fresh produce deliveries, film and theatre nights, health clinics, political meetings and much else.

Aurea Social is one of hundreds of projects sprouting up under ‘la Cooperativa Integral Catalana’ or CIC, a sprawling, work-in-progress experiment in building alternatives to capitalism. My visit there was to meet some members including one of their number willing to translate a planned internet call with Duran, the man whose civil disobedience helped it all happen.

Carolina Zerpa, a Venezuelan mechanical engineering graduate, is busy sorting fresh vegetable trays in the foyer as I arrive. It’s part of her work, connecting the cooperative’s producers and consumers.

Before I know it, I’ve volunteered to be a journalist embedded in revolutionary construction, helping cook lunch as Carolina explains how the place works.

Carolina has been at Aurea Social for sixteen months, coordinating its mosaic of workshops in return for a basic income paid in euros and the cooperative’s alternative eco currency. She brings experience and inspiration from the Trade School in New York, a project where students barter with teachers in return for classes.

A public cooperative

With nearly six in ten Spanish youth unemployed, bartering for skills offers a precious alternative to piling up student debt with scant prospect of getting paid work at the end. Learning how Aurea Social works is probably as important as the classes themselves.

‘People think public means it’s for free but it’s a public cooperative,’ she says. ‘You have to be involved in how this education system is going to work. This is what we are trying to do at Aurea Social.’ That applies to all who cross the threshold – even journalists. She explains: ‘If you want something – get involved. We don’t want to give people the mandarin already peeled. People love to be children and if there’s someone who’s a bit mother like, it’s very easy!’

Up on Aurea Social’s roof-garden terrace, with beds of herbs, late-season tomatoes and peppers all around, Gorka, a Basque native who’s spent three years as part of the cooperative, explains the variety and extent of CIC activities. He says they include 400 or so projects to grow or make things, fifteen to twenty community projects and the same again dedicated to trading within Catalonia. Layers of assemblies and working groups coordinate relations between the largely autonomous nodes. Participants fare better or worse depending on how well they grasp skills including self-management, self-organization and ‘direct democracy’ decision- making.

What makes the CIC something of a cooperative with muscle is the preparedness of members to challenge existing power structures. That might mean illegally occupying buildings and land or pushing the boundaries of laws related to tax, currencies and cooperative legal structures. ‘We don’t accept the limits of the state and the market and the banks. We need disobedience if we want to overcome these limits,’ says Gorka.

Challenging a biased system

With lunch delivered, it’s time to hook up an internet call with Duran. For a man meant to be hiding, he’s pretty easy to track down. Language is a trickier barrier, so Carolina interprets.

Duran pulled out of his legal trials in February 2013. His ‘no show’ was a protest at being kept in the dark about court proceedings and not being allowed to choose his witnesses or defence lawyer. He says the system itself, laws included, is inherently biased towards banks in forgiving their bad debts while letting private individuals go bust.

‘Let’s say the issue is between me and the banks but the legal system is on the side of the banks,’ he

says via Carolina. The thirty-seven-year-old seems relaxed about the possibility of prison, his immediate destination should he be caught. He has pledged to re-emerge on condition his case be treated under a restorative justice process tied to the wider financial crisis. That would entail broadening his case to have banks alongside him as offenders answerable for the damages done to their victims.

Duran has asked in the past for potential supporters not to spend time on his case but to consider civil disobedience themselves. Rather than writing texts, signing petitions or joining mass protests, he sees more fertile opportunities in imagining and creating alternatives to the status quo.

He says: ‘I have been thinking for twelve years already about how to make a change by creating new alternatives from the bottom. I think the most coherent way to do it is through civil disobedience. It’s obvious that the state is not going to allow a group of people to create new alternatives from the bottom up on the margins. Not alternatives only, but a completely new system.’

It is what Duran and fellow CIC members call ‘integral revolution’, a wholesale challenge to the state, the market and representative democracy itself. While the idea may seem far-fetched to western audiences it’s more familiar to the world’s indigenous communities, particularly those in the Americas, from whom the Catalan draws inspiration. It’s no coincidence CIC talk and actions abound with images and language from Mexico’s Zapatista rebels. Their autonomy project in the country’s south-east was built in the teeth of the low-intensity warfare waged by the state. It celebrated two decades of survival in the public eye on 1 January 2014.

A Greek alternative

Yannis Youlountas usually teaches philosophy in France but has turned his hand to film-making to record how Greeks are coping with life under prolonged financial crisis.

The Franco-Greek’s film Let’s no longer live like slaves took its title from graffiti daubed on walls around Athens and elsewhere. It encapsulates the wealth of creative responses to crisis Youlountas found there, which are little talked of outside the country. They include volunteer-run shops offering goods for free, autonomous spaces much like Barcelona’s Aurea Social, a flowering of producer-consumer exchanges and many alternative ways of learning, thinking, making art and relating to other people.

Just as important, the film showed participants defending their projects and people from attack by neo-nazi groups, including supporters of the ultra- nationalist Golden Dawn.

‘At the moment in Greece there are many alternatives being created. You have to give examples because, perhaps, today people are tired of talk about theories of change and need to see what that might look like,’ Youlountas said. ‘If representative democracy is only to choose every four, or five, or six years the person who’s going to do everything they want without taking popular will into account… we are in a sort of trap and I think that’s certainly the case today for Europe and elsewhere.’

He believes today’s governments resemble oligarchies, with power falling to money and those able to manipulate public opinion, and asserts: ‘The only democracy is direct democracy – to take charge of our business ourselves and not to delegate it to others.’

New paradigms

Many on the cusp of governance innovations confess to bafflement about where things are going. Many see shifts in power as imminent, both upwards and downwards, from nation-state levels. Those changes that do occur, if they are to be progressive ones, will be as much personal as institutional.

Vinay Gupta, an associate fellow of UCL’s Institute for Security and Resilience Studies, deals with threats to human survival from disasters caused by climate change and biodiversity loss. He says the threats are unmanageable under current representative democracy. ‘What we’ve got is too much government at the nation-state level,’ he says, ‘way too much government at the household level and not enough at the global level. Unless we start approaching governance as being a mechanism for increasing our collective intelligence, there’s no point in discussing it.’

Chris Thomson has been a Bank of England economist, a lawyer in Scotland and a Scottish National Party candidate, but now works in Catalonia as a course leader. He has a clear vision: ‘I don’t think the mainstream structures will last much longer. They are in their death throes. One global paradigm is dying and, at the same time, another one is growing that will replace it. The new paradigm hasn’t got a name but you can see signs of it, social and economic signs.’

He explains: ‘It’s like any birth – it’s painful for the mother and it’s utterly confusing for the child. The real success of the paradigm will be individual change, individual by individual.’

This article is part of the “Democracy unmasked – inspiring new visions” series in this week’s Quaker magazine “The Friend“. The series is available on subscription or online for free trial on registration. 

About the author

Patrick Chalmers, an ex-Reuters staff reporter, is a freelance journalist, author, lecturer and campaigner for better governance. His book “Fraudcast News: How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies” is available from bookshops or downloadable for freefrom here.

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