Can Europe Make It?

Exception in Catalonia one year after the referendum

What is Catalonian cooperativism’s contribution to independentism? Activists are promoting practical and concrete independence from all hegemonic powers, by building a parallel economic system.

Galvão Debelle dos Santos
18 September 2018
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Spanish police charge protesters after removing the voting ballots located in Ramon Llull, a Barcelona school, October, 2017. El Diario. All rights reserved.

One year has passed since the Spanish police intervened on Catalan territory. People of all ages defending the voting ballots were dragged, beaten up and sometimes fined – not very differently from how other protesters are usually silenced in demonstrations. Yet, this time, the manifold symbolic impact of repression has unleashed very strong reactions all over Spain. 

The historical conflicts between Spain and Catalonia, never solved or settled, have re-emerged. For those who have lived under the dictatorships of the past century, it was hard to look away. In fact, it’s hard to explain to non-locals the true dimension of this phenomenon and how it is making a re-appearance today. This piece can’t go in detail about this, but one anecdote may serve. Together, the two new parties that have emerged during recent years create the feeling that history is repeating itself. The leader of the left-wing party Podemos is called Pablo Iglesias, that is to say, the same name as the now decadent ex-left-wing socialist party PSOE. At the other end of the spectrum, the leader of the newly created right-wing party Ciudadanos is Albert Rivera, who’s last name is the same as that of the famous Spanish fascist Primo de Rivera.

Besides skipping over this complex history, my argument also maintains its distance from the ruling classes of both sides of the conflict. In previous investigations, I have argued consistently against the government of the PP, in particular against its decision to take on public debt to rescue banks and its implementation of repressive legislation known as the Gag Law. But it is just as necessary to insist on the fact that it was the right-wing Catalan nationalist party (CiU) that promoted the Gag Law in the first place. The Catalan right-wing then also proposed wideranging austerity policies and was bailed out by the central administration. 

Still at the regional level, the Mossos d'Esquadra bluntly criminalized protests and applied anti-terrorist measures against social protest, in collaboration with the Spanish judicial authorities. On both levels, state and region, dissent is being punished through repressive techniques that bear a striking resemblance to what Agamben has described as a permanent state of exception. Exception manifests itself on both sides of the equation, although one side has much more power than the other.

The conflict between the scale of the exception on the part of the central state and that of the regional government has created a complex terrain for social struggles. In a study about the media coverage of squatting, I observed that newspapers instrumentalise social protest and use their coverage of conflicts to discredit the authorities of the opposing camp. In other words, the dissident posture taken by newspapers closely follows ideological criteria in line with the strengthening of enemy images between Spanish and Catalan institutions. Some Catalan newspapers were found to reject repressive state laws such as the Gag Law on nationalistic grounds, while the Madrid-based journal El País tended to present itself as an ally of Catalan movements in order to discredit the regional authorities. These developments fit the logic of exception, insofar as those in a subordinate position (Catalan regional government) clash with the dominant interests (of the Spanish state) over the issue of sovereignty. Meanwhile, a great and multifaceted movement is mobilizing across Catalonia.

Catalan resistance can be traced way back, but Franco’s dreadful dictatorship and his prohibition of the Catalan language is an important part of this story. It took about 50 years for independentism to become mainstream after that episode. At some point, the independendist discourse became a viable option for a few politicians, who took the lead on popular initiatives that have always surfaced  throughout history. From the Catalan perspective, 2012 is the year when right-wing politicians won the elections by embracing the call for independence. Since 2012, Spanish and Catalan nationalist right-wing parties have managed to stay in power thanks to their stance on the issue of independence – the Spanish PP against it, and the Catalan CiU in favor of it. Although other specific reasons account for this change of heart towards “independence”, such as the reactionary nature of the PP’s policies, the mechanism of the subversion of popular struggles lies at the core of the reproduction of this system. Power always integrates partial aspects of the movements’ claims to reinvent itself, and includes certain sectors of movements in their dispensations to get their compliance.


"The will of one people", slogan of the catalan right-wing party CiU for its 2012 campaign led by the then President, Artur Mas. El Diario. All rights reserved.Whatever the outcome of this conflict, the stakes for both the Spanish and the Catalan authorities rose dramatically after October 2017. The high political relevance of the conflict between the Catalan and Spanish institutions generated huge amounts of media coverage, driving (almost) everyone’s attention to institutional politics. An unfortunate result of this trend was to lose sight of the movements that fuelled this conflict in the first place. Instead of getting into the nitty-gritties of institutional politics, I propose to look at movements that oppose the current exception-based regime of governance. We will explore the practices of the Catalan Integral Cooperative, a movement aiming to create grassroots cooperativism as a buffer against economic violence.

Movements against the state of exception

Western liberal states are causing widespread insecurity, and generating the need to create defensive structures against state-market violence, manifested in daily life through economic deprivation.[1]The Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC) promotes a sort of cooperativism across Catalonia that illustrates how popular movements’ practices can face up to exceptionalism. This movement defines itself through the term “integral” because it aims to act in all dimensions of life, and thus to develop tools for individual and collective autonomy to fulfill all sorts of different needs. In practice, it promotes several initiatives that provide individuals and communities with useful tools to oppose the misery and coercion caused by the statist-capitalist entity. Even if success is far from guaranteed, the tools of the CIC have become a precious resource against the state of exception. As argued below, the erosion of law is opposed through juridical and economic disobedience.

Since 2010, the CIC has developed a myriad of initiatives that have combined with many other movements and projects rooted at the local level. Communities have grown, exchange networks have been reinforced, and collective infra-structures and tools have been set up. All of these coordinate their actions across the territory. The CIC’s presence vaguely corresponds to the administrative region of Catalonia, and is divided into three “bioregions”: North, East and South. Each bioregion holds monthly assemblies to see how the goals defined in the general assembly – that meets once a year – are being dealt with. It is striking to note that the CIC projects have very diverse identities, ways of doing things, practical priorities, etc. The principle of subsidiarity, that commits to taking decisions at the lowest level of the decision-making processes, has translated into communities that are very different in nature. Some opt for communal living, allowing for a drastic increase of the shared resources and exchanges with the network.

Collective tools allow the movement to grow, something that then allows new community services to emerge, such as distribution networks. Others put their efforts into creating market places for social currencies, a space where non-profit oriented transactions are encouraged as a way to engage with the basic value of mutual support. In fact, a very significant effort on the part of the CIC has been invested in the creation of a community of exchange revolving around a social currency called the ECO. The internal exchange of products between members takes place in ECO’s, which allows them to bypass the taxation of transactions. Social currencies have a local nature that make the geographical expansion of the currency unproductive. These currencies function more effectively when each community manages their own transactions.

Nonetheless, communities can expand the reach of their impact by collaborating with each other. The relationships of the eco-network are a good example of how decentralized decision-making can be reconciled with the goal of expanding geographical reach. Each eco-network can establish equivalence agreements with other communities, thus permitting it to use very localized social currencies in a broader geographic area.[2]After many years of hard work, the tools developed by the CIC are now available and ready to use to solve needs related to production, distribution and consumption.


The user interface of the collective IntegraRevolució. In terms of production, individuals and collectives are allowed to have legal coverage for their activity under the umbrella of the movement. By collectivizing the legal license to work, the CIC provides the vulnerable and the excluded with a network of solidarity that is crucial in times of need. In terms of consumption, members get goods and services using their social currencies. By providing technological tools for decentralized exchanges, the CIC encourages the collective self-management of the resources available to cover its members needs. And, to link production with consumption, a logistical structure was created to ship goods to their destination – the local nodes of the CIC all over Catalonia. It was also in 2012 that some members of the CIC started working on the Central d’Abastiment Catalana (CAC), which could be roughly translated as the Catalan Supply Center. George Dafermos describes the CAC in the following manner:

The main infrastructure of the network are the so-called ‘rebosts’, that is, the self-managed pantries that the CIC has set up all over Catalonia – twenty of them, to be exact – which constitute the ‘cell’ of the organizational structure of the network. Each one of them is run autonomously by a local consumer group that wishes to have access to local products as well as products made (by producers associated with the CIC) in other parts of Catalonia through the list of products provided by the CAC (which currently includes more than a thousand products). The way in which the supply chain is organized is as follows: the products go from the seventy producers that currently supply the network to the two principal rebosts in L’Arn and Villafranca and then are distributed by the CAC vans to the local rebosts, where local consumer groups go to collect them.

The CIC did not intend to create a centrally-controlled network of projects. On the contrary, its goal has always been the creation of an organizationally decentralized network of projects connected by the same principles, which support each other by sharing resources and capabilities. This implies a high operative complexity, entangled in broader networks of mutual support, not always tied to the CIC. Indeed, the eco-networks and the CIC are separate entities, with their own organization, assemblies, norms, etc. They collaborate insofar as different entities reach agreements that impact on both parts. The eco-networks are the local communities that make use of the CIC tools, thus benefiting from these collective resources. Yet, on the other hand, it is thanks to the eco-networks that the CIC became available at the local level, expanding the ties within the community.But while the needs and wants of the people are diverse, the CIC represents an attempt to provide a common framework for action. Below, the collective IntegraRevolució argues why this common ground is desirable:

For some decades, accelerating in recent years due to the systemic crisis that currently prevails, different processes of social self-construction are being born and are gaining strength, as beacons of reality that illuminate hopes for a complete transformation of society.


Some of these initiatives are coordinated with one another, but in general we find that there is substantial disconnection and lack of shared work between different movements and affinity groups.


[…] A vital step in this process of moving forward towards convergence and a common framework is to create meeting spaces to deliberate, reflect and work on the concrete forms that will develop this revolution. (IntegraRevolució, 2015)

IntegraRevolució has contributed to reflection on the concept of an Integral Revolution (IR), in sync with the concern of the CIC to encompass all spheres of life. Collectives like these have been multiplying in Catalonia and influencing other projects. The basic principles, partially shaped by CIC’s practice and the IR’s reflexions, can since be found in a new initiative called Fair Coop – the “earth cooperative ecosystem for a fair economy”. In very reductive terms, the CIC goes from local to global, while Fair Coop goes from global to local. Like the CIC, Fair Coop is not a legally registered entity, and instead is more suitably described as a movement. Just like the CIC, Fair Coop is a movement revolving around cooperativist practices of economic disobedience. Both the CIC and Fair Coop develop tools that anyone can use if their values and actions are in line with the movements’ means and goals.

Of course, these two movements have several crucial differences that differentiate them. For instance, Fair Coop uses Fair Coin, an ethical crypto-currency that allows secure, anonymous, decentralized transactions to take place without the intervention or control of central banks and states. But both of them represent attempts to update the political meaning of the cooperativist struggles of the past century. At this point it becomes self-evident that the practices of disobedient territorial cooperativism are spreading to confront the widespread increase of misery and suffering caused by austerity and debt. What has been said so far provides some elements of response with regards to how movements oppose the state of exception: if the rich don’t respect the law, if the state doesn’t respect the law, then why should the people?

Yet, these sort of movements promoting large-scale mutualism face structural constrains due to their organizational complexity. The weight of structures makes organizations less capable of adapting to new difficulties. But at the same time, if cooperativist communities do not organize beyond the immediate need to produce to survive, what happens to them when economic decline sets in? Movements organizing against economic precariousness face the threat of being defeated by the market’s logic of productivism. In broader terms, the dynamics of collective organization can be self-destructive. With regards to this peril,Ruymán Rodríguez makes a brilliant argument against what he calls the “politics of the impossible”, and argues that the good functioning of any community must always rely on assemblies’ capacity to constrain themselves:

Una comunidad, si quiere subsistir, debe evitar enredarse en lo que yo llamo “la política de lo imposible”. Hay cosas que una comunidad puede votar en asamblea por mayoría, incluso consensuar, pero si lo aprobado escapa de lo posible no se cumplirá. Votar por mayoría absoluta que mañana vamos a levitar no nos levantará un centímetro del suelo. La comunidad no puede abordar asuntos que se escapan a su control. Si acuerda, por ejemplo, un horario de ruidos tendrá que ver la predisposición real de los comunados hacia dicho acuerdo, la capacidad comunitaria de hacerlo cumplir y las consecuencias de un posible incumplimiento. Si el análisis nos indica que no hay posibilidad real de hacer cumplir lo que se ha acordado, más vale ni proponerlo. Y esto entronca con tomar decisiones sobre ética y moral y la esfera privada del domicilio y las costumbres. Por mucho que determinados hábitos molesten y desagraden, hay cosas cuyo cumplimiento no puede constatarse. Y aunque se pudiera, ¿es deseable? Para conseguirlo habría que poner en marcha una repugnante y pesada maquinaria represiva semejante a la del Estado, o una labor de pedagogía y autoformación que con suerte, de funcionar, nos llevaría décadas. Hay elementos en los que la comunidad debe reconocerse, aunque sea temporalmente, incompetente. (Rodríguez, 2017 p.80)

If a community wants to survive, it should avoid getting entangled in what I call the “politics of the impossible”. There are things that a community can vote on in an assembly by majority, or even by consensus, yet if what is approved goes beyond the bounds of what is possible, it won’t take place. Voting by absolute majority that tomorrow we will levitate will not raise us an inch from the floor. 

 The community cannot go in for decisions that escape its control. If it agrees, for example, on a noise ban, it will need to assess the real predisposition of the members of the community towards this agreement, the community’s capacity to enforce this agreement and the consequences of disrespecting it. If the analysis indicates that there is no real possibility of making it happen, it is better to refrain from even proposing it to the assembly. And this leads us to the issue of taking decisions on ethics and morality, the domestic private sphere and traditional customs. Even if certain habits bother us, there are prescriptions that can’t be fulfilled. And even if they could, would it be desirable? To implement these  would require deploying a repugnant and heavy repressive machinery similar to that of the State, or a pedagogical and auto-educational project that would take decades to apply, with uncertain results. There are elements in which the community should recognize itself as incompetent, even if only temporarily. (Rodríguez, 2017 p.80)

It should perhaps be emphasised that any eventual sovereignty that could stem from the CIC projects is counter to state sovereignty. In the case of the state, enforcing its sovereignty is in line with the institution’s core value of domination. On the contrary, in the case of assemblies against domination, the reproduction of hegemonic values through coercive and manipulative acts over others completely contradicts the founding principles of the collective. 

For movements, attempts to reproduce the logic of exception to gain power over others inevitably leads to the death of the community. It follow that even if the structures of the collective can be maintained artificially, they immediately lose their potential to enhance its members’ capacity for action. Only what people come to desire individually and free from coercion can eventually take place and become a means for collective autonomy. Conversely, any actor trying to impose its views or make profit out of collective endeavors should be discredited from the get go.

These ethical dilemmas are at the core of any social movement, and indeed define their chances of success. Of course, the external reality with which movements relate is just as relevant. One year after the referendum, the diversity of the aforementioned practices and the stark repressive situation endured in Catalonia should be enough to convince anyone that solidarity is an urgent matter.  Beyond systemic trends making the poor poorer, blunt force is being used along cultural lines to defend dominant interests, while territorial cooperativists oppose economic deprivation and violence. All in all, with regards to the conflict over sovereignty between Catalonia and Spain, movement participants regard the creation of a new state as relatively irrelevant. What matters is that CIC activists are in fact promoting practical and concrete independence from hegemonic powers by building a parallel economic system.


[1]    This argument is provocatively developed in the concise and enlightening piece called “We are all very anxious” (Institute for Precarious Consciousness, 2014) 

[2]    Per example, in Olot the eco-network uses a social currency called “Trok”, that has the same value as the ECO currency of the CIC (1 € = 1 Trok = 1 ECO). This allows people of the ECO network to use their social currency in Olot, and people from Olot to engage in exchange with members of the ECO currency. The Trok community has also reached an agreement with another currency called the “hour”. There, one monetary unit is worth ten Euros or Troks, but that hasn’t prevented people from reaching agreements that allow an exchange between currencies.

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