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Do we have the right to financial rebellion? A conversation with Enric Duran

We need to practice economic disobedience so that radical alternatives can flourish.  

Enric Duran Giralt, anti-capitalist activist. Credit: CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not easy to get in touch with Enric Duran. Dubbed the ‘Robin Hood of the Banks’ by the mainstream media, the Catalan activist defrauded the Spanish banking system of nearly half a million euros in the period 2006 to 2008. He used the money to fund a range of local and global initiatives aimed at building alternative structures outside the state.

In 2013 he skipped bail and has since been on the run within the EU, living what he calls a “nomadic” existence. For many, Duran is a living symbol of the power of civil disobedience. For others, including the Spanish government, he’s a naive criminal. Either way, his ideas around the right to resist state power and the importance of building autonomous financial systems have gained fresh relevance today, both through the upheavals in Catalonia and the rapid growth of the cryptocurrency sector.

I’ve been chatting to him for some time on the secure messaging service Telegram and we eventually set up a connection through the open source conferencing programme Jitsi. With his black beard and heavy-set eyebrows and a gap between his front teeth, Duran looks like a typical 41-year old Mediterranean man. Behind him is a framed print of a tulip, reminiscent of a hotel room. I smile as I ask him where he is, and he smiles as he responds that he can’t tell me. “It doesn’t need to be known in any public intervention,” he explains. This is a typical response from a man who seems to view all of his personal actions within the frame of achieving social change and what he calls “integral revolution.”

“Integral revolution means comprehensive transformation from below of all aspects of life like culture, economic, social, personal, ecological,” he says. “We achieve this by empowering communities from below to build a new society, new systems that are not based on the state or capitalism.” It’s the familiar goal of prefigurative politics: building a new world in the shell of the old.

In order to achieve this goal, Duran helped set up the Catalan Integral Cooperative, a loose network of cooperative ventures. He has never revealed how much of the loan money was funnelled into projects related to the CIC, preferring to say his “action with the banks” had a “direct consequence” on its foundation. Today the cooperative facilitates everything from barter markets to housing projects and stores, with over two and a half thousand members taking part in its local exchange groups.

“It’s clear that you can't build this kind of alternative if you don't break the laws of the state,” Duran says. “We need to practice economic disobedience in a way that supports these alternatives.” Duran has many inspirations, including the Zapatista movement, the revolutionary political and militant rebels who have established a network of autonomous communities in southern Mexico.

I ask him if he ever had any doubts during the three years where he took out 68 different loans from banks across Spain, from car loans to credit cards, with no intention of paying them back. He shrugs. “No, I had no doubts. I feel I did the right thing, it was powerful and I had to do it…I had been a full-time activist since I was 20, I was quite detached from my family life since I was very young. So in my case perhaps it was more easy.”

He understands that personal courage is needed to commit acts of civil disobedience and has consistently used his own story to encourage others to follow suit. In 2012, after a public prosecutor along with 16 banking institutions called for him to serve an eight-year sentence, Duran posted a video called “a mass invitation to civil disobedience.” In it he justifies his position, drawing on the right to rebellion where governments fail to meet their citizens’ human rights, as well as pointing to the corruption of the legal system. He cites “the September 2011 Spanish constitutional reform to benefit the banks…without citizen consultation” and “the lack of legal action upon the speculative ‘disappearance’ of millions of Euros in the financial world,” emphasising the human cost of reckless misconduct in the banking system and consequent austerity policies.

According to a study on the world’s constitutions, roughly a fifth of countries have some kind of legally enshrined right to resist. In his video, Duran quotes the American revolutionary Marquis of Lafayette: “When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is the most sacred of rights and the most essential of our duties.” Spain has no such legal provision, which is pertinent to the current constitutional disputes around the Catalonian independence movement. On October 1 last year, 43 per cent of the electorate turned out to participate in an illegal independence referendum, with 90 per cent of votes backing secession from Spain.

The operation intended to stop the vote quickly descended into violence, with police firing rubber bullets and beating voters with batons, injuring hundreds. Carles Puigdemont, the leader of Together for Catalonia, fled the country along with several other separatist leaders, many of whom face decades in prison for their involvement. Puigdemont was arrested in Germany and was recently released on bail.

“What’s going on in Catalonia is very interesting,” says Duran. “There’s a big population that are trusting less [sic] the laws and the state as it is right now. Most of them want to create a Catalonian state that is within the establishment, but they [the Spanish government] won't let them do it. And that brings the need to build transversal sovereignty in daily life.” While the Catalan Integral Cooperative has no official link with the independence cause, Duran believes that the existence of a strong network of autonomous community projects in the region has a more general influence. “I think the future will show that this experience has been important for the Catalan independence movement,” he says. “There is a role for integral revolution in this process. For sure I would like to be there…but now my experience of exile is extending to more and more people.”

Duran admits he has no hard proof for this claim. It’s easy to dismiss his thinking as utopian. Yet dreaming big and focusing on financial rebellion have led him to achieve a substantial amount over the last decade. After leaving Catalonia, he founded the global cooperative FairCoop. Like the CIC, it allows small and independent producers to trade outside of banking systems, but this time on an international level through the use of cryptocurrency.

In 2014, Duran bought 10 million FairCoins, roughly twenty per cent of the entire supply, in order to set up the FairCoop. He chose the coin because he liked the name and judged it to be the most suitable for building an ethical currency system. “The FairCoop ecosystem is not just a currency network,” Duran explains, “it is creating an alternative society where the currency is a tool for this.”  Today there are hubs, or ‘local nodes’ as they’re called, in dozens of countries around the world, with most activity in Spain and Greece.

Yet the law is catching up to the crypto world. Having long been surrounded by legal muddy water, the industry’s astronomical expansion in 2017 has led to regulatory frameworks being established across the world. In March, FairCoin was delisted from Bittrex, a major US-based trading platform, for refusing to answer questions apparently intended to gather information and check the coin’s legality. “FairCoop doesn't have a legal form,” says Duran. “We said we're not centralised, there’s no company behind us, so we couldn't answer what they were asking. It was a political statement.”

After the delisting, the market price of FairCoin plummeted. When I ask him about this, Duran reminds me with a twinkle in his eye that the FairCoop community agree its own price democratically, unrelated to the capitalist system. “It’s very important to understand that the crypto currency world just shows the market price, but this is not our world. Our world is building an alternative economy and alternative society. We want a technology that works according to our values, so people don't get more power over others.” But not everybody will be happy with the price drop. Holders of the coin can still buy FairCoop products at a good rate, but trading with euros or any other currencies outside of the coop now looks like a very bad idea.

The Bittrex decision highlights the challenge of building a new world in the shell of old. Sometimes the two just don’t match up. Still, Duran is used to taking risks. In fact, his latest venture is the Bank of the Commons, a platform for investing in cooperative initiatives, using financial tools to strengthen the eco-system of like-minded projects around the world.

I ask Duran if he misses anything about his old life before the bank action. “Sometimes I feel I'm travelling so much it can be a bit tiring. It’s a way of living that’s very intense, so you need to be in very good health to do it.”  He tells me about his mother, who is the one member of his family who supported his actions and was politicised by them. It was his mother who collected the Human Rights Award he received in 2016 from the Barcelona Film and Human Rights Festival, previously given to Julian Assange. The festival called for his return to Catalonia, referring to the longstanding ReturnWithFreedom campaign.

Duran’s return to Catalonia doesn’t seem likely, at least in the foreseeable future. In any case, he has insisted many times that energy around the campaign for justice be directed instead to encouraging more acts of civil disobedience, emphasising the importance of financial rebellion. “We might have problems, but to be really free we need to act on what we believe in,” he says, “Be brave, do it, but try to share it with people in your area or globally.”

 

About the author

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist, editor and fiction writer, published in Al Jazeera UK, VICE UK, the London Review of Books, the London Magazine, the New Humanist and others. At openDemocracy she has been Editor at OurKingdom (now oD UK), OurBeeb, and 50.50 (Interim Editor Jan-March 2017) and has co-edited two books: 'Democratic Wealth: Building a Citizens' Economy' and 'Re-thinking the BBC: Public Media in the 21st Century'. She lives in Athens, and is writing a novel.


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