For most young people growing up in the United States today, the idea of leading a life where you can get an education, buy a home, raise a family, and retire comfortably feels like fiction at best. We are taught in schools that US capitalism will deliver us to the promised land. It hasn’t. Disillusionment with capitalism is so ubiquitous it’s trending on TikTok. The question stands: “Where do we go from here?”
We are taught in schools that US capitalism will deliver us to the promised land. It hasn’t.
In the past decade, US social movements have slowly embraced the work of growing economic solutions that can displace capitalism and align economic organizations with community ownership, economic democracy, and economic justice. Organizers in many US communities have begun to weave together co-ops, land trusts, credit unions, participatory budgeting, energy democracy, and other community-controlled economic solutions to ensure everyday people can live stable, dignified, and self-determined lives beyond the grips of extractive capitalism. The term most often used in the United States to describe this approach is the “solidarity economy.”
But the US is a latecomer to the solidarity economy. Spain, where solidarity economy organizing is far more advanced, has much to teach us. This led to our recent visit to Spain to learn more.
Traveling Abroad to Gain Insight into Our Own Struggles
Earlier this fall, a dozen organizers, most from Cooperation Buffalo, along with staff from the New Economy Coalition, with support from Chorus Foundation and the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, flew to Spain to learn more about how to build regional solidarity-economy ecosystems and gain a deeper understanding of the context of our work.
Many people in the United States tend to be insular, often failing to consider how their actions fit into a larger international whole. Solidarity economy advocates are not exempt from this tendency. Yet, the concept of a solidarity economy did not originate in the US. As Esther Choi wrote in NPQ, the academic origins of the concept are generally credited to Luis Razeto of Chile and Jean-Louis Laville of France, while most development of solidarity-economy ecosystems has occurred outside the United States. One of the most prominent hubs of such development is in Barcelona.
Barcelona has a long history of social struggle. It was famously a bastion of anarchist economic development during Spain’s Second Republic and the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, as George Orwell wrote about in Homage to Catalonia. Today, it is once again a leader in experimentation in participatory small “d” democracy.
Arriving in Barcelona
In late September 2022, we landed in Barcelona. Over the course of our trip, we visited locations across Spain, but here we focus on Barcelona’s Sants neighborhood, a post-industrial working-class community, due to its unique co-op legacy, the community’s social fabric, and its infrastructure and governance.
Immediately upon arriving in Sants—which sits at the heart of the Catalonian autonomous movement and solidarity-economy organizing—organizers from Buffalo commented on how familiar Sants felt, resembling their own postindustrial, working-class Rust Belt city. At rush hour, the sidewalks were filled with the strollers and walkers of the young and old, who moved through their morning routine alongside students and businesspeople.
Yet, there were some important differences between the two cities. So-called “urban renewal” had not displaced the neighborhood’s nineteenth-century factory buildings, as it had done in Buffalo. Instead, the buildings had been redeveloped for mixed use and housed cooperatives and community-governed institutions of every kind—housing co-ops, credit unions, worker co-ops, cooperative daycares and schools, radical bookstores, social centers, and community gardens. All of these were connected into value chains (that is, they trade with one another) and organized into general assemblies, creating economic value and exerting political power on behalf of the community in which they are rooted.
Building the Future by Keeping Collective Memory Alive
Worker cooperatives were strong in Catalonia in the mid-nineteenth century. They were leaders of resistance against industrial capitalism’s exploitation of the working class. In particular, the city of Barcelona has a long cooperative tradition, which peaked during the Second Republic (1931-1939). This history is visible in Sants, which has organized community production around residents’ vision of a solidarity economy.
Though many early cooperatives and the cultural ecosystems built around them disappeared due to the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship that followed, Sants’ residents have fought in recent years to revitalize, recover, and keep the collective memory of economic self-governance alive. They have united around demands to recover and bring back the identity of the neighborhood’s historic buildings. La Lleialtat Santsenca is an example.
La Lleialtat Santsenca was founded in 1891, becoming one of the first co-ops in Barcelona. Originally, the building housed a food shop, bakery, café, small theater, and library. It soon became a place for community building and organizing. With the arrival of the Francoist dictatorship, the building was taken over and shut down. In 1950, the building become a nightclub, the Bahía. In 2011, it was restored and converted into a cultural and social space for the local community, emerging as the backbone around which neighbors organize social and cultural life.
For Sants residents, reclaiming such spaces reinvigorates the cooperative movement, protects their community’s history from erasure, and ensures residents’ economic security. It is vitally important to reclaim their history of cooperativism and reconnect to the cooperative movement’s origins. These buildings hold not just the past but the future.
A Solidarity Economy at the Neighborhood Level
The depth of economic organizing that we encountered in Barcelona is impressive. However, in Barcelona—and in Spain more generally—it is important to appreciate the difference between social economy (which proposes building a community economy without directly challenging the existing capitalist structure) and the solidarity economy (which seeks to create economic alternatives to capitalist organization). It is a distinction that has echoes in the United States—are solidarity economy efforts seeking to displace capitalist structures or organize around them? Of course, in practice, many efforts straddle both approaches. Here, we focus on the solidarity economy because this approach is so prominent in Sants.
Sants’ solidarity economy is deeply rooted in the neighborhood’s history. A community affected by deindustrialization, much like Buffalo, Sants had long received the short end of the economic investment stick. Government cuts in the social sector and repeated failures to deliver on promises catalyzed community members to develop their own solutions.
A key moment occurred on May 15, 2011, when a mass demonstration in the capital city of Madrid set off protests across Spain, including in Sants. Known as 15-M for the date the demonstrations began—and also as “los indignados” (the outraged) —the ensuing movement created tremendous energy for the Fem barri project, or “building neighborhoods.”
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Citizen campaigns and occupations like that of Can Battló—a former Barcelona textile factory—reclaimed public and private spaces and repurposed them into social centers. Neighborhood assemblies held in these spaces articulated the community’s most pressing needs and organized cooperatives.
Food co-ops were set up in food deserts. Housing co-ops, like La Borda, met a need for social housing, while backend service cooperatives, like Coop 57 and Coopolis, provided the capital and technical assistance needed for co-op development. At present, Barcelona is home to thousands of cooperative and social enterprises (a 2016 study counted 4,718 enterprises) spanning the food, housing, entertainment, finance, care work, education, media, culture, and design sectors, and more. Together, they form part of an integrated co-op network.
Self-governance is a defining feature of the solidarity economy approach to economic production and community building.
Each cooperative is democratically governed, self-determined, and accountable to the community from which it grew. Sants is the example of fem barri: a neighborhood built and governed to meet the needs and vision of its people—a place where enterprise exists to serve and sustain community life and provides a hub of economic course correction.
The Centrality of Community Self-Governance
Self-governance is a defining feature of the solidarity economy approach to economic production and community building. It takes as its starting point the belief that people know what their neighborhoods need, and it encourages neighbors to organize around challenges and opportunities and build self-determined solutions.
The people of Sants practice self-governance at every level. Each cooperative in their system is collectively governed through direct democracy or a member-elected board. They include La Borda, an energy efficient, permanently affordable housing cooperative developed on public land through the innovative “cession of use” mechanism—also known as the Andel model, popularized by housing cooperatives in Denmark and Uruguay. This model gives residents “use rights” that can be inherited by children, but which cannot be sold on the open market, preserving affordable housing for the long run.
Self-governance is key for how members of La Borda care for their co-op. In practice, it means collectively deciding to install solar panels rather than luxury amenities—or creating a fund from surplus revenue to subsidize payments for recently unemployed or ill members, a humane alternative to eviction that preserved stable housing for many during the first years of the pandemic.
Cultural organizing reminds us of why we are building a solidarity economy, and cooperative development shows us how.
In Sants, neighbors have a lot to say about what is happening in the community. They are also linked to larger associations, which give them voice throughout Cataluña and nationally as well. Individual co-ops often belong to a cooperative of cooperatives, like Ecos, Can Batlló, or La Comunal, in order to pool capacities, share resources, cross pollinate, and build alignment. These larger entities are governed by general assemblies and represent their interests to larger representative bodies, like Xarxa de Economia Solidaria, a Catalonian network that represents 500 members, and the Network of Alternative Solidarity Economy Networks, which operates at the national level. In its recently revised charter, the latter network describes the solidarity economy as a vision and practice which places life-sustaining processes at the center of socioeconomic activity, thereby prioritizing people, communities, cultures, the environment, and common goods over capitalist accumulation.
Building Culture and Media infrastructure
In Sants, cultural organizing is not peripheral to cooperative development. They are one and the same. This is because co-ops are the vehicle of choice for providing space for cultural production. Cultural organizing reminds us why we are building a solidarity economy, and cooperative development shows us how. Cultural organizing builds and protects a community’s collective memory and future dreams and translates them into a shared popular narrative, identity, and vision.
Culture in Sants is protected through co-op organizations, including cafés, theaters, and music venues. These co-ops help articulate the social life in the neighborhood. As we walk Sants, these ubiquitous cultural venues remind us that culture is a vital and central aspect of the solidarity economy movement.
Movement-centered media is another important component of solidarity-economy work. “Any economy that we don’t do ourselves will be done against us,” reads the headline of a publication dedicated exclusively to promoting, amplifying, and narrating Sant’s solidarity-economy efforts. As we turn the pages of the newspaper, we find a comprehensive and compelling map of the neighborhood that highlights by sector all the neighborhoods’ co-ops, spaces, resources, and organizations.
Publishers and independent multimedia production houses, like Traficantes de Sueños and La Ciudad Invisible, serve a central role in place-based solidarity economy organizing. They accompany organizers and resource them with the literature, narratives, and political education they need to develop and advance their strategies. They also film, document, and build compelling narratives around local campaigns, drawing public attention, building popular support, and generating political momentum. Independent media work serves as a living bridge between past and future—ensuring that lessons from the past remain present and relevant, and that the stories of today impact the future.
Returning Home and Taking Stock: Closing Reflections
Months after our return to the US, we can’t stop thinking of all the people we’ve met, the places we’ve visited, and the stories we’ve heard and shared. We all agree that a common thread connects these stories: a desire for self-determination, to collectively own and decide how communities and individuals manage their needs. As a result of our travels, we feel less isolated, and the future seems less lonely.
After this trip, we agreed on the importance of continuing to share strategy, reclaim public places, bring arts and culture into the heart of the movement, keep memory alive, and cultivate strong bonds within the global solidarity-economy movement. Despite political, social, cultural, and historical differences, we felt a sense of familiarity and common understanding. Seeing how other communities organize and are fighting for self-determination has been revitalizing.
We know that the path towards social transformation remains challenging, but we also know that we are many. So many of us in so many different parts of the world are walking similar paths. Together, we are creating another world.