What on Earth is the Catalan Integral Cooperative?

During my research I have encountered several sources which have mentioned the work of the Catalan Integral Cooperative and its philosophy of “Open Cooperativism”. Michel Bauwens and the P2P Foundation especially promote this organization and its approach, and even helped to fund and publish an in-depth study of it, authored by George Dafermos in October 2017. Dafermos spent several months working alongside members of the CIC and conducting interviews with members. The aim of this report, “The Catalan Integral Cooperative: an organizational study of a post-capitalist cooperative”, which is the main source I am drawing from, was to answer the questions “What is the CIC?” and “How does it work?”. As I will show, the answers to both of these questions are rather more complex than you might think, and after reading the report, left me with more questions than I started with.

 

 

What Is It?

To understand the CIC and what supposedly makes it a “post-capitalist” cooperative in more than ambition, Dafermos says that the “revolutionary activist” character of the cooperative is essential, as is an understanding of its “Open Cooperativism” philosophy, which distinguishes it from both conventional businesses and mainstream cooperatives. According to Dafermos, “the main objective of the CIC is nothing less than to build an alternative economy in Catalonia capable of satisfying the needs of the local community more effectively than the existing system, thereby creating the conditions for the transition to a post-capitalist mode of organization of social and economic life.”(Dafermos, 2017). This mission is what, in my opinion, has lead to the complex organizational structure of various committees, self-employed members, exchange networks and autonomous initiatives, as members experiment with different facets of the economic and social transition from capitalism.

A traditional business-oriented worker cooperative would look at a market, search for a good or service that they could provide and build their business up from there, eventually expanding into other markets if possible. This is the “lean-startup” approach which currently dominates entrepreneurial circles in North America and elsewhere. The CIC takes this supposedly conventional wisdom, and does something entirely different, instead rapidly prototyping and supporting multiple, often wildly dissimilar business models (from hackerspaces to organic farms) and projects at the same time, with the goal of experimenting with and disrupting as many industries as possible and promoting open cooperativism within their sphere of influence.

The main work of the CIC core membership is to facilitate and fund the expansion of these projects through the system of democratic committees and assemblies the CIC uses to govern itself via consensus processes. These committees are

  • Coordination – General administration and internal organization of CIC. Closest thing you’re going to find to an “executive” anything with the CIC
  • Reception – Onboarding and training of new members
  • Communication – outgoing comms, promotion, handling information requests, inter-cooperative networking
  • IT – manages CIC servers, website and software development & support for all members
  • Common Spaces – Facilities management for the AureaSocial building in Barcelona which CIC uses as its headquarters
  • Productive Projects – facilitates connecting members to jobs and promoting cooperative projects
  • Economic Management – provides support to self-employed members as well as manages the finances of CIC as a whole.
  • Legal – Legal support to the CIC committees and its many at-large members
  • Catalan Supply Center – a regional food and craft industry distribution network made up of “rebosts” or local pantries managed autonomously by various groups. The committee mostly focuses on managing the supply chain for this network as a cooperative public service.
  • Network of Science, Technique and Technology (XCTIT) – develops, prototypes and licenses machines and softwares use by CIC projects and affiliated cooperatives.

 

Basic Income

The members of these committees, according to Dafermos, see themselves less as business-owners and more as activists. So that they have adequate free time to effectively participate, the cooperative supports members financially with a limited “basic-income” salary, paid both in Euros and a local electronic currency called “ecos”. The basic income is meant to be distributed on a basis of need for members to participate fully, and is adjusted accordingly. The highest reported amount for a member’s basic income was 765 Euros + 135 ecos per month. I did not find in the report a breakdown of how many members receive basic income, but based on the participant numbers for each committee, as of late 2017 at least 45 people recieve a good deal of their income through the program. And that is just for management. Many more people are supported by the cooperative’s many projects and programs, either in self-employment or one of many “Autonomous Projects of Collective Initiative”. The basic income program was launched after the start of CIC. Previously all members were volunteers.

Auto-Ocupados

Being self-employed, operating a private practice or a small business in Spain can be prohibitively expensive or otherwise unavailable to those without legal status or financial means to pay the fees on registration and invoicing (the minimum fee is 250 Euros per month). One of CIC’s main services is to manage legal entities that self-employed individuals and collective autonomos in Catalonia can use to surmount these barriers. All of their invoices are processed through the cooperative system, which uses membership fees of 75 Euros (adjusted for income) every three months to sustain itself. There are around 600 self-employed members, but few of them choose to be closely involved with the organizational work of CIC.

Territorial Economic Network

This component of the CIC includes some 2,500 members engaged in various kinds of work connected to the economic system managed by the CIC. The primary unit of this network is the local exchange network and its various nodes, including the consumer-run rebosts (pantries) of the Catalan Supply Center, assemblies who manage the production and distribution of ecos digital currency and the “autonomous projects of collective initiative”, independent projects and businesses that the CIC is involved in through active membership, collaboration and financial/material/legal support. These include

  • A cooperative office building, AureaSocial used by CIC as its headquarters and shared with various other cooperative ventures within the CIC’s network
  • CASX, a financial cooperative dedicated to providing support and interest-free financing to cooperative ventures, and ultimately aimed at attracting widespread consumer investment through a cooperative savings program
  • SOM Pujarnol, a rural bed-and-breakfast and housing cooperative
  • Calafou, a settlement occupying an abandoned industrial village which now produces machine fabrication, professional music recording, handmade soap, lodging and software and event hosting for concerts, festivals and conferences
  • MaCUS, a collaborative machine shop which supports artists, traditional and modern craftspeople and livelihoods by allowing access to a wide range of industrial machines, including everything from a woodshop to a music studio and 3-D printers.

Aerial View of Barcelona

Inside one of the workshops of Calafou

TransactionsMonthly transactions within the alternative economic network

Cooperative Public System

The CIC ultimately aims to promote the development of a “Cooperative Public System” outside the official control of the Spanish and Catalan governments as well as the capitalist market. It seeks to transition systems such as Food, R&D, Education, Housing, Health Transportation and more to a commons-based management and ownership system. Currently, the Catalan Supply Center and XCTIT are the most fully-realized aspects of this goal.

There is No Catalan Integral Cooperative

One of the most interesting facts that turned up in Dafermos’ report is the fact that although the CIC has developed a highly diverse network of legal entities to aid its projects, the CIC itself has no legal status and does not officially exist. Dafermos claims the reason for this is so that the core members have more flexibility when it comes to dealing with the state and its various bureaucratic requirements.

How Does It Work?

According to the Dafermos report, the rough financial breakdown goes like so:

Income Sources

  • Member fees (50%)
  • Tax refunds from self-employment loophole (50%)
  • Donations (minimal)
  • Revenue (Unclear in the report how much this accounts for)

Expenses

  • Basic Income to CIC members
  • Funding for various projects

 

Most of the economic activity is carried out in a decentralized fashion by the CIC’s various projects and legal entities it manages, leaving an extremely minimal financial burden for the cooperative itself, which may explain why it is able to sustain itself while supporting so many other projects. It relies on reciprocal support and benefits from the diverse cooperative institutions it collaborates with to reproduce itself. As a cooperative, it emphasizes the need for “cooperation among cooperatives” and proves that with a robust enough network, highly experimental forms can be developed into viable organizations.

Decisions are arrived at within the committees through consensus-based democratic processes, and the general membership is organized through assemblies for coordination, which operate on similar principles. Assemblies are organized for individual projects, as well as for coordination between projects. Some committees and assemblies have limited authority over others, such as the financial committee and CASX, which make decisions about funding and have a direct say in each other’s operations, while others are completely autonomous from the main cooperative.

Why Does the CIC Work?

By most conventional standards among cooperative businesses, it shouldn’t. And yet it does, and even appears to be growing through its own organizing and support from the governments of Barcelona and Catalonia. Why is the CIC succeeding where many other politically-motivated cooperatives have failed?

Open Cooperativism

The CIC is founded on the principle of Open Cooperativism, which states that in order to counter isomorphic tendencies (isolation, commodification and protection of intellectual property, exploitation of non-members and the environment) in cooperatives bound to the market system Co-ops must agree to

  • “work for the common good” rather than just their membership
  • Utilize multi-stakeholder governance
  • Use and produce “commons”-based goods in their production and licensing (rather than proprietary means of production)
  • Collaborate globally with the intention of leading an economic transition away from capitalism while focusing on local production and development.

Without this framework, it would be hard to imagine an organization like the CIC existing. Intense focus on collaboration and inter-cooperative reciprocity is what keeps something as decentralized as the CIC afloat.

Clever Exploitation of Tax Loopholes

Apparently, a significant portion of the income comes from tax refunds earned through the self-employment program on each member’s invoices when processed by the state.This is part of the CIC’s larger principal of Economic Disobedience. One of the CIC’s founding members, Enric Duran, became famous for taking out nearly a half-million euros in collateral-free loans from 39 banks and giving it all away in donations to anti-capitalist organizations. After announcing what he had done, Duran fled the country and went on to found FairCoop, an organization based on open cooperativism that focused on promoting global initiatives through legal, financial and technological tools.

Organizing the Self-Employed

Many have talked about organizing the self-employed and so-called independent contractors, but few have succeeded. CIC’s model proves that an extremely broad cross-industrial cooperativism may have some important updates to older models of industrial unionism, which have had a very difficult time organizing the increasing numbers of precariously employed workers in formal and informal jobs.

Diversity of Institutions

The strength of CIC comes from its widely diverse reciprocal networks of exchange. By not relying on any single income source tied to revenue, they are able to exist and experiment with relative freedom compared to more business-oriented cooperatives. Many post-capitalist and mainstream economic transition theories assume that a shift towards less and less formal employment is likely, and a further decentralization of formal employment is already occurring with video-conferencing and telecommuting becoming popular. Many worker cooperatives and labor unions are struggling to adapt to this new paradigm of labor atomization. The CIC’s response is to optimize the countervailing tendency to labor atomization, which is the general growth of the social network across industrial and shop-floor bonds and using that as its primary tool for developing the forms of a future fair and sustainable economy.

Dafermos, George.The Catalan Integral Cooperative: an organizational study of a post-capitalist cooperative. P2P Foundation, 2017. http://commonstransition.org/the-catalan-integral-cooperative-an-organizational-study-of-a-post-capitalist-cooperative/

Catalan Integral Cooperative (website) https://cooperativa.cat/en

International Cooperative Alliance Co-operative identity, values & principles. https://ica.coop/en/whats-co-op/co-operative-identity-values-principles

Kassam, Ashifa Spain’s ‘Robin Hood’ swindled banks to help fight capitalism. The Guardian, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/20/spain-robin-hood-banks-capitalism-enric-duran

FairCoop (Website) https://fair.coop/

Faber, Sebastiaan and Seguín, Bécquer. Welcome to Sunny Barcelona, Where the Government Is Embracing Coops, Citizen Activism, and Solar Energy.
The Nation, 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/welcome-to-sunny-barcelona-where-the-government-is-embracing-coops-citizen-activism-and-solar-energy/

 

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