Author: Toni Yagüe
In order not to stumble while walking, we have to look at the ground to see where we are going, but we also mustn't forget to look up from time to time in order to stop and look at what is around us, and to assess whether the path we are taking is the right one. If it isn't, we'll know that we must change course, and will consider the paths followed by other people who are heading to the same destination. If it is the right path, we'll walk more vigorously, and with our spirit strengthened, and we will also be able to share the directions with others if they ask us to.
When I discovered the phenomenon of Integral Cooperatives back in 2011 - or maybe better to say that when I understood its essence and potential scope, which is not necessarily an immediate consequence of merely discovering their existence, I hoped that a good part of the radical social libertarian movements would join in with one of the most ambitious projects of popular liberation of the last 80 years - together with the neo-Zapatista uprising and the Kurdish experience - this also having the advantage of being a globally replicable project, with no geographical limits other than those of the planet itself. Few things could be more appealing to a revolutionary than a movement designed to help us to escape from capitalism, but as time went by, my expectations were largely unfulfilled.
The scale of responses for social transformation
In September 2013 I attended a talk at AureaSocial (a kind of headquarters of the Cooperativa Integral Catalana) on Civil Disobedience. In it, Martí Olivella, a well known activist for nonviolence, and one of the first conscientious objectors to military service within the Spanish state, theorized about ways to promote social transformation, varieties of response to conflict, and set out a series of five ascending levels of response - both in terms of scope and, as might be expected, also in terms of the difficulty of the task.
- The first step is dialogue. They say that people understand each other by talking together, and sometimes the solution to a social conflict is as simple as putting oneself in the shoes of the other, and thereby relying on them having empathy for us when our situation is fully explained to them. It would be the perfect solution - in an ideal world which we have to admit that we don't in fact live in.
- Often, however, one of the conflicting parties does not have the capacity to empathize, or because of their relative position of power, real or perceived, is not willing to listen, and we must resort to the second level: organized protest, which is the model typically followed by the greater part of social movements, with demonstrations, rallies and so on.
- When that is not enough, one can go a step further; non-cooperation, whereby strikes are initiated in order to directly tackle economic conditions in society (or even reproductive conditions, as in the case of the feminist strike of the 8th March 2018 in the Spanish state), and/or boycotts of certain products or brands (whether commercial e.g., cultural, electoral, or other) if it is a question of influencing the system via our role as 'consumers'.
- If non-cooperation also does not bring about a satisfactory situation, the following should be done as a fourth level of response: civil disobedience, which as we know is to violate a rule or law considered unfair in a public and non-violent manner, and with the goal of an improvement of the common good, and not merely the situation of the individual. Objection to military service and the refusal to pay certain taxes due to how the money raised will be used, are clear examples.
- In the event that all the above options together are not sufficient to produce a resolution of the conflict, the only thing left to do is to raise the stakes and go to the ultimate response: the construction of alternatives, where the creation of entirely new structures becomes necessary. The aim is to create a parallel social system without the problems of those that already exist, and which is therefore intended to end up replacing them (or at least to break their monopoly by expanding the range of possibilities available). This is how social innovations make progress without putting the defenders of existing systems on red alert, since they do not feel themselves threatened directly. Paradoxically, it is a strategy employed by capitalism itself in order to stimulate progress; in this case not social progress, but simply more consumption. A new generation of one product makes the previous one obsolete: some will continue to use the obsolete one for a longer period of time, but we know that overall it will not last for very long and its relevance will diminish with time.
Having explained the five categories, we shouldn't forget, however, that they refer to concrete actions but social organizations are complex entities acting in non-uniform contexts, so they combine multiple actions rarely corresponding to just one kind, even while they might tend to prefer one way of working to another.
Those of us who are part, in one way or another, of the Integral Cooperative movement, of which FairCoop is a global version designed to complement the local implementations, believe that entering into dialogue with those who hold the political and economic power of an exploitative, unjust, patriarchal, and ecocidal system has been demonstrated to be an absolutely useless way to put an end to the unequal and oppressive situations in which we live. For example consider the following: "Ladies and Gentlemen of Goldman Sachs, you may not have noticed but...". To be honest, it's pretty funny just to think about it. The disparity in power between the parties is such that no negotiation is possible if we do not bring more powerful weapons to the table, metaphorically speaking.
We have also seen that public protest rarely works, and that if it ever does, it is always in matters of relatively little importance. There is no doubt that demonstrations can focus the public's attention on an issue that was not previously on the agenda of the the mass media, and that's positive of course, but how many people can remember when a demonstration ever changed something structurally important? Not even the most global and well-attended protests, such as those against the war in 2003, had any effect on preventing the American invasion of Iraq, and if they had, it would have only been until the next war, never forcing a change in the militaristic outlook of the United States or that of the vast majority of governments around the world. I don't want to say that organized street protest can never be useful, but we surely cannot hope that protest alone will solve things.
Equally, we do not believe that non-cooperation on specific issues can affect the system on any deeper level, even if it can help to resolve specific conflicts. We can stop buying products made with palm oil, and this can lead to an improvement in the future outlook for the forest flora and fauna of the island of Borneo, but the food industry will easily replace this ingredient with a new one, the cheaper the better, regardless of the consequences for the ecosystem where it comes from, and for our health, (and it may not simply be that the company is being evil in ignoring these harmful effects, but rather it comes down to a question of pure survival in a competitive capitalist environment where the one who least externalizes costs simply disappears from the market). The only non-cooperation that we see as sufficiently useful is one which can seriously disrupt the ubiquitous power of the capitalist system, and that is why we are dedicated to building an alternative with which to meet our needs as people.
For us, civil disobedience is not in itself a solution when it comes to facing the full extent of the problem which afflicts us: capitalism and its preferred tool, the bourgeois state - but we greatly recognize its value and legitimacy as a tool, and we actually are in favor of using it as a tactic.
And as you may have already realized, our main idea, the one thing that can really get us past the capitalist system and into a new phase, or rather - so as not to fall into delusions of grandeur - we could say that it's the one thing that could establish a secure foothold for us in this new phase that will inevitably arrive sooner or later - is the construction of an entire alternative socioeconomic system governed by principles such as self-organization, horizontality, cooperation, decentralization, free knowledge, and degrowth, amongst other things.
We are not naïve, we know that the difficulty of doing this is pretty great, and that we could pay heed to the many occasions on which similar projects have been attempted and where things haven't turned out well, but we think it's easier this way than trying to beat the monster in mortal combat, the monster of course being capitalism, which today is perhaps half-dead but is still a giant. Our hope is that people will realize that they don't need the monster in order to fulfill their needs and simply stop feeding it, thereby starving it to death. Also we have powerful tools that in other times did not exist, such as the internet and the infinite possibilities it offers, starting with a currency managed by the users themselves, worldwide in scope, and allowing for anonymity.
Why we bet on building an alternative
There are several reasons why we believe that the answer to the prevailing system should be the construction of an alternative one; some are strategic and others are more substantive.
As for the latter:
- We believe our option is effective in itself for those who participate, since it generates among its participants real socio-economic relationships that reflect the economic structures and dynamics that we would want for society as a whole. Although the project does not yet have a wide reach among the general public, by becoming a part of it we can, to some extent, step out of capitalism.
- In this sense, it follows the revolutionary tradition of Direct Action, adapted to the contemporary context, of course: if we want a fair economic system, let's build it from scratch and don't expect things to change by complaining to bureaucratic institutions that we already know have been designed to serve the interests of oligarchies. Despite the difficulties of the task and the traps they are bound to set for us, the main focus has to be on ourselves; this is also a training exercise for the new era that we yearn for, as we did more than 80 years ago, when one of the principal figures of anarchism, Joan Peiró, proposed co-operative practice as a key tool, and which cooperation went on to play an important role in the Iberian Peninsula during the Spanish Civil War to help make possible the development of one of the greatest experience of self-management so far in history.
- It also goes beyond the theoretical field of political discourse, and can serve as a real and effective example that a society can function much more harmoniously without the contradictions that are recognized in capitalism but necessarily endured, because we are simply told that, as Thatcher said, 'there is no alternative'. Well, I don't agree, Iron Lady and neoliberal acolytes - there is an alternative, not only within capitalism but also - and especially - outside of it, and we demonstrate its existence with deeds, and not only with words that might be carried away by the wind. If we carry a new world in our hearts, we don't just keep it in our hearts, we get it out in the open so the rest of the world can fall in love with it too.
- Building the alternative ourselves is a positive, constructive, and therefore psychologically healthier act, since it gives expression to positive values such as solidarity, and the recognition of the other as an equal, and not to negative feelings such anger, rejection, worry, even demoralisation, etc. - feelings which are legitimate in the overall context of exploitation, inequality, the depletion of natural resources, and climate chaos - but unhealthy and sterile if they do not go on to inspire us to make a change.
Watching our own 'creature' grow is much healthier than merely sitting around complaining about how evil the monster is.
And, as I was saying, there are also strategic factors illustrating the viability of our proposal:
- We take advantage of the cracks in the existing system in order to open up a hole in it: such as, among other things, the loophole of the legal status of co-operatives - politically a historic concession used in order to avoid having to make deeper structural changes - and which allows for a certain autonomy in the relationships between its members. Or the fact that cryptocurrency exchanges are still invisible to state taxation systems.
- All this does not attack the system head-on, and therefore prevents their outright criminalization. It is also more difficult to justify repression of this kind of thing in the eyes of the public. In other words, setting fire to a cash machine may be motivated by anger in the face of injustice, but far from being a problem for the system, it will become the perfect opportunity to justify a campaign of criminalisation of the perpetrator, his social environment, and his ideology, with the mass media as the main means of enforcement, making the majority believe that a threat to the social order now exists, and that a repressive reaction is justified in order to eliminate the opponent politically - by means of arrests, fines, custodial sentences, and ill-treatment by the police and other law enforcement agencies.
In short, as we have seen, there are several possible ways to simultaneously respond to injustices and promote social transformation and, while we do not renounce the occasional use of any of the mentioned tactics of resistance, especially that of civil disobedience, those of us who form a part of FairCoop - and as is also the case with the members of the various integral cooperatives - we believe that the only way for us to free ourselves from capitalism is via the construction of a new system: self-organized, equitable, horizontal, feminist, cooperative, decentralized, where knowledge is free, degrowth-oriented, and managed from the grassroots by the people who are part of it.
And that's why we do it - because we believe the only way to make our dreams come true is to get down to work, favoring actions over words, and with the intelligence to see the weaknesses of the enemy and to take advantage of them in order to protect ourselves. And maybe by the time they realize that we've built an alternative that makes their system unnecessary, it will be too late for them to try to destroy it - because by then it already will have deep roots and many people who are willing to defend it; because they see that it is up to them whether they have or do not have a dignified life, a life that - as Yayo Herrero would say - is worth living.
Because we know that, to paraphrase Joan Fuster, any system we don't create for ourselves will be created against us.