… and everyone is on vacation!
So I decided to travel north. The Watson is all about flexibility and learning how to make Plan B work as well as Plan A. Barcelona is a wonderful, vibrant city, and Catalonia is home to nearly 3,000 worker cooperatives, but my original plan to spend August there didn’t make much sense. I decided to postpone my month in Barcelona for a few weeks.
On my way to the Basque region, where I will see the infamous Mondragón cooperatives and other cooperative groups, I decided to spend four days hiking the Camino de Santiago. The Camino refers to a number of historical pilgrimage routes that lead to the shrine of the apostle St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. I walked along the most popular route, Camino Frances, a 500-mile trail that starts in the French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Thousands of ‘pilgrims’ hike the route each year for a variety of reasons that range from spiritual to fitness-related to cultural.
I started my journey in Pamplona (side note: check out this rad podcast about wealth redistribution I listened to on my bus ride) and walked to Puente la Reina, Estella, Torres del Rio, and Logroño—a total of about 95km or 60 miles. The path takes pilgrims through Spain’s countryside, but you also walk through many little villages and towns. I quickly became fascinated by the graffiti along the trail. Anarchist, anti-fascist, and anti-racist graffiti could be found every couple miles. Although the Camino is a religious trail, I soon thought of it as the anarchist path through Spain! While cooperatives and anarchism are not always linked, the anti-hierarchical and democratic principles of anarchism are reflected in cooperative structures.
Other hikers noticed this trend, and it opened up space for political conversations. The Camino is very busy during the summer months, so I did not spend any of my time walking alone. In addition, once you reach your day’s destination, pilgrims can stay in a town’s municipal ‘albergue’ (a hostel especially for pilgrims). The trail and albergue are both great places to get to know travelers from all over the world, giving me the chance to strike up conversations about cooperatives with Spanish, Italian, English, American, Irish, and Swedish folks that I met along the way. Turns out the most effective distraction from blisters and aching soles for me is a conversation about the impossibility of ethical consumption under capitalism and our dire need for wealth redistribution!
After enough of these conversations, it seemed clear that Europeans have better exposure to critical economic theory and cooperative business structures than most Americans. Many people that I spoke to from Spain or Italy had familial connections to cooperatives. Those who did not had at least heard of cooperatives and had opinions that I had heard from organizers in the US deeply involved in the cooperative movement. For example, the concept that there are ‘true’ cooperatives as well as those that have gotten too big and compromised their democratic structures.
These conversations are just the beginning of an exploration into how culture affects the strength of the solidarity economy. But so far, I’m loving what I see in Spain!