Barcelona’s Solidarity Economy Festival, also known as My Happy Place

So far on my Watson, nothing has happened in its planned order. Basque Country came before Barcelona and Barcelona stretched into a two-month stay (sorry Andalucia). However, I recently found myself in exactly the right place at the right time. My last full weekend in Barcelona happened to coincide with the city’s Fira d’Economia Solidària de Catalunya (FESC), making me a cooperative researcher standing in the middle of a in a large exposition room packed with the worker-owners of Barcelona’s cooperatives. Sidenote: if you feel like practicing a new language, go to a conference in a foreign country where you absolutely cannot resist talking to someone at every single booth.

FESC was the physical manifestation of everything that I’ve learned to associate with the alternative economy in Catalonia: a bounty of worker cooperatives, local currencies, hip young families sporting activist-chic fashion (think t-shirts that read ‘Rage Against the Patriarchy’), four story-posters calling for the release of the ‘Jordi’s’, radical literature, and last but not least, beer. It also included circus performers because why not?

The fair was held in Fabra i Coats, a factory-turned-community center which I was happily surprised to find included a room named after Micaela Chalmeta, a famous figure in Barcelona’s solidarity economy history with whom I share both a name and a love for cooperation.

The fair was organized by XES, or Xarxa d’Economia Solidària, an organization that supports the growth of Catalonia’s solidarity economy which they define as a respectful economic system that prioritizes people and the environment through democratic enterprises that work with horizontality, transparency, equity, and participation. For more on the term ‘solidarity economy,’ I would recommend Matt Noyes’ piece that outlines its history and key values.

I was able to sit down with Ruben Suriñach Padilla who works on XES’s Balanç Social, a social audit that measures and evaluate the social and environmental impact of the network. We talked for about an hour about everything from the “masculinization of power” on coop boards to social currencies to local leftist politics. Ruben explained that within Barcelona’s ecosystem of alternative economics, XES takes on the critical role of connecting different players across the political spectrum (well across political left, let’s be honest). With over 200 member organizations, XES provides a common network between “purely anti capitalist,” local groups and democratic businesses. “We are creating a movement that can have a very strong professional structures but also very active social base that is experimenting in community economies.”

Ruben also outlined the development of institutional support for the social and solidarity economy after the indignados movement of 2011. “The indignados movement resulted in a big explosion of consciousness,” Ruben said. This led to the rise of Podemos and other alternative political parties. In 2015 they won local elections in Barcelona and Madrid, and the Network of Municipalities for the Social and Solidarity Economy was born.

Ruben at the Grup Ecos Coop Co-working Space

To better understand the role of governmental support in this alternative economy, I spoke (in Spanish!) with Ester Vidal Pujol-Xicoy, the Director of the Economia Cooperativa, Social i Solidària i Consum department of Barcelona’s city council. Ester has been worker with cooperatives for 23 years, and now she works to understand and amplify the social and solidarity economy with the resources of the Ajuntament de Barcelona. Her department supports groups such as cooperatives, mutual aid networks, unions, collaborative economy businesses, community gardens, and pro-commons groups.

Ester at the Ajuntament FESC booth

Ester introduced me to the city’s Pla d’Impuls, an impetus plan to boost the solidarity economy between 2015 and 2019. The city has designated 24 specific objectives grouped into six lines of action: mentoring and training, finance, inter-cooperation, communication and narrative, facilities and resources, and territorialisation and community action. Overall, the plan dedicates over €24 million for a more ‘plural’ economy with fairer economic relations. However, Ester was very clear in explaining that the people make cooperatives, not a government administration. The Ajuntament can create instruments and resources in solidarity of this movement, but they do not create coops. The theory is that sustainable development is bottom-up at its core with support from larger institutions.

So, I have a few points to sum up what I learned at FESC:

  • What’s happening in Catalonia is exceptional
  • Organizations like XES rock and are necessary for the growth of this movement
  • Barcelona is all about its neighborhoods and local solutions to larger issues
  • Catalan parents interested in the solidarity economy have hip haircuts and cute kids
  • Cooperative artisanal breweries are a staple of the solidarity economy
  • Events for the solidarity economy should inspire participation in the solidarity economy. And what better way to do that than to make them FUN. I’d like to see more circus performers please.

And finally, events like FESC help “make visible the invisible” (an idea shared with me by Marc, a worker-owner at La Ciutat Invisible and inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities). Often, we only see the homogenic vision of a city imposed by capitalists. But underneath that, there is a pluralistic and fairer economy subverting that paradigm.

Does your city have an event like FESC? What ways have you seen invisible economies exposed?

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2 thoughts on “Barcelona’s Solidarity Economy Festival, also known as My Happy Place

  1. Michaela:

    Your father forwarded your blog. Wow, what an amazing experience you are having! It was so much fun to read about what you are learning and considering. Have fun!

    Scott Silk


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