The social economy, between utopia and possible change

To transform the economy so that society changes: this is the goal of hundreds of examples of social economy, born and raised here in Catalonia. We take a look at three of them, with Dídac Costa and the alternative currency ecoseny, Xavi Teis of Coop57 and Aina Barceló from Som Energia.

Somewhere between utopia and a change of economic paradigm, there is a space where the fabric of the economy is being transformed. This space is gaining ground because so many people feel they’ve been pushed out of the system or are simply tired of it, and have decided to change it from the bottom up. These are the people who, little by little, are driving this change. In different fields and with very different personal and professional experiences, we have three examples in Dídac Costa, Xavi Teis and Aina Barceló.

Dídac Costa, specialist in social currencies and one of the people behind the Ecoxarxa Montseny exchange network.
Photo: Eva Guillamet.

Dídac Costa was a sociology student at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) in 1997, when he first heard talk of social currency initiatives in Latin America and the United Kingdom. These currencies took a new approach to the role of money and were to be found at the heart of local exchange networks that aspired to put money at the service of people and not the other way around. Soon after, he started travelling to gain first-hand experience of them: with an Erasmus grant, he went to London and then travelled around Latin America, first to Chile, to learn how exchange networks function in communities that work on an alternative physical currency. Fascinated by them, he studied the various models in existence and wrote about them. “I selfpublished a simple edition of my book Com crear xarxes d’intercanvi a la teva comunitat [How to create exchange networks in your community] in 2001 in Argentina, with my very last savings”, he explains. “With the country in freefall, I got it printed on the cheap in Buenos Aires and went around Latin America with a cart, selling the book.” Then, in 2002, he took an active role in an exchange network in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

With all these experiences in his backpack, he returned to Catalonia in 2004. He introduced a system of local currency to the Xaingra exchange network and helped to start up another one in his neighbourhood. In 2009 he went to live in the Montseny area, where he met a group of people who wanted to set up an ecovillage. He joined them and they ended up organising a network that ran on ecosenys as their own currency. “After three months, we already had a fair with two hundred people, and after eight months there were six hundred of us. This led to the Ecoxarxa Montseny [the Montseny eco-network] which was then replicated in other places”, he recalls.

“It’s a silent revolution, a peaceful and creative one that is transforming the very core of society, which is money”, he believes. “Social currency is one of the paths to revolution. As our hacker friends say, if you use the master’s tools, you will not set yourself free.” And that is why he wants to change the tool. “It’s a social technology that has no limits; the only limits are people’s imaginations and the prisons of the mind.”

Optimism is a duty 

Xavi Teis, economist and person in charge of communication for Coop57.
Foto: Eva Guillamet

On the path to social transformation, the destination is as important as the journey. That’s what Xavi Teis thinks. He is thirty-two years old, an Economist and the communication manager for Coop57, one of the country’s first financial services cooperatives, twenty years old this year and often cited as a model of ethical banking. But Teis reminds us that this is not a bank. “We try to speak about ethical finance”, he says over morning coffee in the Sants district, where Coop57 has its head offices. Xavi Teis is a gifted speaker when it comes to explaining the sphere and the purpose of his activism. “It’s about applying social, environmental and ethical criteria when we decide where to invest the savings of some clients to meet the funding needs of others.”

That is the purpose of Coop57, which arose from the struggle of some of the former workers at the Bruguera publishing house when they were made redundant in the late eighties. With their pot of redundancy money, they set up a contingency fund to help develop self-managed erative projects. Later, they expanded into the social and solidarity economy and have undergone huge growth since the recent economic crisis. “In times of scarce liquidity and financing, we have to provide as many loans as we can to give financial solutions to organisations that carry out vital social tasks”, he explains. “If you want the economy to change, you have to try to make an impact in every sphere”. They support cooperatives in the metals industry and many other areas: regional environmental associations, cultural and educational organisations, etc. 

Teis studied Economics at the UAB. “When I graduated nobody had told me about the social and solidarity economy or about ethical finance”, he says. It was then he discovered ethical banking. He became interested in the subject and volunteered at Finançament Ètic i Solidari, where he worked for three years developing awareness-raising campaigns, until 2013, when he joined Coop57. “I really enjoy it. It’s a very stimulating project, because we try to offer a practical tool for building things we hope will improve the conditions in society.” Teis always talks about it with a smile on his face. He believes in smiling and optimism. “Optimism is a duty nowadays. Because to achieve social change, we also need to be happy.” 

Claiming energy

Biomedical engineer Aina Barceló, one of the activist partners of the Barcelona chapter of Som Energia.
Foto: Eva Guillamet

Aina Barceló’s activism is different from that of Dídac Costa and Xavi Teis. While they have ended up working in areas that are more or less linked to their areas of study, she has got involved in a project unconnected to her education. Barceló is a biomedical engineer and is one of the activist partners in the Barcelona chapter of Som Energia.

This energy services cooperative has undergone spectacular growth in the five years since it was set up in November 2009 on the initiative of a group of former students and lecturers from the Universitat de Girona and other collaborators, who had taken note of other, similar projects in Flanders, France and Germany. Som Energia has expanded as a network across the whole of Spain, but mostly in Catalonia. Today it has almost 23,000 members and 25,000 electricity supply contracts. 

Aina Barceló speaks to us as a spokesperson for Som Energia, but any of its activists could have done so. Because Som Energia is playing in a different league, not that of the big electricity companies: it’s the league of renewable energy, of a commitment to ethical projects and of a democratic corporate structure where word is spread from person to person and publicity campaigns are based locally. 

This is what Aina does: get deeply involved in spreading the word about what Som Energia is and how it works, that it offers competitive prices with customer service, a method of operation and a power supply that are diametrically opposed to those of the big electricity companies. Som Energia is one of the biggest examples of the social economy in Catalonia. That’s why, as Barceló says, the big electricity companies are worried. “Now we are starting to scare them.”

Josep Casulleras

Journalist at Vilaweb

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