Article by Rubén Suriñach Padilla (Economist and member of the XES coordinating team)

The author reflects on the concept of “Transformative Economies” and the alliances and strategies they require, as a prelude to the Idearia meeting in Madrid, from June 17 to 19, 2022.

Five years ago, the book «Economías Transformadoras de Barcelona» was published. This publication was based on a research I did for the Barcelona City Council, during 2016 and 2017, to understand and intervene in the existing panorama, at that time, of proposals for a transformative economy in the city. After this time, and before the celebration next June of the Encuentro de Idearia, which will devote an work axis to this topic, I find it interesting to update some aspects of the analysis, especially from a strategic point of view, since, with the worsening of the energy and climate crisis, it is more important than ever to get the lines of action right.

Defining transformative was a challenge then and still is now. In fact, if we refer to its most aseptic meaning, any economic process is transformative (at least from a physical point of view). For those of you with activist vocabulary, the term transformative is sure to refer, rather, to the idea of social transformation. This was our intention in choosing the term: we defined transformative economy proposals as “socio-economic reorganization proposals that introduce points of criticism about the dominant economic framework and formulate proposals for socio-economic change that, to varying degrees, attempt to transform it or mitigate its negative effects.” This umbrella allowed us to put in the same bag proposals as diverse as degrowth, social innovation, the commons economy, the circular economy, the feminist economy or the social and solidarity economy. In the end, the important thing was not the definition, but to generate the pretext to dissect 14 proposals or concepts[1], to understand their origin, their roots in the city and their potentialities and limitations. And, above all, to see which of these proposals could be the basis from which to widen the cracks of capitalism in the city; that is, what could be significant lever points on which to direct, both public policies (from within the institution) and the efforts of socioeconomic self-organization of activist networks.

With the passage of time, after having shared many debates and talks around the contents of the book, always in contrast to my experience in the Xarxa d’Economia Solidària (therefore, in the Catalan context), I would highlight some reflections:

The axis of rotation: the political project of socioeconomic transformation that occupies the centrality (within the ecosystem of transformative economies) is the social and solidarity economy. I dare to make this statement for various reasons. One, because it is the movement that brings together the most grassroots projects of this entire ecosystem, so that it does not move only in the field of ideas or public policies, but is based on self-employment projects with a strategy of building autonomous social markets (only in Catalonia, the scope of the social market is 1,300 companies and entities). Two, because it is the movement with spaces for articulation and political incidence more consolidated, both at the sectoral and territorial level (the XES has around 20 territorial networks and 7 sectoral commissions, in addition to emblematic projects such as the Fira d’Economia Solidària de Catalunya, the Pam to Pam or the Balance Social). Three, because since the political cycle that began in 2015 the SSE has penetrated public policies, both locally and regionally, substantially (there is, for example, a Network of Municipalities of the SSE, which brings together 58 Catalan localities representing more than 80% of the population) and is recognized by a wide spectrum of political parties. In fact, the parliamentary process for a Catalan SSE Law is about to begin, a fact that would allow anchoring, at the legislative level, some of the main advances made in recent years.

World Social Forum of Transformative Economies, held in 2019 in Barcelona
Photo: FSMET

The quadruple alliance: SSE is what it is today, in Catalonia, because it has also been able to recognize its weaknesses and open itself up to improve in its different dimensions (in the practices of companies and entities; in the conceptual and programmatic frameworks; and in the spaces of articulation). As a result of this opening, a hybridization has been crystallizing – and is still ongoing – between the four proposals of transformative economy that, in my opinion, offer an alternative to the most ambitious capitalism: SSE, feminist economics, ecological economics and the economy of the commons (both in its most digital expression, and that linked to the urban and natural commons). XES itself is an expression of this, since it has a commission on ecology, one on feminist economies, one on community management and one on digital commons. In addition, in parallel to this quadruple alliance that operates in a transversal way, the sectoral articulations (agroecology, housing, finance, energy …) are key to equip themselves with tools that enhance each specific area and that, together, reinforce the socioeconomic and socio-political proposal that transformative economies offer to the world.

The fifth element: there is a fifth factor, which defines very clearly the political identity of the proposals and which, in my opinion, delineates the outline of the necessary alliance: anti-capitalism and the defense of the public-common. From the XES we have worked to remove the label of “private or mercantile economy” that is attributed to us, sometimes, from very statist leftist visions. And we have done so by proposing, in addition, new visions of construction of the “public” sphere, not necessarily linked to the State. Hence the importance of the sum of feminist, common and ecological visions, because they demonstrate that, for the effective satisfaction of human needs, it is necessary to combine different spheres in which our life takes place: the biosphere, the domestic sphere, the community, the public-state and, ultimately, the mercantile (and propose measures to decommodify the first four, transforming our relationship, as a society, with all). Precisely, it is from this recognition of the plurality of the economy that the binary vision between State and market (and the associated political projects) can be broken, and generate visions of defense of the public, which understand that the common enemy is capitalism – and that the State can also be capitalist – and that what must be done is to guarantee the coverage of basic needs through defense, opening up and democratising the public-common (through, for example, public-cooperative-community consultation systems). It is exactly in the democratizing and community factor that the SSE – ecologist, commons and feminist – has much to contribute when it comes to building post-capitalist imaginaries – and practices – that overcome the historical binomial.

The outer perimeter: in the book, when analyzing possible strategies to strengthen the ecosystem of transformative economies, he describes different areas on which to work, depending on their proximity or remoteness to the mainstream. The “transaction zone” – the closest to the mainstream – was defined as the space of incidence that allows you to reach institutions and citizens that are difficult to reach by your own means, but that, normally, have counterparts (for example, dilute the discourse so as not to seem too punky, or renounce some aspects of a future SSE law to be able to include more strategic ones). Some would define it as “getting out of the comfort zone.” After a few years, and based on the experience of the XES in a favorable institutional context (therefore, in a phase of expansion and not so much of defense-resistance), the main lesson I draw is to learn to prioritize very well when going out to the outer perimeter. In the middle of the mountain of invitations, conferences, tips, tables and other spaces, one can end up wasting time and energy for nothing. For me, what defines the priority is the ability that these incursions into the outer perimeter have to become important material victories; normative and legislative anchors that consolidate supportive public policies; actions that, by scale or repetition, generate new legitimacies (and not the other way around; that is, that instrumentalize you to reinforce the old legitimacies). To this last effect, in Catalonia, the generalization of the use of social and solidarity economy instead of social economy is a clear example of the change of legitimacy (without losing sight, of course, that SSE remains a minority in economic and social policies).

In summary, I believe that SSE and its networks are a very good basis on which to bring together and articulate the proposals of transformative economy, provided that they maintain the open character to house the diversity of approaches and perspectives (and that they move away, therefore, from being lobbies that represent the interests of their partners). And it is not only necessary, but urgent, as we have entered a long cycle of turbulence, marked by the energy crisis and the climate emergency, which will need levels of social self-organization and mutual aid unprecedented in recent times.

[1] The proposals analyzed were degrowth, the commons economy, the collaborative economy, the social economy, the social and solidarity economy, the feminist economy, the economy of the common good, social innovation, social entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, responsible consumption, community economies, the care economy and the circular economy.