Feria de la Economia Social y Solidaria

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Janosch Sbeih:

"I was lucky enough that my stay in Madrid coincided with “La Feria de la Economia Social y Solidaria – Madrid”, a trade fair and convention of the local social and solidarity economy (La Feria, 2014).

This two-day event took place for the second time with the first one being held the year before in 2013. The event offered an interesting crosscut between intellectual debates and presentations, a “social market” that offered sustainably produced local goods and a trade fair in which over 100 organisations related to the Madrilenian social and solidarity economy presented themselves and established connections between each other. For my research purposes, this event proved to be a lucky coincidence as it visualised the diversity of Madrid’s new economy in one focal space. The exhibited organisations ranged from producer and service cooperatives of all sorts to alternative financial institutions, local currency and umbrella networks, research and advocacy groups, fablabs, community projects, and solidarity initiatives.

First of all, I was struck by the diversity of cooperatives which is certainly due to Spain’s historically strong cooperative sector, as for example in contrast to Greece where such a sector and organisational culture needs to be built nearly from scratch. Besides the traditional producers’ cooperatives I find especially remarkable that also the modern 21st century knowledge and service economy begins to “cooperatise”. Examples of such a new kind of innovative cooperatives range from a juridical lawyer’s network that specialises in work and consultancy for the alternative economy and social movements like 15M, over design, communication and market research cooperatives, to a network of therapists who combine psychological and philosophical insights to counsel their clients through these challenging times of change. What I find especially relevant in the current ‘crisis-context’ are the many examples of groups of unemployed individuals who form a cooperative together to offer such services as commercial cleaning, printing, gardening, house and bike repairs, elderly and nursing care, craftsmanship and building maintenance collectively. These cooperatives mostly offer a range of services in a particular sector like building maintenance collectively to have a bigger public image and more appeal to enterprises as an organisation. The groups consist mostly of four to eight individuals and told me that they would take on more people if there was enough work, but they often struggle already to keep their current members sufficiently occupied. Still, it is a good example of how people group together in a crisis to help themselves and each other as they collectively have a higher capacity to “surf the crisis” (Cardoso & Jacobetty, 2012).

The supportive networks to start and sustain a new social enterprise in Madrid are impressive. There are many cooperatives that offer help in setting up new enterprises by providing expertise, working space, legal support and start-up capital. Contrary to the formal economy where credit lending froze up during the crisis, finance institutions in the Spanish social and solidarity economy seem impervious to the global financial crisis and continue to provide loans for projects that correspond to their ethical standards (Conill et al., 2012). This holds true for ethical banks like FIARE as well as credit cooperatives like Coop 57 which held savings of members worth 7 million Euros in 2009 which is projected to rise to 25-30 million Euros in the same quarter of 2014. When I interviewed a bank official at the end of May 2014, he told me that they currently had 8 million Euros in savings that they were willing to lend out to appropriate businesses, but did not have enough viable projects applying. The access to seed finance does thus not seem to be a problem in the Spanish social and solidarity economy. I found it furthermore remarkable how the individual enterprises strive to strengthen the alternative economy through offering services specifically addressed to this particular sector like specialised legal advice or social and solidarity based insurance policies, through the use of the local currency “Boniato” which is mainly used for businessto-business trading, and through umbrella organisations that improve the networking and cooperation between the individual organisations. The individual organisations seem to have a consciousness of wanting to strengthen and expand their sector as they do not move within business-culture of competition but cooperation.

Besides organisations for an ethical and cooperative business culture, la feria featured solidarity initiatives that were both peer-directed and support-initiatives from a wider movement for those most in need. One example that shows an interesting cultural shift in the older generation is that of self-help groups for older workers who lost their jobs. While initiated through younger members of the political movements, it is an interesting development that older members of the working class who delved into an identity crisis through the loss of their occupations are able to break out of their isolation and talk about the emotional aspects of losing their jobs; something remarkable, as the verbal sharing of feelings is usually not common among the male members of that generation. A wider solidarity movement of another kind is that of doctors and health care workers resisting the Royal Decree 16/2012 – a norm comparable to a law but not approved by the parliament – which changed the public health care system by withdrawing coverage from undocumented migrants (Garcia, 2012). The movement “Yo SI, Sanidad Universal” (“YES to Universal Healthcare”) informs doctors and health care workers at private clinics and public hospitals how they can practice civil disobedience against this decree, lobbies the government to revoke it and forms support groups that accompany affected individuals to clinics in case the administrative assistant does not heed the patient (Yo SI, 2014). The solidarity movement and individual actions of doctors and municipal governments have succeeded within a few months to create widespread civil disobedience against this decree (Garcia, 2012). A similar method of support groups helps mortgage-victims resist evictions from their homes and is spreading widely in Spain under the movement of PAH: Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Movement of Mortgage Victims)."