Spanish lessons – how Spain came to lead the world on the social economy

I had the chance to visit Spain recently, to take part in an event with Spanish worker co-operatives under the auspices of the national network and Co-operatives Europe. The Spanish co-operative sector has always been vibrant and colourful, but the way in which it has stepped up in the aftermath of economic crisis and the credit crunch is instructive and inspiring.

The roots of co-operatives in Spain are as diverse as the country and its regions. One of the most celebrated of founding parents, though not the only one, is the visionary priest and thinker Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta. His reflections are well worth reading and nicely set out on a website to mark the anniversary of his birth. An example of the ambition of his reflections, which kickstarted the Mondragon Co-operative Corporation is: 

“The idea is to institutionalize honesty. Better yet, the idea is to institutionalize human greatness.”

In 2011, the co-operative sector joined forces with a wider range of social organisations to back a new law, Law 5/2011 of 29th March on the Social Economy. This law defined the sector and gave visibility to its actions in the context of economic stress. Included were co-ops alongside mutual insurance societies, employee share owned companies, fishermen’s guilds, disability associations and foundations. The key principles across all were:

  • Priority of people and social objectives over financial capital
  • Internal and social solidarity
  • Independence from public authorities.

The organisation CEPES is the voice for the social economy at a national level, giving the social economy a far higher profile in government economic and business decision making. It is what in the UK we have been tiptoeing towards, in the form of our successful Social Economy Alliance.

The true power of the social economy combined is economic as much as it is policy and political. The Spanish social economy covers 44,563 businesses with a turnover of 151 million euros, employing (directly and indirectly) 2,215,000 people and linking up 16,528,000 people as members. 

The moral? 

For me, the Spanish movement teaches us that there is always one more way you can co-operate, one more step you can take, one more way in which you can be great.

3 thoughts on “Spanish lessons – how Spain came to lead the world on the social economy

  1. Ed,

    I am in the process of writing a new book on Co-operatives. I am wondering whether you have any detailed studies on the extent to which particularly worker owned co-operatives are more efficient than equivalent capitalist enterprises. I have some of the general details, such as the 10% outperformance of worker owned enterprises in the UK as against FTSE 100 companies, as well as some historical material.

    If you have any such material it would save me a lot of time, trawling through sources and data. Appropriate recognition would, of course, be given in the book when published.

    • The work of Virginie Perotin at the University of Leeds is outstanding on the evidence for success among worker cooperatives – with more success for those that are more participative. As ever, it shows that it is not simply employee ownership of the business in formal terms that counts, but how you can act democratically in the workplace to make employee ownership count.

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