Disobeying the Banks: An Interview with Enric Duran

by Scott Pierpont

Originally published by the Institute for Anarchist Studies

On September 17th, 2008, Barcelona-based anticapitalist Enric Duran announced that he had expropriated 492,000 euros. For several years, Duran took out loans that he never intended to pay back and donated all of the money to social movements constructing alternatives to capitalism. This announcement came with the publication of 200,000 free newspapers called Crisi (Catalan for “Crisis”), with an article explaining Duran’s action, and other pieces offering a systemic critique of the current financial and ecological crises. The action got the attention of tens of thousands of everyday people as well as major media outlets, who soon dubbed Duran the “Robin Hood of the Banks.” Duran left the country to avoid prosecution. The group that published the newspapers formed Podem Viure Sense Capitalisme (We Can Live With Out Capitalism) and began region-wide organizing through their website, http://podem.cat, bringing together debtors, squatters, alternative economy networks, environmentalists, and everyday people to build a large-scale alternative to capitalism.

Duran returned to Spain six months after the announcement to participate in the release of another publication. On March 17th, 300,000 copies of Podem (We Can) were distributed across Spain in Catalan as well as Spanish. Duran announced the publication during a student protest at the University of Barcelona, and was soon after arrested by the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan regional police on charges of “ongoing fraud” that were brought against Duran by 6 of the 39 financial entities he took money from. He spent two months in jail. He is currently free on bail, having had his passport seized and required to present himself before a judge once a week. None of the charges have been formally brought to trial.

Since then, Duran has been organizing with the We Can campaign. Focused on networking and the distribution of information about alternatives to capitalism, We Can connects with thousands of people participating in alternative economy projects. Many use the group’s website, which includes a “Debtors’ Community” where people get practical advice on how to avoid paying their debts. Duran has published a book, Insumisión a la banca (Disobeying the Banks), the proceeds from which go to We Can, and continues to give talks and participate in national networks on degrowth and alternative currencies.

This interview was taped in Barcelona in December 2009.

The announcement of your action (September 17th, 2008, two days after Lehman Brothers went down) coincided with a dramatic moment during the financial crisis. Was the date chosen for that reason?
That was the goal, to coincide with a moment of ferment in the crises. When the action began at the end of 2005, the crisis hadn’t arrived yet. But the question became when to make it public so it would coincide with an important moment in the crisis. The end of my action was part of the plan, my strategy, by the summer of 2007, when the crisis began in the United States. In the end it was made public in September 2008, coinciding with the breakdown of the international financial order. It was a complete stroke of luck because it wasn’t possible to put an exact date, as we needed a month to prepare the publication and organize people to pass it out. It was really a stroke of luck.

And you planned this action for three years?
Planning, no…it was three years of execution. Between 2005 and 2008 I carried out the various parts of this action. There was a period of research at the beginning, of figuring out how to do it, but very quickly I moved on to practice, because practice is the best way of experimenting and learning.

In your book you mentioned that this technique of taking out loans was inspired by someone you met who falsified pay stubs. But you also mentioned Lucio Urtubia and his action against Citibank. Do you consider your action an expropriation, just as Lucio’s action was?
Yes, the principle examples were expropriations carried out in a non-aggressive way, an intellectual way, such as falsification, or taking out loans and not paying them back, as I did. I don’t know of any precedent involving loans in a political way, but I did have the example of that person who had told me about it before. So I guess the example of Lucio inspired my broader conception of expropriation and direct action, as did the examples of civil disobedience like Martin Luther King in the United States, or those in other countries who showed that public, illegal action can have a major impact on social consciousness.

How did everyday people who received the publications Crisis and later We Can respond to your action?
Well, when Crisis came out there was a lot going on and it was widely read…different types of people had heard on television or radio that a strange publication had appeared, and they wanted to find it. And We Can, well, there weren’t as many people seeking it out, but it enabled the people who were a bit interested to find resources and concrete information to utilize in their daily lives. So it didn’t affect as many people as Crisis although it was distributed across the Iberian peninsula. Its focus was on helping people who wanted to act.

Was there a media strategy for this action? Is there a tension between you receiving so much personal attention while We Can promotes collective action?
Media pressure was a necessity for two reasons. On the one hand, it was indispensable to have a lot of people know about my case…it was my protection from police repression. On the other hand, it was to help create a debate, to arouse people’s curiosity, to get people talking. Afterwards…obviously the media always highlights individual figures more than collective ones, above all in social movements. This is something that always happens, and you have to know how to understand and utilize it. Although it’s lower quality information, people can learn about the social aims behind this person and–in this case–behind this type of action. A lot of people became interested in the movement with the publications, which reached a lot of people.

And the money itself, which you gave to various projects, do you think it’s been successful in promoting these sort of collective projects as a resource for social movements?
Yes; at the moment, mostly on the local level. On the level of groups that get together to form consumer cooperatives, to start exchange networks, to live in a social center, to create an alternative media outlet, to start up a project in the countryside. I believe that I’ve contributed to the proliferation of projects like this and helped them gain more local self-organization. Also, I’ve contributed to the Catalan Degrowth Network and other groups across Spain that have been forming recently. After all this, we’re still lacking the capacity to manage and coordinate these structures at a systemic level in order to break with capitalism. We won’t be able to do this with only small projects. With more coordination, it’s no longer just a matter of the impact of actions and consciousness, but also of our capacity and skill when it’s time to organize ourselves.

In the United States, levels of personal indebtedness are very high–personal credit, student loans, mortgages. What is the situation like here in Spain?
Right now, the banks and savings banks have an average loan delinquency rate between 3 and 5 percent, which is already pretty serious, and it could always go higher. Before the crisis it was around 1 percent, and it always seemed like people were committed to paying their loans back, but now that respect is deteriorating little by little as people consider not paying them back. So I think this current situation could also accentuate the financial crisis.

Do you see a weakness in the financial system? Do you think that increasing the number of delinquent debtors is a viable strategy for weakening, or even taking down, capitalism?
The weakness of the credit-based financial system is that it depends on people wanting to go into debt and–more importantly–being committed to paying those debts back, which is what keeps the system in control. If we’re able to create an alternative that extends beyond capitalism, people will see that they have the option of a life that doesn’t involve paying their debts back. This mechanism, this defect, could amplify our capacity to construct alternatives. A lot of people could use loans to set up alternatives and then quit paying them back, because it would be possible to live in a way that is “insolvent” for the system, but “solvent” for the people in these alternative ways of living.

Have people been explicitly inspired by your action, taking out loans without the intention of paying them back in order to promote alternatives?
I think so, because people have asked me how, and I’ve told them…also, people can learn about it through my book without asking me. So, I’m pretty sure it’s being done, but it’s most likely that no one is doing it publicly because that’s safer, with less personal risk. And it’s not only people doing it like that; I think what’s even more common is people who at some point took out loans because they wanted to consume, because they wanted to have a mortgage, whatever–and now they see the utility in doing this to change their lives.

For people from the U.S., can you explain how the financial crisis has affected Spain? Besides We Can, how have social movements responded?
There is a long standing, broad-based movement based on communist and Trotskyist ideas centered around making demands, putting pressure on power, and taking power. Facing a crisis, and in other mobilizations, it focuses on organizing what we can call “revolutionary subjects” and getting into the streets, building mass movements…that’s what they’re always trying to do. I think this is relatively limited and doesn’t have the capacity to extend itself, as more and more people get tired of being pulled along by mass movements as just a number. I think there’s more success in proposals that take the route of personal change, changing values, coherence between ways of thinking and ways of living, constructing alternatives in distinct parts of one’s life, and other ways of living. This was going on earlier as a result of the antiglobalization movement, but now that the crisis has worsened it’s attracting a lot more people and more projects are developing. Another interesting thing to point out is that debtors, especially people with mortgages, are facing a problem without a solution and are organizing to put pressure on the banks. We try to support them, not only to pressure the banks, but to take advantage of this situation to leave capitalism. But for people without a previous commitment to social movements, it’s more attractive to pressure, mobilize, and find a solution that’s not so radical…your normal life stays how it was.

What’s is the current extent of social democracy (health care, welfare) in Spain? How do these state programs interact with the goals of self-management and autonomy?
Let’s see, what’s free? Health care is free for citizens, including the unemployed. Education and textbooks are free or inexpensive. Transportation is expensive although it’s public. There is public media, and a few other things. Grants generally have the effect of limiting the freedom of projects attempting to construct alternatives, so groups truly interested in social transformation try to avoid them. In Barcelona or in other large cities there are a lot of groups that function without grants, although perhaps in smaller towns there are more. So you could say that there is a large autonomous movement here, outside of the administration of the state and the market.

Moving on to your current efforts, what is the group We Can?
We Can Live Without Capitalism is a platform that started as a campaign to help everyone who wants to take their first steps, or next steps, in taking capitalism out of their lives. This is done by distributing information about experiences that can function as examples, and by putting people in contact with projects or people who want to participate in projects. We have to make a path out of capitalism collectively. Basically, we dedicate ourselves to compiling information in publications, distributing them, organizing meetings so people can meet one another, and organizing campaigns such as the bank users’ strike, or others that make people’s local work easier.

We Can works in a lot of different areas–alternative food systems, the bank users’ strike, the neo-rural movement–what do you consider to be the most important?
Let’s see…numerically, I’d say that it would be the work around banks, since a lot of people can participate on an individual level. Alternative economy projects are clearly important for social transformation, because the alternative economy cuts across all of the other alternatives and is the way to create alternatives in daily life. Lately, work on re-population [moving from cities to live and/or squat in rural areas] has been attracting a lot of people because it’s a way of organizing people to the countryside. It’s also connected to work around the cession of lands [“right to use” agreements recently legalized by the Catalan regional government] for agricultural production.

And what’s been the most successful?
Well….it’s still early to say. As I was saying, what we have success with is the self-organization of people; We Can doesn’t have a lot of projects of its own, but we’ve helped in creating a lot of projects, in assisting people to start their own…I think this is an important project. At one time the bank users’ strike was successful, above all in getting money deposited in ethical banks. Like I mentioned, there have been a lot of local projects: alternative economy projects, consumer cooperatives, exchange markets, re-population projects….

What are the historical and theoretical inspirations for We Can?
Historical…well, a reference that’s very present here is the attempt at an anarchist revolution, and everything that came before the Spanish Civil War, which was a process of challenging the system at that time, producing ever-increasing levels self-management, self-organization, and life outside of capitalism. But later there is a second reference, the squatter movement and the whole movement for the self-management of daily life that came out of the 1980s and 1990s on a small scale. I think that the current decade has seen a boom in these movements in a lot places, but especially here in Barcelona. So sometimes We Can feels like the creation of a new theory, one that has a lot of references in other projects that are going on locally, but less in earlier history, which is unknown to a lot of people.

How are decisions made within We Can?
Well We Can is, above all, a space for coordination that facilitates work in networks among people and groups, so our tasks are very practical. Then there are responsibilities to carry out for the distinct areas of work, mostly putting people in contact and providing tools. It functions with a lot of autonomy: there are very small work groups that have meetings among themselves, but there are few large meetings except for the occasional autonomous assembly to draw up a plan for what we want to work on and how we want to do it. After that, there’s a lot of trust in people finding one another, day in and day out…it’s a very decentralized way of doing things.

While it’s difficult to avoid speaking in demographic terms, what parts of the population does We Can work with?
It’s a diverse group of people; generally people in the large cities tend to be young, and in smaller towns we work with older people, middle-aged people as well. Often it’s neo-rural people, or people who expressly moved to the countryside and stayed in touch with social movements. Also, there’s the specific experience of our work with debtors and people affected by banks, so we interact with people who don’t have any relationship to social movements, people of all ages, which is distinct from the people active in other parts of We Can.

How many people are involved in alternative economic networks, if not with We Can specifically?
It’s hard to say. Out of 6.5 million inhabitants in Catalonia there are probably 100,000 or 150,000, but that’s just a guess. It’s hard to know because we’re only scratching the surface…some of the people we’re in touch with have other relationships, but others don’t. We have about 4,000 or 5,000 direct contacts.

How has We Can extended outwards? Or, put another way, why is it concentrated in Catalonia?
Well, it’s been progressive. Before We Can there was the Degrowth Network that we started in Barcelona and then extended to all of Catalonia. Later, with the We Can Live Without Capitalism publication we started to work pretty much continually with people across the Iberian peninsula as well as with people from across the world. This is “spiral politics,” where there are more ties at the local level, and it extends progressively outwards with less and less ties. So the reason that it’s happened here is perhaps because Catalonia–within Europe or within the Iberian peninsula–has a lot of social movements, but we don’t pretend to be connected with all of them.

A lot of organizing is done through your participatory website. How many people use it? Is We Can explicitly informed by Web 2.0 or network organizing, in technical terms?
Yeah, we use the website as a space for working in networks, a space for debate, for making some decisions among people working together on a project. The online forms especially have made it easier for people to get their information to us, and we’ve been able to put people in contact based on that. We also receive a lot of email: generally 10 to 20 different people write us directly each week with questions, ideas, doubts. Compared with the number of projects we’re organizing directly, that’s a lot.

Is We Can criticized by other social movements?
There’s a lot of criticism here, but little of it is made public. The concept of degrowth–and consequentially We Can is criticized by some, such as Marxists and insurrectionists who criticize the theoretical foundation of degrowth in France. But they’re criticizing something distinct from what’s happening in Catalonia. And, in terms of concrete critiques…well, there are some internal debates, and criticism toward everything, but few are made public.

What is degrowth?
Degrowth is a current of ideas coming out of France since the beginning of the decade that’s been clearly influenced by the international ecology movement, as well as the critique of developmentalism and the West’s colonization of the world, of pensée unique. It criticizes economic growth for growth’s sake and exponential growth. Taking into account that continued growth is impossible, it proposes a “welcomed degrowth” or a “pleasant degrowth.” That is, a transition to a more locally oriented society, a society with more community, less impact on the environment, less consumption, less work, more free time, and a set of values that encourage social redistribution and balance with the planet.

What does the degrowth movement do in Spain?
The degrowth movement tries to create practices related to these ideas, and tries to encourage and support the practices that already happen spontaneously and autonomously. A lot of the work is coordination among movements, among political currents, and trying to build a focus on a comprehensive transition so it’s not each issue related to alternatives to capitalism being worked out in isolation. We don’t focus on grand theoretical alternatives, but rather on spaces for coordinating practical alternatives to capitalism that will have to come together day in, day out, so that we can take steps to free ourselves from the current system.

Is the degrowth movement concentrated in big cities, or is it a neo-rural, back-to-the-land movement, or both?
There’s this interesting coexistence between important activities happening in rural areas, especially among neo-rural people, and activities in urban areas–mostly encouraging debate, but also promoting alternatives in cities. There’s a rich exchange, a complementary exchange, between what’s happening in rural areas and urban areas.

In your opinion, what does the discourse of degrowth contribute to social movements, especially those that have come from the Left tradition that has always demanded more? What does it mean, in a way, to demand less?
Looking beyond degrowth, and taking a perspective that’s pragmatic and trusting of the capacity for self-organization, I’d say that in Spain–and above all in Catalonia with the Degrowth Network and We Can–we forget to take a pragmatic perspective on autonomy and leaving capitalism. In this sense degrowth contributes a constructive perspective, one of coordinating many alternatives without abandoning demands, above all demands that lead to a transition to another society, such as controlling land and public transportation, and having renewable energy. Any number of demands can be made–not in a reformist way, but rather so that things can be recovered and collectivized for the people. So up to this point, the construction of alternatives is what’s being advanced. There’s still a long way to go in constructing systematic alternative economies, but when the movement is stronger, it will be able to have an impact on the common resources that will need to be recovered for society.

What is a counterhegemonic economy?
This is a term we’ve created to describe an economy that’s not only an alternative to capitalism, but rather an economy that starts out coexisting with capitalism, then tries to organize itself to take advantage of capitalism in order to leave it. It’s a transition economy that starts out without hegemony, but has the goal of achieving hegemony–it’s something very small that’s transformed into a large impact. So it isn’t organized as if capitalism didn’t exist, but rather it takes what it can from capitalism in order to construct something else.

Do you think that counterhegemonic economies are the best revolutionary strategy?
I don’t know if it’s the best strategy, but I think it’s necessary. Any strategy for transformation has to include the capacity to construct ways of living outside of capitalism before any revolution. That’s to say: We have to live how we think, we have to live how we believe, we have to construct experiences and micro-societies that demonstrate in practice that our ideas are viable. From there we can go on to collectively convince an important part of the population. It’s clear that there might be a conflict at some point–it’s more than likely that it will be necessary at the end–but we can only win this conflict if we’ve already constructed wide-reaching ways of living that are different. Because if we haven’t, if we win in a so-called “elite revolution,” then life will still be capitalist and ego-driven because people will not have changed their values. This is the first step we have to take, and it’s a fundamental strategy for social change.

How can these spaces of life outside of capitalism, of non-capitalist life, transmit the best of these experiences to people who still have lives dictated by work and rent?
By showing that people can live better lives this way, that these projects really solve people’s problems. Showing that it’s easier to find work in the alternative economy than in the official economy, that it’s easier to find housing in the alternative economy than in the official economy. When these are solutions, a lot of people will sign up. One real, practical example is worth more than a thousand words. That’s the idea…

Are there contemporary examples anywhere in the world of an economy that’s not alternative, but counterhegemonic?
Well, there are examples that incorporate parts of that, especially in Latin American countries, such as the Zapatistas or the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil. They’re mostly in rural areas, with indigenous people and campesinos participating. There are fewer alternatives in urban environments, and I think that it’s fundamental to construct examples of alternatives that function in cities, project that show that this transition can happen in large cities. This is a priority for us now.

Finally, any suggestions for social movements in the U.S.?
Well, work together in networks and organize yourselves…and don’t think of only your small group or project, because you can go a lot further if you coordinate and communicate with other groups. If you work in a network, many people can apply what one person or group has learned. And if you have a serious commitment to social change, it’s really important to dedicate part–or all–of your time to working in a network with lots of other groups.

Scott Pierpont is a translator and alternative-media enthusiast based in Philadelphia, PA. He can be reached at scott.pierpont@zoho.com.