Shoving utopianism in the closet

At the end of last October the United Steelworkers (USW) and the Mondragon Co-operative Corporation, located in the Basque area of Spain, announced an alliance to explore joint projects in the United States. The Mondragon co-operatives are a diverse, transnational corporation with $20 billion in annual revenues and employing over 100,000 people, most of them voting members of the enterprises. And while they have extensive operations in countries like China and Mexico, they own only one small company in the US – a branch of a Spanish company that they purchased some years back.

A collaboration between a large American labor union and a successful and innovative foreign enterprise should have been headline news, but not surprisingly, given the paucity of today’s journalism, it never made the pages of your local paper.

And since their joint statement there has been little public information available. At the time of the announcement the USW made clear that they had no immediate plans to venture into what for both parties was uncharted terrain, and so those who saw great promise in this development have been patiently waiting for some follow up.

A “follow up” of sorts occurred at the beginning of March, this year, when Rob Witherell of the USW spoke at the Western Massachusetts “Jobs with Justice Conference.” Mr. Witherell has been charged with leading the USW team in discussions with Mondragon.

Witherell’s presentation(1) situated the USW/Mondragon discussions within the context of the deplorable economic conditions the US faces and suggested that new thinking along the lines of workers actually managing their workplaces could reverse the trend of industrial decline. Sustainable manufacturing situated in new technologies and worker control, as Witherall outlined, meant that communities eviscerated by runaway corporations, could rebuild with a solid foundation.

Overall the speech presented a dynamic future based on principles of corporate governance and worker collaboration hardly imagined in the US except with a few worker co-operatives, like the ones highlighted in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story.

However, one aspect of his talk seemed not only contradictory to the main thrust of his presentation, but also emblematic of a certain frame of mind that I believe works against our best intentions for change. Here are the two short paragraphs in question:

To start with, let’s always remember that these cooperatives were started and supported not out of some utopian ideal, but rather a very pragmatic means of helping people put a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs and food on their tables. The goal was, and remains, to create jobs that can support their families and their communities.

The success of the Mondragon cooperatives comes from putting people first. Prioritizing people before profits – imagine that. We have become so conditioned to think that companies must prioritize profits above all else, usually for the sake of some group of unnamed, unknown shareholders, that’s is hard for us to imagine any alternative.

The first paragraph above negates a “utopian ideal” that in the second paragraph is explicitly endorsed: “putting people first” before profits.

Further, Witherell suggests that we “keep in mind that [Mondragon] is no utopia.” I fully agree with this sentiment and in fact serendipitously wrote on this theme(2) hours before the USW/Mondragon announcement was released last October. But ideals and facts are two different things.

Without venturing deeply into Fr. Arizmendi’s biography, as the priest who in the 1950’s counseled the five engineers who founded the Mondragon co-operative, most of his contemporaries recognized his quiet charisma. And too, they all knew his library was filled with classic texts of socialism and anarchism along with Catholic social teachings. And I will venture, based on my long-abandoned study of Catholic social thought, that, as we see in Fr. Arizmendi’s Pensamientos, he went far beyond the corporatist teachings of Pope Leo XIII, the so-called “socialist” pope of the 19th Century. If he wasn’t utopian then I don’t walk on my feet.

But this isn’t the point. We are not debating what Fr. Arizmendi wrote or said 60 years ago. The point is that today the term “utopian” is a gratuitous slur meant to show – what? The levelheaded seriousness of the writer? Is “utopian” a codeword for nonsense?

In their book Social Economy(3) Eric Schragge and Jean-Marc Fontan write the following:

Throughout its long history there have always been two competing visions of the social economy. The first can be described as pragmatic/reformist. It regards the social economy as playing a role in the management of individual and group social welfare through initiatives which target and are limited to specific problems and groups, for example agricultural cooperatives or mutual societies. Those promoting these projects are not concerned with changing the social order, but with making changes that would ameliorate specific problems.

A second position links the social economy with fundamental change, or the building of a new society – utopian/social change. Propositions to this end go back as far as … the 18th Century. This voice which was a counter-cultural current was actively repressed or marginalized by the dominant class and supporters of their ideology because their vision and practice constituted an attack on the social order. This perspective can be situated in relations to the traditions of social change movements of the left.

I would argue that today both perspectives need to be incorporated in our work. The pragmatic/reformist is the defensive strategy to cope with a world we have not made, but need to keep at bay, while we build the new society we want to live in. To denigrate vision, utopian ideals, is to relegate the necessity to maintain and practice our ethical beliefs to our Mission Statements. It’s like church on Sundays – hollow principles polished for public display.

I can understand why labor leaders would wish to tame a flamboyant remonstrance of rhetorical excess, though I favor them myself. (I prefer Albert or Lucy Parsons at their most mild exclamations to anything that Samuel Gompers managed to sputter on his podium.) The question of raising hopes beyond delivery, as our current president has shown, cannot be dismissed as besides the point. But to assume that evocations of our suppressed desires amounts to populist pandering and political manipulation is to condemn us to the most petty concerns lacking all motivational insights. The human spirit is not equivalent to a calculator. History would be a pathetic soap opera if that were the case.
Bernard Marszalek
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3.Black Rose Books (Montréal, 2000)

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1 Response to Shoving utopianism in the closet

  1. This is very important information and I certainly have not heard about it through the media. In the U.S. manufacturing will never return to what it was. In some ways we can be thankful for that. The old methods of production were terminally boring, physically dangerous and overwhelmingly toxic. One would like to be glad that those days are gone and we hope that there is a chance for something new to come into being.
    The idea of work itself, who does it and when it needs to be done has to be totally restructured. No one knows what needs to be done or what could be done better than those involved in production. The current danger is more industrial centralization under fewer and fewer corporations that then feel obliged to maximize profits and bring into play constant innovation and planned obsolescence. The planet is becoming one huge junk heap.
    A vision for the future is now more necessary than ever. We must bring our dreams in to play and use play to restructure what we do. I don’t mean that we should try to plan the future because there is no blueprint for the future. Computers and automation mean a population that must either share productive jobs or do something else. Currently, the problem is solved by capitalism paying half of the working class to provide “services,” from law enforcement to spectacular distractions, for the other half stuck in sweatshops and dead-end office jobs.
    I would like to mention that the labor unions in many cases still have quite a bit of money even though they lost much of it, including their pension funds invested in the stock market…they trusted the capitalists and really got burned. It would make perfect sense for unions to invest in co-ops with workers. The Carpenters Union in Chicago at least built their own 20 plus story building employing their own members and probably did better than many unions during the financial meltdown.
    A general principle must be to involve people in the decisions regarding their own lives and futures. My own neighborhood Roger Park is trying participatory budgeting (to vote on how our share of the city budget is spent)…a small step, perhaps one that can be corrupted, but at least some thought has gone into it. Just what does the neighborhood want? What would make our lives better?
    This week I heard John Ross talk about his new book on Mexico City “El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City”…a place that has become a great experiment in human society and survival. Its large population, challenging the capacity of the area, is constantly on the brink of disaster thanks to the social organization of capitalism.
    Capitalism survives because its protean greed makes it adaptable to all conditions. However the suffering and casualties it creates have always been untenable, and all the more as we sit on the brink of ecological and economic disaster. If it is utopian to envision a just society, then utopian we must be.

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