Can Mondragon Really Happen Here?
The Great Recession has brought renewed interest in worker cooperatives in the United States. It has also generated a lot of interest in Mondragon as an example of how to move worker coops beyond small shops and into the big time. The number of people who tour Mondragon is staggering. It has increased to a level where they need to manage the traffic flow. People come away very impressed with what they created but is it something that can really be replicated over here? The people in Cleveland are giving it a go and even Mondragon has made an agreement with the US Steelworkers to try and create something along the Mondragon model in the US. However, I think that whatever industrial coop base arises in the US will need to look beyond Mondragon. As I will discuss over the next couple of posts, we may even need a renewed period of syndicalism to achieve the distributist vision of Arizmendiaretta.
I bring this up for three reasons:
1) I just finished Jobs of Our Own by Race Matthews who calls for a new distributism movement and cites Mondragon of the example in the world of how a distributist economy/society would work. Of course, Matthews also takes about how other cooperative models fall into the Rochdale cul-de-sac and the Agency Dilemma while also pointing out that even Mondragon has some Agency issues of their own.
2) My friend and colleague, Rebecca Kemble recently toured Mondragon. She made a very quick post on Facebook with the following description:
“Today our group of cynical, competitive Americans walked into the Star Trek episode, “Errand of Mercy,” our Basque hosts cleverly disguised as Organians, patiently waiting for us to “get it.” What other explanation for a society with a long history of oppression and violence in which, of the 33,000 members in their worker coops, only 3 people have been fired in 50 years, nobody has left except to retire, and the fact that they will not produce anything that will be used in military or nuclear equipment is so “self-evident” (their words) that it they hardly dignify the question with discussion and they haven’t bothered to write it down in policy anywhere? Members of our group keep asking questions about rules, laws, accountability structures, and how they punish and control individuals and co-ops that don’t fall into line with expectations. Mondragonians look at us as if we’re 5 years olds who haven’t learned the first thing about getting along with other people, dialogue, respect or trust. They are speaking a language that even the most enlightened and progressive folk in our group find it difficult to grasp, because the society in which we live is so heavily determined by class, race and gender inequity, and our government and business structures are so corrupt, driven as they are by the demands of capital. We have a loooooooooong way to go in the worker co-op movement in the US to attain anything like the integrity, openness and honesty that pertain in the Mondragon Cooperatives.
3) The Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives will be meeting at their annual retreat this week to discus the big ideas facing our movement in the US.
Today, I want to focus on one of the key differences between Mondragon and the world. I will also discuss the role of Agency in the United States (especially when it comes to community development and anti-poverty efforts) and finally discuss how we might start building a distributist society through a combination of distributist and syndicalist efforts. I invite people to jump into this conversation. Please post a comment and if your comment goes more than a couple of hundred words, then please register and ask me to assign you contributor status.
It is easy to fall in love with Mondragon. It can also be easy to criticize them for not living up to the ideals of US intellectuals. But to answer the question, “Can we create Mondragon in the United States?” we need to consider some to the historical discussion. The first consideration responds to Rebecca’s comments by discussing the concept of Basque exceptionalsim.
The Basque people populate six provinces (two in France and four in Spain) in the Pyrenees mountain chain. They have lived there almost forever. This culture existed prior to the indo-Europeans. Some have even suggested that they are the fabled “Thirteenth Tribe of Israel”. The name for their people Euskerra simply means those who speak Basque. The Basque historically met under a tree in Guernica as the seat of their government. One of their primary goals in life has been to be left to govern themselves. This has been difficult due to their occupying a major trade route from Africa through the Iberian Peninsula and into northern Europe. In fact, as noted shipbuilders and sailors, the Spanish Armada set sail from Bilbao and it is likely given that I am “Black Irish” on my father’s side, that part of my lineage is from a Basque sailor rescued from the sea in 1585! Abutting the Basque is the medittereanean port of Barcelona, which had and still has a rich and vibrant history of anarchism and promoting the rights of the worker. This would not have been lost on the Basque especially during the civil war.
The point of all of this is that Mondragon is a Basque organization whose mission is to create and maintain jobs for the Basque. The worker-members share a common culture based on their historic ideal of self-governance and solidarity as well as a common religion (Catholicism). A religion that, despite its failings, has a strong commitment (at least in their teachings) to education, the value of human life, and the value of work. The Basque also have a strong commitment to education. The Jesuit Order was founded by the Basque general turned priest Ignatius Loyola—who took his vows at the church overlooking Oñati just south of Arrasate (Mondragon). It was the Jesuits who fought against slave holders in South America seeking, instead, to create farmer collectives among the Guarni and thereby save their souls. The movie, The Mission, uses this struggle for worker and human rights as the backdrop for its story.
Finally, the role of Franco’s fascism and his Phalange Party cannot be dismissed. Had Franco lost the Spanish Civil War, Don José María Arizmendiaretta likely would have been assigned to Bilbao instead of Mondragon. A more liberal government might have created educational opportunities for the children of the working class and the specific conditions that gave rise to the FAGOR plant may never have materialized. Even so, by the time that Mondragon had formed, the economic vitalisty of the Phalange had already begun to wane. The Communists had re-grouped in the south and the Anarchists had reorganized in Barcelona. Franco simply had too many distractions to worry about a crazy priest and a group of people that could easily be called “entrepreneurs.”
We cannot dismiss the exceptional role that the Basque region and Spanish history played in the creation of Mondragon.
While the Basque certainly had some unique things going for them, we must also recognize the difficulties facing us in the United States when it comes to worker cooperatives. While the Basque live in a culture that goes back thousands of years and value the Basque community, the English speaking countries have a very different culture especially in how it relates to the value of humans and their work. While, like the Federation in Star Trek, we may think that we have it all figured out, we need to take a hard look at our own culture to see why creating something like Mondragon will be such a struggle.
The next post will talk about how US culture (and perhaps that of the Americas as well) has created significant barriers to creating a workplace like Mondragon.