Back at University, my James Joyce professor (an unrepentant Modernist), argued that the first page of a novel was the most important. If people didn’t read that page and enthusiastically turn the page, then the novel was lost. I’m not sure if I agree—I can think of a number of novels that took some time to suck me in, but once in, created an amazing world. However, his belief has left me with a special attention to what a writer or editor decides should go first.
With that in mind, I begin a lengthy series reflecting on the writings of Don José María Arizemendiaretta, The Basque priest who, in pursuit of the simple goal of providing a decent education to working class children, created an democratic economic movement whose best days are yet to arrive, but has already transformed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of humans.
The editors at Mondragon‘s Otalora Management Training Institute (and home to the Arizmendiaretta museum) chose to begin the collection of his quotations, Pensimientos, or Reflections, with the longest tract in the book. The passage describes the ideal that Arizmendi (to use the Americanized version of his name) aspired towards. It is a noble and worthy goal:
“This priest does not consider the broad terrain of human realities outside his purview when what he does and preaches is simply the nature of and the need for a new spirit of justice and love, capable of becoming a tangible reality, made to measure for humankind, and in response to something beyond personal gain, greed, and narrow selfish benefit. In any case we already know on whose side the blind and powerful forces ordinarily are: the people, the masses, which have been, are and will continue to e the majority, will find that they will have on their side no small measure of justice, no small measure of reason and moral force. However, ‘it is not the lack of power but the lack of knowledge’ that impedes the people from raising themselves. It is through this knowledge that we can deduce the perennial words of the messengers of truth that are still applicable today, although some will say that this knowledge does not put food on the table. Messengers are needed, objective messengers are needed, and the discussion must not be so much who is the messenger but what the message says, since this message must be repeated to each generation.”
Worker co-operatives don’t exist simply to engage the marketplace in a more equitable manner. If that is all of the movement’s accomplishment, then the output seems hardly worth the effort. No, the full effect of the worker co-operative model must also be to change the persons involved. This might mean allowing them to heal from the trauma and stress of the investor controlled world (see the World Health Organization’s report with this pdf)
It also means taking the time and energy to help workers and their families become fully realized human beings. It means creating a fully realized person: someone with the education, the leisure and the ability to fully engage in their community. It means overcoming the cynicism created by the alienation of our globalized economy. Those of us in the worker co-operative movement must help our fellow workers break free of the psychic prison that dampens their humanity and allows capital to maintain a place of greater importance than our communities of people.
This is the reason that Mondragon succeeded. Arizmendiaretta did not approach the people of Mondragon as an experiment or as people who would bring him fame. He approached them as a caring human–as their priest (yes), but also as their friend. I think that this quality is also what draws me to him as well. We need to put our ideas into practice. We need to have a better mix at our conferences between the people studying co-operatives and those actually working in co-operatives. The really great ideas that I hear at CASC and ACE will only bear fruit if they gain an audience among the practitioners.
As someone who straddles the worlds of “practitioner” and “academic” or “participant” and “observer”, I find it refreshing to see theories put into practice. This opening quote is not just an ideal for his priesthood, but for any of us who would build the worker co-operative movement.
This is a beginning of a series discussing the worker co-op movement’s “little brown book” the assembled quotations of Don José María Arizmendiaretta