‘Power to the People’ Looks Like Worker Co-Ops and a Culture of Ownership

“The cooperative movement is sustained by a spirit of open solidarity.” (#434)

New movements like the American Solidarity Party are regrouping after 2020 and starting to prepare for the challenges and opportunities of the 2024 election cycle. It is now a great time to reconsider the fundamentals of solidarity principles. Other movements around the world offer examples and experiences that can be evaluated for successes, failures, and lessons learned. A new book offers updated insights into one of the most successful solidarity-related movements, the Mondragon Cooperative. Economically, Mondragon is a modern powerhouse: its corporate revenue is over $10B per year. But the movement started small, with its founding priest Josemaria Arizmendi and a small community in the Basque town of Mondragon in 1956.
Mondragon developed as a worker-owned manufacturing company based around a technical college, combining education, practice, and social responsibility. Starting with basic space heaters, the organization rapidly branched out into other economic areas, including consulting, engineering, and insurance. But this book is not about history!
This book offers the reader a simple and direct approach to capturing the spirit of the Mondragon movement: a well-categorized, easily digestible collection of quotable thoughts, sayings, and insights from Arizmendi himself. The sayings in the book are categorized and numbered for easy reference. Distilled from a much larger academic collection, the proverbial approach makes it effortless to dive into the ideas behind Mondragon. The book is excellent for those attempting to comprehend what solidarity economics might look like in the modern world.
Cooperatives, as defined in the context of this book, are worker-owned businesses. “A cooperator is not just a worker but a business owner.” (#488) Labor and people are valued over capital (#449), meaning that actual human beings drive the purpose of the organization. They have strong principles beyond maximizing profit. They aim to support and develop their workers and their communities in a broad sense, including education and general well-being. Arizmendi notes that this should lead to greater efficiency and quality in production (#466). Cooperatives integrate with other economic structures, including paternalistic, capitalistic, or socialist, as the external environment may be (#464). But cooperatives strive toward the goal of a better social order, collaborating with other systems as needed in pursuit of justice and development (#432). To this point, he notes that in our modern systems, whether leaning capitalist or socialist, workers commonly end up in a stationary position of placing and pushing demands on their employers. Thus, they are tempted to avoid their own personal responsibility for the development of the community (#124).
The book is not rich in detail about Arizmendi’s vision for practical business structures and processes, but quite a few hints are there. Organizations need to attract and retain managers and highly qualified professionals who have a great responsibility to the ideas promoted by the organization (#482). These ideas include the doctrines and sense of justice of the organization and its supporting community. General assemblies are prioritized (#477), and incompetent authorities can be removed from their positions (#474). The structure should be transparent and capable of tapping top professionals, technologists (#484), and merchants (#481).
But corporate structure is not the point. The point is to serve the needs of the community. In Arizmendi’s view, work serves the community and the worker in collaboration with God (#263, #264), intelligently cultivating nature and advancing all of humanity (#276). Thus, cooperativism proposes a profound change in the popular notion of what the workplace is about. Superficial changes and reorganizations are not enough. Arizmendi is proposing a philosophical recategorization of the office! Cooperativism is rather about changing the nature and social function of the companies and businesses that surround us (#452).
Now movements like the ASP are not simply economic. They are proponents of a broader notion of human dignity, interaction, and purpose that incorporates many other aspects of life. While Arizmendi the cooperator is most famous for Mondragon and its economic successes, the book shows that Arizmendi the thinker has much to offer social movements in multiple areas.
Arizmendi describes a cooperative notion of education in which learning is not simply about job training but investing in the future of the community. He sees education as more important than other aspects of one’s place in life, and the success of children in the future as the legacy of the systems of the day at hand. Arizmendi repeatedly makes the case that resources at hand should be used to build toward objectives that may be in the distant future, and the role of education in this vision is no exception. Thus, education is primary for community (#216), and it is worth making sacrifices for. Any lack of education can be disastrous for the community, because he views ideas and healthy mindsets as being as important as the physical resources used to sustain society. Even outside the classroom, society must support families and children. He laments that as the society around him modernized, children’s needs were not taken seriously, even though entertainment for adults such as sports stadiums were prioritized (#58). It may be difficult for the modern reader to conceive of this as being an ongoing problem, as property planning today makes no account for such matters at all.
Stringing together the themes brought out in the book, it is clear that Arizmendi’s view on education is tied to moral formation, and both are connected to cooperative ideals, but none are subjected to another. Rather, they are all part of a philosophy of a working today for a better tomorrow by positively forming souls and consciences (#210). These souls must be trained and strengthened for a new world, wherein resilience in hope is the mark of adulthood, rather than other personal achievements or luxuries (#131). The loss of moral sense and strong consciences, thus, is the end of the road for good social institutions, as these depend immediately on the quality of the people that constitute them. He notes that these facts are typically ignored in conversation about the quality of institutions, but he emphasizes moral valuation as more important than organizational structure many times in the text. Evil inclinations that are part of the human experience are epic personal challenges that are more critical than administrative issues, up to and including constitutional law (#215). In his estimation, the moral law protects people from both decadence and the consequent loss of material goods (#141), so one cannot be exchanged for the other.
The solution identified by Arizmendi is to tap into the natural law to recognize human imperfection, and the importance of reason and societal connections to remedy the myriad human limitations that constrain our development (#151). Thus, proper “loyalty to conscience” is critical to unearthing the human dignity and equality at the core of societal values and good social institutions (#150). Humans, fully recognized as intelligent, free, and responsible for others must then be the center of social structures, especially cooperatives (#27), which support these human attributes. People are imperfect, but are capable of improvement (#40), and have an intrinsic connection to long-term and even eternal perspectives (#53). His thesis is that these attributes of the human person can be augmented by education, formation, cooperation, and good institutions, and that this is the whole point (#10)!
The publisher hosted a virtual launch party for the book that also offered valuable insights from scholars and practitioners of cooperative economics, and I want to acknowledge some of these thoughts and their important interpretive value for readers. First, solidarity economics will be the work of decades, and it belongs to future generations. Thus, it cannot simply look to the past. This book allows for a timeless and forward-looking attitude. It enables the reader to propose new approaches and not simply dwell on the situation in Europe in the 1950s. This is important, as the founders of successful new cooperatives will have to draw in workers and students who may be uninterested in the history of Spain!
One gap in the edition is that it will be difficult for English readers to find out where to go next. The book references a greater collection of Arizmendi’s writings, but it is only available in Spanish. The history of the movement is fascinating and is part of an inspiring response to the political conflicts in post- civil war Spain, which epitomized the struggles between far-left and far-right movements around the world. Just as Arizmendi himself narrowly escaped unharmed from the civil war, Mondragon steadily grew and expanded without attracting much notice from the major world powers. Somehow, it became the 80,000+ employee-owned cooperative that exists today, while only recently making connections with workers in the U.S.
Overall, this book is a helpful and comprehensible guide to a body of ideas that worked. It may also help to build a common language for talking about these issues, as the definitions, concepts, and conjectures are clear. While the success of Mondragon is an impressive story, and it may become interesting to see the growth of similar cooperatives in the U.S., it may be more interesting to apply these principles to new areas. How can these ideas improve city planning, school boards, and other small government deliberations? Can they be used for non-economic civic organizations, which have varying levels of connection to business and government? What do they tell us about working inside the existing two-party system as opposed to trying something completely different? These are the kinds of things that new parties and movements should be talking about in a very broad context.
The new book is a retranslation of a small-run prior edition and is the only work of Arizmendi available in English. It was translated by a cooperative in Madison, WI and is licensed under Creative Commons. It will be available from Solidarity Hall in the fall of 2021, and a downloadable pre-print is already available from the web site (https://solidarityhall.org).

“Our ideal as cooperators must be the realization of authentic solidarity as God wishes…” (#459)


By Justin Wozniak

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