The Workers' Paradise A Discussion of Workers Cooperatives and Building the New Economy

January 2, 2017

A New Year with Feathers

Filed under: Year of the Co-op — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 3:04 pm

The coming year brings, as always, hope. Given the rhetoric of the last year, that might seem a rather odd statement, but even if you feel that the abundance of hope has diminished, it still exists.

Indeed, in some of the darkest hours, hope has moved people through cooperation to create great things. On the craggy shores of Newfoundland in a place where in the 1920’s “the Great Depression” simply meant a normal life. Father Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady worked with the people to create economic opportunity and power. In a small industrial basque town under the iron heel of the fascist Falange Party and its Caudillo, Franco, a Jesuit priest, José María Arizmendiarietta, spared execution founded a small school for the children of workers which would eventually give rise to the much-lauded Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. In 1843, when Capitalism was truly unfettered with children laboring 12 hour days and any resistance met with imprisonment or forced relocation to Australia, workers and socialist came together in a small textile mill town to form the first modern-era cooperative store, Rochdale Society of Pioneers, known today simply as The Co-operative.


Hope is the Thing with Feathers

by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.


Hope, of course, does little without action. As we venture into the future, we must have hope, but also resilience and the willingness to act.

Rochdale, Antigonish, and Mondragon came into being through the hard work of their creators and members. They did it often in spite of the lack of political power held the participants.

So, too, we can take our worker co-op movement in the US and Canada and everywhere to new levels. Keeping our hopes alive through our individual efforts to support and build co-operatives along with raising the awareness of co-operatives must be our mission for the coming years. We need to truly make this the Cooperative Decade.

I am planning on returning to a weekly post on this site (along with urging you as a co-operative activist to join in posting your thoughts–just sign up and send me an email that you want to be a contributor). I also plan on writing each of my elected officials from my council person in Olympia to the President pertaining to the role of co-ops in his/her district, why these models are important, and how they can further support their constituents to engage in mutual self-help. I will post the letters here (and I will post yours if you send them to me with permission to post).

It is a bit fitting that the Chinese New Year (beginning with the New Moon on January 28th) is the Year of the Rooster. While there are many interpretations, let’s simply use the phrase, “the early bird gets the worm”–hard work and attention to principles will bring reward. This bird, a thing with feathers, is the symbol of the French Revolution whose motto remains “liberty, equality, fraternity” (the latter of which I interpret as the gender neutral “solidarity”. The values of the cooperative economic movement match the political values of people who seek freedom. They match the values of the Declaration of Independence.

Our movement has never depended on elected or appointed politicians–our hope lies within us. Let’s make 2017 the new Year of the Co-operative.

September 13, 2010

Is It Time for Neo-Distributism?

Filed under: Worker Rights — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 3:01 pm

One of the joys of not actually being enrolled in a graduate program arises in the ability to actually read the assigned books from some of the classes! It isn’t that I didn’t complete my assisgnments, but often only a chapter or two were intended for the class. For instance, No Logo by Naomi Klein is a must read for anyone interested in how globalization really changed US manufacturing (and marketing).

The most recent book that I finished Jobs of Our Own by Race Matthews. This 1999 treatise (re-released in 2009 with a new forward) discusses the ignored ideas of G.K. Chesterton and his distrubists allies providing a nice history of the discourse between this group and the Fabian Society of George Bernard Shaw. Ultimately, the Fabians won the hearts and minds of the people and ushered in a remarkable 30 year period of economic stability under the prodding of Prime Minister Clement Atlee that saw the creation of the National Health Service, the Breton Woods Accord, and the dominance of Keynesian Economics.

It is a bit hard to argue that the Fabians had it wrong. The idea that the three legs of the stool (Trade Unions for Workers, Co-ops for consumers, and the Labour Party for citizen control of the commanding heights of the economy) still has a certain appeal. **  However, the Distributists had more far reaching ideas. They didn’t trust the State to control the economy. Led by their religious dogma and the Pope Leo XIII’s ecclesiastical, Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labour), they sought a society of small owners in which power could not be concentrated into the hands of few, but distributed throughout the society. They never really go much further than this general idea largely because of their egos, untimely deaths, and an appalling antisemitism and racism that would eventually cause their movement to be disregarded.

Outside of England, however, this idea did take hold. Matthews work takes off when he discusses the work of the Maritime Canadian priests Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady. Together, these community organizers helped build a strong and powerful cooperative movement as well as a culture of adult education. Although, the movement did crash in the mid 1960’s due to systemic structural problems and was re-born as Co-op Atlantic.

One of Coady’s goals which he never lived to see was the idea of delivering education to working men and women in their homes. He saw that it was impossible to expect people to leave their jobs to attend classes. I am sure that he would be quite proud that Tom Webb, one of his successors as Director of the Extension Department at the University of St. Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia would create exactly such a program at the sister school of St. Mary’s University–the MMCCU. (I was surprised to see this footnote in the book as I consider Tom a mentor to me and never knew that held Coady’s position prior to St. Mary’s).

The book then turns to its true focus. The Antigonish Movement discovered what has come to be known at the rochdale cul-de-sac. Essentially, that co-operatives grow to a point where the membership must give up control to hired management. The co-op then begins to behave and act like any other store and the uniqueness of the co-opertive model becomes lost. It is Matthews argument that distributists can overcome the problems brought about through Agency Theory by engaging in a slightly different model of co-operation, namely the worker co-operative.

So it is, that Matthews ties the work of our favorite priest Don José María Arizmendiaretta to the distributist movement of Chesterton and Coady. The rise of Mondragon and its redefining the relations between capital and labor fit nicely into the edict of Rerum Novarum without creating the tyranny of the the worker over the consumer that the Fabians so feared. By giving workers a voice and participation in the management of the co-operative, the problems of the cul-de-sac get eliminated. In some of the Mondragon coops, there are mutli-stakeholder modes that provide space for several voices in the discussion. At a few years past 50, Mondragon has outlived the Antigonish Movement and remains a strong and fervent co-operative model.

Distributism, according to Matthews, works. It works exceptionally well provided that the workers enjoy a strong voice as workers in the organizations. Mondragon distributes the wealth throughout the basque region of Spain to its 180,000 members (I think that is the correct number). By creating a true ownership society, they created a sustainable marketplace that focuses on the value of the human being.

Is it time for us to take a second look at distributism? I’m still not quite sure. I think that Mondragon could also be considered an excellent example of syndicalism even if there isn’t a labor union involved. The point, however, is that capitalism displaced a workerable social contract without establishing a new social contract. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand replaced the Noblesse Oblige. Keynes sought to soften the hand. The Fabian sought to re-invent the social contract through government ownership. Distributists and Syndicalists, in my opinion, seek to rewrite the social contract based on the individual civil and human rights. Perhaps the ideas of the Distributists could be folded into a Neo-Syndicalism creating a movement that uses both worker ownership and industrial unionism to meet the needs of the community and society by creating an ownership society of small owners, and recognizing when the scale of a project is too big for worker co-operative alone and requires an industrial union presence. Such a linking with Mondragon and the US Steelworkers may be the beginning of this new ideal.

But this time, we really need to document what it is!

**Thanks to Bob Cannell for that imagery.

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