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

September 21, 2015

Pope Francis and Co-operatives

Tomorrow, Pope Francis arrives for his first visit to the United States. This pope, hailing from Argentina, brings with him a message for all of us in terms of building our economies–the quest for wealth needs to be more than monetary. In this, the Bishop of Rome has found the co-operative economic model to be one that can go beyond materialism and help lift people up.

In March, as reported by  The Cooperative News, he spoke directly about the co-operative model:

“‘The leader of the Catholic Church also argued that co-operatives could enable people to achieve all their potential. He said: ‘A member of a co-operative must not be merely … a worker … but must instead always be a protagonist, and must grow, through the co-operative, as a person, socially and professionally, in responsibility … an enterprise managed by a co-operative must grow in a truly co-operative way, involving all’.”

This language resonates with those of us who have studied Mondragon and the teachings of Don José María Arizmendiarietta. It is the 100th anniversary of the Basque priest’s birth. In celebration of this centennial, I engaged his writings in my classroom. Each class, students were asked to bring a quotation from this collected musings Reflections” available on-line.

In the coming days and weeks, I wish to bring that experience on-line. The following is a quote from Reflections. I will add my comments below, but I encourage you, dear readers, to add your own reflections or to find quotes from the web site that resonate with you and share them here.

Let’s honor the visit of Pope Francis by honoring the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Mondragon’s spiritual founder and engage in a discussion about co-operation, values and the development of the human.



This experience corresponds to a new spirit of trust in human beings and in their capacity. It revives in this case the sense of freedom, dignity and justice, evidently accepted in the traditional and democratic institutions in our land, this acceptance being manifested in the idiosyncrasy of our people. One of our characteristics has been our practical sense, knowing how to act in the milieu of possibilities, without renouncing or being indifferent to our ideals. We have known how to muster and not waste our opportunities to improve the common good. Our processes of association are not viable without moderation and the consenting of all of our people, who usually have to sacrifice personal positions. Radicalizations are contrary to the human and social virtues as well as to the most constant qualities of our people.

I decided to start with a rather chunky quote and one that some might find a bit controversial. The first part that struck we was Arizmendiarrieta’s faith in the method (or experience) of worker ownership through co-operation. It is more than simply creating a job with slightly better pay or a retirement plan. Although those aren’t bad things in and of themselves, the current dogma or “getting to scale” with a focus on size and ESOPs rather than on worker control and teaching workers how to manage seems short-sighted to me and lacking the key thing that makes worker co-operation so exciting.

Co-operation must also be about creating new human relationships in which we learn to value each other as human beings, as individuals, even while engaging each other for our co-operative ends. It is about embracing the idiosyncrasies, being able to see disagreements as a pathway to development and consensus. Falling into the money chase and big is better camp seems counter-productive to me in that even if the organization succeeds as a business, it ends up looking and feeling just like any other large business. Co-operatives need to break up this isomorphism.

The second part of this quote counters calls for radicalization. I imagine many (regardless of political affiliation) will question the Don of Mondragon as the political environment in the US and many countries seem to have become polarized with calls for dramatic action (and even military action) to deal with political and economic frustrations. Yet, too often, the goals of these movements get co-opted by their leaders (see Greece for the most recent example) as the trappings of power for the leaders become more important than the cause of the followers. Is this because radicalism focuses on people frustration and anger instead of the human and social virtues? I think that is the message in this statement. Co-operation, especially that espoused by Arizmendiarrieta tends to avoid the limelight of the political debate and alignment with political factions by focusing on education, information, and communication among its membership. By focusing on humans, not as pawns for larger political moves, but as the central raison d’etre, co-operatives can keep plugging along even as the countries bounce from one ism to another (See Italy and Spain). A revolution of spirit is needed that sees all of us as connected–I guess to some that may be radical, but to me it is a key part of co-operation.


May 9, 2011

Reflections of Pensimientos

Filed under: Pensimientos — Tags: , , — John McNamara @ 6:24 am

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

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