"The Challenge of Mondragon" from the upcoming Reinventing Anarchy Again edited by Howard Ehrlich, to be published by AK Press in 1996.

The Challenge of Mondragon

George Benello
In the Beginning . . . .

The Basque region of Spain has, in recent years, seen the rise of a system of cooperatives that is unparalleled in its dynamism, growth, and economic impact on a region. The system, which spreads throughout the surrounding Basque region, is named after Mondragon, a town in the mountains of Guipuzkoa Province near Bilbao, the place where the first cooperatives started. Since its start over thirty years ago, it has gained an international reputation, with similar models now being developed in England, Wales, and the United States. While its explicit connections to the anarchist tradition are unclear, the Mondragon system is an example of liberatory organization which, like its predecessors in the Spanish Civil War, has achieved success on a scale unequaled in any other part of the world.

The Mondragon network was founded by a Catholic priest, Don Jose Maria Arizmendi, a man who had narrowly missed being put to death by Franco as a result of his participation in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. With the help of collections from citizens of Mondragon, he founded an elementary technical school in 1943. The first graduates numbered among them five men who, in 1956, founded a small worker-owned and managed factory named ULGOR, numbering initially 24 members, and given to the manufacture of a copied kerosene stove.

This cooperative venture proved successful and developed into the flagship enterprise of the whole system which later was to come into being. At one point ULGOR numbered over 3,000 members, although this was later recognized as too large and was reduced. The structure of this enterprise served as the model for the latter enterprises forming the system. Following the Rochedale principles, it had one member-one vote; open membership; equity held by members and hence external capitalization by debt, not equity; and continuing education.

Additional Principles

It adapted and added additional principles which are responsible for its dynamism and success, in contradistinction to almost all industrial cooperatives which preceded it. The additions can be summarized as follows:

1. It developed a system of individual internal accounts into which 70 percent of the profits (a more accurate term is surplus) of the cooperative were placed. Each member had such an internal account. 30 percent were put into a collective account for operating capital and expansion, with a portion of that being earmarked for the community. The individual internal accounts noted receipt of the potion of the surplus earmarked for it, but this was then automatically loaned back to the cooperative, with interest paid. Upon leaving, members receive 75 percent of the accumulated funds credited to their internal account, while 25 percent is retained as the capitalization which made the job possible. This system essentially allows the cooperative to capitalize close to 100 percent of its yearly profit and gives it a capacity for internal capital accumulation unequaled by any capitalist enterprise. It also establishes an ongoing flow-through relation between the individual and collective portions of the surplus.

2. A membership fee was determined, now about $3,000, which represents a substantial investment in the cooperative, and which could be deducted from initial earnings. This too is credited to the internal account. Both the membership fee and the share of the surplus represent methods of ensuring commitment through financial incentives. Unlike older cooperatives, which often determined the membership fee on the basis of dividing the net worth into the number of shares, hence making the membership fee prohibitive, the fee is arbitrary and fixed at an affordable amount.

3. Unlike traditional cooperatives, members are considered to be worker-entrepreneurs, whose job is both to assure the efficiency of the enterprise but also to help develop new enterprises. They do this in their deliberative assemblies and also by depositing their surplus in the system's bank, described below, which is then able to use it to capitalize new enterprises. There is a strong commitment on the part of the membership to this expansive principle, and it is recognized that the economic security of each cooperative is dependent on their being part of a larger system.

4. A probationary period of one year was instituted, to ensure that new members were not only appropriately skilled, but possessed the necessary capacity for cooperative work. Whereas in a capitalist enterprise workers are considered factors of production, in a cooperative they are members of an organization with both the rights and duties of membership, sharing also in the ownership of the organization. Thus while there is open membership, members must be able to participate not simply as hired hands but must be able to discharge their membership duties by sharing in the management of the enterprise. This requires a capacity for responsibility and group participation that in turn implies a certain level of maturity.

5. The anticipo or earnings that would in a conventional enterprise be considered as wages, was fixed at prevailing wage levels, minimizing conflict with other local enterprises. Also, the wage differential - the difference between the lowest and highest wage - was set at 1 to 3. This ensures an egalitarianism between workers and the management (selected by the General Assembly of workers) that makes for high morale. Wage levels are determined by a formula which takes into account the difficulty of the job, personal performance, experience, and interpersonal skills. Relational skills have been given greater weight recently out of a recognition that in cooperative work they significantly affect group performance. (Editors' note: the wage differential was subsequently increased.)

6. Above all, Mondragon represents a systems approach to cooperative development. In addition to the base-level industrial cooperatives there are a set of so called second degree cooperatives which variously engage in research, financing, technical training and education, technical assistance, and social services. In addition there are housing and consumer cooperatives which collectively are able to create a cooperative culture in which the basic activities of life take place. Members can operate within a context of interdependent and cooperating institutions which follow the same principles; this makes for enhanced efficiency.

A Credit Union is Added

To continue the story, three years after ULGOR was founded, Don Arizmendi suggested the need for a financial institution to help fund and give technical assistance to other start-up cooperatives. As a result, the Caja Laboral Popular (CLP), a credit union and technical assistance agency was founded. The CLP contains an Empressarial Division, with a staff of over 100, which works intensively with groups desiring to start cooperatives or in rare cases to convert an existing enterprise. It does location studies, market analysis, product development, plans the buildings, and then works continuously for a number of years with the start-up group until it is clear that its proposal is thoroughly developed and financially and organizationally sound. In return, the CLP requires that the cooperative be part of the Mondragon system, via a Contract of Association, which specifies the already proven organizational and financial structure and entails a continuing supervisory relation on the part of the CLP. The surplus of the industrial cooperatives is deposited in the CLP and reinvested in further cooperatives. This close and continuing relationship with the financial and technical expertise of the CLP is both unique and largely responsible for the virtually 100 percent success rate within the system.

The CLP is considered a second degree cooperative, and its board is made up of a mix of first level or industrial cooperative members and members from within the CLP itself. In addition to the CLP there are a number of other second degree cooperatives: a social service cooperative which assures 100 percent pension and disability benefits, a health care clinic, and a women's cooperative which allows for both flex-time and part-time work; women can move freely from this to the industrial cooperatives. Also there is a system of educational cooperatives, among them a technical college which includes a production cooperative where students both train and earn money as part-time workers. This, too, is operated as a second degree cooperative with a mixed board made up of permanent staff and students.

Mondragon also features a large system of consumer cooperatives, housing cooperatives, and a number of agricultural cooperatives and building cooperatives. Today the total system's net worth is in the billions. Mondragon consists of 86 production cooperatives averaging several hundred members, 44 educational institutions, seven agricultural cooperatives, 15 building cooperatives, several service cooperatives, a network of consumer cooperatives with 75,000 members, and the bank. The Caja Laboral has 132 branches in the Basque region and recently opened an office in Madrid. This is significant, since it indicates a willingness to expand beyond the Basque region. The CLP's assets are over a billion dollars.

Mondragon produces everything from home appliances (it is the second largest refrigerator manufacturer in Spain) to machine tool factories and ferry boats, both of which it exports abroad. It represents over one percent of the total Spanish export product. With its 18,000 workers, it accounts for about 15 percent of all the jobs in Guipuzkoa Province and five percent in the Basque country. Although a major part of its products are in middle level technologies, it also produces high technology products. Its research institute, Ikerlan, regularly accesses U.S. data bases including that of M.I.T., and has developed its own industrial robots for external sale and for use in its own factories. This is typical of its approach to technology, which is to assimilate new technologies and make them its own. Mondragon has spent considerable time studying and implementing alternatives to the production line; its self-managed organizational system is now being complemented with the technology of group production.

The internal organization of a Mondragon cooperative features a General Assembly which ordinarily meets annually and selects management. In addition there is a Social Council which deals specifically with working members' concerns. There is also a Directive Council, made up of managers and members of the General Assembly, in which managers have a voice but no vote. This system of parallel organization ensures extensive representation of members' concerns and serves as a system of checks and balances. Mondragon enterprises are not large; a deliberate policy now limits them to around 400 members. ULGOR, the first coop, grew too large and at one point in its early history had a strike, organized by dissidents. The General Assembly voted to throw the ringleaders out. But they learned their lesson: size of its own accord can breed discontent.

To obtain the benefits of large scale, along with the benefits of small individual units, Mondragon has evolved a system of cooperative development. Here, a number of cooperatives constitute themselves as a sort of mini-conglomerate, coordinated by a management group elected from the member enterprises. These units are either vertically or horizontally integrated and can send members from one enterprise to the other as the requirements of the market and the production system change. They are able to use a common marketing apparatus and have the production capacity to retain a significant portion of a given market. This system was started initially by a set of enterprises in the same market banding together for inter-enterprise cooperation. Now Mondragon develops such systems from the outset.

Effectiveness of Mondragon

If one enters a Mondragon factory, one of the more obvious features is a European style coffee bar, occupied by members taking a break. It is emblematic of the work style, which is serious but relaxed. Mondragon productivity is very high -- higher than in its capitalist counterparts. Efficiency, measured as the ratio of utilized resources (capital and labor) to output, is far higher than in comparable capitalist factories.

One of the most striking indications of the effectiveness of the Mondragon system is that the Empressarial Division of Mondragon has continued to develop an average of four cooperatives a year, each with about 400 members. Only two of these have ever failed. This amazing record can be compared with business start-ups in this country, over 90 percent of which fail within the first five years. I have seen a feasibility study for a new enterprise. It is an impressive book-length document, containing demographics, sociological analysis of the target population, market analysis, product information -- just about everything relevant. When a new prospective cooperative comes to Mondragon seeking help, it is told to elect a leadership. This leadership studies at the Empressarial Division for two years before they are allowed to start the cooperative; they thus learn every aspect of their business and of the operation of a cooperative.

Mondragon is not utopia. While it does not produce weapons, useless luxury goods, or things that pollute the environment, it does produce standard industrial products using a recognizable technology of production. It does not practice job rotation, and management is not directly elected from the floor -- for good reason, since experiments elsewhere that have tried this have not worked. Members vary in the nature of their commitment. In fact there is something of a split in Mondragon between those who see Mondragon as a model for the world and those who prefer to keep a low profile and have no interest in proselytizing beyond their confines.

Mondragon has also been faulted for failing to produce mainly for local consumption. It is in the manufacturing, not community development business, and, while it creates jobs, its products are exported all over the world. It has exported machine tool factories to eastern European countries, to Portugal and to Algeria; a Mondragon furniture factory is now operating in New York State. Mondragon does not export its system with the factories however; they are simply products, bought and run by local owners. In general, it makes little attempt to convert the heathens; at present, it is swamped by visitors from all over the world, and it finds this hard enough to deal with without going out and actively spreading the word.

Mondragon has awakened worldwide interest. The Mitterand government in France has a special cabinet post for the development of cooperatives, the result of its contact with Mondragon. In Wales, the Welsh Trade Union Council is engaged in developing a system of cooperatives patterned after Mondragon. In England, the Job Ownership Movement along with numerous local governments, developed both small and large cooperatives on the Mondragon model. Progressives in the Catholic Church, seeing Mondragon as an alternative to both capitalism and communism, have helped establish industrial cooperatives in Milwaukee and in Detroit; and in Boston this writer worked with the local archdiocese to develop a system of cooperatives based on the same model.

Why does Mondragon work so well? Part of the answer lies in the unique culture of the Basque region. Members of the staff of Mondragon with whom I have talked (those of Ikerlan, the research institute, and of ULARCO, the first of the mini-conglomerates) have doubts about whether the model can be exported, arguing that the cohesiveness and communitarian traditions of the Basque culture alone make it possible. But Anna Gutierrez Johnson, a Peruvian sociologist who has studied Mondragon extensively, believes that basically it is the organizational pattern that makes the whole system work, and that this is exportable. I share her opinion, but also believe that in the United States our culture of individualism and adversary worker-management relations is a major impediment. Workers have little ideological consciousness in this country; moreover, they have very largely bought into the capitalist system and often see work as a ticket into the middle class. But their lack of ideology is nonetheless a plus in one way, for the secret of Mondragon is, above all, organizational, not ideological: it is how-to knowledge that makes it work. Knowledge, for example, of how specific industry sectors work, of how to facilitate cooperation between the CLP and worker-entrepreneurs, of how to ensure that individual enterprises are integrated into the Mondragon community.

Mondragon has revolutionary implications, primarily because its structure of democratic governance, with worker ownership and control, challenges the capitalist system at its very heart. Where capitalism awards profit and control to capital and hires labor, Mondragon awards profit and control to labor. In the process, it has developed a worker-centered culture which, rather than infantilizing, empowers. Mondragon members are citizens of a worker commonwealth, with the full rights that such citizenship confers. This can be seen best in the steps that have been taken to make the formal system of participation into a working reality: different systems of leadership have evolved, and with them, a growing sense of teamwork. For example, a furniture factory now operates completely through work teams. Thus the formal system has led to the ongoing evolution of a democratic process which is the real indicator of its success in revolutionizing the relations of production.

Also, Mondragon has created a total system where one can learn, work, shop, and live within a cooperative environment. (On such total systems, see Antonio Gramsci.) In such an environment motivation is high because members share an overall cooperative culture which integrates material and moral incentives, and which extends into every aspect of life, work, community, education, consumption, and family. A member of the Empresserial Division has underlined the uniqueness of Mondragon viewed as a total system, pointing out that this system goes far beyond what can be found in the Basque culture. The proof of this is to be found in the efforts needed to socialize new workers into the system; the simple fact of being Basque is hardly enough to guarantee effective participation.

Lessons of Mondragon

Perhaps one of the most brilliant achievements of the Mondragon organizational system is the way in which it has combined collective ownership with the incentives of individual ownership in a mixed system which recognizes both the individual and the collective side of human motivation. The system of individual accounts with automatic loan-back, along with the partitioning of the surplus into an individual component and a collective component, represents a method of giving the worker a sense of individual ownership along with a sense of collective participation in an organization which provides more than simply a meal ticket, even as it expects more than simply job performance.

A strong argument can be made for the importance of creating more networks like Mondragon, if one is to move toward social liberation. Its systems approach to job creation confronts the problems of economic organization and development head-on, managing at once to create freedom in work and enough jobs to have a powerful impact on a regional economy. Until it happened, it was easy to write off experiments in economic democracy as marginal and unrealistic utopian ventures, totally irrelevant to the task of affecting any sizable portion of an existing economy. This can no longer be said, and hence both state socialist and capitalist arguments for the economic necessity of oppressive work are given the lie.

Moreover, Mondragon contains an important lesson: it demonstrates that to achieve freedom in work, a high level of organizational skill is needed, and that when such skills are present, the traditional opposition of democracy and efficiency vanish, and the two reinforce rather than oppose each other. Mondragon is important because it serves as a model of how this can be done. Here, ideological debate gives way to concrete know-how and another false dilemma bites the dust. Centralization in concert with modern technologies, entirely apart from the further coercions of capitalist ownership, contains pressures toward an oppressive machine form of organization. This is true both because of its large scale and its productivity requirements; these pressures are greatest in the case of mass production.

Taming this contemporary organizational beast thus represents a challenge which must be met if one is to create freedom in work. This type of organization, moreover, is central to advanced industrial societies. It would be nice, utopian fashion, to simply be able to leap over the problem and go back to small-scale craft production, thereby, admittedly, eliminating piles of semi-useless junk. But the first step in deciding what is to be produced or not produced is to regain control of the system. What should or should not be produced is after all not a given but a decision to be democratically arrived at. If the control is there, people may indeed decide in good time that mass production simply is not worth the effort -- or they may not.

With control of the production process one can then at least begin the process of educating consumers to better products, or less products, or craft products, or whatever one happens to feel is an improvement over the present system. Moreover, one cannot change a whole culture in a day; if one wishes to wean people from an over-dependence on cars, for example, one way is to build better trains, which is at least a step beyond building more fuel-efficient cars. The fact that one cannot do everything should not be made into an argument for doing nothing.

I recall a debate a few years ago in the pages of Social Anarchism where Len Krimerman described his efforts to create a poultry processing cooperative. In the main his anarchist respondents were horrified: he had borrowed money from the government (the Small Business Administration)! Also, he had foremen and supervisors, rather than pure and total self-government! He trafficked with capitalist distributors! The whole thing was a desecration of anarchist principles, being centrally involved with capitalism, hierarchy, and the state. This is of course an old debate, but it is reminiscent of the Marxist's argument that, until the objective conditions for revolution exist, nothing can (and hence need) be done.

One can indeed preach purity, but talk is cheap, and moreover, people know that. The significance of Mondragon is twofold: it represents a positive vision of freedom in work, a community that is democratically controlled by its members. The ideal of democracy, to which everyone gives lip service, is actually practiced here. But it also represents something that works, and that in turn constitutes a statement about human nature, establishing beyond controversy that people can manage complex social tasks via democratic organization. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an effective working model is worth at least a thousand pictures.

Probably the most frequent criticism of utopian thinking is that it flies in the face of human nature, which has powerful propensities for evil as well as good. This argument is not one that can be settled in the abstract. The value of Mondragon is that it speaks to the claim of the weakness and fallibility of human nature in specific and concrete ways. Whereas the Webbs and others have long argued against the viability of worker cooperatives on the basis that they tend to degenerate into capitalist enterprises, Mondragon has clearly shown that this is not true. Not only does Mondragon work, but it works a lot better than its capitalist counterparts, and it grows faster. By showing that one can combine democracy with efficiency, it gives the lie to a basic article of capitalist dogma about human nature: that people are naturally lazy and irresponsible and will work only when given the twin incentives of the carrot and the stick. Another objection has been raised: Structure is brainlessly equated with hierarchy and bureaucracy, and hence the complex organizational structure of a system such as Mondragon is written off out of hand. But structurelessness breeds tyranny: informal cliques develop, hidden leaders emerge who wield power behind the cloak of an espoused equality.

Mondragon is worth studying because it works, and the argument can be made that utopian theory must always confront the practical since the burden of proof is on the theorist. The problem with capitalism and, more generally, with coercive industrial systems of whatever persuasion, is not that they don't work; they do deliver the goods, but in the process grind up human beings. The only answer to this state of affairs is to prove that a better system also works; theory alone simply will not do. And, if we wish to claim that something better than Mondragon needs to be built, then it is incumbent on us to do it.

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