Cooperative Democracy or Cooperative Competitiveness: Rethinking Mondragon

Sharryn Kasmir

Abstract


Cooperatives play an important role in the imagination of the left for their purported potential to democratize the workplace, nurture non-capitalist social relations in the interstices of capitalism, and anchor social or solidarity economies. They are seen, as well, as levers for a soft transition to socialism, ‘quiet democratization everywhere’, and as preferred alternatives to top-down labour unions and the bureaucratic enterprises of state socialism. Worker occupations and cooperatives inaugurated the twenty-first century in Argentina, Venezuela, Greece, Spain, and the US, testifying to people’s persistent impulse to find novel ways to secure their livelihoods and organize their workplaces. We therefore need sharp analysis of the on-the-ground realities of actual cooperatives, as they exist in, navigate, and make alliances in a political world.

Mondragon is widely recognized as the most successful worker-owned enterprise in the world, and its influence extends far. A vast scholarly and popular literature recounts Mondragon’s history and details its cooperative principles and structures, but it largely avoids tough political questions. In this essay, I draw on my earlier ethnographic fieldwork and my decades-long acquaintance with Mondragon to revisit how we think about worker-owned cooperatives and workplace democracy. After outlining Mondragon’s organizational model, I turn to the social and political terrain, where problems of a segmented global workforce and working-class agency and capacity come to the fore. While the literature on Mondragon often has a narrow frame, focusing on the cooperative institutions themselves, I broaden the picture to situate Mondragon within both the political field of the Basque region of Spain and processes of working-class formation. Specifically, I trace connections between coop workers’ apathy and lack of agency in their own workplaces, their insularity, and the resulting fragmentation of the local working class. The long erosion of working-class alliance and solidarity in the local context, in turn, laid the groundwork for Mondragon workerowners to later accede to a global labor hierarchy, whereby the privileges of coop ownership are underwritten by an exploited, international wage-labour force. This uneven class dynamic should, by rights, challenge how we think about cooperatives as places of equality and democracy in socialist imaginaries.

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