President's Perspective

The Mondragon Experience - Part Two

Posted | by Denise Fairchild
Denise Fairchild

“Progress is not acquiring more, but being more, acting better, giving more of oneself” - Don Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, Mondragon Founder

In Part I, I recounted my experience in Arrasate-Mondragon in Basque County, Spain with a delegation of labor and community leaders. We spent a week as MIT Fellows exploring worker-owned cooperatives as an alternative model of worker democracy. Last month I highlighted several of the important operating principles—inter-cooperation, wage solidarity, transparency, confidence, among others—and pondered its applicability to addressing poverty in America. Part II of the Mondragon reflections goes beyond the power of the cooperative enterprise and focuses more on the underlying social and cultural values that, I suggest, is an unstated but critical part of Mondragon’s economic success.

If the Mondragon story is any example, our relationship to capital and work is only a part of a high road economy. It is not just about high wage jobs. Green jobs and concerns about how to share its economic outputs must entail a broader set of outcome measures. It is also about our relationship to one another, family, community and nature. I learned so much more that cooperative economics on my learning journey throughout the Basque country. Among the profound observations were:

  1. The unspeakable and unbelievable natural beauty of lakes, rivers, valleys, and mountains as vibrant backdrops to a more simple and holistic lifestyle.
  2. A strong cultural identity and pride, and a history of independence unbroken by wars, conquest, and attempts at cultural imperialism by Romans, Moors, Spaniards and so many others.
  3. An amazing commitment to family with public expressions of inter-generational care and love.
  4. A vibrant community life– every day, everywhere the streets were alive with dancing, eating, playing, talking and just being.
  5. An enlightened energy consciousness, including demand response energy systems in every building, coupled with renewable energy sources. That the lack of residential air conditioning facilitated, an active community/street life, especially on hot days.

None of these social, cultural, environmental or community factors were discussed as part of the Mondragon Cooperative Program. But, they were obvious to even the most casual observer. It is all part and partial of the Mondragon/Basque Country experience. Worker-owned cooperatives without these quality of life elements would be less meaningful. Or put another way, it is, perhaps, these factors that make worker-owned cooperatives as powerful as they are. It is a different lifestyle; one that defines what it is to be in the Basque Experience. How people live – cooperatively, with trust and confidence and respect for nature – is an extension of their natural course of being.

And so while some of us are in the collective struggle to define new strategies to build community wealth, let’s not forget to struggle to rebuild the essential social, cultural and environmental supports to make it work, and apply it across a more highly diverse American culture. New statistics show US residents residents with high levels of life stress, family disintegration, public health challenges, and disconnect from nature. Is it a wonder that the New Economics Foundation's Happy Planet 2012 Index ranks the US 105out of 151 countries? This ranking isbased on” how many long, happy and sustainable lives they provide for the people that live in them per unit of environmental output.

As we build out our clean economy program, when do we start that conversation and how do we begin to measure these social, environmental and community values, and to take action? I am pleased that our Emerald Cities family has taken on the challenge of building a new organizational rubric and metrics that push on the multi-dimensionality of our vision of a high road economy that balances environment, community, and equity. The Basque region seems to have figured out the full package.

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