Arguments against workers’ cooperatives: the Myth of Mondragon Part 1

9780791430040Perhaps the most well-known workers’ cooperative is the Mondragon Group based in the Basque country, famous not only because of its success and longevity but because of its involvement in manufacturing.  Its approach has been recognised by many around the world as an alternative to the capitalist corporation, resulting in numerous visits and studies of its performance and operation from those keen to learn its lessons and apply them at home.  For Marxists it would seem practical demonstration of the claim that capitalists aren’t needed and workers can successfully organise production in a fairer and more equitable way and without abandoning efficiency or the making of goods that other workers would like to buy.  I therefore want to look at the arguments in a book that says that this view is wrong and is based on an understanding of the Mondragon story that is mistaken because that story is a myth.[i]

The myth arises, says the author, by de-contextualising the cooperative from its social and political environment and from its historical origins and development.  The workers of Mondragon are not more class conscious but less.  She quotes approvingly the view, expressed in a separate study of a particular group of workers’ class position, that political and ideological dimensions are often more significant for actual class position than are strict property relations.  When we adopt this perspective things look quite different.  The author presents general arguments around the question of workers’ cooperatives and a particular analysis of Mondragon.  She does so ‘from a working-class perspective.’

I am not knowledgeable enough to make judgements on the particular arguments about the Basque country but I will comment on the evidence for her claims that she presents and the general arguments presented on workers’ ownership within capitalism.

In my view her first mistake is to identify workers cooperatives as part of a spectrum of labour-management cooperation, ranging from quality circles, team organisation, works councils and employee share ownership programmes all the way to workers’ ownership.  All are designed not only to make workers obey management but to make them want to obey.  They involve various mechanisms of labour management cooperation and compare unfavourably with the conflict model that involves militant trade unions facing up to management and representing the workers.

Her mistake is to see workers’ ownership as a model of capital-labour cooperation.  Far from a mechanism for cooperation with management and capitalists it is a model for workers cooperating with each other and in which capitalists, at least within the firm, do not exist.  Its logic is to extend cooperation among the working class and in so doing create the grounds on which a new socialist society can be built and there are no capitalists anywhere.

Of course there is still a management within the cooperative and the model involves various mechanisms for shop-floor worker and management cooperation but it is the workers themselves who can appoint, and if so devised, replace management because it is the workers who are the owners.  Management is accountable to the owners who are the workers.  In a capitalist firm workers are accountable to management.

Of course Kasmir is aware of this but at places within her book she presents the management of Mondragon as virtually a separate class from workers on the shop floor.  As an anthropologist she is sensitive to the differences between the daily lives of workers and managers even where the income differences are relatively small compared to most capitalist enterprises. She sees these relatively small but significant differences in income reflected outside the workplace also reflected in knowledge, responsibility and power within the cooperative.  She notes that it is the cooperative’s managers who are most enthusiastic about the cooperative and that it is they who invariably welcome visitors and present the views of the cooperative’s members to outsiders.

It is undoubtedly true that workers are sensitive to even relatively small differences in income, especially in contexts in which equality is held as a primary virtue and objective.  It was just such dissonance between claims and reality that led to such cynicism among workers in the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe.  While workers were supposed to be in power and equality reigned, in the reality that everyone lived and saw the bureaucracy maintained exclusive power and defended all the material privileges that went with it.

It is not the case however that Mondragon is a little bit of Stalinism in the Basque country or economy of the Spanish State.  There is no attempt made to claim this in the book.  In fact the book records that repeated attempts by management to increase the allowed differential between management and shop floor pay have been repeatedly voted down by workers.  Workers have the power to limit the pay of management.  What capitalist firm allows that?  Read the financial press and it is full of complaints that even capitalist shareholders have difficulty doing this in big corporations.  How many votes did the Stalinist bureaucracies in Eastern Europe ever allow themselves to lose?  Unlike in these states the Mondragon cooperative does not outlaw political activity and the author records the actions of a small group of politicised workers who campaigned actively against the management proposal and succeeded.

The author however also reports that workers do not feel the strong identification with the cooperative that might be assumed.  She demonstrates this through a survey in which she is able to compare the attitudes of workers in a factory within the Mondragon Group to those in a similar privately owned one.  These results have been referred to on a number of occasions by people on the Left as justification for opposition to cooperatives, here for example.

Asked in the Clima cooperative whether ‘in your job, do you feel that you are working as if the firm is yours?’ 23 said yes (40 per cent) and 33 said no while in the privately owned Mayc 10 said yes (28 per cent) and 25 said no.  If technicians and managers are excluded the difference between the two almost disappears with 6 in Clima and 5 in Mayc agreeing.  In both therefore the majority denied feeling that they were working as if the firm was theirs.

Asked if they ‘feel that you are part of the firm?’ 34 agreed in Clima and 21 said no while 23 in Mayc said yes and 13 said no.  While a majority in both therefore agreed that they felt part of the firm a higher percentage agreed in the privately owned firm (64 per cent) than in the cooperative (59 per cent).  Again the feeling was stronger among managers within the cooperative.

Cooperative workers did however report that they felt solidarity with their co-workers, 97 per cent in Clima compared to 86 per cent in privately owned Mayc, while 53 per cent of Clima workers compared to 56 per cent of the private Mayc reported that they had participated in a solidarity strike.  The total for the Clima cooperative included 14 managers at all levels.  The author notes that age played a big part in the answer given the decline of such strikes.

To the question ‘is there any competition over salaries/job indexes?’ (indexes denote salary, responsibility and skill levels) 72 per cent in the cooperative said yes while 56 per cent in the private firm said yes.  When asked ‘is there competition for jobs?’ 79 per cent in the cooperative Clima said yes while 56 per cent in privately owned Mayc also said yes.

The author reports that in neither firms did the workers express strong confidence in the organs that represented them – the social council in the Clima cooperative and the workers’ council in Mayc.  Managers voiced stronger confidence in Clima.  Asked if trade union syndicates should play a role in the cooperative 13 manual workers said yes and 11 said no.  Asked if they needed them to support them and assist in getting expert advice to feed into alternative production and business plans 15 manual workers agreed.  Nevertheless though half of the sample agreed to trade union syndicates playing a role, and although individual membership was allowed while syndicate activity was not, only a handful of workers in 1990 were actually members.

Only six co-operators said they would prefer to work in a private firm.  Of those who did not want to change one said “but I would like it if things changed a lot in the cooperatives.”   Another, explaining his preference for a cooperative, said “because in theory we are worker-owners and the decisions are made by the manager as well as the guy who sweeps the floor.”

Finally asked ‘what social class are you?’ 25 per cent of manual workers in the private Mayc said they were middle class while 70 per cent in the Clima cooperative said they were middle class.  It is an argument of Kasmir that there is a tendency for cooperative workers to see themselves as middle class although she says that while this may be the case these workers see clear distinctions between themselves and their cooperative managers.

So what are we to make of these responses?  First we should note that the evidence is not clear cut and sometimes appears contradictory.  So more co-operators than private sector employees felt that they were working as if the firm was theirs, while a higher percentage of workers in the private firm agreed that they felt part of the firm.  More co-operators viewed themselves as middle class – 70 per cent -yet 97 per cent felt solidarity with their fellow workers.  Like all surveys we might not interpret the questions correctly never mind the answers.  Is there more competition for jobs in the cooperative and if there was was this a good thing rather than a bad thing – a sign of the openness to individual progress and a less rigid and restrictive job structure?

The most immediate problem however is that the survey was not representative.  In other words no robust conclusions can be drawn from it.  Only 58 cooperative workers answered the survey, which was only 19 per cent of the workforce.  Only 36 or 6 per cent of the private firm answered the survey.  The cooperative survey was also not representative because it contained a higher number of new recruits to the Clima cooperative, which might explain a lower identification with it.  Cooperative workers were also more likely to skip questions and write in their own answers and the author speculates that this might be evidence of the ‘culture of dialogue’ which exists in the cooperative.

The author is keen to point to the differences of response from manual workers and the technicians and managers, with the latter being more positive about the cooperative.  As we have seen, she endorses the view that ideological and political views might be more important than class position defined by the relations of production.  It is more than probable however, given the income differentials permitted in the cooperative, that these technicians and most managers were simply better paid workers and their views cannot be reduced on that account.  In the present context it would be rather circular to claim that particular ideological views are working class (less enthusiasm for cooperatives) than others (endorsement of workers’ ownership) without some argument as to why objectively cooperatives are not an expression of working class power inimical to capitalism.  To make such a case one would inevitably have to refer to relations of production but this is the approach the author appears to reject.

It would be a mistake however to simply reject and ignore the finding s of the survey because it is unrepresentative, although one could quite legitimately do this.  The author considers the survey important because its findings are consistent with the more informal and anecdotal evidence she has collected in her stays in Mondragon, including her conversations with some of the local people and review of the political debate among the left on the Mondragon experience.

But the same sort of criticism can be made of her evidence here as well.  So she refers to a demonstration in Mondragon over the annual province-wide labour contract for the metal sector.  This involved a ritualistic demonstration and a short strike as sometimes both the workers and business owners “simply go through the motions so that the structure of the contest does not break down.  Thus the strike is not always a genuine struggle between labour and owners but a ritual of class solidarity.”(page 169)

However this year, 1990, only 60 people turned up; many workers did not vote on whether to have a strike; many who did vote voted against one; the demonstration was short, was over in half an hour and “was disappointing for all who participated.”  It obviously graphically demonstrated the overall decline in workers’ struggle in the town and more widely in the Basque country and the Spanish State.  Given all this there is no big point to be made in noting that not one cooperative worker took part in the demonstration (and the metal contract only indirectly impacted on cooperative workers’ pay).  The author notes that co-operators always made some showing in the past.

The argument of the author however is that the cooperative model was a conscious stratagem to weaken the class combativity of the Mondragon working class – this argument, and that the cooperatives divide the working class, will be reviewed in the next post.  At this point however it is worthwhile accepting the possibility that the workers in Mondragon are not fully engaged in the management of the cooperative, might be apathetic and might not have the enthusiasm that we would wish for.

All this could be true and it would not at all invalidate the struggle for workers’ ownership as a crucial and central part of the struggle against capitalism and for a new socialist society.  Only if one believed that the weight of capitalist society could be lifted from workers’ shoulders by the still limited development of cooperatives could it be possible to be either surprised or deflated that the class consciousness of cooperatives workers has not risen to the requirements of socialist revolution.

It should be recalled that socialist revolution is not just the product of such consciousness but its creation and realisation.  Neither is such revolution reducible or possible as a one-off event but is the culmination of long and varied experience.  Since workers ownership and control of the whole of the productive powers of society is central to socialism it should not be a surprise that relatively early and limited steps towards this do not reflect in purity the future that socialists seek.

The Mondragon experience proves that cooperative workers and their political consciousness might not leap beyond that of their fellow workers.  The evidence of the book under review however is that the class consciousness and combativity of the Mondragon workers was not the cause of the downturn in class struggle in the Basque country and Spain but was simply a reflection of it.

Unlike workers in private firms however cooperative workers maintain ownership of their workplace even during such a downturn.  They therefore maintain an economic and social power which they can build upon in the future.  Their example lives on and they have at hand much greater resources to call upon when it is a more opportune time to advance.  All this compares very favourably with the more or less unrestricted powers of private owners and managers in firms stripped of trade unions or in which unions are weaker, thoroughly bureaucratised or in which they have become company poodles.  None of these rather common scenarios invalidates the correctness of continuing to fight for union organisation as part of the fight for socialism.

Perhaps the evidence of this book illustrates that greater trade union involvement might help raise the participation of workers in running the cooperative or that more open and structured involvement of political groups might achieve the same.  The point is that the possibility of this only arises where workers already own their workplace.

 Forward to part 2


[i] ‘The Myth of Mondragon. Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town’, Sharryn Kasmir, State University of New York Press.

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