Dusk Somewhere

Mondragón 1: More an island of kinder capitalism, than an aircraft carrier for communism

Posted at — Feb 14, 2024 by Izzy Meckler

Mondragón is a famous complex of cooperatives, primarily based in the Basque country. It has been widely acclaimed for providing stable employment to tens of thousands, a degree of internal democracy, and maintaining growth better than the national average for decades.

Mondragón is, so far, sui generis in the capitalist world. For a communist, the key question in evaluating this odd duck is: how can we understand Mondragón from the point of view of the class struggle and the movement toward communism?

Just to start: from reading Whyte and Whyte’s excellent book Making Mondragon, it seems to me Mondragón represents a sort of perfected version of business unionism1, in which an attempt is made to harmonize the narrow interests of workers as workers (i.e., wage increases, somewhat better working conditions) with the interests of capital.

What is business unionism? It is, at root, the belief that workers and bosses have common interests, focusing on rhetoric like “getting the job done” and “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.” Business unions function to keep workers working, and profits flowing smoothly into the pockets of business owners.1

This is very much the orientation of Mondragón, except that whereas business unionism is inherently unstable due to the separation between union leadership and the firm’s management, the Mondragón model gains stability by having the equivalent of union leadership (elected governance officials) and firm management be the same class of people. Of course within Mondragón many more interesting things are happening: interesting class struggles have taken place, workers learn to manage and take an interest in more aspects of running things, new better methods of doing factory work unexplored by capitalists are experimented with, etc.

There is a restricted space of behaviors that an organization can have which allow for longterm survival in the capitalist market. The firms of Mondragón are firmly embedded within the capitalist market, and thus must be run within that space carved out by the constraints of the market. Their internal structure allows them to exist in a region of that space that other firms are unable to (having rational unemployment insurance, automatic transfer between firms, sufficient pay, pay caps on management, etc.) but ultimately they must still satisfy market constraints.2

Within the Mondragón ideology it is hard to find a trace of the idea of transforming society as a whole beyond the company. There is a trace of the idea of making work more dignified (although efforts pushing in that direction are very quick be shunted in the case of economic difficulties). But it is hard to see the large scale ambition of communism: i.e., reorganizing society’s metabolism on the basis of need rather than profit.

Turning an island of “kinder capitalism” into an aircraft carrier for communism

Mondragón does something very useful. It reproduces an island of stability within the capitalist world. But this on its own — standing as an island of a “kinder capitalism” of self-exploitation — does not necessarily have anything to do with the movement toward communism. But how could it? The most “communist” role such an organization could play would be to serve as “ballast” the stabilize the broader revolutionary movement. To be conceived as such from the beginning as political, and as having the role of providing resources to organizations involved in the class struggle and of providing steady employment to militant activists.

In a word, the fact that a Mondragón-like complex is stable over time should be subordinated to the class interest of the proletariat (or at this point really the long-term survival interest of humanity), rather than being used for the narrow self interests of the workers at the complex.

The need to maintain this politicization would have to be embedded somehow within the institutional structure to prevent it from degenerating overtime into a mere island of kinder capitalism. This could be attempted in various ways, some off the cuff thoughts: setting political education requirements, giving seats on governing councils to representatives of labor unions, tenant unions, and socialist parties, etc.

  1. https://archive.iww.org/history/documents/misc/DaveNeal/ ↩︎

  2. I am reminded of what Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “A second, and more practical, but less systematic, form of this Socialism sought to depreciate every revolutionary movement in the eyes of the working class by showing that no mere political reform, but only a change in the material conditions of existence, in economical relations, could be of any advantage to them. By changes in the material conditions of existence, this form of Socialism, however, by no means understands abolition of the bourgeois relations of production, an abolition that can be affected only by a revolution, but administrative reforms, based on the continued existence of these relations; reforms, therefore, that in no respect affect the relations between capital and labour, but, at the best, lessen the cost, and simplify the administrative work, of bourgeois government.” ↩︎