Second Letter from Mondragon: COOPERATIVISM IN THE UNITED STATES (The Right to Dream)

Armin Isasti at the 2015 Union Co-op Symposium. Photo by Paul Davis

Armin Isasti at the 2015 Union Co-op Symposium. Photo by Paul Davis

A second letter written by Armin Isasti, founding director of Saiolan, Mondragon’s historical business incubator, for the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative (CUCI) and 1worker1vote  movement:

It has been more than 60 years since Don Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, priest and the soul of the Mondragon Cooperative Experience, arrived in Mondragon. Today, three generations have benefited from his education and work. Arizmendiarrieta was the man that brought the idea of cooperativism to life in working communities out of his eagerness to address issues of human dignity in communities. He saw the person as the foundation and purpose—“first people, then cooperativistas” —as the reason to create cooperatives, saying that:  

“Never has there been so much talk of freedom as there has been so far this century, and we have brought forth systems and theories that deny every freedom; never have human value and dignity been spoken of as much as in these recent times and yet, never has there been so little respect or esteem than today for man, who is sacrificed with the greatest ease, whose life is looked down on as the vilest thing; never has there been so much talk as in these last few years about humanity, about the common good, about class interests, about the good of humanity—so much absurdity has been justified with these pompous names—and we have reached a social situation in which whim and ambition, pride and arrogance, selfishness and cruelty of the strong has never been more the order of the day, to the detriment of the true interests of the masses, of men, of humanity. That is what we have come to.”  

AZURMENDI, Joxe. El Hombre Cooperativo: Pensamiento de Arizmendiarrieta. Mondragón, Caja Laboral Popular, 1984. P. 162  

Despite the passage of years, the content and the scope of his words accurately reflect the depth and success of his thoughts, a vision ahead of its time, a denunciation of the defects of the present human situation. When great men like Arizmendiarrieta are considered with enough perspective to address their true human scale, they gain before us their true dimension. The distance in time ennobles the enlightened and inexorably fades the frivolities of the moment.

But although we may have lost faith in every type of utopia, nobody can take the right to dream and the desire to look for and gain freedom and well being away from us, and that is what this letter is about.

A year and a half ago, in the event about cooperativism organized by CUCI in Cincinnati, I had the opportunity to note among those in attendance the potential to work cooperatively, combined with a striking common sense and practicality that characterizes the American people. A plethora of small community institutions was in attendance. These communities had the most diverse social objectives and were ready to design a cooperative movement in the United States.

Nevertheless, I am obliged, if you will allow me, to reflect with you all, and what better way is there than through these questions to tackle in the next Symposium in Cincinnati:

  • Is cooperativism coming to the United States?
  • What advances have been made in the meantime? Have you sufficiently tapped into the richness, wisdom and potential of your men and women?
  • Have the goals been translated into strong institutions or concrete entities, around which efforts can be galvanized and dedication can be justified?

Let us leverage, then, the many possibilities that have been forgotten, discarded or rejected by people who wanted to but couldn’t, who dreamed and woke up unable to begin down the dreamed of path.  So many people with callings without opportunity because of a lack of free, supportive spaces for trial and error.

To accept cooperativism is to believe in solidarity, and someone who believes in solidarity can no longer put limits on its field of application: human solidarity is an active, potent phenomenon; it is a force that multiplies as it is practiced; it is a constant element of cooperative formulation, as much theory as it is practice.     

“Not in solitary but in Solidarity.” Pensamientos de Don José María Arizmendiarrieta. Navarra, Otalora (Azatza), 1999. Reflection Nº 342

Time and solidarity are basic factors and not just accidental circumstances for human promotion and social transformation. Solidarity is the key that will revolutionize community life, and for it to do so, we must sow the seeds or pave the way, starting by transforming ourselves.

If there is cooperation, we can be in solidarity; and if we have solidarity, we can progress without masters, that is to say, under the rules of freedom and justice, and social and economic emancipation. Thus, we look ahead and if there is a word we must repeat, it is this one: SOLIDARITY. We are invited to promote a culture of solidarity, trying to create a network of institutions so that the ideals of indisputable goodness, which rely on broad social support, are embodied in community and economic life.

Everything started with EDUCATION. Perhaps more important than learning new techniques and trades, from my experience, inculcating a culture of solidarity—which would need to be included in all curricula as a central animating point—has been one of the main keys that have supported the very existence of the Mondragon Cooperative Experience.

“Education is the natural and indispensable point of support for the promotion of a new social order, humane and just.” Ibid. Reflection Nº 191

A culture of solidarity is possible if we all participate in its design and construction. The current political and economic situation in the United States does not allow us to be mere bystanders. On the contrary, it is a firm call for personal and social responsibility.

Don Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta knew how to predict the future and the importance of harmony, solidarity and cooperation among human beings, outside the confusing, dark scope of politics, and plant the idea on the streets, the schools, the universities, the factories, the offices and the public spaces where we ordinary citizens are responsible for our future.

With that in mind, you have a challenge on your hands, similar to the one sixty years ago in Mondragon: the pursuit of a new social order, a new inclusive, equitable economic model, not for the few but for the benefit of the majority of people and society. It involves transforming good words into deeds, to an economy for all, creating dignified employment opportunities and a just remuneration system especially aimed at the youth.

We must prepare ourselves. It will be an arduous, problematic task that will take a long time, characterized by more questions than answers, by more problems than solutions, like 60 years ago in Mondragon, where what we did was unite our hands and walk in search of hope: “there is always another step to take.”

On a personal level, my maxim has been that “in risk, there is hope.” As a fellow traveler, I feel that hope is being privatized; that is to say, human links are breaking and solidarity is eroding. We are witnessing a type of displacement of aspirations and commitments from the community level being narrowed toward that of our own individual spaces, which we have to protect at all cost, and where the “I” is the only place for improvement. It isn’t that we have lost hope. What I observe is a growth of individual, competitive hope, which is not a SOCIAL, shared hope.

Against this background, “WE SOCIALIZE HOPE.” The socialization of hope is the motivation that will urge us to work to set up a cooperative movement in the United States. We must harness the Mondragon Experience and adapt it to the U.S. social, cultural and economic reality to be more free, more egalitarian, more democratic…a society more habitable for all. We have in our hands the opportunity to change.

As Mondragon cooperative workers, we understood that we could improve our conditions collectively, by joining forces and not working in isolation. In order for this to occur, one of the characteristics of Mondragon has been practical sense, that of knowing how to work in the realm of possibilities without abandoning our ideals. One must deal with realities instead of hypotheses, and reflect about data and hard facts more than about pure ideological formulations.

A reflection by Don Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta comes to my mind:

“We need less triumphalism and more realism; fewer words and more actions; fewer prophets and more people that keep their word; fewer utopians and more practical people. Good ideas are the ones that can be translated into works and good words are those that each one can prove with facts.” Ibid. Reflection Nº 393.

We cannot act out of idealism; we need to be realists, aware of what we can and cannot do. “’Good ideas’ in people who are unable to put them into practice can be a dangerous medicine.” [Ibid. Reflection Nº 353]. There have been many years of uninterrupted teachings, examples and utopias realized. Cooperativism in the United States is also a utopia, but a realistic one.

Looking toward the future, at the end of this year you have the opportunity to participate in another event organized by CUCI, after two years. With that in mind, the subjects need to be addressed with generosity and without preconceived notions, avoiding drawing from “vested interests” and with the intention to act with empathy.

What to do into the future? My input as a proposal:

The way forward: may nobody rob our right to dream from us.

This letter was written with the intention to consider the question: If we want to establish cooperativism in the U.S., how do we do it? How do we make this utopia real? How do we make these ideas a reality?

It is observed that the world is changing its perspective and we can identify various factors that contribute to this, such as globalization, technological change, immigration, new jobs, distribution of work and the accumulation of riches. A growing and brutal economic and social inequality, which is unsustainable and unacceptable, is also unfolding. The government, businesses with the participation of workers in decision-making, trade unions and consumer organizations, drivers of new legal decisions, etc. can take steps to reduce this inequality; but there are also steps that we can take as individuals.

The goal is to chart paths forward, not the ideal state of a cooperative society. This is an exercise in utopia for realists, conscious of the gap between what needs to be and what can be; between what happens and what is desirable; between the tools at our disposal and our ability to use them.

And the starting point is the current state of cooperativism in the U.S., how it is and how we can make it better, building on the potential of Mondragon cooperativism.

Hence, I have focused on four PROPOSALS FOR ACTION that are summarized below with a view to reflect together within the framework of the next symposium.

  • PROPOSAL 1: Draw forth and raise awareness of the cooperative movement in all levels of society. This would need to be a top priority, bolstering cooperativism in a form that increases the human potential for cooperation and solidarity within schools, universities, workplaces, foundations…
  • PROPOSAL 2: Promote business development, generating cooperative employment and promoting worker participation in business ownership, in management, and in outcomes.
  • PROPOSAL 3: Connect cooperativism to authentic innovation, and to solving the greatest challenges of our time. For example, take the challenges presented to us by climate change, an aging population, healthcare, or the unequal distribution of wealth in society, as sources of business ideas.
  • PROPOSAL 4: Establish a council or a steering committee that involves different social actors in the fields of education, investigation, business, chambers of commerce and industry, state governments, municipalities, foundations and financial institutions, as a lever for community development, an instrument of institutional solidarity and organizational synergies, support for management and definition of strategies to establish a cooperative movement in the U.S.

The proposals are formulated with the general purpose of being applicable in different states and communities. Nonetheless, a “collective, transformational leadership” is required for this all to progress.

I recognize the difficulties involved in social change of this magnitude, and am convinced that this will not arise from a solitary genius or from a group of enlightened people, but by ingraining in the collective consciousness the idea that another model is possible and beneficial for everyone. There are more people who think like us. Tons of people. We will recover the utopia and the right to dream. Cooperativism in the U.S. is possible.

To wrap up, read and put your own music to this hymn by Leonard Cohen:     

“Ring the bells that still can ring,     
Forget your perfect offering  
There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.”

You are on the right track and determined not to stop at any goal as long as liberty, equality and social justice requires your collaboration.  

I leave thanking all the readers of this letter because it has allowed me to relive the memories of Don Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta and Don Jose Maria Ormaetxea, the man who made the Arizmendian utopias into reality, with deep emotion. I have met both and had and have the honor of enjoying their teachings and their friendship. Their personalities don’t allow for comparison. The cooperativism of Mondragon was their work and provides us the measure of their spiritual greatness.

Armin Isasti
Retired Wayfarer