Yes, there is an alternative to capitalism: Mondragon shows the way

Why are we told a broken system that creates vast inequality is the only choice? Spain's amazing co-op is living proof otherwise

Richard Wolff, Sunday 24 June 2012 10.13 EDT
Dani Martinez, innovation director at Orbea bicycles, part of Mondragon Co-operative Corporation, in Mallabia, 2011. Photograph: Vincent West/Westphoto for the Guardian

There is no alternative ("Tina") to capitalism?

Really? We are to believe, with Margaret Thatcher, that an economic system with endlessly repeated cycles, costly bailouts for financiers and now austerity for most people is the best human beings can do? Capitalism's recurring tendencies toward extreme and deepening inequalities of income, wealth, and political and cultural power require resignation and acceptance – because there is no alternative?

I understand why such a system's leaders would like us to believe in Tina. But why would others?

Of course, alternatives exist; they always do. Every society chooses – consciously or not, democratically or not – among alternative ways to organize the production and distribution of the goods and services that make individual and social life possible.

Modern societies have mostly chosen a capitalist organization of production. In capitalism, private owners establish enterprises and select their directors who decide what, how and where to produce and what to do with the net revenues from selling the output. This small handful of people makes all those economic decisions for the majority of people – who do most of the actual productive work. The majority must accept and live with the results of all the directorial decisions made by the major shareholders and the boards of directors they select. This latter also select their own replacements.

Capitalism thus entails and reproduces a highly undemocratic organization of production inside enterprises. Tina believers insist that no alternatives to such capitalist organizations of production exist or could work nearly so well, in terms of outputs, efficiency, and labor processes. The falsity of that claim is easily shown. Indeed, I was shown it a few weeks ago and would like to sketch it for you here.

In May 2012, I had occasion to visit the city of Arrasate-Mondragon, in the Basque region of Spain. It is the headquarters of the Mondragon Corporation (MC), a stunningly successful alternative to the capitalist organization of production.

MC is composed of many co-operative enterprises grouped into four areas: industry, finance, retail and knowledge. In each enterprise, the co-op members (averaging 80-85% of all workers per enterprise) collectively own and direct the enterprise. Through an annual general assembly the workers choose and employ a managing director and retain the power to make all the basic decisions of the enterprise (what, how and where to produce and what to do with the profits).

As each enterprise is a constituent of the MC as a whole, its members must confer and decide with all other enterprise members what general rules will govern MC and all its constituent enterprises. In short, MC worker-members collectively choose, hire and fire the directors, whereas in capitalist enterprises the reverse occurs. One of the co-operatively and democratically adopted rules governing the MC limits top-paid worker/members to earning 6.5 times the lowest-paid workers. Nothing more dramatically demonstrates the differences distinguishing this from the capitalist alternative organization of enterprises. (In US corporations, CEOs can expect to be paid 400 times an average worker's salary – a rate that has increased 20-fold since 1965.)

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Monsanto Trumps Food Safety and Democracy (Again)

Monday, 25 June 2012 09:05 By Charlotte Silver, Inter Press Service | Report

No GMOs label(Photo: Timothy Valentine)San Francisco - As the 2012 Farm Bill continues to take shape in the halls of the United States Congress, the immense influence of corporate interests is on display.

On June 21 the United States Senate voted overwhelmingly against the Sanders Amendment that would have allowed states to pass legislation that required food and beverage products to label whether or not they contain genetically engineered ingredients.

The amendment, proposed by Independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, is particularly relevant as many states prepare to vote on a ballot initiatives that would require such labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods.

Lobbyists from the biotech industry have ardently opposed GMO labelling. These opponents argue that because food labelling has historically been handled by the Food and Drug Association (FDA), it is a federal issue and, therefore, individual states do not have the right to implement such legislation. Indeed, in the case of Vermont, Sanders' home state, Monsanto successfully intimidated the state legislature from voting on a bill that would have required GMO labelling.

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Food Supply: 

Natural Law

From Rural Pennsylvania to South America, a Global Alliance is Promoting the Idea that Ecosystems Have Intrinsic Rights

By Jason Mark

Cathy Miorelli doesn’t think of herself as an environmentalist. When Miorelli decided to run for the city council of Tamaqua Borough – a small town in central Pennsylvania where she has lived her entire life – she didn’t have any sort of eco-agenda. It was 2004, and the hottest controversy in Tamaqua involved a proposal by an outside company to dump sewage sludge and coal fly ash into abandoned mining pits on the edge of town. But the main issue on Miorelli’s mind was creating more transparent governance on the council, which she says had long been dominated by an old boys’ network. “I was just concerned about everything overall, not really so much the environment,” says Miorelli, who has worked for 16 years as the nurse at the Tamaqua high school. “You know, I didn’t run on any kind of platform, saying that I was going to change the world here or anything.”

photo by Brett Weston, Corbis

She did change the world, though. Halfway through her one-term stint on the council, Miorelli spearheaded the passage of an anti-sewage sludge ordinance that included a provision recognizing the rights of “natural communities” to flourish – the first law of its kind in the world. The Tamaqua Borough ordinance inspired dozens of other communities in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania – including the city of Pittsburgh – to adopt similar rights of nature laws. Those ordinances then helped influence the people of Ecuador to put legal rights for ecosystems in that country’s new constitution. The idea that nature, just like people, possesses inalienable rights has percolated up to the United Nations, which has considered a proposal to adopt a “Charter on the Rights of Mother Nature.”

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Pennsylvania farming community turned into natural gas wasteland

A fracking operation takes place on leased farmland in Dimock, PA

The Titchen-Bohlander family has managed its farm, nestled in a lush agricultural community in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, for over 150 years in relative peace and quiet.  But this year is different. 

Steps Set for Livestock Antibiotic Ban

The Obama administration must warn drug makers that the government may soon ban agricultural uses of some popular antibiotics that many scientists say encourage the proliferation of dangerous infections and imperil public health, a federal magistrate judge ruled on Thursday.

The order, issued by Judge Theodore H. Katz of the Southern District of New York, effectively restarts a process that the Food and Drug Administration began 35 years ago, but never completed, intended to prevent penicillin and tetracycline, widely used antibiotics, from losing their effectiveness in humans because of their bulk use in animal feed to promote growth in chickens, pigs and cattle.

The order comes two months after the Obama administration announced restrictions on agricultural uses of cephalosporins, a critical class of antibiotics that includes drugs like Cefzil and Keflex, which are commonly used to treat pneumonia, strep throat and skin and urinary tract infections.

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Renewables Are a Reality: How We Can Ditch Fossil Fuels Without Any Help From Congress

Amory Lovins explains his plan for transforming our energy, transportation and industry sectors while at the same time growing our economy and cutting dirty fossil fuels.

Amory B. Lovins is fond of referring to the Rocky Mountain Institute, where he serves as chairman and chief scientist, as a “think and do” tank, and it’s clear that to Lovins the doing is every bit as important as the thinking. Hardly lacking in confidence or ambition, Lovins — in conjunction with his colleagues at the institute — has published Reinventing Fire, his step-by-step blueprint for how to transition to a renewable energy economy by mid-century. 

Impressive in both its scope and detail — Lovins discusses everything from how to redesign heavy trucks to make them more fuel efficient to ways to change factory pipes to conserve energy — the book lays out a plan for the U.S. to achieve the following by 2050: cars completely powered by hydrogen fuel cells, electricity, and biofuels; 84 percent of trucks and airplanes running on biomass fuels; 80 percent of the nation’s electricity produced by renewable power; $5 trillion in savings; and an economy that has grown by 158 percent.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 senior editor Fen Montaigne, Lovins discusses how business and society can pull off this transformation even if the U.S. Congress keeps failing to act, why climate change need not even enter the discussion, and why the oil industry will ultimately forego fossil fuels and jump aboard the green bandwagon. “One system is dying and others are struggling to be born,” says Lovins. “It’s a very exciting time.”

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Fracking Cattle


by Ulla Kjarval

[Ulla Kjarval is a photographer, food blogger and grass-fed beef advocate who blogs at Goldilocks Finds Manhattan. Her family operates Spring Lake Farm in Delaware County, New York -mb.]

The battle over gas drilling has made its way to upstate New York and many farmers, especially those that rely on grasslands, are alarmed at the possible impact fracking - the relatively new technology for gas drilling - could have on their livelihoods. Dick Cheney’s 2005 Energy Policy Act, with its “Halliburton Exemption” significantly deregulated fracking, making it exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clear Air Act. Alarmingly if not surprisingly, the dismantling of these most basic safeguards to protect us from pollution seems to have not caused our lawmakers any concern.

Fracking allows drillers to tap gas reserves deep in the ground. To do so they rely on a high pressure mix of water, sand and undisclosed chemicals pumped into the ground to collapse and crack into horizontal deposits trapped in rock. Sadly, in areas where fracking has already happened there has been widespread pollution and ruined drinking water.

Already, the USDA quarantined 28 cattle in Pennsylvania who grazed on a pasture that was contaminated by fracking leaks. The state agriculture department said that the toxic water which included chloride, magnesium, potassium, and strontium, a heavy metal toxic to humans(especially to young children), has contaminated the cows' meat (via Reuters). Propublica reported last year that 16 cattle dropped dead after being exposed to fracking run- off. Farmers across Pennsylvania, which has seen heavy gas drilling, have spoken about birth deformities and sickness in their grazing cattle. As the prospect of natural gas fracking looms on the horizon for New York State, many area farmers are alarmed and concerned that it could put them out of business.

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Water Use: 

Modern Pioneers: What it’s like living in an Ecovillage

Living in community with one another is the foundation for a new pioneering, sustainable culture.

In 2006, I found myself visiting an ecovillage in northeast Missouri. My destination was Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, an intentional community dedicated to ecologically sustainable and socially rewarding lives, and sharing the skills and ideas behind that lifestyle. I was taken with the place rather quickly and knew that this was the change I wanted in my life, and the following spring, I became a resident. My own quest towards a more low impact lifestyle in a community setting was just beginning — indeed, this was the first and single most important step I made.

But what is Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, and why should you care? What’s living off the grid, and in a cooperative community all about, anyway? And how does it affect you?

What is Sustainable Community Living?

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is one of thousands of intentional communities all over the globe, with a specific focus on sustainable living and cooperation. With a current population of 50 members, the community has been steadily growing since its inception in 1996. Residents and members agree to several ecological covenants and guidelines upon joining the community, which offer boundaries as far as what is acceptable within the realm of our consumption and impact.

For example, no homes are allowed to heat or cool with fossil fuel energy — all homes use some form of renewable energy. No one is allowed to keep a personal vehicle on the property — instead, most of the members are part of a vehicle cooperative. All fifty members share a mere three vehicles (and drive a mere 10% of the average American). All gardening is organic, and homes are built using natural and reclaimed materials. Group decisions are made through the process of consensus. The goal of living more sustainably and cooperatively is reflected in all aspects of life.

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Intentional Community: 

The Environmental Value of Building Reuse

A report produced by the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation provides the most comprehensive analysis to date of the potential environmental benefit of building reuse.
This groundbreaking study, The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse, concludes that, when comparing buildings of equivalent size and function, building reuse almost always offers environmental savings over demolition and new construction.

The report’s key findings offer policy-makers, building owners, developers, architects and engineers compelling evidence of the merits of reusing existing buildings as opposed to tearing them down and building new.

Those findings include:

  • Reuse Matters. Building reuse typically offers greater environmental savings than demolition and new construction. It can take between 10 to 80 years for a new energy efficient building to overcome, through efficient operations, the climate change impacts created by its construction. The study finds that the majority of building types in different climates will take between 20-30 years to compensate for the initial carbon impacts from construction.
  • Scale Matters. Collectively, building reuse and retrofits substantially reduce climate change impacts. Retrofitting, rather than demolishing and replacing, just 1% of the city of Portland’s office buildings and single family homes over the next ten years would help to meet 15% of their county’s total CO2 reduction targets over the next decade.
  • Design Matters. The environmental benefits of reuse are maximized by minimizing the input of new construction materials. Renovation projects that require many new materials can reduce or even negate the benefits of reuse.
  • The Bottom Line: Reusing existing buildings is good for the economy, the community and the environment. At a time when our country’s foreclosure and unemployment rates remain high, communities would be wise to reinvest in their existing building stock. Historic rehabilitation has a thirty-two year track record of creating 2 million jobs and generating $90 billion in private investment. Studies show residential rehabilitation creates 50% more jobs than new construction.

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New ecovillage will be located 10 minutes west of Chapel Hill, pending approval by the county

By Elizabeth Straub | The Daily Tar Heel

Christian Stalberg is seeking residents to create an ecovillage — a community that would share common land, farm organically, use its own currency and be located about 10 minutes west of Chapel Hill.

Stalberg said he hopes to begin construction on a community that would house up to 100 people on 100 acres of land in the Efland area by the end of the year, after clearing the project with the county.

The community would use little energy, provide affordable housing and make decisions based on general consensus, he said. It would also use environmentally and socially healthy practices to create a sustainable way of life.

“It’s also an effort at replacing the alienation of our common society where you don’t know your neighbor,” he said.

While the community will be new, it is not the area’s first intentional community — a group formed on purpose by people who share common values.

Arcadia Cohousing, a community in Carrboro, was also created by people who agreed to work together toward a common goal.

“Here in our Arcadia community, our focus is around learning how to be a good neighbor and learning to share resources,” said Becky Laskody, an Arcadia resident.

The group that formed Arcadia was created in 1991 and built its community on 16.5 acres in 1994.

Arcadia Cohousing is a pedestrian-oriented residential cohousing community on 16 areas about three miles from the towns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill. “It’s a really great place for kids because its safe… They know everyone so they feel comfortable,” Elisabeth Curtis said. Curtis has lived in the community since it began in 1996.

Instead of the traditional neighborhood road, a central sidewalk connects houses in Arcadia, leads to a community garden and passes by a common house — complete with kitchen, library, and guest rooms. Some houses are joined and all are located close together.

Stalberg said if approved and built, the ecovillage will contain similar features, including a common house with community resources, and will also raise organic crops and livestock to feed residents.

“We would like the ecovillage to be as food self-sufficient as possible,” he said.

Stalberg said the community would use natural materials and energy-efficient methods to construct homes ranging from 100 to 400 square feet­ .

Arcadia was also designed with the environment in mind, providing access to solar power and protecting the surrounding woods, Laskody said.

“It’s also important for folks to see that there are different ways to create neighborhoods,” she said. “We don’t have to stick with the usual model that developers offer.”

Like the planned ecovillage, Arcadia uses a democratic decision-making process that allows all residents to get involved. While residents may abstain from voting, those who participate in voting must all be in accord for the decision to stand.

Steven Fisher, an Arcadia resident, said he values Arcadia’s respect for privacy and of the individual’s choice to get involved in the decision-making process.

Fisher joined Arcadia because his wife had multiple sclerosis and needed a house to fit her needs.

“I was interested in having the opportunity to design a house that would suit her,” he said.

Elisabeth Curtis, another resident, joined partly to participate in a social experiment — to see if people can live so close to one another.

“If we can’t do it here, what hope is there for the rest of the world?” she said.

Laskody added that living in an intentional community helps develop interdependence.

“Though it takes extra work … you gain a lot from the sharing that you do with other people.”

Contact the City Editor


Published January 29, 2012 in City

Intentional Community: 


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