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