Mondragon: A Distributist Beacon of Hope for a Troubled World

What follows was in part written at the invitation of the editor of the Chesterton Review, Fr Ian Boyd, for inclusion in his excellent journal's current issue symposium on the relevance of distributism to the global economic meltdown, but may also be of wider interest.

The current global economic meltdown will not have been in vain if the world is reminded by it that grass roots initiative can triumph over seemingly overwhelming adversity. Following the Spanish Civil War, the economy of Spain's Basque region was in ruins. Franco destroyed its industrial base on a scale reminiscent of the destruction of Ireland's agricultural economy - the 'sowing of Ireland's fields with salt' - at the hands of Cromwell, shot some seventeen of the local priests, butchered or confined in concentration camps many more of the best and brightest in the community and systematically set about the creation of unemployment, under employment, impoverishment and immiseration on a scale now unimaginable in the developed world other than among the thinning ranks of those who still remember the direst depths of the Great Depression.  

Against that sombre background, the young priest Don Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, himself only recently released from concentration camp confinement and narrowly spared imminent execution, was sent by his bishop to the small steel industry town of Mondragon, where through patient pastoral care, grassroots organisation, community development, consciousness-raising and technical education he brought to fruition the triumphant exemplification of 'evolved distributism' that the world now knows as the Mondragon Co-operative Corporation.

Mondragon bears witness to the indispensability of subsidiarity and the wisdom of Belloc when he wrote in his An Essay on the Reconstruction of Property that 'The evil has no gone so far that, though the preaching of a new doctrine is invaluable, the creation of a new and immediate machinery is impossible. The restoration of property must essentially be the product of a new mood, not a new scheme. It is too late to re-infuse it by design, and our efforts must everywhere be particular, local, and in its origins at least, small'.

 The need, as the French personalist philosopher Emmanuel Mounier likewise so eloquently remind us in his 1938 A Personalist Manifesto, ... is not, then, to unite incoherent forces for an attack upon the coherent and powerful front of bourgeois and capitalist society. It is rather to implant in the vital organs, at present diseased, of our decadent civilisation the seeds and ferment of a new civilisation'.

I set out in my 1999 book Jobs of our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society - currently sold out in both its European and Australian editions, but shortly to re-appear in a US edition - to set distributism in the historical context of its evolution from the teachings of Rerum Novarum through the British Distributism of Belloc and the brothers Gilbert and Cecil Chesterton and the Antigonish Movement of Fr Jimmy Tompkins and Msgr Moses Coady in Atlantic Canada to Arizmendiarrieta and Mondragon, and explain exactly how Mondragon works and to what its success is attributable.  

In the decade since that account of distributism appeared, the 'evolved distributism' philosophy of the Mondragon co-operatives has continued to deliver exceptional levels of job security, social well-being and responsibility and economic growth. As of 2008, Mondragon has moved up from the ninth to the seventh largest business group in Spain, comprising some 260 industrial, retail, agricultural, construction, service and support co-operatives and associated entities. 

Annual sales increased between 2006 and 2007 by 12.4 percent, to some $US20 billion, and overall employment by 24 percent, from 83,601 to 103,731. Exports accounted for 56.9 percent of industrial co-operatives sales, and were up by 8.6 percent. Mondragon's Eroski worker/consumer co-operative now operates some 2,441 retail outlets, ranging in size from petrol stations to small franchise stores to hyper-markets and shopping malls, in locations that now extent beyond Spain, to France and Andorra. Mondragon co-operatives now own or joint venture some 114 local and overseas subsidiaries. 

No less has Mondragon adhered closely to the 'evolved distributism' teachings that have been Arizmendiarrieta's legacy to it, and the source of its outstanding success.  Consistent with 'evolved distributism', Eroski is adopting new measures to enfranchise the 35,000 of its 50,000 workers who are not currently worker members. The co-operatives have entered into a solemn commitment to extend worker ownership measures to their local and overseas subsidiaries on a case by case basis, consistent with their differing cultural, legal, business and financial circumstances. 

Just as the Basques were empowered by Arizmendiarrieta's 'evolved distributism' to lift themselves by their bootstraps from their poverty and privation in the aftermath of the Civil War, so too may others now be encouraged by Mondragon's example to transcend along similar lines the grief and fear to which the greed and folly of rampant capitalism and insufficiently regulated market forces have so wantonly given rise. As Victor Hugo reminds us, 'Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come'.

Take from Mondragon the distributist lessons it has for us irrespective of our current disappointments or the differing circumstances in which we may find ourselves, and we may at last move forward along the path to which Belloc, Mounier, Arizmendiarrieta and so many more have directed us. 




Tom Laney Saturday, February 7, 2009 at 11:05:00 AM CST  

Maybe we should get some Distributist 2x4's to slap the few labor activists we have left to encourage then to take a close look at Mondragon.

We need something special to get their attention, and diverting them from the Left "solutions" and the liberal notion that today's unions are somehow reformable.

Maybe a slap upside the head with a 5' Common Sense 2x4 would do it. Or, maybe a workplace primer would be good, something encouraging good folks to trust what they already know about Capitalism and promoting the idea that is we get organized around Distributist Principles we can win a fight for a Solidarity Society.

WE need to be clear, it seems to me, that this must be a fight.

Richard Aleman Saturday, February 7, 2009 at 8:05:00 PM CST  


Mondragon is certainly a beacon of hope as a proven model to learn from.

One of benefits of discovering cooperatives like Mondragon and Confcooperative is that we can demonstrate the benefits to workers who might be skeptical or who never heard of the cooperative movement.

For our readers, I recommend the book "Making Mondragon" by William Foote Whyte.

Aged parent Monday, February 9, 2009 at 9:49:00 AM CST  

I am assuming that the author's comments about Franco were a typo of some sort, since the accusations made against him in the article are complete fairy stories. Surely he meant someone else.

But in the event that he didn't make a typo I would invite him to produce the historical documentation for his claims.

Frankly, I would have thought this was the last website in the world to find the usual hilariously unhistorical anti-Franco propaganda.

Richard Aleman Monday, February 9, 2009 at 12:46:00 PM CST  

There is no doubt that the Spanish Civil War left many wounds on both sides of the aisle, however it isn't false that Nationalists did supress the Basque as well as the Catalan people.

For sure, as a Spaniard myself, I don't disregard that Franco did indeed rescue Spain from the Stalinist vermin responsible for the war in the first place.

It is a stretch to suggest that Franco devastated the Basque to the likes the author describes, but it isn't false that he did concentrate power and the economy in Madrid. Like it or not, this affected regions all over Spain.

Neither is it false that his men (whether under his orders or not) did assasinate many priests perceived of as giving aid to the Republicans, or merely unwilling to follow the revisionist line that we are all one big happy nation, with one culture, one language, and one mentality.

Here is the problem in brief. Spain is a lot like the U.K. both culturally and linguistically (although Gaelic isn't used as it once was). For many reasons, too many to list here, a type of anarchism based on socialist principles crept in certain regions. First there were militias murdering clergy, desecrating chapels, destroying relics, and murdering landowners in an attempt to collectivize natural resources and land. These militias (POUM being the most famous) were oddly enough - anti-Stalinist groups who were later killed by the Stalin backed Republican Army.

In Postwar Spain, Franco thought the answer to ending the revolutionary mentality in Spain was by suppressing the unique qualities of these regions. In one of the most famous experiments, like Edward I in Scotland, he tried to breed us out.

Now, this may sound like I am anti-Franco, and perhaps contrary to some of my colleagues, I am not. I've always said, and continue to say, that Spain's actuality is what Spain would have been had no one stood up to the stalinists who usurped the Republic in the first place.

But neither will I turn blinders on and kid myself.

The truth is that for every Nationalist "foso" found with lots full of cadavers there is a Republican one that hasn't been dug up. I am ashamed of Prime Minister Zapatero's revisiionist history. What about the "Reds" who grabbed 12 year olds from school to fight in the front? What of all the people assasinated in Barcelona, as the Republican Army climbed apartments and murdered innocents door by door like a Spanish version of the "Diary of Anne Frank?" My grandparents and their siblings and children barely made it out alive from Barcelona.

Neither can we simply disregard the false unity Franco attempted to instill, and the dramatic effects this had on the Church and the people of Spain. Or -to put it bluntly- henchmen who didn't care about the Church and under the guise of national sovereignty executed them in plain sight.

Race Mathews Monday, February 9, 2009 at 10:59:00 PM CST  


Opportunities for informed discussion of Distributism are a scare resource, and I regret having introduced the distraction of a canvassing of the rights and wrongs of the Spanish Civil War, which I hope won't be protracted. However, I agree that sources are important, I'm happy to comply with requests for them, and in the current instance I assume the 'typo' you single out is the number of executions of Basque Catholic priests by Franco's Nationalist forces.

That my figure of 17 is if anything an underestimate is evident from the following authorities. Hugh Thomas at page 484 of his 1961 'The Spanish Civil War' - for many years seen as the definitive account - gives the total as 16, but notes 'The number may have been twenty. Four more unidentified but probably ecclesiastical bodies were found at Vera, Navarra'. The victims included Joaquin Arin, archpriest of the parish of Mondragon, and Father Aristimuno, a famous scholar of Basque culture. The then Bishop of Vitoria, Mateo Mugica, is quoted as commenting on the execution 'What, shoot the Archpriest of Mondragon and these other priests whom I know so well? Everyone in Franco's army, from the Generalissimo downwards, would have done better to kiss their feet'.

Page 340 of J.P. Corrin's 2002 'Catholic Intellectuals and Democracy' reports nineteen Basque priests as having been executed without trial, while 'More than five hundred Basque priests were persecuted, imprisoned or forced into exile'. Page 492 quotes Mugica as having written to the Primate of the day, Cardinal Goma, 'protesting the Nationalists' policy of killing Basque priests', and Goma as in response having 'admitted that the Nationalists had abused their authority in ordering the assassinations but stated "How could I pick a quarrel with those in a position of power. It would be most imprudent"'.

Page 92 of Antony Beevor's acclaimed 2002 'The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939' reports Mugica as also having persuaded the Pope to protest against the killing of the priests to Franco, 'who was furious and declared that he would send bishops who supported him to Rome'. Mugica was himself duly exiled.

You may agree that these are serious scholarly accounts, and not to be dismissed lightly as either 'fairy stories' or 'the usual hilariously unhistorical anti-Franco propaganda'.

Race Mathews

Chris Campbell Wednesday, February 11, 2009 at 8:16:00 AM CST  

Though I am supportive of Franco, damage was deep post-1939.....Mondragon is example of what Distributism can do..sad as most clerics support capitalism or socialism....

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