A Saint for a New Socioeconomic Order

Image: Corporacion Mondragon

Image: Corporacion Mondragon

Saints, G.K. Chesterton once pointed out, are an antidote to whatever the age neglects. Such figures restore the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever it has overlooked.

In today’s world of Trumpism, our little band here at the Dorothy Option is arguing that a large dose of Dorothy Day is long overdo for American society. But just as Chesterton juxtaposed brilliantly St. Francis and St. Thomas, the more to underline their complementarity, so we might propose a figure (also with a cause for canonization underway) to set beside Dorothy. Beside her radical charity, we need a model of radical solidarity–an apostle of cooperation, to use a key term of the new economy movement.

Fr. Jose Maria Arizmendiaretta (often shortened to Arizmendi) was a Basque, as were his illustrious predecessors St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier. In February 1941, the young priest arrived in his new post of Mondragon where the local priest had been shot by Franco’s forces. Battered by the war, Mondragon suffered from severe unemployment.  But the new padre had no training in business or economic matters.

But he was a close student of Catholic social thought (especially Rerum Novarum and Quadragresimo Anno), as well the writings of figures like Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier (whose work profoundly impacted Peter Maurin and by extension the Catholic Worker movement generally).

Don José Maria, as he came to be called, became the chaplain of the local branch of the Catholic Action movement.  He believed that the social solidarity which had been typical of Basque communities historically could be rejuvenated. In his plan for social reconstruction, the first step was technical education and then the creation of a cooperative business. By 1943, his efforts led to a new polytechnic school, a democratically-administered institution open to all young people in the region.

Importantly, the training at the school was not only technical: it was also informed by the personalism of its founder and his vision of the connection between Catholic social thought and the cooperative model, with all its benefits for both workers and consumers, indeed, for the larger society itself.

In 1955, five graduates of the school were ready to create their first industrial cooperative, the beginning of what would become the Mondragon Corporation, today an international federation of worker cooperatives , the fourth largest enterprise operating in Spain, and an employer of almost 70,000 worldwide with annual sales of $16 billion.

Amazingly, Mondragon continues to operate on ten basic cooperative principles: Open Admission, Democratic Organization, the Sovereignty of Labor, Instrumental and Subordinate Nature of Capital, Participatory Management, Payment Solidarity, Inter-cooperation, Social Transformation, Universality and Education.  The average wage differential between employees in the lowest and highest paid positions continues to be 1:5. Until the 2008 recession, no employee had ever been laid off at Mondragon.

The Catholic roots of Mondragon’s remarkable success are sometimes skimped or ignored, especially as the principles of Catholic social teaching are not peculiarly Catholic—except perhaps in the way CST combines them.

As a way of better understanding this Catholic vision and its relevance for our current situation, we might turn to the collection of Don José Maria’s remarkable Reflections (English translation free to download here).

We are looking here at a key document of CST, a collection of thoughts on both the human person and on work viewed through the cooperative model.  This little book is a spiritual bridge to rehumanizing the social order and overcoming the antisocial nature of our neoliberal regime.

Here are some sample entries:

  • All economic, political and social problems are, in the final analysis, human problems.
  • We do not aspire to economic development as an end but as a means.
  • The cooperativist ideal is to grow more as human persons.
  • It is unquestionably preferable to be a poor man than a satiated pig, it is better to be a discontented Socrates, Peter or Francis than to be a contented mad person.
  • Before dreaming about making managers, it is necessary to think about making mature persons. Before teaching them public relations and manners, they need to get used to forgetting about themselves.
  • Being a Christian is not only to possess the truth, but it is above all to practice the truth, which is the same thing as doing what is right.

A reflection to be applied to today’s “gig economy”:

  • Economic development represents human progress and constitutes a true moral duty. In the eyes of a believer, sub-employment, in all of its forms, is a scandal.

A brilliant reformulation of the “rendering unto Caesar” teaching:

  • Cooperativism gives work what is work’s and gives capital what is capital’s.

A much larger vision than the typical view of the nature of work:

  • The problem now is not to place ourselves in the conditions of avoiding work, but instead of making work a service and to a large extent a source of honest satisfaction. Work can and should be humanized.

Some corrections to Marxist notions:

  • Our strength is not translated as struggle but as Cooperation.
  • Today revolution is called participation.
  • The economic revolution will or will not be moral. The moral revolution will or will not be economical.

Striking also, for the times, are thoughts such as these:

  • The position women have is, in any society, the exact measurement of its level of development.
  • It is not enough to cry about adverse luck: it is women’s duty to fight to conquer the position which belongs to them, and this fight must be endured in good and bad times.

Finally, this call to a new social vision, a third way:

  • If the sign of vitality is definitely not to endure but to be reborn, as was well said by a great cooperativist, if cooperativism is not only the diametrical opposite of paternalism but also of conformism and conservatism,…then it is imperative that we remain on the cutting edge of social innovation. This is especially true when these innovations are demanded by a conscience of dignity and freedom, justice and solidarity. Those who share these feelings today do not lack strength.
  • Cooperativist philosophy rejects both the collectivist and the liberal conceptions of human nature. It recognizes instead the unique value of the human person, but insists that this person cannot be totally himself or herself until entering into creative as well as spiritually and materially productive relationships with the world he or she is a part of.

While the cooperative model cannot be viewed as the only “Catholic” form of enterprise, it offers a distinctive combination of elements. Last February, in an address to the  Confederation of Italian Cooperatives, Pope Francis recognized the cooperative movement worldwide (in which the top 300 organizations now represent $2.2 trillion in revenue!) for its contribution in building an “economy of honesty” and “a healing economy.”

Thinking of his own post-war Spain, Don Jose Maria put it this way: “The cooperatives are neither born to act as social guerillas nor to deteriorate as withdrawn bourgeoisie. Rather cooperatives are born to maintain human and social values which are live and operative, in the bosom of an old and enduring people, who have a renovating capacity and deserve better luck.”

 

 

 

 

About Elias Crim

A native Texan, Elias spent several good years studying classics and medieval Italian at UC Berkeley before wasting several more years in financial journalism around Chicago. He has written for the American Scholar, the American Conservative, the Washington Times and the Chicago Observer and is the co-author of a textbook on character education. He briefly published something called The Armchair Historian. None of his three teenage daughters display an interest in the Greek and Latin classics thus far. He and his family reside in leafy Valparaiso IN.