What's a Co-op Anyway? Mondragón Today, v. IV

Sept. 24, 2011 by Philip Beard

This is the 4th of 5 posts from GoLocal co-founder Philip Beard on an intensive week-long seminar in Mondragón, Basque Country (Spain), studying the world's most successful worker-owned cooperative movement.

What's a Co-op Anyway? Mondragón Today, v. IV

(Fourth installment from Mondragón, home of the most successful worker-owned business network in the world.  I’m here with a group of 25 Americans attending a seminar organized by Georgia Kelly (founder and director of the Praxis Peace Institute in Sonoma) and Mikel Lezamiz, Director of Corporate Dissemination for the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation, or MCC.  -- For earlier posts in the series, click on Articles > Topics > Economy in the site menu bar.) 

It’s taken me a few days to get back to my reporting duties, so full has been our program.  And this (in two parts) will be my last of these blog entries from Mondragón itself.  I look forward to continuing the discussion, in particular with GoLocal members, and most particularly member businesses.  But I welcome responses and questions from other seminar participants and interested readers in general.

Today I’ll focus just on the presentations and activities that I have found most useful and/or delightful since my last entry.

The presentation I’d been most looking forward to (see most recent blog) was the one by a representative of Caja Laboral (the Workers’ Bank – “CL”), the Worker-and-MCC-owned institution which has grown into the second-largest credit union in all of Spain.  Juan Manuel Sinde, our presenter, worked 35 years for CL.  He reviewed for us the institution’s history, including several soul-searching crises concerning its proper mission and performance under changing external circumstances.  But he spent most of the session looking at CL’s current performance and outlook – precisely the areas where I’d hoped to see a spark of solution-oriented innovation, given the dire situation the MCC companies (along with everyone else) is currently facing.

The good news is that CL’s performance post-2008 has outstripped that of the conventional banking sector in Spain, at least according to standard indicators such as percent of “core” or “own” capital on the balance sheets: CL 11.6%, conventional banks just over 8%.  And most significantly from my layman’s viewpoint: In 2009, when the liquidity problem became acute, CL was the ONLY bank in the Basque Country offering loans!  (And maybe in all of Spain – my notes are vague.)  Also, unlike the other banks, CL has invested only marginally in real estate, so it’s pretty protected from the turmoil in that crashed sector.

Another positive point is the creation a few years ago of a new non-profit foundation to which 8% of CL’s profits are now dedicated.  Called “Gaztempresa”, its mission is helping youngentrepreneurs develop and implement their innovative ideas.  Thus CL remains true to the original mission that it shares with the whole cooperative movement, i.e. the creation of jobsas the most important part of a humane social agenda.

However…  When Ellen Brown and I asked what innovative next stepCL imagined itself undertaking (specifically, whether they were looking at credit-creation models such as the Swiss WIR system as a potential source of new liquidity), Juan Manuel’s answer was “We are too small to be able to make much of a difference.  And as a business, we cannot afford to engage in activities like development of alternative payment media – activities that would most certainly lead the Banco d’España to impose sanctions.”  (The latter apparently supervises all banking activities in Spain.) 

OK.  That means that however innovative Caja Laboral may have been at its inception, and however crucial its role in supporting the growth of other cooperatives, it just doesn’t see itself contributing to any system-level solutions to our current woes.  I understand that caution entirely, but it saddens me.

That sadness was lifted by our visit later that day to the stunning sanctuary of Our Lady of the Thorn Bush, at the mountain hamlet of Arantzazu (pronounced with that charming Castilian “th” where we American-Spanish speakers would expect an “s”: a-ran-tha-THOO). It’s also the home of a centuries-old Franciscan monastery and of a recently-founded peace and mediation center called Baketik.  In line with the mission of the Praxis Peace Institute, under whose aegis we are here in the first place, we spent an uplifting hour talking with Baketik’s director Jonan Fernández, who impressed upon us with gentle fervor the need to cultivate peaceful faculties within ourselves as the main source of our efforts to overcome destructive forces in the outside world.

 And then we walked over to explore the sanctuary, surely one of the world’s most extraordinary churches.  It was built in five years, from 1950-55, on the site of a much older, smaller church.  Stark on the outside, with grids of outward-pointing, “thorn-like” pyramidal stones festooning its towers, inside it presents the very opposite: a huge cool space lit only by bluish light coming through stained-glass windows high in the transept on either side, and by the huge illuminated altar area which focuses on a small image of the Madonna set high in the rear wall of the apse.  The effect is powerfully calming, almost mystically beautiful. 

We were nearly the only people in the huge building, strange to tell; and serendipitously we were treated to a brief lecture and tour of the apse area by one Fr. Antonio, an 80-year-old monk who has spent his last 62 years there, and who assumed we might like to learn a bit about the sanctuary.  The most charming part of his ad-lib presentation was a walk upstairs to behind the apse, where, we were delighted to discover, the iron half-cylinder housing the tiny Madonna could be rotated 180º so we could see her up close. 

According to the legend that Fr. Antonio shared with us, in the 1460’s after four years of war and drought, a local shepherd heard a bell ringing in the brush.  Approaching the sound, he came upon a painted wooden statuette of the virgin Mary with baby Jesus on her lap, stuck in a thorn bush with a cowbell beside it, and he exclaimed “Arantzan, zu?” -- Basque for “In a thorn bush, thou?” – thus giving the place its name.  He retrieved the Madonna from the bush, and the wars came to an end, and the rains fell again and all rejoiced.  And now this (allegedly) self-same figurine, and the same twisted thorn stump, and this same old rusted bell, captivated us all from up close.  It was very sweet.  For some, magical.

What does this all have to do with worker-owned cooperatives?  Well, for one thing, Baketik’s work is subsidized by MCC, which therefore reveals itself not only as a jobs incubator, social justice promoter, and business innovator, but as a supporter of peace work as well.  And MCC does it because they believe they have a spiritual mission in the world that is of a piece with their more practical workaday efforts. 

One keeps coming back to the remarkable padre who got the whole thing started, Father Arizmendiarrieta, and his vision at once religious and practical of a hardworking human society consciously improving, moving step by step towards divine perfection, regardless of how distant a goal it may remain.

(End of installment IV, for length reasons.  See installment V very soon.)