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Building a Stakeholder Society as an Alternative to the Market and the State

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
12th January 2013


“Especially important in this book is Race Mathews’ concept of “evolved distributism,” distributism adapted to a twenty-first century technology and economy, and where patterns of ownership can go beyond the small farm or workshop which the original distributists saw as the norm. Although such small shops and farms are by no means outdated, distributism is not limited by the concept of the single proprietor. Hilaire Belloc himself was already aware of this during the original distributist movement in the first half of the last century, and Race Mathews holds up Spain’s Mondragon Co-operative Corporation as an example of such “evolved distributism.” The Corporation’s workers are also its owners, and its success in the contemporary European economy shows that such firms can operate in a modern economy without succumbing to the capitalist temptation of seeking profits at the expense of those for whose sake an economy exists.” (from the Foreword)

* Book: Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stakeholder Society, Alternatives to the Market and the State Race Mathews. Distributist Review Press, 2009

Here are 2 reviews of this book which presents the distributist alternative:

1. Bill Powell:

“Mathews shows exactly how distributism has happened and is happening, right in the midst of the real economy. In Part I, British Distributism, we get an overview of how distributism began. Mathews doesn’t begin with the Chesterbelloc, but earlier, with the socialist movements in England which preceded distributism, so we can better understand the distributist reaction. The treatment of Belloc and the Chesterton brothers goes beyond the major works and draws heavily on lesser-known writings, particularly in the various incarnations of the newspaper which became G.K.’s Weekly. Mathews also doesn’t hesitate to examine the question of their anti-Semitism, which even today tarnishes distributist ideas through an illogical guilt by association. But although Part I will be of interest even to those well-versed in distributist history, it’s in Part II, Distributist Reborn, where the action really begins. If you’ve ever heard of the Antigonish movement—but, like me, barely recognize the word—or if you keep meaning to find out about that mysterious Mondragon corporation, wait no longer. Mathews focuses on Antigonish and Mondragon as two major attempts to put the ideas of distributism into practice. Although he had other examples to choose from, these two movements illustrate his central thesis: distributism only works when people have jobs (that is, work) of their own. In the early 20th century, Antigonish was a movement of consumer co-operatives in Nova Scotia which flourished for a time, but ultimately failed. Although Mathews finds much to praise in their work (and plenty of consumer co-ops flourish today), he uses Antigonish to illustrate how the basic agency dilemma will weaken any co-operative that operates only on the consumer level. You may have a food co-op, but if you hire outside managers to run it, there’s nothing particularly co-operative about their incentives. They may as well be working at the mall. In contrast, Mondragon is a worker co-operative. This co-operative (really a co-operative of co-operatives) is altogether the seventh largest corporation in Spain. Big business? Hardly.

Mathews examines the intricate mechanisms by which a worker in a Mondragon factory has a real voice in how his shop is run, a real stake in the success of the whole enterprise, and a real safety net for keeping at work, not getting welfare payments. As with his treatment of the early distributist heroes, Mathews doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge the shortcomings he finds, and the compromises Mondragon has made in recent years.

But, as with those heroes, the signifance of what Mondragon has achieved and will achieve is far more striking. Personally, I found myself amazed at this evolved distributism. Here at last is the answer to cliché that distributism is a sweet idea, but how would you make a jet? Ask NASA, which hired a Mondragon co-operative, Ikerlan, to work on the Columbia space shuttle. On the other hand, long-time distributists may think that deep down, Mondragon must be simply another corporation, and that the only real distributist is a sole proprietor. Jobs of Our Own offers a new perspective; actually, an old perspective, since G. K. Chesterton stated clearly, in Outline of Sanity and elsewhere, that some necessary projects would always be beyond the scope of the independent yeoman. As far as I know, Chesterton and Belloc never worked out the details of how distributists could co-operate in a large industrial enterprise. But Mondragon, and co-operatives like it, are doing just that.”

2. John McNamara:

“Matthews work takes off when he discusses the work of the Maritime Canadian priests Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady. Together, these community organizers helped build a strong and powerful cooperative movement as well as a culture of adult education. Although, the movement did crash in the mid 1960?s due to systemic structural problems and was re-born as Co-op Atlantic.

One of Coady’s goals which he never lived to see was the idea of delivering education to working men and women in their homes. He saw that it was impossible to expect people to leave their jobs to attend classes. I am sure that he would be quite proud that Tom Webb, one of his successors as Director of the Extension Department at the University of St. Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia would create exactly such a program at the sister school of St. Mary’s University–the MMCCU. (I was surprised to see this footnote in the book as I consider Tom a mentor to me and never knew that held Coady’s position prior to St. Mary’s).

The book then turns to its true focus. The Antigonish Movement discovered what has come to be known at the rochdale cul-de-sac. Essentially, that co-operatives grow to a point where the membership must give up control to hired management. The co-op then begins to behave and act like any other store and the uniqueness of the co-opertive model becomes lost. It is Matthews argument that distributists can overcome the problems brought about through Agency Theory by engaging in a slightly different model of co-operation, namely the worker co-operative.

So it is, that Matthews ties the work of our favorite priest Don José María Arizmendiaretta to the distributist movement of Chesterton and Coady. The rise of Mondragon and its redefining the relations between capital and labor fit nicely into the edict of Rerum Novarum without creating the tyranny of the the worker over the consumer that the Fabians so feared. By giving workers a voice and participation in the management of the co-operative, the problems of the cul-de-sac get eliminated. In some of the Mondragon coops, there are mutli-stakeholder modes that provide space for several voices in the discussion. At a few years past 50, Mondragon has outlived the Antigonish Movement and remains a strong and fervent co-operative model.

Distributism, according to Matthews, works. It works exceptionally well provided that the workers enjoy a strong voice as workers in the organizations. Mondragon distributes the wealth throughout the basque region of Spain to its 180,000 members (I think that is the correct number). By creating a true ownership society, they created a sustainable marketplace that focuses on the value of the human being.”

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