The Dignity of Labour
Kenneth Brooks


What follows is an edited and abridged version of a research essay produced in May 1999 by a mature student at Plater College, Oxford, where the Sane Economy research project of the G.K. Chesterton Institute is currently based. It is an attempt to promote an awareness of the modern "Distributist" approach to the organization of human labour within a coherent moral framework, so as to enhance the life of the worker as well as that of the consumer. Kenneth Brooks died in January 2001.

I witnessed the sheer brutality of the capitalist system as a child in the Irish ghetto of a Welsh seaport town in the 1930s. Those early childhood impressions (free meals for the malnourished, the "means-test" man, evictions, etc.) have never left me, and thus I grew up with a leaning towards Marxism, despite my primary school Catholic education. This leaning diminished as I grew older, but I have always thought there must be an alternative to the present hedonistic and immoral way of managing the lives of millions of working people in Britain. I wasted a great deal of time searching for a practical and credible alternative. Of course it was there all along, as proposed by a group of thinkers called the "Distributists". I became aware of this movement not long after the oil crisis. I read E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, and found many of his views made sense. In the late 1970s I heard of Mondragon. The more I read about it the more convinced I was that here was a viable alternative to the capitalism I had known as a child. But if it had proved so successful in Spain, why were there not other Mondragons in other countries? I began to discover that there were. The widespread ignorance of this fact, and of the success of Mondragon itself, seems at odds with the claim that we live in an open society which is encouraged to debate any topic that is highly relevant to our own development.

The Anglo-Welsh subculture in which I grew up produced its own idiom for indicating a man’s identity and significance, by linking his surname to his occupation. In a community where there were dozens of Lloyds and Morgans and Davies, Bill Jones became Jones the Farm, Tom Evans became Evans the Shop, and Dai Davies became Davies the Milk. But milk is now purchased at the supermarket, much more cheaply, and stored in a domestic refrigerator. The name "Davies the Milk" is meaningless to the new generation because there is simply no such distinctive function within the community. In one sense, of course, the community is getting better value for its money; in another sense, it has lost one tiny nuance in its cultural system. No contest, you might say: give us the cheaper milk! But beware. Capitalism does not care a tuppenny damn about culture, be it Welsh, English or Croatian. Furthermore as new technology reduces the number of labour units required for work (and de-skills the residue), and as the Women’s Movement increases the number of female part-time or full-time units on the supply side of the labour market at "coolie" rates of pay, the inevitable result is endemic (especially male) unemployment. Even when this results in no loss of income, thanks to generous redundancy payments, the unemployed are often dispirited, irritable, miserable - and with good reason. Their self-esteem has gone. That job formed part of what Victor Frankl calls their "will to meaning".

As the nature and availablility of work changes rapidly, society is in the process of disintegrating into a rootless multiplicity of liasons where the cardinal vices have replaced the cardinal virtues. Society is destabilized, and the root causes are the loss of meaningful employment, assisted by the decline in adherence to religious values and the concentrated power of the media and money. How can this damage be repaired? I am not competent to deal with the macro issues of religious faith and the influence of the media. This essay is concerned with the provision of meaningful work. Not all work is meaningful. Work for the sake of work - such as digging a hole and refilling it over and over again - is an insult to the individual. How are we to generate work that does not demean the labourer? Let us begin by listening to the wisdom of the Catholic tradition, applied to this question by Pope John Paul II in his 1982 encyclical Laborem Exercens.

The Pope emphasizes first of all that "work is a fundamental part of man’s life on earth", and also that "Work is good thing for man - a good thing for his humanity - because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his needs, but also achieves fulfilment as a human being and, indeed, in a sense becomes ‘more fully human’." Yet "work is for man, not man for work", and so ‘"abour has priority over capital". This principle "is directly applicable to the process of production where it shows that labour is always the primary efficient cause, while capital, the totality of the means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause." Thus "the position taken up by rigid capitalism in defence of the exclusive right to private ownership of the means of production as an untouchable "dogma" of economic life must always be rejected.’ But this does not mean simply converting the means of production to State ownership. We can speak of socializing that property only ‘when on the basis of his work each person is entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with everyone else. A way towards that goal could be found by associating labour with the ownership of capital, as far as possible, and by producing a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social and cultural purposes; they would be bodies enjoying real autonomy with regard to the public powers,... and would be living communities both in form and in substance, in the sense that members of each body would be looked upon and treated as persons and encouraged to take an active part in the life of the body."


Some European Producer-Cooperatives

Producer-cooperatives owned and controlled by the workers best illustrate the kind of structure envisaged by the Pope. Great Britain has some quite good examples of cooperatives in the retail sector, which have managed to maintain a reasonably steady trading position despite aggressive competition, but the position as regards producer-cooperatives is not so good. In 1973 such cooperatives had a combined turnover of £5.6 million and employed 1,845 workers. Ownership is not vested solely in the workers, but in all members of the cooperative group: trades unions, consumers, retired workers and their families, friends and supporters. In 1958 Ernest Bader (principal owner of Scott Bader & Co.) established the Society of Democratic Integration in Industry, which later (in 1971) became the Industrial Common Ownership Movement. But for a model that effectively combines industrial cooperation with individual ownership we have to turn to Spain.

The Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in Northern Spain was started by a Catholic priest, Fr Arizmendi, in the period of economic instability associated with the Civil War. Since the Basques tended to side against General Franco, Fr Arizmendi was regarded by him as a socialist upstart. But despite these inauspicious beginnings, the network of worker-owners established by Fr Arizmendi has made healthy progress with a wide diversity of production, ranging from furniture to building materials. The first cooperative, ULGOR, has become Spain’s leading manufacturer of refrigerators, cookers and washing machines, and has established similar plants in Tunisia, Russia and Mexico. Danobat, established in 1966, is equally successful with its machine tools. The group as a whole is the ninth largest in Spain, employing more than 30,000 workers. The financial needs of any industrial cooperative in the Mondragon group are carefully monitored and attended to by a cooperative savings bank (Caja Laboral Popular). Over the years, a whole cluster of cooperatives have grown up around this central "hub", offering shops, schools, technical colleges, agriculture, housing, research and management consultancies.

It would be a mistake to assess Mondragon solely in financial terms. Its success lies in building up the esteem of the workers who are also owners of the means of production and investors in the company. Each worker pays an initial deposit of approximately £1,000 (in 1975 values) for a share to which is then credited part of the profits that he works to produce. The losses of the company are also debited to these accounts. Each worker has relative security of employment, and is guaranteed 80% of his earnings during periods of unemployment. He is given access to a pension fund which looks after him when he retires, medical care, modern housing, cultural centres and retraining programmes. He elects one of his member-colleagues to the Control Committee. This form of worker democracy undermines any tendency to think in terms of "us" and "them", and naturally helps to develop a sense of personal responsibility. (This summary account is based on Worker-Owners: The Mondragon Achievement, a report by Alastair Campbell et al. for the Anglo-German Foundation for the Study of Industrial Society, London, 1978. More up-to-date research can be found in Race Mathews, Jobs of Our Own, from Pluto Press Australia, 1999.)

In Eastern Europe there are also several examples of successful producer-cooperatives. In Yugoslavia, President Tito managed to transform many state-controlled industries into healthy cooperative networks despite the wrath of the Soviet Union. Less well known is what occurred in Poland. After the War, many Polish people found themselves without work, and so set about organizing themselves into cooperatives with the help of funding from the only source available - the Government, who saw this as a way towards solving their own economic problems. Most of the cooperatives started in the towns, but local associations quickly grew into larger regional groupings, still dependent on the government for materials and coordinated from Warsaw by the Central Union of Workers’ Cooperatives (CZSP). An astute accumulation of capital eventually freed the cooperatives from reliance on government finance, and in order to avoid state control efforts were concentrated in the small business sector, where the Communist hierarchy was unlikely to interfere. By the 1960s the cooperatives were regularly taking on jobs that the government was unable or unwilling to do, and proving extremely successful: a new programme to employ all the country’s disabled people was created, rural cooperatives were established which led in turn to increased state assistance, and success in exporting led to the formation of a special export organization (COPEXIM).

By 1976 there were 1,700 Polish worker-cooperatives with some 750,000 members. In his booklet Polish Mondragon (Scottish Development Committee, Glasgow, 1980), Alastair Campbell notes that he found the parallels with Mondragon remarkable, despite the fact that the Polish workers did not know anything about the Spanish experience. The common factor may be that the indigenous peasant cultures of both countries have left to each succeeding generation a residual deposit of common sense, making the outcome identical. Nobody was going to help them: they had to do it themselves, and the only things they had were their own bare hands. As at Mondragon, in Poland ownership was confined to persons working in the business, at least 80% of whom had to be members of the cooperative. Similarly, control was separated from management by the election of control committees, which then appoint managers on normal terms of service. Entry fees were obligatory, on the basis of which capital credits could be awarded. One difference seems to have been that the Polish cooperatives would not undertake to pay the unemployed until the resumption of work, but guaranteed employment by being prepared to transfer the workforce to another part of the country (or the economy).



The viable presence of producer-cooperatives in any community can act as a powerful protection against the more extreme forms of both Capitalism and Communism. We can learn a great deal from the success of these cooperatives, in which, as the Pope says, each worker knows that he is working "for himself".

There is one particular industry where I think there may be a particular role for cooperatives to play. In Britain the building industry is in a sorry state. Disciplined apprenticeship training over several years, which existed for centuries (remember the medieval guilds) has finally disappeared in favour six months with an instructor ending with an NVQ certificate. Safety regulations have been deliberately flouted, and replaced by a plank on the top of a couple of oil drums. Pride in quality craft work has vanished with the introduction of "piece-work" payments. Successive governments have abused the industry by using it as an economic regulator. Yet the construction industry, like farming and fishing, is a primary industry. It needs to be rescued and protected. This could be done by worker-cooperatives, if these incorporated sufficient diversity into their mandate from the very beginning. Such a cooperative would not only manufacture materials such as bricks and roof tiles, but would have a role in the design of buildings, and research into energy conservation, laminated timbers, structural plastics, etc. It should also have an eye to the wide spin-off demand for products such as carpets, cutlery, fittings and transport which usually follows new housing programmes. This would help to insulate the home market from becoming too dependent on imported goods - leading to all the old problems of ‘stop and start’ in an overheated economy. Prevention is better than cure.