Two Great Documentary Films about Cooperatives
Filmed documentaries on the solidarity economy are relatively rare. This is unfortunate. A good documentary can convey the look and feel of a cooperative, and the emotions of their worker-owners, in a way that a post or podcast (or online newsletter!) alone cannot. A well-edited documentary can weave together many such stories into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. As such, documentaries can play an important role in spreading knowledge of and passion for the solidarity economy.
Mondragon, a Basque Cooperative, produced by the Dutch documentary company VPRO in 2012, investigates the people, culture, and community of the Mondragon cooperative. Filmed entirely within the town, the film delves into the institutional ecosystem that contributes to and benefits from the company’s success: cooperative schools, cooperative business incubators, town halls, and even the local church.
Mondragon is shown to be a triumph of both communitarianism and cosmopolitanism. The cooperative is firmly embedded in the traditions and culture of the Basque people, but most of its products are marketed towards a global audience. Mondragon’s region dates to the middle ages, but Mondragon’s products are modernist and functional in design. Cooperative worker-owners are embedded in thick ties of mutuality and trust, but the company is unapologetically organized around efficiency and a commitment to economies of scale.
The dominant theme through the film, however, is the importance of two values in making the cooperative function. The first is solidarity. Worker-owners discuss the company with pride and a sense of ownership. Profits are important, but only insofar as they are recycled back into the cooperative and community.
Solidarity is complemented by another value: autonomy. This is most obvious in the desire of individual workers to be treated with dignity and respect. A desire for political autonomy, however, is equally vital to the success of Mondragon. Again and again, we see Mondragon worker-owners and officials trying together their commitment to their cooperative with their commitment to a transformative political project: independence and self-determination for the Basque people. Economic autonomy is a means toward greater political autonomy more generally. There is a lesson here.
Near the end of the documentary, the community’s priest visits the grave of Mondragon’s founder, Father José María Arizmendirietta. The note on his grave reads “The heart, the work, the life, granted by You.” Perhaps not every cooperative can be around faith in a God above the self. But none can be built around a faith only in the Self. This film captures what it looks like when we start believing in each other.
Can We Do it Ourselves?, a Swedish documentary from 2015, discusses the promise and feasibility of economic democracy: the idea (as Noam Chomsky defines it early in the film) that the participants in an economic institution decide upon the policies of those institutions. Over the course of this film you’ll visit home-care cooperatives in New York City, hear from trade unionists and business association VPs, and enjoy enlightening infographics on the relationships between market, cooperative, and capitalist economic systems. This is one to watch.
The first part of the documentary examines the tyranny of the modern workplace. While we have a semblance of democracy within our politics, one political economist notes, our workplaces are run as petty dictatorships. In a cooperative, however, the traditional lines of conflict and hierarchy between labor, owners, and management are weakened. On-site interviews at Equal Exchange and the Cooperative Home Care Association of New York make clear that another workplace is possible.
A cooperative economy would have implications for more than just individual firms, however. In our current system, private capital owners have a right to profit from and direct the operation of productive companies. The traditional Left sees this as a call to socialize ownership and the market more generally. The documentary, however, suggests a third alternative: of a market economy comprised of cooperatives, renting but not beholden to capital. Not every viewer will agree with this solution, but it suggests the extraordinarily high level of analysis made in this documentary.
The documentary’s discussion of the obstacles toward a cooperative commonwealth are equally provocative. Business schools don’t teach about cooperative models, even though they are often more efficient than for-profit firms. A Swedish Trade Unionist is ambivalent towards cooperatives: he prefers to keep his organization focused on keeping member rates and wages up in his current system. Both socialists and right-wing conservatives are suspicious of cooperatives as a substitute for their preferred solutions. These are pressing obstacles: but when it comes to establishing a solidarity economy, There Is No Alternative but to press back.
Can We Do It Ourselves? is one of the most thorough documentary treatments of economic democracy available today. It will not fully satisfy everyone: it leaves out some of the crucial elements of the solidarity economy, from cooperative finance to community land trusts, and some of its discussions on economic democracy are not fully developed (I’m not sure whether the ecological crisis brought about by heedless capitalist growth would be mitigated by democratizing capitalist firms.) This is all the more reason to watch it, however: as a launching pad for a more thorough discussion of where we can go from here, and how.