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From the Ground Up: Essays on Grassroots and Workplace Democracy

From the Ground Up: Essays on Grassroots & Workplace Democracy
by C. George Benello. Edited by Len Krimerman, Frank Lindenfeld, Carol Korty and Julian Benello. 251 pp. Boston: South End Press, 1992. $12.00, paper.
Paul Goodman remarked that "a free society cannot be the substitution of a 'new order' for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up the most of social life." This was the anarchist style of George Benello. His big interest was the liberation of work, but he had many other concerns. One was the peace movement, another was sailing. Characteristically, he linked them all together. In the 60s he sailed with others into a South Pacific nuclear test zone, having been navigator of the Nimble, the first trimaran to cross the Atlantic. In the 80s he developed a cooperatively owned catamaran called Friends of Durutti, and established a worker-owned company, Arrow Design Engineering, to produce a low-cost, highly energy-efficient vehicle for local transport. Like many another such venture, it failed for lack of the capital for full-scale production.

Looking for positive trends in the real world, he seized upon the lessons to be gained from the cooperative industries financed by the workers' bank at Mondragon in the Basque province of Spain. A major interest of his last year was in gathering the implications of the small-workshop economy in the Italian region of Reggio-Emilia.

He died, aged 60, in 1987, needlessly, following a minor operation, and it is grievous to learn that his son Julian, who had been helping in the preparation of this commemorative anthology, was killed in the 1988 explosion of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie.

Benello was essentially an organizational thinker. "If we can agree," he argued, "that the primary problem in advanced industrial society is the problem of organization and how it works, then we have already taken a large step toward determining how to go about changing it."

Since local autonomy is at the heart of anarchist perceptions of the way society should organize itself, in the face of the dominant centralizing trend of the 20th century, he seized upon those gestures which asserted it. One of these was the campaign at the height of the Cold War for elected local authorities to declare themselves to be nuclear free zones. This happened in 200 towns in Britain, about 175 locations in the U.S., and in over 100 towns each in Germany, Japan, Italy, Belgium, Canada, the Nordic countries and the Netherlands, as well as cities of the Pacific rim and New Zealand. Generally, nuclear free zones "are local areas that have declared a prohibition on local research, production, transportation, and deployment of nuclear weapons. A nuclear free zone renounces the right to be defended by the use or threat of nuclear weapons, and requests to be taken off the target list of all other governments employing nuclear weapons."

These gestures were mostly rhetorical, but had the great virtue that they obliged people "to consider the nuclear issue as having local relevance—something which must be confronted as a community in the same way people deal with other local ordinances. . . it is a declaration of local independence, of opting out." So Benello outlines a "grab-bag of initiatives" which could follow such declarations. Another essay applies a similar incremental approach to the problems of communities hit by the collapse of local employment. He reminds readers that during the great depression of the 1930s, "many cities printed their own currency; this works to the extent that a community is able to maintain a viable internal economy which provides the necessities of life, independent of transactions with the outside." In Japan just after the Second World War, there was a similar secondary currency of promissory notes, and he could have added more recent experience in the Irish Republic, where in a prolonged strike of bank employees life went on as usual through everyone writing checks. He suggests that within this local money supply, a community might decide to build a hydroelectric utility to supply power outside the national grid, and develop solar ponds in order to "bank" solar energy, and could invent dial-a-buses or public taxis on the Latin American model, community clinics and the whole range of shared local facilities. Poverty could be the means of building a better life, from the ground up.

Another paper calls for tax decentralization, since, as he claims, "federal taxes breed war-making." You can't disagree, since all through history centralized tax-gathering has been the means of financing war. Needless to say, this is the aspect of decentralization that central governments will most strenuously resist, and Benello suggests that "tax reform would be a good issue for the emerging Greens." Writing from Britain, the most centralized state in Europe, where the greater part of even local authority spending comes from central government's monopoly of revenue gathering, I can see the point of his argument.

Most of the other essays in the book, apart from his much-reprinted paper from the 1960s on "Wasteland Culture" and his discussion of the conflicting traditions of anarchism and Marxism, explore the promise and problems of the self-governing workplace, using the experience he had gathered from his own initiatives. He was among the visitors from all over the world who, as he says, swamped the Mondragon cooperatives, trying to learn how their successes could be emulated. His account of what he learned is a model of fairness. Mondragon began in the least favorable of circumstances. The founder, Don José Maria Arizmendi, was a Catholic priest who narrowly escaped death for his participation on the antifascist side in the Spanish civil war, and had to work within the repressive climate of the Franco regime, starting first an elementary technical school and then helping its first graduates to set up a worker-owned factory, following this with a workers' bank or credit union. The huge network of co-ops in the region grew from these beginnings.

For Benello, the important lesson is the demonstration that "to achieve freedom in work, a high level of organizational skill is needed, and that when such skills are present, the traditional opposition of democracy and efficiency vanish, and the two reinforce rather than oppose each other."

He feels defensive against anarchist criticisms that might be made. Mondragon has wage differentials, though they are much narrower than those in capitalist industry, it does not practice job rotation, and "management is not directly elected from the floor—for good reason, since experiments elsewhere that have tried this have not worked." Nor does it produce mainly for a local market: its products are exported all over the world.

His conclusion is that
Mondragon is worth studying because it works, and the argument can be made that utopian theory must always confront the practical since the burden of proof is on the theorist. The problem with capitalism and, more generally, with coercive industrial systems of whatever persuasion, is not that they don't work; they do deliver the goods, but in the process grind up human beings. The only answer to this state of affairs is to prove that a better system also works; theory alone simply will not do. And, if we wish to claim that something better than Mondragon needs to be built, then it is incumbent on us to do it.

The book ends with a section by friendly critics and critical friends discussing the limits of Benello's position as a radical decentralist, and some valedictory thoughts by two of the editors, Len Krimerman and Frank Lindenfeld, placing him in a tradition of thought that began with Proudhon and Kropotkin, was represented in our youth by Lewis Mumford and Paul Goodman, and is epitomized today by Murray Bookchin's "libertarian municipalism" and various strands of the Green movement. It is a very satisfying memorial.

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