On January 30, 2023, Henk Willems was awarded the title of Dr.
Henk Willems, started his PhD research work on Mondragon after he retired from professional life, but still felt intellectually challenged, and now at the age of 72, he bravely and successfully defended his PhD thesis on “Why did the Mondragon co-ops degenerate (or not)? Theorizing the Mondragon cooperative experience beyond the ‘degeneration thesis’ “. The topic of his research can be traced back to the time when he graduated as a master’s student in Geography at Radboud University in 1976 when in the field of geography neo-Marxist streams of thought were the mainstream, while at the same time, the Radboud University was a stronghold in the Netherlands of the 1968 inspired democratisation movement. In these days, parts of the university were occupied by students, while geographers, who are strongly engaged with the world around them, were at frontstage on the barricades of this progressive movement. During his professional career, as a politician and policymaker, Henk Willems stayed committed to creating a better world and after retirement was very much interested in the Mondragon Experiment, for an alternative, cooperative future of capitalism. Mondragon since its foundation in the 1950s developed from a small local Basque enterprise to, nowadays, a global player and the world’s largest co-op (Romeo, 2022). The following brief video shows its origins (Click on picture of Mondragon to start video).
But is it really only a success story? or did it compromise on its own cooperative principles when it grew bigger and embedded in the global capitalist economy, in other words: “did it degenerate?” (The degeneration thesis). Henk Willems argues as a real Geographer, that the cooperative principles of Mondragon, are not just part of an abstract idealist programme, but are also directly related to the concrete, social, and spatial context they emerged from. So if it does not fully comply with the cooperative ideals, it may as well be due to an original compromise with the local political and spiritual situation of the days, when it was founded. This is also known as the ‘original sin thesis’, as the cultural psychologist, Carl Ratner (2016) calls it. In his fascinating very comprehensive theoretical and historical explorative study Henk investigates how indeed the context, time and place, did make a difference. So, places also make social movements.
Click on the title page to download the full PhD Thesis.
Ratner, C. (2016) The Politics of Cooperation and Co-ops, Forms of Cooperation and Co-ops, and the Politics that shape them. Nova Publishers, New York.