Here, you are what you eat: At the Mondragon, the food comes with a little politics on the side
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 23 December 2003)

WINNIPEG - Gwen McAllister and I were drinking fruit juice at the Mondragon Bookstore and Coffeehouse while she explained how hard it is to be a true vegan. Mondragon runs on stern political and dietary principles and therefore serves only organic coffee, grown under non-exploitative fair-trade conditions, but for Gwen and other workers at Mondragon even the purest coffee presents problems.

Vegans can't put milk in it, so they use soya cream, which is more or less tolerable, but how should they sweeten it? Mondragon uses sugar, though sugar makes Gwen kind of uneasy even if it is legal. Still, "maple syrup is too expensive, and if you use honey you can't call yourself vegan." That's obvious: Bees are animals, and vegans don't eat anything that comes from animals. It's said that some vegans, when alone, drip a little honey into their cup. Gwen, who is sweet, funny and absolutely committed, calls those people non-fundamentalist vegans. Others call them "freegans."

Mondragon borrowed its name from a successful Spanish co-operative that grew out of the Catholic worker-priest movement. It occupies a 103-year-old building in Winnipeg's cooler-than-thou Exchange District, a couple of blocks from Portage and Main. The space was once a warehouse, then the YMHA. It now provides a cozy atmosphere, particularly in winter. Patrons can sit on sofas before a blazing fire and eat their vegan lasagne while absorbing, if they wish, two separate ideologies: Along with veganism, Mondragon propagates the anarchist principles of Michael Albert, a U.S. writer who abandoned his physics career at MIT in the 1960s to search for a better system than capitalism.

He gets a special place in Mondragon's book section. His new book, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, has its own little plastic stand and a hand-lettered card: "Mondragon is based on the principles of Parecon." How many restaurants can name the political philosophy that inspires them?

"Parecon" (pronounced par-E-con) is shorthand for "participatory economics." The 14 people at Mondragon work to parecon rules: There's no hierarchy, and no one does rote work all the time. They pass all the jobs around. Everyone cooks, everyone helps keep the books, everyone takes a turn cleaning the washrooms. There's no boss and no owner. The workers pay themselves one rate, $6.75 an hour, the provincial minimum.

Books are sold only if members of the co-op suggest them, so the shelves look like a garage sale where a single reader's property is on offer. There's some Marx, some classic anarchists (Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin) and a lot about empowering women, blacks and natives. There's plenty of Noam Chomsky, probably at least half of the eight or nine books he's written in the last year. Books about the Middle East are of course anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian. There's nothing to offend a vegan, no cookbooks recommending meat or fish; instead you can buy Raising Vegetarian Children.

Most of Mondragon's founders eventually left, apparently exhausted, but replacements aren't hard to find. Gwen, who has been there two years, says the only problem in hiring is that some applicants believe the job mostly involves radical politics and are surprised to find that keeping a restaurant going requires so much work from everyone. New members get reviewed three times in the first year, but Mondragon has trouble firing. Peer pressure eventually banishes those who don't pull their weight.

Mondragon sells a T-shirt that says, "Boycott Violence -- Go Vegan," and a sign on the wall declares, "All food all vegan all the time." But another sign recalls a principle that had to be compromised: "Counter service is counter service." The founders opposed table service because they considered it more democratic if patrons fetched their own food rather than having it delivered to them. The slogan means that going over to the counter is a way to fight servitude. But customers wanted food brought to their tables, and the rule had to change. They kept the sign up anyway, as a reminder that they aren't an ordinary restaurant. As Gwen said the other night, "We like to serve well but we don't like to be treated like subordinates." Tips, however, are accepted.

A sign above the bookshelves says, "Labour is entitled to all it creates," but parecon envisions complicated ways of delivering that entitlement. Albert and his frequent co-author, Robin Hahnel, believe there should never be anyone always giving orders or anyone always taking orders. "Each person will experience both being in authority and being under authority in different situations and at different times."

Certain leftist critics of parecon have said it will lead to what one calls "the Dictatorship of the Sociable." Albert and Hahnel claim that the dictatorship of the sociable might be an improvement on the dictatorship of the wealthy, the powerful -- or the intelligentsia.

They spend much of their time trying to figure out how, in the future they dream about, professionals and intellectuals (they call them "the co-ordinator class") can be prevented from running everything. Marxism failed partly because it encouraged the knowledgeable to look down on the workers and consider them inferior. For working people, Communism was a nightmare because it put lawyers, academics and other elitists in charge of everything. Albert has concluded that Marxist theorists, in government or out, do all they can to keep power in their own hands.

Over the years, the titles of Albert's books changed their tone. He wrote Unorthodox Marxism in 1978 and Marxism and Socialist Theory in 1981. His more recent titles include Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty-First Century (1991) and The Trajectory of Change (2002). He wants to destroy capitalism, but sometimes he sounds a bit like a management consultant. He also sounds like one of those thinkers who refuse to let reality and history stand in the way of a good theory.

Meanwhile, Gwen does her revolutionary duty by working the tables and checking the kitchen while explaining that she hasn't yet read Albert's new book but figures she got the essence of it by skimming. What she likes doing best at Mondragon is baking, especially cinnamon buns and pies. "But the funny thing is," she told me, "I don't really believe in desserts." Why not? "People have no need of the extra fat." When you're a revolutionary, conscience can be a harsh taskmaster.

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