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The origins of the cooperative movement

It was in the 1840’s that, in various European countries (the UK, France, Germany, Denmark) cooperatives began to emerge, rapidly sketching four different organizational models: consumer cooperatives, production and work cooperatives, farming cooperatives and cooperative banks (or credit unions).
The UK was the birthplace of consumer cooperatives. Here, in 1844, 28 textile weavers from Rochdale (a town north of Manchester) opened up the first cooperative shop. These and the many others that followed (in 1891 approximately a million Englishmen were already associated with consumer cooperatives) aimed to increase the buying power of urban workers, in a country in which early industrialization and urbanization had brought to the forefront the problem of low wages in the first half of the 19th Century. The activities of these cooperatives consisted of selling basic commodities of good quality at market prices to members, and distributing profits in the form of rebates proportionate to purchases.
In France, a less industrialized country, the first cooperatives attempted to provide a solution to the serious problem of high unemployment. They took as their models the ateliers nationaux, public laboratories inspired by the socialist ideas of Louis Blanc in which unemployed urban workers were given employment in carrying out useful public works. Thanks to incentives provided by the decree laws of 1848, many cooperatives were founded. Among these was the Cliché’s social Atelier, created by a group of Parisian workers to produce garments for the national guard and based on the principle of equal pay for all and of equally distributed profits.
Germany, instead, was first to establish cooperative credit unions. This country, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, was still characterized by an un-innovative agricultural-based economy and dominated by small and medium farming enterprises. It was in this context, in Anhausen (in the Rhine Valley) in 1840, that F.W. Raiffeisen established the first rural cooperative banks. Working in a small market (at most two villages), limiting credit to members (unlimited responsibility), and applying low interest rates, these sought to distribute the limited resources available in a way so as to facilitate investments and the modernization of the agricultural sector. On the basis of similar principles, but in an urban context, the first cooperative banks called popular banks were founded in 1850, inspired by Herman Schulze-Delitzsch. In this case, the objectives were to modernize small-scale enterprises and urban artisan guilds and to minimize the pressure of money-lenders.
The homeland for farmer cooperatives, instead, was Denmark. Starting in the 1880’s and inspired by the Lutheran theologian and bishop Nicolas Frederich Gründtvigts, cooperative dairies were founded, followed by butchers and delicatessens. These soon hegemonized the sector by responding to the needs of the period and evolved to keep pace with economic changes right up until the present.
It is clear, from these brief notes, that right from their beginnings cooperatives have shown to function well in many different sectors. In particular, thanks to mutual principles, they demonstrated an ability to create businesses where private initiative was lacking or not able to combine social and economic development.
Further reading:
M. Degl'Innocenti (a cura) Il Movimento cooperativo nella storia d'Europa, Angeli, Milano. 1988.

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