Italian Center for Documentation on Cooperation and Social Economy | Virtual museum - Development and crises between the First and the Second World Wars

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Development and crises between the First and the Second World Wars

The outbreak of World War I led the State to intervene increasingly in the economy. One of the government’s aims was to ease the social costs of inflation, especially through price control of basic commodities. Consumer cooperatives were considered capable of achieving this and began to enjoy a privileged relationship with local governments. They thus entered into a phase of growth, both in numbers and size, characterized by the opening of new shops and the joining together of others. Although this phenomenon was typical primarily of the large towns, it is significant that both Catholic firms as well as socialist-inspired coops were involved.
Other cooperative sectors saw similar growth, due mainly to more dialogue between political leaders and cooperative leaders, particularly from the League. In the agricultural sector a ministerial decree was issued concerning rural credit, which facilitated access to funds, while in the production and work sector, a steadily increasing number of contracts and wartime orders were channelled towards the cooperatives, leading to a gradual growth under state protection (marked by certain structural weaknesses).
The fundamental consequence of these political-economic processes was a decisive step forward in the creation of federations of cooperatives, that could better coordinate themselves and represent their claims. One part of the cooperative movement’s strength, with its diverse ideological facets, was its ability to collaborate whit the State and local bodies. It therefore became essential to open to institutional dialogue. In the same way, it seemed compelling that individual businesses join together into a cohesive and organic movement.
This attention to coordination gave rise to the birth of three national federations within the League, corresponding to the farmer, consumer and production and work cooperatives; a similar development took place in the catholic cooperatives. In this case, the structuring process began with federations (farmer, consumer, rural cooperative banks) which overcame their traditional tendency towards autonomy and gave rise to a series of relationships bringing to the establishment of a central association, inspired by Christian values, the Italian Cooperative Confederation (1919).
As World War I came to an end, the cooperative movement seemed substantially solid, particularly the consumer sector which, more than others, had benefited from funds given by the National Credit Institute for Cooperatives. The economic success and increasing number of self-managed coops raised fears and resentment among large parts of the Italian middle classes, particularly among the shopkeepers and landowners. The feeling emerged that the cooperative movement, built increasingly according to the model of consortia, represented an economic model that drew its strength from anti-liberal links to political powers, especially as the various self-managed organizations were – by their own admission- ideologically motivated. At the beginning of the 1920’s, coops were charged of being parasites and attacks by the press against ‘political’ cooperativism mounted.
The difficulties of some of the larger credit unions had repercussions on the rural cooperative banks, and consequently on the cooperatives which had received funding from them. The fall of prices and income, and a return to the liberalization of domestic trade dealt a serious blow to the consumer organizations, while the shrinking of public expenditure and the post-war reorganization affected the workers’ cooperatives. Added to these problems was the gang violence of nascent Fascism which, growing strong from widespread institutional support, initiated a series of attacks and aggression towards members and headquarters of the cooperatives. Mussolini and his collaborators had seen that the organization of the cooperatives acted as a decisive link between mass organizations and civil society. In fact, the coops were widely perceived to be political as well as an economic entities, along with the rural workers’ associations, trade unions, employment centres, and the “case del popolo” (local, socialist oriented meeting places, which acted also for recreational purposes). These were all considered to be inspired by Socialist, Catholic or Republican ideas, which impacted on the civil society of the period, effectively representing an essential link between political parties and citizens. For the Fascist movement, severing these links would have meant creating crises among opposing factions, and thus it was an essential step towards the conquering of institutional power.
At the beginning of the 1920’s hundreds of cooperatives were subject to assaults, violence, murder and destruction, leading to eventual control of the movement by the fascist regime.
Further reading:
F. Fabbri (a cura di), Il movimento cooperativo nella storia d’Italia (1854-1975), Feltrinelli, Milano, 1979.

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