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Discontinuity and endurance during the Fascist regime

As the fascist movement became institutionalized, Fascism gradually changed strategy, turning towards reconstruction and redefining its goals. The same organizations which had acted as links between political parties and civil society began to be seen as possible instruments with which to increase popular support and control of the masses. What Fascism did was to utilize - within a previously unknown authoritative, anti-liberal and antidemocratic framework – organizations such as trade unions and cooperatives, with completely different ideal inspiration.
Criticizing the management of cooperatives by the Socialists and Catholics, who were depicted as parasitical and economically disastrous, Fascism began to exalt an apolitical cooperative model, bulwark against speculation, glorifying the notion of work, and borrowing also concepts which had contributed towards initial cooperative establishment. They attempted to implement this ambitious project through a combination of violence and a management that took the financial interests of the cooperatives into account. Though marred by contradictions, not least that of the forced combination of authoritarianism and the semblance of self-management, the project was to be set within the much larger plan of totalitarianism. The Regime’s immediate main objective with regards to cooperative politics was to strip the movement of its popular-proletariat nature and to create an alternative model which could be interpreted as to represent the underlying tenets of Fascism. Depending on whether or not they considered this goal successful, they would swing between the use of the term “fascist cooperativism” or “cooperativism under Fascism”.
Eventually, the Confederation and the League were dissolved and on December 30, 1926, the Ente Nazionale Fascista della Cooperazione was established within a corporative framework. The subsequent metamorphosis of the cooperative movement within this framework not only led to the creation of a political vehicle for increasing popular support to fascism, but often turned out to be economically successful for the self-managed enterprises. Not only did the 1920’s fail to completely liquidate the movement, but some modern elements also appeared in the cooperative politics of the Regime. Lacking its earlier ‘political’ base, local groups, which had previously been divided along ideological lines, proceeded to join up in larger alliances. In other cases, however, the insertion by PNF (the National Fascist Party) of their own men into leading positions in the self-managed enterprises created problems of incompetence and episodes of private use of the firms’ assets by their management.
In general, the workers’ cooperatives were those that were best able to absorb the Regime’s economic measures, due mostly to the increase in spending on public works, which the Regime issued in order to support employment levels after the 1929 crisis. It is more difficult to judge how the consumer cooperatives fared; although contradictory statistics are available, these cooperatives seemed to enjoy significant activity. In the agricultural sector, the cooperatives dealing with produce processing flourished - such as dairy and wine-producing cooperatives, oil producers, mills, preserve factories, distilleries. Perhaps because it presented itself as an ideal combination of rural roots and the myth of technological progress, the industry of food processing appears to be the economic sector which developed most successfully during the 1920 and 30s. Following the approval of certain laws and regulations which restricted their function by changing their social composition, the rural cooperative banks instead witnessed a significant decline which also signalled a steady distancing from their original goals.
Further reading:  
M. Fornasari – V. Zamagni, Il movimento cooperativo nella storia d’Italia. Un profilo storico-economico (1854-1992), Firenze, 1997.

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