Cooperative Association:
Towards a Participation Society

De AS - Anarchistisch tijdschrift
by tijdschriftdeas Thom Holterman

de_asHuman society has different factors that contribute to its survival and development. Darwin pointed attention to the factor 'struggle'. The geographer and anarchist Peter Kropotkin replied that the factor "mutual aid" should not be forgotten. He did that already with the title of his book Mutual Aid, A Factor of Evolution (1902). This factor has many effects. One is 'cooperation'. That may be fleeting and spontaneous, but also organized and stable. The latter elements are reflected in the organization or cooperative association.

The focus on the cooperative organization has increased significantly in recent years, partly to counterbalance the 'struggle' promoted by the neoliberalism. This struggle manifests itself among others in the destructive "growth ideology" and competition within the neoliberal market philosophy. The intent is to kill each other to express the purpose of acquiring a monopoly position and subsequently to control the market.


Cooperative is not new. In the eighteenth century come as forerunners of the modern cooperative system among others the Frenchman Charles Fourier (1772 - 1837) and the Englishman Robert Owen (1771 - 1858). They developed most 'integrated' cooperation in the sphere of the "labor colony" or "cooperative community" (the Fourier falanstère, 'New Harmony' by Owen). The background of this movement is a sustainable path to better the condition of the workers.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809 - 1865) has this goal in mind, but he is more concerned with the idea of ​​a separate association for various functions (productive association, exchange bank). Moreover, he takes the view that the physical and mathematical laws of production associate labourers. He points out that workers as "associates" are equal. From their voluntary cooperation they create the "free association" (an association of equals). Proudhon has already discussed in his first major, controversial work What is Property? (1840).

The physical and mathematical laws whereof he speaks, refers in his view to the next. The isolated man can make only a very small part in his needs. There is no man that can do everything hiself (the 'physical' law). In addition, for the manufacture of many product, the need for previously produced products is required (for example, tools). Almost every product is an 'intermediate', a link in a chain (the "mathematical" law).

Rochdale Pioneers


[The Rochdale Society was formed by 28 workers, ten of them were weavers, others were clog-makers, shoemakers, carpenters. In 1844 they opened a store and later expanded their operations with production of articles and agricultural activity 'to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government' according to cooperative method. The picture was taken in 1865 shows the 13 and then living pioneers (photo and details of the site:]

The different notions of cooperation have led to forms of self-organization, such as consumer cooperative houses. In 1844 a grocery store was opened by residents of Rochdale (UK), which was owned and managed by themselves. The way they did, was such that they remained known in history as the 'Rochdale Pioneers'. The principles on which they managed their consumption were cooperative based (the "Rochdale Principles") and are up till now used by cooperative movements (see the Rochdale Pioneers site:

By the end of the nineteenth century, advocates arose who worshiped that along cooperative way that ultimately the entire economy and the partnership could be 'cooperativivated'. One of them is the Frenchman Charles Gide (1847 - 1932). I mention him because I take at a later stage in a separate item to come back to him.

The history of the cooperative movement teaches that there is an ideological distinction to make, what the background of the advocacy concerns. First, one finds the social-liberal ideas emanating from the "state abstinence. Workers are encouraged to learn to solve by themselves the problems ("self-help") to set up cooperatives. The emphasis here is on the workers as consumers. Secondly, the socialist movement that focuses on the worker as producer and puts attention to the productive association. However, nothing stays in the way to link both lines, so that eventually we could speak of a "integral cooperation", as we shall see.


The Dutch history of the cooperative and association essentially speaks about “companies under own charge” and "productive association". The ever informative study of Frans Becker and Johan Frieswijk is about the past and is titled Companies under own charge, Colonies and productive associations in the Netherlands 1901-1958 (Nijmegen, 1976). But as elsewhere in the world also in the Netherlands cooperative experiences a remarkable revival.

This revival has not escaped even the United Nations in view of the fact that the UN has declared the year 2012 to be the year of the cooperatives. Undoubtedly connected with that renewed interest a few years ago is set at the University of Tilburg a chair for the cooperative system. This is occupied by Ruud Galle, who in 1993 received his doctorate on the subject of cooperative. Recently he published the Cooperatives Handbook (2010). Galle, who is also director of the National Cooperative Council, teaches law and cooperative organization of the company. So the cooperative subject is taken very seriously. That is not so strange.

For too long, the effect of short term thinking that neoliberalism has spread like poison, grossly neglecting corporate social responsibility. It is hoped that attention to the long-term thinking will return through the promotion of the cooperative system. At the same time one expects that there thus be an inclusive and sustainable entrepreneurship, whereby the participation of the 'participants' (producers / consumers) is institutionally insured.

de as directly from producer to consumer

Capitalist 'environment'

Cooperative and association as an alternative economic institutions bear in themselves the rejection of private and state structures. These institutions have thus intrinsically a revolutionary intent and content. Without such an intention cooperatives soon become a kind of 'third way' between socialism and capitalism. The question is whether the cooperative movement itself knows how to set up and whether they provide an alternative to the capitalist production system.

The Italian political scientist Vilfredo Pareto (1848 - 1923) was as cynical as I gather from the article by Andrea Papi, who writes about these issues in the Italian anarchist journal "A Rivista anarchica" (No 315, 2006). Pareto saw the cooperatives namely as an example of the resilience of capitalism for its failure to repair at times. The question is whether this is correctly observed. In any case he inaugurated a different vision of a contemporary of his, the Italian dictator Mussolini.

In 1926 he took strong action against the cooperatives by abolishing and prohibiting them. In the perspective of a ruler cooperative forms - as autonomous self-help organizations - are a potential threat to the authoritarian regime. In these cooperatives, cases will be settled outside the state, people learn that one does not need the state to continue to live. Here we see the recognition that the cooperative system is to be feared as carrier of 'subversion' ...

It is precisely this perspective which Guillaume Goutte refers in his article on industrial democracy and the co-operatives in a recent issue of the French weekly Le Monde libertarian (No. 1666). In that article, he discusses the scop. This is the acronym for "Société de production cooperative" (for depth information, see: here).

The purpose is perceived as a commercial community that has its origins in the tradition of the labor movement of the nineteenth century. It is the tradition of solidarity and the liberating struggle of the workers to move from the yoke of the employers to discard and to simultaneously develop another society to come. That battle was lost. Does that mean, asks Goutte, that people have to throw all of this on the muckheap? He thinks not.

The purpose is namely to provide space for the practice of economic democracy. This means that the associated workers choose the leadership (which may in turn wage laborer in purpose). The major decisions in the company are taken by the General Assembly on the basis of the principle 'one person one vote'. This means that men go above the 'capital'. The associated workers manage more than half of the invested capital and they will share in the revenues of the company. This is not 'industrial democracy' but it's a start, says Goutte. It is therefore to them ‘to get hold off’.

coop made in USA

Worker-owned and consumer coops

In line with the purpose is the text of the brochure by Enrico Massetti, an Italian who lived for thirty years in the United States. He advocates long before the establishment of cooperative enterprises. In some recent editions of A Rivista anarchica he published a dossier about US cooperatives. This series of articles have been translated into English and compiled into the above brochure entitled Coop made in USA. Worker-owned and consumer coops in the USA.

With some "worker-owned coop" mentioned, attention is focused on "workshop democracy" as is to be found in the contemporary United States. Besides theoretical explanation of the cooperative and association, is found in the brochure much information about actual and functioning cooperatives throughout the United States.

So has his collection of more than 200 worker-owned cooperatives. The cooperatives fit into the self-help tradition of the U.S. They are "business-wise organized" cooperatives, both in the sphere of consumption as well as the productive coops. Massetti treats of the general principles, which he discusses the different forms of governance, decision-making processes, distribution of income, purpose of the organization of different cooperatives.


[The entrance of what began in 1975 as a small grocery in San Francisco and grew into a large supermarket on a cooperative basis, for more information, see:; from Massetti's brochure]

Integral cooperative

As expected, many consider this type of work cooperative does not go far enough when talking about a revolutionary position. So it is not so incomprehensible that anarchist circles are being considering whether the co-operatives can contribute to the liberation from capitalism. Some years ago the group Cooperativa Integral Catalana dealt with this issue. An initial discussion paper written under the title "Cooperatives pour sortir du capitalism" speaks of an "integral cooperation".

It is a cooperative organization based on economic relations of self-government between participants for the benefit of diverse activities, which provide for daily needs (offering products and services between users and producers / service providers). The goal is to develop a network of cooperative, solidal and economic relations between individuals and social enterprises, falling outside the laws of the market to act together. These activities can be arranged so that a situation arises which makes so that in this case we may say "we can live without capitalism."

The inventors of the integrated cooperative structure pay especially a close attention to the legal problems (which can vary par country) with which one faces (which are the requirements by the state to achieve a legal organization founded?). Thus, it is also intended to use a different valuation and money system than what it is prescribed and enforced by state agencies. I have not come across a sequel to this initiative (the discussion paper can be found here).

Participation cooperative

Who thinks that setting up a "complete cooperation" is a too elaborate exercise, of course, can proceed to establish a "participation cooperative". Again it is a consumer / producer cooperative that imposes a direct connection between users and producers of goods, especially products from certified biological agriculture and animal stock farming. On the basis of the relationship that exists between the two parties, it is possible to produce as much as required, instead of the production of surplus in the form of merchandise. This prevents the fact that one must work with traditional trading schemes within a capitalist system. (For more information:


 [Photo from the Arizmendi Bakery, belonging to the Arizmendi Association: a Model of the Democratic Worker Cooperative Movement, the origin goes back to the early seventies of last century, from the brochure of Massetti.]

Participation society

The commitment to the realization of an anti-capitalist society to come, requires the formation of desire for paradigm shift. This means here the conversion of the paradigm of "obedience" to the paradigm of 'participation'. It concerns the transition from the 'obedience society' to the 'participation society'. In this case, the cooperative can play an important role.

It is this intention that we come across in the book Le pouvoir du pouvoir au-delà with one of the authors, the founder of Groupe Hervé (discussed on this site, click HERE). Through network and federation is a chain of activities for cooperation to forge, so also teaches that book. In the framework of the cooperative system, such chains have actually operational. The trick is to let this set of activities grow outside the "really existing capitalism".

It seems a dream, but it rests on basic activities. That can be started in daily practice. They are already started, as the brochure Coop made in USA with his collection of examples indicates.

Thom Holterman

Massetti, Enrico, Coop made in USA. Worker-owned and Consumers coops in the USA, Washington DC., 2012, 66 pp., price $ 7.95. The brochure can be ordered via or online.

[1] In writing the section "History", I used the book mentioned by Becker and Frieswijk (Chapter I) and the extensive article by D. Damsma and S. Wieling, "The Cooperative, as hart and soul. The cooperative ideal of social democracy and consumer cooperatives, in: The fifth yearbook for democratic socialism, Amsterdam, 1984, p. 28-87. The article by Andrea Papi to which I referred is partly in English translation included in the Massetti brochure. Proudhon, I quoted from his Qu'est-ce que la propriété? (1840) in the edition of Garnier-Flammarion, Paris, 1966. With regard to the influence of Robert Owen and libertarian communities in the USA is informative Ronald Creagh, Utopies américaines. Expériences libertaraires du XIX sciècle à nos jours (second revised edition, Marseille, 2009).

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