The cooperative principle as the basis of Swiss political culture – past and present

March 17th, 2012

Published on Current Concerns, by Dr phil René Roca, March 12, 2012.

The cooperatives in their various forms provide an essential foundation for the Swiss federal state. As economic self-help organizations cooperatives are based on the personal concept of man. Cooperatives should not merely be considered as a form of organization but in a broader sense as an important form of society. A cooperative is supported by a community that raises the highest ethical demands to respective tasks and that assumes much responsibility as the owner of a common cause.      

The total property, which must be protected, belongs to the association of people and the individual cooperative members. The functioning of a cooperative is guided by strict rules. These are monitored and in case of violations the community is supposed to impose sanctions. The cooperative is always locally based and often embedded in a federal-subsidiary political system. Cooperative members democratically decide on every question, everyone has a one vote.

The purpose of a cooperative is that all the members of such an association have the optimal benefit of their common cause. Utilization can vary but the purpose must always serve the Bonum Commune, the common good anchored in natural law.

The well-known Swiss historian Professor Dr Adolf Gasser has highlighted the importance of the economic co-operative principle in a very clear and plausible way. According to his findings, the history of Europe was characterized and shaped by the strong contrast of two different ethical principles, namely domination and cooperative. In this manifestation, Gasser states, two worlds were facing each other that were subject to very different laws of development: the world in which the political system was established from above and the other world in which the structures developed from the bottom up, or in other words: the world of domination and the world of cooperative, the world of subordination and the world of co-ordination, the world of centralism and the world of communalism, the world of command and the world of self-government, the world of communal bondage and the world of communal freedom:
“The contrast between domination and cooperative might be the most important antithesis known in social history. This contrast of authoritarian state – state of society is simply about very fundamental issues: namely about the elementary foundations of human social life.”

In his major work “Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas. Grundlinien einer ethischen Geschichtsauffassung” (Communal Freedom as a Rescue of Europe. Outlines of an ethical conception of history) Gasser explains that it is the cooperative organizing principle which leads to community ethics:

“Whereas in an authoritarian-bureaucratic state, politics and morality always base on different levels, they are inseparable in a social-communal state. Accordingly, it is the cooperative organizing principle, as it is the foundation of the bottom up community, which can be called ‘communal community ethics’.”

In Switzerland this cooperative principle has not only been applied since 1848, but even before it had been an integral part of the federal ethos for centuries. This can be shown by a look at history.

The origin and history of the cooperative principle: … //

… Cooperative movement in the 20th century – social capital and the third way

The cooperative as a legal form was established in 1881 in the Swiss code of obligations and was becoming increasingly popular. Thus the number of cooperatives massively increased in Switzerland around the turn of the century (in 1883: 373; in 1890: 1,551; in 1910: 7,113). Above all, the most important reasons were the recurrent crises of the capitalist economy. With the big crisis of the 1930s the founding of cooperatives strongly rose again, until they reached a culmination point in 1957 with more than 12,000 cooperatives.

Barely half of the cooperatives were of agricultural nature; in addition, new ones came from tertiary sectors, as for example the electricity industry. After the Second World War building and housing cooperatives were founded and promoted particularly often.

The Migros, founded in 1925, was based on a business idea of Gottlieb Duttweiler. He had set himself the target to sell cheaper food by avoiding intermediary trade. In 1941 the Migros was converted into a cooperative. The intention was to protect the consumers’ interests and orient the business policy towards the “social capital”. For Duttweiler, the idea of the social capital was based on the cooperative principle: the capital must serve the community in a responsible way and foster solidarity in society. According to Duttweiler, the cooperative idea also fosters democracy in a decentralised sense and from bottom up.

The cooperative principle did not only win many supporters as an economic concept; in politics as well a number of personalities tried to establish this principle as the third way – beyond capitalism and communism. The political concept wanted to convert the capitalistic society into a society based on public service. Thus the labour movement in Switzerland also accepted the so-called “three-pillar-model” consisting of “party, trade unions and cooperatives”. Among other things, the trade unions supported the creation of production cooperatives and the social democratic party incorporated the support of the cooperatives in their programme from the outset. In 1895 a programme revision failed, inspired by Stefan Gschwind from Basel Land, who wanted the socialisation of cooperatives instead of nationalisation make the key tool for the transition to socialism.

After the First World War religious-socialist circles around Leonhard Ragaz also accepted the cooperative idea and saw in it an important basis for a fairer society. Leonhard Ragaz turned against Marxist, state-centred approaches and held the view of a federalist, cooperative and pacifist socialism.

From 1970 on, the discussions about self-government and alternative economic management provided the cooperative movement with new impulses. This was also reflected in the social democratic party of Switzerland. Toward the end of the 1970s the comrades discussed a revised version of the party programme. Famous personalities like the philosopher Professor Dr Arnold Künzli added the Yugoslavian model of self-government to the discussion. This model should form the basis to overcome capitalism and to establish a democratic, socialist society with the help of the cooperative principle. However, the Yugoslavian model entered only sparsely the revised programme sanctioned in 1982. Many suggestions remained in cold storage and were not resumed in the newest programme, which has been sanctioned only recently. Thus the social democrats reject their traditional “three-pillar-model” and ignored the cooperative principle without which, however, they are not able to realise their aim of a “social-ecological economic democracy”.
And today?

Today in Switzerland there still are more than 12,000 cooperatives. This number must yet be increased and the cooperative principle as a comprehensive and sensible economic model must be appreciated appropriately. The cooperative approach must be discussed again broadly and be taught in schools and universities. If we study and investigate Swiss history and culture, we will become aware of the rich cooperative fund. Once more Wolfgang von Wartburg:

“Thus the Swiss person finds his political orientation in his homeland not in abstract ideas, but in the real world. However, this reality is the person himself as a free, autonomous personality – and the alliance of free personalities in small and smallest communities.” 6

Elinor Ostrom lists principles for a successful economic activity as a résumé of her research about the commons. She was able to monitor these principles on the basis of examples worldwide. They serve as an approach toward economic problems. If we followed them in Switzerland we would continue a long cooperative tradition and pursue it in a dignified manner. Ostrom’s cooperative principles are the following:

  • 1. Clearly defined boundaries and an effective exclusion of external non-entitled parties.
  • 2. Rules for appropriation and provision of resource units must be related to local conditions.
  • 3. Users can participate in modifying operational rules so that an improved adaptation to changing conditions becomes possible.
  • 4. Monitoring of compliance with the rules.
  • 5. Graduated sanctions in case of violations of rules.
  • 6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms.
  • 7. The independent rights of communes are not challenged by superior governmental authorities.

(full text, Notes 1 to 6 and Housing cooperatives in today’s Switzerland).

Links in german:

mietbar: eine Dienstleistung des SVW (Schweizerischer Verband für Wohnungswesen), Sektion Zürich -  Dachorganisation der gemeinnützigen Baugenossenschaften;

Über den genossenschaftlichen Wohnungsbau;

Häufig gestellte Fragen/FAQs;

Other links:

Adopted Initiative (in Switzerland): Stop the boundless construction of second homes;

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