The cooperative principle – its significance for justice and peace*

The cooperative principle – its significance for justice and peace*

by Dr Eva-Maria Föllmer-Müller

The legal historian Otto Gierke (1841–1921), renowned as the “father of cooperative legislation”, due to his decisive contributions to the cooperative legislation, is honoured in the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland as “fundamental to the science of history”. It states: “[Otto Gierke’s] extensive cooperative concept covers any German public corporation based on free association, from the family to the state, where cooperation and dominion are in a dialectical relationship.”1
This comprehensive cooperative concept also proves to be useful today, when it comes to basic principles of cooperative interaction.
Even before the end of World War II, in 1943, the famous Swiss historian Adolf Gasser submitted proposals on how “peace [could be] achieved” i.e. how such a disaster could be prevented to happen again. In addition to numerous lectures, which he gave after the Nazi dictatorship in war-torn Europe, he wrote down his suggestions in a very readable book called “Communal freedom as salvation of Europe”2. In it, among others, he explains that there are basically two opposing types of state systems: the one is built from bottom up and the other from top down. The first is the cooperative type, the second an authoritarian one. The cooperative nature is based on voluntary agreement and mutual trust, but also on mutual responsibility. The authoritarian state system is based on a centralistic command that makes use of a strong army and a tightly-organised civil service. Only in the cooperatively built states can true freedom develop, because only there the moral forces are formed which may prevent a predominance of social and political contradictions. Alfred Gasser writes: “The contrastive pair ‘dominion – cooperative’ is perhaps the most significant contrast that is known in social history. The contrastive pair ‘authoritarian state – society state’ is about fundamental things: namely, the elementary foundations of human communal life. In a fundamental way, the two opposing state organisations differ primarily by spiritual and moral criteria. Depending on the predominance of one or the other principle the states seem to be inspired by the opposite spirit with respect to the community, either the dominion spirit or cooperative spirit.”3
Today, the cooperative concept receives increasing attention and dissemination worldwide: cooperatives across all divisions worldwide offer more than 100 million jobs, which means 20 per cent more than the multinationals offer. Approximately one billion people worldwide are members of cooperatives. Thus, the UN General Assembly has declared the year 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives. Especially in troubled times, in times of crises, of rebuilding, when the political system is limited due to lack of funds, people are increasingly challenged to take initiative themselves. Cooperatives in their various forms foster the participation of people in the economic and social development, they contribute to the eradication of poverty and make an important contribution to social peace. The cooperative principle includes fundamental values of human coexistence in equality, freedom and it is oriented towards the common good. The principle of cooperation is fundamental. The historian Helmut Faust puts it like this: “Uniting for mutual assistance in a community is also the simple sense of the cooperative concept.While it corresponds to human nature, its implementation embraces the highest ethos people can achieve.”4 The cooperative principle therefore does not only apply to economic and material issues, but includes the entire human nature, it is thus a basic anthropological constant.
More and more people move away from the notion of “homo economicus” and put the welfare of the people and the common good back at the centre of their considerations. They do not consider the human being an only utility-maximising machine, but a moral person who is capable of taking decisions and actions based on an ethical foundation. It is the free and responsible people and not the market forces which determine the nature of our economic, social and political actions. Considering different economic and social systems, we can see that it is in fact the cooperative movement which is deeply imbued with precisely this concept of man.
From an anthropological perspective cooperative interaction is an ancient form of human coping with life in self-help, self-responsibility and self-management, which has evolved in different forms in many places of the world. The foreword of the booklet published by the cooperative Zeit-Fragen/Current Concerns says: “In Switzerland, the community-building and integrating element of the cooperatives has significantly contributed to the formation of a bottom organised statehood with its direct democracy. […] The basic principles of cooperative interaction correspond to the basic principles of human nature: the freedom to regulate fate by human beings themselves, the awareness that it is necessary to take their fate into their own hands, and the cooperation, interaction for a common goal to the benefit of all. […] Cooperation in freedom, ‘one for all and all for one’ – in other words: ‘together – for one another’ – the core principle of cooperative activities – is fundamental to personal initiative, creativity, responsibility, and finally also for social and individual development and is a constitutional element of the dignity of man.”5

The personalist concept of man

Fundamental to the cooperative principle, as we understand it, is the personalist concept of man.
The personalist concept of man sees man as a fundamentally social being whose personality fully develops in and through the community, and who is capable of reason and ethics. Man is able to create culture and to set moral values. The personal concept of man is based on Christian values applicable to natural law, which are confirmed by psychology. The historian and psychologist Dr Annemarie Buchholz-Kaiser writes about this in her essay “Personalist Psychology – The contribution of psychology and education to human dignity”6, which dealt with the question how social responsibility and solidarity can be developed together with the fellow human beings: “Morality does not need to be imposed on the people: It has its roots in the empathy, which develops in a positive bond of the child to its first caregiver. The formation of conscience, ethical behaviour and moral sense, which take their beginning here, are […] rooted in human nature. Empathy and compassion are the qualities which put people in a position to assess the consequences of their actions for their fellows and cause them to behave in a socially responsible manner.”7
The individual psychologist Alfred Adler described the sociality of man in the concept of the “Gemeinschaftsgefühl” (common sense) which has been the core of his teachings. For Adler, humaneness is the basic structure of human existence. Man is a social being, because he is only viable in the community and can only reach self-realisation, life fulfillment, satisfaction and contentment in the cooperative coexistence. Man can only become a human being in the community of cooperating fellow beings and thus contribute to peace. First of all this has to do with his biological imperfection and the emerging helplessness and dependence. People are only capable of coping with the tasks to ensure peace and preserve life by joining forces with other people, by division of labour and by cooperation. “Gemeinschaftsgefühl” is thus a biological fact. All cultural achievements, such as language development, have developed on the grounds of social interest. Cooperation, solidarity and the principle of mutual aid are constitutive for the development of social interest, for the social progress of mankind and for peace. Thus humanity is the real sense in life. Any form of striving for power, the lust for power oppose the common sense diametrically and will lead to man‘s downfall.
The basic principles of cooperative interaction, the association of people to help themselves in self-responsibility and self-government for a common purpose corresponds to the nature of man. Cooperation in freedom and equality, self-determined and responsible action are essential.
Cooperative principles are founded anthropologically and in their content they correspond to the findings of psychology. They are essential for the development and for the preservation of social peace in a country.    •

*     Speech delivered at the International Science and Public Conference on the issue of “Yalta-Potsdam-Belgrade: In Search for Secure World Order” hosted by the Belgrade Forum for a World of Equals in Belgrade on 24 and 25 November 2015.

1    Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, 1998-2014, Berne,
2    Gasser, Adolf, Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas – Grundlinien einer ethischen Geschichtsauffassung, (Communal freedom as salvation of Europe) 2nd edition, Basel, 1947
3    loc. cit. , p. 13
4    Faust, Helmut: Geschichte der Genossenschaftsbewegung, 3rd edition, Frankfurt a.M. Knapp, 1977, p. 17
5    We establish a cooperative – Living and working together and for each other, Cooperative Zeit-Fragen/Current Concerns/Horizons et débats/Dicorso libero, 2014, foreword
6    V. Conference “Mut zur Ethik”: Die Würde des Menschen (The dignity of man), Feldkirch 1997, publishing house Menschenkenntnis, Zurich, 1998.
7    ibid.: Buchholz-Kaiser, Annemarie: Personalist Psychology – The contribution of psychology and education to human dignity. p. 87

“An entrenchment in one’s own culture, meaning the inner understanding of our culture’s universal values, is the condition for having a firm place in this world and in this time. It is also the condition for establishing a respect for other people and their culture, and it is the condition for a productive co-existence among peoples. […]
Freedom is equally necessary for life as air is to breathe. Voluntariness in human life is also an essential condition for a child to become secure within the family and internalise its values. Coercion only interferes with this, whereas insight and solidarity represent far more powerful and viable moving force in the long run.
The highest possible level of freedom as has been realised in direct democracy, is a subject that once again must be brought to discussion. It is imperative in the face of a new form of oppression on a global scale, and also in the face of a ruthless globalizing economy solely geared towards shareholder profit while sacrificing human well-being, the “bonum commune”. The economy must serve life and not the other way around: Natural Law, Christian Social Teaching, and also every ethic that is based on human nature and life, and Personalist Psychology have all come to this conclusion.”

Excerpt from: Annemarie Buchholz-Kaiser, “Strengthening Human Beings”, Zurich 2000

Source: Current Concerns No. 20/21 from 29 June 2013

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