An alternative to nationalisation and globalisation

An alternative to nationalisation and globalisation

On the conference about the Principle of Cooperatives of the Research Institute Direct Democracy

by Eva-Maria Föllmer-Müller

On 29 September, the 5th scientific conference of the Research Institute Direct Democracy on the “Principle of Cooperatives and Direct Democracy” took place in Escholzmatt, Canton of Entlebuch. The head of the institute, Dr René Roca, historian and local council in the canton Aargau had invited to the conference. The Escholzmatt conference venue has seen traditionally many cooperatives already for a long time, and Entlebuch as a ‘Talgenossenschaft’ (valley cooperative) was of importance for the development of direct democracy.

In spite of the famous autumnal ceremonial alpine cattle drive from mountain pastures into valleys in the neighbouring village of Schüpfheim, which could be visited on the same day, around 100 interested participants from home and abroad gathered in Escholzmatt. The focus of the conference was on research results demonstrating the importance of the cooperative principle for the direct democracy. Following last year’s conference, which was about the significance of “natural law” for direct democracy in Switzerland, the research institute this year dealt with the “cooperative principle” and thus with the theory of direct democracy in more depth.
Fritz Lötscher, Mayor of Escholzmatt-Marbach, was very pleased in his welcoming speech: “It is a great honour that this scientific event is taking place here in our village”. With 4370 inhabitants, his community in the heart of Switzerland was the largest in the region and enjoyed lively activities with over 100 associations and 400 associations in the region.

Historical roots of cooperatives in Switzerland

In his introduction, René Roca examined the roots of cooperatives in Switzerland from a historical point of view and with an emphasis on their natural law and anthropological foundations. He illustrated the cooperative movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. Adolf Gasser (1903-1985) has formulated one of the most important principles of cooperatives: “The contrast between power and cooperative is perhaps the most important principle known in social history. The antagonism between the authoritarian state and the socio-societal state is purely and simply about fundamental things: namely the elementary foundations of human communal life.” (Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas (Communal freedom as salvation of Europe) 1947).
The Entlebuch as a Talgenossenschaft (cooperative acting within the limits of a valley) had played a special role in history, because nowhere else in Europe was the balance of power so deeply challenged as by the freedom struggles of the “rebellious” Entlebuchers (inhabitants of Entlebuch) against the “Gracious Lords” of Lucerne. The uprising in Entlebuch was the starting point of the Swiss Peasant’s War in 1653.

The Principle of Cooperatives –an important democratic tradition

To this day, the cooperative principle, which has taken many manifestations in the Swiss Confederation since the Middle Ages, is still an important democratic tradition: the three “selves” – self-help, self-responsibility and self-determination – ensure a direct say and a say in matters, some of which are vital to life, such as water supply, construction of roads and bridges, etc. In this context, the cooperative Landsgemeinde-Democracy (public assembly, discussions and non-secret voting by all inhabitants entitled; it is one of the oldest forms of direct democracy) should also be mentioned. It was an important model on the way to more participation for numerous rural popular movements of the 19th century. On this basis and with the corresponding experience, personalities at municipal, cantonal and federal level ensured that direct democracy was developed in the 19th century.

Cooperatives as a complement to thedirect democracy

The political scientist Wolf Linder, until 2009 professor at the University of Bern and member of the Swiss Science Council, spoke on the topic “Direct democracy and cooperatives – does it need both?” Right at the beginning of his contribution, he gave his answer: “Yes, but why?” Cooperatives and direct democracy were linked by the same principle: “One man, one vote” for important basic decisions. Linder sees cooperatives as a complement to direct democracy and in his lecture, he emphasised the advantages of cooperatives: they are sustainable, they help to control resources effectively. In comparison to incorporated companies, cooperatives were better suited to act with social responsibility because they have a larger scope, said Linder. He raised a warning finger towards the big cooperatives Migros and Coop (detail chains): They should not forget the basic principles of their founding fathers. Cooperatives offer real opportunities and are an alternative to globalisation. They are (almost) not for sale and provide better protection against externalcontrol.

Cooperative elements in Swiss literature

The morning ended with a lecture by Dr. Pirmin Meier, former constitutional councillor of the canton of Aargau and one of the best experts on the urban-rural contrast in historical ethnology. He elaborated the cooperative elements found as examples in the works of the important Swiss writers Heinrich Zschokke (1771-1848), Jeremias Gotthelf (1797-1854), Gottfried Keller (1819-1890) and Heinrich Federer (1866-1928) and presented them to the participants with an engaging passion: the enlightened conception of man, firmly standing to his conviction, with no illusions about the “hierarchy” in the village and about the Handmehr (majority vote by show of hands) of Heinrich Zschokke, and the measures of values in Gottfried Keller’s work. Thus he described the book “Das Goldmacherdorf” by Heinrich Zschokke as the most important work of literature on cooperatives. With the idea of the self-sufficient village, this novel was the predecessor of Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen’s ideas. Translated into many languages, it was published nine times until the Russian Revolution. It was the model for three novels by Jeremias Gotthelf, whose best novel about cooperatives was described by Pirmin Meier as “Die Käserei in der Vehfreude” (The Cheese Factory in the Hamlet). In contrast to socialist utopias, Jeremias Gotthelf had known mankind – and: The basis of cooperatives lies in their ethical, moral content. Pirmin Meier summed up: “Through literature one can learn what our people are like. Good literature represents man as he is, not as he should be.” With his passionate speech and his expertise, Pirmin Meier also brought the love for Switzerland closer to the participants who had travelled from abroad.

Many examples of cooperatives

The afternoon was dedicated to three examples of cooperatives: the Upper Entlebuch Forest Cooperative (Lukas Balmer, forester and managing director), the Entlebuch Herb Cultivation Cooperative (Peter Stadelmann, president) and the cooperative newspaper Zeit-Fragen (Current Concerns/Horizons et débats) (Jean-Paul Vuilleumier, president). In this way, the participants of the conference gained an insight into the diversity of cooperative practice, not least through the personalities representing them: committed to the cause, not profit-oriented, on an equal par.

The mood among participants and speakers was always constructive

The conference was very well organised, starting with the stylishly assembly room in the Gasthaus Bahnhof, the smooth arrival process and the good food – the participants were welcomed with coffee and croissants already in the morning – up to the conference leadership by René Roca, who led the participants through the day calmly and competently. Accordingly, the mood among participants and speakers during the event was always lively and constructive. All in all, the conference was an outstanding success in raising awareness of the great importance of cooperatives based on ethical,  value-oriented principles.     •

Theses on the importance of the cooperative principle in Switzerland

  • Concept of man: the cooperative is a form of joint solving of social tasks, which corresponds to the social nature of man (natural law, cf. last year’s conference on “Natural law and direct democracy”, conference proceedings in preparation).
  • Important foundation of direct democracy: historically, in many aspects the idea of cooperatives is a central reference point and foundation for the development of direct democracy (everyone has a voice!) and the Swiss federal state.
  • Politics: in Switzerland, the cooperative principle is the basis for the federal (decentralised) and subsidiary political system (importance of communal freedom!).
  • Economy: the cooperative is the economic organisational form of self-help: it is always locally anchored and close to the people; the idea of the common good plays a central role
  • Global importance: since 2016, the idea of cooperatives has been part of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage (Dietmar Berger).

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