cooperative movement, series of organized activities that began in the 19th cent. in Great Britain and later spread to most countries of the world, whereby people organize themselves around a common goal, usually economic. The term usually refers more specifically to the formation of nonprofit economic enterprises for the benefit of those using their services.
Types of Cooperatives
An old and widespread form is the consumers' cooperative, in which people organize for wholesale or retail distribution, usually of agricultural or other staple products. Traditionally, membership is open, and anyone may buy stock. Goods are sold to the public as well as to members, usually at prevailing market prices, and any surplus above expenses is turned back to the members. Money is saved through direct channeling of goods from producer to consumer. Producers' cooperatives are manufacturing and distributive organizations, commonly owned and managed by the workers. Another development in such cooperatives has been the acquisition of failing manufacturing plants by labor unions, who run them on a cooperative basis. Agricultural cooperatives usually involve cooperation in the processing and marketing of produce and in the purchase of equipment and supplies. Actual ownership of land is usually not affected, and in this way the agricultural cooperative differs from the collective farm. Agricultural cooperatives are often linked with cooperative banks and credit unions, which constitute another important type of cooperative. There is also cooperative activity in insurance, medical services, housing, and other fields.
The origin of cooperative philosophy is found in the writings and activities of Robert Owen, Louis Blanc, Charles Fourier, and others. Its early character was revolutionary, but under the impact of such movements as Christian Socialism this aspect diminished. After some early 19th-century experiments, consumers' cooperation took permanent form with the establishment (1844) of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in England.
The cooperative movement has since had considerable growth throughout Great Britain and the Commonwealth, where local cooperatives have been federated into national wholesale and retail distributive enterprises and where a large proportion of the population has membership. Various examples of cooperative organization are also found in the Scandinavian countries, Israel, the People's Republic of China, Russia, and France. In the United States the cooperative movement began in the 19th cent., first among workers and then among farmers. The National Grange, a farmers' cooperative, was founded in 1867 and later exercised considerable political influence (see Granger movement). An international alliance for the dissemination of cooperative information was founded in 1895. Today the major types of cooperatives include those of farmers, wholesalers, and consumers, as well as insurance, banking and credit, and rural electrification cooperatives (the growth of the latter two facilitated by loans from the federal government). There has been increasing international collaboration among the various kinds of cooperatives and a growing trend toward the establishment of international cooperative distribution.
See J. Berry and M. Roberts, Co-op Management and Employment (1984); E. Spanner, Brotherly Tomorrow (1984); G. Melnyk, The Search for Community (1985).
John K. Walton