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Consumers Against Capitalism? Consumer Cooperation in Europe, North America, and Japan, 1840-1990

Author(s):Furlough, Ellen
Strikwerda, Carl
Reviewer(s):Horn, Gerd-Rainer

Published by EH.NET (September 1999)

Ellen Furlough and Carl Strikwerda (eds.). Consumers Against Capitalism?


Cooperation in Europe, North America, and Japan, 1840-1990.

Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. 377 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index.

$63.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8476-8648-5; $23.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8476-8649-3.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.NET by Gerd-Rainer Horn, Department of History,

Western Oregon University.

The Persistence of Historical Alternatives

In this day and age of “the end of history,” a study of consumer cooperation in

the 19th and 20th centuries is a highly welcome occasion to reflect upon

alternatives to seemingly dominant paradigms. The past and present of the

cooperative experience challenged and continues to challenge a whole host of

preconceived notions such as market fetishism in society at large, the

state-centered orientation of much of historical and contemporary socialist

thought and practice, or tendencies to identify cooperatives with the urban

working class Left. If the editors of this volume had done nothing else but to

question these assumed certainties,

t hey would have reached or surpassed this reader’s expectations. In many ways,

they accomplished much more.

Leaving apart a tantalizing reference by Ruth Grubel on the presence in Japan

of “mutual assistance groups” (p. 306) as early as the 17th century, the

cooperative movement generally emerged parallel to the rise of industrial

society. The founders of 19th century cooperatives without exception attempted

thereby to respond to at least some major social ills of laissez-faire

capitalism. Bourgeois liberals were as much involved as the much-maligned

“utopian socialists.” Interestingly, Marxist-influenced social democrats

initially frequently abstained from the construction of a cooperative

commonwealth as many of them (though not all) regarded such ventures as

facilitating an eventual accommodation to actually existing capitalism. If

urban problems as a rule gave birth to the theory and practice of consumer

cooperation, in several important national cases the rural population became

the most forceful and

numerous propagators of the cooperative cause. Any ever-so-brief glance at the

checkered history of consumer cooperation thus raises at least as many

questions as it answers.

Writing these lines near the city of Wuppertal, where one of Germany’s largest

consumer cooperatives in the interwar period built and owned a vast array of

distribution and production facilities, buildings that still stand but in the

post-World War II era housed a succession of private enterprises, the image of

consumer cooperation

as a mere symbol of a bygone age suggests itself with remarkable ease. Surely,

the specific death knell of German cooperatives, expropriation by the Nazi

state, played little role outside of Germany proper. Belgian cooperatives, for

instance, continued to

operate even during the Nazi occupation and, though they suffered, they

apparently suffered from the general economic malaise of German occupation,

not from specific anti-cooperative measures. But the era of consumer

cooperation is now long past its prime.

Or so it seems, until the reader begins to realize that, in Denmark for

instance, the story is an entirely different one. “In the mid-1990s, the Danish

consumer cooperatives represented a market share of roughly 33 percent of the

national foodstuffs and beverage consumption. In every town,

suburb, and rural community, one could find a cooperative supermarket or

smaller shop. In many rural areas, the only retail shop at all was a

cooperative” (p. 221). Canadian cooperatives likewise saw their highpoint

in the most recent decades. “During the 1960s, it seemed on the verge of

becoming a major force in the Canadian economy,” and only “significant economic

swings in the 1970s undercut the capacity of the movement to realize its

earlier promise” (p. 331). Last but not least, today “consumer co-ops

represent 20 percent of the households in Japan” (p. 303). Such simple facts,

ever present realities for consumers in those states but little-known to the

outside world, should immediately question many preconceived notions about

consumer cooperatives.

In their joint contribution at the beginning

of the book, the two editors

attempt to synthesize the points of view of the various contributors: “It is

the argument of most of the authors in this volume that the real

challenge for consumer cooperation in the industrialized world has not been the

movement’s economic weaknesses but its obligation to confront the consumerist

revolution. Cooperation’s great crisis was adaptation to changing times and

tastes – providing a fuller range of goods and appealing to more tastes

without giving up the advantages of low costs and democratic,

consumer participation” (p. 33). In other words, as consumption became ever

more central to the lives of First World citizens, consumer cooperatives began

to trail, or, in the words of Furlough and Strikwerda: “The fundamental shift

in thinking from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries,

which caught consumer cooperation in midstream, was the move from production to

consumption” (pp. 33-34). Were things really that “simple”?

A mere quantitative analysis of the rise and fall of First World consumer

cooperation undoubtedly confirms this trend. In most continental European

countries (and not only here) the highpoint of cooperation by all means pre

dates World War II. But the sheer weight of statistics may be a necessary but

certainly not a sufficient element towards an explanation for this trend.

Indeed, on one level it defies even elementary logic that, of all things,

consumer cooperatives should begin to decline precisely at the moment

when consumerism begins to grow in societal importance and increasingly

determines everyday life. Perhaps a closer look at the success stories of

consumer cooperation since the breakthrough of consumerism in the

Golden Twenties may furnish elements of a more convincing explanation for the

postulated (and, of course, to some extent very real) secular decline of

consumer cooperation.

Carl Strikwerda, in his assessment of Belgian cooperatives ably disassembles

several prominent myths pertaining to the supposed lack of business acumen as

a key cause for the decline of cooperation. Belgian cooperators, he asserts,

early on successfully applied economies of scale and utilized innovative

financing schemes, measures equal to the most flexible tactics of

contemporaneous private entrepreneurs. There is thus no reason, I contend, why

similar creative responses could not have successfully taken up the challenge

of modern consumerism, once it arose.

In the heartland of the modern welfare state, Sweden, the cooperative movement

apparently for a while adapted exceedingly well to the demands of a consumer

society and, significantly without caving in to the demands of rampant

capitalist consumerism, the Swedish movement oriented its members and

sympathizers towards the choice and acquisition of “high-quality,

tasteful products without wasting resources” (p. 257). By 1939, its newspaper

“had become Sweden’s most widely read weekly, printing 570.000 copies every

week” (p. 251),

no mean task in a country of at that time no more than six million people. And

in Japan today the cooperative movement has spawned a series of peripheral

leisure activities, such as sports programs and youth activities, that prove to

be rather popular.

Interestingly, French cooperators in the 1920s executed a similar turn and

“founded vacation colonies, organized excursions, and added movie ‘palaces’

to cooperatives.” “Cooperative stores expanded their inventories to include

items such as furniture and bicycles, and movement literature stressed

‘elegance’ in fashion and ‘tastefulness’ in home decoration” (pp. 185-186).

Curiously, however, what is elsewhere in the volume regarded as proof of

potentially successful adaptation to the challenge of consumer society,

Ellen Furlough here, in combination with some other trends, criticizes as an

abandonment of lofty goals. “The reorientation of consumer cooperation after

World War I signaled the decline of a collective perspective within the

movement. It also eroded the possibility of a collective ideology, of

socialized structures, and of a culture of consumption that was socially

engaged within twentieth century French commerce and distribution” (p.


Only a more detailed examination of the French case may

tell whether French cooperators in the Golden Twenties really did abandon a

“collective perspective” and “collective ideology.” As Furlough’s

above-mentioned contribution stands, however, this reader is tempted to locate

the author’s hostility to the changes of interwar cooperators primarily in the

latter’s creative engagement with consumer culture and its refusal simply to

ignore the reality of a changing world, where an increasing range of goods to

buy and things to do may constitute a growing source of collective and

individual pleasure. As the success stories of Denmark, Sweden and Japan

suggest, if coops have a chance, it lies precisely in abandoning an attitude of

splendid isolation and in taking up the challenge and adapting to the modern


Several authors (and both editors) stress the role of gender in the cooperative

movement and point out that, whereas women constituted the vast majority of

consumers in the various cooperatives, the top decision makers for the movement

were, with few exceptions, men. Furlough and Strikwerda indirectly suggest

that this gender bias hampered cooperators’ success:

“While cooperation differed in important ways from capitalist consumerism,

notably in its commitment to social control over consumption, an analysis of

the ways that gender informed the cooperative movement calls into question the

cooperative movement’s claim to be an active counterexample to capitalist

society” (p. 52). But pointing out the limitations of cooperation as feminist

alternative to the

capitalist norm is not the same as explaining its tendential decline. For,

capitalist retailing businesses were no more oriented towards including women

as active decision makers,

but they obviously won many a competitive battle with cooperatives.

If the level of business skill proper to cooperatives cannot explain the

coops’ secular decline; if coops were indeed able to integrate the challenge of

consumerism into their project, as witnessed in Sweden,

Denmark, Japan and perhaps France in the 1920s; if

gender politics may explain why coops may not have constituted full-scale

societal alternatives but not why coops failed – then what does account for the

fact that, within the First World, coops are less prominent and visible today

than seventy years ago?

Here, Carl Strikwerda’s observations on the Belgian case may point in the right

direction. After justifiedly stressing the difficulty to separate the

“ideological and the business sides” of cooperation, he goes on to make the

following capstone statement: “When the movement as a whole had a vital

mission, before World War I, it managed to pioneer more in business methods and

at the same time to adapt to the needs of consumers. When the movement lost its

forward motion in the interest-group politics of the 1930s, cooperation, too,

failed to innovate” (p. 86). In other word, when cooperators were able to

develop a forward-looking dynamism, innovations followed suite. When

stagnation began to set in, a growing lethargy affected all aspects of

cooperative life.

Given the fact that, on the eve of the new millennium, the First World remains

home to several thriving cooperative experiences, one is left to conclude that

explanations of cooperative failure pointing to secular societal trends are

fatally flawed.

Rather than searching for general causes, it thus appears that nationally

specific and contingent causes may ultimately be of far more persuasive power

than answers stressing the historically limited viability of the cooperative

experience as such.

In their opening contribution, the editors stress that “we believe that

capitalist and cooperative commerce represent different models of consumer

culture, models that for a time exercised different appeals” (p. 5). This

reader therefore concurs with Furlough

and Strikwerda who contend that a

“particular [capitalist] consumerist ethos was, as the study of consumer

cooperation will demonstrate, neither inevitable nor universally embraced,

and there have been (and continue to be) competing visions and practices.

The form of capitalist consumerism that has immense power and influence today

is a peculiar historical development, not a linear and inevitable

‘end of history'” (p. 2).

As can be expected in any collection of articles, the relative merits of the

contributions vary, as do the authors’ particular approaches to their subject

matter. Repetitions and lengthy empirical narratives abound; but all these

potential drawbacks cannot diminish the importance of this collective

anthology. It constitutes an insightful and stimulating first step towards the

explanation of the infrastructure of consumption in the age of capitalism. And

it simultaneously suggests that there is no inherent logic why retailing

businesses are structured as they tend to be today. It is the

great merit of Ellen Furlough and Carl Strikwerda to have drawn attention to

the possibility of historical alternatives in an area as seemingly “naturally”

capitalist as commercial activities in 19th and 20th century First World


Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative