A Short History of Co-operation and Mutuality
You may know the story. In 1844, weavers and workers in Rochdale in the North of England started a food store in an extraordinary venture that has come to be seen as the first co-operative in the world. There are hundreds of established histories of co-operative and mutual enterprise, whether biographies of individual businesses or analysis of wider co-operative sectors over time, national and international that point back to 1844. They tell an inspiring story and the co-operative sector is proud of its history, but at the same time, I hope to offer a gentle challenge to the entrenched co-operative worldview of ‘1844 and All That’. My purpose is not to supplement or supplant the pioneers of Rochdale, by pointing to 1864 and the tradition of Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, the extension of these models outside of the circles of consumer retail and banking in which they started, or an earlier generation of weavers in the Scottish town of Fenwick in 1761. Instead, while fully recognising their achievements, I hope to acknowledge the risk of choosing one point or place as the start of everything that follows. In the words of historian Frank Trentmann “the birth metaphor alerts us to the importance historians attach to origins, and to the tunnel vision this can produce.” There was co-operation before, and this is a short story of those roots of today’s co-operation and mutuality. A full history of co-operation and mutuality that weaves together the extraordinary ways in which the values of self-help and mutual aid have taken institutional form across cultures, is yet to be written. And it may be that, such is the breadth and diversity of co-operation over time, it would be a challenge to realise. This work is a sketch, no more.