Cooperative Governance of the Agricultural Before the Industrial Revolution

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

= "The commons were part of an economic system that, given the developmental stage of the agricultural production methods, had no alternative but to be communal". [1]


By Hartmut Zückert:

"In terms of property law, the commons were bound to ownership of fields; everyone who owned fields was permitted to herd their cattle on the commons. Arable farming was organized in cooperatives, and the village cooperative had the authority to manage the commons. An important rule concerned the date when the harvest was concluded; on that date, cattle were herded to the stubble, where they manured the soil. In other words, fields and meadows turned into commons after the grain and hay were harvested. Private property was in abeyance and treated as common property until spring returned.

All of a village’s cattle were herded on the pasture together, either by peasants taking turns or by a herdsman hired by the cooperative. It was his duty to ensure that the cattle did not go onto the fields. When the increasing number of cattle raised the risk of overgrazing the pasture, the cooperative issued an ordinance for the pasture in the form of a so-called Weistum, or bylaw. It limited the number of cattle (“stinting”), impounding them if necessary and levied fines and enforced their collection. There were similar arrangements for other rules and offenses. If too much wood was cut, allotments were set. Thus, cooperative institutions were required: firstly, an assembly of the cooperative that decided on the rules; secondly, a village mayor who implemented the bylaw of the commons; and thirdly, a village court that adjudicated disputes. In this way, dangers to the commons produced new competencies within the cooperative.

These capacities included oversight of the common land within the village itself, where communal institutions such as the herdsman’s house, the smithy, the bakehouse or the bath were situated. The community used wood from the common forest to build and heat such buildings. The community could also sell common land for common purposes. In other words, the cooperative formed communal institutions capable of holding rights and assets.

Cooperative means that the cooperative action of all enables the individual proprietor to conduct economic activity. This is the root of the cooperative motto, later mythologized as, “One for all, all for one!”

Only landowners had property rights to the commons. But besides the peasants, limited use rights were granted to artisans in the village, whose services the peasants depended on, as well as laborers who were employed by the peasants in peak periods, especially the harvest, and who otherwise earned their livelihoods by spinning and weaving. The cooperative permitted these non-peasants to herd one cow on the commons and to collect dead wood in the forest. These usage rights arose from the mutual dependency of villagers on one another. As the number of spinners and weavers in the villages increased during the early stage of industrialization, the numbers of their cattle increased to such an extent in some places that they overburdened the commons. This indeed brought about a crisis of the commons in these industrialized villages, as those who did not own fields were dependent on the marginal use of the commons, even though the commons were actually a complement to the cultivation of fields.

The stronger the peasants’ property rights to the fields, and therefore also to the commons, the stronger their self-government. At the village court, it was no longer the interests of the lord that were determinative, but those of the peasants’ cooperative. The reeve – an official elected by peasants to supervise the land for a lord – became an institution of the community; the manor court became the village court. People’s thinking developed accordingly, and cooperative principles were elevated to the norm. The size of the individual peasants’ holdings was irrelevant when the cooperative assembly took a vote. Instead, every peasant had a vote, following the principle of one man, one vote. And the individual’s pursuit of profit was always limited so that it would not impair the livelihoods of all; that was the purpose of limiting the number of cattle on the commons. “Common benefit” was the uppermost norm of this cooperatively organized society. And it was by no means limited to the local sphere. As this norm was widely recognized, it was also applied to societal issues in general, such as the demand that rulers use the state to promote the common benefit, and the church to preach these values (Blickle 1998).

Community life was lively and featured an annual procession around the boundaries of the village and the lands belonging to it, a communal drink after auditing the common box (the community funds). Folk customs were combined with the common pasture. To the peasants, the bell that the village bull wore around his neck on the pasture signaled, “the reeve is coming, the reeve is coming!” (The reeve kept the community’s breeding bull.) On New Year’s Day, the herdsmen blew their horns, went from door to door and sang their song, asking the peasants to give them something – such as their best-smoked sausages. The gifts were considered an expression of the peasants’ esteem for the community employees’ careful handling of their livestock (Zückert 2001).

The commons were part of an economic system that, given the developmental stage of the agricultural production methods, had no alternative but to be communal. Managing the commons was based on social and cultural interaction (which was all the more vibrant the more the cooperative managed this economic activity itself) and closely connected to the cooperative’s property rights to the common resources." (