Relevance of (studying) ICAs

To meet the many challenges Europe is facing – from energy provision to the declining welfare state – citizens have since approximately 2005 set up many new citizen collectivities, often as cooperatives or mutuals. While such institutions for collective action (hereafter ICAs) are today often considered as new and revolutionary, they have a long history in Europe. In (amongst others) the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Germany a first “wave” of collective action has been detected in the early modern period, starting around 1000, with many surviving for centuries, in the form of commons, irrigation communities, beguinages, waterboards, and guilds in all their varieties. And although a Europe-wide, government-driven dissolution of these early modern ICAs took place in the late 18th-early 19th centuries, ICAs re-emerged during 1880-1920, in the form of cooperatives, labour unions and mutuals. Though in the current debate on ICAs there is a broad agreement that the newly founded institutions are part of the same movement, this perspective is rare among historians and little knowledge is shared between scholars of different archetypes of ICAs and between disciplines. Combining insights from, amongst others, behavioural economics, organisation sciences, sociology and political sciences with the longitudinal perspectives and historical data could greatly enhance our understanding of the functioning of ICAs – applied to various sectors – and of the growth potential of both the current “wave” as of the individual ICAs. Historical insights are also much needed to understand the impact of external factors (demographic, economic, environmental, political factors) on the capacity of recently set-up ICAs to evolve as resilient organisations. Building a theory that can bring together various disciplinary perspectives in a longitudinal approach would moreover answer to the growing societal needs as expressed by governments and ICAs for applicable advice on how to support and manage this “new” form of resource governance that is now burgeoning across Europe.

Besides the cross-fertilisation in theories and explanations this could bring along a better understanding of the role of ICAs in the formation of the European economy and welfare state, it will also improve our understanding of how some types of institutions were linked to each other, though they are usually studied separately. For the Netherlands, for example, commons surface across the area from approximately 1100 onwards in the form of markegenootschappen (a rather closed form whereby the commoners manage their land collectively, but largely autonomously from local powers) and meenten (which were more open, often also involving local governments in the management). After the dissolution of commons in many Western-European countries, we see the emergence of agricultural cooperatives towards the last quarter of the 19th century, whereby farmers collectively shared and managed production material (e.g. in dairy) much alike the commons did until the 1850s. Similarly, an evolution has been identified for various EU-countries from merchant guilds to crafts guilds. However, in the 16th century journeymen choose to set up their own ICAs, to organise insurance, in so-called journeymen’s boxes. In terms of functionality, these later evolved in mutuals (insurances) and (later) in trade unions (labour conditions) in the 19th century. On the other hand, some types of ICAs disappeared at some point without their functions being taken over by other ICAs, such as the beguinages, as their original reasons to exist disappeared. Finally, there are archetypes, such as the waterboards, that over time changed little, and managed to survive until today.

The importance of studying the long-term development of ICAs

Essential to the approach underlying this website is the fact that we need to look at institutions for collective action from a long term perspective. First of all, an institution needs time to get in shape, to be modeled according to the needs of those involved, and these institutions change slowly: a (semi-)democratic process for the change of rules requires time-consuming consultation of all the stakeholders involved. Secondly, the success of an institution, once well in place, can to a certain extend be measured by its longevity. In many cases such institutions have survived for centuries, and it was mainly by external force or the lack of external recognition that they were dissolved. As such it is only logic to go back in time, even to the early modern history, to follow institutional development over sometimes hundreds of years. By doing this, in combination with an examination of the stimulating and/or threatening factors that these institutions were dealing with we can understand what makes cooperation successful and when it fails. History thus is essential to our understanding of the mechanisms underlying institutions for collective action.

We go back far into history to study these institutions here because – and this is central to the discussion on the importance of institutions world-wide – it proves that it is exactly when institutions manage to survive for a long time – even centuries – that a society can benefit most from them. Europe’s medieval and early modern history provides a wide variety of examples of collective action institutions. Perhaps the craft guilds are the best-known, but they display many similarities with, for instance, water-boards, beguinages, rural commons and urban communes.