Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800-1996

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

8

WORKERS’ CO-OPERATIVES IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY 1

Big has been beautiful in the German economy for a very long time, but never more so than in recent years. Mammoth enterprises and conglomerates stretch their tentacles across every branch of industry, while the high streets and pedestrian precincts of West German towns are lined with those temples of consumerism, the local branches of the great department-store chains, identical in every respect, so that as you walk past the serried ranks of Hertie and Kaufhof, Karstadt and Kaufhalle, you scarcely know any longer whether you are in Göttingen or Marburg, Bielefeld or Bonn. Yet there are signs of a consumer revolt. Away from the ‘city’, as the Germans now like to call what used to be known as the Stadtmitte, you can find here and there an alternative commercial scene, above all if you go to the older parts of town, where the grey and shabby tenements, the run-down public facilities and the absence of neon and gloss speak of an area soon to fall under the developer’s axe. In makeshift shops, run by enthusiasts with a minimum of advertising hype, you can buy organic fruit and vegetables, homespun garments, non-pollutant cleaning materials, alternative books and newspapers, you can sit in a sparsely furnished café and read a copy of Die Tageszeitung over a cup of camomile tea, you can hire a bicycle or take your own to be repaired, or you can inspect, and perhaps purchase, the pottery, art, ceramics and other goods made by producer co-operatives in the neighbourhood.

It is not only the outward appearance of such enterprises that assigns them to the ‘alternative economy’; it is also their inner structure and organization. As Walter Hesselbach points out, they are owned by those who work in them, are democratically run, orient themselves to what they believe to be the customer’s needs, and lay almost as much stress on the self-expression of those who operate them as they do on sales and profits. The alternative economy can be seen, too, as a form of co-operative self-help at a time of mass unemployment, a way not just of creating jobs, but of doing so with minimum damage to the environment and maximum help to the self-respect of those involved—a self-respect too often assaulted in the past by the brutal compulsion inherent in so many of the massive job

-93-

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