Spreading from below. The diffusion and scaling of institutions for collective action in early modern Europe.

Throughout history, we observe the establishment of institutionalized forms of cooperation among citizens, aiming to address individual or public needs. In certain instances, this cooperation takes shape following distinct organizational patterns, devoid of external coordination or enforcement by a government or any other governing body. Remarkably, the resulting organizational archetype may assert dominance over specific aspects of society and the economy for extended periods. An illustrative example is early modern Europe, where various forms of institutionalized collective action became the predominant force in organizing both rural (commons) and urban (guilds) economies. There was no central authority guiding or mandating their establishment as the preferred institutional coordination mechanism across Europe. Moreover, there is no evidence of any coordination from within the guilds’ or commons’ “movement”. Contrary to the notion that such developments occur naturally, these institutional models, manifested more prominently or rapidly in specific regions or, in some instances, not at all. There was no “manual” or consultant guiding citizens in establishing their own commons or guilds, yet each emergence exhibited distinct features. In exploring these phenomena, we seek to understand the factors influencing the emergence of such institutions and the subsequent diffusion of the model to the extent that, in some cases, it became ubiquitous. Why did organisations as guilds and commons develop more vigorously in certain regions and not others? This inquiry delves into the intricate dynamics that drive the emergence and diffusion of these institutions, challenging the perception that such organizational forms evolve naturally or uniformly across diverse regions, and do so by exogenous factors. We also link this to modern and contemporary developments of similar institutions for collective action.