Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Biggest Co-op of All

Human association takes many forms. At one end of the spectrum we have organisations firmly under the control of a leadership unaccountable to those they give orders to. At the opposite end there are loose networks where individuals act as they see fit without any collectively binding command structure. And in the middle we have the cooperative model that enables all concerned to have democratic control – with each having an equal vote, and all bound by the outcome of their shared deliberations, in steering their joint endeavours.

The evidence from participatory learning in schools, cooperative business performance, community development, citizen engagement in public service, and restorative conflict resolution, consistently points to the positive impact derived from organisational forms and practices that empower those involved to solve problems cooperatively as partners. The solidarity built from equal respect and mutual support is an unrivalled force in sustaining morale and driving improvements. (For a more detailed exposition, see ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving: what it means in theory and practice’, available for free download from Cambridge University: )

So why is it that in every sphere of human association, democratic cooperation remains a minority undertaking? If we remember that the establishment of any structure for cooperation on equal terms requires the redistribution of power, the answer becomes clear. The idea that the government of any country should be democratically controlled by all members of that country, was fiercely resisted for centuries. People who have grown accustomed to exercising unaccountable power over others tend to be reluctant to concede to cooperative forms of power sharing. The resistance from rulers of states has been echoed just about everywhere else – especially amongst businesses.

And while for much of the 20th century, particularly the middle third of it, governments in the UK and the US moved the state in a much more democratic and cooperative direction, plutocratic opposition has been resurgent for the past three decades. Now the UK government routinely deploys the rhetoric of community involvement to mask its plan for dismantling what is potentially the biggest and most powerful cooperative organisation, our democratic state. A lot of what we previously owned has already been asset-stripped, with only liabilities left for us. Large corporations run away with rich pickings, and we lose out without any kind of public recourse.

What we need from those in government is sustained help to make more organisations, including the state itself, become more, rather than less, cooperative in the way they engage with their workers and the public they serve. The last thing we want is the breaking up of the public sector (in which all citizens have an equal stake) to hand over to private interests shielded from the vast majority of citizens. That would just be a flagrant act of demutualisation.

Other related posts:

‘Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society’:

‘The Case for Cooperative Problem-Solving’: