Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Six Degrees of Cooperation

Since Robert Owen pioneered his cooperative and communitarian experiments in 19th century Britain and America, theorists and activist alike have been looking to build on them to develop a systematic alternative to prevailing socio-economic arrangements.

200 years on from Owen’s A New View of Society, there is no denying that neither the ‘free’ (meaning rigged) market favoured by exploitative businesses nor the ‘planned’ (i.e., authoritarian) economy imposed by discredited regimes has come up with anything other than ever worsening waste of human potential and thoughtless depletion of precious resources. But how can the latent synergy of cooperation, sustainable communities, and common resources for the common good be realised in advancing towards a state of synetopia?

Across the world, in opposition to the Anglo-American neo-liberal juggernaut, reform advocates (such as Pat Conaty, John Restakis, David Bollier, Silke Helfrich, Michel Bauwens, Julie Ristau, Ana Micka, and Jay Walljasper – see Note 1 below for more information) have drawn attention to the ingredients necessary to bring about, what in some quarters has been termed, the ‘cooperative commons’.

So what holds the key to our societal transformation? In essence, it is about turning cooperation from a general aspiration, by six specific degrees, into a guiding norm for human interactions.

First, inclusive cooperation requires that the needs of all be taken into account without discrimination. People are to work together, not to serve the privileged interests of a class of owners/bosses or a cadre of vanguard leaders, but to enable each to lead a fulfilling life.

Secondly, educative cooperation means that people are to learn through their shared deliberations and open enquiries what would improve their circumstances without being diverted by dogmatic injunctions or distorting propaganda.

Thirdly, democratic cooperation demands that every one is given an equal say in shaping the policies that will affect them, or choosing a representative who will give detailed consideration before making a policy decision on one’s behalf.

Fourthly, renewable cooperation calls for the reliance on resources and mutual goodwill to be conducted so that neither is used up. Cooperation and social development can only be sustained when irresponsible short-termism is put aside for the sake of our shared future.

Fifthly, federal cooperation operates through the principle of subsidiarity so that anything that can be effectively carried out at the most local level or smallest unit should be done so accordingly, but whatever needs a larger grouping to resolve differences or pool greater resources to achieve common aims should be passed up to the next appropriate level to deal with.

The sixth and final requirement is statutory cooperation, which implies that all concerned should recognise that the rule of law is essential to maintain fairness and prevent freeriders and oppressors from taking advantage of others. Cooperation must therefore extend to supporting government institutions from the local to the global level.

The question for any organisation or mode of human interaction is, therefore, how much further it needs to go to meet the cooperative norm fully. One response to shortfalls is to provide examples, explanations and encouragement to help people move forward in line with the reform agenda. But this has to be complemented by a political response – if vested interests persist in blocking change or simply continuing with the callous exploitation of human and natural resources; and those in government are too timid to take action, or worse, in cahoots with them, then reformists must develop a common strategy to get a majority who are supportive of their proposals elected.

And lest it’s forgotten, any political party to be entrusted with winning power to facilitate the necessary reforms, should itself have advanced by the six requisite degrees of cooperation.

Note 1:
The following may be of interest to readers who would like to learn more about the socio-economic changes advocated by the cooperative and commons movements:
- ‘Co-ops and commons approaches to reviving places’: essays by Kate Swade, Pat Conaty, Ed Mayo, and others
- ‘The Wealth of the Commons’: ed by David Bollier & Silke Helfrich
- ‘Humanizing the Economy’: John Restakis
- ‘The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-state Economy’: Pat Conaty and Michael Lewis
- On the Commons: Julie Ristau & Ana Micka.
- 'All That We Share': Jay Walljasper.
- P2P Foundation: Michel Bauwens
- ‘Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship’: Henry Tam

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