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The Present

The case for “coöperism”: How we can solve global problems together

If we took the values and principles of cooperation to the next level, we could effectively tackle many crises.
a group of people standing in the shape of a world map.
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Key Takeaways
  • The values at the heart of organized cooperation include participatory democracy, equity, and sustainability.
  • Today’s cooperative models could be combined and concentrated into an integrated framework of “coöperism.”
  • Coöperism is built on the idea of benefiting all the stakeholders of an enterprise and respecting their environment.

Excerpted from Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social Theory by Bernard E. Harcourt Copyright (c) 2023 Bernard E. Harcourt. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Cooperation generates that extra element—that additional part beyond the sum of the parts—that we might call “coöpower.” Coöpower derives from the strength of the values and principles at the heart of cooperation: participatory democracy, equity in the distribution of wealth, care for all the stakeholders, solidarity, sustainability, and concern for the working environment. 

It is time to harvest and distill this coöpower and place it at the heart of a political, economic, and social paradigm. It is time to concentrate it and make it grow, almost like a fission chain reaction, off the productive interactions of these core values and principles. These ideals can build on one another, reinforce and empower one another, in a way that would amplify the quiet paradigm of cooperation. In effect, it is time to combine, leverage, and compound the most promising forms of cooperation. 

There are today many cooperative forms that can serve as a basis for a larger society fueled by coöpower. But not all the instances of cooperation are perfect models. Some ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), for instance, retain a very top-down managerial style. Some consumer cooperatives engage in unfavorable labor practices with their retail workers. Some retail cooperatives are primarily dedicated to reducing costs and increasing profitability. Some nonprofits have an autocratic management style, and some have a mission to undermine cooperation. In other words, not all cooperative enterprises fully promote the core values and principles—or all of them. Some cooperatives also go through de-cooperative phases and become mixed or hybrid as they grow. Some get embroiled in disputes against unionization; others go through growing pains. 

In order to make progress, then, we need to focus on the cooperative initiatives that best promote the core values and principles of cooperation and find ways to combine and concentrate them into an integrated framework—what we might call “coöperism.” The idea of coöperism is not just to extend forms of cooperation to other domains or increase the number of cooperative enterprises, although that is part of it, but to concentrate forms of cooperation so that the more beneficial forms aggregate and build on one another. The idea is to combine the most promising forms of cooperatives so that, for instance, a worker cooperative sells to a consumer cooperative to enhance the amount of cooperation. Or a farmer cooperative sources a nonprofit community food service. The idea is to leverage forms of cooperation so that, for example, a worker cooperative uses a credit union to help employees become members. Or an insurance mutual supports the operation of a producer cooperative. The effect is thus to compound cooperation and double down on the forms that best promote the core principles, so that the benefits of cooperation and coöpower are intensified and grow cumulatively. 

The logic of coöperism entails a different way of viewing the world.

Coöperism takes the most promising forms of cooperation, those that are most true to the values and principles, and agglomerates them to create an integrated political, economic, and social whole that can displace existing frameworks, such as investor shareholder logics that extract capital from businesses or the social paradigm of punishment and law-and-order that harms communities. It represents a copious vision that spans the political, economic, and social domains. It builds on the political ideal of participatory democracy, extending that model to all the other realms of life—to the workplace, enabling workers to manage their own environment and production through one-person-one-vote principles, and to consumer cooperatives, insurance mutuals, and credit unions, transforming the consumer, the insured, and the creditor or debtor into active agents rather than passive objects. 

It offers an economic model of sustainability and ecology that can displace the extractive logics of shareholder investment. Rather than individuals competing with one another for scarce resources or trying to reap all the benefits, coöperism rests on the idea of benefiting all the stakeholders of an enterprise and respecting their environment. It provides a different social framework as well. 

The logic of coöperism entails a different way of viewing the world. Rather than relying on a paradigm of punishment, it paves the way for a social paradigm of cooperation that puts in place the support and community mechanisms that can address difficulties before they turn into harms. It allows for the circulation of a new form of power, coöpower, throughout society that, as it gains traction and momentum, can displace disciplinary power, biopower, expository power, and other forms of power.

Coöperism will be more effective at dealing with our global crises than either of the two dominant paradigms. To be sure, it doesn’t control major media outlets and may not lobby as well as the others. It doesn’t wave a national flag. But it does not require a supermajority, just people working together and creating momentum. It’s like a mole that persistently digs its tunnel, or the tortoise, constant and steady, that eventually leads the way. It promises to resolve the multiple crises we face in a far more effective manner.


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