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Toward a Cooperative Society: What, Why and How

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Toward a Cooperative Society: What, Why and How

I've been spending some time thinking about how to create a cooperative society. By this, I don't mean cooperation to improve the technical efficiency of the status quo like Bill Clinton, or a plan to make co-ops a bigger part of the economy. There might be overlap, but what follows is a discussion of something quite a bit more ambitious.

Cooperation is activity which is mutually advantageous to the parties involved. A word like advantageous is already problematic here, implying as it does a winners-and-losers scenario based on scarcity. By a cooperative society, I mean one which is has cooperation as central value, and is dedicated to the full development of human beings in a nurturing and challenging milieu. In such a society, cooperation happens between human beings and social groups, but also between human beings and the ecology we live in (which could be considered deep intergenerational cooperation).
My thinking is incomplete. This is a rough sketch, shared in the spirit of discussion, dialogue and further development. If it seems flip, it's because I'm trying to write an overview; explorations of each theme will come later.
One way I've tried to frame the idea of a cooperative society is as an economy that aims to eliminate negative externalities. An "externality" is technically "a cost or benefit that is not transmitted through prices," but for my purposes, it's a cost or benefit that is not currently accounted for, or difficult to account for at the level of individual activities or transactions. Instead of "true cost accounting" measures like cap and trade, however, a cooperative society would aim to eliminate any kind of destructive activity.
Negative externalities include:
  • Pollution or destruction on a scale that depletes the life-sustaining functions of ecology, such as mining, chemical spills or burning of fuel
  • Production based on labour that diminishes human capacities through injury, exposure to toxins, repetition or lack of stimulation
  • Patterns of activity that lead to lessened cultural diversity, extinction of languages, or uniformity of thought
  • Situations in which violence is used to maintain a state of affairs not essential for survival
A cooperative society seeks to minimize and eventually eliminate activities that are not sustainable, whether on a psychological, societal or environmental level. But doing less harm isn't enough to call something a cooperative society. Negative formulations give us a foundation. Without building plans, they amount to an empty basement at best.
A few positive qualities of a cooperative society, then:
  • Creativity is valued and supported in all its forms, in every individual. (This refers not just to artistic expression, but to the continuous application of playful tinkering and radical rethinking to every aspect of daily life, community, relationships and economic structures.)
  • A relationship with ecology on a local level, culturally, architecturally, and in daily activities
  • Basic needs (food, water, shelter space) are met for each individual or family
  • Social values, practices and political structures which both maximize the potential for revitalization while maintaining a base of cooperative values and sustainable economic practices
  • Meaningful participation in decision making for all, about all collective endeavours, roughly in proportion to the stake a member has in the decision
  • Processes and patterns which consistently redistribute wealth, decisionmaking and political influence to be more egalitarian
  • Deep relationships are valued, between members and between groups; these threads form the fabric of society, they are its source of strength, cohesion and capacity for collective deliberation
So far, that's just a wishlist. "Things Dru thinks society could do better." It's got to fit together to really make sense.
Immediate outstanding questions include: why these things, why is this cooperative per se, and how do we do this?
With climate change under way and tipping points around the corner or underfoot, the imperative of ecological sustainability has never been greater, and is growing by the hour.
Equal distribution of wealth and equal valuing of human dignity are laudable, long-time goals of social movements. But in the context of the drastically reduced resource consumption required for ecological sustainability, redistribution of wealth has become much more urgent. Our immediate alternate futures lie on a triangular continuum of eco-catastrophe (continued unsustainable resources consumption), ecofascism (deep inequality as elites impose austerity to continue their high consumption) and ecosocialism (reduction of consumption to sustainable levels along with redistribution of wealth).
Democratic, egalitarian control over production is one of the best ways to ensure that the economy shifts in a sustainable and non-authoritarian direction. Co-ops that are based on one member, one vote models are, even under current economic conditions, more likely than shareholder-run businesses to adopt sustainable practices. This become more likely if their members also have to live where the co-op operates, and thus must deal with its ecological impacts personally.
More than anything else, concentrations of power and wealth prevent us from addressing ecological crises like climate change with our full collective capacities. For every handful of grassroots efforts to lower consumption and prevent environmental devastation, a billionaire has funded climate denial or has invested in tar sands extraction. 
A redistribution of wealth, a global shift in values toward cooperation and sustainability, and an explosion of creative potential: these are the tightly intertwined and interdependent conditions for preventing ecological collapse.
But why cooperative?
Cooperation consists in valuing of the "win-win" scenario of mutual benefit possible in any given situation, and rejecting the assumption that there will be winners and losers. Cooperative values go so far as to say that even if I can get more, I'll be happier if we all get more. The way we all get more is by defining the "more" that we desire as things that are available in boundless quantity: curiosity, mystery, presence, knowledge, good company, creativity, food, beauty. Anti-elitism is built in at the ground floor. Cooperative values say that if something is scarce, and not necessary for existence, it's not worth wanting. It's hard to imagine anything further from our current value system.
Here are a few concepts and exhortations we might use to build a cooperative society.
Common vision. Let us formulate a project of societal transformation with a maximally ambitious shared vision. For kicks, let's call it "the cooperative commonwealth". Everyone will naturally have their own perspective and interests when it comes to undertaking transformative activity. The extent to which each person or group understands how their work fits into a constantly evolving collective vision is the extent to which it will be effective in bringing about that vision. This requires a significant commitment to the care and feeding of a continuous, rich and evolving participatory visioning process. (This is easier with the leisure time afforded by a cooperative society.)
Singularization. It's the opposite of commodification. Commodification is a flattening process by which things which have their own singular qualities are reduced to interchangeable parts based on one of their attributes. Every grain of basmati rice is a singular unit; it has a unique shape and molecular composition which makes it different from every other grain of rice in the world. But for the purpose of the international rice market, it is identical to all other grains of a similar grade. In the eyes of the market, each human being's time is worth a certain amount based on the utility of their labour, and their time is thus reduced to a commodity. Singularization is the process of restoring and cultivating the already-existing singular nature of each human being, animal, plant, community, microclimate, culture, and society. Each farm, house, relationship or business is inflected with locality and singularity; it has its own potential, different from every other comparable thing. Bringing about this potential is possible through singularization. The singularity of the things around us is what feeds our sense of mystery and connects us to the infinity of creative possibilities which diverge from what came before. In that sense, singularization is a profoundly hopeful process. Also: delightful.
Learn, refine and spread the tools of cooperation. How do we bring people together, identify common needs, and mobilize based on the unique contributions that everyone brings while developing latent capacities? Conflict resolution, conflict pre-emption, and cooperative affirmation. These processes are not straightforward, because we're in a leader-centred paradigm where there's a dominant frame of reference, a centre and a margin. To be cooperative, we have to continually bring the margin in and de-centre the whole, in a radical fulfillment of what is sometimes called empowerment.
Deal with other people. Values of scarcity seep their way into everything. Winners and losers, dominance and submission, leaders and followers. Once there is a common vision in a cooperative society, everyone commits to taking responsibility for making it work. When it doesn't, we seek to understand what went wrong in a spirit of mutual inquiry. 
Reorganize existing institutions. When our vague democratic values are stomped on by institutions which we expect to share those values, a lot of confusion results. Armed with a collective vision, however, we position ourselves to establish empowerment, cooperation and meaningful participation in decisionmaking (i.e. democracy) as prevailing standards for behaviour. Reforming institutions bit by bit is hard and sometimes thankless work, but in the context of a long-term project, it's great practice for becoming more effective at communicating and proliferating cooperative values. There's no shortcut around learning better communication and persuasion. The more cooperation is experienced by larger numbers of people, the easier it will be to assert as a common value. A good place to start is with organizations which already have cooperative principles as part of their constitution -- every cooperative incorporated in Canada happens to fit this definition.
Form an affinity group and network. Small groups are the basic unit of development and transformation, cooperative or otherwise. When five people decide to work on something, it can be several times more effective than one person making the same decision. A network of small groups taking on a common task or strategy, even more so.
Millions of people are already working and struggling to create a cooperative society, at least in certain respects. This project is not a matter of imposing a blueprint, but of consciously developing processes which make society more cooperative while replicating themselves and adapting to be useful in different situations. Almost makes it sound easy.

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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
Member since January 2008


Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

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great article. wondering if

great article. wondering if youve read parecon: life after capitalism. albert goes pretty deep and is also ambitious. gotta start somewhere, right? thanks for sharing this. 


Thanks! Definitely have spent some time with Albert's stuff, and will be spending more in the months and years to come. 

right on

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