Cooperation seems so normal. When I first looked at Bernard E. Harcourt’s book titled “Cooperation,” I wasn’t sure it was worth a serious reading. What caught my attention was the sub-title: “A Political, Economic, and Social Theory.” This sounded like something more than a simple request to cooperate with others. What turned out to be especially helpful was his concept of “cooperative democracy.”
Most of us are familiar with cooperatives. We probably belong to coop credit unions, may shop at cooperative bakeries and may be members of consumer coops, such as the outdoor outlet: REI. Harcourt uses these experiences as a backdrop for his social and political theory of cooperation.
I think he’s right that cooperation is not a foreign concept. We know that team sports do their best when they work together. So do soldiers on the battlefield for that matter. Cooperation is a good strategy for winning games and wars. Even tea party members had to cooperate among themselves to disrupt the implementation of Obama’s health care plan. In these instances, the purpose of cooperation is domination.
In many situations, cooperation exists within what I will call “plantation logic.” Plantation logic is quite simple. You get “your people” to cooperate with each other to dominate the market.
Cooperation in the context of Capitalism, in other words, serves the goal of domination, which means that whether cooperation makes sense depends on whether it’s a winning strategy or not.
What I learned from Harcourt’s book is that we could embed cooperation in democracy. In fact, democracy needs cooperation. Harcourt points out that democracy needs more than procedural principles, such as one-person-one vote or everyone has a right to vote. It also requires substantive principles, such as the principle of cooperation.
Cooperation in other words, is more than working together to get the work done. It involves treating everyone with respect and dignity as equal members of the political community. Harcourt writes:
What cooperative democracy offers, then, is a vision of democracy that is fully democratic both procedurally and substantively, tying the notion of democratic decision making to institutions and practices that truly make possible one-person-one-vote, equal citizenship, solidarity, and sustainability. The ambition is to put all people, including those who have traditionally been disadvantaged, in a position such that they can and do fully exercise their democratic rights (p. 189).
The logic of cooperative democracy squarely faces the logic of the plantation. This opposition parallels the opposition between a climate of justice and a climate of injustice. Perhaps, as Harcourt suggests, our experiences with local cooperatives can provide a basis for imagining something much greater.