Abigail George | Cooperation Through Identity

By Abigail George

Cooperation Through Identity:
A Case Study of Karl Marx’s Views on Cooperation and Association

During the lively discussion between Bernard E. Harcourt and Étienne Balibar, a fundamental tension over worker cooperatives in contemporary capitalism came to light. Karl Marx opposed worker cooperatives, contending that cooperatives necessarily internalize and perpetuate the oppressive and avaricious logic of capitalism. He contended that “the co-operative system will never transform capitalist society.”[1] Conversely, Harcourt embraces cooperatives as the central component of Coöperism and refutes the Marxist critique of worker cooperatives as fundamentally flawed.[2] This blog post explores the issue of whether modern worker cooperatives are inherently defective due to their operation within a capitalist market economy. To ground the debate empirically, I draw from my ethnographic work with an Indigenous women’s cooperative in Guatemala.  I argue that a uniquely feminist ethic of care emerged to protect the cooperative from the corrosive logics of capitalism. A feminist perspective offers insight into how cooperatives, even within a broader market economy, can avoid slipping into the capitalist tendencies of competition and profit.

In Chapter 13 of Das Kapital, Marx positions co-operation as a power resulting from multiple men working together “in one and the same process, or in different but connected processes.”[3] Co-operation exponentially increases the productive power of laborers. Each laborer performs a specific part of the labor process, and they meld into “a body of men working in concert [that is] to a certain degree, omnipresent.”[4] Ancient societies harnessed the power of co-operation to construct grand pyramids, temples, palaces, and statutes.[5] This “elementary form of co-operation continues to subsist” in modern large-scale capitalist production, but co-operation is much more developed and coercive.[6]  Capital imposed new possibilities of co-operation onto workers, spurring an enormous rise in the creation of value. After the Industrial Revolution, co-operation was no longer spawned from the laborer’s own volition or intention, but by the command of the capitalist boss. Laborers then saw their co-operation as “the shape of the powerful will of another, who subjects their activity to his aims.”[7] Workers become the limbs of a large mechanical organism, and co-operation’s union is “foreign and external to them.”[8] Accordingly, for Marx, co-operation may take benign forms, but under capitalism, it acts to restrain and alienate workers who cooperate not from their own volition but due to the constraints of capital.

By contrast, Harcourt maintains that it is possible to preserve the immense unifying and productive power of co-operation without the alienating and exploitative aspects that Marx describes. Harcourt believes cooperatives can lead to a cooperative society without a radical political revolution.[9] The driving force of Harcourt’s Coöperism is coöpower which is the extra element allowing cooperation to produce more than the sum of its parts.[10] Harcourt compares coöpower with Marx’s co-operation, [11] asserting that coöpower is a specific form of the general collective power of co-operation when applied to cooperative ventures.[12]  Cooperative ventures encompass credit unions, housing cooperatives, insurance mutuals, producer cooperatives, mutual aid, and consumer cooperatives.[13] Harcourt believes that cooperative ventures can resist and transform the contemporary constraints of capital.

In trying to mediate Harcourt and Marx’s disagreement vis-à-vis cooperatives, Balibar specified that Marx’s central misgiving toward cooperatives is their inevitable dependence on a larger capitalist market. Even though cooperative members can set up their own self-determining system of cooperation and free themselves from being subjected to a capitalist boss, their productive unit is still subject to the laws of the larger capitalist market, which are competition, profit, and accumulation. As such, cooperatives will either conform to and internalize those logics leading to self-exploitation, or they will collapse. The “chains,” so to speak, are not so much the exploitative boss but the invisible chains of the capitalist market. Conversely, Harcourt maintains that the division of labor within a single production unit can still take a cooperative form even though the entire societal division of labor works under market logic.

To explore the psychological effects of cooperatives existing within a larger market economy, I turn to a case study of a cooperative, Flor de Réjon. Prior to law school, I conducted ethnography over a period of six months with an indigenous women’s economic cooperative in a village outside of Sumpango, Guatemala. Flor de Rejón comprises about 150 indigenous women and is among the 2,200 registered cooperatives in Guatemala. Flor de Réjon is primarily a producer cooperative, where the women collectively sell their crops, livestock, and artisan crafts.  A primary incentive for forming the cooperative was to garner contracts to export their crops. Without their own contracts, they would be forced to sell their crops to coyotes, intermediaries who buy produce at discounted prices.

Dolores, who founded the cooperative, told me many times that the goal of the cooperative was salir adelante (to get ahead), which had an economic connotation, but also described the cooperative as integral (comprehensive); members work on one another’s plots, care for one another’s livestock and help sell one another’s crops. Dolores told me, “I don’t want money. I want us to get ahead together and equally.” Moreover, the women in the cooperative work together to access better schools for their children, to be able to fill the ditch of trash contaminating the community’s water, and to maintain a sustainable forest for firewood. In other words, despite their economic precarity, and constant subjugation to and mediation with the capitalist market, much of the work they do is not dictated by the capitalist principles of competition, profit and accumulation.

So, what was the source of their motivation? In other words, what was keeping them committed to each other and to the cooperative principles of sustainability, equal sharing and mutual care, even while they navigated a precarious position within a global capitalist market? For Marx, it is “the act of capital that brings and keeps [laborers] together” in co-operation under capitalism.[14] On the other hand, Harcourt suggested during the seminar that the binding force for cooperatives is the experience of self-governance or self-determination.[15]

My sense is that the primary factor keeping the cooperative members dedicated to the principles of cooperation is a feminist ethic of care. As my ethnographic work progressed, it became apparent to me that a significant part of the women’s motivation stemmed from their duties and responsibilities as mothers. To provide context, Sumpango has been profoundly shaped by the enduring legacy of Spanish colonialism, a forty-year Civil War, and ongoing drug cartel violence linked to the transnational drug trade. Additionally, there are high rates of violent crime, sexual violence, and graft. Land reforms and development campaigns have dispossessed women who are finding creative strategies to generate their livelihoods.  It is against this backdrop of misogynistic and exclusionary practices that the cooperative of women was formed, challenging the values of transnational capital.

Sumpango has a very strict code of gendered labor, ethics, and expectations, with women being responsible for cooking and feeding the children and largely excluded from politics, cartels, or owning cars or horses. Dolores told me she decided to make the cooperative women-only because she knew that men would try to charge money for their contributions. She told me that many of the women in the cooperative were drawn to join because they couldn’t rely on their husbands to spend money to feed the children. She insisted that men would spend money at the cantina (bar), while women could be trusted and spend money responsibly.

The economic precarity, driven by global capitalism, and the absence of the state meant that women needed to harness coöpower to secure schooling, a sustainable source of water, and access to food for their children.  This coöpower derived its strength from the principles of solidarity, mutual care, sustainability, and wealth sharing—but also from a uniquely feminist ethic. This ethic acted like a shield, uniting the women in cooperative principles, and ensuring that the nefarious logics of capitalism didn’t penetrate. The work of Silvia Federici, June Nash, Kay Warren, and Gladys Tzul Tzul is helpful in illuminating how a feminist ethic—rooted in housework and childrearing—is oriented toward collective well-being and sustainability and fundamentally opposed to the principles of capitalism.

The duties of housework and childrearing imposed on the women of Flor de Réjon a cooperative ethos that unified them even as they operated in a capitalistic market and often struggled to make ends meet.  But that’s not to say there weren’t deep tensions between their material needs and the principles of social responsibility and caring for others. Cooperative members told me many times that they desired to do more communal social projects, such as filling in a large ditch of trash in the village, but they lacked the funds. Thus, in the words of Balibar, the “heart of the contradiction” is that these women felt enormously proud of their accomplishments and their membership in the cooperative (like the LIP workers) but are ultimately still restricted by and very dependent on the unpredictable global capitalist market. They needed to sell enough of their products at high enough prices to feed themselves and their children.

At the end of the seminar, Balibar suggested that Harcourt’s concept of cooperation might be more akin to what Marx referred to as “free association.” Marx ends the second chapter of the Communist Manifesto with the proclamation: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”[16] For Marx, association refers to a relationship where individuals can form connections—social, economic, or political—with one another free from social constraints or the constraints of capital. Free association exists under communism after the dissolution of the state. By extension, free association is impossible within individual cooperative ventures—such as the credit unions and worker collectives described by Harcourt—since those cooperative ventures exist in the wider market economy and are, therefore, subject to market constraints.

Although the distinction between co-operation and free association may be definitional, I think it is a useful way to avoid romanticizing cooperative models within contemporary capitalism. The women of Flor de Réjon experience collective power (coöpower). But any form of free association is strictly limited to their roles within the organization. Outside the cooperative, they face pervasive gendered and racialized violence and forms of exclusion. Moreover, economic constraints necessitated the cooperative in the first place and continue to significantly limit the cooperative’s actions. While the cooperative is a powerful way for the women to shift their relationship to capitalism, the invisible chains remain strongly in place.

In conclusion, Flor de Réjon can shed light on some of the tensions of contemporary cooperatives. It shows that we must consider how a feminist ethic of caring for one’s children generates a natural cooperative disposition of mutual care and future thinking. The women themselves struggled with the tensions and the contradictions. They knew that they needed to garner contracts and play by the rules of capitalism to survive while simultaneously remaining steadfastly committed to their communal values of caretaking and sustainability—which were also vital to their collective survival and to ensure a future for their children. Their experience also exposes how transnational systems of price exploitation and consumption in postcolonial states result in a completely divergent model for thinking about Coöperism compared to the state capitalism of the United States or other developed countries.

This blog post unveiled at least two additional contradictions that remain to be worked out. First, the obvious elephant in the room is that the cooperative was exclusionary. Its members believed that excluding men was necessary to avoid dishonest and undemocratic commandeering of their values. Is this inclusion through exclusion compatible with the principles of Coöperism? In other words, do cooperatives sometimes need to enforce boundaries to preserve their integrity? Second, the cooperative’s unyielding feminist ethic emerged in the wake of unimaginable, war-induced masculinized violence, land dispossession, and economic precarity. Can these values be adopted and sustained by choice rather than as a response to necessity?

In the end, Marx’s uncompromising and instrumental approach to cooperatives is largely derived from his revolutionary tendencies. In the absence of a revolution, modern cooperatives can harness coöpower to begin to transform corrosive capitalist structures even as they remain chained to them. And a feminist ethic of care can help ensure cooperative principles will not be compromised.


[1] Karl Marx, Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council, The International Workingmen’s Association (1866) (Barrie Selman, trans.), https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1866/08/instructions.htm#:~:text=Written%3A%20by%20Marx%20at%20the,%28b%29%20Restricted%2C.

[2] See Bernard E. Harcourt, Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social Theory 26 (2023); Bernard E. Harcourt, Thoughts on Marx, Balibar, and Cooperation, Coöperism 13/13 (Oct. 23, 2023), https://coöperism.law.columbia.edu/bernard-e-harcourt-thoughts-on-marx-balibar-and-cooperation-for-coöperism-5-13/. Harcourt also takes issue with Marx’s position that worker cooperatives are inherently defective and a necessary step toward communism.  Harcourt wrote: “Where Marx went wrong, in my opinion, was to argue simultaneously (1) that worker cooperatives are inherently defective because they draw on the same logics of profit as capitalism does, but (2) that these same forms of cooperation are a necessary step toward communism.” Id.

[3] Karl Marx, Chapter Thirteen: Co-operation, Capital Volume One,  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch13.htm.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. (“This power of Asiatic and Egyptian kings, Etruscan theocrats, etc., has in modern society been transferred to the capitalist, whether he be an isolated, or as in joint-stock companies, a collective capitalist.”).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. Co-operation thus accelerates the antagonism between workers and capitalists on the path towards the communist revolution. “As the number of the co-operating labourers increases, so too does their resistance to the domination of capital, and with it, the necessity for capital to overcome this resistance by counterpressure.” Id.

[9] Harcourt, Cooperation, supra note 2, at 178 (“With a growing movement for cooperatives, solidarity and ecological economics, and new forms of mutualism, it has become clear that we can now envisage a cooperative society without the radical political revolution that Lenin and others called for.”).

[10] Id.  at 22.

[11] Bernard E. Harcourt, Marx and Coöpower, Coöperism 13/13 (Oct. 22, 2023), https://coöperism.law.columbia.edu/bernard-e-harcourt-marx-and-coöpower/?cn-reloaded=1 (“[M]y use of the term ‘coöpower’ is trying to capture the more specific new form of power that arises in the context of cooperative forms of (what Marx would call) co-operation.”).

[12] Id. (“His [Marx’s] is a general term; mine is specific to cooperative ventures. But overall, there is a clear family resemblance, in Wittgenstein’s sense.”).

[13] Harcourt, Cooperation, supra note 2.

[14] Marx, Chapter Thirteen, supra note 3. (“[T]he co-operation of wage labourers is entirely brought about by the capital that employs them.”).

[15] Notes on file with author.

[16] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).