Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to the Book *Cooperation*

By Bernard E. Harcourt

There are many heroes in this book. W.E. B. Du Bois. Angela Davis. Peter Kropotkin. Louis Blanc. Dean Spade. David Graeber. Mariame Kaba. All champions of cooperation.

My ambition for this book is to build on this centuries-long tradition. Not to reinvent the wheel. And not to discard or disparage these heroes of cooperation—except when they’ve engaged in sexist, antisemitic, or otherwise exclusionary practices, such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon or Charles Fourier. There I draw the line.

But with that exception, my goal is to help orient this body of work in a promising direction for the twenty-first century, for our moment—for the cataclysm that we face, urgently, today.

We are at a burning crossroads, especially here in the United States, but also around the world. The earth is literally burning. We just lived through the warmest month, July, ever recording in human history.

And the historical conjuncture is not favorable here at home. The U.S. is the largest producer of crude oil in the world, ahead of Saudi Arabia.[1] The U.S. is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.[2] We have probably contributed to global warming more than any other country. And yet we are politically polarized in a way that prevents us from passing any green legislation or effective EPA policy. (The IRA was a fluke of budget reconciliation). In a country like the U.S., we are deadlocked. And paralyzed. And no amount of magical thinking is going to get 60 Senators to override a filibuster on green legislation. Plus, along with climate change, there are new and even more accentuated forms of inequality and environmental injustice.

We are interdependent today to a degree that humans have never been before. And all of our philosophies of Enlightenment are outdated. They still, of course, have a deep hold on us: individual autonomy, human self-development, “man” mastering nature or technology or taming chance, free trade, the wealth of nations. These old theories cannot even begin to address the form of interdependence that we now live in faced with global climate warming.

Barring a revolution—and the only revolution that seems realistic today is by the extreme right and modern-day fascists who are the only ones who are stockpiling weapons—we need to rethink how we face these challenges.

In this book, I argue that the alternative is all around us, hidden in plain sight: forms of human cooperation that thrive in all dimensions of our lives despite the odds—despite the fact that they are disfavored financially, fiscally, tax-wise, and are often themselves taxing and more demanding than the more easy capitalist alternatives:

  • Like the workers at the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, yes, the makers of the Anchor steam beer, who are coming together, in the face of the brewery ceasing operations, to form a worker coop, to turn the brewery into a worker-owned cooperative;
  • Or like the 63 families at the Westside Mobile Home Park in Durango, Colorado, who were faced with displacement because the park’s owner was going to sell to a large corporation, who came together and organized and created a housing cooperative and land trust for affordable housing;
  • Or like the members of Cooperation Jackson in West Jackson, Mississippi, who are collaborating with and helping set up a cooperative agricultural farm in Marshfield, Vermont, working with local indigenous populations, to create livable conditions for climate refugees escaping environmental disasters;
  • Or like the many mutual aid projects that mushroomed during COVID-19 to help neighbors, persons with disabilities or the aged, even to help strangers make it through the pandemic;
  • Or all the people in Brooklyn who got together and organized and now form part of the legendary Park Slope Food Co-op;
  • Or the whole French banking industry which is becoming practically entirely mutualized; with the exception of the two big private banks, BNP Parisbas and Société Général, the banking industry is now dominated by credit unions, Crédit Agricole, Caisses d’épargne, Crédit mutuel, Crédit coopératif, Banques populaires...

Across every dimension of our lives, we can choose, refine, combine, leverage the forms of cooperation that exist already and promote the values of cooperatives. These principles have existed for centuries:

  1. first, openness, inclusiveness, and voluntariness: cooperative initiatives must be open to all without discrimination and based on voluntary membership;
  2. second, democratic self-governance: cooperative organizations should be run democratically by the members themselves, and members should have equal say and an equal vote in the decision-making process;
  3. third, equality: the members should contribute and benefit equitably from the running of the enterprise;
  4. fourth, self-determination: cooperation should remain autonomous and self-determining, under the control of the members only;
  5. fifth, education infused: cooperative organizations must strive to provide training and education for the members;
  6. sixth, intra- and inter-cooperation: cooperation among cooperative enterprises; and
  7. sustainability: finally, that the cooperative enterprises strive toward the sustainable development of their environment and communities.

Sustainability is built into these forms of cooperation that privilege local sourcing and that, inherently, tend to the environment of the workers and members of the cooperative enterprises, because they live where they work and consume—by contrast to shareholders.

In Cooperation, I try to tease out a modern theory of cooperation for the 21st century along three dimensions: the political, the economic, and the social.

Along the political dimension, I argue that we need to reimagine a political theory of cooperation that is neither utopian, nor exclusionary, nor evolutionary, but rather deliberate and chosen, concentrated and compounded, and open and inclusive. (Chapter 4)

Along the economic dimension, I argue that we need to think of cooperation as an integrated system or regime of political economy, from the bottom up—what I call “Coöperism”—that can displace the types of state dirigisme that have marked existing regimes of capitalism and communism.

Along the social dimension, I argue for a paradigm of cooperation that will replace our existing punishment paradigms in our punitive societies.

These three dimensions form what we might call – in homage to W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis’s concept of “abolition democracy” – “cooperation democracy.” Cooperation democracy is a different democratic theory, not just majority rule, not just democratic self-governance, but democratic self-determination throughout every aspects of our lives—the workplace, living conditions, food and consumption, the environment, etc.

For centuries the Left has fought over these forms of cooperation. Marx and Engels disfavored worker cooperatives; Lenin famously returned to embrace cooperatives late, in 1923, in his famous essays On Cooperation. Forms of cooperation have often been attacked as undermining class struggle, as not sufficiently utopian, or as undermining the fight for socialism. The remarkable Mondragon cooperative consortium in the Basque country of Spain—the seventh largest industrial group in Spain—is often critiqued for undermining class struggle.

But the answer is: given our human interdependence, and given that the planet is burning, there is no time to wait for massive collective action. I must act now in every way that I can, effectively, right now, to jump start sustainable, equal, and just forms of cooperation. These forms of cooperation exist right here and right now. They are things that each and every one of us can do right now. We can instantiate Coöperism wherever we are. And continue to fight for political, economic and social transformation.

“What more am I to do?” I asked in Critique & Praxis.

Or as Biodun Jeyifo asked in response: “What more are we to do together?”

The answer right now, this minute, is to work in cooperation.

Let me conclude as I did the book, Cooperation:

This is the dawning of an age of coöperism. A future of integrated cooperative projects and mutual collaborations is on the horizon. They will augur a more sustainable, equitable, democratic, and caring society that operates on the paradigm of cooperation. There is no need to wait to realize this ambition. There is no need to convince a majority of other people. No need to seize power, nor to dismantle Each of us can determine, or continue, to work together to concentrate, leverage, and compound cooperation and watch coöperism grow like a snowball rolling down a hill. The models of cooperation are at hand. The core values and principles are crystal clear. We can do this together now.


[1] Jeff Gordon, “Unbundling Climate Change Risk from ESG,” draft paper 8/19/2023 (“In 2022 the US produced approximately 4.3 billion barrels of crude oil. This makes the US the world’s leading producer of oil, ahead of Saudi Arabia.”)