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Cooperating in Democracies

Evan Casper-Futterman reviews Practicing Cooperation: Mutual Aid Beyond Capitalism by Andrew Zitcer, which reflects on the role of cooperation in democratic societies, and specifically the importance of practices of cooperation for a more just society.
Reviewed: Andrew Zitcer, Practicing Cooperation: Mutual Aid Beyond Capitalism, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2021

Practicing Cooperation (2021) is a timely reflection on the necessity of cooperation in democratic societies. Andrew Zitcer asks us to consider the many spaces where cooperation already exists, at various scales from the body to society. The core assertion of the book is that “the way to a more just and equitable society is the widespread adoption of cooperative practices” (p. 4, emphasis mine). Zitcer’s focus on practice is important because if membership in a formally cooperative entity was itself enough to make the world more just and equitable, one might wonder how we are in the state we’re in. One in three US adults are already members of cooperatives, and the international cooperative principles guiding their behavior have existed for over a century.

In order to properly elaborate on what he means by practices of cooperation, Zitcer draws us into a thick description of the inner lives and workplaces of democratic organizations, collectives, and enterprises in the Philadelphia area in which he lives and works. Zitcer’s focus on everyday practices, choices, and relationships makes the book valuable and relatable for those who are members of nominally democratic organizations, from collectives and cooperatives to unions that are failing to live up to their principles of inclusion and democracy. But it also might find a sympathetic and broader audience as well as among the many tens of millions of us who spend our working lives attempting to scratch out cooperation and democracy in corporate structures that make no pretense of aspiring to them.

By looking beyond formal organizational structures that are known around the world as cooperatives, the book provides important insights that might otherwise be excluded about the practices of cooperation in daily life. Expanding the scope also raises some additional important questions of its own about what role cooperatives—as opposed to practices of cooperation—can or should play in a more democratic society and economy. Rather than the simplistic suggestion that we would all be happier in cooperative workplaces, Zitcer asks, what are cooperative projects good at, and what are they good for? Can we have a democratic society without practices of cooperation, guiding us towards greater justice and equity? How can cooperation in all its forms exert “more than a modest contribution to the cultural and political economy?” (p. 23) These are necessary questions for those who believe in the proliferation of democracy of the everyday in the Deweyan and communal and associationist traditions.

Zitcer begins his exposition of case studies with practices of cooperation at the most intimate scale: the body. The protagonists of the book are all introduced in turn: the managers of a small dance company operating with consensus decision-making; two different food cooperatives, Weaver’s Way and Mariposa; and a national network/cooperative of acupuncture clinics called the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture (POCA). The diversity of these choices is meant to emphasize the value of cultivating practices of cooperation regardless of organizational form. The chapters then move out from the body to the scale of the workplace and the enterprises, and then finally to the “community economy” and democracy more generally. Each scale offers the opportunity for the actors to both excel and struggle in their efforts to develop individual, workplace, and communal ethics of cooperation.

Across the scales of the body, the workplace, and the larger community economy, Zitcer’s cases show us how the practices and ethics of cooperation are conceived, enhanced, and challenged throughout the lifecycle of the projects. The artistic directors of Headlong dance studio; the staff, board, and membership of Mariposa and Weavers Way food cooperatives; and the “acupunks” of POCA all describe various rhythms of civic and almost spiritual ecstasy derived from their cooperative membership and collaborations. This is the divinity of democracy that many of the theorists that Zitcer draws on describe. It is contrasted with the depths of despair, the endless frustrations, conflicts, disagreements, and, of course, meetings and the grind of organizational governance.

Does the divinity outweigh the despair? Much like other institutions of public life, some protagonists get fed up or disillusioned and exit. Some stick it out for personal or ideological reasons. Problems and conflicts arise in these cases both in the associational and economic domains of these enterprises and organizations. It is not easy to balance civic and associational belonging with being an active and market-responsive enterprise. This is not only true of cooperatives but of all democratic-aspiring polities in a capitalist society. Most enterprises absolve themselves of this challenge by abridging the role of democracy in the economic sphere entirely, and the thinnest possible democracy of the civic and associational sphere. Rather than arguing for a retreat to the realm of “thinner” aggregative preference registration and representational democracy, Zitcer argues that if we cannot—or until we are able to—successfully cope with or solve for these micro-level challenges of cooperation and inclusivity, we will not be any more successful at our larger aims of a democratic society. [1]

Zitcer presents the reader with three arguments. The first is that cooperation is a practice, not just, or even primarily, a structure of organization at the level of the firm, for example. By this, Zitcer means that cooperation is complex, and “requires constant interrogation and refinement” (p. 5) akin to mastering a craft. The second is that cooperation occurs at many scales: the body, the workplace, and the community economy. The third is that cooperative projects must be deeply inclusive and justice oriented.

This first argument is an important reminder of how difficult cooperation and democracy can be to sustain, and for being able to hold degenerating groups (e.g. collectives, cooperatives, unions, governments, and societies) accountable for failing to live up to their professed values. It also more clearly elaborates why the simple existence of cooperative enterprises (and members) is insufficient for justice. This emerges as a political fault line in situations where nominal cooperatives behave in ways that run counter to the international principles of cooperation and broader movements for freedom and equality: the consumer cooperative that undermines workplace organizing (the Park Slope Food Coop and REI are two notable recent examples), the Mississippi utility cooperatives where white boards serve black members and neglect services for their own membership, or the worker cooperatives that rely upon domestic or international exploitation, such as in Italy and Spain, respectively.

Zitcer’s third argument, about the necessity of being inclusive and justice oriented, also addresses these challenges of degeneration in cooperative endeavors. In addition to requiring a practice or craft of cooperation, Zitcer argues that the “paradox of exclusivity” haunts cooperative projects, in which the creation of a sense of belonging (the “in group”) must be counterbalanced against the pressures to exclude and discriminate (the “out group”). The paradox that these organizations and individuals struggle with, as we witness, is both a deep source of strength and a threat to their longevity and viability. But unlike other observers, Zitcer does not throw out the purpose and practice of cooperation because of these tensions, nor use these fault lines to argue that cooperation “doesn’t” or “can’t” work. The paradox of exclusivity is a broadly acknowledged phenomenon, but Zitcer does not provide any indication of whether his cooperative efforts are being uniquely vulnerable to this paradox, or rather, if this paradox is applicable to all “imagined communities.” Rather than making these projects unique, are cooperative projects simply another example of this structural tension of liberal universalism? Advocates of the cooperative commonwealth or Deweyan democrats might argue that cooperation has the dialectical potential to create something new from this paradox, but this is not suggested in the book.

Practicing Cooperation is a thoughtful and self-reflective examination of the promises and perils of cooperation from a maximally humanistic, rather than economistic, perspective. But there is one core claim—that cooperation begins at the body—where it is hard to tell if it is simply a matter of elegant conceptual organization or a stronger assertion. If Zitcer intends it as a strong claim, what purpose does the assertion serve? It may be a helpful concept to organize a book (a challenge of which I am deeply sympathetic), but perhaps, unlike coercion, cooperation does not have a clear origination point, and that is part of what makes it socially valuable but difficult to sustain. Might it not be both more accurate (and more politically useful) to say that cooperation exists in mutually constitutive relationships of structures and agents, bodies and institutions? That we can generate new spaces and places of cooperative practice, but also benefit and struggle with their existence and absence due to circumstances beyond our own making?

Practicing Cooperation was published at a moment in which the entirety of humanity, and particularly the United States, was faced with a global test of our capacity for cooperation as a practice not just for greater justice and equity, but also for survival. It is resonant and relevant to those one out of three US adults who belong to a cooperative, and more, because it helps inspire and remind us that we are not, to paraphrase Eduardo Galeano, permanently condemned to the crime of our prevailing systems.

This book, and the recently published working draft of solidarity economy principles, makes a strong case for rooting our work in values and ethics over what David Harvey once called the “fetish” of organizational form. Repeatedly, we emphasize democratic organizational practice and political orientation and education as the north star, as worker ownership and community land trusts have gained traction and purchase with policymakers and philanthropy. As our movement and its enterprises and institutions grow, and this growth comes into ideological and material conflict with existing forces that seek to sabotage or co‑opt them, why do we continue to stand up for the organizational forms? Can we not also build the ethical and practical foundations of a cooperative democratic society with tenant and labor unions? Can we make a consistent and coherent argument for a more participatory form of democratic cooperation at a scale of critical mass in society that does more for our intended political and economic aims than a robust but bureaucratic social welfare state or a revived labor union and tenant movement? To respond that the answer is “both-and” elides the necessity of strategic choices from an insufficient pool of committed partisans. I’ve been a committed cooperativist for over a decade and I’m not sure that cooperatives are built for the fight that workers and tenants are leading.

If we believe in leisure and rest for all people alongside work with dignity, we must ask how cooperative enterprises are part of the basis for a more cooperative society. Are they agents of transformation, leading the way towards a more just society, or rather lagging indicators of other forms of social cohesion and democracy? While this book does not directly or explicitly task itself with addressing these questions of public and social control and political economy, it does address a core pillar of the cooperative movement: Why cooperate if our collective aims could be accomplished more easily or differently? Because we crave connection and care. Because cooperation nourishes our souls and constitutes our humanity. Because no social democracy “at scale” could survive without it, and neither can we.

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To cite this article:

Evan Casper-Futterman, “Cooperating in Democracies”, Metropolitics, 13 January 2023. URL : https://metropolitics.org/Cooperating-in-Democracies.html

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