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Big Thinkers on Co-operation


Illustration by Alan Hughes

Robert Owen (1771-1858)

‘There is but one mode by which man can possess in perpetuity all the happiness which his nature is capable of enjoying – that is by the union and co-operation of all for the benefit of each’

The Welsh industrialist is seen as the father of the modern co-op movement.
He made his fortune in cotton but after witnessing the horrific poverty and suffering caused by early capitalism, Owen had a different plan – ‘villages of co-operation’ where people could work and live together in a sharing, humane environment. He was a true radical, attacking the family, private property, the market economy and organized religion, and reviled the notion of consumer co-ops. ‘Joint stock retailing,’ he said, ‘will not form any part of the arrangements in the New Moral World.’
He launched his co-operative experiment at his textile factory in New Lanark, Scotland on the banks of the River Clyde. It was a success – eventually 2,500 people, including 500 children, lived in Owen’s cotton mill village, many from the slums of Glasgow and Edinburgh. He then tried, unsuccessfully, to start similar communities in Orbiston, Scotland and in New Harmony, Indiana. Co-operation, he reckoned, would lead to financial independence and self-government, while competition and capitalism would eventually fade, leading to a classless society.

Illustration by Alan Hughes

Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen (1818-88)

‘When you help others, you help yourself’

German entrepreneur Friedrich Raiffeisen was a fervent Christian of modest background and little education.
He served in the military and then ran for mayor of several small towns before starting a cigar factory and a wine business. When he was mayor of Flammersfeld in 1847, the desperate poverty and precarious finances of local farmers struck a chord. Many of them were ex-serfs recently freed from bondage, forced to take high-interest loans from loan sharks.
During the famine of 1846-47, Raiffeisen solicited donations to buy flour and distributed bread to the poor. Eventually, his ideas about self-help led to the first rural credit union in 1854. Members would pool their savings, and buy shares in the enterprise, to help each other rather than rely on outside capital from private banks or loan sharks. Raiffeisen convinced farmers to show solidarity and proved that poor people were credit worthy. By 1913, over two million Germans were members of credit unions, mostly in small communities. The concept quickly spread to Canada, the US and other European countries. Today, an estimated 186 million people in more than 100 countries belong to credit unions.

Illustration by Alan Hughes

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921)

‘The lesson of evolutionary history is that it will be through conservation, interaction and networking, not domination, that we avert a premature end to our species’

The Russian naturalist, philosopher and anarchist was a prolific writer and brilliant thinker with wide-ranging interests.
In 1902, Kropotkin argued in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution that species survived where the individuals co-operate. Co-operation, he said, is both beneficial and essential to human society.
‘The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.’
A century later, biologists and zoologists were noting many instances where real animals – bees, birds, ants and even microbes – were co-operating.

Illustration by Alan Hughes

Lynn Margulis (1938-2011)

‘Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking’

In 1966, when she tried to publish her paper on evolutionary changes in single- cell micro-organisms, the leading science journals wouldn’t give Lynn Margulis the time of day.
Eventually, of course, she was published and her research changed the course of evolutionary theory. Margulis, who taught geoscience at the University of Massachusetts, argued that co-operation takes precedence over competition in evolution. She did it by looking at evolutionary changes in single-cell creatures billions of years ago, rather than at fully formed species.
The way to evolutionary success, she argued, was through symbiosis, where simple cells merged to form new higher order creatures. Organisms that are mutually beneficial become one, and then reproduce. This hypothesis challenged the prevailing belief that random mutation was the driving force of evolution.
‘Far from leaving micro-organisms behind on an evolutionary ladder, we more complex creatures are both surrounded by them and composed of them. New knowledge of biology alters our view of evolution as a chronic, bloody competition among individuals and species... Life forms multiplied and grew more complex by co-opting others, not just by killing them.’

Illustration by Alan Hughes

Elinor Ostrom (1933 - )

‘There is no reason to believe that bureaucrats and politicians, no matter how well meaning, are better at problem solving than the people on the spot, who have the strongest incentive to get the solution right’

This political scientist from the University of Indiana was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics in the wake of the global financial meltdown.
Talk about timing. While mainstream economists believed that self-interest was paramount, Ostrom found that co-operation is often key to managing common resources successfully. Greed, in other words, is not always good.
Back in 1968, Garrett Hardin argued in The Tragedy of the Commons that shared resources tend to be over-exploited and eventually destroyed. Ostrom proved the opposite. She showed how shared resources like water, fish stocks, pastures and forests could be well managed by groups. According to the Nobel committee she ‘challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized’.
Ostrom’s work shows that people can work together to get things done for the common good. That’s an important lesson today when so many of humankind’s most pressing problems – from global warming and air quality to aquifer depletion and global pandemics – need to be tackled collectively. Looks like the commons doesn’t have to end in tragedy after all.

Illustration by Alan Hughes

David Sloan Wilson
(1949 - )

‘Selfishness might beat co-operation within groups, but co-operative groups beat selfish groups’

Is co-operation the critical driving force in nature? David Sloan Wilson thinks so.
His ideas counter the bio-determinists’ claim that humans are selfish competitors driven by greed and self-interest. Wilson is a professor of biology and anthropology in Binghamton, New York. His notion of ‘co-operative evolution’ based on ‘multi-level selection’ is still hotly contested in some academic circles, but is gaining ground quickly.
His theory considers the action of natural selection but at a group level, both between and within groups.
‘For decades we have been told that evolution is based entirely on individual and genetic self-interest, which does not extend to groups. Is it any wonder that we have produced countless business leaders, financiers and politicians for whom the selfish pursuit of self-interest is a natural law and a maxim to live by? The truth is that individuals can evolve to behave for the good of their groups and that co-operation is the signature adaptation of our own species. Selfishness might beat co-operation within groups, but co-operative groups beat selfish groups.’

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