Cooperatives, chimpanzees and alcoholics

Commentators are competing like never before to share their views on the importance of being co-operative. There is, after all, a revival of the cooperative and the mutual, of co-production, timebanking and social enterprise. While I’ve been far from uncritical of the big society, and official volunteering and ‘participation’ campaigns, I have also been an enthusiastic participant in my own right. I coordinate Neighbourhoods Connect, a volunteer-led social media project in North London, and I’m also a member of the proposal team for a new free school, East London Science School. (We’re still looking for prospective parents and sixth formers to sign up!)

So, allowing for a little bias, I am the first to argue that at first sight there is much to recommend this vogue for all things cooperative. A recently published IPPR report, It’s cooperation, stupid, declares:

… we should jettison the assumption that humans are selfish, first and foremost. Instead, we should start from the assumption that most of the time, most people want to be cooperative.

Which is hard to argue with, you have to admit? Likewise, David Sloan Wilson thinks that being cooperative and ‘society-oriented’ rather than competitive or selfish is the norm not the exception. But here is where the trouble begins. Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who thinks that studying the ‘behaviours’ of people in neighbourhoods is much like Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees. Despite, or perhaps because of, his rather demeaning assumption Wilson and his ‘evolutionary toolkit’ are very much in demand. He was in the UK recently at the invitation of the Co-operative Group. According to Bibi van der Zee at The Guardian:

… his theories are now finding favour with politicians and policy thinktanks on both sides of the Atlantic who are desperate to engage communities in their own neighbourhoods to work together at solving intractable social ills more effectively and cheaply than the state.

Which in itself – for all the short-sightedness of austerity politics, and the bleating on about cuts – is not a bad sentiment. Deborah Orr, also at The Guardian, thinks we need to ‘focus on the things that we all have in common, that bind us and make us human; the things that make co-operation both crucial and sensible, beneficial to all involved’. Can’t grumble with that. Or can I? Orr recalls her own experience of working at the now defunct City Limits magazine, a self-styled workers’ cooperative that was, she says, most uncooperative. But it is the model she professes to prefer – Alcoholics Anonymous – that concerns me. She is apparently oblivious to the therapeutic authoritarianism of the 12-step programme, concluding that it is ‘good to stop listening out for, and holding fast to, the things that make us individual and different’. I am no fan of identity politics and the divisiveness it fosters – no more, indeed, than I am of Wilson’s genetic determinism – and I subscribe rather more than she to old-fashioned collective ideas like socialism. But Orr’s enthusiasm for cooperation seems to amount to a desire to submerge the robust individual – who would surely shun the dictates of AA in favour of a little genuine ‘self-help’ – in a ‘soothing’ sea of collective therapy.

Her commentary is inspired by a new book, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, by sociologist Richard Sennett. I will be introducing a discussion about it at the Future Cities Readers’ Group next month. I confess I haven’t started reading it yet – or that IPPR report come to think of it – but the omens aren’t good.

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