Cooperation as the Institution of the Common
Praktyka Teoretyczna 1(27)/2018
Editors: Bartłomiej Błesznowski, Mikołaj Ratajczak
Text submission deadline: December 15, 2017
Planned date of publication: March 2018
The era since the 2008 financial crisis has witnessed a return to the idea of cooperation. This has been the case in the US, Western Europe and more recently, in post-socialist countries such as Poland. Indeed, newly established cooperatives grounded in an older, grassroots democratic tradition have received a great deal of media coverage while academic interest in the cooperative movement and the ideas that underlie it continues to grow.
Along with the return to cooperativism and the ideas around it, historical tensions have re-emerged and old debates become urgent once more, albeit in new circumstances. Among these is the issue of the cooperative movement’s relationship to class division and struggle. Since at least the Rochdale Pioneers, cooperatives were viewed as vehicles for working class emancipation. Created by artisans, industrial workers, and later by peasants, their aim was the removal of the shackles of ostensibly “free” labour.
At its origins in industrial England, the conscious cooperative movement was a piece with the workers’ movement, alongside trade unions and political parties, even if this relationship evoked discord and polemic from the outset. Inspired by various streams of pre-Marxist social movements and later developed by European advocates of cooperatives – Charles Gide among them – was the Rochdale Principle of political and religious neutrality. In Gide’s view, the cooperatives had to form an independent movement that would gradually transform the economic system by peaceful means. With time cooperatives became attractive to more radical anti-capitalist streams of thought. For instance, the first cooperative bakery was established in Belgium by members of the socialist party and since then, cooperatives – along with the well-known People’s Houses – formed part of left movements. While Marx himself seemed to view cooperatives as a temporary measure which had no means to bring an end to capitalism. Yet many Marxists embraced cooperatives, especially workers’ cooperatives seeking state support. An interest in cooperatives among right-wing corporatist circles in search of alternative principles of national integration soon followed.
These conflicts and tensions were also clearly perceptible in Poland, during the interwar period in particular. “Społem”, the leader of consumer cooperative union that took leadership of the movement emergent from a Warsaw union founded in 1911, took a “neutralist” stance upon them. This was plainly expressed by one of the movement’s early leaders, Romuald Mielczarski and later reiterated by the longtime “Społem” leader Marian Rapacki. Conversely, a rival “class” cooperative movement brought together by the Union of the Workers’ Cooperative Associations, advocated cooperation with socialist and communist parties. While these two movements united in 1926 under the “Społem” banner, the controversies prevailed.
What relationship does the idea of cooperativism have to the wider anti-capitalist movement today? Neither poor factory workers, nor peasant or state-employed officials, but an urban middle class or empoverished but educated precariat seems to form the basis of a reborn cooperative movement, from Kiev to Detroit. This situation appears to resemble the conundrum faced by many new social movements on the left. The question is no longer whether cooperatives are to be open to members of other classes or to holders of other worldviews and ideologies. Instead, the reverse is the case: how are cooperatives and the ideas attendant to them to be open to majority views forms the current looming question. The issues of class, neutrality or political engagement and the relationship with the state are return once again, albeit in an entirely different light.
At issue in the question of who cooperates is no longer a homogeneous and self-conscious class. In this context, the insights of the leaders of the pre-war movement, in the case of Poand for instance of Romuald Mielczarski and Marian Rapacki from the „Społem” association that “cooperation is common and as such is a class”, might form an important launchpad for a new debate about both cooperative practice and anti-capitalist politics. Indeed, the tradition of cooperatives and political thought concentrated on the idea of cooperation and mutual aid may be essential to theorising class struggle in a period when social cooperation has become the central force driving the social factory and the main source of surplus value.
This is the starting point for our inquiry: what is the relation between the history of cooperative movements, the ideas developed by cooperativists and contemporary class struggle? Could the relation between the politics of cooperativity and class struggle be developed beyond the dialectic of a sovereign political entity and an unconscious collective, beyond the division between citizen and consumer, once more retracing the boundary between the economic and the political? For instance, cooperativism may be revisited through the idea of „multitude” – a set of subjectivities always present, without representation, yet outside the market and state calculation. This would be a “practical subject” embodying the common condition of precarity.
The basis for such a political and philosophical perspective could be found in the recent writings of many post-Operaist authors: the institution of the common. Developed recently by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the concept of the institution of the common envisages a democratic cooperation aimed at creating material and immaterial wealth for all to share – but one that does not cease to be an antagonistic, constituent power directed against both capitalist and state forms of oppression. This perspective is not far from the tradition of cooperativism – and indeed it paves the way for a vision of class struggle based first of all on the institutionalization of cooperation. What would be its the strategic and theoretical gains?
We invite submissions engaging with the wide set of topics addressing the relationship between the cooperation, cooperative movement and the various forms of contemporary institutions of the common. Authors seeking to shed light on the problem both in the historical context and in respect to present debates are equally welcome.
Suggested problems and areas of inquiry:
- History of cooperativism and cooperative movements in the context of contemporary political philosophy.
- History of the ideas of cooperation and mutual aid as political concepts.
- Cooperativism as an institution: cooperation and mutual aid as constituent power and a political institution.
- Cooperation of the multitude: cooperativism as a perspective for projects of radical politics.
- Cooperation and the common: reciprocal relations between the tradition of cooperativism and post-Operaist critique of contemporaneity.
- Cooperation as minor politics: post-structuralist critique of political subject as a theoretical inspiration for cooperative politics.
- Cooperativism and the State: opposition, synergy, difficult coexistence?
- Cooperativism and workers’ movement: natural allies, historical enemies, possible cooperation?
- “Realizable utopia”: cooperativism in relation to utopian socialism, syndicalism, anarchism and communism.
- Archeology and genealogy of cooperativism: philosophical and conceptual roots of cooperativism in Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Early Modernity and their actuality.
- Cooperativism and the critique of political economy (1): cooperativism and Marxist critique of political economy.
- Cooperativism and the critique of political economy (2): economy of cooperatives.
- Cooperativism and the critique of political economy (3): economy of affects and mutual aid.
- Cooperativism and the critique of political economy (4): cooperativism, p2p and sharing economy.
- Coopeartivism and the critique of political economy (5): the question of basic income.
- Modern feminism, the struggle for women’s rights and cooperative movement.
- Post-feminist critique of political economy, contempoarary visions of post-capitalists politics and the question of cooperation.
- Contemporary forms of cooperativism as examples of uproot organization and resistance.
- Cooperativism and cooperative forms of praxis as an alternative to predominant visions of social and economic organization.
- How to invent the future on the basis of cooperation and mutual aid?
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