Cooperative Ideals at the Heart of Everything: On Bernard Harcourt’s “Cooperation”

By Avram AlpertSeptember 7, 2023

Cooperative Ideals at the Heart of Everything: On Bernard Harcourt’s “Cooperation”

Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social Theory by Bernard E. Harcourt

THIS MAY SEEM like a rather fanciful time to argue that cooperation is a realistic solution to life’s problems. There are spiraling rivalries both within and between nations, not to mention that much of our life is structured as a ruthless winner-take-all competition. But in his new book Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social Theory, legal scholar and critical theorist Bernard Harcourt sets out to make precisely that case. According to him, a new cooperative paradigm imbued with the core values of participation, equity, and sustainability is not only desirable, but also eminently realizable.

Harcourt’s analysis rests on a few interlocking propositions. First, that the competitive models of politics, society, and economy that we live with today are antiquated. They were developed when the world was less interdependent and therefore less in need of radical transformation to avert imminent catastrophes. Second, that instead of breaking with these models, we have become stagnant in our thinking, locked in a pointless tug-of-war between a social democratic state-based model and a conservative market-based model.

The third point, to which the bulk of the book is dedicated, is a positive argument that cooperation can break this stalemate without needing a massive revolution. That’s because cooperation is something that we do all the time, and not only in our personal lives. As Harcourt points out at great length, different forms of cooperative enterprises—from international mutual insurance companies to flour makers in Vermont to behemoth cooperations in Catalonia—are already flourishing, and they have a proven track record of delivering quality goods and services in a way that respects both workers and the environment.

Harcourt suggests that simply by engaging in cooperative practices, we can create a “snowball” effect, propelling cooperation into the mainstream of economic life. Indeed, he does not stop there: he wants to see the snowball of cooperation overtake all aspects of how we live, including by increasing democracy and, perhaps most radically, by leading us beyond the very idea of punishment.

Harcourt’s ideas are clearly presented. He writes in a straightforward prose that, while rigorously researched, is easily understandable, even as he ranges across diverse fields. He gives clear examples of how cooperative work can be scaled up. He notes, for instance, that in the United States, the tax code currently favors personal equity gains over cooperative disbursements because the former are charged at the lower, capital gains tax, while the latter are treated as taxable income. This is the kind of legal change that could in theory bring together small business–minded conservatives with worker-minded liberals, without too much disagreement.

A possibly more contentious part of Harcourt’s argument is that a cooperative economy should replace both capitalism and communism as economic models. That argument begins with the claim that these have both been misconceived as directed by either market forces or communal forces. Rather, he argues that both are better understood as forms of “‘dirigisme,’ a mode of economic organization in which a centralized body plays a dominant directive role.” Whether it is wealthy elites or party elites, control is always top-down. The only things centralized in his cooperative model are the values of equality, participation, and sustainability. How we get there is viewed as an open-ended task of learning and experimentation.

The history of cooperative experimentation is not itself without need of learning from mistakes. Harcourt notes that while there are positive historical examples of cooperatives, especially in African American history, what we get from the 19th century in Europe are many cooperative ideas with uncooperative origins. Like many forms of community-making, they often explicitly banned people (Jews and women most explicitly) from joining.

Although it may then still make sense to draw inspiration from some figures of the past, Harcourt thinks we are better off developing a new theory (called “coöperism” throughout the book) for cooperation today. This theory has “three core principles: it is concentrated and compounded; it is deliberate and chosen; it is open and inclusive.” Not all forms of cooperation, after all, are equally true to the goals of equality, participation, and sustainability. While, for example, the outdoor-gear store REI is a consumer cooperative that rewards its members, it has also fought worker unionization. The goal of concentrating and compounding is to put cooperative ideals at the heart of everything we do. And we do this, according to Harcourt, not because of some evolutionary impulse to group formation, but because we have deliberately chosen inclusive cooperation as the best means of expressing our shared values.

One of the most powerful parts of the book comes in the chapter on the social consequences of cooperation, where Harcourt argues skillfully that a truly cooperative society would sever the link between crime and punishment to strive toward a more holistic understanding of human failures and develop ways to work together to avoid or redress them. While much of the rest of the book is largely standard in the literature on cooperation, Harcourt’s link to new paradigms of justice is original. He shows that the power of cooperation is not only in how it may transform democratic participation or the economy, but also in how we conceive of the very meaning and purpose of life.

There are some legitimate questions to be raised about Harcourt’s model from various positions. His penultimate chapter is dedicated to responding to anticipated criticisms from both the Left and the Right. Responding to the Right, he argues against the logic that markets naturally create the most wealth. Building on his earlier work in The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order (2011) as well as Katharina Pistor’s trenchant argument that the law functions as a code to promote certain kinds of capital growth, Harcourt demonstrates that all economic systems require state and legal organization to function. As such, the question is not what grows the economy but how the economy grows. Harcourt may not convince many on the neoliberal right, but at least he makes a clear case for why they—and not proponents of cooperative economies—should be on the defense.

Harcourt anticipates that the Left’s main criticism will be that cooperatives seem to undercut the need for class struggle. While his argument against the Right is that they naturalize current conditions, this logic creeps into his own diagnosis of class struggle as he argues that the current decline of left-wing parties and unionization shows that there is not much hope through these venues. This seems to hypostatize the present in a way he avoids elsewhere. And given how popular worker-owned enterprises are among leftist economists, including Marxian ones like Richard Wolff, I am not sure how widespread this criticism actually would be. It seems mostly to be about those who would put the revolution first. Harcourt insists that we need not have a revolution to begin making cooperatives. We can, and should, begin to do so now.

When it comes to the abolition of punishment, however, Harcourt himself is revolutionary. In response to possible critics, he recognizes that he may be an outlier here, as he even has to politely reject the idea of “nonreformist reforms”—reforms that move toward abolition—advanced by thinkers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mariame Kaba. The “snowball” effect expected in other realms seems to have melted here. The upshot is that it leads to a deeper acknowledgment of the troubles any cooperative form will face.

One should equally remember that efforts at cooperative worker ownership have often had to struggle, lose, and rebuild from their losses. As Gar Alperovitz (a leading thinker about cooperative economies who is surprisingly absent from the book) has explored at length, one of the most important modern attempts at worker ownership happened in 1977 in Youngstown, Ohio, when the community and workers tried to purchase a recently shuttered steel mill. They faced opposition from big capital and big unions, and their immediate struggle failed. Yet they inspired decades of worker-owned operations in Ohio that have become world-leading models.

One of Harcourt’s key points is that we can and should begin cooperative action now, in whatever context we find ourselves. Considering his own context, I had to wonder why he did not include a detailed analysis of contemporary universities and how cooperatives may play a role in transforming their notoriously uneven structures. Given the prominent role that elite institutions have played in fostering inequality, and given how vastly unequal the pay is within universities, the transformation of the university should take a more prominent role in any vision of a future cooperative society.

Ultimately, though, these are less criticisms of the argument than a desire to see it pushed further and deeper into society, and with a more open-eyed awareness of the struggles that cooperative transformation may face. Indeed, while much of Harcourt’s argument on politics and economics can be found elsewhere, what makes his contribution unique and inspiring is precisely that he applies it to other facets of our social life, especially with the ideal of ending the punitive model of society. He joins many others in reminding us that we need not wait for society as a whole to realize a new cooperative vision; we can just cooperate at whatever level we can. And we can start that today, even knowing full well how difficult our transformation will be.


Avram Alpert is a writer currently based in Hamburg. He is the author of, most recently, The Good-Enough Life (2022).

LARB Contributor

Avram Alpert is a fellow at The New Institute, Hamburg. He is the author of Global Origins of the Modern Self, from Montaigne to Suzuki (2019), A Partial Enlightenment: What Modern Literature and Buddhism Can Teach Us About Living Well Without Perfection (2021), and The Good-Enough Life (2022). He has also written cultural criticism for outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Aeon, The Brooklyn Rail, and Truthout.


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