The Good Things Behind Bad Things
The contingency of cooperation
Continuing my exploration of the features of the globe that help us model its behavior. Cooperation is a pretty big one.
One reason to distrust accumulation as a social strategy is scale. What’s valuable at an individual and local scale becomes unsustainable at larger scales. It’s good for me to have air-conditioning in the Delhi summer, but it would be catastrophic for India and the world if every resident of Delhi had their AC on all the time. But what do we do? Will we justify unbearable heat in the name of climate commitments? Why should the rich have ACs while the poor die on the streets?
The conflict between the rich and the poor is well known, and how in a capitalist economy the interests of the two aren’t aligned. The capitalist wants to maximize profits while the laborer wants to maximize wages.
But conflict isn’t the whole story; we would never get to scale if we weren’t good at cooperation; in fact, so good that the momentum to cooperate overcomes other interests. Whether the worker gets most of the profits or the capitalist does, a factory wouldn’t function if workers and management couldn’t cooperate to organize production. Workers are cooperating when they are at the factory line and they are cooperating when they are on strike.
It’s our ability to cooperate at scale that turns accumulation into a planetary force and technologies of cooperation - information technologies such as money and writing and material technologies such as cities - keep running in the background of the most insistent conflict. If we are able to think globally, it’s because tacit webs of cooperation bind me to the sweatshop laborer in Bangladesh.
Neoliberalism induces conflict between working classes across the world - outsourcing jobs from the US to China, for example - but it’s based on an architecture of cooperation. It’s because of the social contract I have (supposedly) signed that I can be evicted by the police from my apartment during a pandemic because I can’t pay my bills after being fired.
Cooperation is not consent. When I hand over my wallet to the person holding a gun to my head, I am cooperating with them.
Holdups are a zero sum game, but other forms of coercion can produce benefits; remember the opening scene from the Godfather where Don Corleone gives audience to a range of supplicants and wellwishers - patronage wouldn’t exist without coercion and cooperation. Protection rackets can be generalized and turned into moral imperatives, such as when those without power cooperate with those who do because institutions such as the state coerce them into doing so.
You might think these are all spurious cases of straightforward coercion masquerading as cooperation. Isn’t cooperation voluntary? I don’t consent to being robbed, so how can a mugging be cooperation? If only it were so simple. The law considers my monthly rental agreement as consent - it doesn’t matter the economy has been rigged in favor of those who own property. Either you accept that consent is impossible in any situation when one person ‘owns’ resources and the other person merely labors upon those resources for a wage or you are willing to extend the phrase ‘cooperation’ to situations where there’s a clear power differential between the two parties.
While the screenshot of Polanyi’s criticism of neoliberalism and its libertarian background is on the mark, I wonder if the adverse consequences of scale can’t be isolated as a valuable nugget of insight within an otherwise problematic ideology. Libertarians tend to concentrate on the evils of state power, for they think (correctly, in my opinion) that an institution with monopoly over violence has too much power. A Climate Leviathan - if properly resourced as the ultimate bearer of violence - could be a horrifying thing.
In the real world, learning how to ‘connect’, learning how to be ‘one’ with others, seeing the ‘whole’ behind the ‘parts’ — these are routinely touted as an unqualified good and that’s my default position too — but like anything else, their goodness is contingent upon the conditions in which the connection and oneness are constructed. That’s not always a bad thing and that’s not always a good thing either. I am not a huge fan of the ‘live free or die’ mentality but surely we have to acknowledge the coercive powers that rule our lives - especially those that appear to be protective and caring.
Why am I saying this?
Because the human ability to cooperate has had adverse consequences ever since woolly mammoths and other megafauna were eliminated by human cooperatives. Such is the virtue of cooperation that we look for it in other creatures (who were otherwise condemned as ‘red in tooth and claw’):
We are deeply enmeshed in the lives of countless beings as are they with one another: the flesh of their flesh in the most literal sense of that word. Kumbaya isn’t the right way to celebrate the depth of our interbeing.
Back to the human: accumulation depends on greed and on cooperation. As cooperation scales, it gathers inertia and supervening force and established cooperatives demand their pound of flesh. It’s naive to assume that only certain forms of cooperation - people to people solidarity for example - are the only true forms of cooperation. Cooperation can be tacitly or explicitly designed for flourishing and cooperation can be tacitly and explicitly designed for exploitation.
There’s a reason why one of the turning points of the Indian struggle for independence from colonial rule was called the ‘non-cooperation movement.’