Thursday, 1 March 2012

Much Ado About Cooperating

Amidst the angst and lament about social fragmentation, it is curious that the most tried and tested path of democratic cooperation should so often be overlooked for bringing people together to cultivate and pursue common goals.

Instead we get siren calls to submit to some arbitrary authority so as to end clashes and divisions. We’re told that all would be well if only people were made to abide by the exclusive demands of one privileged religion, comply with the views of some self-righteous moral minority, or accept the agenda set by the dominant economic elite.

If such prescriptions are destined to ferment resentment and stir up even greater resistance, the alternative favoured by seasoned relativists, claiming the differences that divide us are inherently irreconcilable, is no help either. For them, since there is no ‘universal truth’ to bridge the gap between opposing sides, we’ll just have to, so to speak, let fighting dogs vie.

But there is no need to accept imposed conformity or anarchic disintegration, provided we learn how to make room for democratic cooperation. By all historical and experimental accounts, cooperative working based on equal respect and shared deliberation has been highly effective in, not only enhancing the wellbeing of those who are willing to join forces, but resolving disagreement between those have not hitherto seen eye to eye.

The real reason why the cooperative ethos is held back from being more widely adopted is because too many people are unaware of its efficacy. This is compounded by prejudices, misinformation generated by those who seek to divide and exploit, and insufficient knowledge of how to engender productive cooperation.

To overcome such obstacles, we need a three-prong response. First, there must be a sustained and comprehensive rebuttal of the claim that we are all irrevocably divided by fundamental faiths and beliefs. The truth is that apart from a very few who have extreme psychopathic tendencies to totally disregard the needs of others, we share a common adherence to the golden rule of reciprocity, which runs through all historical religions and moral traditions. Cooperative mediation, grounded on the recognition that we ought to treat others as we wish others treat us, has helped people with contrasting backgrounds resolve their conflicts and work together.

Secondly, knowledge of the techniques and benefits of cooperative working should be disseminated much more than they are at present. In business management, conflict resolution, community-led regeneration, citizen-centred public policy development, case examples and practical guidance should be actively promoted so there is greater appreciation of why and how democratic cooperation should be adopted.

Thirdly, the damages inflicted by power inequalities, preventing cooperation on reciprocal terms, must be exposed and halted. The dangers of allowing some to amass much greater power in terms of wealth, status, or authority, over others should be systematically publicised to aid their removal. This applies to government institutions, and even more so to transnational corporate bodies that can coerce workers, suppliers, and timid politicians to go along with exploitative arrangements, which would never be tolerated if everyone affected has an equal say about them.

A campaign to clear away the obstacles to democratic cooperation should pave the way for further work to extend the cooperative mode of association to all spheres of life: to schools, community groups, public services, businesses and international relations. If we want to minimise destructive antagonism and build a sustainable solidarity, we need to ensure pupils and teachers, residents and activists, citizens and their representatives, workers and business leaders, nations and global organisations, learn to relate to each other under more equitable distribution of power and embrace democratic decision-making for their common good.

This is a demanding task. But there is no other alternative to being endlessly besieged by polarising demands and bitter confrontations, locally, nationally or worldwide. Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch. The WEA, the cooperative movement, the trade unions, mediation and reconciliation advocates, champions of citizen action such as the Community Development Foundation, Take Part and Involve, have all been advancing the case for greater cooperative working. With their support, there is the real prospect that one day democratic cooperation will become the norm everywhere.

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