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Cooperation Denial

By Henry Benedict Tam. Original article at Question the Powerful. Reprinted with permission.

Findings from anthropology, social psychology, game theory, and many other fields consistently suggest that where people cooperate with others as they would like others to cooperate with them, it leads to positive outcomes for all concerned.

Yet from ancient monarchic oppression to contemporary corporate exploitation, we keep coming across cooperation deniers who refuse to accept that working in equal partnership with others is a preferable option. They all exhibit one or more of these familiar symptoms: they claim to have answers to problems that no one else should question; they feel they deserve to have a better life than others; or they need to have far more power than others if chaos is not to break out.

Consequently, either their rejection of cooperation is accepted, in which case everyone has to put up with their egocentric behaviour; or persistent cooperation denial stokes frustration and resentment until tension boils over to bitter confrontation.

Is there another alternative? How can society be guided away from anti-cooperative forms of human relationship without falling into other types of asymmetric structure or some anarchic free-for-all where those with the might will sooner rather than later declare themselves to be exclusively ‘right’?

According to the Radical Communitarian Synthesis, a political philosophy that brought together the three most pertinent strands of critique against cooperation denial, this problem should be tackled by addressing its three underlying causes. First, systemic ignorance allows misunderstanding and deception to stop people seeing how more reliable answers can be ascertained cooperatively. Secondly, selective indifference to the plight of others blocks people from taking into consideration the full impact of their own behaviour. Thirdly, structural imbalance of power makes it possible for some to dismiss as unlikely any prospective retaliation against their unjust actions from victims too weak to hit back.

Correspondingly, a culture of cooperation can only flourish if we strategically advance the core elements of inclusive community life:

(1) Cooperative Enquiry: truth-claims must be subject to coherent and transparent assessments that can be validated by informed participants deliberating under conditions of evidence-based and uncoerced exchanges. (For examples of how the cooperative approach to problem-solving can be applied in practice, see: ‘Together We Can’).

(2) Mutual Responsibility: arrangements should be put in place so that people can effectively help improve each other’s wellbeing, and collectively curb any activity which intentionally or otherwise inflicts harm on others, especially those most in need.

(3) Citizen Participation: the gap between the powerful and others should be continuously reduced so that all those affected by any given power structure can participate as equal citizens in determining how the power in question is to be exercised. (For more on how this problem has been tackled, see ‘Against Power Inequalities’).

To counter cooperation denial and the deleterious effects it has on society, we must therefore have:
  • Lifelong learning that will raise people’s shared understanding of how things will get better through collaboration and enable them to see through the lies and dogmas spread by charlatans and exploiters;
  • Commonly owned institutions through which people can tap into meaningful give-and-take interactions so no one’s contributions are undervalued and everyone’s needs are taken into account;
  • Power redistribution so that the power gap is substantially reduced and greater power is only ever entrusted to those who are truly answerable to and can be replaced by the people they are meant to serve. 
The extent to which these are achieved will determine how far and fast open cooperative governance in decision-making by states, businesses and community groups, from the local to the global level, becomes the norm.

[For a detailed exposition of the ideas outlined above, see ‘Communitarianism’]


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