Connections Make Us Rich

Cooperation - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/9

by Luigino Bruni 

Published in Avvenire on November 24, 2013


Communities flourish when they are capable of cooperation. Had we not started to co-operate (work together), community life would never have started, and we would have stayed stuck at the pre-human level of development. But as it is often the case with humanity's big words, cooperation, too, is one and many at the same time, it is often ambivalent, and its most important forms are the less obvious ones. Every time that human beings act together in a coordinated way to achieve a mutually beneficial common goal we are dealing with an instance of cooperation.

An army, a religious liturgy, a class at school, a business, a government action or a kidnapping are all forms of cooperation, but they refer to human phenomena that are very different from each other. A first consequence can be drawn from this: not all cooperation is good, because there are some that, while they increase the benefits of those involved, they also worsen the common good because they harm others outside of that cooperation. To distinguish the good from the bad type of cooperation it is necessary to first look at the effects that cooperation intentionally produces on people that are external to it.

Throughout history, political and economic theories have been divided into two large families: those that depart from the assumption that the human being is naturally unable to cooperate, and those that claim the cooperative nature of the person. The main representative of the second tradition is Aristotle: in his argument man is a political animal, capable of dialogue with others, of friendship (philia) and cooperation for the good of the polis. The most radical exponent of the tradition of the unsociable animal is Thomas Hobbes: "It is true that certain living creatures, as bees and ants, live sociably one with another... and therefore some man may perhaps desire to know why mankind cannot do the same” (Leviathan, 1651). Much of the modern social and political philosophy fits within this tradition of the anti-social, while the ancient and mediaeval ones (including Thomas Aquinas) were generally on Aristotle's side. We could also say that the greatest dilemma of the modern political and economic theory has been the attempt to explain how cooperative outcomes can emerge from human beings who are not capable of intentional cooperation, because they are dominated by selfish interests.

The modern age response of political philosophy is the emergence of the many theories of 'social contract' (but not all of them): selfish but rational human beings understand that it is in their interest to create a civil society with an artificial social contract. The so-called natural man is uncivilized and so civil society is artificial. The response of modern economic science to the same question is composed by the various theories of the 'invisible hand', where the common good ('the wealth of nations') is not born of the cooperative and intentional nature of social animals, but by the play of interests of private selfish individuals divided between themselves. At the base of these two traditions we find the same anthropological hypothesis: the human being is 'crooked wood' that, without the need to straighten it out, produces good 'cities' if it is able to create artificial institutions (social contract, market) that transform self- interested passions into common good.  

And it is at this point that a mystery of the market is revealed. Market society, too, has its own form of cooperation, but there is no joint action required between 'cooperating' individuals in it. When someone walks into a store to buy bread, that meeting between the buyer and the seller is not described or experienced as an act of intentional cooperation: each seek their own interest and fulfils the counter-performance (money for bread; bread for money) only as a means to obtain their own good. Yet the exchange improves the condition of both, thanks to a form of cooperation that does not require any joint action. The common good therefore becomes the sum of private interests of individuals mutually immune to each other who cooperate with each other without actually meeting with, touching or looking at each other.

It is inside the company that we find strong or intentional cooperation, since it is a network of joint and cooperative actions to reach objectives that in great part are common ones. So when I buy a Rome-Malaga ticket, between me and the airline there is no form of intentional cooperation, only separate interests that are parallel (travel and profit); among the crew of the flight, however, there must be strong, explicit and intentional cooperation. It follows from this that while (almost) no economist would write a theory of markets based on the ethics of virtue, when looking at the theories of the company and organizations, many 'ethics of business' are based on the ethics of Aristotle's and Thomas Aquinas' virtues.

The division of labor in markets and in society at large is a great unintentional and implicit cooperation; the division of labor inside the company, however, is the strong sense of cooperation, a joint voluntary action. The Anglo-Saxon, protestant type of capitalism has thus given rise to a dichotomous model, a new edition of the Lutheran (and Augustinian) 'Two Kingdoms Doctrine '. In the markets there is implicit co-operation, which is 'weak' and non-intentional; in the company and in organizations in general we find explicit cooperation instead, which is strong and purposeful – two types of cooperation, two 'cities' that are profoundly and naturally different from each other.
This cooperation, however, is not the only possible type in the markets. The European, and particularly the Latin version of cooperation in the marketswas different, because its cultural and religious matrix was not individualistic but communal. Here the distinction between ad intra cooperation (inside company) and ad extra cooperation (in the markets) has never prevailed - at least until recently. And 'This is the tradition of the so-called Civil Economy that interpreted the whole economy and society as a matter of cooperation and reciprocity. The family business (in Italy 90% of the private sector is still composed by these) , cooperatives, Adriano Olivetti can all be explained by taking seriously the cooperative and communal nature of the economy. This is why the European cooperative movement has been the most typical expression of market economy in Europe. Just as the industrial districts (from the township of Prato and yarn to Fermo and shoes) are (and were) such, where entire communities have become economy without ceasing to be a community. Thus, the model of the U.S. capitalism is the anonymous market and it seeks to "marketize" (render into market) even the company, which is increasingly seen as a nexus of contracts, a 'commodity' (merchandise), or a market with 'internal' vendors and customers. The European model, however, has always tried to 'comunitize' (render into community) the market, taking the mutual and communal type as a model of good economy, exporting it from the company to the whole of civilized life (credit and consumer unions). Taking the costs and benefits of doing this results in a type of economy that is filled with humanity and the joy of living, but also with those wounds that fully human encounters inevitably bring about.

Today the U.S. model is colonizing the last of the territories of the European economy, also because our tradition of community and cooperation has not always lived up to the cultural and practical standards, it has not developed in all regions, and, in Italy, it had to deal with the (still not completely unfolded) trauma that fascism caused by proclaiming itself to be the true heir to the tradition of the cooperative company (corporatism). The 'Great Crisis' we are living now, however, tells us that the economy and society based on cooperation-without-touching-each-other may produce monsters, and that business that is only business becomes anti-business eventually. The ethos of the West is a network of strong and weak instances of cooperation of individuals that flee from the bonds of the community in search of freedom, as well as people who bind themselves of their own accord in order to live freely. In a phase of history where the pendulum of the global market tends to move towards individuals-without-ties Europe must remember the inherently civil and social nature of economy by taking care of it and by living it.


Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial

Translated by Eszter Kató

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