The Biopsychology of Cooperation
Michael Towsey
Understanding Prout – Essays on Sustainability and Transformation, Volume 1. Copyright
Proutist Universal, Australia, 2010. Version: 26th February 2010.
The cooperative system is fundamental to the organization, structure and
culture of a Proutist1 economy. It is an expression of economic democracy in
action – cooperative enterprises give workers the right of capital ownership,
collective management and all the associated benefits, such as profit sharing.2
Sarkar, the propounder of Prout, goes further and argues that an egalitarian
society is actually not possible without a commitment to the cooperative
system.3 The commitment is not just to an economic order but also to a
cooperative ethic and a cooperative culture. This essay explores cooperation
from the ethical, social and cultural perspective. The business enterprise
perspective is the subject of another essay in this volume.4
Cooperation as a cultural, social and economic movement arose early in the
19th century, and with particular success in Britain. The term movement is used
here to indicate that what caught the popular imagination of the day was much
more than the consumer/worker cooperative, which at the time was a novel
form of business enterprise. The cooperative movement was primarily a social
and cultural movement because it advocated better conditions for the working
class and better education for their self-improvement. It was also an economic
movement in that it “sought to transform the balance of economic power from
capital ownership to democratic control by members of an economic
enterprise”.5 The cooperative business model enjoyed early success in the
capable hands of one of the movement’s founders, Robert Owen. The
philosophy of the movement was promoted by a group of thinkers who were
later characterized by Marx and Engels as utopian socialists.6 Indeed the word
socialist was first used in 1827 to describe Owen and his followers.7
During the second half of the 19th century, both the theory and the practice of
cooperation were ultimately rejected by all the other major strands of social
and economic thought of the day. In particular, Engels made a stinging critique
of utopian socialism in 1880 which caused those seeking radical social change
to turn their attention to Marx and the emerging socialist Left. It could be
argued that Marx and Engels effectively killed, for more than a century, any
capacity the cooperative movement had to effect radical social change. In
addition, the British government made no attempt to encourage cooperatives as
a business model. This left the way open for the other currents of 19th century
political thought to mature into the three great isms of the 20th century:
communism, fascism and liberal capitalism. However, out of the turmoil of the
20th century it has become clear that none of the three contenders was able to
produce a stable social order, that is, one which is environmentally, socially
and economically sustainable. These three characteristics are considered today,
quite reasonably, to be the minimum requirements for a successful social order.
After more than a century of neglect, the cooperative movement is beginning to
enjoy a renaissance. In fact, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that
today worldwide the cooperative movement has a membership of over 800
million people and provides over 100 million jobs. That is 20 percent more
than provided by all multinational corporations combined8 and has been
achieved despite vigorous efforts by privately owned corporations to
demutualize profitable cooperatives.9 But it has to be admitted that cooperation
as a social and economic ideal is not part of today’s popular consciousness. In
an era mesmerized by the sparkle of globalization and consumer goods,
cooperatives appear somehow old fashioned, like the friendly societies to
which one’s grandparents or great-grandparents once belonged.10
Four factors have helped to breathe new life into the cooperative movement.
First, the collapse of communism11 has discredited the Marxist brand of
‘scientific’ socialism and those looking for serious social change are once
again evaluating the cooperative movement. Second, the economic woes
besetting Western capitalist democracies have starkly exposed the defects of
the dominant social order to emerge out of the titanic struggles of the 20th
century. Third, the British Labour government from 1997 gave much support
to what they heralded as the third sector and social enterprise. In many
respects it was cooperation rebadged12 but it did help to broaden our
appreciation of cooperation by encompassing not-for-profits and self-help
organizations and it also made alternative economic models more visible in the
English speaking world.13 Fourth, much economic and scientific evidence is
emerging, some of it from surprising quarters, to suggest that cooperation is not
a utopian concept but entirely achievable given any reasonable effort to put it
into practice.
The rejection of the cooperative business model by 19th century British
capitalists was motivated by a desire to preserve class privilege. And of course
the British government was obliged to maintain an increasingly expensive and
restless empire – cooperatives are not a good business model for empire
builders. The essential criticism made by Marx and Engels, that utopian
socialists failed to understand the importance of class struggle and did not have
a theoretical analysis to underpin it, was correct. But the argument is no longer
compelling because the 20th century has taught us that accepting one (class
struggle) does not require rejecting the other (cooperative economics). Prout,
for example, embraces both the cooperative economy and a theory of class and
class struggle. New evidence is emerging to suggest that not only is
cooperation, as a social and economic ideal, possible in the 21st century, but
that it is necessary. One of the objectives of this essay is to present some of that
The evidence is better appreciated by making comparisons with the other social
orders that dominated the 20th century, in particular communism and neoliberal
capitalism. The failings of both these systems highlight the importance of
cooperation, both as a social ideal and as a business model.
Structure of the Essay
This essay is in four parts. Part one, The Cooperative Movement in the 19th
Century, briefly reviews the early history of the cooperative movement up to
the point of Engels’ famous 1880 pamphlet and the emergence of the Fabian
socialists. The second part, Matter-centred Philosophy, reviews the communist
attempt to build a social order on the foundation of Marxist theory. The ideal,
classless, worker-ruled society was sought by the imposition of material
equality. Part three, Self-centred Philosophy, examines neoliberalism as the
most recent development of capitalism. Neoliberalism rejects cooperation in
favour of individualism, competition and survival of the fittest. Finally part
four, The Renaissance of Cooperation, as the title suggests, turns to the
renewed interest in cooperation evident in the first years of the 21st century. We
review the theory, the science and the ethics of cooperation. The scientific
evidence, most of it obtained in the last few years, suggests that cooperation is
an extremely important component of human social and economic behaviour.
On the way we find that a number of themes keep recurring. Five of them will
be flagged here to help the reader maintain continuity as our story weaves
through the 19th and 20th centuries into the 21st. The first concerns human
nature. To what extent do humans have a propensity for altruistic as opposed to
selfish behaviour? A cooperative economy would certainly draw on the human
capacity for altruism and empathy.
A second theme is the frequently controversial nature-nurture debate. What is
the relative importance of genetic inheritance versus environment in
determining the trajectory of a person’s life? Or are both of these subservient to
the expression of free will? These themes are intertwined. Selfish behaviour is
observed in all humans at various times and could thus be considered ‘natural’.
Is altruistic behaviour likewise natural or must it be learned, even imposed?
Some philosophers have claimed that humans are essentially brutish and rise to
cooperative behaviour only in response to reward and punishment.14 Others,
such as the utopian socialists, have leaned to the view that humans are
essentially good but spoiled by a brutish environment, and still others claim
that one’s life depends entirely on the choices one makes.