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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cooperative & Communitarian: a common heritage

‘Communitarian social policies’ and ‘cooperative economic practices’ are two sides of the same coin. Instead of splitting them up into compartmentalised boxes, we should treat them as ideas from a common resource to build more inclusive communities in all spheres of life.

The terms, ‘cooperative’ and ‘communitarian’, are historically closely related. Robert Owen, William King and others in 19th century Britain pioneered cooperative ideas that call for the equal participation in decision-making by those affected by the operations of any given organisation. People who were involved as workers and/or recipients of the services in question were not only to be given an equal say, but supported with decent socio-economic conditions so they could function as partners, not subordinates.

When these ideas were exported to America, they came to be described as ‘communitarian’ because their prime concern was not with those with the power to order others or with individuals each making choices without reference to the common good, but with how communities could be developed to help their members flourish as free and responsible persons.

While the ‘communitarian’ label later came to be associated narrowly in some quarters with the writings of a few American academics, progressive thinkers such as Charles Derber and Philip Selznick in the US, and Henry Tam and Jonathan Boswell in the UK have always emphasised the cooperative lineage in their communitarian philosophy.

In his 1995 article for The Coop Commonweal, 'Communitarianism & the Co-operative Movement', Tam wrote, “the ultimate goal is the development of responsible citizens who are ready and able to co-operate with each other to make improvements for all, especially those who are least able to look after themselves.” To take cooperation seriously, therefore, requires a consistent commitment to steer government bodies, business organisations, and educational institutions towards the removal of barriers to reciprocal collaboration in all spheres of life.

The failings of deregulated markets, as much as misguided calls for a return to oppressive traditionalism, are now plain to see. We can neither leave the future to the anarchy of unconstrained profit seekers nor entrust power to a few self-styled gurus of fundamentalist doctrines. We will only be able to safeguard our being if we treat each other as equal partners in securing mutual protection through a collective endeavour to improve the conditions determining our common good. More than ever, we need to draw from the cooperative-communitarian heritage of reform ideas and practice.

Publications for Reference
Hale, Sarah, Blair’s Community: Communitarian Thought and New Labour, Manchester University Press, 2006 (pointed to the contrast between media coverage of ‘communitarian ideas’ and the radical communitarian writings of Boswell and Tam).
Tam, H., ‘Rediscovering British Communitarianism’, The Responsive Community, Volume 9, Issue 1, 1998/1999 (set out the broader heritage of communitarian ideas, particularly in connection with the cooperative movement in Britain).
Tam, H. Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship, Macmillan 1998.
Tam, H., 'Communitarianism & the Co-operative Movement', The Co-op Commonweal, Issue 2 1995.
Boswell, Jonathan, Community and the Economy, The Theory of Public Co-operation, Routledge, 1990.