For a long time people were presented with an apparent dilemma. In small, primitive communities, human beings cooperated broadly as equals – learning through their pooled experience, sharing out fairly what they hunted and gathered, and expecting no one to treat others as their unquestioning subordinates. By contrast, in large, advanced communities, an esoteric elite (based on their priestly or financial engineering expertise) will tell others how society must be run; a minority will prosper while the majority will labour hard for much less; and those with vast concentrations of resources will dictate terms to others.
The choice was supposed to be limited to reverting to primitive equality and a life of basics, or accepting complex hierarchies, which are inseparable from wider provisions and social polarisation. With the exception of the Athenians in Greece and the Mohists in China, both of whom challenged exploitative power structures in the 5th/4th centuries BC, the history of social development encountered no new thinking on how to steer clear of both unenviable options for another two thousand years until the 17th century.
Three strands of thought emerged in the 16th/17th centuries that pointed to a new form of progressive social organisation that had inclusive cooperation at its heart. One key strand came from Francis Bacon (1561-1626), whose ideas revolutionised the conception of knowledge. For Bacon, knowledge was not something that only a few could access through some unfathomable means. In fact, if someone claimed to have discovered any truth but no one else could possibly cross-check its reliability, that was best taken as a sign that foolishness or trickery was at play. Instead, the advancement of knowledge was a cooperative enterprise in which enquirers should be able to obtain and examine empirical evidence through open exchanges, and the believability of any claim would rest on how it coped with scrutiny and experimentation. No doctrine, no text, no individual was to be immune from critical questioning and the demands for evidence. Bacon’s followers founded the Royal Society, which became a model institution for demonstrating of how knowledge claims were to be tested, refined or where appropriate, refuted. This approach was to spread to the development of natural and social sciences.
Then there were the moralists from Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) to Quakers such as George Fox (1624-1691) and William Penn (1644-1791), who developed ethical ideas that echoed the vision set out by Thomas More (1478-1535) in his book, Utopia: an alternative to the divisive and unequal society that had become the norm. They applied the core injunction of loving thy neighbour as thyself, to the modern, commercial society. Unlike the Diggers who sought to revert to a primitive form of agricultural existence, the Quakers injected the ethics of equal respect for all into business management. Penn himself took this approach forward in organising the territories he inherited in America that later came to be known as Pennsylvania – where uniquely in those colonial days Native Americans were treated as equals.
Last but not least, the 17th century also witnessed James Harrington’s (1611-1677) Oceana and the Levellers’ advocacy for a large-scale redistribution of power. While earlier thinkers sympathetic to civic republicanism have tended to look nostalgically back at small city-states as where power could realistically be shared amongst all citizens, Harrington and the Levellers proposed remaking the whole of England into a democracy – Harrington recognised the need to distribute land to underpin the equalisation of power, and the Levellers rejected wealth as a barrier to having an equal vote. In the context of the English Revolution, these ideas heralded a movement for radical democratisation that continued despite the later restoration of the monarchy.
Although these three strands of thought each initiated a new push against the barriers to a more cooperative form of life, they remained largely separate currents until the 19th century. By the mid-1800s, for example, Owenite supporters not only advocated the development of cooperative work communities where productivity was not held back but enhanced by the equal respect accorded to all members, they were also amongst the backers of Edwin Chadwick and other public health champions who applied empirical evidence to drive forward sanitation reforms, and many were involved with the Chartist and emerging trades union movements to press for an extensive redistribution of power in society. The three currents were beginning to show signs of merging into one set of demands for epistemological, socio-economic, and political transformation.
In the 20th century these three strands finally came to be synthesised into a unified philosophy. Initially during the early 1900s the communitarian ideas of thinkers such as Dewey, Hobhouse, Durkheim, and Croly, set out an alternative vision for how society should be continuously improved by collaborative empirical research, incorporation of social objectives in all organisational development, and the empowerment of citizens through a democratic state. Then in late 20th/early 21st century communitarian advocates such as Selznick, Boswell, Bellah, and Tam argued for extensive educational, socio-economic, and political reforms to bring about the conditions necessary to support human cooperation in all domains. These reforms require the embedding of cooperative enquiry, mutual responsibility, and citizen participation in every organisational structure and culture. They call for the systematic inculcation of the cooperative gestalt through lifelong learning; the development of robust institutions where mutual security and prosperity can be inclusively advanced; and the radical redistribution of power to close the widening gap between the powerful and the rest.
What the radical communitarian synthesis has produced is an integrated set of prescriptions to revive mutuality in human interactions in a way that will, far from retreating from modernity, secure greater progress in innovation, diversity and our common wellbeing. With their help, private, public and voluntary organisations will be continuously reminded as to what changes they need to make to become more attuned to cooperative working, at the local, national and global levels.
[For more on radical communitarian ideas, see ‘Communitarianism’, and 'Communitarians: an introduction'. See also ‘Cooperation Denial’, for an outline of the radical communitarian critique of the opposition to cooperative interactions.]