As part of our event series with The Philosopher, Amna Akbar sat down with Bernard Harcourt, legal scholar and professor of political science at Columbia University, to discuss his new book, Cooperation: A Political, Economic, and Social Theory. In the course of their conversation, moderated by Philosopher editor Anthony Morgan, they discuss the failure of traditional electoral politics and mass mobilization, existing cooperative efforts, our punitive society, and how we might build democratic self-governance. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity and concision.

Learn more about our philosophy event series here, and watch a full video of the event here.

Amna Akbar: This is a very ambitious and timely text, where Bernard turns our attention to cooperation—about what it means to be together, do together, and think together. It turns to cooperation as something that’s happening all around us as a tapped and untapped source of social, political, and economic power, one that we can generate wherever we are with other people without having to reach the scale of state power. He situates this in the book as part of what makes it a special, unique, and all-encompassing source of political, economic, and social action that we should embrace. This book, and Bernard’s long career, is something to admire in its ambition, learnedness, and commitment to understand the world as it is, and how to undo it.

It’s going to be nearly impossible to fundamentally transform the country without a supermajority.

I want to start by situating this book in the context of your long career writing on and editing Foucault’s lectures in English and French, and then your many books, Critique and Praxis (2020), most recently, and The Illusion of Free Markets (2012). There is also your rarely visible career in lawyering against the death penalty, for protesters at Standing Rock, and against the Line 3 pipeline. How would you situate this book in your career? How did you arrive at cooperation?


Bernard Harcourt: It feels as if all roads led to cooperation, although it took a while for me to get there. Over the course of my life, I’ve been obsessed with two things. I think that you, too, share an interest in these. One is the punitiveness of our society. The other includes questions of political economy. I’ve tried to grapple with both over the course of my life, starting with death penalty work down in Alabama, but also writing about broken windows policing, racial profiling, and racialized mass incarceration. I’ve also worked on Foucault’s texts, such as The Punitive Society (1973)—giving name to these forms of racialized mass incarceration that we have today. Then I’ve also been interested in trying to figure out how that ties to our political economy, and how punishment is related to governing, economically and politically. That’s been the work of The Illusion of Free Markets and the Occupy Movement and political disobedience. I tried to put these together in Critique and Praxis, my last book: on one hand, the punitiveness of society and political economy, and on the other, the relationship between theory and practice. That was one attempt to bring it all together. But in a certain way, I was somewhat dissatisfied with the end of it because I felt too alone in that book. I had converted the question “What is to be done?” to the question “What more am I to do?” I thought it was important not to speak for others, but only to refer to and reflect on oneself and one’s responsibilities and obligations to engage in practice. Here I think is a different ending to Critique and Praxis, one that considers what we can do together. And so, in a way, it’s kind of like Volume Two of Critique and Praxis. It’s a more formulated intervention about the idea of cooperation and how we could bring cooperation to the next level.


AA: On that point, you are making an argument about cooperation as a political, economic, and social theory that has different dimensions. One of the things that’s admirable about the book is that it roots this theory in projects already happening around the world. The sweep of the book is inspiring and quite broad, both in terms of its engagement with different forms of cooperative experiments around the world, and in terms of the number of intellectual traditions it engages. Rather than going straight to the theory, let’s start by talking about the existing cooperative efforts that you see around the world and that you write about in the book, whether it’s Cooperation Jackson, Mondragon, Land O’Lakes, or any of the many examples that you point to as a way to ground the theory in existing experiments and cooperative efforts.


BH: What’s important here is that cooperation already flourishes and has flourished for centuries. I’m not reinventing the wheel. I’m building on practices that have existed for centuries and that surround us in plain sight. Historically, cooperation has existed in many forms in the United States—enslaved persons working together, mutual aid. And, of course, the discourse on cooperation has existed for centuries with Utopian Socialists in the nineteenth century, or Peter Kropotkin and notions of mutual aid.

Today these practices surround us. You mentioned Cooperation Jackson. That’s one extraordinary initiative in Jackson, Mississippi, cofounded by Kali Akuno and others, which includes several cooperatives such as the Freedom Farms Cooperative, a land trust, and a social justice institute. Many approaches are trying to create a solidarity economy down there, but you find this in so many places today.

Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) in the Bronx, in New York, is one of the largest worker cooperatives in the United States, with over 1,500 owner workers there doing healthcare. You have the Park Slope Food Coop. You have AK Press in California—the Anarchist Press—which is a coop. And you have, of course, cooperative efforts abroad, as well. We always talk about Mondragon, because in part it’s such a large cooperative consortium. It has over 70,000 people who are members of the cooperatives. It is a heavy equipment manufacturing consortium of cooperatives, and is the seventh largest corporate group in Spain. But they can be tiny as well.

What I offer is a political, economic, and social theory of what I call coöperism, which builds on the cooperation that already surrounds us.

Justice Cream in Chicago is a great community-owned, women of color led nonprofit, nondairy cooperative that makes ice creams like Snacktivist, Flower to the People, Berry the Colonizer, and Whole Latte Justice. Then there is the Navy Federal Credit Union, which is a large banking cooperative. It has 12 million members. In fact, in the United States, there are over 5,000 credit unions serving over 100 million customers. Cooperatives span the world. They are pretty much everywhere, yet we don’t see them or talk about them that much. In the United Kingdom alone, there are 7,237 cooperatives that contribute more than 39.7 billion pounds to the British economy. In U.S. agricultural cooperatives, there are close to 2 million farm members. There are huge agricultural cooperatives in the United States, as well as rural electric cooperatives and mutual insurance agencies. We also have many associations that try to link and help cooperatives. There’s the Democracy at Work Institute, which is part of the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives, in San Francisco. There’s the International Cooperative Alliance in Brussels, which is an old alliance from the mid-nineteenth century.

So there are these existing forms and practices that surround us. I thought it would be important to try to provide a new way of thinking about them, while also thinking about linking the political dimensions to the economic dimensions to the social dimensions. What I offer is an integrated, three-dimensional theory of a political, economic, and social theory of what I call coöperism, which builds on the cooperation that already surrounds us.


AA: What do you mean by cooperation, and how do you use the term? You distinguish your use of the term from the lay version of the term, and to connect the idea of cooperation to ambitions to build power, you used the term coöperism. In the book, you argue that when concentrated, combined, and compounded, cooperation becomes coöperism, and it generates what you call coöpower, and it’s building that coöpower that then helps move us toward something that you call cooperation democracy, an idea you put in conversation with W. E. B. Du Bois’s and Angela Davis’s concepts of abolition democracy. You also talk about participatory democracy. Will you speak about the central theoretical arguments of the book?


BH: The idea of coöperism is an integrated theory of cooperation along three dimensions that build on forms of cooperation that exist today. It is about trying to find those that are the most productive, particularly at protecting the environment and creating democratic self-governance. Then we must build on those forms of cooperation so that, for instance, a worker cooperative is working with a credit union. This involves building them and bringing them together so that they might form part of a larger regime that could possibly compete with other ways in which we might regulate our political economy.

The social dimension here is critical. In other words, it’s not enough to be part of a food cooperative, or to buy your groceries at Park Slope Food Cooperative, or even to be a member of a workers’ cooperative. These things must build together toward a different vision of society. All of these aspects are interconnected, so that in order to address issues of climate change or environment, or in order to address issues of the punitiveness of society, we have to think about cooperation across these dimensions. Part of the social theory intervention here is to replace what we have today, which is really a punitive paradigm, with a cooperation paradigm. From a social theoretic perspective, the idea of building toward coöperism is part of an abolitionist project to displace the punishment paradigm. But it depends on having and on building forms of cooperation that would make it possible to do that.

Part of the project also is to rethink the justifications of why this is so important today. The image for this event is all about bees, which I love. But that is, in a way, a Kropotkin way of approaching cooperation and mutual aid. One of the things I argue in the book is that some of these arguments and approaches to cooperation are outdated—they’re no longer appropriate to the forms of interdependence that we are living in today because of global climate change. One of them is the evolutionist views of cooperation. I think it’s time to reformulate and rethink how we get to cooperation, and to push us past it, toward something that I’m calling coöperism.

This notion of horizontality and democratic self-governance relates to forms of anarchist theories, but coöperism does not imagine a space without forms of statist regulation.

I do think that the traditional justifications that led to forms of cooperatives are somewhat outdated. I think that the Utopian Socialists were more philanthropists, well-meaning industrialists, than full-blown cooperationists. We need to think about some of the weaknesses of that tradition. Du Bois was a strong advocate of cooperatives and cooperation, coming to it from a very separatist, secessionist perspective. We need to rethink some elements of that as well because of global warming and interdependence. What I try to propose is a more contemporary political justification for an integrated form of coöperism that brings together the political, economic, and social.


AA: You discuss how we need a new theory of cooperation or coöperism for today, and that some of the past articulations were important, but not sufficient to meet our time. But the theory is also rooted in contemporary examples. Clearly we don’t have a sufficient scale of cooperative projects to really get proximate to the vision of cooperation democracy you’re laying out here. Could you discuss what you think it would take to arrive at what you’re proposing here? What kind of new experiments might you see? Do you think it’s about deepening what’s already out there or proliferating new forms of cooperation? What can the theory add to the experiments that already exist?


BH: One thing that’s important to recognize is that all existing forms of cooperation are not necessarily perfect. For example, some consumer cooperatives might oppose unionization by workers. That’s something to avoid when we’re thinking about cooperation. Some forms of cooperation are really profit driven. I use the example of Ace Hardware, which is a retail cooperative. They’re basically working together as a cooperative for purchasing power. There are many forms of cooperation, and it’s important to recognize them while also realizing not all of them are necessarily ideal. Part of the project is to figure out which ones provide for true democratic self-governance. Nonprofits can fit in this space of cooperation, but some are extremely hierarchical and run on a very corporate model. Not all of those are going to be what we’re talking about. It’s important to find the forms of cooperation that exist today, figure out the ones that are democratic and self-governing and then figure out how to get them to work together. But it’s also important to focus on one’s own practices. All of us can do that. We don’t have to seize the state and topple this or any other government in order to do this. We can work together to create these forms of cooperation ourselves, and that’s an indispensable piece.


AA: You start the book by invoking the failure of the two-party system in the United States to respond to the needs of ordinary people, and you chart cooperation or coöperism as a third path. Consistent with your invocation of examples around the world of cooperatives, the critique of prevailing political power is not limited to the United States. You discuss France, India, and other countries where you have a similar consolidation of political power and sense of hopelessness about relying on political power as a path to emancipation. You also talk specifically about the global pandemic and the state responses to it as an indicator of the necessity of an alternative path. I wanted to give you an opportunity to speak about what coöperism has to do with the corporate capture of the state.


BH: Let’s first focus on the United States. It’s quite clear that—because of the increased polarization in this country—it’s going to be nearly impossible to fundamentally transform the country without a supermajority. If it’s through electoral politics, or even through mass mobilization, it will require a supermajority, which just doesn’t exist. It’s impossible right now to achieve legislative transformation. It’s impossible to pass legislation because there isn’t a supermajority on either side, such that the Democrats, because of the filibuster in the Senate and the conservative Supreme Court, can’t accomplish anything on global climate change, for instance. The Inflation Reduction Act—which was in a way a privatized energy bill but was terrific for the climate—was only passed through a budget reconciliation process. It would never have gone through as legislation. It only went through as budget reconciliation, and it only went through as budget reconciliation because the Democrats had a thin majority in both the Senate and the House. That’s not the case anymore. It’s not going to be possible to do anything through budget reconciliation. Agency rulemaking is now getting struck down by the conservative Supreme Court under the new “major questions” doctrine. Electoral channels are blocked now, and it’s the result of the polarization that we’re experiencing in this country and in other countries.

The appeal or the urgency of coöperism is that it’s, in effect, the only way toward transforming society. There isn’t a way to do it through the conventional channels of politics. Given the increased polarity, transformation is also unlikely to happen through forms of mass mobilization that would fundamentally transform this country. Coöperism, by contrast, is something that each of us can begin working on, participate in, construct together, regardless of how few we are at first. That’s one of the critical aspects of the theory.


AA: The immediacy and availability of it certainly makes it inspiring as a source of mobilization. How would you relate the concept of coöperism to larger frameworks on the left about practice and what it might take to build the world we’re fighting for—concepts such as solidarity, organizing, protest, mutual aid? Do you see this essentially as an anarchist theory of horizontal social change work, or something else?


BH: It’s certainly a horizontal theory, as cooperation is all about horizontal relations. That’s one of the most interesting and important aspects of it from an economic perspective. You mentioned the Mondragon consortium in Spain earlier. There’s a lot of controversy around it because it’s one of the examples that’s been used the most. One of the things that’s so interesting about Mondragon is the salary ratio. It can’t be more than 4.5 to 1, which is a very horizontal economic structure. In the United States, we’re averaging something like 670 to 1. A place such as McDonald’s is around 3,000 to 1. This notion of horizontality and democratic self-governance is important and does, as you suggest, relate to forms of anarchist theories. But the difference, of course, is the relationship to the state.

Mutual aid is a part of coöperism, but it also can’t be an end all and be all, because it depends on us having the resources to help each other reciprocally.

I don’t think that coöperism imagines a space without forms of statist regulation. It requires forms of statist regulation that are governed by cooperative principles, or principles of cooperation. In other words, the people charged with regulatory responsibilities would have to be people steeped in cooperation and cooperatives. Mutual aid is a part of coöperism. It’s beautiful, but it also can’t be an end all and be all, because forms of mutual aid depend on us having the resources to help each other reciprocally. In other words, so many of the beautiful mutual aid forms during COVID-19 required someone having the resources to share or to buy food for someone else, and to distribute it. While mutual aid is a part of it, it doesn’t sufficiently have an economic dimension which is essential to coöperism. You can’t have a theory here that lacks the economic dimension, because modes of production inevitably enable a system’s social reproduction.


AA: How does coöperism relate to questions of class struggle and anticapitalist politics, which in various ways are flourishing around the world? At the book launch, Jack Halberstam made the argument that the book goes too easy on capitalism. He argued that you can’t do cooperation or coöperism under capitalism—and that you have to take on the question of capitalism. What do you think about the place of anticapitalism in the book? How do you think about coöperism and class struggle more broadly?


BH: First, the project of coöperism is undoubtedly part of an anticapitalist project. The book itself started with a twenty-page manifesto I sent you back in June of 2020 that was called Abolition of Capital. It began as a project of abolishing capital. And, in part, the argument in the chapter about the simplicity of coöperism is about how to replace capital, in terms of investment capital, by member ownership fees. It is a project in that vein. But at the same time, it’s clear historically that arguments for cooperatives and mutuals have always been in tension with stronger forms of Marxism. Marx and Engels had a deep critique of the Utopian Socialists and of forms of cooperatives as being born from the womb of capitalism and as having the same bourgeoise tendencies toward profit motives, albeit at a slightly more collective level. There’s a strong critique that the Mondragon cooperative consortium undermines class struggle. There’s always been that tension.

I hope the idea of coöperism can get us beyond that tension. The argument I try to make in the book is that it’s beyond time to find better words than class struggle and capitalism—with all due respect to Marx, whose work I admire greatly. But I think today we need to find a better term than class. Race, gender, sexuality, and especially age are more important right now in terms of our politics than class. If I think about the white male working class right now, I think it is predominantly MAGA, though I don’t want to dismiss a swath of people who aren’t. It is regional as well. For example, we can look at Florida and DeSantis right now— these laws he’s passed about transgender healthcare, “Don’t Say Gay,” book bans, and idea censorship. Class, of course, is a dimension here, but there isn’t really a proletariat anymore to identify and think about in this context.

When we talk about class struggle itself, we need to be talking about something else. There are forms of cultural struggle—along axes of sexuality and race—that are so important right now. On the other hand, the notion of capitalism is a misnomer. It rests on the idea that certain laws of capital are at the source of the political economy that we have today in the United States, when, in fact, it’s not capital. It’s the federal government and the treasury. It’s the way in which the federal government bails out banks, the way we bail out depositors—which is visible right now with the Silicon Valley Bank bailouts, First Republic, the CARES Act, the American airline industry, the 2008 bailouts of the financial industry.

Arguments for cooperatives have always been in tension with stronger forms of Marxism, but it’s time to find better words than class struggle and capitalism—there isn’t a proletariat anymore to think about in this context.

The U.S. capitalist economy would not exist were it not for federal government bailouts and for the federal guarantee of our economy. To call this capitalism is to point to the wrong object. It’s a form of state dirigisme in this country that favors the wealthy. Maybe we could call it “treasurism” in this country, because it’s all based on the treasury. If it weren’t for the U.S. Treasury, this country wouldn’t exist. There wouldn’t be an economy. We’re grossly in debt, and nobody would trust this debt.

If we consider that we live in an economy that is a form of state dirigisme, one could not but be embedded in it today. We can’t overcome these forms of state dirigisme and then plan something beyond that. We need to erode them over the course of the next decades through forms of coöperism. That’s the only hope I see for transforming the system that we live in.


AA: It seems that there is another essential piece, which is the question of forms of coöperism that exist in the face of incredible repression—whether you think about the surveillance and criminalization of environmental activists, the campaign against Cop City in Atlanta, the police training facility today, or the repression of Black Lives Matter broadly construed. Forms of coöperism that challenge the racial, economic, gendered order we live under are often repressed in dramatic and brutal ways by the state. How do you think about that within the theory?


BH: Most efforts at change are brutally repressed. Stop Cop City is a good example. That’s part of our history, and it’s something that we must fight against as we work toward coöperism. But I don’t think that it can stop us.

The scales are stacked against forms of coöperism, even beyond the brutal repression of some forms of cooperation. I think of the end of Occupy Wall Street, which was basically NYPD shutting the place down at Zuccotti Park. This is also what happened at Standing Rock, where I’m involved in litigation.

We’re suing the governor and county officials because they shut down the highway that led to Standing Rock for six months. By shutting down that highway, they shut down Standing Rock. I’ve represented a lot of people, some folks at the Line 3 protests. There are indeed many forms of brutal repression. There’s also the fact that the decks are stacked against cooperation, as well. The tax code is written in a way that favors capital investment—capital gains taxes, for instance. We would need to put in place similar kind of privileges for cooperation, benefits for cooperation membership. That would be hard given that we need a supermajority to get anything done in Congress today.

The theory still must have the economic dimension, because modes of production enable the system’s social reproduction.

This all means that the road ahead is not easy. It’s not paved. However, I would say that that’s true of any kind of attempt to transform U.S. society. The question is: Which avenue is the most promising? The argument I’m making is that the most promising avenue that can be achieved by each of us right now—as we figure out how to work together, how to make things together, where to buy things—is coöperism. Coöperism is a way forward that is available to us and that can grow. This is happening in more places than we see. Hopefully all those connections, once we start making them, would allow for a stronger base to push coöperism toward what I call cooperation democracy. This is the idea of thinking about a democratic self-governance through the lens of cooperation throughout all aspects of our lives—where we live, where we buy, where we work. We can bring democratic self-governance to every aspect of our lives. I use the term cooperation democracy as an homage to Du Bois and his notion of abolition democracy, and Angela Davis as well, who wrote and has promoted the notion of abolition democracy in the context of our punitive world of racialized mass incarceration.

The idea of cooperation democracy is to emphasize expanding democratic self-governance to every aspect of our lives. Socially, getting rid of the punishment paradigm and replacing it with a cooperation paradigm. Economically, ensuring that modes of production are jointly owned through cooperative arrangements. Politically, examining political interdependences that are unique today.


Anthony Morgan: Why is the punishment paradigm seen as the opposite of the cooperation paradigm? Wouldn’t the natural opposite be something like an individualist or atomistic paradigm?


BH: From a political perspective, the individualist or atomistic paradigm is indeed the opposite of this cooperation or collective paradigm. It is the opposite of solidarity. But when I’m talking about the cooperation paradigm as opposed to the punishment paradigm, I’m thinking more in the context of social theory and crime and punishment. I’m coming to these questions on one hand from a political economy perspective, where I think about it in terms of individualism versus cooperation, collectivism, and solidarity. But I’m also coming from my background representing people on death row and at Guantanamo—from the space of criminality and crime and punishment. It’s from this second perspective that I would say that we currently live in a punishment paradigm or a punitive paradigm.

In the United States, we have over 2 million people behind bars. In 2008 we had 1 percent of the adult population behind bars. One out of 100 persons were behind bars. Of course, it’s skewed racially in such disproportionate ways. One out of nine Black men between the ages of 20 and 34 were incarcerated. It’s tied as well to political economy, because we spend so much money on detaining people. In New York City, we spend more than half a million dollars—$556,000—for every one person who’s detained for a year at Rikers Island. We have an extraordinary prison industrial complex. It’s in this context that I believe that the opposite of a punitive paradigm would be a cooperation paradigm that would get rid of punishment and build the kind of cooperative structures that would allow us to avoid it. It’s something that Amna also has been working on, writing about from a social movement and abolitionist perspective.


AM: There is another question here about human psychology or perhaps philosophical anthropology, and the tendency to eventually make anything competitive and profit-based. No matter how good and desirable a cooperative version is, it never seems to hold its own in the face of a profit model that will use marketing and glitz to sway the masses. While we do have islands of cooperative ventures, they are relatively small and almost boutique. How can anything larger avoid being taken over or subverted in general?


BH: It’s surely the case that the competitive, capitalist, glitzy enterprises get most of the attention, in part because the attention is dominated by glitzy, competitive media. The question you raise, though, is about human nature. There was a long strand in cooperative thinking that tried to show that cooperation works better than forms of competition. This was Kropotkin’s intervention in 1902, when he published Mutual Aid. Those arguments had a real evolutionary dimension. Your question, as well, has an evolutionary dimension to it—that there is something hardwired or baked in to us to allow competition to win.

We can bring democratic self-governance throughout all aspects of our lives—where we live, where we buy, where we work. 

That debate is too complicated to tranche scientifically, whether forms of competition trump forms of cooperation or cooperation trumps competition. I don’t think we can scientifically tranche those debates. And at this point, we don’t have the time to, because of the kind of interdependences that we are living in now. For example, human interdependence in the face of global climate change. It may be an uphill battle because of the glitziness and the marketing power of forms of competition. But my argument is that we don’t have a choice.

Time is running out and hopefully, as we try to put in place these forms or coöperism, people will see that it’s really a matter of choice. It’s not a matter of human nature. One of the sources that I’m relying on are the persuasive arguments from Thomas Piketty and other economists about how forms of inequality are human made. They are the product of our own agency. Katharina Pistor wrote a book called The Code of Capital (2019), which tracks how capital is constructed by lawyers. These questions of choice play a role here as well. We cannot fight on grounds of human nature. In the face of climate change and interdependence, we must choose coöperism.

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