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The market versus cooperation

Difficulties with cooperation arise when the restrictions of the market start to operate

A neighbour goes on holiday and another keeps her greenhouse watered. Then he goes away and she willingly feeds and waters his cat. The local school recruits volunteers from the community for a reading programme to benefit the students. A rota of parents run extra-curricular sports options. An army of volunteers delivers regular meals to the housebound and incapacitated via 'meals-on-wheels'. Volunteer drivers take the infirm and elderly to doctors' and hospital appointments or for occasional outings. Youth groups, sports clubs, drama societies, music groups, choirs and orchestras, baby-sitting circles, car-pools, annual fête organisations, donations of books, clothes and household items to charity shops, staff in charity shops, community gardens, environmental projects – all thrive on willing cooperation, on people pulling together for the mutual benefit of all. It's what people do. It's what people like to do. It's what gives many a sense of purpose; to be a useful part of society; to add to the general well-being of a group of people who together make up a community. Cooperating is easy. It's natural and it's a vital element in building enriched communities, strengthening ties through shared purpose.

Difficulties with cooperation arise when the restrictions of the market start to operate. Take, for example, the mindset of those who wish to employ a similar cooperative outlook in their search for universality in the routine task of shopping. For those who wish to uphold a universal standard in dealings with others making the 'right' choices is a road littered with obstacles. The universal standard that says what's fair for you is fair for me; that decries the double standards of much of transnational trading; that believes that all people have a right to the dignity of adequate food, water and shelter. The connections along the production-delivery-consumer chain are many, often intricate and invisible to the end-user. To assess the true picture of the impact of any purchase the consumer would need to know the details (in the case of food) of the seed and chemical suppliers, growers, processors, packers, transporters, wholesalers, retailers and any other in-between handlers. The universalist would need to know the working conditions, rates of pay, living conditions etc. of all those involved at each step of the process including auxiliaries; cleaners, maintenance workers, shelf stackers and cashiers and to know that each of them could also be in a position to choose to be a consumer of this product – and if not, why not? If each of those contributing work along the chain are not in a similar position to be able to consume the end product then the question must be what makes one work day or one job that much more 'valuable' than another. Universality sees something awry when one worker has to work a mere ten minutes in order to earn enough for a burger, another must work all day and yet another will never have enough money accumulated for such a luxury. Same for a pair of big-name trainers, designer-labelled clothes or simple everyday foodstuffs.

So, those who happily cooperate within their communities find themselves in a position where their efforts to apply some level of universality in their dealings with fellow humans along the supply chain are thwarted by the market. The market is not in the control of universalists; it belongs to capital and capital prefers to buy cheaply and sell dear. It is more profitable to produce in the poorer countries where weaker labour laws and less regard for human rights ensure longer working hours for miserable wages; where the externalities of poor air quality, contaminated water and degraded environments can be disregarded; where the simple 'accident of birth' can condemn an individual to lifelong drudgery.

It is possible to campaign and have some limited success against some of the outrages, but here, also, accident of birth dictates who is the campaigner and who the object of the campaign, the victim to be saved. It is much more difficult for impoverished populations to organise and campaign and get a result than it is in the more developed world. Different standards apply as is evidenced in the massive amounts of dangerous waste exported to poorer countries to be dealt with by their even poorer communities. The particular geographical spot on the globe of each accident of birth will determine for a large majority the outcome they can expect, be it Europe, Asia, Africa or the Americas. Apart from geography historical, cultural and socio-economic norms can be other constraining factors. Expectations and aspirations are passed down culturally as in large parts of the world where male dominance is still overwhelming, enabling the entrapment of young females into the semi-slavery of sweatshops for barely a living wage. The socio-economic group into which one is born within the larger geographical context, urban slum or leafy, spacious suburb, also determines to a large extent the educational alternatives and possibilities, the earning potential and therefore the lifestyle of the individual.

To bring the benefits of more widespread cooperation into the whole of our lives will take a simple shift of emphasis. It will require us to focus more careful attention on the ‘us-and-them’ syndrome. What's holding us back are the confused and confusing ideas we hear regarding the many and varied ‘us-and-them’ scenarios. Some believe “they” are immigrant workers taking “our” jobs; some that it's “those” non-union groups who are undercutting “us”; some that younger, cheaper employees are taking the jobs of the more experienced and expensive; and yet others blame governments for allowing “our” jobs to be outsourced to some other “them”. Every country has a different set of immigrants to blame, legal and illegal and one population can easily be misled to wrongfully blame another.

What we really need to recognise is that we are all fellow human beings, fellow workers who are being used by capital in whatever manner suits their ends. When “we”, the massive worldwide majority, shift our mindset and focus together on the removal of the real “them” unfettered cooperation can truly come into its own.

JANET SURMAN