Building a Cooperation Nation

By Ron Rivers,

American culture is one that defines freedom as autonomy.  That is to say, the sovereignty to be self-governed and to self determine one’s path throughout life.   This central tenet of American ideology has been reinforced through our social, political, and economic arrangements solidifying the dogma of competition as the best method towards progress for centuries. Today, cultural shifts and empirical evidence is demonstrating that a competitive culture struggles to address some of society’s most pressing issues. In our efforts towards transformation we must embrace the task of developing an alternative vision of the future, one building upon cooperation and collaboration as the core beliefs that give rise to our structure.   

There is no denying that applying a competitive ideology to an economic model of production produces innovation, but the progress comes alongside the cost of hyper-concentration of wealth.  Extensive research [1] demonstrates a strong correlation between decreases in trust, mental health, educational performance, social mobility, and many other issues with wealth inequality. Drawing from the perpetuation of historical scarcity, the narrative of limited resources for unlimited needs persists despite technological advances – which if appropriately applied would render the core premise obsolete.  American autonomy and competitive culture have had their place in history, but it is apparent that they are unsustainable in their current organization.

So why is it that so many people who experience harm due to our competitive arrangements are so quick to defend them?  Because so much of our life centers around some form of economic activity, the ideologies infused into our methods permeate almost every aspect of our interactions with each other.  From our educational institutions to our cultural norms, competitive culture reinforces itself by shaping the way we approach interactions. When relationships become transactional, by default competition becomes the underlying theme of communication.  

A competitive culture breeds ideals that influence people to believe that the world is binary: for me to win, you must lose. The theory of life as a constant competition selects tidbits of history and natural observations to command authority, while at the same time ignoring that the broader picture of both negates the argument entirely. Despite its inadequacies, the idea may seem sufficient if it’s the only economic model you’re exposed to. Progressives must develop a strategy to transcend this programming, an alternative vision of the future that is different enough to be feasible but not so distant as to be dismissed as Utopian. In doing to so we recognize an often misunderstood truth, the battle of ideologies presently waging in the United States is not a battle between good and evil. Instead, it’s a battle between good and good. The question facing us now is what type of programs we can develop to foster a shared vision of the good?

Star Trek: An example of an ideal, but Utopian future given present circumstance.


Cooperative Arrangements

Infusing the value of cooperation into our arrangements begins with childhood education.  From a macro perspective, we shift the classroom environment from an individualistic authoritative model of teachers dictating facts to students with the expectation of regurgitation to a collaborative experience where learning occurs through dialogue.  Where possible, we should teach each subject from two perspectives, for example learning about the conquest of North America both from the point of view of the invading Europeans and the original Natives.

Drawing from personal experience in organizing volunteer civics courses for high school seniors, I can share that this model of transformative dialectic education is already occurring at least in some schools in New Jersey.   We began our classes with two questions; “Why don’t people vote?” and “What would take to get more people to vote?” Afterwards the discussion evolved in numerous directions, with me acting as a facilitator for discussion – entering in with new questions and facts where needed.  The two contrasting points of view allowed students to state personal understandings and challenge beliefs that did not align with theirs in a respectful moderated setting. What unfolded was a conversation where the students essentially hit on all the points that we were looking to present in the discussion through their own methods with one another.  Embedding dialect into education is vital in teaching the necessary skills needed to collaborate together in the high-tech automated workforce students will find themselves facing in the very near future.

Teachers facilitate by distinguishing fact from falsehood but in a way that never restricts, constrains, or reprimands the exploration of ideas.  Education is the cornerstone of a thriving democracy. Therefore it is a priority for Progressives to partner with educators to develop curriculums that foster a more collaborative approach to learning and interacting.  In doing so, we prepare our youth the transcend the limitations of meaningless repetitive work that automation can and will replace. In fostering their infinite imagination and creativity, we equip our youth with the necessary tools to do the tasks machines can never do.  

A second precursor to more cooperative economic arrangements is the deepening of democracy.  Compared to the many other advanced democracies, the United States operates at low energy.

The problem with a low energy democracy is apparent in the present moment.  Private corporations have seized control of many aspects of our legislative process through the legalized bribery of our elected officials.  Private lobbyists are first in line to have their concerns heard. Running for office beyond the community level costs a small fortune, and history shows us that entrenched party administrators pick high-level candidates with no care for the popular demand[2].   Public voting data tells that these elected candidates do not align their voting with the popular will of the people.  Progressives can solve this by focusing on increasing access and agency for citizens within the process.  

Access to reliable candidate information is a real problem.  A recent study by OurSociety found that in 77% of 2018 candidates running for local office in New Jersey had no information posted online about their campaign.  Given that the now most significant percentage of potential voters grew up using the internet, it is unacceptable not to have candidates legally required to post candidacy information online – ideally in a non-partisan, non-profit structure, free from advertiser influence.   It is going to be difficult to enhance electoral participation in communities without improving access methods.

Agency is giving citizens more purpose and control in their democratic choices.  We can accomplish increasing personal agency in numerous directions, but, foundationally, Progressives need to speed up the pace of politics.  Constitutional amendments to resolve impasse quickly could be implemented, utilizing public voting days, empowering the public to break stalemates.  Drawing from a present example, we could imagine a citizen organizing of a national vote to address the recent government shutdown, specifically a legally binding popular vote about the fate of wall funding.  No more shutdowns, no more time-wasting meetings, and photo-ops; increasing the public’s ability to use democracy to decide national matters hold every elected representative to higher accountability. Most importantly, engaging citizen participation via more popular vote structures imbues deeper meaning into participating in our democracy for every individual.

Social Solidarity Today and Tomorrow

The values we encode into our institutions are the glue that holds people in society together. Progressives understand that in saying “everything is subject to change” we do not exclude humanity.  

Central to this argument for arrangements designed to increase cooperation within society is the rejection of the present arrangements that facilitate our interactions.  Today, money is the dominant form of social connection and communication. Redistribution supported by the government funds social programs, and we exchange our labor for capital and our capital for resources or goods.  The problem is, as many of us already know and feel, money is weak social glue. The last two decades of globalized labor markets outsourcing tasks to the lowest bidder combined with decades of stagnant wage growth have illustrated just how fragile these arrangements are.  

So what is our option beyond money?  Human connection. We must structure society in a way that provides people with more interaction with others outside of their immediate social circles.  This isn’t a revolutionary idea, in many respects the social services we provide represent this collective democratic action. We want to take the best aspects of these programs and export them to other verticals of society.

The most direct route may be an establishment of the value of social service, either through voluntary or even possibly mandatory efforts.  We can imagine that every person within our society has two responsibilities – contribution to a productive direction of their choice and service to others outside of their immediate family unit.  If we can imagine an America pursuing alternatives to perpetual war we could develop a new branch of our military as a social corps, dedicated to learning the most advanced skills available at present to help address some of the society’s most pressing problems.  It could be mandatory or volunteer but both options would relocate youth to areas outside of their immediate sphere of influence to give our youth the opportunity to experience cultures, values, and problems outside of their immediate sphere of influence but under the umbrella of community support instead of national defense.  While no empirical data exists I would imagine enrollment would be significantly higher than present military numbers due to the fact that recruits would not be focused on fighting a perpetual war that began before they were born.

Time is our primary resource and central to this suggestion, and Progressives must ensure that in whichever direction we manifest this program, it does not allow money to become a substitute for time.  This means that if the program is mandatory you cannot buy or donate your way out of the service requirement. Allowing these options would reinforce class structures and the power of money in social bonds.  

Cooperative efforts increase our collective power as citizens.  The more we understand about the humanity of the other, the better equipped we are to share the reigns of power in our shared democratic destiny.   I believe that a deep sense of who we are, and more importantly who we want to be, can be found in political, social, and economic arrangements.

A cooperative structure of arrangements is a central theme of the Progressive Project.  It is a long-term project that we can create through numerous small innovations, over time.  In working towards this transformative effort, we should not lose sight of the fact that an ideal form of solidarity is one that builds upon our differences.  We do not seek a homogenous culture, besides being boring it’s inherently oppressive. Creating pathways for each of us to interact with people outside of our immediate views of the world and reality is the highest form of cooperation.  Each new relationship and interaction creates degrees of change in who we are and how we perceive the world. A cooperation nation perpetually fuels our transformation and in doing so, our ability to transform the world.


[1]  The Spirit Level by Richard Wlkinson & Kate Pickett, Bloomsberry Press (2010) (p. 52, 67, 106, 160)

[2] Leaked Emails Suggest DNC Was Conspiring Against Bernie Sanders by Hilary Hanson https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/wikileaks-dnc-bernie-sanders_us_579381fbe4b02d5d5ed1d157


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