Free Cooperation

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Concept, and also classic essay by Christoph Spehr, published in the book, "The Art of Free Cooperation".


Heath Row:

"Spehr, a political theorist, writer, and media artist in Germany, wrote his essay as an entry in a competition held by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin in which organizers posed the question, "Under which conditions can social equality and political freedom be compatible?" The resulting essay won, and it's also where you should start.

Referencing Jean-Jacques Rousseau's A Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality Among Mankind, originally published in 1754, Spehr addresses different forms of domination and proposes that people can be free and equal only in a framework of free cooperation. He contrasts the "cynical freedom" of democratic capitalism and the "disempowered equality" of socialism (88) as two limited extremes of social reality, offering free cooperation -- real-time utopia -- as a radical response. In its most simple form, free cooperation has three qualities. First of all, any rules or operating principles for those cooperating can be renegotiated by members at any time. Secondly, people are free to leave -- or limit their involvement in -- the partnership. And finally, the cost of renegotiating rules or leaving is the same, regardless of scale, for each participant.

The essayist outlines how free cooperation can be applied to five politics: existing power structures, social relationships, capacities for action, a critique of democracy, and organizing principles. This section moves from the realm of theory to action, and the remarks on the appropriation of spaces and connectivity are an appropriate transition to Rheingold's paper. "To re-distribute spaces, to appropriate them autonomously 'from below,' is a substantial criterion of a politics of free cooperation," Spehr writes. "Connectivity is no less important than space ... That's why the loss of a formal work place is also experienced as social exclusion." (


Forced Cooperation vs. Free Cooperation

Amanda Rotondo:

"The essay "Free Cooperation" by Christopher Spehr, which occupies the bulk of the book and is responsible for the majority of the explanation of the idea of free cooperation, proposes that the large majority of the cooperations we engage in every day -- from functioning within our families to holding down a job to civic activities -- are in fact forced cooperations. Forced cooperations have three defining features. First, the rules of a forced cooperation are neither negotiable nor flexible. For example, if an office worker (given that offices are collaborations where team members work together to solve business problems and produce profits) is having problems with a co-worker, he must go to his boss, then his boss either deals with the matter or tells him the next person "up the ladder" who needs to become involved. The rules state that the boss is the person he must go to first, and many companies have elaborate human resources policies in place to ensure that this protocol is followed, whether or not it makes clear sense for each situation. Following this protocol is really the only reasonable first step this worker can take.

The second feature of forced collaborations is that the machine never turns off. Continuing with the original example, while our office worker is trying to get a resolution for his problem, the office keeps running. He keeps working in his potentially uncomfortable situation, and business progresses as usual. Nothing stops despite the system showing apparent signs of trouble. Thirdly, the office worker cannot leave the collaboration or defy the rules of the collaboration without facing considerable consequences. Here, he may finally need to quit or even be fired, pushed aside for promotions after being branded a troublemaker, or face ostracism from his coworkers. Hence the worker is forced to continue to play his role in this collaboration, as he has no way to stop his situation or remove himself from it without potentially devastating career, financial, social, legal, etc, consequences.

Free cooperation rejects these realities and offers an opposing triad of cooperation features. In free cooperation, the plight of our troubled office worker would look quite different. First, the rules around how to handle an at-work issue would be up for negotiation. In fact, they would not even exist in the first place without the equal input of all the members of the cooperation. The boss' opinion would matter as much as the opinion of the person who emptied the trash cans at the end of the day. The expected power hierarchy would not be present. Even if old rules were in place that did not work for this situation, our worker would have the power to renegotiate the rules so that they did in fact work for him. The rules are not set in stone. Therefore, the rules never get in the way.

Secondly, our worker would be free to limit, retract, or put conditions on his participation. He would be free to say that he will not be coming in to work until his situation is addressed or that every time his trouble with the co-worker flares up, he will stop producing. He is the sole owner of that which he contributes to the cooperative team. Progressing from this, he has the power to make such restrictions because of the third feature of free cooperation. This states that the price for leaving the cooperation is equal and bearable for all parties. Here, our worker can leave the office because doing so will not throw his world or the world of his co-workers into unbearable turmoil. Specifically, his leaving will not cause any more or any less disruption than if any of his other co-workers left. No one person holds the power card, and conversely no one person is considered useless to the group.

This last feature of free cooperation is most thought-provoking given current times. In the current economic crisis, multi-millionaire CEOs can retire and live luxuriously for decades if they walk away from a troublesome job (as many have.) They will likely keep their friends and their standard of living, and they will still be largely looked upon as "successful" for having amassed so much money and power in a lifetime regardless of how that career ended. Meanwhile, should the accountants, administrators, marketers, etc that worked under that same CEO choose to leave, they will lose the income they require to live day to day. They will lose their health insurance, their children's educational and enrichment opportunities will constrict, and they may experience decreased social capital for losing their job (more so if they stay unemployed for some time.) They will not even be able to collect government unemployment assistance because they left their jobs "voluntarily." Just this one striking disparity illustrates the need for attention to be given to ideas like free cooperation." (

Nathaniel Tkacz

"Spehr is a German political theorist with a penchant for using sci-fi metaphors to develop his ideas. Most of his work remains untranslated into English apart from his important essay ‘Free Cooperation’, in Geert Lovink and Trebor Scholz’s edited collection The Art of Free Cooperation (2007). While Spehr’s work is not solely intended for critical internet scholars, I read it here partly through Lovink’s work, who has been instrumental in its uptake and has shaped its reception.

Spehr’s thought begins with a distinction between “abstract”, “forced” and “free” cooperation (and I should note from the start that he mostly uses the term “cooperation”, but collaboration appears interchangeably in his work). Spehr notes that we are all constantly entrenched in cooperative environments and thus to speak of collaboration as exceptional – say, by describing Wikipedia as collaborative but not Encyclopedia Britannica – is already misleading. The very fact that we can think of cooperation as something peculiar derives from the mass “individualization” of neo-liberal society.

Spehr writes:

- Individualistic strategies, ways of living, ideas, projects become possible because society has developed in such a way that life is not precarious, that a basic security is established, that we have a certain access to public wealth, strategic commons, to capital, information, communication and so on, and that direct social control weakens because the market allows us to change cooperations, to move, to leave, etc., because we are held together by the bounds of abstract cooperation. You can do enormous things in the net because someone has built it. Because someone is keeping it up. It’s this stage of “abstract cooperation” that makes individualisation possible – and not only for very few individuals but as a mass phenomenon. Not only in the cultural sphere but as a productive force itself. From this point on, cooperation looks as if it is something special, voluntarily engaged, as if we were monads that come together to collaborate. While the truth is that we can only act in this monad-like way because we are embedded in very elaborated abstract cooperation, because we have so many resources and structures ready at hand (cited in Lovink, 2008, p. 212).

For Spehr, because we are all necessarily involved in (abstract) cooperation, it is the type of collaboration that becomes important, not the mere fact of it. “Free cooperation” emerges as his concept for desirable collaborative relations. Free cooperation has several basic tenets. First, every rule in the collaboration is changeable and negotiable. Absolutely nothing is off limits or beyond question. There is no “higher authority” (Spehr, 2007, p. 92) and every person has “the same power to influence the rules” (Spehr and Windszus, 2004, n.p.). Second, essential to this distribution of power is an a priori right to refuse and withdraw from the project or give limits to participation. Echoing Italian Autonomist thought, Spehr’s point is that cooperation cannot be “free” unless it can be left; unless the resources and inputs of members can be withdrawn.

This threat of withdrawal must also be significant enough that it can be used as a bargaining chip, to “influence the rules” (2007, p. 92). Third, withdrawal by members must be bearable, though undesirable. In other words, if a member cannot walk away because the loss is too great, the collaboration is no longer free. Bearable withdrawal provides the necessary conditions for genuine negotiation to take place. Finally, ‘free cooperation’ involves what Spehr and Windszus call “taking off the mask” (2004). This process begins with the courage and honesty to embrace conflict, but it also seems to extend beyond this to the constant questioning of members’ ‘expected roles’. It involves taking off “the mask that was designed for you”, questioning “what others think is appropriate for you ... what they want you to do” (2004).

Spehr goes into great detail elaborating these principles as well as mapping the existing “dimensions of domination” or characteristics of Forced Cooperation, that is, the type of cooperation we participate in everyday, to which Free Cooperation intervenes. This taxonomy of domination includes most of the typical dimensions that critical thought has identified throughout history: physical (e.g. war), structural (e.g. economic), social (e.g race and gender), institutional (e.g. meaning and knowledge) and existential (e.g. the removal of alternatives). These of course need to be understood as overlapping and mutually reinforcing. What Spehr offers is less a meditation on real life collaborative projects than a program for new forms of collaborative action; a list of mechanisms of domination to avoid; a set of principles for which collaborations should strive; and a set of ideal conditions for living together in the world. “Free cooperation” emerges both as a guiding light and a benchmark for making ethical and political claims about real collaborations.

My own concerns are with the distribution and mediation of power and subjectivity within net projects that get called collaborative. In this sense I am not as concerned as Spehr with principles or ideals, or ways out of “forced cooperations”, or debating whether or not a project really is a collaboration, but rather in new ways of envisioning the political as it relates to the open projects of peer production. Indeed, I am not convinced that Free Cooperation is possible, especially in large projects. The above example from Wikipedia lends itself to this reading. For starters, it can be argued that not all of Wikipedia’s rules can be changed and power over who can change rules is not evenly distributed (regardless of the justification of this asymmetry). While people are free to leave Wikipedia, this is generally of little consequence. Furthermore, there are some people – like Basem3wad – who are clearly compelled to contribute because the price of not contributing (having the images displayed) is too high. Finally, rather than “taking off the mask”, it seems that with Wikipedia it is more important to “put a mask on”: that of the encyclopaedist. It is only through donning this mask that a project like Wikipedia becomes feasible. What all this shows is that real world collaborations cannot be easily separated from their various entanglements and they cannot easily be divorced from their histories (instead, they are constituted by them). The most valuable aspect to take from Spehr’s work might be his taxonomy of dominance, but re-read as an always-present aspect of real collaborations." (

More Information

  1. Book: The Art of Free Cooperation. Ed. by Geert Lovink, Trebor Scholz. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2007
  2. Link to 3 reviews at RCSS:
  3. Spehr, C. and Windszus, J. (2004). Free Cooperation. Grab the rules, play it hard. Basic rules for free cooperation. Retrieved from freecooperation_spehr.htm