Art of Free Cooperation

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Book: The Art of Free Cooperation. Ed. by Trebor Scholz and Geert Lovink. Autonomedia, 2007

With contributions from Christoph Spehr, Howard Rheingold, Brian Holmes.


"Inspired by the collaborative models of the open-source software movement, Rosa Luxemburg Award-winning German writer Christoph Spehr, Howard Rheingold, Brian Holmes and the editors critique both the received capitalist and socialist methods of social integration, and elaborate a practical vision for a third alternative, one that promises to surmount the problems of inequality on the one hand and the lack of individual freedoms on the other. Part utopian intervention, part radical polemic and activist manual, /The Art of Free Cooperation// /also includes a DVD with additional texts, highlights from an international "Free Cooperation" conference, and a feature-length film collage, narrated by Tony Conrad, illustrating the principles of Free Cooperation through the visual language of science fiction."


From RCSS, Jason Del Gandio:

"The Art of Free Cooperation, edited by Geert Lovink and Trebor Scholz, emerged from a conference by the same name and organized by the same people. The conference took place at the State University of New York, Buffalo, in late April, 2004 and focused upon "the art of (online) collaboration." The book has three basic purposes. First, it investigates, debates, and promotes notions of non-coerced interaction of all kinds and at all levels of social life. This is known as free cooperation, and the editors and authors are most concerned with its relationship to our use of communication technologies. How can we utilize such technologies to create a more egalitarian, radically democratic, and bottom-up world? Second, the book exposes Anglophone audiences to Christopher Spehr's essay, which is entitled "Free Cooperation." That essay provides the raison d'etre for the budding field of free cooperation studies and thus motivates and anchors the entire book (and conference). And third, following this line of thought, the book advocates for livelier, riskier, and more experimental approaches to the exchange of ideas. This is especially so for academic conferences, which are often too traditional, humdrum, and laden with talking head intellectual celebrities.


Experimental conferencing sets the stage for Christopher Spehr's marathon essay, "Free Cooperation." Coming in at approximately one-hundred and fifteen pages, this essay expounds upon the political (and radical) praxis of free cooperation: the idea that we should free ourselves from all forced interaction and consciously create a world of free interaction. In a nutshell, free cooperation is based on creating non-hierarchical and non-authoritarian relationships in every aspect of life. No one has more or less power than another and everyone must continually reflect upon, discuss, debate, and negotiate their wants, needs, and expectations with everyone else. This may sound utopian, but it is not. Spehr makes no promises of human or social perfection. In fact, free cooperation highlights our imperfections, making us hyper-cognizant of communicative and existential difficulties. For Spehr, true freedom is based on one's willingness and ability to freely participate in (and/or withdraw from) every social, political, economic, and interpersonal interaction. Each of us, in conjunction with others, mandates the conditions of our interactions. This type of socio-political foundation radically alters our lives: work is no longer something we must do but rather something we do for personal and collective fulfillment; representational democracy gives way to direct/participatory democracy; both capitalism and State-administered socialism are uprooted and replaced by a decentered, mutually beneficiary economy run by everyone; education is guided by radical individualism rather than socio-economic expectations and management; and our ongoing interpersonal relationships are bonds of and opportunities for growth, support, and rigorous (and perhaps endless) discussion/debate.

Spehr's essay is best understood as revolutionary rather than idealist, as it aligns with a long tradition of radicalism: Emma Goldman, Cornelius Castoriadis, Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, Post-Workerism, Autonomous-Marxism, and, more recently, Michael Albert, John Holloway, and the Zapatistas, envision and advocate for a decentered world of radical equality. Free cooperation might be difficult to accept and even a bit shocking to some readers, but Spehr provides a well-reasoned and intellectually justified account. If nothing else, it challenges us to confront a very important question: Why do we continually accept and participate in a social system that is by its very nature oppressive? We might answer by saying that "there is no alternative." But if that's the case, then Spehr provides a compelling contribution to a possible alternative.

The other major essay in this book is by Howard Rheingold, an established thinker concerned with the social implications of technology. His essay, entitled "Technologies of Cooperation," provides a long and detailed taxonomy of current social communication media. Three major concerns underlie that taxonomy. First, Rheingold focuses upon the nature of human cooperation in our age of global digital technology. He provides brief but detailed definitions, examples, rules of use, and implications and thresholds of the newest technologies, including self-organizing mesh networks like peer-to-peer file exchanges, community computing grids like ensemble forecasting, group-forming networks like wikis, and social software like blogs. Second, Rheingold argues that the expansion and advancement of social communication media increases our capacity to cooperate in more complex ways. A reflexive relationship is at work: advanced communication technologies create more complex cooperation amongst humans, and as our interactions become more complex we necessitate more advanced technologies. This argument strengthens the commonplace belief that our (technological) world is becoming increasingly complex at a dizzying speed. Third and last, Rheingold considers how our newest social/communication technologies might help us address social concerns and problems. These technologies, for instance, allow us to communicate and to share and develop knowledge across space and time; allow greater numbers of people to directly participate in decision making processes; increase our capacity to store greater amounts of information, thus expanding our collective "memory"; and exponentially compound our technological and thus social and political power. Given the overall framing of this book, it is safe to assume that our newest technological advancements enhance, but never guarantee, the possibility of free cooperation.

The book also includes smaller contributions: a brief call to action by prominent cultural critic and activist Brian Holmes; snippets of pre-conference email exchanges that lay bare some of the motivations, frustrations, and insights of actually doing free cooperation; and lastly, a DVD of interviews, performances, and talks from the conference. All in all, The Art of Free Cooperation provides a small glimpse into the emerging field of free cooperation studies and raises interesting questions about some relationships among the newest media technologies, radical social change, individual and collective freedom, and new forms of social interaction." (

More reviews available via


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." (