Review: Together

Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation

If you read this blog regularly, you know that one of my two suggestions for markets in 2017 was to “Operate more like networks,” which is how I think our low-capacity, mission-focused work will be able to do all of the wonderful things it needs to do AND withstand the type of pressures from those who would like to co-opt the authenticity of our work.
So to help, I continue to read how best to network existing markets and food projects in ways that will actually lead to cooperation. This book offers one set of ideas.

The author, well known for his books on labor and cities, dives deep into mutual benefits including the new world of “impatient” capital, new forms of labor and increasing structural inequality to show how those trends mean we must rethink how cooperation can be strengthened.
To understand one difficulty in expanding cooperation in this ever more dangerous world of anonymous online trolls and daily road rage incidents, he brilliantly defines the “uncooperative self,” a new type of citizen emerging in the world who has lost contact with others in any meaningful way due to the lack of informal and formal ties to any group. Obsessed with their own feelings and place in the world, they refuse to honor the larger blockchain of courtesies carefully built over generations and instead resolve their own anxiety through retreat and alignment only with those they perceive as exactly like them. Powerful stuff.

Additionally, his criticism of coalition work grown too large to maintain contact or ability to gather meaningful input from their base is well argued and something many of us have noted even as we understand that coalition-building is vital.  His analysis of coalitions is helped by the description included of the five type of exchanges, often collectively known as game theory. The very definition of cooperation means that benefits are exchanged, yet HOW each actor benefits is not always the same.

In terms of keeping coalitions viable, there must be a process for ensuring that the “face-saving rituals” used by their leaders don’t become more important than making gains for their supporters. Anyone who has viewed elected officials’ pointless press conference to show political cooperation that then goes nowhere in passing meaningful legislation or when cities require developers to include benefits for the at-risk in their original agreement even as all players know full well that the loopholes allow them to do away with those benefits, knows this type of ritual. Or, sadly, even some of the coalitions in our own food and farming work that lose track of the needs of their grassroots communities they once worked tirelessly for. Happily, I know that thinking about those farmers, advocates and market leaders needs and how to build THEIR skill and power is a constant effort of my colleagues in my work at FMC  and certainly has once again become the strength of Slow Food USA under its current leader.

Sennett’s obvious allegiance to community organizing is something I share and so I found it helpful to have settlement house history and characteristics described and outlined, including those examples at the end of the book of faith-based, simplicity-based or socially-based community cooperation.
The only slight criticism I have is the last chapter; his restoration, remediation, and reconfiguration methods of community-building need a little more work to make that framework useful. Still, this book is a milestone in understanding why and how working together has changed and how it can be reborn in this new age.

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