Cooperation Unbound: a reciprocal model for democratic education

By Henry Tam

The problem with undemocratic institutions – be they the government of a country or a business – is that they do the bidding of those in charge at the top, without being accountable to others who have to live with the consequences of their actions.

One of the most notable features of the democratic struggle during the 19th/early 20th centuries was the drive to enable the disempowered majority to learn why and how they go about getting a greater say about the decisions that affected them. Reformists who wanted democratic cooperation to replace authoritarian controls recognised their cause could only be effectively advanced if education played its part.

And in quick succession, learning providers such as the Working Men’s College (founded 1854), Cooperative Women’s Guild (1883), Ruskin College (1899), Workers’ Educational Association (1903), Cooperative College (1919), National Council of Labour Colleges (1921), were set up. But ironically, the achievement of universal suffrage for all adults aged 18+, the establishment of the welfare state, and the emergence of the (short-lived) post-war consensus on social justice, had by the 1970s led many to believe that the struggle for democracy and cooperation was over.

Support for politically orientated education began to slip down the agenda, and at every subsequent economic downturn, funding from state and philanthropic sources would be further cut, and lifelong learning in general became more tightly squeezed into employment-focused training to meet the needs of a largely non-cooperative economy.

In order to rebuild the momentum to democratise state and business institutions so that cooperation is structurally and culturally embedded in how they operate, four steps should be taken to develop a new business model with reciprocity at its heart.

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