Throughout the world of inanimate and animate things, natural laws prevail. These are not made by man. They are not changed nor changeable at the hands of man. The laws of mathematics, the laws of gravity, the laws of the planets were here before man came, and they will continue when he is gone. They were seen, described and proved by Euclid, by Galileo, by Newton, and by Einstein. These are the laws affecting electrons, atoms, molecules, and masses.
There are laws governing life. They were studied by Priestley, Lavoisier, and by Mendel. These are the laws controlling living matter, in protoplasm and in the cell.
There is in nature a fluid mass called society. It is made up of complex units called men. The underlying structure of these units is governed by the primordial laws which control the matter and the forces of which these units are composed.
The biological laws of society were observed by Lamarck, by Darwin, and by Haeckel. The social laws controlling human beings were described by Confucius, by Plato, and by Lester Ward.
When Kropotkin observed mutual aid among animals, he was not inventing anything; he was discovering what existed. When Sumner studied and described folk ways, he was dealing with ancient facts.
Within this fluid mass of human society, the natural laws which govern its conduct are poorly understood. But out of the laboratory of trial and error in human affairs a few of the laws of society are emerging. Here are some of these laws which I make bold to formulate:--
1. Man best succeeds in getting what he wants when he has the assistance of other men whom he in turn helps to get what they want.
2. Man best protects himself against forces that would do him harm when he has the assistance of other men who likewise need similar protection and whom he helps as they help him.
3. Where production in abundance for all is possible, prosperity and happiness of the largest number of people are best promoted when the economic ideal is equality of opportunity and of access to things, rather than when a few have the better access and when they acquire the most, while others are in want.
These are social laws and they are specifically the laws of cooperation. They constitute the fundamentals of the consumer cooperative movement in action. They pertain especially to the direct getting of things and services needed for life rather than getting money.
These cooperative laws must be observed. Their defiance leads to disaster. Their evolution can be traced not only through the history of races, but through animal species, the vegetable kingdom, and inanimate matter. Mutual aid and harmony are the laws underlying survival, not only of men, but of the planets whirling in space and the electrons revolving in the atom.
These laws are economic. They are constructive and conserving. Their ethical and cultural values may be stated as follows:
(1) Two or more, acting in the spirit of mutual aid, can accomplish more for each than one alone.
(2) Man in general prospers best when his prosperity is associated with the prosperity of other men.
(3) Human needs are best supplied when production and distribution are in the interest of consumers who are everybody, and are based upon the motive of service and not for the purpose of getting the difference between the cost and selling price.
The moral connotations here are indisputable.
Where the supply is not adequate there the law of survival of the fittest, of the most industrious, of the cleverest, of the strongest, or of the most unscrupulous is apt to prevail. But this is individualistic law rather than social law. The energy of society needs to be exercised to create abundance; and where there is abundance, there the natural social law finds its best expression. Happily abundance not only is possible, but it potentially exists. However, in the presence of scarcity, society and the individual are best served by the application of the above natural laws. In scarcity these laws are most needed.
These social laws are susceptible of proof. So far as the few cooperative laws are concerned, they lift themselves into the field of science. Out of them evolved the family. The clan, village, and nation have all been groping towards these laws. Man has carried them up to the nation, but little farther. Cooperation between the nations of the world has not been attained. It is as essential as cooperation at the levels below the international level. Stopping at this point makes war possible. Among the nations are to be seen an international postal system, treaties and agreements, and a multitude of international organizations; but in international affairs the laws, set down above, are in general neglected.
The vagrant star moving in defiance of natural laws is moving toward disaster. Creatures that fail to conform to natural law are destroying themselves. The man and the nations which do not put themselves in harmony with such laws are threatened with catastrophe.
There is in society a growing element planfully allying itself with these laws and attempting to harmonize its conduct with them. This is to be seen in the consumers' cooperative organizations. When the Rochdale Pioneers studied economic cooperation they were collecting and formulating in terms, which they could understand, the facts concerning certain fundamental laws of life. And when they organized themselves into a cooperative society, they were putting themselves in such order as to go along with the laws governing society, instead of continuing to live lives which were in violation of these laws.
A wise man does not defy the laws of gravity and step off the roof of a house into space. He does not attempt to live in defiance of the rule of numbers; he knows if he has three loaves and consumes three, he will have none left. He does not flout the biological law that heat kills the living cell, and cast himself into a fiery furnace. He protects himself by conforming to the law.
Laws governing society are perhaps not more complex than other laws governing matter, but man's defective thinking, his cupidity, and his lower instincts prompt him to attempt to live in defiance of these laws. And here he does an extraordinary thing--a thing which in its nature is suicidal. He purposely creates scarcity so that he may violate natural law.
Instead of harmonizing his interests with his neighbor and each helping the other to prosper, he hopes that he may get something from his neighbor, or something that his neighbor needs, and be more prosperous than he. It is disregard of these social laws that causes man much of his troubles, that sets man against man, family against family, and nation against nation.
We look out upon the world and see everywhere the testing of cooperative laws. Distress, poverty, cries of pain, and wars are witnesses to their violation. Cooperative animals learned how to conform to social law and survived an eon of years before man appeared on earth; and they will continue to survive when man has gone unless he becomes as wise in its observance as they.
Dominating the world today are men who defy natural laws. Leaders in business, professors of economics, statesmen, diplomats, generals, admirals, and rulers carry on their affairs and demand that society go on trying to build itself into security by means which are opposed to these laws. Schools of business instruct youth how it may hope to circumvent the law. Methods of buying labor and materials, salesmanship, and advertising are seriously studied and taught to help in this lawlessness. Each individual tries to learn how he may get the better of the other, how he may secure the customer, make the sale, and get the profit. And the other individual is trying to learn how to do the same to him. Their expanded talents antagonize each other and contribute to the constant struggle in defiance of fundamental social laws.
The Department of Agriculture of the United States does a splendid job in making available to farmers the information as to how to produce in greater abundance. The same Department, at the same time, instructs and pays farmers to produce less. This because the farmer is engaged in profit business and his profits are promoted by high prices of his commodities and high prices are promoted by scarcity. If the cooperative laws of economics were observed, only the first of these functions, producing in abundance, would be practiced. The second, scarcity, is made necessary by the prevalent lawlessness of capitalistic profit business competition.
Men who openly teach and practice disregard of these laws, who keep alive the struggle to get something for themselves from others, at the expense of others, actually have the respect of their communities. Many economists win their doctor's degrees, write their theses, develop their theories and enjoy their prestige upon the basis of opposition to natural social law. They are in the position of physicists who might carry on their laboratory work oblivious of Newton's laws--making passes in the air, propounding hypotheses in the realm of the spurious and the unreal.
Natural social law is defied because the affluent are the influential and because the strong and acquisitive welcome the conflict. Youth, with its ambitions and its schooling in traditions, looks forward to the struggle against natural laws of society, each with the hope that he may be the one who succeeds in evading the laws. But most are destined in the end to find themselves in the ranks of the defeated. "Getting ahead in the world" commonly means getting ahead of somebody else. As a result, two classes are to be seen: those who have won, and those who have lost. Between these two is a non-man's land inhabited by a multitude who are on their way from one class to another, existing in fear and uncertainty.
The strange fact is that all this pathology is looked upon as a normal state of society. Economists, industrialists, and statesmen study it and ponder over it with sober faces and wonder amazed at its failure to function satisfactorily.
The chaos that threatens to wreck the human race is the penalty of violating natural laws of cooperation. These laws are not difficult. They are not hard to learn. They are not oppressive. They are simple laws. They bestow advantages immediately as people accept them as a guide of life. But with all their simplicity and beneficence, they are unrelenting and inexorable. Woe befalls the society that defies them.
People are free to conform to them or to neglect them, but natural law is mightier than man. If he would live and go on, he must conform to the principles that hold matter and society together. He must observe these laws which require that he live by the aid of his fellow men and by aiding his fellow men. Only by building his society in harmony with these natural forces of cooperation can he create a structure that will endure.
These laws are social in character. So far as the individual is concerned, cooperation leaves him free to advance himself. He is subject to competition with his fellow men--competition for excellence--competition in which superior qualities are esteemed and rewarded. There is nothing in cooperative law that demands equality of all. Men are neither born equal nor can they become equal. Their capabilities are unequal. Services which they perform and rewards which they receive must be unequal. But equality of opportunity is different from equality of men. It is the basis of democracy. And democracy is an essential part of natural social laws.
The cooperative movement represents people who are conscious of these laws, who try to understand them, and who organize their relationships with one another so as to conform to inevitable circumstances which they could not change if they would.
This is after all the great fact concerning cooperation. Nobody invented it. It is a law which exists in society to help society survive. In all nature things survive because of such laws. The fact that things survive at all means that there are such laws. The survival of things should prompt man to study the laws governing their survival.
We live in a harmonious universe. Harmony is life. Lack of harmony is death. War is the sign of violation of natural law. What man calls cooperation is his way of trying to conform to that law. And in that law, he may live in abundance and in peace with his fellow men.*
*The material in this chapter is taken largely from the Author's older book, Cooperation, as a Way of Peace.