mutual interdependence ‘despite of’

By Kobe Matthys & Nicolas Galeazzi

This text thinks about the concept of ‘cooperation’. The main argument is that cooperation is based on our need for togetherness. It is not only a means to an end, it connects us to our understanding of ‘family’. It is based on ‘mutuality’ and how differences can lead to exchange. To make their arguments, the authors use sources from historical research. The books of the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin are central here. Kropotkin studied ‘cooperation’ alongside Darwin’s idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’, at the end of the 19th century.

Planet earth is confronted with multiple, sometimes interconnected crises: climate change, destruction of biodiversity, COVID-19, wars in Palestine, Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, etc., energy crisis, hunger, racism, etc. Although some of these crises are at an unprecedented scale, the political responses are often absent, arrive too late, or sometimes make it worse. “Struggle for life” is an explanation among elites who try to find excuses for these catastrophes. Darwin’s abused concept of “survival of the fittest” is back in many people’s mouths.

At the same time, new environmental and social justice resistance movements appear worldwide, neighbourhood initiatives support people in trouble without making much distinction between who is neighbour and who is not, communal gardens pop up in interstitial territories, etc… Many manifestations of spontaneous, mutual cooperations constructed far away from the character of ‘charity’ and develop different forms of existence.

The history of mutual cooperation

At the end of the 19th century, before the two world wars, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin studied the history of mutual cooperation as an evolutionary factor in response to Darwin’s concept of “survival of the fittest”. He wrote several articles based on this research, which were later collected in a book entitled Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution.

In the first part of the book, he writes about mutuality amongst non-human animals, for example, microbes, ants, bees, eagles, vultures, pelicans, ractels, parrots, cranes, cockatoo, gulls, tern, goose, penguin, deer, antelope, gazelle, buffalo, goats, sheep, monkeys, elephants, rhinoceros, monkeys, horses, donkeys, camels, lions, tigers, leopards, civets, weasels, dogs, wolves, jackals, hyenas, foxes, bears, squirrels, etc. Kropotkin formulates what “nature teaches us: Don’t compete! – competition is always injurious to the species, and you have plenty of resources to avoid it!”. “That is the watchword which comes to us from the bush, the forest, the river, the ocean. Therefore combine – practise mutual aid!” Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould confirms that mutual aid is an important evolutionary factor among all non-humans .

The second part of the book looks into social institutions of mutual aid among human animals from neolithic times until the 19th century. “Neither the crushing powers of the centralised state nor the teachings of mutual hatred and pitiless struggle which came, could weed out the feeling of human solidarity, deeply lodged in man’s understanding and heart, because it has been nurtured by all our preceding evolution. What was the outcome of evolution since its earliest stages cannot be overpowered by one of the aspects of that same evolution. And the need of mutual aid and support which had lately taken refuge in the narrow circle of the family, or the slum neighbours, in the village, or the secret union of workers, re-asserts itself again, even in our modern society, and claims its rights to be, as it always has been, the chief leader towards further progress”.


The various names for cooperation addressed in this book are, for example, unions, guilds, brotherhoods, friendships, in Russia: druzhestva, minne, artéls; in Serbia and Turkey: esnaifs, in Georgia: amkari. Kropotkin’s research on the organisation of collective life in the history of peasants’ cooperatives in the Middle Ages turns around shared facilities. In Russia ‘artels’ means as much as an agreement around a shared facility or simply a ‘cooperative ownership’. It is the oldest and most widespread institution in Russia. However, Kropotkin localises many similar forms of organisations all over the world and describes them in most cases as successful, popular formations to fight oppression from the church or other autocratic authorities. Guilds, commons and cities were created to free the people from exploitation and gave them the means of production and the power to take decisions into their hands. Artels can take various juridical forms, from associations to cooperatives. It is the diversity of forms of artels that bring about mutual practical and symbiotic relations, but at the basis of all such social constructions is the idea of cooperation.

It can be seen as a significant systemic difference that the word ‘cartel’, which is more common in the Western world, has the same root. But in contrast to the cooperative aspect of artels, cartels are, in capitalist terms, seen as illegal or corrupt agreements about price or distribution amongst a few independent producers to improve monopolised profits. The idea of cooperation is turned here into a clustering for the advantage of some against competition with others.

It is obvious that the cooperative idea is not only a structural question but a question of a shared understanding of togetherness and mutuality: an understanding that seems natural to the ‘natural’ world and part of the functioning of an ecosystem. Our happiness depends on the happiness of other beings. This sense of being fundamentally interdependent is what is at the core of mutuality. Looking into the history of the extremly wide range of potentially spontaneous appearances of scructurally embeded mutuality, it is clear that, what motivates beings to involve in mutual aid is less a sense of ‘because of’, but rather a certain sense of ‘in spite of’1: in spite of difference, in spite of personal disadvantage, in spite of time pressure, in spite of danger, in spite of other pleasures, etc. The motivation for such association at the basis is also not heroism, altruism, calculation, advantage, not even survival mechanism etc. No, mutuality seems to depart from a deep understanding of kin.


Development of insurances by private initiatives; in “Histoire génerlae de l’assurance”; G. Hamon, Paris, 1894

  1. Unfortunately, his illness has made it impossible for Kobe Matthys to elaborate on the thoughts of the ‘in spite of’ as many other thought within this text. The following sentences are an attempt by co-editor Nicolas Galeazzi to finish his thought based on the last conversations with Kobe, and find a conclusion for the text. This is certainly a premature and unfinished ending, just as his too-short life was.