Democracy and the Principle of Cooperation

Political systems have evolved over time. Thomas Hobbes (1651) argued that in each of us can be found a representation of general humanity and that all acts are ultimately self-serving--that in a state of nature, humans would behave completely selfishly. He concludes that humanity's natural condition is a state of perpetual war, fear, and amorality and that only government can hold a society together. He argued for the necessity and natural evolution of the social contract, a social construct in which individuals mutually unite into political societies, agreeing to abide by common rules and accept resultant duties to protect themselves and one another from whatever might come otherwise. His proposal however was not for a democratic order as we know it today but instead, he proposed a strong central government, one with the power of the biblical Leviathan (a sea creature), which would protect people from their own selfishness. Even though his prescription was not for a democratic order as we know it today, he acknowledged the need for cooperation within political societies.

However, Paleo-political anthropology studies [1 ] have demonstrated that long before kingdoms and nation-states were established our ancestors had found ways to cooperate for human survival whether as hunter-gatherers or as settled agriculturalists. It is these forms of cooperation that precede Greek philosophers who are said to have discovered democracy (see Mathews,). Fukuyama [2] writes; “Human beings never existed in a pre-social state. The idea that human beings at one time existed as isolated individuals, who interacted either through anarchic violence (Hobbes) or in pacific ignorance of one another (Rousseau), is not correct”. Democracy is a social rather than a political term to refer to a society marked by equality of social conditions with no ascriptive aristocracy, and all careers open to all citizens including the opportunities to be in government (Tocqueville 1835).  The kind of democracy under discussion is the one which assumes that there is no one of us that will make the best decision for others-we have to figure it out for ourselves. In other words, democracy is about learning together.

Democracy is based on balancing power, making trade-offs, and ensuring civil liberties, and more importantly, is about making sure that citizens are engaged in solving problems. These roles cannot be dispensed by an invested political elite alone, there is a need for a broadening of our understanding of how democracy works. Besides, not all the change needs to happen within government or led by government but most of the work of democracy is the work of citizens. The challenge in Zimbabwe and indeed in many other countries is that the idea of citizens is restricted mostly to voting and, in many cases, they are mostly referred to as voters. Voting is a necessary function within our democracy, but it is also not the only function of citizens.  In other instances, citizens have been equated to the work done by non-state actor institutions such as NGOs, human rights groups, unions, etc. Non-state actor institutions are at a preliminary level indeed an expression of citizens’ interest but over time a disconnect can also occur in which citizen interests remain at the periphery of what these institutions do.

There is a need for the emergence of a civic agency that is built through ongoing collective work where citizens begin to see themselves as co-creators of a new democratic governance framework. First, we must get beyond an overreliance on experts and begin to tap into various forms of knowledge embedded within communities. Boyte (2009:3) argues that ‘we have to get beyond expert cults if we want to develop civic agency, the capacities of people and communities to solve problems and to generate cultures that sustain such agency’. David Mathews (2020), writing in a context of warning trust in the representative state system suggests that maybe this could be the time to reconsider Abraham Lincoln’s ideal of a government of, by, and for the people in the Gettysburg Address to include governing with the people.  According to Mathews a withstrategy encourages collaboration through mutually beneficial or reinforcing efforts between the citizenry and the government. It fosters collective work, not only among people who are alike or who like one another but among those who recognize they need one another to survive or to live the lives they want to live. In his formulation of the ‘with’ strategy, in which he describes complementary production fostering reciprocity between what citizens do and what governments do. The strategy is based on evidence that governments at any level can’t do their jobs as effectively without the complementary efforts of people working with people.[1] That is because there are some things that can only be done by citizens or that are best done by them. People aren’t the only ones who need people democratic governments need working citizens. An instance of citizens’ complementary production does not necessarily need to be organised through the state, but they produce public goods such as welfare, public safety, and food security which are otherwise traditionally provided for by the state.

Second, there is a need to make sure that there are adequate platforms for expression. Communities are unique. Individuals within different communities will build their civic agency based on needs/challenges that they are responding to. There is a need to avoid prescriptive frameworks. Third, evidence from many studies has shown that individuals who are members of associations tend to be more interested in politics, better informed and to be more often involved in acts of political participation than people who are not members of such associations. Civic activism impacts the public arena positively because associations support the social infrastructure of public spheres that develop agendas, test ideas, embody deliberations, and provide voice. In almost every community (rural and urban) there is a mosaic of associational forms that includes loose unstructured networks such as civic engagement associations, residents’ associations, neighbourhood watch committees, faith-based associations, loans, and savings associations, women’s associations, burial societies, and professional associations are active across the length and breadth of Zimbabwe. These are the incubators of cooperation and democracy.

The associative activities take the form of popular local organisations, and their proliferation is based on the real needs, interests, and knowledge of the people involved. These flourish in any environment, even in areas that do not encourage independent association. There is a wide range of associational forms in both the rural and urban settings, including savings and loans societies, self-help organisations, multi-purpose cooperatives, occupational groupings, farmers unions, and, since the 1960s, rural-based NGOs. The leadership in these associations originates from amongst the concerned communities. Tocqueville (1840) notes that associations are the key features of democracy. When Alexis deTocqueville visited the United States in 1832 he was struck by the vitality of its civic sphere: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite…”.  Tocqueville identified four different roles of associations as per Table below:

Table 1-1 The Role of Associations




They provide citizens an opportunity to develop norms of enlightened self-interest and the skills and habits of cooperation.

The method of integration is horizontal working through social networks among equals rather than relationships of dependency


They provide space for individuals to form associations with distinct interests and identities.

Provide a sense of community even for those who hold beliefs that are not accepted by the majority-mediating the tyranny of the majority opinion

Capacity Building

Citizens learn the skills and habits of collective action and organize themselves to accomplish great deeds


Reciprocal actions of man upon one another. Citizens in a democracy can exert social and political power rather than relying upon the power of great individuals.

Adapted from Barker (2011:208)

How can these formations contribute towards deepening the process of democracy? Very little has been invested in terms of working with these associations as part of a broader engagement on national and local democracy. Tocqueville’s asserted that ‘in democratic countries, the science of association is the mother of science’. However, although writing about a different context, John McKnight (2013:7) observes that ‘no university has yet created a Department of Associational Science’.  The Zimbabwean situation is very close to what is prevailing in other regions. In most instances, these voluntary associational forms do not feature within the democratization discourse, especially around big projects such as constitutional reform and elections. The potential synergy that can be derived through engaging local formations is underestimated especially within the realm of politics in government and civil society. They provide a platform for broad-based mass mobilization as we have seen in Latin America within the land movements and in former communist countries such as Poland where engaged citizens gathered under the banner of ‘Solidarity’ toppled a dictatorship. However, most analyses of the public space have unfortunately been devoted to the professionalized spaces dominated by donor-supported NGOs. These NGOs and other professionalized formations are not necessarily at the centre of organic community mobilization and in many cases their consultative and consensus-building capacity is inadequate.

Following the pattern established by Ostrom and Gardener (1993:7) we propose to consider the different forms of cooperation that citizens forge with each other on an everyday basis and using Briggs’ formulation consider this cooperation as part of problem-solving which contributes significantly to the texture of a democracy. We note that citizens and the formations they establish assume different roles ranging from cooperating within one another to strengthening prospects for economic survival/competitiveness, giving to each other, and confronting power.


Barker, E. (2011). The role of associations. In J. Scott & P. Carrington (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of social network analysis (pp. 196-214). SAGE Publications1

Boyte, H. C. (2009). Civic agency and the cult of the expertKettering Foundation1

 Fukuyama, F. (2011). The origins of political order: From prehuman times to the French Revolution. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

 Hobbes, T. (1996). Leviathan (R. Tuck, Ed.). Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1651) 1

Mathews, D. (1997). Politics for people: Finding a responsible public voiceUniversity of Illinois Press

Mathews, D. (2020). With the people: An introduction to an ideaKettering Foundation Press1

McKnight, J. (2013). The abundant community: Awakening the power of families and neighborhoods. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Ostrom, E. (1993). Covenanting, co-producing, and the good society. PEGS Newsletter, 3(2), 8.

Tocqueville, A. de. (2000). Democracy in America (H. C. Mansfield & D. Winthrop, Trans.). University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1835) 1

Tocqueville, A. de. (2000). Democracy in America (H. C. Mansfield & D. Winthrop, Trans.). University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1840) 1