Is collective action the solidarity we need?

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“Collective Action” is when people come together with a common goal, that is to improve their condition, and activate in order to achieve it. Well, nothing new until now, we all witnessed or at least heard of collective actions in our realities or at least on the news.

There is a theory out there that can be applied to politics and economics and it concerns concentrated benefits versus diffuse costs, and it is very well explained on Olson Junior and his book “The logic of collective action: public goods and the theory of groups.”

What is the diffuse cost? Is a small group that is benefitting from something all society paid for. Whereas, the opposite, concentrated cost is when expenses are charged on those who have the most benefits. The most typical example that comes to my mind here is taxes, look at governmental incentives to large industrial groups, those benefits are funded by taxes coming from everybody’s pockets, yet oftentimes these incentives benefit the owners and top management of the industrial groups (although the deal should be that those benefits are distributed in order to increase jobs, raise salaries etc.)

Olson claims that if citizens see that 0,1% of their taxes end up financing incentives to large industrial groups it is very unlikely that they would organise strikes and movement nationwide in protest, may indeed feel disappointed or perhaps even bitter, and yet is 0,1% really worth the trouble of striking, losing a job or end up in clashes? Not really. This presents us with a paradigm supposing that it is more efficient and easier for collective actions to take place locally, as smaller groups are more efficient and have better cohesion than larger groups, resulting in better discipline, stronger community feeling, they know each other and each has an in-depth understanding of their reality. This is the idea is at the foundation of the argument of strengthening the local economy and finances as a way to increase community participation in the production, distribution and purchase of services, goods, as well as more transparency and accountability on behalf of the producers, distribution and the public sector, making the overall system much more efficient. If citizens know the local public budget, what support it provides and how taxes are allocated, they are empowered and enabled to witness all the decisions made, steps taken, and therefore, more likely to participate and activate.

Well, not everybody agrees, or at least not 100%, last year on Science Direct appeared a paper by Joachim Weimann called “Public Provisions by Large Groups — The Logic of Collective Action Revisited.” Fully agrees that collective action is a sign of a healthy society, as the challenges faced by societies most of the times concern public goods. And yet, Weimann believes, on the contrary of Olson, that actually large groups can organise collective actions just as well as smaller groups. Interesting food for thought.

Today we are facing environmental challenges of unprecedented magnitude, and these challenges need collective action, because environmental “goods” are, after all, public goods, and this is something occurring on a global scale, take the climate emergency for example, local or even national level actions are just not enough, large groups need to cooperate and engage in joint actions around the shared goal of stopping the crisis. Envisaging actions such as resource mobilisation, activity coordination, information sharing, development of institutions. This means that community members are provided with the essential information in order to make their opportunity to participate both feasible and meaningful, making sure that each is aware that their input can have an impact and influence decisions and outcomes of the actions, resulting in improvements in the community and actively contributing to solving the problem at hand.

In politics, economics and society, according to Olson’s conclusions, an individual’s contribution to the public good is so little that it is almost invisible and has very little impact, if at all, therefore the logical conclusion is that cooperating in large groups makes no sense at all and serves little purpose. “The larger is the group, the farther it will fall short of obtaining an optimal result of any collective good, the less it will further its common interest.” How true is this statement? Take the example of democracy, a system that in order to work properly needs large groups of citizens not only to show up and vote every few years but also to inform themselves, participate in the decision-making processes, meaning it needs large-scale mobilisation and participation.

Returning to Olson’s statement, should it be true challenges like equal and fair participation in democracy or solving the climate crisis are too hard to solve, and meaningful contributions to the public good would be something rare within a large group. Assuming cooperation is easier within small groups, what can determine easy cooperation within large groups? And how to determine success? This is the key question to answer the challenges we are facing today across the planet. Assuming that large groups are just as good at providing public good, especially when large groups highlight the benefits of cooperation. Could the solution lay within large groups that go beyond national borders and yet maintain strong local roots?

Published by Lorenzo Nava

Consultant, Trainer and Coach, on participatory learning processes, experiential learning dynamics, non formal education and NLP certified practitioner

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