Illustration: Three people are puling on a rope to lift the earth up. ie Erde hochzuholen.

Homo Cooperativus

From homo oeconomicus to homo cooperativus: global challenges such as climate change and the Covid crisis require not less but more international cooperation. How can we approach international relations in a new way?

The international system is set to change due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is by no means over, and even more so due to the climate crisis, which is just beginning to manifest itself. The major challenges that are tearing down national borders cannot be resolved through the nationalist ‘my country first’ aberration that Donald Trump stood for, nor through the formation of antagonistic geopolitical blocs.

International politics is making a tentative comeback under the label of ‘multilateralism’, a standard that prevailed after 1945 in a world that, despite the confrontation between blocs, became aware of its interdependencies and was able to mitigate deep-seated antagonisms between East and West. Yes, pursue national interests, but also work together for the common good. Even the ‘United States of Europe’, which had been a mere visionaries’ dream before 1945, became reality, even if only in the slimmed-down version of the European Union, that peculiar hybrid somewhere between a confederation of states and a federal state.


„Homo Cooperativus": Sharing and Caring

The ‘sovereignists’ argue against this and often base their nationalism on a classic economic principle: the self-interest of homo economicus. This archetype predominantly pursues economic goals and is driven by self-interest. According to this archetype, producers and consumers act rationally with extensive market transparency; via the invisible hand of the market, private vices (such as individual greed) can be transformed into public virtues, that is to say, general prosperity. This radical simplification of humankind has, with good reason, been widely disputed, and established economists have expressed strong doubts.

But what might an alternative paradigm look like, one that focuses less on self-interest and competition and more on human capacities and the ability to cooperate? What is proposed here is ‘homo cooperativus’, which recent research has shown to be the standard model of human interaction. A research group led by Michael Tomasello at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig found that sharing and helping are not only inherent in primates, but that they constitute the conditio humana, especially in humans, even before the acquisition of language.

Adults spontaneously help a toddler to accomplish certain tasks, either by lending a hand or by providing information, such as about the location of the thing they are looking for. If this arrangement were not the general rule, the agreements needed for survival and a good life would fail, from shared simple norms of behaviour to symbolic exchanges and higher-level social institutions.


Altruistic Acts

As children become more independent, they learn to make distinctions and even direct altruistic actions at people who may not reciprocate. Anthropologists recognise this as our natural state, upon which all subsequent enculturation is built. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s naturally helpful and compassionate man is right in this respect compared to Thomas Hobbes, the forefather of homo economicus – a ruthless egoist who can only be tamed when the state takes away his weapons. The biologist Martin Nowak also found that: ‘Our breathtaking ability to cooperate is one of the main reasons we have managed to survive in every ecosystem on Earth... and enabled us to take the first steps in a grand venture to leave the confines of our atmosphere and voyage toward the moon and the stars beyond.’

Can an interpersonal model of empathy and cooperation also shape the spirit and processes of international relations?

The co-evolutionary rule of life is that no one has to give up their advantage and that everyone has something to gain from cooperation. Mutual expectations facilitate social norms of behaviour and empathy. But it is not guaranteed. The institutional environment has to be right – and that is clearly not the case today, as so often in human history. At some time, we have probably all experienced how cooperation can succeed and produce really satisfying results. But can an interpersonal model of empathy and cooperation also shape the spirit and processes of international relations?

Indications of this are provided by the theorem of gift exchange. A century ago, the French sociologist and ethnologist Marcel Mauss analysed gift-giving practices in indigenous societies and drew on it to propose a reshaping of society in the wake of World War I. Mauss called the gift a ‘total social fact’, meaning that it combines symbolic, religious, economic, legal and social aspects and is thus more than mere economic exchange. We know how it is with giving gifts: it should be more than pulling out your wallet or cheque book. It should mean something to the giver as well as the recipient and should come at the right time. This is the only way to cement a relationship beyond the present moment.


Illustration: Two arms reach out from laptops facing each other. One hand hands a lifebelt to the other.
Giving and receiving entail obligatory reciprocation, Illustration: Mohamed Hassan via pixabay

It gets complicated because giving and receiving entail obligatory reciprocation. Marcel Mauss observed precisely this three-step process in archaic relationships such as the potlatch of North American Indians, a ritual and intoxicating exchange of gifts.

This was an alternative to the modern logic of calculation and bureaucratic systems – as a third model of social integration. The exchange of gifts establishes social bonds only in the quite precarious balance between voluntariness and social obligation, which creates lasting relationships between individuals, groups and entire societies. In the severe post-war crisis of the 1920s, Mauss hoped he had found a ‘rock’ on which to build modern societies.

Can the do, ut des (Lat.: I give so that you may give) that Mauss found in predominantly pre-capitalist societies be transferred to today’s international relations? I would like to use three examples to test the plausibility of this transfer to modern-day global contexts, namely debt relief, the rights of climate refugees, and the global gift economy that is beginning to emerge in the current debate over free patents in health care.

In this context, international politics must look to the future, both temporally and materially. This means there is a new social contract on the horizon – henceforth between generations – and also a new contract with nature that incorporates animate and inanimate nature as co-actors in transnational politics.


A New Social Contract

Let’s begin with debt cancellation, an ancient practice in human history. Many people have found themselves in the unpleasant situation of not being able to repay debts they have incurred or being unable to get back money or goods they have lent to others. Debts can’t be serviced if the debtor is unable to raise the funds through their own fault or that of others, and debts are forgiven because collecting them would result in the financial ruin of the other party, which would also be detrimental to the creditor.

This is an everyday occurrence that is also familiar in the international context. Cancelling the debt is the only way to keep a bankrupt player alive and avert the collapse of the whole house of cards, which – as we all know – is a system based on enormous private and public borrowing.

It is not often that a homo economicus thinks like this outside the box, but one senior German banker did just that, to the horror of his colleagues. At the 1987 meeting of the International Monetary Fund, Alfred Herrhausen, then head of Deutsche Bank, brought up the idea of Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, who had told him about his country’s catastrophic economic situation. Herrhausen was persuaded that many ‘Third World’ countries would never be able to repay their debts, or if they did, their situation would deteriorate even further. He said that the only right course of action was, therefore, to cancel the debts of these countries and, in return, encourage them to carry out economic reforms.


In this regard, the left-wing anthropologist David Graeber has reminded us how closely debt is intertwined with guilt. The Middle High German word schulden meant to be obliged, to owe thanks, and to be guilty.

Moral debts are thus monetised, and monetary demands are underpinned by morality. At the heart of the entanglement of money and morality is the fact that people tend to believe they have to pay back their debts. The mediating element is money, which ‘manages to transform morality into a question of impersonal arithmetic – and in this way justify things that we would otherwise deem scandalous or indecent’, to quote the classical sociologist Georg Simmel.

Peter Sloterdijk’s analogous question in 2006 was: ‘Is there an alternative to the feverish accumulation of value, to the chronic trembling before the moment of the balance sheet, and to the inexorable compulsion of repaying debts?’

Illustration: Woman sitting on the floor, bending over her knees, fingers are pointing at her.
Debt crises have ruined entire societies, Illustration: Mohamed Hassan via pixabay

This was before the Greek crisis but, even then, debt crises had ruined entire societies. The dirigiste treatment of ‘the Greeks’ by the EU ‘troika’, the pressure of the tabloid press and the impatience of even well-meaning observers demonstrated that Greece was being chained to a debt-burdened past in a way that colonised or excluded every possible future.

Yet the Germans in particular, who (of course with justification) had to pay out after 1918 and 1945, should not only have known how this makes people feel, but also the irrational reactions that it can cause. It is hardly surprising that, in their unwillingness to pay, the Greeks reminded their German taskmasters of the massacres that took place during the Nazi occupation and, in turn, made claims for reparations. Contrary to the arguments of German courts and experts, every Greek government since 1950 has insisted that these claims were in no way settled by the London Debt Agreement of 1953 or the Two Plus Four Treaty of 1990.

These agreements included the logic of gift exchange, which Lord Keynes, the patron saint of economics, had also urged in the treatment of the German Reich after the First World War: namely, to allocate reparations in such a way that there were no thoughts of revenge, and that the debtor who is forced to pay can at the same time exist as a future cooperation partner and contribute to the common good of Europe. Reparations involve a financial obligation, but they must also have reciprocal curative effects. The victorious Western powers took this to heart after 1945.

More important than the payment was the possible contribution of the defeated Germans to a supranational economic community which, as a peace and development community, could then also politically set about overcoming European nationalism. The London Conference of 1952/53 adjusted the debt servicing obligations of the young Federal Republic of Germany to match its capacity at the time. Thus, the ‘grace’ of creditors made it possible for West Germany to re-emerge as Europe’s économie dominante. It is likely that this would have been prevented or delayed if they had demanded higher payments. It is plausible that a business-minded banker remembered this in 1987.

What was true for Greece is even more true for the poor countries of the global South. Halting debt repayments is the only way to allow a new start and, probably to the astonishment of the aggrieved parties, also restore their freedom. More important than coming to terms with the past is forward-looking investment in renewable energy, low-emission industry, greener tourism, environmentally compatible agriculture and the development of a knowledge society.


A Passport for Climate Refugees

This brings us to the second example: a passport for climate refugees as an expression of solidarity and world citizenship. Nationalists tend to feed on one particular issue: migration from South to North. Not entirely coincidentally, most also deny climate change and cling to outdated policies relating to energy and the environment. Environmental destruction is already one of the main causes of displacement.

The connection is most clearly illustrated by the threat to the existence of low-lying island states, which are already threatened with being wiped out by a global warming of ‘only’ two degrees Celsius. The only way for their inhabitants to survive is to leave their homes. The same applies to the majority of the world’s megacities, most of which have grown up and sprawled along coastlines. The movement of refugees from the Middle East was also linked to climate change: extreme drought in the Fertile Crescent exacerbated tensions in Syria in 2011. In international relations, ethnic and religious disputes continue to be regarded as the main drivers of war. Yet these are often underpinned by conflicts over material resources caused by environmental damage, which in turn are legitimised in the guise of ethnic or religious conflict.

[...] safe and legal emigration and immigration is not merely ultima ratio, but [...] those affected are morally entitled to compensation for the damage caused by the loss of their homeland.

In the wake of the First World War, millions of people, especially in the collapsed Ottoman Empire, had lost their homes due to ethnic cleansing. Most of them found themselves standing at the borders with no valid identity papers. To help them, polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, then High Commissioner for Refugees at the League of Nations, introduced a passport for stateless persons in 1922. The ‘Nansen Passport’, for which he later received the Nobel Peace Prize, granted hundreds of thousands of people the right to stay in safe countries, including painter Marc Chagall, shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, and photographer Robert Capa. By 1942, the passport was recognised by 52 nations. Despite this, many refugees never enjoyed this status. Many countries refused admission to European Jews in particular, and an international refugee conference in Evian on Lake Geneva failed in 1938 due to the protectionism of the West.


Illustration: A hand is holding a passport. There is a document in the passport.
People whose existence is threatened by global warming should have the option of gaining access to countries willing to receive them and grant them rights equivalent to citizens' rights, Illustration: Mohamed Hassan via pixabay

What remains important, however, is Nansen’s intention. He wanted to enable every person to decide where to live. Today, we have to understand that safe and legal emigration and immigration is not merely ultima ratio, but that those affected are morally entitled to compensation for the damage caused by the loss of their homeland. In 2015, for example, the Nansen Initiative established a climate passport for migrants. The aim is to offer people whose existence is threatened by global warming the option of gaining access to countries willing to receive them and grant them rights equivalent to citizens’ rights.

For the stateless of tomorrow, primarily the inhabitants of small island states, this opens up early, voluntary and humane migration routes. The German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) went one step further and recommended that the passport should also be available to people under massive threat in other countries, including internally displaced people. They form the largest group among the current 82 million refugees worldwide. Under the polluter pays principle, the countries that are most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, both today and in the past, must accept their responsibility for climate change.

A climate passport is essential, because millions of people around the globe are on the move due to the sudden onset of extreme events such as floods, storms and wildfires. Between 2008 and 2016, some 228 million people had to leave their homes temporarily or permanently due to such disasters, an average of more than 22 million people per year. And this does not include the triggers of gradual changes such as drought, soil degradation and groundwater salinisation. According to World Bank estimates, if no countermeasures are taken, 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America will be internally displaced by climate change by 2050.

‘If this is in tomorrow’s Bild, your climate passport is dead’, a well-heeled older man said to me recently. I asked him for his suggestion. Look the other way, slam the door, ask refugees from Vanuatu and Tuvalu to drown instead? So far, climate migrants have not managed to gain international refugee protection, which applies in the case of deliberate government actions such as persecution for religious or political beliefs but not to climate change and natural disasters. That is why, over the last few years, international pacts have been agreed on refugees and migration.

A climate passport is essential, because millions of people around the globe are on the move due to the sudden onset of extreme events [...].

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, a unified declaration on migration under international law, exists only on paper. EU states such as Hungary and Austria have refused to sign. And the importance of a global pact (which is not even legally binding) was talked down to such an extent – due to fear of right-wing populism – that little remained apart from Europe’s selfappeasement. But the climate passport remains on the agenda as an offer to the people of lowlying island states.

Otherwise, some ‘ingrate’ like the writer Vladimir Nabokov, once the holder of the green Nansen Passport, will be able to claim that its sickly colour betrays how the holder is regarded: like a criminal on day release. The gaps in the Nansen Passport do not argue against, but rather in favour of, the climate passport being considered without delay. A utopian is someone who does nothing. Contrary to the claims of the populist right, the Compact for Migration does not mean Europe has to take in ‘everyone’. However, this does not change the need for the normative and operational development of a humanitarian cosmopolitanism.

The capacity of countries to take in refugees is calculated according to objective requirements, as should not be forgotten in Germany, which early in its history took in millions of displaced persons under terrible conditions – as confirmed today by Syria’s neighbouring states, which are bearing the brunt of the mass exodus. Migration is normal and desirable in these times and in this world. Countries that are pursuing energy and refugee policies with an eye only on their short-term national interests are preventing the development of pragmatic, multilateral solutions to regulated immigration and will soon find themselves overwhelmed by reality.


Vaccine Gifts versus Patent Protection

The latest example of the need for global cooperation relates to the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, which requires an international response. Gift-giving comes into play here, in that debt-ridden countries with weak healthcare systems should receive donations of vaccines, medicines and medical infrastructure so that the whole world can be vaccinated. If this fails to happen, the virus and its mutations will continue to spread like wildlife, particularly in the rich North.


This obvious fact is hampered by patent protection and the understandable desire of manufacturers to make a profit.

The idea behind patents was simple and not exclusive: people can tell the world about their invention and describe it in such a way that, in theory, other experts in their field can replicate it. Their openness is rewarded by the chance to market their invention exclusively for a certain period of time. The call to temporarily lift international patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines so that people around the world can be vaccinated more quickly and the pace of vaccination increased originally came from South Africa and India, which had vaccine shortages. US President Joe Biden quickly stepped up and responded personally to the call.

Illustration: A brain is secured with a chain and padlock. A hand inserts the key into the lock - or removes it.
Should intellectual property be expropriated in an emergency situation? Illustration: Mohamed Hassan via pixabay

Objections were of a practical nature – producing vaccines is extremely complex, even without patent protection, and there is a lack of production capacity. So should intellectual property be expropriated? Voluntary action is preferable, but compulsory licences are certainly provided for in WTO law. On the other hand, is it legitimate to privatise vaccines in such an emergency when most of them have been developed using public research funding, so taxpayers’ money?

France’s President Macron has also called for vaccines to be made a global public good. The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) hampers rapid access to affordable vaccines and medicines. The companies concerned have also suggested alternatives, such as lifting export bans on the raw materials for vaccines or selling vaccines at cost.

In the end, concerns that releasing the vaccines will halt investment in research does not hold water. The same goes for the argument that it could wait until the countries of the Global South are in a position to produce vaccines themselves. Patent protection has prevented them from building up any such production capacity. The production of essential goods would have to be converted using open source and open access procedures. Everyone should have access to the vaccine at a fair price. This is only possible with a true gift economy, and it protects the richer strata of world society as well as the poor. Abolishing patent protection is certainly only one aspect. The larger project is eliminating the unfair international division of labour and initiating knowledge transfer in every respect.

We have outlined three areas of conflict that not only call for global cooperation but also a modern exchange of gifts between rich and poor nations:

  • debt relief
  • opening up migration channels
  • and healthcare for all

The proposals emphasise the equality of countries, and particularly of their peoples, over arguments about immediate utility and competition for scarce resources. The approach is normative, and those who advocate it need to be aware that the world, that international relations, unfortunately is not like that. The capitalist, global society is full if injustice that is difficult to counter, even by codifying global rights for all.

The renationalisation of special interest politics has increased the disparity and exacerbated points of friction. And, as the ‘realists’ of international relations point out, it is true that the sphere of liberal constitutions has also reflected and reinforced power hierarchies. In truth, the post-war multilateral order was never an assembly of equals but reflected the material disparities, colonial and postcolonial power structures, and the dominance of a Western liberal understanding of the modern world.

And yes, NATO has also never been the guardian of a common good of regional security. The EU has rarely been a place of appeal for the oppressed and offended, and the WTO is no guarantor of fair trade. But they did have norms, grievances and procedures in place to critique and mitigate inequalities and injustices, and international tribunals and arbitration bodies in particular adorn their preambles with enlightened cosmopolitan ideals.


A ‘Realistic’ Alternative

A ‘realistic’ alternative would only be to pursue these ideals even more fiercely – or to sink into total anarchy and chaos. Whatever the autocrats think and do, it is true that humanity needs binding rules, respected agreements and enforceable sanctions when rules are violated. This is the only way to tackle global problems such as pandemics, climate change and species extinction. The only way to banish corruption and autocratic arrogance, the only way to end ethnic cleansing and religious persecution.

As if this were not difficult enough, the theory and practice of international politics now also has to open up in two other respects: firstly, with regard to the environmental and financial mortgages that have been loaded onto successive generations since the 19th century and even more acutely in the last decades of the 20th century with the burden of global warming and debt – whereby the classic social contract, which is supposed to guarantee the protection of those alive today, must be modified into a generational contract for those alive in the future.

Not just disadvantaged people, but also animals, plants [...] must be represented and given a voice in international politics in what has been called a ‘parliament of things’.

Secondly, it must be extended to a new nature contract, which takes leave of the arrogant role of man as the supposed ‘pinnacle of creation’, who can impose his dictates on animate and inanimate nature. Not just disadvantaged people, but also animals, plants and even inanimate nature must be represented and given a voice in international politics in what has been called a ‘parliament of things’.

Homo cooperativus is not an expression of cosmopolitan fantasies – something that is nice to have, but naive in the face of harsh global realities or, as some experts think, even a danger. For many years, people in every discipline have been working very pragmatically and soberly on the realisation of cosmopolitan ideas. One such discipline is the visual arts, where experimental nature research, advocacy for endangered peoples and species, damage documentation and tangible future fantasy have come together to form an impressive phalanx of ‘art in the Anthropocene’.

And if this is too vague and out-there for you, take a look at recent rulings by national and international courts, which are directed against the further exploitation of nature, failure to protect the climate and species, and inhumane supply chains in global trade. They are sanctioning violations so effectively that private companies and public fiscal policy are having to closely scrutinise their investment and procurement practices. And, contrary to frequent objections, such an international policy is not a gateway to authoritarian politics, but another means of strengthening democratic participation.

About the Author
Portrait of Claus Leggewie
Claus Leggewie
Political scientist

Claus Leggewie taught political science at Justus Liebig University in Giessen from 1989 to 2007. In 2001 he co-founded the Centre for Media and Interactivity (ZMI) , and since 2015 he has held the Ludwig Börne Professorship at ZMI. He was a visiting professor at the University of Paris-Nanterre and New York University, a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, at the Remarque Institute of New York University and at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. From 2007 to 2015 Leggewie was director of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities in Essen and the Centre for Global Cooperation Research in Duisburg. From 2008 to 2016, he was a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). Leggewie is co-editor of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik.

Culture Report Progress Europe

Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.