Alfred Marshall’s treatment of cooperation includes a confusing mix of approbatory and disparaging positions. Cooperation is praised for aiming to “regenerat[e] the world by restraining the cruel force of competition,” but its aspirations are reportedly “higher than its practice.” The article uncovers two reasons for this tension. Firstly, the tension is an effect of two different modes of engagement, namely an ethical commitment to the universal cultivation of desirable forms of character through work (the explicit goal of cooperation), and a pragmatic analysis of the comparative economic benefits of organizational types (leading to a diagnosis of cooperation’s limitations). Secondly, the tension is also an outcome of reflection on the historical development of British cooperatives. The prevalence of consumer (rather than productive) cooperatives in nineteenth-century Britain leads Marshall to doubt the ability of cooperation to cultivate character. The article then provides a conceptual presentation of three interrelated concepts of cooperation in Marshall’s work—cooperative ethics, cooperative organization, and constructive cooperation—of which the latter two forms are shown to be evaluated with reference to the extent to which they promote the principles of the first. It is shown that whereas the early Marshall speaks highly of the explicitly ethical nature of cooperative organization, the later Marshall is increasingly attentive, first, to the failure of cooperative organization to achieve its ethical goal, and second, to certain unintended ethical benefits of competitive constructive cooperation (a form of industrial organization oriented toward reciprocal mutual profit). In closing, the paper considers the significance of Marshall’s work for a recent set of debates reflecting renewed interest in cooperative production.

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