Dominance and Disintermediation: Subversive Stories and Counter-Narratives of Cooperation

54 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2018 Last revised: 15 Oct 2018

Date Written: September 28, 2018


Humans tell stories, and the stories they tell do many things. These stories communicate morals and norms and build morale. They establish orthodoxy and challenge it. They offer a narrative to make sense of the past and generate a vision of the future. Humans tell stories in and through the law as well. Clients provide their stories to their lawyers and the lawyers, in turn, narrate to juries. We make story-based pleas to judges and regulators. Stories inform our understanding of the law and law evolves as new stories and new narratives shape and color new visions for and versions of the law.

One of the stories in the law that is pervasive is that human nature is acquisitive and self-interested: that humans find it hard to cooperate to reach mutual ends. Because of this, we should protect ourselves from not just others, but, at times, ourselves. In property law, perhaps more than in most other areas of law, storytelling that speaks of the origins of property regimes, using phrases like the “state of nature” and the “Tragedy of the Commons,” among other themes, has been used to help explain and justify private property-based systems that often accomplish many things, including the preservation of a status quo that is rife with inequities and asymmetries of power and influence, and which is, in turn, highly resistant to change. This durability is, in part, a product of the attractiveness and perhaps intuitiveness of the narrative such stories convey.

There is a possible counter-narrative, however. This counter-narrative describes humans’ capacity for cooperation. It recognizes that we possess not just self-interest but also an appreciation for the value of cooperation; indeed, true self-interest, what Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest, rightly understood,” embraces that notion that our long-term well-being is fostered by cooperation, by thinking about long-term payoffs and by working collaboratively to achieve better overall outcomes.

This Article explores two issues around the use of narratives of cooperation and non-cooperation. The first is the idea that embedded in the research, literature, and scholarship on cooperation is the notion that humans do not just compete, but they also cooperate, despite the dominant narrative that cooperation is unlikely given the stories told about the selfishness of humans. While a counter-narrative of cooperation has always existed, it has likely been suppressed by both the hegemonic power and the attractiveness of narratives of non-cooperation to dominant elites. But this dominance and the capacity for dominance may be slipping. Indeed, the second idea I will attempt to explore here is the power that now exists for non-elites to tell the counter-narrative. New technologies are placing story-telling capacities in the hands of the many, democratizing the power of narrative. This disintermediation is creating the capacity for the emergence of new narratives of mutual care and cooperation. But these new tools do so much more than simply place the means of generating new narratives in the hands of the many. They also help individuals overcome the natural impediments to cooperation in the first place, the transaction costs associated with cooperative action that can lead to self-interested, non-cooperative behavior. This Article explores whether, when we have new communication and coordination tools at our disposal, such tools can help us communicate about and coordinate our cooperative ventures. I will examine whether these tools give us not just the ability to tell counter-narratives of cooperation but also a means of overcoming barriers to collective action itself.

Keywords: Narrative

JEL Classification: K1, K11

Suggested Citation

Brescia, Raymond H., Dominance and Disintermediation: Subversive Stories and Counter-Narratives of Cooperation (September 28, 2018). Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal, Vol. 27, 2018; Albany Law School Research Paper No. 18 for 2018-2019. Available at SSRN:

Raymond H. Brescia (Contact Author)

Albany Law School ( email )

80 New Scotland Avenue
Albany, NY 12208
United States

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