Cooperation or complicity

According to Karl Marx “crime must not be punished in the individual, but the anti-social source of crime must be destroyed” (p.154). Liberal democracies modify this to something like: crime must not only be punished in the individual, but the social sources of crime must be held to account.

So the liberal press directs anger at the murderer, but also the social services who didn’t heed the warnings. It targets the colonizing powers responsible for the situation in Pakistan that provokes the Taliban to extreme violence, or the BBC executives who apparently let Jimmy Savile get away with it. Such is the nature of collective complicity, and guilt.

But can you be complicit in something totally positive, good and edifying? People cooperate in groups to achieve goals. They are also capable of accomplishing tasks in ways that operate outside normative frameworks, whether legal frameworks, social customs or self-imposed rules.

Grey markets

The self-organising, micro-economic practices of the local market provide something like a model. “Black” and “grey” market activities are usually highly organised, yet invisible to non-participants. A few years ago colleagues and I conducted a study into how market sellers in a particular public market compete for attention to their stalls and wares.

Crowd in an open air market. Faces are occluded.The market we investigated is notorious as a site of hustling and illegal trading that attracts both bargain hunters and spectators. On more than one visit we observed a familiar scenario involving the sale of bootlegged CDs.

A seller positioned himself at the crossing of two major thoroughfares. He had a foldable table covered in a tablecloth on which he laid out the CDs. He was soon surrounded by a small crowd of potential buyers.

Before long a lookout signalled a warning. The products (CDs) were scooped into the tablecloth and spirited away. The table was carried speedily off the street, and the sellers and crowd continued as if nothing had happened. A few minutes later, two police personnel strolled along the street on their customary patrol.

The lookout had signalled a warning of the police approach. Such complicit practices can’t be written down. Were guidelines for such practices to appear in print (tactics, names of the participants, lists of products and advertisements) then traces would be laid for ready detection. The game would move into a different arena, of evidence, action and reaction by regulatory authorities. Complicity works best if there are no written records. It’s an aural thing.

So market sellers cooperate (conspire) with one another, especially in the case of illicit goods, where the sellers operate as lookouts for one another, and openly share anecdotes about their encounters with the regulators. Successfully evading the authorities serves their common interest, even where sellers are in direct competition.

This is a practice also termed coopetition, a hybrid between cooperation and competition. Competing interests cooperate to increase the gain to all, providing a bigger space (a “bigger pie”) to carve up, and in which to operate and compete.

Classical economics assumes that market conditions tend towards stability, abetted by open and sufficient information for rational decision-making. But markets are unstable, riddled with secrets, and even tarry at the edge of legality. For some economic theorists this is the “reality” of much commercial activity anyway. Many market sellers and buyers participate in the kind of tricky off-beat economics brought to our attention by the economist Steven Levitt, and characterised as Freakonomics.

Benign transgressions

It’s worth thinking about complicity, ahead of cooperation, as a means of understanding complex social systems. Marketplaces are characterized not only by cooperation in rule-governed environments, but complicity between players as a means of breaking rules, working at the boundaries of formal frameworks, avoiding other people, such as law enforcers, and even working with them in tacitly agreed evasion strategies.

Google maps aerial view of busy crossroads in the market, showing buildings and people.Now shift this approach to everyday organisation. Can someone be complicit to wholly positive ends — working against the grain, against the rules, within the interstices between the norms of “right” behaviour?

Complicity might just mean clandestine cooperation against the rules laid down by a corrupt organisation, or simply an organisation or society with arbitrary rules, or rules that are ready to be challenged, or for which the only penalty for breach is slight social embarrassment. This positive kind of complicity is hidden, operating at the margins and in the gaps. Though tacit, it can be highly organised, and is sometimes missed by the rhetoric of crowd power.

Due to their inevitable participation in the culture of text, digital social media leave traces. Their role in the circulation of complicit practices is therefore limited, or perhaps social media just provide a supplement to what’s really going on — what takes place in corridors, behind closed doors, in the home, in bed, in private conversations, off line, in grey markets, and wherever people agree what needs to be done.


  • Axelrod, Robert. 1990. The Evolution of Co-operation. London: Penguin
  • Coyne, Richard. 2005. Cornucopia Limited: Design and Dissent on the Internet. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 284 pages.
  • Coyne, Richard, Raymond Lucas, Jia Li, Martin Parker, and John Lee. 2007. Co-operation and complicity: Voices, robots, and tricksters in the digital marketplace. International Journal of Architectural Computing (IJAC), (5) 1, 161-175.
  • Hyde, Lewis. 1998. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art. New York: North Point Press
  • Laurence, Peter, and Raymond Hull. 1969. The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. New York: William Morrow and Company
  • Levitt, Steven, and Stephen J. Dubner. 2005. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. London: Penguin
  • Marx, Karl. 1977. The holy family. In D. McClellan (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings: 131-155. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Surowiecki, James. 2005. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few. New York: Anchor Books

Also see Interpretive communities, Mad crowds disease, Hermeneutics and ethics.


  • Here’s a fuller quote from Marx: “… crime must not be punished in the individual, but the anti-social source of crime must be destroyed, and each man must be given social scope for the vital manifestation of his being. If man is shaped by his surroundings, his surroundings must be made human. If man is social by nature, he will develop his true nature only in society, and the power of his nature must be measured not by the power of separate individuals but by the power of society” (p.154).
  • Here’s just one example of a benign complicit practice: the family that conspires to preserve the illusion to their mother that the Iron Curtain still exists (in the film Goodbye Lenin). Then there’s the corollary to the Peter Principle that many important decisions end up being taken by the people lower down in an organisation’s hierarchy. The people at the top prevaricate about company policy, whereas the people lower down have do what they think best, or easiest. It’s through invisible, complicit practices that things get done.
  • It’s no coincidence that the sale of bootlegged CDs described above occurred at the crossroads of the market. Lewis Hyde describes the Trickster thus: “He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town (the one where a little market springs up). He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither” (p.6).
  • Yesterday, a newspaper editor interviewed on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, commended Britain as a “nation of Del Boys,” invoking the myth of the cunning Cockney micro-entrepreneur. Will that get us out of recession?
  • In summary, complicity is a kind of cooperation that goes undetected, leaves few traces, and works against the prevailing rules and norms of the society in which it operates. It’s transgressive, but as anyone in politics, design and the creative arts knows, this is not always a bad thing.

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