Cooperatives and Butler’s Communities pt. 1 (revised)

The Rochdale principles are a set of guidelines on how to operate a cooperative. They date back to 1844 when they were first drafted and enacted by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in Rochdale, England. They are as follows:

Voluntary and open membership


Motivations and rewards

Democratic member control

Member economic participation

Autonomy and independence

Education, training and information

Cooperation among cooperatives

Concern for community


The Genesee Valley Co-op, located on 23 North Street in Geneseo, has a poster in the kitchen with these principles printed on it. The GVC is currently enjoying its fifth year of operations as a housing cooperative providing students with low rent, in-house meals and community engagement.


The Co-op is where I have lived for the past year, and I’ve had friends living here for every year before that. I am interested in talking about how this version of community-idealization might mirror or diverge from the smaller, isolated, intentionally-designed communities found in Butler’s fiction.


Off the bat I see one principal similarity between cooperative communities and the communities in Butler’s fiction: Both are communities working in cooperation with one another to accomplish something. In a housing cooperative like the GVC, we are a community of nine people working in cooperation with each other to have house dinners four nights a week, to keep the house clean and low-cost, to be sustainable, to do good community work, etc. I guess I’m trying to suggest that that exchange between members is not that different than the cooperation that happens in the Ina communities in Fledgling or the colony in Clay’s Ark, or the human separatist communities in Lilith’s Brood.


In all of these cases members of the communities take pains not to draw any attention to where they are. In Fledgling, the Ina have used their non-human advantages to create secret spaces for themselves outside the world’s human societies. This is done both out of survival and intention – it allows them a background from which to conceal their existence and conduct their business. Additionally, the smaller community of Shori, her symbionts and anyone else close to her also has to remain secretive because they are being hunted by an unknown and deadly force throughout the book.


In Clay’s Arc, the colony members are all connected by the alien virus they share. Because of the impossible-to-ignore urges that the virus forces on its host, the spread of the virus would spell certain doom for humankind at large. Because of this, the colony is designed as a means to suppress the spread of the virus by any means necessary.


In Lilith’s Brood, once humans have been reintroduced to Earth from the Oankali ship, they are presented with an ultimatum: Either take part in the re-habitation of the planet via Human-Oankali mating, or live as humans free of the Oankali but without the ability to create human children of their own. The Oankali do not apply any force (beyond the inherent force of their superior capabilities which make them vastly superior to humans) in the execution of this ultimatum. The Humans who do not partake are sentenced to un-humanly long lives with no future, so to speak. Still, enough humans choose this route as to form entire communities where they have the illusion of freedom from the Oankali.


In all these cases, the communities need something from the larger world that they are also hiding from. In Fledgling, the Ina need new Symbionts to feed off of. In Clay’s Arc, the infected cannot resist the virus’ urges entirely, meaning they infect new people in as close to a controlled method as they possibly can. In Lilith’s Brood, the separatist humans are desperate for children, which lends them to the delusions that the Oankali or the humans who mate with them have wholly human children that can be stolen and adopted by the separatists.


As for the GVC, we instead try to make ourselves very visible because, not unlike Butler’s communities, what we need from the larger community is new members. This diverges interestingly from another consistent source of tension in the communities in Butler’s fiction: that these communities would not grow if prospective members knew what they were getting into before they entered.


In Fledgling, the first human that Shori makes a symbiant of is completely, utterly unaware of the ways this Ina will change his life, and render him unable to ever resist or leave. The rest of the book’s evidence surrounding Ina finding human mates suggests that there is no getting around the fact that human Symbionts are selected and made unable to resist before they are ever able to fully comprehend their being stuck.


In Clay’s arc, the virus-granted abilities of increased strength, sensory perception, agility, etc. might initially sound appealing to mere humans, but these gains come at the cost of self-control. The virus demands of its host that it is spread, and this manifests in something like a blinding lust, a sort of carnal hunger that does not make time for human conventions of decency such as respect for consent.


This convention is hinted at again in Bloodchild, where Gan is ignorant to the true nature of his family’s relationship to T’Gatoi until by chance he witnesses an older boy without a Tlic, and comes to understand that he too was being set up to carry Tlic eggs and engage in this violent, bloody birth.


The only work in Butler’s Fiction that we’ve read which breaks from this convention is Lilith’s Brood. In this case, the Oankali do everything in their power to both inform and brace humans for their new reality before even allowing themselves to be seen. Even this is only a slight break of the earlier convention, because the Oankali tell their truth over an extended period of time, centuries, so that there is no outrightly intended falsehood told about the circumstances. Still, human’s fill in their own rationalizations as they come to understand their new reality, which makes them believe they’re being lied to by omission when in (the Oankali’s) reality they’re being spoon-fed truths at a pace which will not overwhelm or incapacitate them.


So, all this goes to establish that the communities in butler’s fiction share certain traits with human cooperatives. Namely: intentional community, cooperation as means to an end. Butler’s communities and cooperatives diverge in one key aspect, being the coercive control, manipulation or limiting of information by the smaller community which the larger community and prospective members are powerless against.


Coops and most other organizations with socially-progressive agendas generally stack their information forward because, perhaps like a virus trying spread to other organisms, the belief is that good ideas which help the most people are or ought to be contagious ideas. Despite the good intentions which each community in Butler’s fiction has, they cannot be as forthcoming with information. I believe what this suggests is that information accessibility is not enough, and perhaps Butler’s fiction partially serves to demonstrate how certain things change, certain opinions matter more or less before or after experience has been had. What I’m trying to say is that Butler’s communities demonstrate how information is no substitute for experience, and sometimes certain information can only be communicated correctly via experience.

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