The flaws in the competition-is-good-for-you logic
Part of the picture, and many of the issues raised here by others like DWAnderson, No More Neos, Matt Beaven and others are valid enough in a sense.
Selfish Gene remains the only book I have ever read cover to cover twice in one day, which I did in 1978. It was and is that profound to me.
It was the first and best account I have found of the evolution of cooperation, and the profound and complex roles of cooperation in the emergence of complexity, and the profound uncertainty that comes with complex systems.
Applying that way of looking at and thinking about recursively more abstract systems has been fascinating.
Looking at how human beings develop as individuals, both physically and intellectually, from simplicity to complexity, and in both cases from profoundly complex starting points.
A baby may be simple in comparison to an adult, but it is still a profoundly complex assemblage of cells, with many levels of complex control systems maintaining its existence.
It gets born into and implicitly absorbs cultural constructs which have evolved over deep time (hundreds of thousands of years), and contain many subconscious levels of embodied knowledge and wisdom.
Our intellectual understanding of our own complexity lags far behind our physical manifestation of that complexity in the ways we act in our lives.
When one puts in the decades of study and experience required to gain some beginnings of a comprehension of uncertainty, logic, mathematics, cosmology, geology, chemistry, biochemistry, complexity, computation, communication, strategy, etc, one starts to see the recursive role of cooperation in the evolutionary emergence of new levels of complexity.
And when one can see the different sorts of environments our ancestors have had to survive in then it is no surprise that we contain vast suites of behavioural systems that are very context sensitive in their expression.
Yes we can be (and are) the most cooperative species we know of, provided there is enough for everyone and provided we see social justice in action.
And we can all compete for survival if that seems necessary, and punish transgressors if that feels appropriate.
What some are starting to wake up to, is that promoting conditions that force most into conditions of competitive survival can unleash deep seated drives to destroy the perceived source of such social injustice, and that such forces are an existential risk to all.
We have the technical capacity to deliver a world where every individual has the material goods and services, and the social freedom, to do whatever they responsibly choose; and that word “responsibly” is key.
We have to acknowledge the reality of complexity, that complex systems require boundaries.
It is our cell walls that give our cells form. Without cell walls there would be only ocean.
And our cell walls are not hard and impervious, they are flexible and selectively permeable, sometimes with active transport. Complex systems require complex boundaries. Hard impervious walls are not a useful response to complexity.
Our neural networks have the characteristic of seeking simplicity, particularly when under stress, but too much simplicity is actually an existential risk in a world that actually has profound levels of complexity.
We live in times of exponential change.
Our technology now gives us the ability to fully automate the production and delivery of a large and exponentially expanding set of goods and services.
And we did not culturally evolve in such a world.
Our recent cultural evolution has been in a world dominated by scarcity.
We used markets as a place to exchange things which we had in relative abundance for things that were scarce for us.
The abstract notion of money as a store of value worked for us in that reality. It helped. It was a useful myth.
Division of labour led to increases in productivity and increasing wealth.
Now things are changing fundamentally.
Fully automated systems allow us to deliver universal abundance.
Universal abundance always has zero value in a market.
So universal abundance destroys the abstract notion of market value (money), reduces profit.
Automation and market value are now at the point of being fundamentally antagonistic.
In the search for simple answers, people resort to demonising those with different ideas.
That cannot help.
It is not a viable approach, however emotionally appealing it may be.
Our reality demands that we understand evolution.
It demands that we accept the complexity present, and the need for diversity and cooperation.
Failure to accept any of those realities will produce risk, and at the extremes that risk is existential for all of us.
We live in the most profoundly complex and rapidly changing times this world has yet experienced.
From the 43 years I have been investigating the question “what sort of social, political and technical institutions are required to allow potentially very long lived individuals to have a reasonable probability of actually living a very long time?” I am now clear, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt, that the answer to that question lies in accepting two fundamental values – with both the rights and responsibilities that are embodied in them:
1/ A universal respect for sapient life (human and non-human, biological and non-biological); and
2/ A universal respect for the liberty of all sapient individuals (acknowledging that such liberty has boundaries required to deliver life and liberty to all, and that such boundaries will be ever evolving in constantly evolving complex systems with ever emergent new levels of complexity and experience).
In practice that means being aware of the needs of living ecosystems and of diverse and rapidly changing cultures.
And part of that is acknowledging that as conscious human beings, we have no direct access to reality, and the reality of our conscious experience seems (beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt) to be a subconsciously created model of reality that is instantiate by a mix of genetic and cultural constructs, as mediated by our physical experience in reality and our conscious (and subconscious) experience in the model.
We are in part entities of culture and habit, and in part creative beings capable of choice and creativity beyond anything in our past.
There can be no certainty in such a reality.
The illusions of Truth and certainty that children must begin with, must be given up as adults, for acceptance of the uncertainty of living in a reality that seems to be a balance between order and chaos at every level of existence.
Too much order, and we experience boredom.
Too much chaos, and we experience anxiety.
Where we each place that border, in different contexts, will be a profoundly complex function involving our levels of understanding, experience, culture, biology and choice.
The world beyond money and markets is a world of complexity beyond imagining.
That complexity must be accepted, even as it must be accepted that it cannot be fully understood.
And in the sense of strategic responses appropriate, it is clear that cooperation is the only response that offers a reasonable probability of survival. And within that fundamentally cooperative context, we can find creative outlets for our competitive aspects. And having written that – I’m off to play golf 😉