Thursday, 4 April 2019

Sleeping Giants

I don't think I've written a social blog post before, here, but I read the article Why the Anglo World is Collapsing by Umair Haque today (Thursday, 2019/4/4) and felt it was important and valuable, but also not quite on the mark in every respect. So I wrote this response. (This is a slightly expanded version of a comment I left on Umair's article.) I encourage people to read the original article.

I share Umair's deep concerns, but I think assigning the cause to the ‘Anglo idea of superiority’ is off the mark. As others have commented on the article, the US and Britain are not the only countries facing very similar problems, and I’d note that Australia, which is another ‘Anglo country’, though more multi-cultural, is not in such dire straits. The imminent Federal election here will likely determine whether we follow the US down its current path, or stay true to our own ideals of mateship and a fair go for all.

I read a fascinating essay by the biologist Stephen Jay Gould, titled “Kropotkin was no Crackpot”, in which he noted that for many people, only the “Nature red in tooth in claw” message in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was absorbed, elevating the concept of competition to stand alone on the peak. Western societies largely overlooked the part of the theory that noted that co-operation frequently occurs in nature, too. The Russians, perhaps having more experience of living things surviving in harsh conditions, were much more attuned to the idea that co-operation is often necessary for survival.

Around 2010, I saw a study which compared Japanese, Australian, and US business cultures, along multiple dimensions. One stand-out fact was that in the areas of the individual vs the group, and co-operation vs competition, Japan lay near one end of the spectrum, the US at the opposite end, and Australia was about halfway between. I think a reasonable mix of the two is far healthier than valuing one and disregarding the other.

I have heard it argued that toxic capitalism is the cause of the problem (not Superiority), and that capitalism only emerged as a result of the religious idea of Predestination — that God knew each individual’s destiny, and what happened in their life was not something that could be changed. So success and failure was not something that could be altered by helping (or hurting) another, and that in turn led to the concept that fair compensation for work done was unnecessary. That divorced labour from a fair share in the profits of that labour. The extreme end result of this is the situation we find ourselves in globally, where a tiny percentage of the population owns the vast majority of the world’s wealth, despite the fact that that wealth was created by the efforts of billions of people over centuries of effort. It can only be rationally accepted if the wealthy believe, however falsely, in their innate superiority over others.

Anglo societies also place the rule of law above all, education for all, and equality. So do many other societies (all other healthy societies, I would argue). That these values are being eroded nowadays is not due to an Anglo belief in superiority. They’re being eroded by greed; by powerful elites who have been co-operating among themselves to “Manufacture Consent” among the majority (thanks, Noam Chomsky), and to influence policy and law makers to tilt the playing field in their favour (read “Winner Take All Politics” — it’s a heartbreaking eye-opener).

Personally, I think the problem Umair has written about has several causes, and he has attributed far too much to a single one of those.

I also think that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are right in saying that courage can fix this, in our lifetimes (within ten years?) — though it will need “Moon Shot” levels of courage, determination, and effort. I also agree 100% with Umair (and AOC!) that the zero sum thinking is a big part of the problem. How anyone can believe that zero sum conditions apply to social systems, or the world’s wealth, boggles my mind. Billions of people around the world are building and creating and inventing and helping one another. Humanity is fantastically wealthier than it was a thousand years ago, a hundred years ago, twenty years ago. It sometimes seems not so, because the 1% have taken so much of that for themselves. So, new thinking, like the New Green Deal, or Kate Raworth’s economic Donut Theory, Modern Monetary Theory, is needed to solve the problem.

At heart it’s so simple, too. Co-operation and respect is all that’s needed: for each other, and for this precious planet. Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You. Basic goodness. How can that message still not have sunk in, after two thousand years? It’s because of the power of stories.

If you’re in one lifeboat, where everyone is paddling in their own direction, where are you going to be compared to a second lifeboat where everyone has agreed to paddle in the same direction?

Another thing, too: one of humanity’s greatest strengths—the desire to socialise and belong to a group—is also our biggest weakness, when we exclude others because they’re not enough like us to be included in our group. And stories are the basis of the group identity, determining who is inside, and who is outside and alien.

The Pen really is mightier than the Sword. The stories we tell ourselves control our fate: and if we believe lies that destroy our societies rather than truths that lift us all collectively, then we have only ourselves to blame. (I remember an advanced driver training course instructor saying: “If you’re ever sliding, out of control, and see a tree ahead, don’t look at it. Look at the gap you need to get through. If you look at the tree, that’s where you’ll end up.”)

So, the stories we tell ourselves, and the fact that a powerful few have been actively co-operating to push down the majority to better themselves. In my experience, 5% of people are bad. They will take what they can without respect for others, and we let them creep into power and poison our institutions at our own risk. That’s why the US founding fathers said “The price of Democracy is eternal vigilance.” Because there really are some bad people out there, and some of them are smart, and charismatic. If we don’t oppose them when we find them, they institutionalise their mindset and corrupt all those around them.

It’s time for the sleeping giant of the vast majority to wake up and step onto the playing field.

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