Thursday, October 18, 2012

Anarchy, Human Nature, And The Future


I first became aware of the works of Peter Kropotkin when I was writing my article on French market gardening and it's role in today's post Peak Oil world. I didn't know much about Kropotkin or his ideas, but reading just a bit of his book Fields, Factories and Workshops, I was intrigued. I was especially interested in his exploration of new technology and social systems, and how they allowed less hierarchical societies based on cooperation rather than coercion to form. I was also interested in his ideas that nature is based on cooperative, symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationships rather than a relentless ruthless completion for resources by every single organism against every other organism. This confirmed much of what I had seen elsewhere and learned through Permaculture. I made a note to read more of Kropotkin, because it seemed like his ideas were an ideal philosophy for our time, one in which people had lost faith in both big business and big government, with both becoming equally tyrannical and coercive (and seemingly indistinguishable, even in so-called "democracies"). Thus I eventually planned on writing some entries on it (writing is how I make sense of things).

But Dmitry Orlov has beaten me to it, and probably done a far better job. In a series of three posts, he discusses Kropotkin's work, anarchic versus hierarchical companies, and the ideal size of cities, governments and economic systems. If you have not read it already, check it out (and thanks to whoever posted a link here in the comments of part 1).

I do want to clear up one common misconception that I see a lot. I don't think anarchism is meant to eschew any hierarchy or chain-of-command whatsoever. Trust me, nothing ever gets done that way. Anarchy comes from the Greek an + archos, meaning "without rulers." Note that it does not mean "without leaders." There is a difference. Leaders lead. Rulers rule. Leaders lead by example. Rulers rule by force. Leaders have followers. Rulers have subjects. Leaders lead by the choice and consent of the people they lead based upon skill. Rulers rule based on the naked exercise of power, even if they are incompetent, hated and despised by others. Humans have, and probably always will have leaders. But do we need rulers? If so why? One can find plenty of leaders in nature, as in a wolf pack or baboon troop, but rulers seem to be a uniquely human characteristic.

Anyway, it gives me a chance to post this stray link that I've been meaning to post forever: The Growing Fabrication of Anarchie. It discusses an idea I hear alot - the idea that the distributed systems made possible by technology such as the internet, 3D Printing, Makespaces, local energy production (photovoltaics and wind power), et. al. allow for Kropotkin's ideas of  localized appropriate-scale economies of mutual aid to form. See also Jeremy Rifkin's ideas of a third industrial revolution.

Finally, this study can enlighten the discussion. Some scientists looked at left versus right handedness as a model of cooperation versus competition. The idea is that left handers have an advantage in competition; right handers in cooperation. The distribution of each predicts to what degree we are competitive versus cooperative:
"The more social the animal -- where cooperation is highly valued -- the more the general population will trend toward one side," said Abrams, an assistant professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. "The most important factor for an efficient society is a high degree of cooperation. In humans, this has resulted in a right-handed majority."

If societies were entirely cooperative everyone would be same-handed, Abrams said. But if competition were more important, one could expect the population to be 50-50. The new model can predict accurately the percentage of left-handers in a group -- humans, parrots, baseball players, golfers -- based on the degrees of cooperation and competition in the social interaction.

The model helps to explain our right-handed world now and historically: the 90-10 right-handed to left-handed ratio has remained the same for more than 5,000 years. It also explains the dominance of left-handed athletes in many sports where competition can drive the number of lefties up to a disproportionate level.

Cooperation favors same-handedness -- for sharing the same tools, for example. Physical competition, on the other hand, favors the unusual. In a fight, a left-hander in a right-handed world would have an advantage.

Abrams and Panaggio turned to the world of sports for data to support their balance of cooperation and competition theory. Their model accurately predicted the number of elite left-handed athletes in baseball, boxing, hockey, fencing and table tennis -- more than 50 percent among top baseball players and well above 10 percent (the general population rate) for the other sports.

On the other hand, the number of successful left-handed PGA golfers is very low, only 4 percent. The model also accurately predicted this.

"The accuracy of our model's predictions when applied to sports data supports the idea that we are seeing the same effect in human society," Abrams said.

Handedness, the preference for using one hand over the other, is partially genetic and partially environmental. Identical twins, who share exactly the same genes, don't always share the same handedness.

"As computers and simulation become more widespread in science, it remains important to create understandable mathematical models of the phenomena that interest us, such as the left-handed minority," Abrams said. "By discarding unnecessary elements, these simple models can give us insight into the most important aspects of a problem, sometimes even shedding light on things seemingly outside the domain of math."
Which was also the point of Dmitry's third installment. My hunch is that this is about right - we are about ninety percent cooperative and ten percent competitive. After all, sports games would be pretty boring if we weren't competitive, and we can't all sleep with Anne Hathaway. We should encourage some degree of healthy competition. But the hypercompetitive, winner-take-all, Ayn Rand, everyone against everyone type of society so favored by conservatives and libertarians can only lead to destruction. There is nothing "natural" about it.

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