The Lords of the Flies
American Collapse’s Lesson for History and the World
My American friend Tucker stays late every night at his highly professional job every night and arrives early every morning. He’s not paid for it. He’s just expected to do it. I ask him, as someone who studies management and leadership, who tells him to. No one, he says. The expectation is just there. Lingering in the air, like an unspoken threat.
We often say that America is an experiment. But what is it an experiment in? Some will say “freedom”, but you can’t really say a country that’s been unsegregated for less than 25% of its history is an experiment in freedom. I think America is an experiment of a different kind. One that reveals a great truth about political economy to history and the world.
It is an experiment in the survival of the fittest.
America is a Darwinian organization. There are many kinds of organizations. Not all are Darwinian. Some are what I’d call Dionysian, like a nightclub. Some are Apollonion, aimed at achievement, like a great university. Only some are Darwinian — devoted to the survival of the fittest.
That phrase describes American history, don’t you think? First blacks and natives were dehumanized — they were “fit” only for hard labour, morally defective. Then immigrant whites of all kinds were too, “fit” only for menial jobs. Wherever you look at American history, you’ll see this idea of the survival of the fittest — all the way down to today, when the poor and weak are expected to simply and quite literally die in the streets, and the strong — the famous, the adored, the powerful — are rewarded by being allowed to take all. Why?
The idea behind all this — when there was a justification, that is — was that the rise of the fittest would somehow benefit everyone. It would yield superpeople: smarter, nicer maybe, stronger, better. Call it a trickle down theory of human potential. But it didn’t (that’s self-evident: every indicator of a good life is falling).
Instead, it yielded something else entirely: superpredators. What does the survival of the fittest yield in nature? It yields better and better predators. Evolution went from bacteria to jellyfish to sharks with giant teeth. The same is true in society. America has bred a new class of people: superpredators. They are congressmen who can throw tens of millions off healthcare without any moral concern. They are the super rich who watch a nation’s life expectancy fall and laugh. I’m not really judging them — OK, maybe a little. But mostly, I’m observing. And here’s what I see.
Remember my friend Tucker? America is a land ruled by little bullies now. Just think about it with me before you react patriotically. Americans are told by screaming bullies on the news what to think. They are hounded by bullying debt collectors owned by bullying banks. Their politicians who don’t represent them bully them into cowed submission, though they live the poorest lives in the rich world. They are bullied by bosses into overwork for little pay and almost no leisure time. It goes on and on and on.
The bullies, in turn, are ruled by bigger and bigger bullies. Until we get to the biggest bullies of them all — and right now, it’s painfully self-evident who they are. The biggest bullies. Superpredators. It’s not a coincidence. The experiment worked. But not in the way its architects intended. It didn’t end in superpeople.
Superpredators are what social survival of the fittest yields. Just as natural evolution yields sharks with bigger teeth. And when we look carefully, America is a society that prizes an evolutionary paradigm above all. People should “adapt” to “changes” in their “environment”. “Innovation”, “change”, “transformation” are all ways that the economy “evolves”. The result is a society that produces stronger, crueller, meaner predators.
But better predators are not people who are better human beings. So a “fitness criterion”, as biologists call it, some measure of selfish success, whether it is profit or baronial titles, isn’t sufficient to evoke human potential. Why not?
Do you remember William Golding’s Lord of the Flies? It’s one of my favourite books. And while you might think it’s about being kids being abandoned, I think there’s more to it. I think it’s a parable about the survival of the fittest. The boys kill Piggy — and that is when they lose their moral souls. Their little society, too, is Darwinian. Yet it doesn’t lead them anywhere but into the abyss.
Golding knew something that we have forgotten. Civilization, a process, a project, must — must — reject the Nietzschean idea of the survival of the fittest. It must prize greater things in human beings. The ability to dream, defy, love, forgive, create, rebel. That is where real human breakthroughs come from, whether in art, literature, science, or politics. That is where peace and prosperity, lie. To genuinely value human potential, life, possibility, is the opposite of the survival of the fittest.
Evolution is not a good answer to the questions of social organization and human potential. It can go in many directions. It can make dinosaurs, sharks, and only sometimes human beings with moral concerns. And even then the moral concerns of human beings must go against their evolutionary prerogatives, their animal spirits. Thus, when a quest for “fitness” makes carnivores of men, then society must be protected from it — not harnessed to it.
To apply the rule of the survival of the fittest to a society, to let evolution blinfly take its course, will naturally end in America. A land ruled by superpredators, where the average life has no hope left of fully living. The sharks, now that they have been bred, feast on the fish.
That is American collapse’s real lesson for history and the world.