The Struggle Between Capitalism, Communism and Pansophism
Explaining the necessary crisis to birth Society 4.0 — an evolutionary perspective
Elisabet Sahtouris is a wise, loving soul. She describes herself as an evolution biologist and futurist. She spends just as much time understanding humanity’s evolutionary past as she does looking to the future.
“The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.” — Winston Churchill
One of her popular talks is Celebrating Crisis, in which she explains that the natural evolutionary process of any living organism goes through seven stages, varying between competition and cooperation. She starts by showing how capitalists and communists have essentially been separated by two simple ideologies. Capitalists bought into the misunderstood Darwinian Natural Selection competition story¹ and communists preferred the Kropotkinian Mutual Aid cooperation story.
Sahtouris claims, though, that nature both competes and cooperates and that Darwin’s and Kropotkin’s ideas are half-system ideas that really should be melded together, in which the development of civilisations more closely resembles what happens in nature.
“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.”― Gregory Bateson
She describes the seven stages as follows:
- The evolution cycle starts with some kind of basic unity, which increases over time. For example, the homogenised minerals of the Earth’s crust, which then packaged itself into individual bacteria.
- As the process continues, we next witness individuation from the unity. For example, the bacteria form into a single, multi-celled organism.
- The process of individuation leads to tensions and conflicts among the different self-interests that arise (the Darwinian or capitalist part of the cycle).
- At some point the elbowing of other members of the species out of the way becomes too energy-expensive. An increasing scarcity of energy leads to unbearable conflict, so negotiations start to happen between different species or different individuals in the same species.
- After lengthy negotiations, you achieve resolutions to some of the conflicts.
- In the best case scenarios you not only resolve conflicts, but you also develop real cooperation to stop treating each other as enemies and to work on a mutually agreeable solution (the Kropotkinian or communist part of the cycle).
- In rare cases, the previously conflicted species manage to build a new, more complex unity. It is at this point where giant leaps in evolution occur. It is also at this point where cataclysms can and have occurred. There have been a total of 5 mass extinctions, proving that not all species make it past stage 3 in the cycle. There is a growing school of scientific thought that the Earth is in the middle of the sixth great extinction event in its history.
[1 Edit — Note added to provide clarity] — Darwin’s views on natural selection were largely misunderstood or intentionally inaccurately interpreted. The phrase “survival of the fittest” did not appear in Origin and was instead coined by the philosopher Herbert Spencer in 1864, five years after the publication of Origin. In Darwin’s subsequent book, The Descent of Man, he attempted to set the record straight by explaining that the brutal and bloody theory in Origin pertains only to a savage prehuman condition. Darwin spoke at length about caring for weaker members of society and felt that these urges towards helping the weak members was part of our evolved instinct of sympathy.
The intent of this essay is not to debate whether the theories of Darwin or Kropotkin were right or correctly interpreted. Rather, it is to show that two major ideologies were created — and have deeply impacted the evolution of society — when neither ideology accurately and completely reflects what happens in nature. If the topic of evolution interests you, read more about evolution myths.
Two Types of Ecosystem
Ecologists are fond of a theory called ecological succession, which is essentially a study of the process of change in species over time. The time scale can be decades (for example, after a wildfire), or even millions of years (for example, after a mass extinction).
The two ecosystems at opposite ends of their scale are the Pioneer Ecosystem and the Climax Ecosystem. Let’s look at the characteristics of each.
Pioneer species are hardy species which are the first to return to an area after a disturbance, such as forest fires, floods, woodcutting, or bulldozing.
- High consumption of scarce resources
- Invade territory
- Multiply wildly
- Highly competitive
A climax ecosystem is one that has reached a steady state, in which all species live in relative balance with no species either increasing or decreasing in relative size to the total ecosystem.
- Share resources
- Share territory
- Show concern for other species
- Highly cooperative
While these two ecosystems are usually used as references in ecological studies, you can perhaps see how this is a useful framework with which to analyse current events. Clearly we are seeing tension between a pioneer ecosystem (represented by Trump and the West’s military industrial complex) and a climax ecosystem (represented by activists and nations who adopt the communist ideology: Russia — yes: read how the US subverted early Russian moves toward democracy — China, North Korea and others.
How the Evolutionary Cycle Played Out in Past Societies
To recap the evolutionary journey of societies, we have witnessed three revolutions in humanity’s history, which resulted in three types of societies:
- Society 1: Agricultural Economy — Circa 10,000BC–1700’s (11,700 years)
- Society 2: Industrial Economy — Circa 1760–1960’s (200 years)
- Society 3: Information Economy — Circa 1950–today (68 years)
Let’s look at how each economy followed the Evolutionary Cycle from Competition to Cooperation.
Society 1: The Agricultural Economy
Hunting and gathering was humanity’s first and most successful adaptation, occupying at least 90 percent of human history. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers lived in groups that consisted of several families resulting in a size of a few dozen people (unity).
Some hunter-gatherers bands began to specialise, concentrating on hunting a smaller selection of (often larger) game and gathering a smaller selection of food. This specialisation of work also involved creating specialised tools such as fishing nets, hooks, and bone harpoons (individuation).
Depleted supplies of wild animals led to tension between nomadic tribes. Through trial and experimentation (negotiation), forest gardening started to be used as an alternative food production system. In the gradual process of families improving their immediate environment, useful tree and vine species were identified, protected and improved, whilst undesirable species were eliminated. Nomadic life slowly became more settled and the earliest forms of permanent structures were clustered together (cooperation). These early cities had no defensive walls and societies lived together peacefully — cooperatives built by tribal people.
Domestication and agriculture became the leap to higher complexity, creating the Agricultural Economy. Areas that were formerly available to hunter-gatherers were encroached upon by the settlements of agriculturalists and today very few hunter gatherers exist.
Society 2: Industrial Economy
The Agricultural Revolution made an increasingly larger population possible. Advances in tool production provided the basis for densely populated settlements (unity), specialisation and division of labour (individuation), more trade, the development of non-portable art and architecture, centralised administrations and political structures, hierarchical ideologies, depersonalised systems of knowledge (e.g. writing), and property ownership. Agriculture brought about deep social divisions and encouraged inequality between the sexes (tension). Food surpluses made possible the development of a social elite who were not otherwise engaged in agriculture.
Those who were not involved in agriculture were freed up to work on ideas which allowed a transition from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system (negotiation). Textiles were the dominant industry of the Industrial Revolution in terms of employment (resolution and cooperation), value of output and capital invested.
New opportunities brought huge numbers of migrants from rural communities into urban areas and so urbanisation became the leap to higher complexity, creating the Industrial Economy.
Society 3: Information Economy
The Industrial Revolution led to a huge increase in urbanisation. In 1800, only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, compared to nearly 50% today (unity). However, many found themselves suddenly unemployed since they could no longer compete with machines which only required relatively limited (and unskilled) labour to produce (individuation). Many such unemployed workers turned their animosity towards the machines that had taken their jobs and began destroying factories and machinery. In addition, there was increasing concern about pollution of the environment (tension).
It was during this time that the Western world overcame pre-modern growth constraints and emerged during the 19th century as the most powerful and wealthy world civilisation, eclipsing Medieval India, Qing China, the Islamic World, and Tokugawa Japan. Some of the effects were empire building (from national empires to corporate empires), colonialism and luxury consumption — all signs of a Pioneer Ecosystem.
The tensions caused by unemployment due to factories led to the birthing of an entirely new industry, which included the personal computer, the internet, and information and communications technology (negotiation, resolution and cooperation). Digitisation became the leap to higher complexity, creating the Information Economy, in which the top 10 tech companies will exceed $1 trillion in revenue in 2018.
Where to Now — Society 4.0
We’re now at a point when humanity’s empire-building phase has become too energy-expensive. We’ve reached planetary limits (and in many cases exceeded them), in using up natural resources in the building of a Pioneer Ecosystem. We’ve created a perfect storm of crises and now is the time for us to reach the mature, cooperative phase. We desperately need the next leap to higher complexity. Since the dot-com crash we’ve experienced individuation (mainly in Silicon Valley), and there is growing tension and conflict globally. It’s unlikely that current world leaders have the wherewithal to navigate themselves out of the complexity they so desperately want to continue supporting, and so there appears to be no hope of negotiation, resolution and cooperation. Trump, for example, defiantly ended negotiation by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement.
What we need is an entirely new story for humanity, one that embraces both competition and cooperation. It won’t be capitalism and it won’t be communism, or any kind of existing -ism. It will be something entirely new, so we don’t even know what to call it yet. I like the idea of pansophism — universal knowledge, wisdom, understanding and transparency. I see emerging strategic technologies like Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Blockchain, Internet of Things and Cryptocurrency enabling this kind of society. It will be a society organised around the scientific method and data-driven governance, where social engagement at every level is fully transparent.
There’s no way existing power structures will build the platforms for this kind of society. It’s up to us, and time is running out.