Paradoxes of Cooperation

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In a wonderfully thought-provoking lecture, Alain de Botton discusses the morality of capitalism. In what would sound like an oxymoron, de Botton suggests that capitalism—driven by self-interested  consumption—fulfills a greater moral objective through creating a level of prosperity for the masses that was unparalleled by other socioeconomic systems. Describing a social theory illustrated by the Anglo-Dutch philosopher, political economist and satirist Bernard Mandeville in his most famous book The Fable of the Bees, de Botton persuades us that the pursuit of individual vices (e.g., luxurious consumption, gambling, crime) is the greatest act of social beneficence we can cooperatively undertake. In a ribald gesture towards the Christian tenet of charity, Mandeville—via de Botton—suggests that it is these selfish individual behaviors that paradoxically fund entire institutions (i.e., retail, entertainment and legal), which in turn generates work for a cadre of people (i.e., workers) who are consequently afforded with their own capital to fund their own projects and improve their own standards of living. This ideology predicated Adam Smith’s invisible hand, although it is curious that Smith himself lamented the social ills of a “commercial society.” But this is besides the point. More interestingly perhaps is that capitalism is a feat of human cooperation on a scale never seen before. It is through money—that paragon of social trust—that labor becomes fungible and tradable for all manner of goods and services. This vast expansion of cooperation over trade and bartering economy opened up new markets for consumption, which in turn generated demand for more labor.

de Botton is characteristically hard on the vices of romanticism. However it should be noted here that our apparently universal longings for friendship, esteem, freedom, equality, and mental clarity (which de Botton recalls as Epicurean ‘pleasures’) have been historically thwarted—and thus exacerbated—by the our alienation from the pre-existing social and religious orders that characterized what de Botton calls ‘pre-modern’ times. Now, we find ourselves as lonely actors, without society, thrust into a market that exploits these strivings by selling us on the promise of ideals not unlike those expressed in the Age of Romanticism. It is interesting that de Botton does not lay out direct comparisons between Classical ideals and those of the Romantics, which seemed in some ways derivative of neoclassicism. Left to fend for ourselves in matters of love and work, our fragile, wounded egos will inevitably choose the wrong partners (thereby funding several institutions, i.e., law, psychology, prostitution, liquor, pornography etc.) as we chase after remediation and escape. A frustrated libido, as Freud might say, spurs narcissism and narcissism spurs conspicuous consumption which in turn drives the engines of capitalism leading to increasing social cooperation and public beneficence. Capitalism thus appears to owe some homage to Romanticism, just as Romanticism may owe some homage to Epicureanism. Even the very political concept of alienation—something that de Botton claims was a foreign idea in premodern times—may have its champion in a Romantic ideal that suggests work be wedded to passion. It can also be argued that Romanticism may have generated the narcissism required for self-interest and the production of capitalism while also undermining the very operations of capitalism by engendering a spirit of alienation amongst the proletariat who were the supposed benefactors of the bourgeois.

Despite these flaws, we all should take capitalism seriously as well as the cooperation implied within it. The moral implication, de Botton suggests, is that cooperation based on the principles of self-interest/insecurity and efficiency-oriented work is far more societally benevolent than religiously-informed convictions of charity, modesty, and meaning-oriented work. The global gains in standards of living achieved over the last 200 years amongst the developed nations lends great credibility to this thesis. However, have we reached the apotheosis of this system? Are we at a point at which efficiency diverges from prosperity? The cracks are beginning to show. The evidence for the prevailing theory appears weighted in the concept of the Gross Domestic Product and its adoption as the gold-standard measure of a nation’s welfare and wellbeing. Even from its earliest days however, there were many criticisms about just how well this measure of monetary success actually corresponded with average living realities. Currently, there are charges from environmentalists, healthcare workers, educators, humanitarians and even economists alleging that increases in GDP do not necessarily correspond to increases in standards of living or quality of life. In fact, the evidence is now mounting that job creation is not in fact synonymous with wealth distribution. It may have been true at one time in the early stages of capitalism—Faust’s bargain for the dark, satanic mills—but as capitalism becomes more efficient, it’s apparent byproduct is not wealth but increased consumption. And not only does consumption ravage us—regardless of socioeconomic class/caste—with waste and want; but efficiencies themselves may threaten to undo the very freedoms that launched the capitalist/democratic enterprise. In other words, ‘conspicuous consumption’ may have generated jobs for the butcher, maker and candlestick maker but the extreme efficiencies demanded by this economy are now displacing those very jobs in favor of mechanization, gig work, and outsourced labor. Thorstein Veblen, the economist who coined the term conspicuous consumption, believed that modern consumptive patterns (which he considered to be inefficiencies) could be remedied by increasing efficiencies in production and service delivery. He wrote about empowering a ‘soviet’ corps of engineers with the goal of reforming society with such efficiencies in mind. However, history has not been kind to his assumptions; what we in fact see is that cooperative efficiencies actually exacerbate consumption and what’s more, it may also be the case that efficiencies lead directly to forms of totalitarianism, including fascism. There is an excellent modern myth that captures the fallacy of allowing production to reach viral forms of efficiency.

Another great thinker on cooperation, the writer Yuval Noah Harari, discusses the threat of fascism in the modern technological age. The historian of humankind argues that fascism was a mutation of nationalism—which itself shaped social organization into very complex and thriving cooperatives, far more diverse and capable than the tribal units of paleolithic and early agrarian times. However, in the early ages of industrialization and capitalism, the monarchies, feudal systems and dictatorships were far less efficient than decentralized business enterprises competing for the consumer’s self-interest. This bias towards efficiency resulted in massive economic and political shifts. As Harari put it, “in the 20th century, democracy and capitalism defeated fascism and communism because democracy was better at processing data and making decisions. Given 20th century technology it was simply inefficient to try and concentrate data in one place.” However, with the rise of artificial intelligence and global conglomerates, that reality is now changing. Harari argues that it is currently more efficient to house data in central agencies, which employ vast overreach into the public and personal spheres (again echoing the point that the personal is always the political). In fact, Harari predicts that the dictatorships of the future will not rule by force and coercion but rather by altering the very shape of our desire. Less 1984 and more Brave New World. This means that as efficiencies in work increase, our very desires—considered so unique to ourselves and perhaps our Romantic worldviews—no longer simply exploit the world to drive the creation of jobs and wealth but are rather exploited themselves into further proliferating the discipline and control of a state/corporation, which would have a monopoly on the new currency of psych-data. 

As expected, de Botton anticipates these concerns. He cites the work of economist Vilfredo Pareto and suggests that when economies become extremely cooperative and specialized, we lose the capacity for meaningful work. Work becomes hyperspecialized extensions of efficiency. Instead of becoming a craftsman, for example, one enters the workforce as either a wingnut manufacturer, distributor, chemist, or salesman, etc.—one cog-maker in a massive productive machine. We can all agree with de Botton’s assertion that most of us would strive to not simply work for wealth but also for meaning. According to de Botton—following Pareto—meaningful work is defined as activity that directly produces conditions that result in either the increase in satisfaction or the decrease in suffering of others. But would these meaning-making activities, strictly speaking, be defined as inefficiencies in a capitalistic system? Must capitalism choose, de Botton wonders, between wealth and meaning? Is this zero-sum balance merely a trickle-down fantasy or is there a Golden Mean of efficiency, where we do not fall over the precipice into hyper-efficiency, loss of meaning and fascism?

Although Harari ultimately believes in a systemic and technological solution (i.e., that engineers will ensure that decentralized data processing remains at least as efficient as centralized data processing—similar to Veblen in style, if not execution) he insists that we come to know our weaknesses, that we do not fall prey to our personal narcissism—what he calls the “fascist mirror”—and staunchly resist projecting such flattery into another, false idol. de Botton appears decidedly more optimistic than Harari about the technological reach of corporate states. He claims that as products and services become more efficient and tailored to our wants, that corporations will actually anticipate some of our needs, including the so-called higher order needs such as self-actualization. Harari might argue that such beliefs are inherently deluded and narcissistic; that what we see as our ‘best selves’ might actually be cultivated, highly disciplined and regimented agents of the state. There is something to be said for this; it might be that our glut of consumption is goaded less in pursuit of Zuckerberg or the Joneses and more towards someone like de Botton or another ‘self-actualizer’ that always seems to be incarnating the Romantic dream of marrying passion with work and/or partnership. The Death anxiety that Becker wrote of may find its modern avatar in FOMO. But these philosophical differences have been prefigured before in debates between great thinkers.

However, de Botton and Harari both converge upon similar psychological solutions to the inherent paradoxes of cooperation. While both may agree that cooperation has generated great human uplift in the forms of surplus, prosperity, creativity, efficiency and democracy; they also recognize the pernicious sides which may include the collapse of meaning, drudgery and authoritarianism in both overt and covert operations. Psychological maturity—the recognition of narcissistic defenses and the pursuit of higher ideals—may open the door to collectivities that can somehow balance both meaning and freedom with prosperity and efficiency. It is also possible that psychological maturity—the outgrowing of Romantic insecurities—may prove catastrophic to the engines of self-interest that power our modern economy. What we are probably certain of however is that, in the future that is now, we will have to make tradeoffs as the pursuit of one value (e.g., freedom) will inevitably conflict with another value (e.g., wealth) as productive systems scale up in magnitude and complexity. Perhaps psychological maturity will resemble a tolerance and willingness to suffer the inevitable and irreconcilable conflict between concrete exigencies rather than a single-minded pursuit of high-minded and abstract values. Such may be the price and perfection of cooperation.

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