of the You and Me
is Generosity and Selflessness...
Does any of that sound remotely natural to you? Or does it make you laugh?
Then why is it that one of the most common responses I get whenever I write about capitalism - from Americans of a certain kind, especially - goes something like this:
Now, since I've given you some examples, that statement might strike you as funny, illogical, trivial - but I'd bet on some level, that you might even believe it too.
That greed and
self-interest and so on of an aggressive kind are perfectly natural
- and we must "fight" them if we are to be civilized. Is any of
that really true?
We believe, most of us, I'd bet, that we are bad people - just animals - deep down inside. And some of us believe we should free those inner "animals".
If "nature" is predatory, greedy, self-interested, violent, brutal, red in tooth and claw - then society should be, too - and we should be also, right?
Shall I prove it?
But the sun isn't
charging you a profit. It's just shining. Why is it doing that?
Let's keep thinking. The ocean isn't charging the fish rent, to maximize the profit in some energetic exchange. It's just shimmering. Why is it doing that?
The trees aren't charging
you the maximum amount they can extract from you for recycling the
air. Why are they doing that?
But that is precisely what capitalism - in fact, all our systems of violence, greed, and domination, result in.
Bezos, Zuck, and Buffett aren't the tallest trees in some naturally selected forest, merely towering over the others - they are a billion times taller, reaching all the way to Mars. And that outcome is severely unnatural.
We do not observe such a
thing anywhere in nature whatsoever. Why is that?
Those who think nature is brutal and violent and greedy often give the example (LOL) of primate tribes, and their hierarchies, to justify human hierarchy. But again, if you think about it for even a moment, if human beings were organized like primates - not that they should be - human society would be a far more egalitarian place than capitalism allows.
The top ape sits atop a tribe of dozens - but he doesn't own the forests and the lakes. He doesn't sit atop whole continents of tribes. It would be absurd to imagine such a thing. And yet that's precisely what happens in capitalism.
Zuck and Bezos and Buffett aren't at the top of tribes of a few dozens - they're at the top of societies of hundreds of millions.
Why is that?
The crucial question is this:
Let's think about that.
That's how you end up with Zuck-and-Bezos trees that are a billion times taller - not just maybe twice or thrice as tall.
That's how you end up with the ape-ruling-the-whole-continent, not just the tiny tribe.
But this kind of insatiable greed, domination, and control - and the hierarchy, inequality, and fracture they inevitably result in - is severely, badly unnatural. Even though the cloud gives itself to the rain - there is no single raindrop that grows to be the size of a whole continent, is there?
This is a profoundly mistaken view of Darwin's insights.
If we look even a little bit, what we see is this.
Let's drive the point home.
When the lion consumes the gazelle, he is eating as much he needs to live. What he is not doing is consuming the whole flock, skinning it, selling the hides to his fellow lions, and charging them a monopoly price, having cornered the market.
Do you see how big this difference is?
I have exaggerated it so that you see the point. But it applies in every single one of my previous examples. The sun is giving you sunlight for free - precisely because it is not sucking in all the hydrogen and helium in the whole universe.
Do you see how different
this is from capitalist logic - or the logic of any system of
greed, violence, and control?
That is because nothing else in nature derives pleasure or gratification or meaning from violence - because, of course, these are acts of symbolic intelligence, or maybe, and more accurately, human vanity and folly.
What does that tell us?
Why is that? It is because we think we need more than we do, obviously.
Why is that? It is
because we must feel deeply inadequate, insecure, and hope that
more, more, more will give us security and safety in what we
perceive as a hostile universe.
Nature takes what it
needs - and no more - and in that sense, it is neither hostile
nor forgiving nor even indifferent. It is something like in a
perpetual state of grief, limited by this ethic that the taking of
any life, any thing, must be minimized, reduced, shrunken to the
minimum possible point, and the most must be given.
So we take more and more and more than we need. We build ideologies based on this false and foolish logic - trapped in a hall of mirrors - and the newest of all these is called capitalism.
It tells us that if only
we acquire and possess the most, we will finally be supreme, above
the rest. And in that way, perhaps, we will be safe. We will be
immortal - if only symbolically, our names on buildings and
stadiums. We will be admired and loved and respected.
We begin with a funny and foolish mistake. A very Western one. Not looking deep or true enough into the heart of nature, we see only one side - the side which takes, preys, consumes, devours. So we perceive a hostile universe.
We don't look deep enough to see the truth - that even that side is not greedy and insatiable and brutal as we imagine. Now we must defend ourselves against the bitterly hostile universe we imagine. We must have as much as we can - stuff, things, possessions, power, status, dominion, control That is the only way out of this terrible plight of being trapped in an insatiable universe, which is out to destroy us.
We build whole ideologies based on this faulty logic - which then reward us the more cruel, abusive, and harmful that we are.
capitalism, or slavery, which justify, glorify, and reward
exploitation. We build systems of violence and domination, hoping to
control the hostile universe we perceive ourselves to be in.
We suppose that exploitation and abuse and violence are all perfectly natural - since, we tell ourselves, everything, from life to the stars and the wind and the rain, is only self-interested, profit-maximizing, exploitative, insatiable, heartless, self-interested.
And yet the sun goes
right on shining. The ocean goes right on shimmering. The trees go
right on breathing. The rain goes right on falling.
That is a grave mistake...
He meant that nature gave and it took - and yet the question he never answered (didn't he do enough?) was this:
Let's leave aside, for now, whether we should.
That is closer to the truth of nature.
We see it in the lion and the fish as much as in the sun and the ocean. We see it in the stars and wind and rain.
We see that that this great and universal law may be the truest one there is:
The law of nature is not greed, brutality, and violence, my friends.
It is a kind of needless generosity in what is given, and a kind of sorrow for every littlest bit that needs to be taken, which limits it to what is only necessary. It is by that law that the universe seems to "operate", or "work", but to breathe, laugh, move - to be.
That is why it sings with
a kind of haunted, lonely, grief, through which pulses a kind of
love, truth, beauty, and grace that is mightier still - of which
we are all tiny, vast expressions and impressions.
Around and around we go, the sun becoming the rain becoming the ocean becoming the sky becoming the trees becoming you and me.
That is why when we look
at the natural world around us, we are overwhelmed by a sense of
beauty and awe, not just ugliness and contempt. Profusion and
generosity and connection are the truth of us, too, which we see
mirrored in every glimpse we take of the place we are in.