Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Selfishness and Solidarity

Dawkins' liberal constraints were a gift to the right
You are selfish. Well, not 'you' exactly. Your genes are selfish, and programmed to pursue self-replication. But since the 'you' that's reading this is a colony of those genes, the effect is the same. With this in mind, how could I possibly argue for a society based on solidarity and co-operation within the pages of this blog? Well, looking at the way the world is going at the moment, how could I not?
Let me explain what I mean. The idea of selfish genes was of course popularised by Richard Dawkins' book of the same name. In a nutshell, Dawkins put forward the thesis that: "We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes." Behaviour normally considered 'altruistic' - and praised by the moralists and liberals - is more likely to make you die before passing on your genes, or make your children grow up materially poorer. On the other hand behaviour labelled 'selfish' is generally likely to benefit your chances of bringing up children in material abundance.' So evolution strongly favours selfishness.

The Selfish Gene was first published in 1976, at a time when Callaghan in the UK and Carter in the US were decisively turning from 'progressive' reformism, and ushering in the neoliberal era of Thatcher and Reagan. In a forward to a later edition, Dawkins regretted how neoliberal ideologues had seized on the idea of selfish genes, using it to bring 'social Darwinism' back into political discourse.

Sadly, Dawkins was hampered by his own personal liberalism, and so did not follow his own theory through to its logical Marxist conclusion - that the only way the immense majority can safeguard their interests is to act together for the overthrow of capitalism. This failing had indeed done some of the right wing's work for them. These limitations are clearly expressed in chapter one:
"Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do."
But then, in a society based on material scarcity, how can you condemn anyone for protecting their genetic interests? From a rational perspective, Ebenezer Scrooge was a fool to help out Bob Cratchit and his family in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. After all, how did it benefit Scrooge? It's not as if Cratchit had gone on strike, or taken direct action against his exploitative employer. Quite the opposite; Dickens makes a virtue of Crachit's meekness. True, Scrooge had been troubled by pangs of guilt, which manifested in the visit of the three 'ghosts'. But guilt is just an evolutionary throwback from our time in primitive communist society, where individualistic behaviour would hurt people who were closely related to us. No doubt Scrooge & Marleys went out of business before many more Christmases had come and gone. So much for 'survival of the fittest' amongst capitalists.

Strength in numbers makes genetic sense
Communists have a vision of a society where individual needs perfectly overlap, where scarcity has been conquered, and "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" is the basis of all 'economic' practice. A society in which, as Oscar Wilde described, "Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody."

As ever, the question is 'how do we get there?' And sad to say, on the way, militant workers will have to deal with the problem of scabs. Without realising it, Dawkins had much to say on the subject of strikebreaking:
"If only everybody would agree to be a dove, every single individual would benefit. By simple group selection, any group in which all individuals mutually agree to be doves would be far more successful than a rival group sitting at the ESS (Evolutionary Stable Strategy) ratio.... Group selection theory would therefore predict a tendency to evolve towards an all-dove conspiracy... But the trouble with conspiracies, even those that are to everybody's advantage in the long run, is that they are open to abuse. It is true that everybody does better in an all-dove group than he would in an ESS group. But unfortunately, in conspiracies of doves, a single hawk does so extremely well that nothing could stop the evolution of hawks. The conspiracy is therefore bound to be broken by treachery from within. An ESS is stable, not because it is particularly good for the individuals participating in it, but simply because it is immune to treachery from within."
In other words, scabs break strikes because the material reward for doing so (i.e. strikebreaking pay) seems to outweigh the benefits of solidarity. The task facing militant workers is persuading would-be scabs - either verbally or by other means - that their material interests are best served on their side of the picket line, because they cannot seriously be blamed for trying to be selfish.

Selfishness is not the problem we confront in the ruins of this economic crisis. It's our own current lack of collective selfishness in the face of organised ruling class selfishness. We need to advance our collective interests, which is the only way to stop being the kind of subservient 'philanthropists' that Robert Tressell spoke of. In the real world, the meek Bob Cratchits will inherit nothing.
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