20 December 2022

Between struggle and cooperation

Pic courtesy www.butterflycycle.blogspot.com


Karl Marx never proposed dedicating Das Kapital to Charles Darwin, so Darwin could never decline it, as the tall story goes, perhaps . Marx did say that Darwin’s work did suit his purpose in that it provided a basis in natural science for the notion of historical class struggle.

Struggle. That’s the word common to both. Darwin wrote about the survival of the fittest implying inherent struggle among species. Marx saw history as an unfolding of class struggle.  Darwin, to my knowledge, did not see the natural world as a constant and unforgiving battle among and between species. This is why Marx observed that Darwin, dealt a mortal blow to teleology in natural science and also explained its rational meaning. Marx could not but notice struggle, but he was not ignorant of complicity and moreover envisaged cooperation.  

There is, in the natural world and in human societies, a give and take. There’s contestation and agreement of one kind of another, admittedly very often to the advantage of one and the detriment of another. A union demanding higher wages for workers might agree to a ‘concession’ that falls short of demand, both parties essentially adjusting the terms of exploitation. Creatures mark territories. Humans have rules.

There’s too much made of ‘evolution.’ Marx and Darwin are both erroneously interpreted as championing life and society as moving inexorably forward from something less to something more. The entire ideology of modernism is founded on this idea.

Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, the Russian philosopher who is also described as an anarchist, socialist, historian and activist, addressed this issue in a book called ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution.’ Using examples from both non-human animals and human society, he argued that cooperation and not competition is the most important factor contributing to the survival of organisms and therefore the evolution of species.

Here’s a quote: "If we ... ask Nature: 'who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?' we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of intelligence and bodily organisation.”

Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould acknowledges that Kropotkin’s basic argument is correct; ‘struggle does occur in many modes, and some lead to cooperation among members of a species as the best pathway to advantage for individuals.’

He grants that Kropotkin may have overemphasised mutual aid, but observes, ‘most Darwinians in Western Europe exaggerated competition just as strongly.’ He argues that ‘if Kropotkin drew inappropriate hope for social reform from his concept of nature, other Darwinians had erred just as firmly (and for motives that most of us would now decry) in justifying imperial conquest, racism, and oppression of industrial workers as the harsh outcome of natural selection in the competitive mode.’ I would add Marxists, Marx included, have similarly erred, to put it mildly.

So those who say ‘competition is good’ are not all wrong if (and that’s an if hardly used) the worth and reality and true value of cooperation is acknowledged in the same breath. Hardly ever happens.

Cooperation is not always pretty, let’s not forget. Western powers frequently cooperate to ensure a world order founded on conquest, genocide, cultural erasure, brigandry and plunder is kept safe for continued access to and plunder of resources. We see that kind of pernicious cooperation even in the United Nations.

This does not mean however that all cooperation is bad and if you think it’s a peculiarly human fascination, consider ants and butterflies. Here’s a fascinating account about caterpillars of Lycaenid butterflies and ants. The caterpillars of these butterflies apparently have special glands that secrete a nectar-like substance which are ‘milked’ by ants.  The secretions are said to subdue the ants while the presence of ants dissuade birds, frogs and larger insects who may otherwise attack the caterpillar.

Indeed, in the case of some Australian species, the ants actually ‘raise’ caterpillars, building thatched or earthen corrals to contain the caterpillars, protecting them by day from predators and the sun and herding them up trees at night so they can feed on leaves. In fact some ants run caterpillar farms. Yes, livestock is not a human preserve!There’s nothing linear then about human history. There are twists and turns. Some may claim that we have developed continuously throughout history, but others will point out the costs of this development and how as a species we seem to be fixated with harming ourselves, our fellow creatures and the earth itself. We haven’t got better, we’ve got worse and there are no signs that we’ve run out of anger and ill will.

Cooperation anyone? Among ourselves, with our fellow creatures and the world around us? Think of a tree. A friend once said that trees are far more evolved than human beings. Sure, there are predatory species among them, but by and large they are neat aren’t they? They don’t have to move around. They absorb carbon dioxide, they breathe out oxygen. The leaves they shed, decay and eventually fertilise the earth around them. 
We pollute. We need not. Not if we understand the higher utility value of cooperation and the violence of competition or rather the violence that competition necessitates. Marx, in his extrapolations, said pretty much the same thing.



['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series.]

Other articles in this series:

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart 

The allegory of the slow road