Sunday, May 08, 2011

Mutual Best Interest, Cooperation and Survival

By James Curcio
I posted the following to my facebook recently, and it got a fair amount of thumbs-up around the fishbowl:
The myth of "everyone for themselves" will get you killed in the years that are coming. Learn to work together and be committed to your team. Corporations, major political groups give us no umbrage, so fuck them. Find trustworthy people. Be trustworthy. That's all I've got.
I'd like to explain what I meant a little more, but first I need to take a step back.

As we have explored time and again on this site, as well in the forthcoming book The Immanence of Myth: we live by our myths. They compound one upon the other, build up, not so much in direct heirarchies as in striated patterns. They are chaotic, intertwined and tangled, and can be hard to look at one at a time.

Still, we try.

There is one that has been especially present to my mind of late. I talk about it tangentially in my introductory post on gaming, but there are many other angles to look at.

This is the idea of "everyone for themselves," as it contrasts myths of cooperation. The myth is connected to pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, of the objectivist self-determination of Rand, of separation of bodies and minds, and to hell with government oversight and regulations, free markets will sort themselves out.

You see how these tangle. You can find yourself feeling very strongly that the government should keep out of our lives, and at the same time believe in cooperation as central to survival, over and above competition. We contradict ourselves. We contradict one another, and we mean different things when we use the same words. This part of the discussion could take me far afield of what I actually want to explore, I hope you can see my point without devolving into the part-line arguments between democrat, socialist, republican and libertarian.

Instead, read this wiki article if you'd rather see where I'm going with this, but remember what I said: myths are not just theoretical. Because these myths are not abstract theories, they determine how we treat one another, how we behave, how we live. What we value.

Of particular interest to our inquiry is this:
When Richard Dawkins set out to "examine the biology of selfishness and altruism" in The Selfish Gene, he reinterpreted the basis of evolution, and therefore of altruism. He was "not advocating a morality based on evolution",[65] and even felt that "we must teach our children altruism, for we cannot expect it to be part of their biological nature."[66]But John Maynard Smith[67] was showing that behavior could be subject to evolution, Robert Trivers had shown that reciprocal altruism is strongly favored by natural selection to lead to complex systems of altruistic behavior (supporting Kropotkin's argument that cooperation is as much a factor of evolution as competition[68]), and Axelrod's dramatic results showed that in a very simple game the conditions for survival (be "nice", be provocable, promote the mutual interest) seem to be the essence of morality. While this does not yet amount to a science of morality, the game theoretic approach has clarified the conditions required for the evolution and persistence of cooperation, and shown how Darwinian natural selection can lead to complex behavior, including notions of morality, fairness, and justice. It is shown that the nature of self-interest is more profound than previously considered, and that behavior that seems altruistic may, in a broader view, be individually beneficial. Extensions of this work to morality[69] and the social contract[70] may yet resolve the old issue of individual interests versus group interests.
Cooperation may be best motivated when it is personally motivated and of personal benefit, but this does not mean that putting the group above ones self in certain cases is not of greater long-term personal benefit.

When we live by the myth of "everyone for themselves," in a society that supports this belief, we feel self-entitled when we do well, and we feel guilty when we do not. It was, in this mindset, strictly our fault if we didn't succeed by our rules, and maybe if we just thought more positively it would all get better. The whole world rests on our shoulders.

As I look around me and see friends and acquaintances lose jobs, go unemployed for long periods, lose their homes, drop off the grid altogether, I also see groups of us attempting to band together, dropping the "Jersey Shore bullshit," and helping each other. Whatever it takes to help each other survive and succeed. I too have been struggling - not to keep productive, that has never been hard for me - but to find a way of monetizing all the values I produce which seem to almost be in direct contradiction to the "values" espoused by hard-line capitalism. And I have found that the only way I am going to survive is by finding people that I can count on, and through people maximizing one another's strengths and mutually minimizing our weaknesses.

It's easy to make this sound like theory. I've been talking about this for years now, with friends and collaborators, and have seen I guess you could call them "test groups" splinter and fall apart because there wasn't enough external conflict to distract from the production of internal conflict.

When there is an identified "external threat" it is easier for people to band together against it, to identify and align their behavior through mutually beneficial patterns because the alternative is anathema to self preservation. So, without that, groups often turn into as I've called "Jersey Shore bullshit." Even when the people involved are otherwise smart. Then it just becomes pedantic Jersey Shore bullshit.

From the perspective of drama - all drama is conflict, and you can't have a story without drama. But in terms of our lives, in theory, many of us would probably like to mitigate conflict as much as possible. I think, however, that the truth is that many people manufacture conflict in the form of drama when natural conflict doesn't already arise. I think this is something that can be undone, I don't think it has to be that way, but I've seen it plenty. Bored people have plenty of drama in their lives, even if precious little genuine conflict. So - as the famous Chinese curse says - may you live in interesting times.

We've always known that narrative depends on conflict. You can't tell a story without an internal or external conflict. Maybe it isn't only true in fiction. Maybe we do thrive on conflict.

But I think - I hope I'm wrong - but I think that class stratification, tensions from increasing pressures driven by corporate owned resources, etc etc (see this article) in coming decades invariably leads to a place where the disenfranchised, otherwise well-intentioned individual can't help but become some form of "outlaw." We need cells, safe-houses, methods for the production and securement of goods and value to some extent excluded from corporate control. This is an incredible undertaking, one which most of us are in no way prepared for.

But parenthood is also a tremendous undertaking which most are not prepared for. We may have to learn as we go or die trying.

If we're going to see a return to tribalism in some sense as a survival technical (as it's always been for humans), I don't know about you, but I want someone I can trust on my 6. We have to drop the "everyone for themselves" bullshit to the extent that we realize that our best chances of survival are not alone. Humans have always banded together to survive.

To reiterate what I said: be trustworthy. Find those you can trust. That's all I've got.

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011. (Or sign up to be notified of its release on

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