Income disparity. Accountability crises leading to economic crises. Leaders of business and government uncertain about the long-term sustainability of the model that brought them success and general populations demanding more equality and opportunity. With the modern system of capitalism under duress, the question people are naturally turning to is “what do we do next?” For some odd reason, less asked but equally relevant: “what does the demise of capitalism have to do with genetics and social evolution?”
History provides the answer.
While it is natural for the deterioration of an economic model (and the disruption that decline entails) to be frightening, we must never forget that when one door closes, another opens. If we linger too long on the door that has shut, we miss the opportunity revealed by the new one opening. Capitalism, like feudalism before it, will slide from dominance. Just as there are still feudal societies in some corners of the world today, some people will continue to cling to capitalism as the majority reaps the benefits of the new model, whatever that might be. The question we must ask ourselves now is, which side of the divide we want to fall on.
The general decline of feudalism was instigated by the growth of cities and the specialization of labour (which is likely why modern-day feudalism is connected to rough terrain, less innovation and lower lifespans). The shift from title to wealth as a means of determining social status was accompanied by the shift in priority from owning land towards owning the means of production. This shift of power from kings to the bourgeoisie – the transition from feudalism to capitalism – brought with it mechanization, the industrial revolution, public transport, public health care, etc. To function properly, capitalism required a more democratic society which, hopefully, we can all agree is a good thing.
Today, we are living within the latest iteration of urbanity; we still have the city, the state, the nation, but we’re also part of this thing we call the global village. Just as the city drew people together and allowed for increased opportunities for collaboration, specialization and innovation, the internet is bridging the gaps between people everywhere on the planet. Where feudalism focused on land ownership (to grow crops and house labour) as a requirement of title and capitalism made ownership of the means of production (the means by which labour creates products) the ticket to fortune, what gets people ahead today is access and the capacity to harness cognitive ability – including knowledge, creativity and critical thinking.
Just as single-celled organisms slowly evolved into more complex creatures that are still made up of single cells, the evolution of society simply builds on what came before. We still need land to live on, grow food and for housing the means of production; we rely more than ever on tools, ranging from irons to microwaves to cars to blackberries. Society engages in a kind of social cell division; the result is that where we live is no longer the same place our food comes from, nor where our tools are built or used. Now, with video-conferencing, online databases and useful tools like Google or Wikipedia, we are separating work from the places where we live.
Feudalism, capitalism, whatever’s next – the one thing that has remained constant is the need for labour. Nothing gets done without someone doing it; people work because they gain benefit from doing so. This is as true of the human animal as any other. In all social animals, collaboration allows for the highest possible gain with the lowest possible risk. For it to work, collaboration requires equal measures of trust in others and altruism, the desire to help them in turn. Those who collaborate have higher rates of success, i.e. resource access and accompanying good health. The corollary to this personal health and resource access is stronger offspring that are more likely to reproduce and have healthy offspring of their own. This is why stable democracies have greater quality-of-life outcomes (including longer life expectancies and lower crime rates).
Collaboration, working together to achieve a goal, is at the deep root of all interaction. It’s connected to mutation; it’s why species like ours reproduce through sexual rather than asexual selection. I bring this up not as a tangent, but rather to bring home a point – while genetics is all about survival of the individual gene, nature has evolved collaboration as the best mechanism to ensure a gene, or an individual, or a society not only survives, but thrives.
While collaboration is not uncommon in the animal kingdom, tool-use is less so. Tool-use requires the ability to envision an outcome that does not yet exist, the capacity to design and create that outcome and the patience and will to follow-through. It’s a complex ability requiring a complex, specialized brain to realize. Humans might do this best, but we aren’t the only tool-making animal on the planet.
It’s the combination of these abilities – collaboration and tool-design/use – that really make humans stand out, though again, we’re not unique in innovating and sharing our learned skills. While chimps might be able to crack open nuts with rocks and teach other chimps to do the same thing, what we don’t see in a group of chimps (or at least, we haven’t recognized yet) is the ability to specialize. Planet of the Apes being prescience instead of fiction. If there’s anything that makes people special, then, it would be just that – the capacity to specialize.
Our unique mixture of capacities – to innovate, to envision and realize, to work collectively in a specialized manner and to pass on this knowledge, allowing the cycle to repeat – is the history of human labour. In search of individual benefit, we have gathered into collectives (family units, tribes, cities, states) and developed increasingly specialized roles to do the various things we need – grow/harvest food, build shelter, provide security, provide coordination, etc. These abilities manifest themselves physically, but they originate cognitively. To fully manage these processes, our grey matter has been evolving the capacity to take conscious control of them. As Joseph LeDoux has pointed out, “an absence of awareness is the rule of mental life, rather than the exception, throughout the animal kingdom.” As Descartes declared, “Cogito ergo sum.”
Marx and Engels had it wrong – "the history of all hitherto existing society” isn’t “the history of class struggles". Class struggles, racism, sexism, all forms of dominance facilitated by stigma are by-products of evolutionary, selection-of-the-fittest drive; it’s what we’ve been evolving from. The history of society is the gradual integration of disparate elements into a cohesive whole with specialized functions. The evolution of a human, social organism – networked intelligence – probably mirrors the process by which complex gene networks, or biological organisms, evolved. The specialization of labour, facilitated through communication, is the social equivalent to RNA. Cognition and, therefore, conscience have been a by-product of this process. As Steven Pinker has pointed out, humanity is becoming less egregiously selfish the more social we become, which only makes sense.
The capitalist model has done its job; it has fostered socialization better than any model that came before it. Capitalism shifted our focus from property to financial wealth, with land becoming a subsidiary benefit. Means of production have allowed people to work together, expanding diversity and fostering innovation. Our capacity to network our intelligence has now shifted focus from wealth to knowledge – the capitalist model simply isn’t adequate to support this reality. What we need now is a system that better harnesses the cognitive potentials of our species by fostering an increased social consciousness and a greater leaning towards ethical behaviour on the part of all society’s members – from top to bottom.
Such a system will be more altruistic, supportive and involving; as such, it will be more innovative, able to plan even further ahead yet respond more flexibly and rapidly to the challenges of the moment. This system will organically build on the groundwork that capitalism laid down before it. It will also employ the “teach a man to fish” approach to empowering the individual rather than taking from them, foisting upon them or selling to them. This system isn’t going to be a social outcry against capitalism, or socialism, or any isms; it’s simply going to be a matter of efficiency and expedience.
We have moved from feudal kingdoms, where individuals led, through capitalism, where the bourgeoisie control access and are now on the cusp of a kingdom of conscience where the people shall lead more directly than in any social model that has come before. Social media and all the communicative technologies and networks we’ve busily created over the centuries will serve as the synapses of this networked intelligence. What this means for leaders is that power rests firmly in the hands of the people, so existing institutions need to serve them better if they're to gain maximum benefit from available people power.
Fortunately, the general populace will provide the labour by which these connections happen with online, open-sourced information networks for education, training upgrades and peer support; wikis; corporate collaboration and altruism; etc. They're going to want to work with the system and pieces of the systems that will help them realize the quality of lives they want. Government will streamline its focus towards the role of executive function. Again, this isn’t naïve hopefulness, but rather, rational optimism. It’s all the rage these days – you should try it. In fact, I’m pretty sure you will.