Thursday, January 10, 2008


"Either the State for ever, crushing individual and local life, taking over in all fields of human activity, bringing with it its wars and its domestic struggles for power, its palace revolutions which only replace one tyrant by another, and inevitably at the end of this development there is ... death! Or the destruction of States, and new life starting again in thousands of centers on the principle of the lively initiative of the individual and groups and that of free agreement. The choice lies with you!" - Prince Kropotkin

When I was a teenager trying on adult clothes, I embraced the political philosophy of anarchism. Not all of it, for anarchism covers a lot of ground (and a lot of air). But the idealistic, aristocratic, intellectual anarchism of Peter Kropotkin, who lived through the crashing collapse of the Russian Empire and the opening of the nightmare that came after. "Revolutionaries have had ideals," he said. "Lenin has none."

The New York Times gave him a positive write-up in 1903, the year after he put his ideas in book form. But the 20th century justified none of his hopes, and his philosophy seems relegated to some Philip K. Dick parallel universe.

Still it always pleases me to meet him again in print, always in an article about "cooperation" as a necessary social skill. [Another recent invocation can be read here]. Always he is enlisted to stand against apostles of competition.

This celebration of radical competition has, of course, been contested by theorists such as Jean?Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, and John Dewey, who have treated competition more as a problem or pathology to be overcome than an ideal to be realized. In the cooperative paradigm, the world is understood to be a non–zero-sum game in which we can win by helping others win. We are psychic as well as material beings and can co?exist in common space with similar beings, even become stronger by doing so. Mutual aid and common ground are extensions of our common being and make possible healthy and sustainable lives. Freedom becomes a feature of our cooperative interaction with others rather than a symbol of our rivalry with or independence of them. We are free not when unconstrained but under constraints and norms we choose for ourselves. And we are free together, not alone.

Kropotkin usually is paired in battle with Darwin, as he is in this article: "While Darwin famously saw evolution as an exercise in species-enhancing competition, the Russian thinker Peter Kropotkin insisted that it was an exercise in cooperation. In Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), he argued that survival was fostered by cooperation within and among species rather than by murderous rivalries."

But this strays from sociology into science. And science doesn't practice polite toleration of alternatives; it dissects them till one or the other proves false, or both do. Kropotkin is right that within many species, including primates, cooperation and resolution of conflicts with minimal violence are essential. However, in the wider world, species compete intensely with each other, as the social Darwinists emphasized. And among themselves. Primates may emphasize cooperation within their local group, but they often react with murderous hostility (or kidnap and rape) when they encounter another social group in the wild.

When you transfer evolutionary learning to the human realm, everything depends on whether you treat the human race as a single species competing in the world against -- what? Or you regard the races, nations, social groups, orders, religions, ideologies, languages, and clans of the race as functioning essentially as different species do.

The war of social biology has been fought between people who claim Darwin or Kropotkin as their models, between those who stand up for cooperation as the mass path forward and those who battle for competition as the whetstone that sharpens the knife of human achievement.

In the hurlyburly between them, a third truth gets lost. Evolution is not a matter of meat eaters vs. plant eaters. Species compete with what is most like them, with what is trying to hold the same niche. A mutation that gives you an edge over what eats you will cause your population to explode, then crash. Just as a swifter leg and a sharper tooth on the wolf soon will deplete the herds and leave the predators to starve. But better cooperation among elk allows them to squeeze out the deer who are trying to arrogate the same resources.

The real, essential "sustainable" cooperation in nature is not deliberate. And it is not just, in human terms. It is the cold-blooded dance of the devourer and the devoured.