Theater of Cruelty

Mutual solidarity

Mutual Aid – The Other Law of the Jungle
MUTUALITY / Competition and cooperation are like nature's yin and yang, claim two French biologists. Today, recent biological and psychological research on reciprocity is based on both biochemistry, game theory, empirical examination of symbiotic relationships and the new sociobiology's theories of group selection.


What about mutual aid and solidarity, both between people and nature, and between nations acting as selfish individuals?

The title of this new book, Mutual Aid, is a direct reference to fyrst Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, geographer and biologist who 120 years ago published his book "Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution" (1902). Both authors are biologists and activists, which makes this book a unique publication, entirely in Kropotkin's spirit.

Pablo Servigne is known for his radical contributions to the so-called collapseology with the book How Everything Can Collapse (2020) and the sequel Another End of the World is Possible (2021). Gauthier Chapelle, for his part, is a sociobiologist and sociologist and even heads an academic institution that promotes the work of Marcel Mauss – who wrote about the role of the gift in social life. Generosity can be spontaneous but also regulated by norms, a dual relationship that proves to be an excellent starting point for writing about mutual aid.

Merciless compulsion

Kropotkin's poignant autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899), which is highly recommended, tells of growing up in the Russian aristocracy, on a huge country estate that also owned thousands of "souls" – serf peasants. The father administered floggings like any other, but he was not even among the worst. Kropotkin describes how a general and landowner in the area has the title and privileges to command which of the poor peasants should marry whom: "Sergei with Anna, Maksim with Parasha." Voluntary associations – from loving couples to political groupings – were brutally opposed, broken up and punished.

Kropotkin spent two extended periods in prison after participating in demonstrations for workers' rights.

Kropotkin, who in his youth studied radical political writings with his brother, ended up renouncing his title and spent two extended periods in prison after participating in workers' rights demonstrations. This past was characterized by relentless coercion. The aforementioned "forced collaboration" was continued by the Communist Party. And the bourgeois-capitalist West was characterized by what Kropotkin referred to as "the presumptive struggle of all against all". This as a myth he believes Thomas Hobbes helped to establish, and Darwin was abused for substantiating it.

Cooperation and competition

Before he wrote Mutual Aid, in the years 1864 and 1871 Kropotkin set out on geographical expeditions to the Siberian taiga, where he also carried out biological investigations. He did not see much of a fight between biological conspecifics, he reports. Rather, the nature he observed was characterized by a voluntary and spontaneous cooperation in the struggle to survive under harsh living conditions. Kropotkin finds a large number of examples of reciprocity and symbiosis in nature and in his book gradually transitions from animal societies to traditional human societies. Despite what other misanthropic and "pessimistic writers" might assume, he claims that "no society is built on merciless competition for one's own gain without regard for the well-being of the species!" .

Pablo Servigné, Raphael Stevens et Gauthier Chapelle – Parc Leopold, Bruxelles – 17 October 2018

To their great credit, Servigne and Chapelle show that Kropotkin, who was long overlooked or overlooked in biology, is actually in the process of being taken seriously and is actually far from being right. The authors offer a wealth of examples and analyzes from new biological and psychological research on reciprocity, based on both biochemistry, game theory, empirical examination of symbiotic relationships and the new sociobiology's theories of group selection. The latter theory, taken from the veteran EO Wilson, leaves plenty of room for competitionn which after all also occurs in abundance in nature and among humans. Simply put, group selection theory states that groups that are altruistic win over selfish groups. But selfish individuals will still win within the groups – if only in the short term. The art for groups that want to survive in the long term is thus to limit and oppose the short-sighted egoistst.

Game theory

The authors give us tools by moving beyond oversimplified models
- where man is either good or evil, nature brutal or kind, where either culture or genes dominate – to think about spontaneous cooperation and egalitarian societies in a way that is neither naive nor idealistic. Game theoryone's analyzes are also applicable to co-op games! The map of relationships ranges from win-win to win-lose, with a series of intermediate positions of mutual indifference and one-sided but harmless benefit. The authors report from a sociobiologyso-called research field in tremendous development. The dissemination of science constantly threatens to take over, but is nevertheless justified, since the authors immediately put it to use in a more practical socio-political and theoretical Strategy.

The more difficult life circumstances become, the stronger is the tendency for mutual cooperation.

The goal is to base oneself on biologyone to settle the naturalization of Homo economicus, a human model that is often extended into neoliberalism's universal state of competition – where life becomes a zero-sum game where one wins at the expense of the other. Such framework conditions in practice make the vast majority of us losers, while a small fraction become superwinners. In the longer term, we all stand to lose, as the same utility-maximizing game leads to the depletion of our living environment.

Groups that are altruistic win over selfish groups.

The narrow game of selfishness haunts the climate negotiations: The effort and price to reduce climate emissions is enormous, but the gain will be minimal unless the others do the same – so everyone waits until it is too late. But game theory can be extended to cover cooperative games better, and thus the dynamics of politics also change.

Peter Kropotkin

Both selfish and social

According to the authors, recent field biological investigations have shown the same tendency that Kropotkin found in Siberia: the more difficult the living conditions become, the stronger the tendency for mutual cooperation. Poorer conditions, such as in the high mountains, the Arctic or poor communities, stimulate mutual help. Wealth and abundance paradoxically stimulate competition. In this sense, it is tempting to speculate further and ask whether ideologies may not also be a product of the living environment: the selfish gospel of neoliberalism may be a result of the petroleum-driven wealth, an abundance that stimulates selfishness. In the next round, wealth and abundance create resource shortages and climate problems. This is an emergency that must call for a different mentality – and encourage cooperation. Hopefully.

Nothing is a given, the authors claim. The conclusion is that we are both selfish and social. If we are to avoid full global collapse, we must rig the system so that we reward mutual help and solidarity, both between people and nature, and between nations that act as selfish individuals. The tactical encouragement of man's (and nations') "prosocial" side must thus be stimulated with at least as clever means as neoliberalism has used to stimulate individualism and competition.

According to Servigne and Chapelle, such a proposed arrangement of the game to create consideration for the community and other species presupposes above all that we oppose the illusion of independence. Individualism and self-sufficiency are always something partial, fragile and temporary. The dependence on others and the planet, on the other hand, is fundamental: the bonds are what make life robust, lasting and rich.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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