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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Fatalism: The Default Doctrine in an Age of Climate Catastrophe

Our present neoliberal capitalist world leaders counsel us to passively submit to what they say over and over is ‘the best of all possible’ economic systems. And to a great extent we do submit to it—we have been well schooled in a cynical, nihilistic form of fatalism that assures us that there is no alternative, that capitalism is the inevitable form economics must take in a modern civilized world, and that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do. This is not a conclusion that is derived empirically, logically or even causally. It is more akin to an article of faith.

We need not all be ‘believers’ in the cult of neoliberal capitalism, but for it to succeed we must all believe that we are collectively powerless to end it. And there you have the reason for its surprising durability and success. What neoliberal capitalism succeeds in taking from the majority of human beings is not just our dignity, our labour, our wealth and our well-being, but much more significantly, our agency—our power to resist its autocratic rule, our capacity to dissent from its orthodoxy in order make a better world. The neoliberal power elite want us to see ourselves as disempowered—very much like Sophocles tragic figure Oedipus, we must understand that every effort to resist or escape our capitalist fate will end up enabling and perpetuating it. The recognition that we are not mere pawns, that we are not fated to accede to the ersatz inevitability of neoliberal capitalism is the very moment we begin to retrieve our human agency.

The first thing we must dispel for such recognition to take place is the myth that humans are, at bottom, isolated, selfish and competitive individuals who will end up killing each other unless they willingly give over their agency to an impartial, self-regulating and self-correcting sovereign called the ‘free market’. The notion that competition is a basic human tendency derives from the pernicious attempt to extend evolutionary biology to the social sphere. This move to social Darwinism was perfectly captured by Andre Carnegie in his Gospel of Wealth. Carnegie turned the notion of competition in the social and economic sphere into an iron natural law—a law, he assured himself, was “best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment; the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of the few; and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race.”

However, contra Carnegie, even from the narrow perspective of evolutionary biology, cooperation and altruism must also have evolved either for individual or mutual advantage. Indeed, cooperation and reciprocal altruism make good evolutionary sense for humans and other animals—and not merely because they facilitate the replication of genetic material. Even Darwin was careful to point out that while the process of natural selection might help us to understand the plant and animal kingdoms, it tells us very little about the constitution of human communities. Moreover, if a contemporary biologist were to argue that the astronomical wealth amassed by today’s neoliberal power elite was a measure of their competitive prowess or evolutionary superiority he would be laughed right out of his laboratory. In fact, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould has argued that to the extent cooperation increases individual survival, it would be encouraged not ruled out. The idea that cooperation, collaboration and reciprocal altruism would not exist unless it were the case that these were essential human characteristics is by no means new.

The Russian naturalist and anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin was persuaded by Darwin’s idea that struggle played a key role in the evolution of species, but he was equally convinced of the importance of the human inclination towards mutually beneficial cooperation and reciprocity. Kropotkin believed that it was precisely the notion of mutual aid not mutual struggle that allowed us develop a capacity for creative and moral thinking. More recently the British zoologist Mark Ridley put forward the thesis that it is not Richard Dawkins ‘selfish gene’ but the ‘cooperative gene’ that best explains how the modern complex human organism came to be.

Beyond merely biological and evolutionary explanations there are philosophical-conceptual notions that shed light on the crucial importance of mutual responsibility and cooperation in the most basic of human capacities: our ability to use language to communicate with each other. The 20th Century German philosophers Hans Georg Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas were interlocutors in a fascinating debate about philosophical hermeneutics and critical social theory. Despite their respective differences both agreed that the most fundamental human telos is discovered in our cooperative attempt to reach mutual understandings about ourselves and the world we live in. Such understandings might often begin in an agonistic way—where many different ideas compete for recognition or legitimacy. But underlying this competitive back and forth is the cooperative effort to understand ourselves and our world in a better or more complete way. For Gadamer, Habermas and a significant number of other thinkers’ language as a communicative enterprise would not even be possible if we were not a fundamentally cooperative species.

This, by no means, precludes that there will not be different interpretations or competing accounts of what is true, what is real or what is right or good. Indeed, to assume universal unanimity and agreement would be to put an end to philosophy! What it does mean is that the human capacity for communication and understanding could not be realized if we were merely isolated individual competitors. As distinctive human capacities communication and understanding presuppose reciprocity, collaboration, cooperation—and something neoliberal capitalism would like to entirely eradicate: community.

In addition to philosophical/conceptual notions about the fundamental nature of cooperation, there are empirical-sociological studies too numerous to mention that demonstrate why human societies and communities are much more the product of cooperation than competition.

The second myth of neoliberal capitalism is that we are not citizens who live in communities that we would like to see flourish, but individual consumers who must be first in line if we want to be ‘winners’ rather than ‘losers.’ In the 21st century the expression ‘let justice be done, though the world perish (‘fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus’) has morphed into ‘let consumption reign, though the earth perish’.

What has us a little frightened these days is that the world is perishing at a much more accelerated rate than we thought only a few years ago.

We have become fatalists by default because we continue accede to a capitalist system which presupposes that humans have no power to imagine a world without capitalism.

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