Sunday, 6 November 2011

Kropotkin and Europe: Co-operation through conflict

Most informed commentators in the Sundays are of the opinion that if the Euro-17 plan fails, Europe will fail and we'll all return to the dark ages, as competing nation-states impoverishing themselves in competition (or war) with no winners. It's a bleak scenario, a Darwinian competition, an Ayn Rand world of pure selfishness and the pursuit of self-interest in which the most ruthless and best-equipped win. Yet such a scenario flies in the face of all nature and all human experience. And herein is the paradox of altruistic self-interest. 


Kropotkin, better known as an anarchist than as a biologist, observed that the species that survived and flourished were those where there was co-operation between individuals who otherwise competed for food, mates and territory. Modern research has confirmed this to be true even at the level of the microbe; that 'altruistic' co-operation amongst competing individuals provided greater benefit than pure conflict. And scientists have reconciled this with Darwinism - the fittest are those who are able to benefit from reciprocal co-operation. 


In 1980 Robert Axelrod carried out a large-scale experiment with players adopting strategies suggested by fellow academic game-theorists in a 'prisoners' dilemma' situation. The winning strategy was Anatole Rapoport's 'Tit for Tat' This provided a better chance for survival than anything else. The strategy has the following characteristics;
  • Be nice: cooperate, never be the first to defect.
  • Be provocable: return defection for defection, cooperation for cooperation.
  • Don't be envious:: be fair with your partner.
  • Don't be too clever: or, don't try to be tricky.
Users of BitTorrent will recognise the strategy as applied in regular unchoking; selfish participants are punished, reciprocal co-operators are rewarded. But can this be applied to competing nation-states, where conflict may mean war? And how does the EU fit in here?


Well , the EU is an organisation that not only allows but encourages free riders, with no sanctions for nations that cheat or don't play fairly. In evolutionary terms, such a group will not succeed - all members will achieve less than in a group that applies effective sanctions to non-conformers, where defectors are punished by co-operators. The mutual powers that the EU-17 are belatedly seeking, of direct control over national fiscal management, are exactly the powers of sanction that could make the bloc work. The paradox is that each member of the 17 must remain fundamentally in competition with all the others. It's a circle that can't be squared. 


Europe's real future and best chance of survival may actually be as 27 nations whose economies and currencies are competing against eachother, co-operating in conflict.  

6 comments:

Woodsy42 said...

Can I paraphrase that as friendly rivalry is better than either coercion or fighting?

right_writes said...

Yes Raedwald, and just like any other observer of the effect of unfairness in trade, unfairness in the way we are governed, or unfairness in the way our governors behave…

Prince Kropotkin was exiled…

He lived in a modest (for a prince) terraced house about half a mile away from me.

BrianSJ said...

Joan Roughgarden has argued that Darwin was wrong on sexual selection (cf. the selfish gene by the unspeakable Dawkins) and has proposed the 'genial gene'. At root, it is all about the chicks/cubs/offspring, and good looking females select males who will be good providers. Gets rid of the evil of social Darwinism though.

F***W*T TW****R said...

The Septic Eussr.
It is dieing.

Anonymous said...

Best thing for Britain = euro goes tits up.

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