Choosing the best over the worst

Mike Berger writes that humans are so attuned to threat and grievance the easiest politics is 'narrow tribal'

Rainforest ecology in national politics

Perhaps unexpectedly, the runaway explosion of knowledge and technology emanating almost entirely from the West over the past few decades has not been accompanied by a sense of existential ease but rather increased anxiety, even panic. It has brought home to us how unfitted we are to rule the world. The response has been a regression into the primitive tribalism of the culture wars plaguing Western democracies.

This is not the full global picture of course. Many parts of the planet are to varying degrees decoupled from the massive scientific and technological advance of the West and from the troubled Western belief and political systems. I focus on the West because it constitutes the dominant global source of technological innovation and cultural influence. What happens in the West and the way it handles its dominant position will determine the image of human civilisation for the foreseeable future.

In the longer-term the outcome of present unease may very well decide whether humans are capable of maintaining the levels of social complexity engendered by the advance of technology and scientific knowledge or will our 'advanced' civilisations collapse back into various forms of pre-modern, social- political structures better suited to our deep, evolved psychology? Let's quickly flesh this out a bit more.

It's not necessary to linger on the explosive advances in the digital and material sciences and technology, the advent of robotics connected to AI and the miniaturisation of devices. Similarly, most literate humans are broadly aware of the fundamental impact such advances are having on the social, political and economic organisation of human society and the physical environment.

Perhaps less widely appreciated is the massive increase in knowledge about human origins and human functioning arising from fundamental exploration of the principles of evolution combined with the technological revolution.

This biological knowledge is not going to have the immediate direct impact on our lives in the same way that that advances in digital technology has already produced. Even without understanding the scientific and mathematical foundations of the new tools at our disposal we can still all benefit from their applications, as anybody with a smart phone will attest. But complex biological systems are far less susceptible to predictable intervention than physical systems.

I'm including under 'biology' not only the hard biological sciences but the social sciences, economics, politics and even the traditional humanities since all these topics deal with biological entities, namely us. These represent different pathways to understanding the entangled web of subjective and objective reality that constitutes the human universe.

Unfortunately, to benefit from this burst of biological insight requires a degree of familiarity with a daunting array of topics. Few are equipped, motivated or have the time to acquire the basic knowledge and even fewer are able to apply this information to the real-life issues of our collective political destinies.

That is not surprising. When Einstein was asked why physics had made such enormous advances but politically we seemed to be stuck in the Stone Age, he replied with words to the effect that 'politics was so much more difficult than physics.'

He was right. But there are at least three vital reasons why we need to start taking the vast expansion of deep psychological and human ecological insight seriously.

The first is that with our mastery of the natural world comes immense power - power for good or ill. In the past we were able to (and did) inflict serious injury on limited parts of the planet we inhabit, but we now have the power to obliterate human life, perhaps all life. This not simply alarmist talk: it's an unpredictable possibility.

The second reason is that, contrary to most expectations, relatively affluent and stable democratic countries like the USA are embroiled in virulent culture and identity wars which are straining the basic social-institutional fabric of their societies, weakening their ability to project power and promote democratic values globally and thus opening the door to totalitarian or chaotically unstable regimes.

And, thirdly, despite a spate of books pointing out that quality of life is improving across the world there remain massive inequalities both globally and within regions and nations. Such gradients are difficult to square with the concept of a caring world order. They create opportunities for violent radicalism of various kinds which further destabilises democracy and strengthen the forces of political entropy.

So my self-appointed purpose in this blog provided by the PW platform is to open up debate beyond the mental ruts created by partisan political discourse. And the point of this introduction is to set the stage for a key question facing South Africa: is it possible to decisively alter the trajectory of our politics in a positive direction using the tools and insights of recent 'biological' research - using the term broadly in the manner pioneered by EO Wilson in his book 'Consilience' published 20 years ago.

In other words we need to review once again the high road/low road scenario of Clem Sunter and to seek pragmatically innovative ways to create new alternatives to our present indecisive and erratic course.

As a lever to pry open this difficult discussion I'll use the ideas outlined in a 2012 book written by two venture capitalists, Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitt entitled "The Rainforest: the secret to building the next Silicon Valley". The book won "Book of the Year Gold Medal in Business & Economics" by ForeWord Reviews as well as a number of other awards. It's worth reading.

'Rainforest' is a study of the ecology of innovation and what has made Silicon Valley perhaps the greatest crucible for technological innovation in the modern world. I'm extracting only the absolutely core argument for the purpose of this discussion.

The central theme of the authors is that the conventional explanations for economic productivity are necessary but not sufficient for the emergence of high levels of innovation. For that to occur we must look to the psychological and cultural ecology of the system and not to the 'rational actor' models of traditional economic theories.

Central to the Rainforest ecology are:

- strong fairness norms supported by powerful but informal social mechanisms as well as the usual legal protections,

- a strong willingness to incur risk reinforced by a high cultural tolerance of failure and individualism,

- the availability of keystone individuals able to link and bridge differences between innovators, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and other specialists required to convert ideas into practice and to market them

- a broad willingness to pay it forward and thus share in the risk of cooperation and trust necessary for synergies to emerge

- a motivational structure based on participation, reputation, creation and meaning rather than financial gain

- diversity of skills, interests, culture and ethnicity

- a flat social structure

To this one could add the immense concentration of talent attracted by such Innovation Hubs (IHs) and the ability of modern technology to bridge geographic distances. A key element of such hubs around the world is a lack of formal hierarchy and rigid customs. This generates immense connectivity made possible by informal but resilient networks between individuals and different interest groups.

I'm not a misty-eyed praise singer for IHs. There are many darker philosophic and political undertones to these concentrations of wealth, talent and, inevitably, privilege. They need to be managed and fully understood if they are not to become causes of inequality and instability.

But here's one important question, what can these Rainforests tell us about the larger political domain? Can the principles operating within such IHs be applied to the far larger and more complex political domain? And if so, in what way and with what caveats?

It seems that at the core of the Rainforest ecology are norms of fairness, inclusivity, cooperation (paying it forward) held together by strong informal and formal punishment of defectors. These are uncannily like the rules regulating our ancestral tribal groups.

They worked for two reasons: tribal groups, like IHs, are relatively small, bound together by strong feelings of common identity and fairly reliable information concerning the behaviour and attitudes of group members. Secondly, ancestral tribal groups faced real threats: unpredictable climate change, predators and other humans.

Is it conceivable that such norms and values could be the foundations of a modern, democratic South Africa?

Every rational argument says no. We don't have reliable knowledge of the behaviour of key individuals and institutions within our society since all information is filtered and distorted, often beyond recognition, through layers of a partisan media - amongst multiple other sources of disinformation. There is scant hope of building an overriding national identity out of the conglomeration of squabbling tribes forming modern South Africa.

Any move in that direction is easily undermined by divisive tribal messages from political entrepreneurs and enthusiastic amateur activists alike. We don't share norms or basic frames of reference with each other and South Africa is one of the most unequal societies on the planet. This engenders deep insecurity in the middle and the elites and fury and frustration in the vast underclass.

This is not rhetorical hyperbole. If anything I've understated the obstacles in the path of establishing anything which resembles the tribal or, in more modern terms, the Rainforest ecology in South Africa. Every realist argument says it's impossible on the scale I envisage and I certainly don't dismiss such claims as pessimism speaking.

But nobody seriously doubts that a law-abiding, fair South Africa could bring untold benefits to all its citizens. The majority simply don't trust each other enough, for understandable reasons, to unequivocally commit themselves to inclusivity and cooperation. This real or latent mistrust is readily amplified and operationalised by the minority of predators in every society.

Since humans are so attuned to threat and grievance the easiest politics is 'narrow tribal'. Even stable and prosperous democracies can be undermined by corrosive messages playing on fears, distrust, sense of grievance and notions of moral superiority, as graphically illustrated within the West at present.

But I want to make one argument here that is also part of the human experience: the power of a vision. And specially a vision which aligns with the deepest and most universal of human social impulses: the fairness imperative, the punishment of defectors and simple self-interest.

All the great belief systems to my knowledge contain some version of the Golden Rule: treat others as you would be treated. It's a version of reciprocity doctrine and it remains the moral yardstick against which we fallible and imperfect humans measure ourselves.

Implementation will be a topic for coming posts but for now I need only point out that the immense challenge is to sustain and operationalise these core moral imperatives within the turbulence, dirty tricks and distraction of confrontational politics. For this we need the vision to steer by, but also buy-in from the pragmatic fixers, the bridge-builders, the techies, the financiers, the power brokers and the wider population.

This is not a counsel of instant gratification and certainly not one of perfection. I believe Kant's dictum that 'out of the crooked timber of Mankind nothing straight can ever be built'. But improvement yes; even radical visionary improvement.

In my previous post I spelt out some of the pragmatic steps required in the context of the upcoming elections. They remain valid but I will explore these ideas further in future posts.

Mike Berger