15 04 2009

Have you ever contemplated the act of walking? Walking is such a natural part of being human that most of the time we barely notice we’re doing it. You don’t have to tell yourself to  lift one leg and then to move it forward and place it back on the ground; and you don’t have to concentrate on continually maintaining your balance. All you do is think; “I want to be over there,” and your legs do the rest, operating on automatic pilot so to speak.

As well as walking there are thousands of other essential living skills that we possess. A person needs to know how to eat, how to breath and how to speak. To  a lesser degree we must also be able to count, read, build houses, drive cars and operate automatic bank tellers. All these skills and myriads of others are the basis of our civilisation. If we hadn’t learnt them we would probably still be living in trees eating bananas.

Of all of these life skills one of the most fundamental is the ability to cooperate with others. Barely a day passes that a person won’t have to use their expertise in this area. Suppose you have to move a fallen tree trunk. But it proves to be too heavy to carry on your own. So you find someone to help. You lift one end while they lift the other. That’s cooperation. It makes an otherwise impossible job achievable,

Some jobs can be done quite easily by one person on their own, wile others need the effort of two or even more people. There are some very large jobs that can only be done when thousands of people cooperate together,

Take road building for example. To build a road you need designers and planners to assess where it will go and how much traffic it will have to carry. You need surveyors to transfer the plans onto the actual land. You need organisers, excavators, labourers and even humble flagmen. You need suppliers of gravel as well as manufacturers of road-making equipment. And that’s just the start – because while all those people are occupied with building roads, they don’t have the time to look after their other needs. So to get a road built you also need people who will produce food, build houses and supply transport for the workers who are directly involved in road building. This is cooperation on the large scale. Each person concentrates on one part of the job, while that part is coordinated with all of the others.

You wouldn’t think that the flagman you see directing traffic on some roadworks and a farmer growing grain hundreds of kilometers away were cooperating with each other. But they are. The farmer needs that road to get his produce to market and the flagman needs to eat. But it goes far beyond the farmer and the flagman. When you come down to it just about every person in the world is cooperating in some way other with everyone else. Sometimes the links are obvious and direct as when two people carry a load together. Sometimes they are more hidden such as those between the farmer and the flagman, or even between the farmer and the person who cleans the factory where the farmers toothbrush was made.

We are all connected. Our world is enveloped by a vast network of cooperation. If someone so much as uses a ballpoint pen or helps out a neighbour then they are instantly part of  that network.

It’s like a human body – a maze of interconnected parts. Each separate part of our bodies has a function that only it can perform, yet at the same time that part depends on all the others for its existence. A lung can’t survive without the rest of the body. Neither would there be any point to it surviving. Its whole reason for existing is to act in concert with all of the other organs. Similarly a tailor or a teacher or a flagman could not exist without the support of the rest of society. If nothing else they would soon starve.

One thing that fascinates me is the relationship between the concept of cooperation and that of specialisation. Because when you look at them they are really just two different words describing the same thing.

Consider sunglasses for example. In order to make a pair of sunglasses the effort of many specialists is required. From the rigger who drills for the oil that the plastic will eventually made from, to the chemist who concocts its molecular formulas, not to mention the operator of the glasses making machinery, the manufacturer of that machinery and the supervising staff of the sunglasses company. One could continue on listing the people involved, but the point is that this list is of exactly the same kind as the list of people taking part on road building. Both describe a group of people who have divided a job up between them so as to make that job easier to do. Whether one says that a flagman and road engineer are specialising in different parts of a job, or that they are cooperating with each other to get that job done, are really just two different ways of saying the same thing..

Our modern industrial world is founded on specialisation (and thus on cooperation). As Henry Ford discovered when he invented the production line, specialisation is an extremely efficient way to get things done. Imagine if you had to make your own sunglasses. It could take months or even years – if you could do it at all. Yet when a number of people get together pooling their skills to make those glasses, each individual pair can be made in a matter of minutes. Specialisation enables us to have things like sunglasses without needing to over-exert ourselves.

Sunglasses of course are just a token example. Of much greater significance are all those other wonders of modern civilisation that specialisation has given us; things such as cars, telephones, ballpoint pens, roads and heart transplants. By dividing a job into small parts, great achievements are made. It’s the power of small actions, multitudes of small actions all working together.

I remember a story that was told to me as a child to illustrate the concept of eternity. The story goes that there is a large mountain made of rock. Once every thousand years a small bird flies to the top of this mountain to sharpen its beak on the rock. Each time this happens a few grains of sand are worn off the peak. The story goes that when the action of the bird’s beak wears the mountain down to nothing then one day in eternity can be said to have passed. As well as helping to convey the idea of eternity this story also illustrates the power of small actions. A bird’s beak rubbing on a rock is on its own fairly insignificant, but when combined with many other similar actions it literally has the power to move mountains.

Of course there is the problem of time. As people living in the twenty-first with relatively short lifespans and continuous day to day needs, we don’t have time to wait around for eternity to move our mountains. Specialisation/cooperation allows us to overcome this problem and reap the benefits of that power more or less immediately. With our large populations, our tremendous organisational abilities and our bounteous technology we are able to simultaneously direct many people’s effort onto the one job. So instead of all those small actions being stretched out over eternity, they can be compressed into virtually one moment. When we work together like this it puts an immense power at our disposal. It is the power to make a pair of sunglasses in minutes rather than months. It is the power to put a person on the moon, the power to end world poverty. It is also the power to rape the earth and blow up whole cities.

There is no doubt that specialisation – and therefore cooperation – is at the heart of western economic success. But there is a contradiction here. If you ask an economist to tell you about some of the basic principles of economics, most of them will very quickly get around to the subject of competition. Competition they will tell you, makes the economic world go round – it is one of the great driving forces behind our economic prosperity. But how can that be? Aren’t competition and cooperation opposites of each other? Cooperation is when people are working together, while competition is when they are working against each other. How is it that the two can coexist as central operating principles in the same world? Isn’t it a case of united we stand, divided we fall?

In modern economics competition is seen as an evolutionary force – like Darwin’s theory of evolution – a case of the survival of the fittest.

Say you and I were both manufacturers of sunglasses. We would be in competition with each other. And say that one day you came up with a new method of producing glasses which enabled you to make  a better quality, cheaper pair than me. Soon everybody would start buying their glasses from you; and unless I improved mine, I would quickly go out of business. So the end result of competition is that everybody gets better sunglasses (or better whatever the product happens to be) – and the lot of humankind improves. Of course the weaker party (me in this case) goes through a lot of trauma; but this just drives them to do even better next time. Sportspeople use competition like this as a motivational force. The desire to win spurs them on to better performances. And if they don’t win then that only makes them try that much harder the next time

The problem as I see it is that economics is not sport. It deals with providing the necessities of life and thus, while there is no reason why it shouldn’t be fun, it is not a game. There may be some justification for competition when there is not enough to go around. If say there is a shortage of food and therefore someone is going to go hungry, then I will do what I can to make sure that someone is not me. But if there is an abundance of food, or even a potential abundance of food, then it is absurd to be competing for it. It would be wasting energy and resources that could be used somewhere else. That absurdity is reflected in the fact that these days most of the competition in food production is in who is going to produce the food rather than who is going to eat it.

Specialisation/ cooperation has helped to bring us into an age of abundance in which the idea of competition in anything but game-playing is totally obsolete.

But there are many people who enjoy competition. The adrenalin thrill of the battle and the even greater thrill of winning is almost addictive. But cooperation can be just as enjoyable if not more so. Cooperation is aligned with the deepest most powerful part of ourselves. It is thus potentially one of the most fulfilling pastimes possible.

So in many ways, to create an economic utopia we need to rediscover the joy of cooperation. It’s not so much a need to start cooperating, because as we have seen, through specialisation we are already doing that. All we need to do is to start finding fulfilment in what we are already doing.

Maybe it’s the very simplicity of the solution that makes it so difficult to achieve.




One response

7 07 2012
silver account

As the one humanity, we are working out our mutual destiny and evolving to give expression — with our different nationalities and talents — to the extraordinary variety of divine life but in the form of unity. This is obviously a major problem for humanity; the world is so divided, competition is so rife today. It is the very nature of our political and economic systems, based as they are on market forces, commercialization, aggrandizement and power. If we would survive it must be changed. How can we overturn the tremendous power of competition which underlies all aspects of our life today, and entrench in its place not only the idea but the action of cooperation?

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