The problem with contemporary economic philosophy

There is a fundamental problem with the contemporary and modern literature that aims to explain the world as it exists and from that analysis propose means of progression: they assume the perspective of an individual. From that flaw two fundamental misperceptions arise: exogenous fate and consequential society.

Hobbes came close with the Leviathan to indicating a greater and larger purpose, conformity with which would yield better lives for all, and Arendt and Unger point to the social context of action and imagination. Much more commonly philosophers ask the question: what society would an individual create if they could? When the reality is more like: what individuals would a society create if it could? I imagine Hobbes as hallucinating the reality of social purpose and grasping for the means to persuade his unscientific time of the value of acquiescing to that purpose.

Individuals do not create society, society creates them. The status and action of every individual exists only within the parameters defined by their conditions and those conditions are created by others. The modern understanding of the extreme plasticity of the human brain should be a clue. We can each be a myriad of possibilities and what we actually become is the result of the conditions that direct us, both historically and instantly. The death of a baker does not mean that baking is dead, it solicits the next available baker.

Society solicits itself through embedded impulses in its individuals. Those impulses have simple purpose: to adapt to exogenous conditions. Adaptation to repeat conditions is light work accomplished through simple, brute selection of random behaviour which thereby incorporates the successful adaption genetically. Adaption to contemporary conditions is heavy work that requires plasticity to facilitate in-life learning. Solitary plasticity has the potential to be more successful than solitary simplicity because surviving new conditions does not rely on random genetic variation, but the degree of plasticity is limited by the extent to which a single brain can hold and reconcile differentiated capabilities along with every instinct necessary for survival. Group plasticity, where differentiated capabilities are distributed across a population of individuals, is not so constrained and the potential for expanded capabilities expands with group size, not brain size. In fact the larger the group and more established the group’s safety, the smaller the individual’s brains need to be because the social hive assumes some of the survival responsibility. For a group species, of which humans are one, the group is the game and the individuals merely pieces. Think of us like pawns on a chess board: if we get to the other side and the Queen is dead then we turn into a Queen, if she is still alive nothing happens. The difference is that we are not bound by such quaint rules, we can each become a rook or a bishop at any moment depending on who else is playing what other roles.

Both the inescapable reality of individual life and the requirements for social plasticity necessitate an individualistic perception in each person but that does not mean it is the truth about us. Distributed and differentiated capability that is responsive to changing conditions relies on autonomous reaction, arbitrated amongst the individuals and directed to group purpose. Otherwise we would just be a bunch of incapables and wiped many aeons ago. The purpose need not form part of the individual’s seemingly personal decisions because it is asserted by established fundamental operating procedures. It follows that if group plasticity works there are fundamental operating procedures that direct individual action towards group purpose. We simply could not be successful as a species without those mechanisms. And successful we have been, so those mechanisms exist, whether we are consciously aware of them or not.

Ask not what society can do for you, ask what you can do for society. Yes, you create society but only because you have no choice. You are a social ape and as individual as an ant. Everything we create has its roots in our compulsion to create successful society and that includes finance. Finance does not happen to us, we created finance and it serves a purpose. Finance did not arise as a slimey monster from the dark lagoon of our lesser impulses, it came to rescue us in brief period of confusion and adjustment. Our success has surprised us and the world. We face novel challenges not from exogenous conditions thrown at us but from consequences of our own success. This the next frontier: to adapt to the conditions we created, which requires us to creatively destroy our own creations. No wonder a brief hiatus has occurred as we adjust to the inception of our caused reality.

Finance is a bridging technology while we adjust to the reality of our interdependence. Finance connects us to our future and allows to navigate the present accompanied by the promise of that future but it has a very limited time horizon, somewhere around 30 years at most1. Finance is nothing but a set of promises that only have credibility because we choose to give them it. Right now we are choosing to accept a bunch of promises between individuals while we come to terms with the fact that we need to make those promises mutually and universally as dictated by our fundamental operating mechanism. As soon as we reconcile ourselves to that requirement we can let the financial promises expire. If you think finance has a hold over us, you have to ask who is giving it that power? The suits at the desks with the computers have no power other than what is given to them.

So the history of the late 20th century is not of a maleficent force arising from the deep to capture our lives and drive us over a cliff – we are doing the driving! The force that compels us is the unequivocal certainty that the contributions from a distribution of capabilities flourish on a bed of safety. We stumbled into the 20th century fashioning tools and remedies from the ideas lying around at the time. Now the dust settles and the outlines of our new capabilities and opportunities are clear to see. We can leverage the incredible developments of the 20th century to create a new life in the 21st century that is built with the modern miracles of global communciations and materials innovations. The solutions are lying around, we just need to implement them.

This transition is hard: partly because we used to compete between groups so we retain that instinct, and partly because scarcity has been the driver of our evolution so we have that fear, and partly because awakening to the singularity of our modern predicament requires us to bridge our conscious individualism with our subconscious social purpose. We seem to be making quite heavy weather of it but there are also signs that we are moving in the right direction and adapting as we have done for millennia before. It would certainly be easier if we bridged the gap before the paper pyramid of finance collapses or the climate wrenches our reality around but even if we don’t there seems every chance that a billion of us will make though to the next stage.

We may or may not make this evolutionary adjustment and the world will carry on regardless and maybe in some millennia hence another version of our species will rise again but with better adapted fundamental operating mechanisms, or maybe it won’t, ever. Whatever happens, we, those of us here now, have no choice but to attempt to adapt. The conditions we have created roll forward on the rails of physics, unsympathetic to the pain and difficulty of our adjustment.

  1. Chris Cole, 2021.

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