Billionaires are not inevitable

“Our secret superpower is our ability to cooperate”.


Not my words, but from a great new book, Human kind : A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman.  You may remember him, he’s the guy who called out the super-rich at Davos last year, telling them to pay their taxes.  And wondering why 1500 private jets had flown in to hear David Attenborough talk about climate change.  Perhaps next year they’ll Zoom.

In Western culture there’s the long-held view that we humans are a selfish and bestial lot.  Always on the brink of a “war of all against all” and that Lord of the Flies got it about right.

Bregman tracked down a real-life Lord Of The Flies.  Six school children lost in a storm and marooned on a rocky Pacific Island for fifteen months.  Rather than a descent into barbarism, they solved all the tasks of survival by cooperation.  It’s a tale of loyalty and friendship.  Even when one boy broke his leg, the others cared for him.

Is a dog-eat-dog world where million use foodbanks, while a handful are billionaires, inevitable?

London, July 1943. ‘Communal spirit’ came to the fore during the blitz, argues Rutger Bregman. Photograph: Royal Photographic Society/SSPL via Getty Images

Some claim that survival of the fittest, and ‘Devil take the hindmost’, improves the fitness of us all.  It doesn’t, and it never has.  It’s a complete misreading of Darwin.   It’s not corporate raiders we’re clapping every Thursday at 8pm. Our survival is intricately dependent upon cooperation.

The Stanford Prison Experiment purports to show that when students were separated into guards and prisoners, the guards became abusive.  Yet in his book The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, Philip Zimbardo documents the efforts he took to push the guards to be abusive.

But cruelty does happen.  Sometimes on an industrial scale.  Hannah Arendt spoke of the banality of evil of Nazis involved in the holocaust.  People become distanced and desensitised, and participate in gross crimes because they become cogs in a machine.

One of the biggest enablers of dehumanisation is systems, and slavish adherence to systems.  ‘Computer says no’.  ‘It’s more than my job’s worth’.  ‘I’m just following orders’.

This week is national Mental Health Awareness Week.  Kindness is the theme.  Doing something for others out of a sincere motivation to help.  Social solidarity in other words.  We’re seeing it right now in the hundreds of Mutual Aid groups across the country.  The communal clapping for NHS and other keyworkers.

It’s our nature to help others, that’s why it’s good for our mental health.  Kindness helps reduce stress and low mood, brings a fresh perspective and boosts our self-esteem.  It is an antidote to isolation and helps create a sense of belonging and community.  Just as cruelty creates a vicious circle, kindness creates a virtuous circle.

This crisis has exposed the faulty wiring of a system that extols competition above cooperation.  People are not economic units, driven by the desire to consume.  Living like that causes no end of harm, for the individual, for society, and for the planet.

Campaigning for economic equality doesn’t make you a ‘social justice warrior’ or a ‘bleeding heart liberal’.  The “selfish consumer” model just doesn’t add up for the bottom line either.   It’s not sustainable and it’s incredibly wasteful. Research shows that in all but the simplest tasks, treating people with humanity leads to higher productivity than disciplining them.

Having kindness and collectivism as a key principle for policy makes good, hard sense.  It builds on our natural inclination towards solidarity and cooperation.  More equal societies are always top of the league for happiness and quality of life.

I’ve quoted from Hobbes and Arendt, and referenced Bregman and Zimbardo.   If we’re looking for a story to model human behaviour, let’s not use Lord Of The Flies.   My youngest son was moved by something more recent.   He has a quote on his wall he chose from Paddington 2.

“If you look for the good in people, you’ll find it.”

Everyone who has clapped for our keyworkers now needs to become a campaigner for change.  As part of the recovery from the pandemic, let’s build on the humanity and resilience shown by grass roots movements.  Let’s end the false economy of cuts and austerity once and for all, and realise that looking after each other makes sound economic sense.

Our ability to cooperate and be kind are our superpowers.  Let’s use them to build back better.