Jonathon Porritt calls for “cooperative capitalism”

3rd May, 2012 by Jonathon Porritt

Competition does not mean destroying everything that stands in your way, says the Founder-Director of Forum for the Future: it means ‘striving together’.

No one can accuse Forum for the Future of lacking ambition in its strategy to help transform three of the big systems on which we depend: food, energy and finance.

But when you dig down into the sort of things that need to be transformed, you realise something even more daunting. That the global economy – the MEGA system of which these three big systems are just a part – runs on software that could have been purpose built to make sustainability a totally unrealisable goal!

By software, I mean the dominant economic theories and big political ideas that have ruled the roost for the last few decades. I summarise them as follows: minimally regulated free markets, driven by competition and increased productivity in order to maximise both economic growth and short-term profits. Or, as some would put it rather more pointedly: "neo-liberal capitalism at its most aggressive".

Competition does not mean destroying everything that stands in your way. It means 'striving together'

It's pretty clear that this software package is not delivering what we need. For Occupy and other radical campaigners, the solution is obvious: ditch it in its entirety, and replace it with a new operating system, free of any corrupt baggage. For the all-or-nothing ideologues of contemporary capitalism, it's equally simple: the software is basically sound – it just needs a bit of fine-tuning. For everyone else, repelled by both extremes, there are a variety of 'optimising' strategies, of a more or less radical persuasion. And that of course is where Forum for the Future finds itself: radical optimisation for a truly sustainable global economy.

Heavy stuff, but how often do we try and get our heads around the deep origins of today's converging sustainability crises – and not just the multiple symptoms? Not enough. And this came to me loud and clear at an intriguing event co-hosted by The Co-operative Group and Forum for the Future, called The Co-operative Opportunity: how to reboot a sustainable economy [see the Special Edition, 'Shared Future']. Our focus there was less on capitalism itself than on the practicalities of ensuring food security for all, the energy systems we depend on, and the role of cooperatives in a green economy.

One of our speakers was David Sloan Wilson, an eminent evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University. He has spent much of his life trying to shed light on the conundrum of altruism: why is it that people (and, indeed, many creatures) do things to help others, often at an apparent cost to themselves? In straightforward 'selfish gene' terms, this altruistic behaviour may put at risk an individual's chance of passing on their genetic material to their offspring.

I wonder how many of the 650 people listening attentively to this man realised they were in the presence of an out-and-out revolutionary. His game plan is nothing less than to demonstrate that natural selection (the cornerstone of Darwinian theory) is just as important at the group level as it is at the level of the individual. And that's why human beings have evolved into such a profoundly social and cooperative species.

So what makes that such a revolutionary thought? Go back to the 'software' of contemporary capitalism: its big ideas and economic orthodoxies. None is more orthodox than the common understanding of competition: that individuals, companies and states can only thrive by 'winning' at everyone else's expense.

You can track that particular creed all the way back to Charles Darwin's colleagues in the 19th century. They systematically 'spun' the great man's work with very catchy metaphors: 'the survival of the fittest', 'nature red in tooth and claw', and so on. Not actually what he'd written, but ever so useful for the politicians of the day to justify their own 'red in tooth and claw' economic policies.

Metaphors are a critical part of contemporary capitalism's software. They don't just act as a mirror of dominant beliefs, they also shape them. As the philosopher Mary Midgley wrote in New Scientist: "Our imagery is never just surface paint, it expresses, advertises and strengthens our preferred interpretations. It also usually carries unconscious bias from the age we live in – and this can be tricky to ditch, no matter how faulty."

Darwin himself wrote eloquently of the importance of cooperative behaviour among different species, and there's now a vast body of academic work which demonstrates that cooperation has been at least as important to the evolutionary success of humankind as competition – if not more so. But you'd never know such a body of work exists from the way politicians and their pet economists prattle on about the 'overarching imperative' of devil-take-the-hindmost competition.

Faulty software – based in this instance on a faulty understanding of the word itself. Competition comes from the Latin 'competare', which does not mean destroying everything and everyone that stands in your way. It means 'to strive together'.

Which is precisely the basis on which economic policy needs to be designed if we are to meet the sustainability challenges of today. It's the essence of what one might describe as 'cooperative capitalism'.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future. www.jonathonporritt.com

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