I'm going to talk about Brexit in a moment, but bear with me as I set the stage with some philosophical, economic, and political history. The early phase of evolutionary philosophy—beginning with Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley and continuing through to the nadir of Nazi eugenics—was a time most easily characterised by an emphasis on the idea of the survival of the fittest. Darwin's big idea, that natural selection is what drives the evolution of all things, led directly to a simplistic belief that competition reigns supreme in an eat-or-be-eaten world where only the strong survive according to the law of the jungle. The morally disgusting behaviours that resulted from this faulty view of the world drove evolutionary philosophies underground for decades. During that time, scientists refrained for the most part from telling us what we ought to do, but their further study of the way the world really is has led us to realise that in the long run cooperation defeats competition. And cooperation is everywhere. I don't mean the kind of cooperation only seen in altruistic, sacrificial behaviour by noble individuals; I mean the kind of cooperation that can be seen in the actions of rivals not killing other rivals, in predators not hunting prey to extinction, or in species learning to coexist profitably next to one another in small ecosystem niches. This is rarely (if ever) some sort of kind-hearted, well-meaning, intentional cooperation, but this is nevertheless the textbook definition of cooperation: the action or process of working together toward the same end. All life slowly learns to work together in order to symbiotically survive. That is our shared end goal. Every element of life must learn this lesson or it will ultimately fail to remain alive.
Because of this understanding of ecological connectedness and ubiquitous cooperation, a second wave of modern evolutionary philosophy is emerging, one that emphasises this requirement for survival. My own writings on this Evphil website have made the continual call for cooperation towards the goal of survival for all life. In our modern, connected world, this shared goal requires a vast cooperation unlike anything we've ever seen before—a cooperation across individuals, families, tribes, races, nations, and even species. Such cooperation would allow us to attain the one long-term goal we all share (the survival of life), but such cooperation also means we cannot get everything we want all of the time. We must learn to walk the fine balancing act between meeting the needs of the individual and the needs of each collective that is vital to our shared goal. This balancing act is required for a successful democracy, but lately we have seen large swaths of people unable to bear it. I believe this is due to a hangover from the early first wave of evolutionary philosophy.
Once the communist experiment collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union, the concept of neoliberal, market-driven political economies came to unquestionably rule the world. Cooperation became associated with a kind of evil that was imposed by totalitarian regimes from the top down, while competition became the saviour that drove efficiency and the creation of enormous wealth. For a time, this worked. During the 20th century, people were lifted out of poverty around the globe and first-world nations now enjoy technological wonders that make our lives seem like those of gods compared to our ancestors. Unfortunately, the heavy emphasis on the miracles of competition has led many to believe that it is good all of the time and everywhere. Any advantage that can be snapped up, must be snapped up. If you don't agree with this logic, you are standing in the way of progress and you will be run over. If you are 5% slower getting to market, your rival will capture 100% of the profits. The problem with this line of winner-take-all thinking, of course, is that it leads to tremendous income inequality. If you are a basketball star who won a game of inches by making 2% more of your shots, then you deserve the max salary of whatever the market will pay you. If you are a CEO at the helm of a company buffeted by international economic storms, you would be a fool not to negotiate for every cent you can extract from your company. What kind of business leader would do otherwise? And if part of your negotiation means having to move 10,000 jobs to a poor, unregulated foreign economy for the sake of a few million dollars of profit, well that is just what has to be done. Remember, your rivals are doing this too and they will eat you alive if you don't do it first. The neoliberal belief system that built our economic world has made it into one that resembles the mistaken evolutionary model of the law of the jungle.
Such desires to dominate have also infected the political world. Republicans get a slim majority in the House and Senate? Then Obama and the Democrats don't get to do anything. The Tories win a plurality in the last general election? Then it's austerity measures for all, and especially in downtrodden Labour constituencies where the electorate are against you anyway. If you lose by a little, you lose by a lot. That's the motto of a world dominated (literally) by competition. And it's precisely the motto that makes democracy absolutely unpleasant for all. Slim majorities become controlling elites who are later voted (or revolted) back into the minority to take their turn of the punishment of the loser. With all of these natural, economic, and political views about competition and cooperation in mind, let's now look at this week's very unsatisfactory Brexit vote.
On the right, we have half the Tories happy with the current arrangement of the world where access to the European market gives them huge spoils for their competitive wins. These are the London bankers who voted Remain. The other half of Tories though, the OxBridge social and political elites, are worried their dominant position of influence is being threatened by EU technocrats so they're willing to vote Leave and forego a larger pie for the sake of getting to eat whatever they want. Meanwhile, on the left, the majority of the Labour party see the opportunities the EU provides them for organised resistance of the corporate overlords and they voted Remain, but plenty of other Labor voters think the whole system is rigged and they have nothing in common with people from other countries who are also scraping to get by so they voted to try and Leave it all behind. When David Cameron forced this complex and divisive issue into a binary outcome, we arrived at two coalitions in name, but neither of them actually get along with all of the people they voted with. And there is only a slim majority for one of those groups as well. In a neoliberal world, however, where the winner is supposed to get everything, the Leave campaign now fully expect to drag everyone else to a Brexit. This is worse than a simple tyranny of the majority, it's the tyranny of a competitive majority that has been taught by the world around them to be as greedy as possible. We know that 52% of a population could not vote to kill the other 48%, but just how much pain should they be allowed to inflict on the losers? Should 52% of any vote ever lead to 100% execution of the winner's idea? No. Not where compromise is possible. And there is almost always a third choice.
After these close and complicated referendum results, we have been bombarded from the press by stories of palace intrigue with reporters likening all the political battles to fictional ones in House of Cards or Game of Thrones. But does anyone think those Hollywood stories are ones we should be emulating? Most of the joy of watching those TV shows comes from knowing we are safe in our living rooms from the horrors portrayed on screen. In the real world, cooler heads must prevail. It is time for the death throws of the neoliberal obsession with competition to be replaced with a modern evolutionary philosophy of cooperative balance. The next Prime Minister cannot cater only to a slim majority of voters who are quite possibly a minority of residents. She or he must seek compromise. The voters who yearn for a smaller isolationist world must be told they cannot get what they want; such a world no longer exists. And the voters who want to keep winning according to the current economic rules must be told that no one wants to play their game anymore. These are unpleasant truths to everyone, but that is exactly what must be said in a world where everyone cannot get everything they want. That is what widespread cooperation for the long term feels like. Leaders must be prepared to say this, and followers must be prepared to hear this. Don't listen to anyone who says otherwise.