by Ted MacGillivray
with Nanette Moss
When I learned from Nanette Moss that her father, Gordon E. Moss, a PhD in sociology, had written a book called The Dawning Age of Cooperation….The End of Civilization as We Know It… And Just in Time, on which he had worked for 14 years, I wished he’d released it much sooner. I’ve been wondering 40 odd years how we might get out of this mess we’ve created, and hoping he had found to avoid the ecological, economic and social collapse which threatens us, and the dictatorship the super-rich are creating to preserve their wealth and power while shepherding us through a coming dark age.
Moss is a serious scholar. He pinpoints with excruciating accuracy the ills of Western/Global society, and blames them on the competitive programming that has always been with us but is today glaringly widespread from cradle to grave, at least in the Western Hemisphere. He foresees a future in which global mankind is cooperative in the finest possible sense, in taking care of the world’s population while caring for the environment in all respects. And, as a thoughtful sociologist, he believes this can be accomplished by changing culture.
Thoughtful practitioners of every discipline want to create the ideal world. In the latter decades of the 20th century, the psychologists fell all over themselves to provide industry with workers who would produce more, and be so happy in their work that they wouldn’t ask for raises. While they were being studied the workers did produce more, but when they found that they wouldn’t actually be rewarded or bribed, they drifted back to their old ways. And who’s to blame them?
Moss has thought this through carefully. He defines cooperation as excluding alliances where competitors work together towards a goal they cannot obtain alone, and excluding the collective action of individualist collectively working towards their individual personal goals. His models of true cooperation (there aren’t that many on this planet) include wolves, the Man o’ War jellyfish, ants and bees, and, in the sphere of humanity, the Hutterites – whom he considers real cooperators — truly committed members of their groups in dealing with their environment. He feels that, through culture, we can eventually achieve world-wide cooperation in its best sense.
But what is this world that Moss envisions? To my eyes, the final result, which he says will take two- or three hundred years to achieve, looks a lot like the world the Communists promised would emerge after the State “withered away.” We would all cooperate happily, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” No, I’m not suggesting that Moss is a communist, but that his dream is a version of the dream most of us share of a fair and just society on this gorgeous planet that “we” seem to be destroying. And I believe he is trying to propose a social contract that will keep humans happy in their work in return for modest resources and ample leisure time. This would dovetail with Buckminster Fuller’s opinion that an unemployed populace, given adequate life-support, would use their free time so creatively that our process of continually doing more with less would asymptotically tend to become doing everything with nothing.
But even if we all agreed on the kind of society we wanted, Moss’ process for getting there is not clear. Two of the models on which he bases his future society are the Hutterites and a particular species of Ant who are physically bred to do specific jobs – one example is a version whose door-keepers’ heads are shaped so that they can wedge them together to block the doorway. I doubt we could do anything similar simply by changing our culture. But look at the Hutterites, an extremely peaceful and productive subculture who live in cooperative communal groups of 100 or so members.
They are innovative farmers, who consistently out-produce their more conventional neighbours. They use the best farm equipment, subscribe to the latest research, repair their equipment and modify it with improvements. Within the commune they use no money – housing, food, clothing etc. are all provided. They choose their leaders for expertise rather than aggressiveness, and they practice a 15th-century form of Christianity. Decisions are made, not by bosses or committees, but by the individuals doing the work. The closest thing to a headman that they have is the commune’s Priest.
But, they are in no way self-sufficient. They buy their farm equipment. They buy their fuel. They get the healthcare freely provided to their members by buying it from outside the community. When the population of the group reaches 100 or so, some of them hive-off and form a new commune. And they avoid territorial conflicts by locating new communes at least 100 miles from existing ones. This suggests that they are quite aware that a potential exists for conflict between individuals and other groups or organizations.
Moss’ scholarship is admirable, and his style so transparent that you don’t need a doctorate to understand him. His criticisms of contemporary Euro-American culture are right on the mark, and his Utopian dream is compelling. He suggests that we start with small groups, and (as I understand it) by our productivity and our social success, convert others — even the aggressive and power-hungry — to the cooperative model. Yet his Hutterite model bothers me. A culture of (Myers-Briggs) ESFJ warm and practical folk has no place for an INTP like me. In a Hutterite community the misfits can leave and are perhaps encouraged to do so, but when the whole world is a commune where is there to go? And while the Hutterites are incredibly good at farming and business, they depend a lot the larger community.
What happens when the number of communities grows so big that their territories are adjacent to each other or to more aggressive groups? With their leaders chosen for expertise rather than aggression, how can they stand up to power groups who have the resources of the world’s multi-national corporations and governments at their fingertips.
Moss’ daughter Nanette feels fortunate to have an intelligent loving father who dedicated decades of his life to studying cooperation, and especially appreciates his musing that true cooperation is impossible at our stage of evolution. Drawing on her own observations of communal groups, Nanette says,
“Various cultures and intentional communities have had communes that worked, but many others have failed due to lack of resources or from strain when the group dynamics shifted. Ideally each person would take on work that they were naturally good at and enjoyed, but that also benefited the whole commune. However, it is unlikely that we would ever have a perfect ratio of talent-to-need. Someone has to do the hard and dirty work that no one wants to do. Also, as in hippie communities, rainbow gatherings and work settings, the success of a group depends tremendously on the personalities of its members, so a group chosen for abilities alone might never gel into a whole.
“The motivated members work, but sometimes others only practice their hobbies, insisting they’re making an equal contribution. This causes resentment and arguments. Shifts in the core group happen, adjustments must be made when members leave or new people come in, destabilizing the group — I think that’s partly what my Dad means when he says humanity is not ready for a truly cooperative society. Some individuals may be, but most of us have a long way to go.
“I have difficulty accepting Dad’s definition of individualism — his definition of individualistic actions is so broad there is no way NOT to be individualistic. I have tried to expand my awareness to include all of humans and the entire universe, but all we can know is from our own experience. All we can feel is through our body and senses. The information we have available for decision-making comes from what our brains process. If he asserts that any action deriving from an individual perspective is by its nature negative, how can we ever behave positively? “
This would require radical changes in human behaviour, which Moss believes we cannot achieve at our present stage of evolution. We would need to eliminate self-interest from all humankind so that each individual is totally committed to the group. Since potential conflict is likely based in elements of the human nervous system (i.e. Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene?”) that are difficult to modify through culture, they would have to be dealt with in some other way – perhaps by selective breeding or other eugenic practices such as the culling of all individuals whose psychological potentials were not considered appropriate. Who will be the judges? – sociologists? psychologists? doctors? cops and soldiers? Or the judiciary? Or the priests and imams?
To consider this Cooperative Society dream, we need more information, especially about ways and means. Can we really accomplish it with memes alone? The Catholic Church was extremely successful in using culture to control human behaviour during the Middle Ages (and even currently). But if the publicly-available, expurgated history books are correct, much of the cultural change and control was a corrupt process done by fear, the rack, the ducking stool, the burning stake and the hangman’s rope. Start small? Perhaps, but how can we guarantee that the small cooperative groups or industries will not inadvertently come in conflict with each other, or with the Elephant.
Ah yes, the Elephant — the Establishment that most of us, in the end, work for. Academics discover principles, relationships, chemical compounds, ideas and the processes by which elements and of living things can be used and manipulated. The Establishment (or the individuals thereof) may accept and use a given discovery or may reject it. If rejected, the discovery might become useful at some future time. Or a brilliant paper may languish on a shelf for generations because it does not fit in with the Establishment’s current intents and plans.
With all respect, I point out that the Landed Aristocracy, titled and untitled, is still with us. These same individuals, others like them and wannabes, sit on the interlocking boards of directors of the multinational corporations and banks that control the economy and the politics of the Western world and more. Many of them are proud descendants of families that have been around since the days of Sumer and Babylon, carefully inbreeding for qualities they value. Their thinking is long-range, so a 300 year time span to accomplish Moss’ cooperative society would not be excessive. But would they cooperate, individually or together, or even accept, the extinguishing of their egos and ids. They would certainly want more details to be sure Moss’ plans would be to their advantage.
The question is “would such radical changes in humanity be to anyone’s advantage?” In our warm cooperative womb, would we lose that spirit of innovation and exploration that has aided our evolution so far, and has driven us to both slaughtering each other and to exploring the threshold of space? Might we become warm-blooded ants clawing up all the planet’s remaining resources? Might we become Borg, trying to assimilate all the organic intelligences of the universe? And if we evolved that far, would the Universal Intelligence let us get away with it? Is there a workable compromise?
We are talking here, not just about the planet, but the whole future of the human race and perhaps all life everywhere. Since the discovery of the second law of thermodynamics, we have comforted ourselves with the concept that we (and I include all living creatures) are the antientropic force that will hold back the universe’s inevitable decline into statisticity, but new discoveries tell us that is not the case: for each unit of energy we convert to a higher form, we expend an equivalent unit in the process – so the net gain Zero.
Nonetheless, Moss’s idea of a world that is truly cooperative is impossible to dismiss and we must consider it.