Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Evolution, Ecology and Politics

It is now almost three years since the economic crash, and the global economy, led by China, is growing again. But the political disturbances provoked by that crisis are still rippling around the globe, and no-one believes that this unrest will soon subside. Why so?

Economics is easy, politics is hard. In its broadest sense, every living species practises economics, by adopting a strategy for sustaining itself over generations from a given set of resources. That doesn't need an MBA from Harvard Business School, or even a brain.

These strategies are immensely varied, but only a few of them involve co-operation with a group of others to provide sustenance and resist predation. Ants and bees achieve this by a complex mixture of biology and communication. Chimpanzees, with whom we share 99 per cent of our DNA, use gestures, cries and facial expressions to build social organisation, including patrolling the boundaries of territory and punishing deviants. They live quite well, but they are limited to a jungle habitat, now under threat from human expansion.

Being physically puny, but requiring large quantities of protein to feed our heavy brains, human beings needed to co-operate in sophisticated ways. It seems that size of brain and communication skills evolved together; as populations grew, more social organisation was required, and more brainpower demanded more nutrition. Larger groups relied on a shared understanding of their worlds, a way of agreeing who owned what, and a system for dividing up their spoils, to sustain co-operation and defence.

Archeological and anthropological evidence suggests that most hunter-gatherer bands were loose-knit and egalitarian; they rejected attempts to impose leadership, and preferred informal methods - ridicule, shaming, shunning - to achieve work effort. But gradually larger groups gained competitive advantage, by seizing key assets such as water holes. Eventually rulers, using new technologies and forms of military discipline, took charge, and finally writing, bureaucracy and organised religion made them stronger.

In human ecology, the struggle between tribes as much as the struggle with natural adversities shaped this development, and the sheer size of societies was often a key advantage. Ancient empires were the most advanced civilisations as well as the most prosperous economies of their day. But alternative political structures sometimes proved more resilient and adaptable. Tiny Greek city states defeated the mighty Persian Empire in the fifth century BC, before war with each other led to their decline.

The Roman Empire was a clear example of how an efficient political system could facilitate a flourishing economy, but it too perished when its military organisation could no longer withstand attacks from Germanic and Central Asian tribes.

Europe's prosperity lagged well behind that of China and the new Muslim empire from this political breakdown until the late middle ages. Then banking and trade, followed by science and technology, allowed Europe to forge ahead in the relative secuity of cities and newly-consolidated nation states, despite continual conflicts. Finally, by 1913 Europe ruled the world, its empires trading with eachother and absorbing colonies into an integrated global economy.

What followed was 40 years of war and political instability, slaughter and economic ruin. Globalisation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had not been matched by political evolution; rivalry between classes and nations over resources and power destroyed Europe's golden age, and allowed the USA to emerge as the world superpower.

Now once again we seem to be entering a period when the global economy has outgrown political institutions, after a long period of rapid growth. During that expansion it was assumed that transnational governance of various kinds would evolve to solve the problems thrown up by the new prosperity. After an unpromising start in the 1950s, the European Community seemed to be achieving this. When the poor and backward dictatorships of Greece, Portugal and Spain achieved democracy, the first thing they did was to apply for membership of the EEC; the same happened when the Central and Eastern European countries escaped Soviet domination ten years later.

Now the streets of Greece and Spain are full of people protesting against euro-austerity. In the UK we face a decision whether to remain a single country after the Scottish election, and the coalition government is committed to a revival of small-scale administration in the Localism Bill.

Politics is difficult because we do not even know the best kind of social unit in which to try to do it. For the past 30 years we have suffered from the delusion that the economy could regulate itself, and politics was dispensible. Historically, the price of that fantasy has always been conflict. If human ecology is not governed by orderly political processes, it will be brutally controlled by war between tribes of one kind or another.

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