Why The Hidden Logic of the You and Me Is Generosity and Selflessness
By umair haque,
Imagine that there was a tree that grew a billion times taller than all the other trees. Imagine that there was a gazelle who drank all the water in the world, just went on drinking and drinking. Imagine that there was an eagle who never stopped feeling hungry, so he ate all the littler animals, and grew to be the size of a whole continent. Imagine for a moment that there was an ape who owned all the forests and mountains all the other apes lived in, and charged them rent, so they grew impoverished.
Does any of that sound remotely natural to you? Or does it make you laugh? Then why is it that one of the most common responses I get whenever I write about capitalism — from Americans of a certain kind, especially — goes something like this: “You don’t get it, dude! Capitalism is the natural state of the universe! Just look around — nature made us like this!!” Now, since I’ve given you some examples, that statement might strike you as funny, illogical, trivial — but I’d bet on some level, that you might even believe it too. That greed and self-interest and so on of an aggressive kind are perfectly natural — and we must “fight” them if we are to be civilized. Is any of that really true?
This belief — that the universe is a kind of soulless Darwinian machine, which operates solely through predation and profit — is what predominates today. It often justifies our view of both society and ourselves. We believe, most of us, I’d bet, that we are bad people — just animals — deep down inside. And some of us believe we should free those inner “animals”. If “nature” is predatory, greedy, self-interested, violent, brutal, red in tooth and claw — then society should be, too — and we should be also, right? Wrong.
Nature isn’t any of the above. It is very much the opposite. And if we look at nature and all that we see is greed, predation, brutality, and violence, then we’ve seen only what we want to see, because that’s what our ideologies predispose us to. In fact, I think that the universe has something like a soul, or at least a conscience. Shall I prove it?
Let’s consider the simplest fact of life. I have a rare genetic condition — the sunlight can kill me. But I’m the exception that proves the rule. You can’t live without sunlight. But the sun isn’t charging you a profit. It’s just shining. Why is it doing that?
Already, we’ve disproven the idea that the universe, nature, is inherently predatory, greedy, and self-interested just by observing the single simplest fact of life. Let’s keep thinking. The ocean isn’t charging the fish rent, to maximize the profit in some energetic exchange. It’s just shimmering. Why is it doing that? The trees aren’t charging you the maximum amount they can extract from you for recycling the air. Why are they doing that?
Remember when I asked you to imagine if there was a tree that grew a billion times taller than all the other trees? If there was an ape that owned all the forests and lakes? If a gazelle would drink all the water in the world? It would be absurd to think such a thing would ever exist “naturally.” But that is precisely what capitalism — in fact, all our systems of violence, greed, and domination, result in. Bezos, Zuck, and Buffett aren’t the tallest trees in some naturally selected forest, merely towering over the others — they are a billion times taller, reaching all the way to Mars. And that outcome is severely unnatural. We do not observe such a thing anywhere in nature whatsoever.Why is that?
Let me give you another example. Those who think nature is brutal and violent and greedy often give the example (LOL) of primate tribes, and their hierarchies, to justify human hierarchy. But again, if you think about it for even a moment, if human beings were organized like primates — not that they should be — human society would be a far more egalitarian place than capitalism allows. The top ape sits atop a tribe of dozens — but he doesn’t own the forests and the lakes. He doesn’t sit atop whole continents of tribes. It would be absurd to imagine such a thing. And yet that’s precisely what happens in capitalism. Zuck and Bezos and Buffett aren’t at the top of tribes of a few dozens — they’re at the top of societies of hundreds of millions. Why is that?
The reason that the sun is shining, and the ocean is shimmering, not charging anyone rent, or maximizing their profit — or that there is no tree that is a billion times taller than any other — is that because it is “natural” to give, as well as to take. The crucial question is this: in what proportion? By what rule, standard, ethic, principle, should we balance giving and taking? Let’s think about that.
Capitalism says: we should take as much as we can, without regard to anything or anyone else — there is no level of enough that is ever enough. That’s how you end up with Zuck-and-Bezos trees that are a billion times taller — not just maybe twice or thrice as tall. That’s how you end up with the ape-ruling-the-whole-continent, not just the tiny tribe. But this kind of insatiable greed, domination, and control — and the hierarchy, inequality, and fracture they inevitably result in — is severely, badly unnatural. Even though the cloud gives itself to the rain — there is no single raindrop that grows to be the size of a whole continent, is there? This is a profoundly mistaken view of Darwin’s insights. If we look even a little bit, what we see is this.
Nature operates by a very different principle than capitalist greed, brutality, and dominion. It takes only as much as it needs.
Let’s drive the point home. When the lion consumes the gazelle, he is eating as much he needs to live. What he is not doing is consuming the whole flock, skinning it, selling the hides to his fellow lions, and charging them a monopoly price, having cornered the market. Do you see how big this difference is? I have exaggerated it so that you see the point. But it applies in every single one of my previous examples. The sun is giving you sunlight for free — precisely because it is not sucking in all the hydrogen and helium in the whole universe. Do you see how different this is from capitalist logic — or the logic of any system of greed, violence, and control?
Nothing in nature takes more than what it needs to survive. Not a single thing — a fish, tree, plant, animal, or even a star. No living beings hoard, profiteer, plunder, or pillage, to the point that some grow billions of times more than others do — except us — and the only reason we do it is because our ideologies justify it. That is because nothing else in nature derives pleasure or gratification or meaning from violence — because, of course, these are acts of symbolic intelligence, or maybe, and more accurately, human vanity and folly. What does that tell us?
Nothing in nature exploits any other thing. It’s true that living beings consume each other in order to survive. But this is not an act of capitalist exchange in any whatsoever. The lion and the fish are not maximizing their profits. The stars and the wind and the rain are not charging you rent. The fish is not enslaving the sea.
Life consumes life almost as if the universe pulses with a terrible, beautiful whisper of grief and despair — just as much as is necessary, and no more. It as if the universe has a soul.
Only we are different. We are the ones who take more than we need — so much so that some of us grow billions of times richer than others, which is an outcome that cannot be observed anywhere in nature whatsoever. Why is that? It is because we think we need more than we do, obviously. Why is that? It is because we must feel deeply inadequate, insecure, and hope that more, more, more will give us security and safety in what we perceive as a hostile universe.
What we perceive as a hostile universe. Ah, my friend — do you see the link yet? The universe is not hostile. That is what we established above. It is a place of sorrow just as much as it is one of love, the little elephant grieving for his mother, the wind that seems to seek the valley. Nature takes what it needs — and no more — and in that sense, it is neither hostile nor forgiving nor even indifferent. It is something like in a perpetual state of grief, limited by this ethic that the taking of any life, any thing, must be minimized, reduced, shrunken to the minimum possible point, and the most must be given.
That seems to be the true principle at work beneath, inside, beyond all things.
But we, perceiving a hostile world — what do we do? We feel a sense of menace, threat, inadequacy. So we take more and more and more than we need. We build ideologies based on this false and foolish logic — trapped in a hall of mirrors — and the newest of all these is called capitalism. It tells us that if only we acquire and possess the most, we will finally be supreme, above the rest. And in that way, perhaps, we will be safe. We will be immortal — if only symbolically, our names on buildings and stadiums. We will be admired and loved and respected.
Do you see the links of illogic here? Let me spell them out. We begin with a funny and foollish mistake. A very Western one. Not looking deep or true enough into the heart of nature, we see only one side — the side which takes, preys, consumes, devours. So we perceive a hostile universe. We don’t look deep enough to see the truth — that even that side is not greedy and insatiable and brutal as we imagine. Now we must defend ourselves against the bitterly hostile universe we imagine. We must have as much as we can — stuff, things, possessions, power, status, dominion, control That is the only way out of this terrible plight of being trapped in an insatiable universe, which is out to destroy us. We build whole ideologies based on this faulty logic — which then reward us the more cruel, abusive, and harmful that we are. Ideologies like capitalism, or slavery, which justify, glorify, and reward exploitation. We build systems of violence and domination, hoping to control the hostile universe we perceive ourselves to be in.
The beast now has a name — and its name is nature. And since nature encompasses us, too, we must be beastly, too. But we have only created a self-fulfilling prophecy. We suppose that exploitation and abuse and violence are all perfectly natural — since, we tell ourselves, everything, from life to the stars and the wind and the rain, is only self-interested, profit-maximizing, exploitative, insatiable, heartless, self-interested. And yet the sun goes right on shining. The ocean goes right on shimmering. The trees go right on breathing. The rain goes right on falling.
We are the mistaken ones, my friends. The ones who are afraid of life. Of its truth and grace and power. When Darwin understood that life relied on natural selection, he did not mean that nature was a beastly thing. That is a grave mistake. He meant that nature gave and it took — and yet the question he never answered (didn’t he do enough?) was this: by what proportion does it give and take? What is the rule which should balance giving and taking, if we look to nature itself for guidance? Let’s leave aside, for now, whether we should.
Does nature take as much as it can, and give as little as it can? So that some trees grow a billion times taller, so the sun charges you the most it can, so there’s a gazelle who drinks all the water in the world, an ape who owns all the forests and lakes, one raindrop the size of a continent? That is the capitalist law — but it is not what we see in nature in any way whatsoever. Or does it take as little as it can, and give as much as it can? That is closer to the truth of nature. We see it in the lion and the fish as much as in the sun and the ocean. We see it in the stars and wind and rain. We see that that this great and universal law may be the truest one there is: to take no more than what is needed to go on, and to give the most that one can, so that life, being, and time can grow, evolve, transform, change, mature, develop.
The law of nature is not greed, brutality, and violence, my friends. It is a kind of needless generosity in what is given, and a kind of sorrow for every littlest bit that needs to be taken, which limits it to what is only necessary. It is by that law that the universe seems to “operate”, or “work”, but to breathe, laugh, move — to be. That is why it sings with a kind of haunted, lonely, grief, through which pulses a kind of love, truth, beauty, and grace that is mightier still — of which we are all tiny, vast expressions and impressions.
If the universe has a purpose, it is to let as many things be, flourish, develop, as can, given all the others—that is where the ethic above leads — not to reward only a tiny few with existence. Around and around we go, the sun becoming the rain becoming the ocean becoming the sky becoming the trees becoming you and me. That is why when we look at the natural world around us, we are overwhelmed by a sense of beauty and awe, not just ugliness and contempt. Profusion and generosity and connection are the truth of us, too, which we see mirrored in every glimpse we take of the place we are in.
And to me, that is the closest thing to a miracle there needs to be.