…essay continued from Chapter 1.
In this section I want to explore on a more specific level why we living beings have mostly forgotten or marginalized the notion of life. To do this, I wish to draw attention to the astonishing interconnections and mutual support between the two guiding metaphysics of our culture. These are (Neo-)Darwinism, with its big idea of biological optimization, in which functional adaptations supposedly create biodiversity, and (Neo-)Liberalism, with its concept of economic efficiency, supposedly creating wealth and equal distribution.
For more than 150 years, both assumptions have become intertwined streams of one coherent pattern of thought that forms the basic matrix of our official understanding of reality. The premises of neo-Darwinism and neoliberalism constitute the tacit, taken-for-granted understanding of “how the world works”. Inside its deep and compact logical structure, the two currents of biological and economic optimization theory are so mutually reinforcing and normative that respectable thoughts considers them beyond question.1
It is not by chance that “eco-nomy” and “eco-logy” are nearly identical terms. Both build on the metaphor of housekeeping and the provisioning of existential goods and services (the Greek word “oikos” means “house”, “householding” or “family”). Both concepts have a particular and related manner of treating the organisation of this existential supply. Both start from the idea that keeping a house – or making a living, for that matter – is a theater of competition and contest whose object is an ever-more-optimal efficiency. In the neoDarwinian, neoliberal narrative, the household is not, however, a place where feeling agents pursue their individual good. The householding process is strangely conceived of as completely subject-less. Its logic does not need to take account of the actual presence of agents. Indeed, it does not need to take life into account at all.
The process is subject-less and self-organised in the sense that eternal, external laws (that of selection and that of economic survival) punish or reward the behaviour of atomistic black boxes called “Homo economicus” – economic man – or in a more modern telling, the “selfish gene”. To yield results in this framework of thinking, neither contemporary economics nor “eco-sciences” need to consider actual, lived experience. The framework has excluded life in the existential, experiential sense. We might therefore say that the prevailing “bioeconomic megascience,” the deep metaphysics of our age, is a science of non-living.
The metaphysics of eco-efficiency mirror 19th century social reality
Both Darwinism and Liberalism were born in pre-Victorian England at about the same time. Their theoretical premises explicitly and implicitly refer to the social conditions and practices of a country undergoing the wrenching disruptions of industrialization. At that time there existed a rigidly stratified society without any structured system of social care and cooperation.
Through their intellectual proximity to each other, Darwinian evolutionary theory and Adam Smith’s free-market theories became a sort of “political economy of nature”. While Charles Darwin was struggling with an explanation for the diversity of living nature, political economist Thomas Robert Malthus proposed an idea that became a pivotal point in the development of evolutionary theory and hence for the still-valid understanding of biology as result of evolution-by-optimization.
Malthus was obsessed by the idea of scarcity as a driving force of social change. There will never be enough resources to feed a population that steadily multiplies, he argued, and a struggle for dominance must necessarily take place in which the weakest will lose. Charles Darwin adopted this piece of socio-economic theory, drawn from Malthus’ observations of Victorian industrial society, and applied it to his comprehensive theory of natural change and development. Interestingly, even the more empirical-biological part of Darwin’s theory dealing with “selection” was not based on observations of long-term natural change. It was based on the experiences and practices of Victorian breeders (Darwin himself raised pigeons and orchids).
The resulting discipline, evolutionary biology, is a more accurate reflection of pre-Victorian social practices than of natural reality. In the wake of this metaphorical takeover, such concepts as “struggle for existence,” “competition,” and “fitness” – which were central justifications of the political status quo in (pre-)Victorian England – tacitly became centerpieces of our own self-understanding as embodied and social beings. And they still are – especially in those parts of the world that even now resemble pre-Victorian England. Biological, technological, and social progress, so the argument goes, is brought forth by the sum of individual egos striving to out-compete each other. In perennial rivalry, fit species (powerful corporations) exploit niches (markets) and multiply their survival rate (profit margins), whereas weaker (less efficient) ones go extinct (bankrupt). This metaphysics of economics and nature, however, is far more revealing about our society’s opinion about itself than it is an objective account of the biological world.
This reciprocal borrowing of metaphors between the disciplines did not only transform biology. It also mirrored back onto economics, which came to see itself more and more as a “hard” natural science. It deliberately derived its models from biology and physics, culminating in the formulation of the mathematical concept of Homo economicus. If you study the liberal classics, which are widely taught in universities, the textbooks still invoke 19th-century economists who mingle concepts from the natural sciences with economic theory. William Jevons was the British economist and logician who postulated that economics describes the “laws of the heart”, and Léon Walras was the French economist who claimed that “economic equilibrium” follows deterministic laws imported from physics.2
The resulting picture – the individual as a machine-like egoist always seeking to maximize his utility – has become the implicit but all-influencing model of human values and behaviour. Its shadow is cast over a whole generation of psychological and game-theoretical approaches to economics. For its part, evolutionary biology has also taken inspiration from economic models. The idea of the “selfish gene,” for example, is not much more than the metaphor of Homo economicus extended to biochemistry.
It should not be surprising in the least that biology and economics have come to function as two branches of one and the same science. Each works with the same structural assumptions and equivalent perspectives in their respective fields of inquiry. And they both exclude the sphere of living beings and lived experience from their description of reality. The great danger of this closed, totalistic pattern of thinking is its capacity to obscure reality and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we are convinced that we have to describe reality as non-living, and treat it accordingly, life and living processes become highly problematic fields of thought and action. They become inscrutable if not suspect.
This is our predicament today. If our formal systems of thought about the biosphere see it as nonliving, this will inevitably engender a lack of concern toward life and to a loss of species and a gross indifference to experience. How many times have the Wall Street Journal or The Economist sneered at the vulnerability of the snail darter and other endangered species threatened by development projects? If we conceive of human beings as Homo economicus, as non-sentient automatons whose behaviours can be described by algorithms, sentience will be ignored if not forbidden and felt experience will be seen as irrelevant. This is exactly what is happening.
By contrast, to see reality as a living process would literally change everything. This is the challenge of Enlivenment as a “transcendent paradigm.” Its insistence that our policies focus on living experience provides the deepest possible ethical leverage for intervening in our global system.3 Of course, this approach is moot in today’s political culture. But political change must start with our imagining of a different reality. Only by imagining a different world have people ever been able to change the current one.
How dualism encloses the freedom of embodied individuality
We can call this alliance between biology and economics an “economic ideology of nature,” or “bioeconomics.” Today it reigns supreme over our understanding of human culture and world. It defines our embodied dimension (Homo sapiens as a gene-governed survival machine) as well as our social identity (Homo economicus as an egoistic maximizer of utility). The idea of universal competition unifies the two realms, the natural and the socio-economic. It validates the notion of rivalry and predatory self-interest as inexorable facts of life. You have to eliminate as many competitors as possible and take the biggest piece of cake for yourself. The economic ideology of nature amounts to a license to steal life from others. In truth, the roots of this thinking precede pre-Victorianism. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously viewed the world as a “war of all against all,” and his times also saw the forcible enclosure of the commons – the private theft of nature’s abundant supplies, which had previously been open in principle to everyone.
This unfolding of modern economic thinking with its endless focus on competition developed in tandem with dualism – the metaphysical division of the world into “brute matter” to be exploited and “human culture” permanently casts human livelihood in a problematic – or even “absurd” – relationship to the rest of the universe.
It is noteworthy that liberal economists openly acknowledge the inadequacy of their worldview even as they cling obsessively to it. John Maynard Keynes, for example, clearly criticized the standard framework of economic thinking as perverting life’s most noble attitudes. “For at least another hundred years, we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still“, Keynes claimed.4 He had a point: Our cultural tradition can only be described as a bond with the devil. But to deny the character of reality never has been a good strategy for resolving a problem.
How nature’s inefficiencies result in enlivened ecosystems
What are the most prominent flaws of our bioeconomic view? What can we say about the validity of the common assumptions of the bioeconomic paradigm? Most if not all of them ignore the fact that we are living subjects in a living world constituted by subjective, creative agents. The orthodox assumptions of bioeconomics already violate the state of the art research in the physical sciences that show that no relationships between subjects and objects are possible if you clearly separate the observer and observed. But what observations in ecology – the natural household – could also push a shift toward an economic Enlivenment?
The prevailing biological view of the organic world – and the picture of man within it – is changing. New research is shifting the paradigm from the Darwinistic idea of a battlefield between antagonistic survival-machines to that of a complex interplay among various agents with conflicting and symbiotic goals and meanings. In the new biological paradigm, the organism is starting to be seen as a subject that interprets external stimuli and genetic influences rather than being causally governed by them. An organism negotiates the terms of its existence with others under conditions of limited competition and “weak causality.” This shift in the axioms of “biological liberalism” is opening up a new picture of the organic world as one in which freedom evolves and organisms, including humans, play an active, constructive role in imagining and building new futures. The natural world as it actually works refutes many axioms of the bioeconomic worldview:
1. Efficiency: The biosphere is not efficient. Warm-blooded animals consume over 97 percent of their energy only to maintain their metabolism. Photosynthesis achieves a ridiculously low efficiency rate of 7 percent. Fish, amphibians and insects have to lay millions of eggs only to allow for the survival of very few offspring. Instead of being efficient, nature is highly redundant. It compensates for possible loss through incredible “wastefulness.” Natural processes are not parsimonious but rather rely on generosity and waste. The biosphere itself is based on a “donation,” the foundation of all biological work – solar energy – which falls as a gift from heaven.
2. Growth: The biosphere does not grow. The quantity of biomass does not increase. The throughput of matter does not expand; nature is running a steady-state economy – that is, an economy where all relevant factors remain constant in relation to one another. Also, the number of species does not necessarily increase; it rises in some epochs and falls in others. The only dimension that really grows is the diversity of experiences: ways of feeling, modes of expression, variations of appearance, novelties of patterns and forms. Therefore, nature does not gain mass or weight, but rather depth.
3. Competition: It has never been possible to prove that a new species arose from competition for a resource alone. Species are rather born by chance: they develop through unexpected mutations and the isolation of a group from the remainder of the population through new symbioses and cooperations (the process by which our body cells arose from bacterial predecessors cooperating in intracellular symbiosis, for example). Competition alone – for example, for a limited nutrient or ecological niche – causes biological monotony: the dominance of relatively few species over an ecosystem.
4. Scarcity: Resources in nature are not scarce. Where they become so, they do not lead to a creative diversification, but to an impoverishment of diversity and freedom. The basic energetic resource of nature, sunlight, exists in abundance. A second crucial resource – the number of ecological relationships and new niches – has no upper limit. A high number of species and a variety of relations among them do not lead to sharper competition and dominance of a “fitter” species, but rather to richer permutations of relationships among species and thus to an increase in freedom, which is at the same time also an increase of mutual dependencies. The more that is “wasted” – and thus consumed by other species –, the bigger the common wealth becomes. Life has the tendency to transform all available resources into a meshwork of bodies. In old ecosystems where solar energy is constant, as in tropical rainforests and high oceans, this brings forth more niches and thus a greater overall diversity. The result is an increase of symbioses and reduced competition. Scarcity of resources, experienced as the temporal lack of specific nutrients, leads to less diversity and the dominance of few species, as for example in temperate coastal mudflats.
5. Property: There is no notion of property in the biosphere. An individual does not even possess his own body. Its substance changes permanently and continuously as it is replaced by oxygen, CO2, and other inputs of energy and matter. But it is not only the physical dimension of the self that is literally made possible through communion with other elements, it is the symbolic as well: language is brought forth by the community of speakers who use it, and in the process, creates self-awareness and identity. Habits in a species are acquired by sharing them. In any of these dimensions the wildness of the natural world is necessary for the individual to develop its innermost identity. This world has become, and not been made by any particular individual, nor can it be exclusively possessed. Individuality in both its physical and social and symbolic senses, can only emerge through a biologically shared and culturally communicated commons.
In the next section we will analyse how these observations are being corroborated by biological science, giving rise to a new, emergent paradigm that is transforming a science of natural objects to a narrative of natural subjects.
1 Andreas Weber (2012): "Natural Anticapitalism“. In: Bollier, D.; Helfrich, S., eds., The Wealth of the Commons. A World beyond Market & State. Amherst, Massachusetts.
2 Léon Walras (1954): Elements of Pure Economics. Irwin; W. Stanley Jevons (1871): The Principles of Political Economy, London: MacMillan; for discussion see Weber (2008), op. cit.
3 For an eye-opening discussion on our limited ability to identify relationships in any given system cf. Donella Meadows (2007): Thinking systems: A primer. Sustainability Institute, v.13, 4-Sep-07.
4 John Maynard Keynes (1991): "The Future”. Essays in Persuasion, London: W. W. Norton.
This essay, "Enlivenment: Towards a Fundamental Shift in the Concepts of Nature, Culture, and Politics,” by Andreas Weber was recently published by the Heinrich Boell Foundation. It is also available to read here on Shareable. Enjoy!