Is competition killing capitalism?

One of the most famous experiments in social science is The Prisoners’ Dilemma. Two men, A and B, are arrested on suspicion of committing a crime. The prosecutor doesn’t have enough evidence to convict either on a principal charge but is confident he can successfully prosecute both on a lesser charge. Keeping them apart, he offers both men the same deal in the hope that one may be persuaded to betray the other and testify that they committed the principal crime. The offer is as follows. If both men remain silent, each of them will serve one year in prison, if they betray each other they will both serve two years and if A betrays B, while B remains silent, A will go free and B will serve 3 years in jail (and vice versa). The only logical answer is for the men to ‘compete’ by betraying each other, and to each serve two years in jail, even though ‘co-operating’, by staying silent, would result in lesser sentences for both. The logic goes like this. B will either stay silent or betray A. If he stays silent, A is better off by betraying B because he will walk free rather than serving 1 year. If B betrays A, A is better off by betraying B because he will serve 2 years rather than 3. The same reasoning applies for B, so if both are thinking logically each will arrive at the same conclusion - that they should ‘compete’ - and both will serve 2 years rather than taking the mutually beneficial, but illogical, decision to co-operate which would halve their sentences. The Prisoners’ Dilemma highlights brilliantly how it is perfectly possible for individuals to make logical decisions which appear to be in their own interests, but which actually cause self-inflicted damage.

Exactly the same principle applies on a much larger scale, where the coherence of our whole human system requires healthy competition to take place within an overarching spirit of mutual co-operation. This is the context within which modern capitalism, driven by the competitive spirit and logic of the left mind, has inadvertently led us to the potentially disastrous consequences of impending climate breakdown. Yet, must we really ‘declare capitalism dead’ as George Monbiot suggests?

Under our globally dominant culture of scientific materialism, our key societal structures have all been designed by a left mind largely unfettered by the moderating influence of the right, with its big picture perspective, sensitivity to nature and primacy of human relationships. It is, of course, these tendencies which make the right mind far more able to comprehend complexity and to create structures which harmoniously balance the needs of individuals and our whole ecosystem. Instead, our current cognitive imbalance has created structures which bring forth excessive competition and discourage co-operation, via the amplification of positive feedback for the accumulation of economic capital, and a dearth of human, social or moral capital which could have an essential moderating effect. Do we therefore really need to kill capitalism or simply counter-balance its undoubtedly damaging impact?

Our capitalist system remains based on Adam Smith’s insight that self-interest is the primary motivator for economic activity, as captured in his famous observation that ‘it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest’. However in Smith’s conception, competition, far from being selfish, would actually serve as a regulator of economic activity by keeping self-interest in check, as a result of the individual’s desire to maintain a positive personal reputation. In Smith’s era, of course, the ‘market’ was arranged around the village green and trade was conducted directly between producer and customer. In this idyllic scene, the principles of free market capitalism as a redistributive mechanism are sound. Power lies with the customer and the ‘invisible hand’ will indeed reward those who provide best quality at fair prices. However, Smith could never have envisaged that 21st century trade would be conducted on such a global scale or that any single company could generate revenues greater than the GDP of most nations.

The corporation was first created in Smith’s 18th century to ‘incorporate’ (meaning to form into one body) the rights of several shareholders as one legal ‘person’. In doing so, we effectively created ‘super-human’ beings with the aggregated self-interest of many people, yet with limited liability for their own behaviour. As their scale grew we shifted power away from the customer, diminishing the essential moderating effect of desired reputation and replacing it with marketing muscle and an insatiable desire for shareholder returns. As commerce shifted from being a relationship-based activity between individual humans, to a transactional activity between corporations and anonymous consumers via the medium of brands, the moderating effect of intrinsic morality also fell by the wayside. A free market, with no restrictions on the size of the companies in it, is like a boxing tournament with no weight categories - no matter how skilful or fleet of foot the flyweights are, the heavyweights will always knock them into oblivion. By creating ‘super-human’ corporations, we inadvertently undermined the ability of civic society to moderate self-interest by ensuring the social sanction of errant individuals.

Our left mind loves companies because they are decontextualized, abstract referents for real world human-beings, but deliver far greater potential for power, status and material wealth than could ever be accrued by a single individual. By incorporating the muscle and brain power of thousands of individuals into one ‘body’, they amplify their ability to compete and in doing so negate the necessity for them to co-operate. As smaller players are put out of business or bought by larger rivals, categories inevitably consolidate until only a few behemoths are left slugging it out. Wealth quickly becomes unevenly distributed as success accrues to the bigger players, with capital and talent flowing to those who already have scale, further amplifying their advantage. Chasing the delusional dream of perpetual growth drives overconsumption to the detriment of the only planet which can sustain us, while the desire to increase year-on-year profits keeps jobs and wages growth behind the earnings curve. Even for employees, therefore, wealth isn’t shared evenly but is disproportionately awarded to shareholders and to the Directors shareholders retain and reward (also disproportionately) for providing them with superior returns.

Corporations are just one aspect of the capitalism we have created, which does not serve the best interests of most humans, nor does it contribute towards a coherent global ecosystem by encouraging healthy competition within an overarching spirit of co-operation. Yet it’s not Adam Smith’s fault. Our current system has been created by our collective left mind. As a consequence it takes a very narrow focus, prioritizing only economic growth while decontextualized from the wider civic, social, moral and spiritual framework within which it should operate. However, it doesn’t have to be as it is. A new system could be developed which has a better chance of delivering behaviours which better balance the wellbeing of both the individual and the collective, but it’s a difficult thing to do. Such is its complexity, there’s not a single person on our planet with the intellectual ability to design such a new system, which would be guaranteed to spread wealth evenly, stop us killing each other over oil, or prevent the irreparable damage we are doing to nature. What is certain, however, is that such a system could only ever be the product of a collective right mind which is conscious of the context in which we live, and which, while valuing the many talents of the left mind, is able to synthesise and therefore moderate the more dangerous aspects of its output.

What is equally certain is that the very people who are best placed to change current capitalism - our societal elites - are also the least vested in creating the systemic change we desperately need. Genuinely democratic political systems are therefore pivotal to changing our thinking and changing our future, for only elected governments, authentically representing the best interests of our planet and everyone on it, have the power to enact the political, economic, social and technological structures we need, if we are to peacefully transition to a higher level of consciousness in which the natural balance of our collective mind is reflected in the dominant global culture we create.

TWO TRIBES

It was back in the 1960’s that Roger Sperry and Joseph Bogen first conducted experiments on stroke patients with severe damage to either brain hemisphere. Perhaps their most fascinating finding was that the right brain has much broader capabilities than the left. When asked to copy a simple drawing of a clock face, patients who were solely dependent on the left hemisphere drew the right-hand side of the clock but completely missed out the left side and its numbers. By contrast, patients who were solely dependent on a healthy right brain drew the whole clock with all of its numbers. While the left hemisphere can only attend to our right side, the right hemisphere can attend to both left and right sides.

Dr. Iain McGilchrist has since explained that this may be rooted in the physiology of the brain. Although the two hemispheres are similar they are actually asymmetrical, containing different configurations of synaptic connectivity. While neurons in the left brain are strongly linked intra-hemispherically, neurons in the right brain are more inter-hemispherically connected, plus have stronger links to our limbic system. In other words, while the right hemisphere is more strongly connected to the other parts of the brain structure, the left hemisphere is more strongly connected to itself. The right brain’s more powerful connections to our senses, plus greater synaptic links to our emotions, may account for its broader focus and outward-looking, contextual orientation, compared to the narrow focus and  inward-looking, self-referring nature of the left hemisphere.

These differences in synaptic connectivity are also consistent with the opposing dualistic versus monistic approaches of each mind. The rather odd, lop-sided synaptic configuration enables us to simultaneously see the world as consisting of polar opposites, whilst also recognizing that the poles are actually connected. In simple terms if we consider any polarity, for example hot and cold, the left hemisphere ‘sees’ these polarities as two distinctly separate taps - one marked hot and the other marked cold. Simultaneously the right hemisphere, while recognizing the polarities, perceives them as if emanating from one single mixer tap, which can deliver hot or cold at either extreme but also countless temperature blends in between. Consequently, the left mind is the seat of our dualism while the right mind processes phenomena as one monistic whole. The relative independence of the left mind also causes it to ‘see’ the right mind as separate and distinct from itself, while, to the more interdependent right mind, the left is simply a complementary part of the same whole to which it belongs - a yang to its yin. While the right mind appreciates the differences between what each mind does, its orientation is towards leveraging the power of their opposite approaches to synthesise both perspectives into one unified and harmonious whole.

As a result, our dualistic left mind is the source of our competitive impulses while our monistic right mind is the source of our desire for co-operation. In any ecosystem, organisms must alternate between competitive and co-operative behaviour to survive, but the two are not equally valuable to either the individual or the collective. A healthy system always requires competition to take place within an overarching spirit of co-operation. Both of our minds ultimately seek to enhance our survival, but they do so by balancing valuable, yet opposite, impulses and it is ultimately the holistic synthesis of their outputs (conducted by the right mind) which optimize our wellbeing. Our left mind protects us by focussing narrowly on ‘me and mine’, while our right mind protects us by recognizing that none of us can live successfully if isolated from an ecosystem to which we are deeply connected. Contrary tendencies towards selfishness or altruism, order or flexibility, individual versus collective freedom and many other such polarities, all therefore vie with one another for our attention. While our competitive left mind perceives all options as opposites in a ‘winner-takes-all’ contest, our co-operative right mind processes options as points on a continuum to be blended. It is the interplay between left and right which maintains a healthy, dynamic stability within our human system. Our wellbeing is optimized when they are harmoniously integrated but, while this is our collective preference in large groups, rarely are we balanced as individuals, instead tending to hold a dominant preference towards one cognitive mode or the other.

Observant readers may detect a clear alignment between the respective approaches of our two minds, with what are generally considered to be ‘conservative’ versus ‘liberal’ lenses on the world. It is certainly no accident that our key political polarities are derived directly from the operating modes of our two hemispheres. The brain is ultimately the source of all human creations and politics is no exception. Those of us with a dominant right mind will instinctively tend towards a more liberal or universalistic outlook, while people with a strong preference for the left mind are more often socially, economically or politically conservative. However, none of us ever thinks exclusively with either hemisphere and we are all capable of using both sides of our brain to reach appropriately nuanced conclusions. This superior quality of thinking does however necessitate a higher level of consciousness, and a willingness to expend the cognitive energy required to achieve a better blend. A degree of intellectual humility is also essential to overcome the effects of the ego, and to create a climate of respect in which co-operative behaviours can supersede our competitive instincts.

Industrial Revolution - An Alternative View

Before the Industrial Revolution North-West Europe was an advanced agrarian society, featuring complex divisions of labour, an extensive trading network and an emerging manufacturing sector. However, the main energy sources propelling ‘industry’ were still human and animal muscle supplemented by wind and water power, all of which were inefficient and unreliable. Ultimately these energy sources required land, so as land became more expensive so too did the power required to work it. A transformational breakthrough arrived in 1776, when James Watt perfected the ability of the steam engine to convert heat into motion, unleashing its potential to transform society by increasing productivity. At the time Britain was ruled by land-owning elites to whom the common man was little more than a feudal vassal, so Watt’s invention also liberated working men and women from agricultural servitude. They flocked from the countryside to the burgeoning towns where, as newly enlightened individuals, they could pursue their own path to personal prosperity. 

By 1870 Watt’s steam engines would generate 4 million horsepower p.a. and Britain’s economic development took off on a steep upward trajectory. Factories churned out inanimate objects with increasing efficiency and decreasing cost, making goods available to the common man which were previously accessible to only the wealthy elite. Fuelled by market liberalization, industry rapidly grew the British economy and the personal prosperity of many of its citizens. A burgeoning middle-class emerged and the wages of British workers consistently grew ahead of those in continental Europe. However, while the new machines drove economic growth, the invisible hand of the market didn’t distribute the wealth evenly. Those with capital to invest expanded their riches, while those without capital often worked in dangerous conditions and still lived in relative poverty.

Inevitably the gap between rich and poor grew and former class distinctions reappeared as social hierarchies. Many workers found they had simply swapped one form of servitude for another, replacing the land-owning elites of the agrarian era with the factory-owning elites of the industrial age. Even those who stayed in the countryside weren’t immune to the impact of mechanization, with farm workers attacking threshing machinery which threatened to replace them and destroy their livelihoods. In 1845 Friedrich Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England, in which he described the appalling conditions he witnessed in Manchester, and the experience influenced The Communist Manifesto he co-authored with Karl Marx just three years later. To Marx and Engels the issues with industrialisation seemed clear; it was driving social development at breakneck speed but was doing so at a great cost, driving human-beings into wage slavery and urban squalor as cogs in industrial machines, while destroying nature and emptying the countryside of future generations.

The Industrial Revolution represented the left mind’s most audacious attempt to cement its superiority over the right and delivered a significant shift in our collective cognition. It was the ultimate expression of mankind’s dominion over nature and resulted in the rapacious exploitation of natural resources for the purpose of making ourselves rich. Imbuing inanimate objects with great value inevitably narrowed our focus from living organisms to ‘things’ which, for the left mind, is infinitely preferable because ‘things’ are more controllable than ‘beings’. The right mind deals with aspects of experience which are ambiguous, unpredictable and often difficult to manage, subject to the everyday flux and flow of the real world. By contrast an abstract world of machines, production lines and physical objects is utopian to the left mind; controllable, foreseeable and replete with absolute certainty. To Protestant capitalists, steam power must have seemed like a gift from their God and confirmation of their righteousness in His eyes. Until then their main source of power had an annoying habit of answering back, following irrational desires and getting sick, none of which were characteristic of machines.

The impact on the mind of the ordinary worker was immense. As country folk gravitated towards industrial cities they became more detached from the very nature under assault by their new employers. Rural areas not only lost their labour force but came under the increasing control of management methods which saw genuine wildlife and wilderness disappear. Towns too became unnatural places, the planned product of the left mind’s abstract intelligence. Architects replaced the imperfect forms of the countryside with invariant shapes such as perfect circles and linear grids, which are found nowhere in nature but are loved by the left mind. As towns and cities grew, the innately social animals now living in urban squalor became ever more isolated; physically closer yet never more emotionally distant from each other, unable to recreate the natural pace and social support structures of rural life, in an alien environment.

Social disintegration is unquestionably one of the lasting legacies of the Industrial Revolution and has left a painful and permanent scar on the Western psyche. The shift from rural to urban life created ‘societies’ which were little more than groups of atomistic automatons, each chained to a wheel of social progress from which there was little chance of escape. Many ended up as paupers, ignominiously placed in the poor houses, their dreams shattered by the harsh realities of social breakdown and the loss of any sense of belonging. The word ‘belonging’ shares the same etymological root as ‘longing’ and they are connected by the powerful sense of emotional attachment, to people or place, which is so essential to human happiness and which is destroyed by social disintegration. It is ultimately such attachments, our web of relationships with people and places, which give our life meaning and without which we feel anchorless and adrift.

So, while many people did improve their standard of living and set their descendants on a path towards greater economic prosperity, there was also a huge price to pay. Rapid industrialisation and urbanization destroyed the social fabric of real-world rural life - the rolling hills and meadows of the right mind - and replaced it with the mechanistic factories and rectilinear landscapes of the left mind, which are every bit as alien to our instincts as living on Mars. In doing so, their wheels and cogs crushed our intuitive sense of connection to the natural world, deeply denaturing us and shattering our sense of belonging to place and time. Moreover, they cut our deep social bonds with each other, fragmenting our ‘societies’ into the aggregates of separate individuals they remain to this day.

Through the Industrial Revolution the left mind finally revealed the full extent of its ambition. For the first time in history it stepped beyond its role in decontextualizing the real world and instead attempted to manufacture an outer world of its own design. Full of inanimate objects which could be categorized and quantified, all conforming to schematic blueprints which were infinitely repeatable, the mechanistic world was utopian to the left mind because it was devoid of the frustrating foibles of the human alternative. If the left mind could create an external environment in its own image, it would no longer be limited to an abstract version of real life but could instead operate directly in the inanimate outer world it had created. The right mind would no longer be required to interpret unpredictable phenomena because the outer world would now be automated, consistent and certain; full of lifeless objects manufactured and controlled by the left mind. At last, its cognitive superiority would be secured. The right mind could continue to provide its imaginative interpretation of what was ‘out there’ but it would no longer be subject to flux. The real world would be fixed and fool-proof, no longer the subjective narrative of a flawed right mind but the objectively perfect product of an imperious left. And thus, the left mind exposed its own biggest weakness - its inability to see the bigger picture.

Thinking about Thinking

Our ability to think is something we all take for granted yet rarely do we ever think about our thinking. We just, well, think. How much better might the world be if more people stopped to think about the quality of their thoughts before allowing them to manifest in damaging actions?. We all have two brain hemispheres which process everything we experience in directly opposite ways. Our left hemisphere takes a narrow focus while the right hemisphere pays broad attention and there are good evolutionary reasons for this modus operandi, dating back to when we were hunter-gatherers. In summary we need a narrow focus to find our source of food, while simultaneously scanning our environment to avoid falling prey to larger creatures. This simple, dual mechanism evolved to aid our survival and, while most of us no longer have to escape from lions on the African savannah, it still drives our thinking and everything we consequently create. The narrowly-focussed left mind is the source of all our conservative impulses, while our liberal instincts arise from the bigger picture perspective of our right mind. Our thinking is ultimately the net effect of these contrary cognitive modes and must be consciously blended to ensure high quality output. We might ponder the logic of an adversarial political system which effectively pitches one brain hemisphere against the other and be a little less surprised at the inability of Parliament to work across parties for the good of us all.

Evolution also designed our brains to be lazy (again conserving energy to aid our survival) so we often leap to conclusions and fail to check our unconscious impulses, leading to imbalanced considerations and polarized attitudes. In The Master and His Emissary Dr. Iain McGilchrist provides powerful evidence that it is primarily through our right mind that we engage with the outer world, via its stronger connections to our senses and the limbic source of our emotions. Through the ‘real world’ experiences of our right mind, we prioritise living organisms over inanimate objects, feel emotions such as empathy and are attuned to the fluid inter-relationships between organisms. This provides the holistic outlook which underpins all of our universalistic or liberal impulses. However, the real world also provides a sensory overload which is too complex for us to cope with, so our left mind decontextualizes what the right mind offers, literally re-cognizing its experiences to assess them against abstract schematic structures of associative memory. Core to this function is categorization, our energy-efficient method of making associations at the collective rather than the individual level. This enables us to process categories such as ‘cars’ ‘cats’ or ‘Muslims’ without having to deal with the energy-depleting nuance of individual, ‘real world’ vehicles, felines or people of Islamic faith. We couldn’t function without this brilliant process but it does mean that our left mind is relatively detached from reality and unemotional in its processing of phenomena, which can become a problem when those phenomena are people. When we categorize we automatically homogenize everyone in a group – assuming them to be more alike than they actually are – and we also polarize between groups – assuming them to be more different than in reality. Our left mind also creates hierarchies, prioritizing those groups of which we are a member, so ‘me and mine’ takes precedence over the ‘other’.

On its own our left mind is therefore the source of the narrow self-interest we all show from time to time, which must be moderated by empathy for others and our ability to see the bigger picture. On its own the right mind can be oversensitive and emotional, requiring calm, reasoned consideration to counteract its impulsiveness. The uncaring conservative narcissist and the bleeding-hearted liberal snowflake aren’t merely caricatures, but the authentically polarized outputs of inappropriately blended thinking. We all have two brain hemispheres, no-one thinks with only one and we are all perfectly capable of balanced, whole-brain thinking. However, we often do develop a preference which our lazy brains allow to become amplified when we fail to apply the moderation of the opposite mode. Political extremism, on both sides of the debate, is simply the outer-world expression of a brain hemisphere insufficiently stabilized by its partner.

Critically, it is our right hemisphere which provides the essential third-phase blending function (right-left-right) and to achieve balanced cognition we require access to a higher level of consciousness. The big challenge for human beings is therefore “how do we elevate our consciousness and re-establish the right hemisphere as our dominant cultural influence?”. Only by enacting solutions to this question will we have a realistic chance of building societies in which respect for the individual and tolerance of pluralism co-exist, and in which healthy competition takes place within an overarching spirit of mutual co-operation. This is the critical challenge facing global humanity and one which must be tackled by people of all political hues, but particularly those on the liberal left who already have a head start over their conservative counterparts. There is no single ‘silver-bullet’ solution but adopting an organic worldview, practising meditation, enhancing our creativity and increasing the influence of women are just some of the practical steps we can take.

ADVERSARIAL POLITICS

While our economic system is critical, the ability of politicians to pass legislation which influences almost every aspect of our lives, makes our political structures the most important of all in our human system. Politicians are elected to represent us so should faithfully represent the naturally balanced nature of our collective mind. To do so, they should operate within a political system which is an outer-world manifestation of our optimised inner world; offering opposing tendencies towards conservative order and liberal freedom but ultimately delivering dynamic stability, balanced coherence and an environment in which healthy competition takes place within an overarching spirit of mutual co-operation. Yet it is no co-incidence that most Western democracies are structured around just two political parties, one representing the perspective of our conservative left mind, the other advocating the views of our liberal right mind. Whether Republican and Democratic or Conservative versus Labour, parties actually operate within political structures created by the dualistic left mind, which is adversarial in nature and more competitive than co-operative. Remember, our left mind automatically sees everything as two polar opposites, while our right mind recognises polarity but seeks to integrate and synthesise. Only an out-of-control left mind could design a political system in which it is effectively pitted against our right mind, in a winner-takes-all competition. Yet, due to the powerful cultural dominance of scientific materialism, most Western democracies still employ just such a system, rather than one which facilitates valuable collaboration between our two minds.

The reason often offered in support of the UK’s adversarial, first-past-the-post system, is that it provides the greatest order while alternatives will lead to chaos. We can almost hear the confabulating cogs of the left mind turning to produce such a rationale. While, from the point of view of the winning party, it may well be more stable to have a single party (and single brain hemisphere) dominate for a five-year term of government, it does very little for the quality of cognitive output created. Nor is it beneficial for the health of the whole ecosystem, if we experience periodic cycles in which the pendulum swings from a left-minded, right-wing party to a right-minded, left-wing party. Once we grasp the degree to which our key political polarities and their concomitant parties are a direct manifestation of our two minds, we may realise that an adversarial, winner-takes-all system makes exactly as much sense as asking our heart to run our body, while our lungs take a vacation. Like our vital organs, our two minds must work together to create coherence and so should it be with our politicians, the representative organs of our political system. 

Unfortunately, we’d only need to watch Parliament in action for five minutes to see that the ‘game’ many politicians are asked to play makes collaboration very difficult because, within any adversarial system, competition is strongly incentivised over co-operation. Party lines are clearly drawn and members are often ‘whipped’ to vote in accordance with the wishes of their party. Tribalism and unquestioning loyalty to one’s in-group therefore become paramount. For the left mind, a first-past-the-post system is always optimal because it allows the largest party to dominate parliament, even with a minority of popular support. This winner-takes-all attitude is a mantra of the left mind and as a consequence all parties, irrespective of their natural inclination, are strongly incentivised to spin, lie, cheat, threaten and manipulate, in order to come out on top. Once elected, decisions which should be made for the good of the whole community are not made via the consensual interplay of opposing minds, but by the imposition of the will of one group on everyone else - exactly the preferred mechanism of the power-hungry left mind.

The right mind is also in danger of becoming disengaged, if continually forced to play against an aggressively adversarial opponent. When the rules of engagement are dictated by the competitive left mind, it becomes almost impossible to work towards collaborative win:win solutions if your counterpart is only willing to play a game of win:lose. It also becomes disadvantageous for any participant to be open, honest and to play the game fairly, if an opponent will do whatever it takes to win at any cost. Many instinctive liberals are therefore put off, by the system itself, from participating in politics and research shows that women in particular find the nature of male-dominated, adversarial discourse to be unappealing. The very kind of people who might therefore bring greater hemispheric balance to politics are often under-represented within parliaments, as are those from a working-class background who could provide counterweight to the exclusively middle or upper class upbringing of elites. Consequently, any attempts to radically alter the system, from within the system itself, tend to be resisted by those with most to gain from the preservation of the status quo. Those liberals who are courageous enough to enter the fray, soon encounter obstacles to change which drain their energy or they may simply ‘catch the culture’, sucked into playing the game as it currently stands and losing sight of the need for structural change to the system itself. In order to perform more effectively within the prevailing system, ideologically-liberal individuals (or parties) may even become tempted to dial up the influence of the left mind to enhance their ability to compete and, in doing so, lose touch with their core values.

All political parties will ultimately act in their own self-interest, so it is up to voters to create the conditions in which their self-interest is aligned with a new, more consensual, less competitive style of politics. The first-past-the-post system is sustained by Labour and the Conservatives because it almost guarantees one of them a majority, yet it is clearly in the self-interest of most citizens that the politicians they elect actively collaborate to develop and execute policies which reflect the balanced wishes of the majority of the electorate, rather than simply imposing the views of the largest minority on everyone else. Some citizens do campaign for a voting mechanism which delivers a more proportional representation of elected MP’s to votes cast for each party, but in a referendum in 2011 a proposal to replace first-past-the-post with a more proportional Alternative Vote system, was rejected by the UK electorate. Research regularly shows that we don’t always act in our own best interests. Indeed, we live in cultures in which most of our major societal structures have been created by the left mind, in which aggressive competitiveness is revered and rewarded, collaboration is perceived as disloyalty, and co-operation can be considered a sign of weakness. Perhaps most significantly, many of us have become so disenfranchised by the self-evident flaws in our political systems that we have simply given up on them and, in doing so, have gifted their dominion to elites who abuse them and therefore abuse us. Our political systems were designed for a bygone era, in which the wealthy and influential decided how society should be ordered, but in these post-modern, technology-enabled times with a highly educated and widely connected citizenry, there can be no excuse for anyone being disengaged from politics or failing to have a say in how our world is shaped. At some point we may wake up to the fact that our political and economic systems do not have to be as they are - dominated by elites working in collaboration with corporations and the mainstream media. They can change and ordinary people can change them.

By elevating our personal consciousness to become more aware of the deep flaws in our current political system, and more engaged with politicians and their policies, we can better influence them to develop the economic, social and technological structures we need to build a better future for our planet and everyone on it. Carl Jung’s words are possibly even more relevant today than when he wrote them ‘A mood of universal destruction and renewal….has set its mark on our age…..Coming generations will have to take account of this momentous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science…..So much is at stake and so much depends on the psychological constitution of modern man…Does the individual know that he is the makeweight that tips the scales ?

WORLD REFUGEE DAY 2018

Inside the mind of Trump.

World Refugee Day 2018 sees an explosion of controversy over the Trump administration’s incarceration of migrants crossing the Mexican border and the forced separation of families. People worldwide are expressing their revulsion at images of caged children and audio recordings of them crying for their parents. Yet many observers also appear to be unmoved, claiming that the migrants are ‘illegal’ and therefore should be treated like criminals. Within the last 24 hours a female news reporter has broken down live on screen, unable to even report such stories, while a male commentator has been widely criticised for mocking a 10-year-old with Downs Syndrome who was separated from her mother. How is such diversity of perspective possible? The answer lies in the modus operandi of the human mind.

Our brains work by leveraging the mutual independence, but interdependence, of the two hemispheres to benefit from the contradictions they create. In its simplest expression, the left mind focusses narrowly while our right mind takes a much broader outlook and this is an evolutionary mechanism designed to help us survive. With a narrow focus we enhance our chances of finding food, while with a simultaneous wide focus we also reduce the likelihood of us becoming prey. Each mind produces a very different view of the world but, via the integration of opposites, we make sense of what we experience. Healthy, balanced thinking requires the blending of opposing cognitive impulses and it’s the failure to mix them appropriately which is the root cause of perspectival ‘extremism’.

Our right mind is more strongly connected to the real outer world plus the limbic source of our emotions, while the left mind is responsible for our inner world of abstract mental models. While both our minds ‘process’ human beings, the broader focus of our right mind perceives that we are all members of multiple groups which are ultimately nested within one global human community. Our right mind makes no hierarchical distinction between individuals, considering them all to be of equal value, but it ultimately gives primacy to the group over the individual. Our left mind also perceives individuals and groups but takes a narrower focus, prioritizing the individual over the group, and its categorizing function always distinguishes between groups. Its automatic homogenization within groups and polarization between groups, exaggerates the similarities of those in the same group and the differences between individuals in different groups. Groups are also automatically prioritized with in-groups always taking precedence over out-groups. 

The two minds therefore take a radically different approach to concepts such as freedom and justice. Both minds place great value on individual freedom but each has a unique lens on the matter. For the left mind, with its narrower focus and primacy of the individual, freedom is the right to be left alone with minimal interference from any outside group. The right mind, with its wider lens and deeper links to emotions such as empathy, more powerfully perceives the relationships between people so considers that individual freedom can only be achieved within an ecosystem which offers relative equality for everyone. From its broader perspective, the wellbeing of the individual is interdependent with the health of the whole ecosystem, while the left mind’s primary interest is in protecting us and those closest to us. So, with this as its priority, it is automatically more self-centred than the right mind. Its narrower focus prioritises the interests of ‘me and mine’ over the interests of others, while its natural categorization and lower empathy means that people, beyond those it knows personally, exist less as unique entities and more as faceless members of homogenous groups.

In short, while our left mind prioritizes personal freedom for those in our in-groups, our right mind wants freedom for everyone. This is a crucial distinction and makes sense of the United States’ decision to withdraw from the UN’s Human Rights Council. There is clear alignment between the respective approaches of our two hemispheres with our conservative versus liberal lenses on the world, and it is no accident that our key political polarities are derived directly from the operating modes of our minds. Our brain is ultimately the source of all human creations and politics is no exception.

The peculiar perspectives of the left and right mind are similarly reflected in their approach to justice. In the left mind, reductionism automatically offers separation as our favoured solution for ‘criminal’ behaviour, so incarceration (which ensures a physical barrier between a ‘me and mine’ and the undesirable ‘other’) is the logical solution. The left mind doesn’t see out-group members as individual mothers, fathers or children but as a homogenous group marked ‘refugees’, so it has no qualms about denying personal freedom to such faceless collectives. Lacking in empathy, the left mind genuinely does so without feeling guilty because, from its dualistic perspective, such categories of ‘bad’ people threaten the rights of ‘good’ people and it is perfectly legitimate to deny them the freedoms we demand for ourselves, to maintain collective order for the majority. Naturally, the ‘majority’ tends to correlate strongly with our in-groups. Conversely, the integrative right mind seeks to create harmony through unification, so is instinctively co-operative in comparison with the competitive left mind. The right mind therefore believes that empathy and love are more valuable tools than force and separation, in ordering society.

Global society is currently experiencing a titanic battle for dominance between the left and right minds. The left brain/right wing impulses of Trump’s administration, the UK’s ‘Brexiteers’ and the Italian Interior Minister’s call for a census of the Roma population are dialectic responses to the increasing liberalisation of global society. An unfettered left mind will invariably lead to the disintegration of human communities worldwide and result in further violence and suffering. Only the synthesising qualities of the right mind are capable of elevating human consciousness to the level required for the harmonious integration of our species. Which path will we take?

MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS WEEK 2018

How our species is making itself mentally ill.

The WHO estimates that as many as 10% of the world’s population suffer from some form of psychological disorder – over 700 million cases worldwide. Mental illness is a common occurrence in all regions of the world, with no significant difference between rich and poor nations. It is also undertreated everywhere. Even in wealthy countries, less than one-third of those mentally ill are in receipt of treatment and no government spends more than 15% of their total health budget on mental healthcare, despite psychological disorder being a far greater source of human suffering than physical pain.

The chaotic outer world we have created is extremely damaging to our mental wellbeing because it challenges the ability of the mind to sustain itself within a natural, healthy range of equilibrium. Global culture is ultimately the manifestation of thoughts and feelings, because all of our actions must first originate in the human cognitive system. While it may be more obvious that our personal behaviour is the output of our own cognition, it is no less true that our collective actions, as an entire species, are ultimately the result of the thoughts and behaviours of all of us. While we may not wish to admit it, the communities, cultures and conflicts we experience are what emerge when we put our minds together.

In short, we are making ourselves mentally ill. The outer world chaos causing our major life stresses is ultimately the product of the very same brains which are suffering from our self-inflicted, societal sickness.

Our modern minds share many characteristics, not only with each other but also with schizophrenia. Core to the connection is hyper self-consciousness in which, rather than simply experiencing life, we become prone to standing back and analysing our social interactions from a position of detached observation. According to Louis Sass, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University, hyper-consciousness can cause people to ‘stare’ at the outside world as if it were an inanimate object, rather than engaging with it as a living organism. In doing so we move beyond a healthy range of equilibrium between thinking and just ‘being’ and start to overthink every encounter, becoming more self-conscious than is good for us. The more we retreat from the outer world, the more we become alienated from our own bodies and from the feelings which make us human and give us a sense of wholeness.

As a result we lose touch with our intuitive sense of context and connection, both of which give meaning to our experiences; experiences which feel fragmented and incoherent as a result, causing us to retreat a little more. However, the further we withdraw the more we become alienated from our own body, leading to a sense of devitalization, listlessness and inner numbness in which everything physical and emotional is cut off from us.

This ‘anaesthetised state of modernism’ can easily lead to social alienation and extreme loneliness, but also to paranoia and other mental illnesses which appear to be peculiarly pervasive in modern times. Instances of schizophrenia appear to be very rare before the 18th century but grew with industrialization throughout the 19th century and increased dramatically in the 20th century - a pattern which can be consistently traced across Europe and North America. Today, the condition is more widespread and more severe in first-world and Western nations and the risk of developing schizophrenia is almost doubled in urban versus rural environments.

There is evidence that a number of very common, modern-day mental illnesses may all find their root cause in an overly dominant left mind and a correspondingly deficient right mind. For example, multiple personality disorder shares many symptoms with schizophrenia and hemispheric imbalance may also be central to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. Overreliance on the left mind can lead to a self-image which becomes psychotically distorted, leading to self-loathing and self-harm. Then there are conditions such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome which are both thoroughly modern maladies, first described in 1943 and 1944 respectively. Many of their defining characteristics such as a lack of social intelligence, difficulty in interpreting implicit meaning, low levels of empathy or imagination, obsession with minutiae and feelings of alienation from the body, are all strongly suggestive of left-mind dominance and an underperforming right hemisphere.

What all of these conditions have in common is a sense of ‘dissociation’; either feeling or craving to be cut off from the outer world and from one’s own embodied existence, resulting in a lack of emotion, a lack of connection with other living organisms and a fragmented sense of the unitary self. While no medical professional would suggest that the causes of such complex conditions can be simply defined or that the patterns of dominance and deficiency manifest in the same way in each case, they do all appear to have some degree of hemispheric imbalance, in favour of the left mind, as a core component. What’s more, they have all become much more prevalent in the modern era. While accounts of ailments such as melancholia and manic depression are easily recognizable in texts from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, no such descriptions of schizophrenia or similar conditions appear from those times.

Of greatest concern is when such ailments move from being random, individual afflictions to become culturally-conditioned and endemic within our societies. The more we individually rely on the left mind, the more we collectively empower it to define what is culturally ‘normal’ and to thereby influence the unconscious minds of everyone around us. It is therefore perfectly possible that entire societies have slowly dissociated their collective left mind from an increasingly deficient right, not only causing mental illness to become more widespread but also allowing its behavioural symptoms to become culturally normalized. As psychiatrist R.D. Laing pointed out back in the 1960’s, culture plays a dual role in the development of mental illness by creating the pressures, stresses and strains which increase psychotic behaviour but also by setting the norms against which sanity is judged.

In Western culture the defining characteristics of good mental health - a clear sense of self, positive self-image, temporal awareness plus skills in self-organization and reasoning - all require that an individual’s outlook is consistent with the Newtonian-Cartesian framework. This is not only regarded as the principal frame of reference but also as the only accurate description of reality, so everyone must force fit their experiences into the prevailing framework for fear of being labelled insane. Conversely anyone operating solely in the Newtonian-Cartesian mode is considered to be ‘normal’, as defined by scientific materialism, but cannot truly be considered to be mentally healthy. Such individuals may typically lead a goal-oriented life and be driven, competitive and ego-centric, focussing narrowly on manipulating the outer world and measuring success solely in terms of material wealth. Psychiatry shows that for such people, no level of wealth, status or power can bring sustained satisfaction or lasting happiness, so their inner world becomes infused with a sense of pointlessness which no amount of external success can alleviate.

A life dominated by the left mind is unquestionably ‘the madness of our dominant culture’ yet extends right throughout Western society from the ordinary person to the academic, corporate and political elite. How else might we explain a culture in which political leaders who proclaim their willingness to commit genocide using nuclear weapons are lauded, while any leader who makes it clear they would never push the nuclear button under any circumstances, is considered to be weak and lacking in patriotic loyalty?

THE CONSEQUENCES OF CATEGORIZATION

The Consequences of Categorization

The horrific case of eight-year-old Asifa Bano recently rocked India and the wider world. Belonging to a nomadic Muslim tribe of cattle-herders, Asifa was held captive by eight Hindu men for a week, drugged and repeatedly raped before being murdered. Her killers included a retired government official and two serving police officers, all members of a Hindu fundamentalist group whose objective was to terrorise the Muslim nomads and drive them from Rasana, a largely Hindu village in the Jammu and Kashmir province of Northern India.

As evil and inhuman as this case undoubtedly is, the behaviour of these men was ultimately the product of the human brain we all share, and rooted in the natural, valuable yet potentially dangerous cognitive process of categorization. Categorization is the left mind’s energy-efficient tool for simplifying the vast richness of the real outer world experienced by the right mind, in which abstract categories such as ‘dogs’ or ‘cars’ don’t exist, only each individual canine or vehicle we encounter. It is not in our interests to devote valuable energy to processing the myriad of differences which distinguish one dog or car from another, so our left mind serves us well by decontextualizing each entity and by allocating it to categories it calls ‘dogs’ and ‘cars’. Categorization allows us to make simplified but useful generalizations about all category members, without having to recall the detail of each individual entity’s uniqueness. Dogs can then be generically associated with a category called ‘sticks’, rather than having to associate specific dogs with specific sticks, which would involve far too much energy-depleting effort.  This is an essential skill which we couldn’t function without.

However, categorization can become extremely dangerous when groups of human-beings are involved. When we categorize we also automatically homogenize group members, making individuals seem more alike than they truly are by ironing out their distinctive nuances. Thus individuals within categories such as ‘Muslims’ or ‘immigrants’ or ‘the unemployed’ are all considered to be the same, despite their many personal differences, We also automatically polarize, making each group seem more different than they truly are from other groups (which have also been similarly homogenized) by exaggerating their differences and ignoring any similarities they may share. Finally, we create positive or negative stereotypes for all groups and almost always show a strong preference for groups we are members of, as well as bias against those groups of which we are not members. Thus division, suspicion and demonization of ‘the other’ can easily manifest in sectarian hatred and violence, even against innocent souls such as Asifa.

Clearly, other cognitive failings contributed to the appalling behaviour of the perpetrators of this crime, such as the lack of empathy for another human-being (particularly a child) we might expect from fully-functioning adults, or the self-control required to override any negative emotional impulses experienced as a consequence of Asifa’s ‘categorization’. Nevertheless, the net effects are the same cognitive outputs which enabled ordinary German citizens to become passionate advocates of Nazi ideology, which enabled previously moderate Hutus to slaughter their Tutsi neighbours in Rwanda and which are currently permeating the ‘hard-Brexit’ wing of the UK’s governing Conservative Party, resulting in their stated desire to create a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants. The homogenization of all immigrants caused the ‘Windrush’ generation – those immigrants from the Commonwealth who were legally admitted to help rebuild the UK post World War II – and their descendants, to be caught up in the controversial clampdown on more recent migrants from the EU.

Categorization is an essential function of the mind but must always be moderated by other, counterbalancing cognitive impulses if its more pernicious consequences are to be nullified. Failure to do so can easily lead to the persecution, or far worse, of all those who fall within the demonized category. The horrific fate of an innocent child like Asifa should serve as a warning to all, that the unintended consequences of the categorizing functioning of the human brain can cause great suffering and ultimately lead to genocide.