Our free market economy based societies are increasingly becoming like life in the poles.
For those who haven’t seen it, the nature series takes a look at the various forms of life that straddle the poles of the Earth. While we can all watch in awe and wonder at the spectacular sights of this icy world, the message of the series is very clear: life in these regions is very hard. Long winters and very short summers mean that the various creatures that inhabit these areas must mercilessly fight for their own survival. And as a result, polar bears relentlessly stalk seals, penguin chicks are poached by South Polar Skuas, and minke whales and seals are slowly tormented and killed by packs of killer whales.
While watching it last night, one part stuck with me in particular. It was a pair of Arctic wolves tracking down a herd of muskoxen eager for a kill. The muskox is the animal world equivalent of a ‘double-hard bastard’. Weighing up to 400kg, standing nearly a metre and a half high, and with both sexes wielding some seriously sharp horns, it could destroy a wolf, and there’s a whole herd of them. But the wolves must feed, and so armed with skill and cunning they tactically manoeuvre to split the herd to get at the weaker infant, which they do. But as cute as the baby muskoxen may look, it’s not the time to get sentimental. This is what it takes for the wolves to feed their own, equally cute cubs.
This harsh state of nature and the war for survival was applied to man by influential 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his work, Leviathan, which noted that life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. The result of this is that, in this state of anarchy, everyone has a natural right to fight for their own survival above anything else.
Hobbes’ brutal theory was traditionally applied to relations between states in the absence of a global government, but fast forward several centuries, and this raw state of nature is exactly what our neo-liberal, free-market economy is becoming: a polar existence where the strongest are free to do what they choose.
But the apex predators in this world are the super-wealthy: bankers, FTSE 100 corporations, industrial oligarchs and the puppet ‘democratic’ governments around the world that act in their interests – or as some have been mathematically inaccurately referring to as The 1%. The young they feed are their own shareholders and tax-exempt offshore bank accounts, helping breed more of these predators devoid of empathy.
Like the Arctic wolves, these predators are hopelessly outnumbered and so they must split the herd in order to pick out the easiest targets for their own enrichment; the poor, the disenfranchised, the least educated, the foreign. And like in the polar wilderness, there is no authority telling them what they can and can’t do, leaving them to simply get away with committing scams, manipulations, exploitations and downright thefts. See the various government responses to the global financial crisis of bailing out the banks’ crippling debts and printing more money for the banks to squander. Being far too terrified of the power of these predators, the response is to sacrifice the weakest and give the predators more freedom to do what they do in the vain hope that the rest can feed off their scraps.
However, even in the wilds of the Arctic, this natural hierarchy has a twist. In the Frozen Planet episode Summer, a hungry polar bear approaches a colony of Arctic terns – a seagull-like flock of birds – intent on feasting on hundreds of their young. But faced with this aggression, the Arctic tern responds with collective direct action. They take it in turns to dive-bomb the bear, stabbing him with their stiletto-bladed beaks. Unable to defend against these painful attacks, the bear retreats off to find an easier kill or potentially perish on an empty stomach.
We are constantly being told that the free-market is the only way, the state of nature that we must all learn to survive in and protect our own interests. But much like the Arctic tern, this state of nature still allows for collective action, turning the weak into the strong and forcing these mighty predators to change their actions. Did I not mention what happened to the baby muskox? Well, the herd stampeded and chased the wolves off, saving their young.
These predators know all to well the danger of the collective. Why else do you think they are trying to restrict the growth of the Occupy Movement in Portland, New York and London with over-aggressive policing? Why is the right to protest and gather in public spaces being steadily eroded? Why is the UK’s Conservative-led government trying to restrict access to the aggregating power of social networking in the wake of the London summer riots? Why have trade unions been so vilified in the past 30 or so years?
These questions, like so many more have one, very natural answer: There’s strength in numbers. Even the animals know that.