It takes no more than a cursory view of the daily news to realize that our social, political and economic structures and institutions are crumbling. The mass media feed us a daily dose of how our social order is decaying into violence, how people are losing their faith in the political system and its representatives, how entire sectors of the world economy are failing one after the other, and how the international order is giving way to armed conflicts and war among countries and factions. People are beginning to wonder whether this is just the way the world is, or whether there is a better explanation for what is happening.
1. Social dilemmas
One very important reason for this process of disintegration is a growing phenomenon known as ‘social dilemmas’. A social dilemma is defined as a situation in which, if everyone does what the system demands of them, the system collapses. In other words, if everybody acts the way they are expected to behave according to the logic of the prevailing system, the dynamics inherent in the system's design itself will cause it to perform sub-optimally and eventually even break down and stop working.
For example, the purpose for the road system is for everyone to get where they are going as quickly, easily and comfortably as possible. So people will avoid using public transport unless they have to, meaning 20 to 30 times more vehicles on the road than are necessary, which reduces the speed and comfort of travel. To the same ends people will move into intersections they cannot get out of, in an attempt to get ahead of the crowd, which causes traffic jams that go directly against the purpose of the system. We will see other, more complex social dilemmas below.
Peter Kollock speaks of social dilemmas in terms of economic theory and the assumption of rational choice, when he defines them as “situations in which individual rationality adds up to collective irrationality. That is, individually responsible behavior leads to a situation in which everyone is worse off than they might have been otherwise."1 Howard Rheingold describes social dilemmas as "Situations that… arise from the tension between self-interest and collective gain. Acting in one's self interest ends up damaging or failing to provide for the interests of everybody."2
In other words, the problem is not that members of society are doing something they should not. One could try to convince people that they should act differently, but it is not likely that many will comply, as they are assumed to be doing exactly what the system expects or demands of them, and behaving otherwise could lead to personal loss. Therefore, we should emphasize that it is poorly designed systems that produce social dilemmas, not ignorant, selfish, aggressive, or otherwise ‘bad’ people.
How do social dilemmas relate to the examples of collapse listed above?
- In an individualistic, competitive social system, such as are prevalent today, where one is expected to do whatever it takes to be a ‘winner’, people will often harm others in an effort to help themselves, and this can decay into a Hobbesian “war of all against all.”
- In party politics, the adversarial electoral system can favor candidates who are ambitious, egocentric and power-hungry, although these are not the best qualities to make a good statesperson. The ensuing power gridlock and paralysis leads to public disenchantment and withdrawal of popular support for the system as a whole. This results in a deterioration of the authority of time-honored institutions, and in the entire system losing the power to act in benefit of all.
- In the economy, the logic of unlimited accumulation leads to the concentration of more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands, with the accompanying expansion of poverty, until the stress between increased production and decreased consumption causes the system to snap like an over-tensed rubber band, as occurred in the Great Depression of the 1930s and the cyclical recessions of the mid 1970s, the late 1990s, 2003, 2008, and so forth.
- The ‘national security system’ forces countries into an expensive arms race for deterrence purposes, and the resulting buildup of the ‘military industrial complex’ takes on a life of its own that generates conflicts in order to justify its own existence and generate consumption of produced wares.
- And the list continues.
What is the common factor among all of these examples? As one would imagine, given the size and seriousness of the problem, researchers from many fields have been studying social dilemmas for several years now. And what they have found is that the key factor causing them all is that each one of these systems is designed like a competition, that is, a relationship in which there will always be winners and losers. We all have the same goal, which is to achieve the purpose for which the system was built. However, in a competitive relationship, every time one player comes closer to that mutual goal, others fall that much further away from it. Each vote that one candidate receives is one less vote for the other contestants. Every contract that one company is awarded is one less deal for its competitors. Each military victory that one side wins is a defeat for its enemy. And so on.
Now then, most of us were raised within these systems from birth, have been surrounded by competition all our lives, and have been taught that it is good and necessary in order for society to function. It has become so much a natural part of the way we see, think and act in the world, that we may impulsively reject the thought that competition might be a reason for the collapse of those same systems. Some have even suggested that the solution to this impasse is more competition, not less, which brings to mind Albert Einstein’s famous saying, “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Let us now look in greater detail at how researchers came to the conclusion that it is competition that causes social dilemmas, and what they propose we do about it.
3. Game Theory
The social systems that we have mentioned are extremely complex and difficult to analyze. Therefore, researchers simplify their relations down to a few basic models that are easier to study. These models have come to be called ‘games’, which has given rise to so-called ‘game theory’, defined as the study of mathematical models of competitive and cooperative interactions, strategies or interactive decision-making. Each model or ‘game’ has been given a distinctive name, to make it easier to remember and talk about them, such as Blotto, Cake Cutting, Chicken, Deadlock, Kuhn Poker, Prisoner’s Dilemma, Stag Hunt, Ultimatum, etc.3
Let us bear in mind that when speaking of ‘games’ in this context, we are actually referring to simplified models of human interactions in real-life social, political, economic or other systems, such as the ones mentioned in the above examples of social dilemmas. That being said, however, some of these models have been adapted as actual games that can be ‘played’ in various forms, whether by people or computers. Much research has been done by having test subjects play these games under experimental conditions, in order to observe their behavior. Other studies have involved programming computers to play them, which makes it possible to involve any number of players for as many iterations as are needed to test the results of using different sets of strategies.
These games and/or the strategies used to ‘play’ them can be broadly classified into three categories. One is “win–lose,” where the points one player wins cause other players to lose points; another is “lose–lose” where a given tactic causes both players to lose points; and the other is “win–win,” where points are not won away from other players, but in addition to their points. Another way of classifying games is more mathematical: “zero–sum” when my loss annuls your win (-1 + 1 = 0); “negative sum,” when both players lose (-1 + -1 = -2); and “positive sum” when both players win (1 + 1 = 2). There are much more complicated analyses that can be involved here, but these basic notions should suffice for the purposes of our study. Any reader with interest in greater details can pursue it through other means.4
4. A Zero-Sum World
When game theory was applied to understanding the dynamics of our social systems, structures and institutions, it became evident that the latter had been designed primarily on the assumption of win–lose, or zero–sum interactions, in other words, as competitive relations.5 Thus, a nation is divided into political parties that are set against each other in a power struggle; players in a market are supposed to compete with one another for customers, sales and income; the adversarial judicial system pits citizens against each other in lawsuits and trials; students are constantly compared with each other and graded competitively; and so on. Of course, there are also cases of win–win, positive–sum or cooperative relations in these system. However, most are not institutionalized, but rather occur on an interpersonal level, despite what the system expects or demands of us. Interestingly, it may be these elements of cooperation that enable these structures to stand despite the corrosive influence of their win–lose assumptions.
So why does competition lead to social dilemmas and the collapse of our systems? Simply put, when a population maintains win–lose relationships over an extended period of time, the overall effect becomes lose–lose. This has been seen repeatedly in research conducted by game theorists, notably Robert Axelrod.6 There are several ways to understand this phenomenon, depending on what type of ‘game’ we are playing. In general terms, however, if the average relations in a society are zero–sum, that society will obviously make zero progress, which is actually negative progress considering that the very continuance of life requires somewhat of a positive–sum outcome. However, there are other reasons why zero-sum relations become negative sum, as we will see in the following examples.
- Suppose you realize that I am using a win-lose strategy in our mutual business dealings. You will be inclined to use a similar strategy, and we will both lose or at least win less than we could have had we both been thinking and acting in win–win terms.
- When political parties vie with each other for power, in the prevailing logic of ‘government versus opposition’, both do their utmost to keep the other from implementing their plans and policies. This paralyzes the entire country to the detriment of the fundamental purpose for the political system, which is to serve the best interests of the general population.
- Where there is excessive concentration of wealth in few hands, coupled with the spread of poverty that this causes, the resulting tension between production and consumption produces a market crash, which means a loss for both rich and poor.
- The enormous expense of sustaining an arms race and deploying periodic attacks in order to maintain the deterrence effect required by the ‘national security system’ leads to the depletion of state budgets, a waste of resources and lives, and eventual military conflicts, in which nobody wins and everyone loses.
There are many other examples of this same effect, but the few we have mentioned above should suffice to illustrate how when competitive, win–lose or zero–sum relationships are applied on a large scale for enough time, they finally become lose–lose or negative–sum situations and cause a collapse of the system as a whole. Let us now turn our attention to the all–important subject of how to keep this from happening.
5. Cooperation Theory
From a purely theoretical standpoint, the solution to social dilemmas is pretty obvious and simple: change the predominantly win–lose logic of our current social systems to more win–win dynamics. This is easier said than done, however. How to put it into practice is the subject of an enormous amount of study and dialog by people in many areas of study and action, from which has arisen an inter-disciplinary field called Cooperation Theory, or the study of how cooperation can emerge and persist.7 Cooperation theorists include sociologists, economists, political scientists, anthropologists, archeologists, psychologists, neurologists, biologists, physicists, computer scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and many more, all of which come from diverse starting points to approach the same basic issue: how to make the transition from the old competitive, win-lose, negative sum social structures to a new cooperative, win-win, positive-sum society.
Their approaches can be organized into three general areas of endeavor: strategic, motivational and structural. The strategic approach consists in seeking strategies for achieving cooperation, while assuming an inherently competitive nature on the one hand, and without changing the current structures of our social systems on the other. There are many ways to research this issue, from studying how cooperation and altruism could have evolved genetically in a Darwinian world of natural selection and survival of the fittest, to what game strategies can achieve win-win dynamics in a win-lose environment using computer programs.
In the real world, strategic solutions often take the form of reactive measures designed primarily to respond to existing problems, not to seek proactive means to prevent them from occurring in the first place. These include psychological counseling to ease emotional pain of individualism, competition, solitude; taxation, redistribution, development aid to alleviate poverty generated by the economic system; protocols and conventions to mitigate ecological damages caused by excessive production and consumption; alternative conflict resolution mechanisms to solve fights caused by clashing interests; coalitions and campaigns to promote national unity to remedy the divisive impacts of each political election; talks and treaties to lessen armed conflicts between and within states; etc.
The motivational approach involves studying the human capacity to design, implement, inhabit, and sustain a win-win, positive sum, cooperative world. On the one hand, this involves critically analyzing centuries-old pessimistic beliefs and assumptions regarding the inherently violent, competitive nature of man and society, and developing new theories in various fields that sustain a different, more empowering and hopeful view of what it means to be human. For example, ‘Social Value Orientation’ theorizes that some people use self-regarding, individualistic or competitive decision rules, while some use other-regarding or prosocial decision rules. On the other hand, the motivational approach includes designing pedagogies, learning theories and educational approaches aimed to develop our capacity for cooperation, other-centeredness, altruism and other win-win attitudes and values, whether they are considered inherent in human potential or not.
Finally, the structural approach to achieving a society based on cooperative relations goes beyond complaining about the obvious failings of our present institutions, and looks for ways to reform and transform our social systems so that they will reflect and generate win–win, positive–sum relations. Its proponents have come to realize that strategic solutions will not achieve the necessary changes. For example, Don Tapscott claims, “We need to reboot all the old models, approaches and structures of society, or risk paralysis or collapse.”8 The kinds of questions that this approach might ask include:
- What kinds of political arrangements could avoid wasting resources on partisan struggle and channel those energies instead towards collaborative, consensus-based action?9
- What would an economic system look like that mined, rewarded and fostered human propensities for cooperation and mutualism, as opposed to competition and greed as the prevailing one does?
- How to put the economy at the service of human growth, instead of human beings at the service of economic growth, and ensure that the needs of all are met, not primarily the disproportionate wishes and desires of a select few?10
- How to replace the current international anarchy of today’s ‘national security system’ based on unlimited state sovereignty, with a supra-national system by which the collective will of the world’s peoples would become law and be implemented through a global executive and judged by an international tribunal, without the threat of economic, political or military imposition, but making force a servant of justice?11
6. Our Contribution
The purpose for this study is to deal primarily with the second approach – revisiting the nature of man and society and seeking educational approaches that can cultivate our inherent capacity to live under win-win, positive sum relations. To a lesser extent, we will also discuss various proposals for strategic reform and structural transformation. However, we have found that many potential agents of socio-cultural change do not arise to do their part in promoting such solutions because they are held back by out-dated notions that have spread the spiritual diseases of pessimism about the future and cynicism regarding human capacity to build a world based on relations of cooperation, mutualism and altruism and therefore dissuade people from working towards positive social change. Our primary focus, therefore, will be to break down these barriers that have been sapping the hope, enthusiasm and initiative out of potential agents of socio-cultural change, and to replace them with more recent, empowering discoveries and developments in various disciplines.
1. Kollock, Peter. “Social Dilemmas: the Anatomy of Cooperation.” Annual Reviews of Sociology, 1998, 24:183.214. For his introductory lecture on Social Dilemmas, see also http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPwUkL1jatY&feature=related.
2. Rheingold, Howard. “Introduction to Cooperation Theory,” 2011 version. URL: http://socialmediaclassroom.com/host/cooperation2/lockedwiki/main-page.
3. For a more complete list and a summary description of each game, see the “Glossary of game theory terms” at http://www.gametheory.net/Dictionary/games/, or the “List of games” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_games_in_game_theory.
4. A good introductory source is “Game Theory”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/game-theory/.
5. The important question as to why our social systems were designed this way will not be dealt with here, but rather in other sections, particularly under “Social Theory.”
6. See, for example, Robert Axelrod. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books, 1984.
7. For a good summary, see Howard Rheingold’s “Introduction to Cooperation Theory” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMtDr1vfNgQ.
8. Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. “Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World”. New York: The Penguin Group, 2010.
9. See http://politics.mitrasites.com/alternative-political-systems.html for a list of web resources, latest news, images, videos, blog postings, and real-time conversations, as a good starting place to look into what alternative political systems are being proposed.
10. Click here or use a Google search to start your exploration of Alternative Economic Systems (AES) that have been attempted and/or proposed.
11. See http://www.wfm-igp.org/site/wfm-home for the answer the World Federalist Movement–Institute for Global Policy (WFM-IGP) offers to these questions.