The Human Condition:

Economics of the Hive – May 6, 2012

Believers in a viable human collective—one run on a national scale1—say that true communism has never been tried. They suggest that the efforts of Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky, Castro, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, and lately Hugo Chavez were somehow flawed. Truly, these efforts were flawed—by coercion, confiscation, mass deportation, and imprisonment. But the reason for these suppressive actions, which are always regretted by the imposers, is that most humans do not willingly sacrifice their identities, family responsibilities, self-expression, hopes, and dreams to a national ideal of selfless sacrifice.2

But that’s not to say true communism has never been tried. Ants and bees practice perfect fidelity to the mantra “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” The only trick is, you have to give up everything that makes you human to participate.

T. H. White understood this in his late addition to The Once and Future King of the Antland sequence. There the boy Arthur visits a dreary place where the inhabitants have such limited vocabulary and capacity for feeling that the only adjectives available are “done” and “not-done,” referring ultimately for the workload for which each ant is responsible. The inhabitants are blasted by broadcast commands and exhortations at regular intervals. The motto of the invisible Ant-state emblazoned above the entrance to the nest is “Everything not forbidden is compulsory.” T. H. White understood too clearly the need for repression in order to create obedience.

George Orwell worked the same ground—but with humans this time—in his 1984. There the people with the best food, best jobs, and most self-aware existence are the outer party members of Ingsoc. Proles live in drudgery and miserable ignorance. Invisible inner party members must live in unimaginable luxury but also with unimaginable responsibilities.3 The average person of the outer party, Winston Smith, lives with simple boredom, personal conformity, loss of privacy, and the mind-static of endless exhortations to state-sponsored enthusiasms, fidelities, and hatreds that have grown stale—no, repulsive—through repetition.

I grew up with those books—plus, of course, about a thousand more—as part of a mid-20th century liberal education. What has stuck with me is an overall sense that each human is unique, responding to the world in his or her own fashion. Yes, we can define general patterns in the human psyche. The urge of one mother to love her children is very like, and draws from the same genetic and social heritage, as any other mother’s love. But the mothers themselves are different, the children are different, and the particular events and choices of a child’s life and its raising are different. So, then, the particular needs and actions of the exchange will be different.

What separates ants and bees, on the one hand, and human beings, on the other, is the sense of self, the individual mind and its awareness of difference from others, of having a unique place in the world.

In fact, we humans are so different from each other that we must actually learn about our similarities as part of our intellectual and emotional development. We are all born as helpless babies, but we are surrounded by a mother and father, aunts and uncles, and grandparents who are genetically programmed to nurture and protect us.4 We quickly discover the power of our voice and expressive responses: a cry will bring food, a smile or a giggle will bring cooing support. For the first two years of life, we are the center of a world dominated by large, dim faces and invisible hands bringing us sustenance, attention, play objects, and pleasurable responses. We start out as helpless tyrants.

In the second year—the “terrible twos”—we have to start learning that we are not the only creature who matters in what is fast becoming a strange and complicated world. This process, known as “socialization,” tries to teach the tyrant infant that other human beings have their own web of interests and centers of power, that they don’t always have time for us, that they resist being treated like objects or slaves. This is a complex message because, while it tells us that out there are other beings, not dissimilar from ourselves, whose needs and wants are important, we are also encouraged to become independent, take action for ourselves, stand on our own two feet, literally, and participate in the social structure of the family.

Then we discover the peer group—usually, in America, through kindergarten, playgrounds, and arranged play dates. Peers are not family, not former caregivers who once had our well being as their sole focus of attention. Peers are wild creatures who owe us no natural allegiance. We must meet each peer as an individual and, usually simultaneously, as part of a group. We must make deals, resolve conflicts, learn to accept and give support. And, through the influence of supervising adults, we learn to “share.”

Humans, unlike the vacant-brained ants and bees, must learn our place in the world through experience. We must learn empathy: the understanding of what others around us may be thinking, feeling, planning, wanting, needing. This happens so early that most of us don’t remember or remark it as a new way of thinking. To some extent, empathy—the opposite of the blank stare of autism—may be a skill wired into our brains in the same way that nerves connect the neocortex motor strip with the fingers of our right and left hands. To that extent, the autistic child may be said to have a brain impairment. But to a larger extent—or so I believe—empathy is something we learn.

Empathy is not necessarily or entirely a result of learned virtue. We don’t become aware of what other people might be thinking and feeling out of some kind of universal love and respect that we adopt at our mother’s or teacher’s urging. There may be some of that; certainly, children who were raised in an atmosphere of “grab anything you can get, Johnny” will tend to be less empathetic as adults. But I believe we mostly learn about others’ intentions and feelings as a defense mechanism. If the minds of those around you remain mysterious black boxes that randomly spew out actions and sentiments, then you will have a harder time figuring out who is likely to be a friend to be trusted or an enemy to be avoided. Later, as your involvement with groups and society in general develops in complexity, you will find it harder still to make deals, acquire support and cooperation, make your voice heard and your thoughts count. Without empathy, we are prisoners in a hostile and inexplicable world.

Humans don’t start out as members of a hive, automatically knowing cooperation and obedience because it is hard-wired into our brains. We start out as individuals at the center of a supportive family structure, perfect tyrants who must learn, gradually and painfully, to fit ourselves into a larger social structure that exchanges actions, thoughts, and feelings in order to support many individuals who might otherwise be in deadly conflict.

Human interaction is vastly more complex than that of bees or ants. Consider that the hive or nest represents a very simple form of economics: (1) find food outside, either pollinating flowers for bees or vegetable forage for ants; (2) bring it back inside; (3) process it into usable and storable chemical energy, either honey for the bees or some kind of leaf mold or aphid feed for ants; (4) defend the nest or hive from predators and changes in the environment; (5) tend the queen and her drones in order to raise the next generation. These activities require some coordination and even communication, but the communication cues are relatively simple, based on chemical transfer and patterned movements. The queen in either case is a breeding machine, not an order giver. The members of the hive or nest cooperate and react instinctively, through patterns that generations of adaptation have bred into their DNA and their tiny, hard-wired brains.

Ants and bees simply cannot want individual differences. A worker bee cannot imagine taking up the role of a drone or a queen, not just because its body is not suited to the task, but because it has no life experience of being different. It cannot imagine having a different kind of life, let alone having preferences about the life it does lead, choosing to experience different flavors of food or types of activity, or possessing anything—not even its own body. The human ability to imagine is a complex process based on our recognition of self, our understanding of how that self fits into a certain situation in society and into the stream of events, and our ability to mentally “stand outside” that society and stream and contemplate—based on all the differences we can see and know all around us—how things might be different.5 Ants and bees lack the brain complexity to do this.

A true communist society—the natural condition of future humanity as proposed by Marx, in which the coercive state has “withered away,” leaving only dutiful humans taking only what they need and giving their all in terms of time and effort—might resemble the bee hive or the ant nest. But humans are not ants or bees; their affairs are much more complex, their needs and wants include much more than just the simple economics of “find food,” “process food,” “raise young” in the nest or hive. Communism as it was practiced in Russia, China, Cuba, and elsewhere lacked the simple chemical and behavioral communication system of the hive and tried to compensate for that lack, in the human context, through bureaucratic powers of information gathering, planning, deciding, and ordering. Along the way, a state agency has to take over from each individual human and family the functions of deciding what they need, seeking it, and acquiring it. Individual and family responsibility are replaced with top-down orders and nation-spanning supply systems in a command-and-control economy.

If you really want the coercive state to wither away, you need to rely on the sort of organic, distributed action that supports the hive. You need to rely on each individual and family knowing what it needs, seeking it in the collective sphere of interaction called the marketplace, and bidding for it in terms of the time and effort needed to acquire it.6

Ironically, the economics of the hive, in human terms, is actually the free market in which individuals participate in their own interest, guided by their empathetic knowledge of what other humans might want and for which they would be willing to trade.

1. See When Socialism Works from October 10, 2010.

2. All right, the Germans came close in the 1920s and ’30s with National Socialism. In their defense, if there is one, they were reacting to the crushing debts and guilts imposed on them by the victors of the Great War while holding in living memory the recent unification of Germany’s various duchies and city-states into a powerful nation-state. The post-war collapse, devastation, and inflation, run through the incompetence of the Weimar Republic, would tempt any population with heraldic visions.

3. And, of course, Aldous Huxley worked this dreary world in frenetic reverse—full of technical marvels, casual sex, and parroted responses—in Brave New World. But still, the emphasis was on docile acceptance of one’s place in a stagnant society that was fixed by genetics and subliminal teaching as well as by its enforced social structure: “I’m glad I’m a beta. The alphas have to work too hard. And the gammas are so awfully dull.”

4. That is, for the lucky ones. The fate of children born into the cold and left in baskets on doorsteps is another matter.

5. In fact, the word “existence” comes from the Latin roots ex for “outside,” and sto, stare for “stand.” To exist is to stand apart from something. Our entire consciousness, our awareness of ourselves as separate beings, is not based on our being absorbed into ourselves but instead on being able to divorce our minds from our body/mind complex and see ourselves from the outside—in context, as it were—as something unique and active in the greater world. Bees and ants cannot do this. Even dogs don’t do this. Dolphins and whales, chimpanzees and the other great apes are apparently able to make the leap—at least part-way—although they may lack the language to express and enlarge upon the experience.

6. In this context, money is merely a portable form of human energy—earned through time and effort, spent as an outward expression of that time and effort.