Heading for the fall – Darwinism as the rule of economic life

Tanja Tuma


(Tanja Tuma is a past Secretary of PEN Slovenia. The author of two novels – The Winds of Dalmatia, and White and Red Cherries – she gave the following speech to the PEN Writers Conference in Bled, May 2016)

Mankind invented the atomic bomb, but no mouse would construct a mousetrap.”

  • Albert Einstein

Last autumn, I gave a reading to secondary school students aged 15 to 19 about my WWII Slovenian Civil War novel, White and Red Cherries. One would think teenagers of today would be bored to death. Those past events, which divided our society seventy years ago, don’t seem to matter today. On the contrary. The question that day which we debated passionately was no less than this one: When does an individual rebel against the machinery of a criminal killing regime like the Nazi, the Fascist, the Communist or any other totalitarian regime based on terror? A seventeen year old girl offered an answer, “One rebels against the killing when life in general is more precious than my own life.”

The opinion of this young girl sent me on a personal quest. What person would find other lives more important than his or her personal existence? What is the basis of our life? Without doubt, everybody in this room and each individual outside these walls can offer an answer to this question. Allow me to focus on one point of view today, i.e. on the economy and its principles of growth. Economic growth is the basis for all government decisions. We are told this in every possible way, every day. And yet, although it may appear to be a paradox, growth might lead to the end of humanity. Why?

Since the industrial revolution, our economies are driven by the basic principles of supply, demand and competition. To make the picture more complex, banks with their financial products interfere with the production and consumption chain in many ways, so that it is almost impossible to get a clear picture. Nevertheless, one capacity of our life defeats all the other: competition. An article in the magazine Bloomberg Business claiming that ‘Darwin is a better guide to competition than economists’ brought my attention to the correlation of Economics with the theory of the Origin of Species and the latter’s main theme of the survival of the fittest. Definitely, anybody who has spent some time in business either working for others or leading their own company knows from experience that the adjective “fittest” should be spelled out “cruelest”, and that the world of business is full of frauds, hypocrites, and criminals such as were recently exposed by the Panama Papers. It is unclear at what point in the history of capitalism, politics became one with business, a marriage of passion in the wedlock of corruption.

When Darwin debates the human and the animal kingdoms, he says, “Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for that of the being which she tends.” While Man has the will, the power, the intelligence, and at the same time the stupidity to make a choice; animals are thought of as beings without will, the unintentional consequences of variability and changes in the environment. The evolution of the flora and fauna occur naturally, so that each species survives new circumstances without any will of their own to influence whether they live or die. The only species with a mind of his own is Man. Human beings should be able to influence how our societies develop and how they advance. Therefore, it is beyond reason, and indeed plainly stupefying to read the lessons for business executives for the 21st century:

First, remember that there are no safe havens any more. The world of globality is full of invasive predators ready and eager to eat your lunch. You are in—or will be in—a battle for survival. Be ready to fight for your position. Second, remember that your competitors have weaknesses as well as strengths. In this iguana-eat-iguana world, be prepared to exploit their weaknesses, as well as your strengths. Some things will work well for you in western markets, but not work well elsewhere. Be flexible. Be prepared to adapt, especially as you enter new environments. Find what works for you in each market or market segment and go with it, but don’t expect it to work equally well everywhere. Third, build on your strengths through mergers, acquisitions, collaboration, change. Doing this right will increase your ability to adapt, make your company stronger, better suited to new environments, and better positioned to win the battle for survival of the fittest.”*

Almost 160 years after the first edition of the Origin of Species, our economists are discovering Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, competition, and struggle for existence in the animal kingdom as the inspiration for our economic values, which in many ways define how we live. In business, you hear every day that you learn from mistakes; that one failure should not make you despair. You should go on no matter what. Rather perish than despair. Every company, every worker in the world should produce more goods, generate more margins, and reach higher productivity, for the competition never sleeps. Our media is full of percentages and ratios of growth and alarming images of societies, which cannot achieve it. All the time, we are scared by the reports issued by the IMF, the EU Commissions, the rating agencies, the stock markets, the all-knowing analysts, and self-declared benevolent political leaders. Growth helps some people get richer, crises multiply their investments, and wars empower their agents. Again, the Panama Papers as well as other information disclosed by the whistleblowers in recent years show how paradoxically complex and simple is our economy, our basis for life. Each member of these financial and political elites probably thinks to himself, “My life is worth more than anybody or anything else in the world.” This selfish gene does not flinch at bombed houses, stranded children, and desperate men in search of their dignity. Men and women are dispensable goods. They died because they are not fit for our world. They died because they are uneducated and stupid. The rule is such that human beings do not escape the Darwin’s theory.

How stupid is a member of the Homo Sapiens species, when he or she discovers the principles of the evolution and lets it tear down him or herself? Are we programmed to destroy ourselves by our reason and research?

The gap between the rich and the poor in the world is huge, so big that the borders are falling apart. Not only physical borders, but spiritual frontiers, too. As As Harold L. Sirkin in an article for the Bloomberg Business advises advises, the companies in the 21st century should do anything to survive and thrive. Anything. Think of the women sewing our clothes in Bangladesh. Think of the children ploughing through the garbage for food in Brazil. Think of the African men desperate to find work and take care of their families. Darwin’s rules made some fittest than the others and economists continue to promote these rules.

Why are we following this path? Why don’t we rebel as a seventeen old girl would? Isn’t the Darwinism of our economies the worst of all totalitarian regimes ever?

Some people rebel. Young people all around the world, in the prime of their existence oppose these views. Although every fourth European under the age of 25 is unemployed, they did not stop believing in humanity. They rebel and protest. They take part in rallies shouting We are the 99%! We want peace! We want jobs! They are bloggers. They fight for truth and tolerance, for human rights and for freedom. However, they seem to be the weakest link of our societies. Either they are living on their parents’ nickel or they are wandering from job to job, from country to country unable to set up a life worthy of living. Sadly, they are often victims of extremists as was recently Nazimuddin Samad from Bangladesh aged twenty-seven. The economic and political elites use particular language to describe these people: work force, labor, human resources – we are what we are worth in nickel and dime. Let’s not pretend that any of us, who enjoy good education and can lead a decent life are treated any differently. Let us not be blind that in truth, we are free to study, travel, and create. Men and women in the 21st century are floating spare parts of humanity for the ‘just in time technologies’, optimized to live and die for the growth of our countries’ economies. In other words, for the pleasures of the few.

Finally, we writers can rebel and revolt in our literature. We can listen to and educate young people. We can show compassion and make it the highest priority on every government’s agenda. We can speak up as men and women, and not let the industrial machinery swallow us as used spare parts. By reaching out with our words, we can make people read, think and change. We should forbid and challenge the brutal economists propagating such self-destructive, selfish, and stupid principles. Darwinism is for flora and fauna. Humans can do so much better. The life of all is at stake. Not only my, your or her life, our life.

So back to the statement of my seventeen year old friend. When do we consider life a true value for all of us? In the act of repeatedly fighting the totalitarian rules of the Darwinist economists, who want to destroy the humanity for their own selfish good. Every one of us can do it in her/his own way.

Maybe it is not fit that authors, the dreamers of the universe, start debating about economy and business. Yet, economy is one of the important aspects of the human existence. Should we follow the rules of growth and continue to behave like animals, I am afraid that we will eventually become animals. Evolution might work backwards.

How much more stupid can we get, indeed?

*Source http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/jun2010/ca2010061_506543.htm, accessed in April 2016.


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