Cooperation First Principles

In the previous post (10JAN12) we reviewed a few kinds of cooperation: educational, a military unit, sports, and corporations. Here I want to back away from the specifics and look at cooperation from first principles, mostly from communication — the transfer of information and the construction of new information.

In a group of cooperating humans communication is essential. No communication, no cooperation. In a cooperating group of humans chunks of information are sent from one person to one or more other people in the group. Information is also sent from any one person to him or herself when that person is quietly thinking by him or herself. Chunks of information received cause a reaction of one kind or another in the person receiving the information. The information goes into the brain of the receiving individual. How far in does it go? What does it do in there? Sometimes information heard “makes no sense”. If the receiver does not know the language of the sender then the information can’t go in too far, it can’t be connected with any other information already there, except for the receiver to note that he can’t understand the information. Or maybe the receiver has been exposed to the language casually in the past so that the receiver can recognize that the language for example is Chinese or German from the sounds alone. But the specific information in the spoken words cannot get into the receiver’s mind. Similarly if the sounds are not loud enough or they are distorted by background noise or the speaker, in which cases the receiving person asks the sender to repeat the message, to resend the chunk of information. So the chunk of information received now makes sense to the receiver. This means that the receiver connects, associates this incoming information to some information already there in his or her mind, to some category that the new information is about. Next the receiver makes further associations and connections to and from this new information, and after some amount of processing — thinking — decides to accept or reject — says yes or no to — the new information. The acceptance or rejection may depend on whether the new information has been sufficiently connected to the truth category (all the information in the person’s mind that he or she considers true). Or the information may be accepted on the basis of the respect or trust the receiver has in the sender. Or there can be many other reasons, many other methods, other processes, the receiver uses in the decision to say yes or no. If the decision is yes, then the information received is connected more strongly to other information the person uses regularly in running his or her life — it becomes operational, it is used or useable in thinking and other activities.

In summary new information is accepted or rejected depending on how well it fits in with information already in the receiver’s mind.

If the new information doesn’t fit in well, the receiver may respond to the sender expressing his disagreement partially or totally, asking for clarification, or suggesting a reformulation. In this way, this back and forth, can continue for some time between two people communicating with each other, cooperating toward some purpose, some goal or goals. A beautiful example is Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman who collaborated for years. See Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.

In this communication the chunks of information going back and forth are changing as the conversation continues. And as the conversation continues the information content of the two minds is changing. Each person to the conversation is fitting into his or her mind information received from the other. They each will often have developed a more or less similar understanding of the subject matter of their conversation. Or they may have developed a plan that they each more or less agree upon to reach their individual and joint goals. Or they may be building something as they are communicating like building a house. Or they may be doing something together like hunting.

The above discussed two people communicating cooperatively. It can easily be extended to several people. But not to too many people. One thousand people couldn’t have a casual conversation where each person could have his say at some point after many other people have spoken. Nor could each person even hear each other person. There are just too many people. Twenty people are probably too many. Fifty surely are. To have a cooperative group of more than about 20 people some structure for the group is needed. Structure means rules. Rules as to who can speak when, and for how long, and on what subjects, etc. There are formal and informal rules. Formal rules are written down somewhere. Informal rules are not. Informal rules are what people do by habit without thinking about it. Even in a two person conversation there are informal rules such as: ask for clarification if you don’t understand; and generally begin speaking only after the other person has stopped speaking or has paused; and a good conversationalist pays attention to the emotional responses of his listener in order to avoid having a conversation only with himself, etc.

There are many possible different structures for a cooperating, communicating group. A group could have a facilitator whose job is to keep the group following its rules. It could have a leader who directs or dominates the discussion. A leader (in contrast to a facilitator) leads the group discussion in directions he chooses rather than letting the directions evolve from the group discussions. This can produce groupthink where the other participants avoid expressing ideas they know the leader does not want to hear, and so the group may not benefit from the knowledge of all the members. See for example the formal rules for general assemblies in Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupies.

Beyond this kind of structure of rules and different roles for some of the individuals in the group, a large group may be partitioned into subgroups, with each subgroup having a sub goal. For example a design team for a complex system such as an automobile may have sub-teams for various subsystem designs such as for example: the electrical system, the power system (engine, drive train, etc.), interior, exterior, brakes, etc. Of course the sub teams must communicate cooperatively with each other and the overall design team.

Almost all complex human activities requiring the cooperating work of large numbers of people will have their communication structures divided into substructures paralleling the system/subsystem structures of the things they are building, making, producing — automobiles, satellites, houses, buildings, movies, food production and distribution, education, research and development, provision of health care, sports, etc. This is because information must precede actions.

This is not to say that any one person, or even a few people designed, or could design any of these systems or subsystems. Present day designs build on previous designs. There is evolution of both systems and their designs (the information and knowledge used to make, build, produce, etc). Compare a Model T Ford with a Prius. No way could there be a Prius if there had been no other automobiles before it. So when we speak of the design team for a Prius we must include a huge number of people no longer living — huge numbers of people who designed and built automobiles in the past. This is not just about automobiles. It is about all complex human activities. All are dependent on the similar activities that came before. Any large cooperating group of people is the result of an evolution, a building on top of whatever came before it. And it would not be the way it is if what came before had been different.

So cooperation itself is evolving. So any explanation of cooperation which does not take account of this evolution is incomplete, deficient.

Cooperative groups are everywhere.


In almost all cooperative groups different members will have different knowledge and different abilities. Those members of the group who have more or better knowledge or abilities about the attainment of the group goals, or are better able to communicate, or who have more charm or charisma than other members of the group are likely to  have more influence than those with less. They will be leaders. The others will be followers. Leadership is variable with time and circumstances. So who the leaders are and who the followers are can vary with time and circumstances.

The leader-follower relationship is characterized by a greater flow of information from the leader to the follower and acceptance of that information by the follower than in the opposite direction — from the follower to the leader.

In an educational cooperating group, the leadership of the teacher, in having more knowledge than the students is essential to the function, the goal of the group — to produce educated students.

Sometimes the success of cooperative groups is decreased or limited by deficiencies in the leader-follower relations between members. But for now let’s focus on what’s happening when a cooperating group is working reasonably well.

In the teacher-students cooperating group, the group will be working well when the teacher has the relevant knowledge, can communicate well, and maybe has charm or charisma and is able to maintain the motivation of herself and she is able to increase or maintain the motivation of the students at a high enough level. The students must do their part in increasing or maintaining their motivation to learn, to accept the information, knowledge, being offered, presented, by the teacher. Critical to this is that the students must have already been prepared by having acquired certain previous information and knowledge. The new information and knowledge being presented by the teacher is built on this previous information. New knowledge can only be accepted and acquired by a person if the person already has the foundation which the new knowledge can be connected to. A baby cannot say the words of a language until after it can make the specific sounds of the language. A student cannot understand (accept and acquire) algebra if he or she does not already understand arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). Any motivation a student has to learn some subject will be destroyed if the student does not have the required prior knowledge.

Students must also have their basic human needs satisfied if they are to be motivated to learn. If they are hungry or overfed, or too cold or too hot, or worried about their safety at school or at home, if they have a less than nurturing home environment, if they have severe enough mental or physical health problems, all these can be distractions and interruptions to their motivation to learn in school.

Basic human needs must be satisfied for all the members of any well-functioning cooperative effort, not just teacher-student cooperation. In almost any cooperating group some educating is going on simply because information flows are not equal between every pair of members. But it isn’t educational in the sense of acquiring formal knowledge, rather it often takes the form of instructions about how to do some specific things. Knowing the prerequisites can be important for members in any cooperative effort just as in formal education.

In the educational cooperative group the cooperation level could be improved by teaching the students (at the appropriate times in their development) about cooperation and motivation to cooperate. For example students should be taught to recognize when they don’t have the prerequisites for understanding certain ideas or subjects. Many student’s understanding of their difficulties in understanding something new is limited to something like “I don’t get it”,  when the real reason may be one or more of the following: 1) They don’t have the prerequisites maybe because they didn’t understand or they don’t remember the prerequisites from the previous year, or maybe they were absent a few days before; 2) Maybe they can’t hear the teacher very well; 3) Maybe they can’t see what’s written by the teacher; 4) Maybe their thinking and attention is interrupted by worries about home life, their friends, or any kind of worry or obsessive thoughts. If students were taught about their own motivations and attentions they might be better able to recognize the reasons they “don’t get it”, and thus be able to do something to “get it”, to understand, to comprehend what is being taught. There has been much research on education. I would guess that the above is known and practiced by many.  I present the above only as examples of a few things deducible on the basis of information flows and how knowledge is built up.

The basic military social unit is an example, in its ideal form, of a very simple cooperating group. One person — the leader — gives orders, and all the others obey (carry out without question) the orders given. In a sense there is only one mind at work here, that of the leader. The followers in this military unit are mere instruments of the leader. But no human group operates this simply. First the follower soldiers must understand and accept the orders. Sometimes they don’t understand. Sometimes they don’t accept. In the real world they may question the order, they may ask for clarification. So the order itself may be negotiated. In carrying out an order the followers must rely on their own knowledge and experience and there is often much give and take among the followers as the orders are carried out over time in the combat or other situation.  

Sports — soccer, football, baseball, basketball, boxing, ping-pong, hockey and much more — is a large area of human activity. Sports is often seen as conflict — fighting. Yet it is a major example of cooperation. In team sports each team is a cooperating group, and the two teams together (and with officials and spectators) form a bigger cooperating group, and leagues of teams form an even larger cooperating group. Competition — two or more individuals, or two or more teams playing “against” each other —following previously agreed upon rules of the game — is cooperation. Competition is cooperation. Conflict and competition are not the same. Conflict is fighting. Fighting causes — and intends to cause — injuries, physical and mental, sometimes death. Sports like boxing that in the past had an explicit purpose to cause physical injuries have in the present moved away from the intention to cause harm by changing the rules of the game and by use of safety equipment. So sports which were once conflict, either actually or metaphorically, have moved away from intending to cause physical harm to the participants. They are now competition, not conflict. Competition is a test, a procedure, to determine which of two or more individuals, or two or more teams, does something better. Who can get the highest score — the most points calculated according to some rules from the number of touchdowns, runs, baskets, etc.

Every sport has rules — explicit and carefully defined rules that all the players agree to follow. And when there are ambiguities in the rules or accidental or intentional violations of the rules, there are officials, judges who make the final decisions on the score, points lost or gained, etc. So sports is a cooperation because all the players, officials, spectators are working together toward goals — each team to get the highest score, each judge to make the correct decision, the spectators to observe and celebrate human excellence.

No cooperation is perfect. Cheaters exist and they sometimes get away with it undetected by the officials. But the rules of the games have been evolved (and officials added) specifically to deter cheating. So cheating is minimized. If there were too much cheating in any particular sport people would lose interest in it because it would obscure the goal of the competition — to observe and develop human excellence.

Sports is a good example of a kind of cooperation among humans that depends on carefully developed, defined, and refined rules that all individuals involved are expected to follow. We can call such groups structured cooperating groups. Actually all cooperating groups are structured more or less.

Previously we talked of cooperating groups in terms of information transfer back and forth, between and among the individuals in a cooperating group. Communication is essential to cooperation. Sports is an example where most of the communication (information transfer) is non-verbal. In sports most of the information transferred between and among the individual players is visual:  Locations of other players, location of the ball, direction of motion of other players and the ball, emotional information given off by body movements and tensions and facial expressions. None of this is verbal in either the mind of the sender or the mind of the receiver.

The corporation is another example of cooperation, more or less. Corporations are legal entities. They are defined by laws made and enforced by governments. They are — or are supposed to be — constrained by the laws (rules) applicable to the creation and operation of corporations. A corporation also has rules it makes up for itself — its purpose, the kinds of activities it does or will do, its methods, its structure (most likely hierarchical), and many more. There is great flexibility in what corporations can do and how they are organized. In this sense they are much less structured than a sports team. On the other hand, since the range of activities a corporation can engage in is so much greater than what a sports team can do, in this sense a corporation may have much more structure than a sports team.

Corporations have evolved from simple and very limited and constrained cooperating groups operating according to a specific charter (rules) granted by a king, to something a few individuals can create by filling out a few forms and paying some fees, to multinational corporations larger than some nations both in terms of the numbers of people in each and money (gross national products and gross receipts). Individual corporations (or small groups of them) influence and dominate national governments. (I don’t say “control” because “control” implies 100% and nothing is 100%. But the percent of influence is very large.)

To explore all the actual forms of cooperation that occur in modern corporations is a task beyond my abilities (and maybe any single person’s abilities). But much research has been done on management, organization, and group behavior in corporations. For now, I refer you to Daniel Goleman’s book “Working with Emotional Intelligence” from 1998.

Voting and Influence in a Cooperation

We might say that the earliest social unit was the mother and child. Next would be mother, child, and father. Or maybe we should say that the earliest social unit was the mother and father, since at least chronologically these two had to cooperate to produce a child. What matters is the different examples of cooperation. In some cases cooperation is required by biology. Mother and father must cooperate. Then later mother and child must cooperate. Both cooperations must occur if the child is to survive. It might seem that mother-child is not an example of cooperation because of the great inequality, because of the helplessness of the newborn baby. But it is nonetheless cooperation. The mother must do certain things — feed the baby, keep it warm, safe from the weather. But the baby must do certain things too. It responds to and mimics facial expressions and sounds produced by the mother. It interacts with its mother to learn language and other behaviors. So this is indeed cooperation. Is it one person, one vote? Well, what are the votes here? The mother could vote “No” and walk away, and the baby will die. The baby might be defective in some way and not be able to make and maintain eye contact with the mother in which case if the baby survives it will be socially defective, with little or no language, little or no ability to communicate with other people. In the main form of voting in a cooperation — saying yes or no to an incoming chunk of information — accepting or rejecting the incoming communication, both mother and baby do it. As the mother teaches the child the facial expressions and bodily movements and sounds and words of the language, both say yes and no to the expressions of the other, to the information being offered by the other. This is the process of teaching and learning. So in this sense each has an equal vote. But even in this simple group consisting of two people it seems to make sense to say that the mother is a leader and the child is a follower because there seems to be much more information going from the mother to the child than from the child to the mother. In the beginning of the interaction, the cooperation, the mother has all the information (language, etc.) and after some time the child has acquired a lot of it. This characterizes the leader-follower relation as one of information flow from leader to follower. Now of course information flows back from followers to leaders, but the idea is that more information flows from leaders to followers than vice versa. And this information which flows from leaders to followers influences or directs the followers’ behavior — this information is accepted by the follower, it becomes part of the follower’s operational information.

So from the beginning already human cooperating groups will have had leaders and followers. This is not surprising since family and clan groups have people of many different ages, experience, and knowledge levels. And how could it be any other way since the groups we have in mind here must have the older members passing on the essential group information to the younger members if the group is to continue to exist as old members die off. These kinds of leader-follower relations are educational relations.

Are there other kinds of leader-follower relations in cooperating groups besides educational ones? Surely yes. What are some examples? Consider a group of men hunting animals to kill for food. Leadership might float depending on circumstances. The man who first see an animal they might go after, or the man who is closest to it might momentarily be transmitting much more information to the others than they are transmitting to him. So he is a momentary leader. Consider an individual in a group who discovers a new food (or anything useful to the group). She might be a leader for a while. Consider someone who more often than other members discovers new things. She might have more influence than other members of the group, not only with respect to the things she discovers, but in other respects as well —  she becomes a more permanent leader.

Now, as we know, cooperation is a more or less thing. It is extremely unlikely to be 100% (perfect cooperation, whatever that might be), and if it would seem to be 100% for some period of time, it will deteriorate sooner or later. This is so for several reasons. 1)  The goals of the group are not 100% understood and agreed on by all the members; 2) Communication has errors — the speaker may make a mistake in converting what she wants to say into what she actually says; her words may be distorted in transmission; and the listener may misunderstand what he hears; 3) The motivation of members varies with time.

Consider number 1) above. If the goals for the group as understood and accepted by all the members are similar enough, no big problem. On the other hand, big differences bring big problems. If some members of the group also have a personal goal of benefiting personally from the activities of the group (similar to the agency problem), then cooperation toward the groups goals, or at least the attainment of those goals may be diminished, compromised. Everybody has personal goals. Among these are having the human necessities to survive and develop oneself. The reason for cooperating in the first place was that by working together the members thought they could reach some common goals that would benefit them all. The ideal of a cooperating group then would seem to be to separate out, to keep aside, the personal goals of the individual members from the group goals. But, do you see the contradiction here? Each individual member must have a personal goal of working together with the other members toward the group goals. How to resolve this? It seems the analysis so far isn’t enough. We need to dig deeper.

Since each individual member of a cooperating group must have the goal of working together for the group goals, the personal goals of the individual members — if we want an effective group — must be consistent with the group goals, at least in the sense that if a member is working for one or more of her personal goals, that should not work against, it should not diminish or subtract from the effort or attainment of the group goals.

In other words, if cooperation is to be reasonably effective, personal individual goals and group goals must be compatible, consistent, coordinated, integrated. Is this possible? Yes, of course this is possible. This is proved possible by the fact that reasonable and quite effective cooperation has occurred in the past in every human culture and it is occurring now almost everywhere we look. We almost always do things with other people. We are hardly ever alone.

Clearly we can separate work toward our personal goals from work toward our group goals by time slicing. Example: You work for a corporation. Let’s say you work from 8 am until noon, have lunch at noon until 1 pm, and then go back to work for the corporation from 1 pm until 5 pm. Then you are working for the group goals from 8 am till noon, you are working toward your personal goal of surviving from noon until 1 pm, etc. Time slicing is not by any means the only way to integrate your personal goals and group goals so as to not diminish the attainment of either your personal goals or your group goals. It is often the case that working toward your group goals helps you attain your personal goals as for example when you are paid with money to work in a corporation and you can use that  money to buy some of your human necessities like food. Working towards your goals of having enough human necessities (think of food, clothing, education, health) can help with the attainment of your group goals (think of a job). Actually you must have enough of the human necessities or you will not be able to work toward group goals such as in a job, or any other cooperative activity. If you are starving, if your health (physical or mental) is very poor, if you don’t know enough, you can’t contribute very much to almost any cooperating group.

So individual people most often can and do have compatible individual and group goals. And the individual members’ continuous voting — saying yes or no, accepting or rejecting suggestions from others in the process of working toward the group goals most often works well to steer the group toward the attainment of the group’s goals. This democratic process, this process of group members voting about their individual actions and the group’s actions and methods and sub-goals is how group thinking works. It mimics individual thinking. It can be better than individual thinking for the obvious reason that there are multiple minds working on the problem. It is most definitely parallel processing.

But it — this cooperative thinking and democratic processing — sometimes goes wrong. When and how does it go wrong? What are the conditions? What helps it go right? 

OK, enough for today. Here are a few other questions I would like to address.

What are some recent changes in the evolution of our cooperation?

Is it always a “one person, one vote” system? And what does this mean?

There will almost always be some individuals whose vote — whose words and actions have greater influence on other members of the group than some other members. There will almost always be leaders and followers. So how do we avoid leaders who are self aggrandizing at the expense of the group? And how do we avoid lazy followers or “freeloaders”.

What about the agency problem — the problem of members of an organization (for example a corporation) who take resources out of an organization way out of proportion to their contributions through for example pay or theft or fraud?

The democracy of cooperation.

In the previous blog, 2JAN12, I said:

“Our formal democracy seems at present to be pretty much blocked for us. But in all societies there is an informal democracy of communication and cooperation which is much more important and which is the foundation of the formal democracy. Societies don’t work very well without it.  Our system now depends heavily this now worldwide communication and cooperation system.”

What is this “informal democracy of communication and cooperation”?

A number of people join together in order to work toward some goal or goals together. We can call this  a human group or a human organization. The individuals in the group are cooperating, more or less. It is more or less because nothing is perfect, cooperation is rarely 100% however cooperation is measured. Cooperation requires communication among the members of the group. They must all have more or less the same goal or goals. Working together requires communication to coordinate the group members’ activities, their behavior. So cooperation can never be perfect because communication is not perfect since information transfer always has a possibility of error, and understanding of goals will never be 100% alligned. So there are degrees of cooperation.

This then is the democracy of cooperation.

Humans are social creatures. We cooperate, more or less. How did we get this way? We became what we are now through two processes of evolution: biological and cultural, genetic and memetic. The biological, genetic evolution gave us our bodies and basic physical structure. The cultural, memetic evolution gave us our thoughts and ideas. Actually it is not as clearly cut as this because each evolution affected and affects the other. Cultural evolution could only build upon the capabilities biological evolution gave us. But also, cultural evolution fed back on and influenced the biological evolution of our bodies and brains. So it is really only one evolution where the biological, genetic evolution has morphed into the cultural, memetic evolution. Cultural, memetic evolution is occurring vastly faster now than biological, genetic evolution. Cultural evolution has overwhelmed biological evolution.

So, our biological and cultural evolution led to our cooperation in groups. Through science, technology, art — all human activities — cultural evolution continuously adds information and new knowledge for us to use. So our cooperation has much more information to communicate among the individuals in a human group. In a word, our cooperation, how we cooperate, is also evolving. Consider the speed, even the acceleration, of the recent evolution of corporations.

Since in order to cooperate a group of humans must communicate with one another, the size of the group and the locations of the individuals were constrained by the means of communication. For a long time the size of a group of humans working together, cooperating, was limited to that of a family or small number of related families — a clan or tribe — because they had to be able to speak to one another. This also required that the individuals be physically near each other.

Not any more. The individuals in a cooperating human group can be almost anywhere on the surface of the earth (or near earth in space). And the size of a communicating, cooperating group is no longer limited by the distance a single human voice can go before it can no longer be heard by another person. Note the Mic check of Occupy Wall Street. Nor is the locations of the individuals limited by the necessity of being physically close to a speaker.

So every human group has its informal democracy whereby the people in the group vote with their communications, their speech, and their actions, their behavior. Other members of the group receive these communications and observe the behavior of the other members of the group, and then react in one way or another. This ongoing evolving process influences the behavior of the individuals in the group and thus the resultant group behavior toward its goals. This is legitimately a kind of democracy.

Is this informal group democracy a “one person, one vote” system. It would seem to be unless there are some rules, some structure that the members have agreed to that would say otherwise. It is also true that in many even informal groups, some individuals often have more influence than some others. This can occur if some individuals have more or better knowledge about the goals or how to attain them, of if they can communicate better, or if they have more charisma, more charm, or by whatever combination of qualities more people listen to them than they listen to others. Similarly for some copying the behavior of others. Also some individuals for whatever reason do not choose to participate as much as others.

So we have identified two ways in which groups of humans can deviate from what we may call equality of voice or one person, one vote. First there are often leaders and followers. (Notice we can’t separate the two. There can be no leaders without followers. There can be no followers without leaders.) Second, the group may have agreed on some rules, some structures which allow more influence to some members than other members. For example a teacher in a classroom is a leader, the students are followers most of the time; A coach of a sports team is a leader, the players are followers, but also sometimes a player may be also a leader that other players follow; In a company organized in a hierarchy of units (for example some number of sections organized into a department, some number of departments organized into a division, etc.) the managers of the units are each leaders (or should be) with the other members of the units being followers, but like the sports team there can be leaders within the group of followers.

In many societies, in free societies, being a follower or a leader is almost always a voluntary action, since in the absence of promises otherwise (contracts), anyone can quit the group at any time. (Being a leader or a follower is not always a voluntary action because a person may not be aware that he or she is a leader or a follower, but they can still quit if they don’t like how the group is operating or they don’t have its goals.) A teacher can quit, the parents of a young student can send the student to another school, students can quit paying attention while remaining in class. A coach can quit, players can quit. Employees can quit their company, or quit in place just like students. A person can even quit a horribly authoritarian oppressive system, at least mentally, as some concentration camp members did in WWII. To quit the group is the ultimate no vote.

We still have the freedom to form new groups: Freedom of Assembly. We can form new clubs, associations, new partnerships, new corporations, for profit or not for profit. We can form new religions. The number of people in each and their physical locations are no longer limited as they were in the past.

If our present political/economic systems are not working for us, we can form alternate or parallel systems which do work for us. This indeed is what is already happening as more and more people are excluded from participation in our present systems through unemployment of all kinds, through lack of education, through poverty. People form co-ops of every kind and legal and illegal (black) markets. People form subcultures which exclude outsiders. People “turn on, tune in, and drop out” as Professor Leary said. One way or another people make other arrangements when the “official” systems don’t work for them. There are many, many possibilities. The occupy movement with its general assemblies and its internet dispersed non-physical form is a baby to be nurtured. And if this one doesn’t work out, there will be others.



It’s not hopeless

We were examining some self-limiting beliefs. We were asking how people can get rid of such beliefs. One such belief is that “It is hopeless”. This is closely related to the belief that “It is impossible”. The difference is that the first refers more to a state of mind of the speaker while the later seems to be more a statement about the external world, the real world. But both say something about mental states and something about the real world. So what is hope? First it’s a feeling. It’s a feeling we have when we are in a particular mental state, a particular state of mind. We are in this mental state when we assess, we estimate, we guess, we have the opinion that something is possible, that something, some situation, some state of the world, which is not the present state, which may be unlikely, could still occur, could still happen. We believe it is possible. We have sayings like “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” So to say something is hopeless is to believe it is not possible.

How do we know what is possible? In our present context, how do we know what other systems besides our present system are possible? We are trying to counter the opinion, the belief, that our present system is the “best possible”. So this opinion allows that there may be other systems but they are not as good as our present system, or if there were other systems as good as or better than our present one, we couldn’t get there from here. They might say “There might theoretically be better systems than ours, but they wouldn’t work for us. Human nature would prevent them from working.”

Many times people with these kinds of opinions are imagining some kind of system vastly different from our present system but they can’t imagine how it would work. Often they can’t imagine how our present system works because they really do not understand how it actually does work to do all the things it does. Some economists might claim that they understand how our present system works, but they don’t, since they only may understand fragmentally how their models work. But their models are too far removed from reality. Actually no single person can understand in detail how our vast and interconnected human world works.

The real problem with “It is hopeless” and “It is impossible” is in the minds of those who believe this way. They lack knowledge, imagination, or both. Anthropology shows that there are and have been cultures including economic systems that seem to work as well as our present system. It is legitimate to point out that the scale of our present world culture is vastly greater than all past systems. But the existence of different systems proves different systems are possible and some of them might be better than our own in many ways.

There are more immediate ways to see that better systems than our present one are possible. First look at our immediate past. Second imagine our immediate future. In many ways the capitalist/financial systems we had 50 or so years ago were better than what we have now. And given the glaring and obvious-to-all problems with our present systems who can honestly say that no improvements can be made to our present systems. So if we can see even just a few improvements to our present system, then the present system is not the best one and it is not the best possible one either.

Those who have maximum doom and gloom, those who see catastrophe just ahead, already admit by their gloomy predictions, that great changes are possible. It is just that they are imagining negative changes rather than positive ones. It is true that complex systems on their own are more likely to deteriorate than improve. But they are not “on their own”. We can change them. We do it all the time with every new law passed.

It is not hopeless. It is not impossible. We can change our systems one step at a time to build better systems, incrementally, evolutionarily, cautiously, safely, non-violently.

You want another proof significant change is possible? Here is one: The system we had around 1970 was changed incrementally, evolutionarily, non-violently into the system we have today. The trouble is this revolutionary change (to neoliberalism) was not cautious enough in some matters. We changed some things that were working well which shouldn’t have been changed. There were bad unforeseen consequences. (There are always unforeseen consequences, and some can be good.) And some of the changes were deliberately made to improve the welfare of some classes and individuals at the expense of others — to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. It can be argued that this revolution was not completely non-violent since wars were ongoing, and there was a lot of violence in our domestic (US) society. But there was no direct force, coercion, violence used to change the laws that morphed the capitalist/financial/political systems of 1970 into the systems and institutions we have now.

Hopelessness is a mental state similar to depression. Your imagination is focused on all the negative things that could happen. Your imagination does not consider good possibilities. Depression leads to inaction, more depression, and death if it isn’t turned around. The hopelessness/depression process is a self reinforcing process, a negative downward spiral. It can be hard to stop the downward spiral by yourself. If you can’t get out of your depression by yourself, you should get help from a doctor or a therapist.

So how do we help people to get out of their hopelessness about our economic and political systems? First we can spread the knowledge and information presented above and any other rational arguments showing the unrealistic nature of the hopelessness mental state. If that is not enough, then we help them focus on their own mental state and help them understand that maybe they need professional help if their hopelessness continues for more than a month or six weeks. If their hopelessness comes and goes, during some time when they are not overwhelmed by hopelessness, we help them focus on their own mental state, help them understand it, help them recognize triggers which bring it on, go over the facts and arguments presented above, and see if this is effective in avoiding hopelessness/depression.

So the revolution must provide therapy? Well, in a sense yes. This may seem odd. But as we have been saying over and over, the revolution is about helping people change their minds about some very important things. This is what therapists do, advertisers do. To believe that our present systems are unchangeable is a serious error in thinking. It is as serious an error for us as a group — humanity as a group — as it is for an individual to believe that their life is no longer worth living.

Our task as progressives, as revolutionaries is to help people (including ourselves) make the changes in our own thinking so that enough of us change our actions, our real life behaviors, so that through politics, through our jobs, through what we say, what we write, through our art, through our interpersonal relations, how and what we communicate to all our friends and associates, how we organize ourselves into all the groups we assemble into — till enough change has occurred in enough individuals, in what we know, what we believe, and how we think, that it will be correct to say that we have changed the whole system into a better one, one that is closer to our goals of social justice.

We must not get hung up on apparent obstacles like the fact that our present political/electoral/representational system has been captured by the 1%. Yes it is an obstacle. I don’t have a detailed answer to remove or go around this obstacle. Perhaps no one does. But that does not mean we can’t remove it or go around it. All this means is we must work on it, keep working on it, try stuff, try again. And we will make progress.

Our formal democracy seems at present to be pretty much blocked for us. But in all societies there is an informal democracy of communication and cooperation which is much more important and which is the foundation of the formal democracy. Societies don’t work very well without it.  Our system depends heavily on this now worldwide communication and cooperation system. We vote with our actions.

When the US was formed there was no way a democracy could be implemented except through delegation to representatives who could gather together in one distant physical place to make decisions and pass laws applicable to the whole group. That is no longer necessary.

Today there are many other possibilities. It is not hopeless.


There is only one best economic system and it’s the one we have now.

“There is only one best economic system and it’s the one we have now.” This is a belief that many people have. There are other versions of this basic idea. This belief and others are obstacles to changing people’s minds. And that is their purpose — to be an obstacle that has to be removed, to keep other ideas out of peoples’ minds. It is a characteristic of cults to have such obstacle ideas as part of their belief system. Thus a well-functioning cult will have two sets of ideas, information, and beliefs. The first set consists of ideas, information, beliefs, and some knowledge about some aspects of the real world. The second set will have some ideas, information, and beliefs about their whole system of ideas and beliefs. The above example illustrates this. It is not about the real world. Rather it is about economic systems of thought. It says there is only one economic system and it is the best one. The purpose of this statement is to keep believers in the system from considering alternatives, to keep their minds closed to any ideas from outside the cult, the present economic system. Such statements don’t have to be logically consistent and coherent or true; they need only to be believed. A well-functioning cult will have many such ideas. They want a wall around their cult’s ideas. They want to keep outside ideas out. This is all to protect and preserve the cult. Cults do not rely only on the truth of their ideas — and cults may have some true and useful ideas — but they also rely on their walls, their obstacles, their cult protecting ideas and beliefs, to keep the cult going as long as possible.

Some other cult protecting ideas of economics: 1) It is science. (Very little of economics is based on fact or experiments; theories are not verified against reality.) 2) It is based on authorities. (Keynes vs Samuelson vs Friedman etc. The authorities are glorified almost into saints. So there are sub-cults in economics.) 3) It is claimed that economics is “special” in that it doesn’t have to operate like other sciences. For example Friedman’s infamous statement that assumptions don’t matter. 4) Economists promote the idea that economics is very difficult, specialized, dependent on high-powered mathematics, and that only highly trained (indoctrinated) economists can validly comment on economics. (Economics is indeed often difficult to understand because it is often inconsistent, incoherent, the assumptions are unrealistic, much of the mathematics is presented through simplified diagrams that obscure illogic, and in general the arguments and reasoning are sloppy. No wonder outsiders have a hard time understanding it. But economists don’t understand it either. They just believe.)

Cults in general often present incoherent, inconsistent, illogical arguments to their followers. The followers are told that these arguments are important, that they must understand and accept them. When the followers cannot understand arguments that are impossible to understand, they may conclude that they are ignorant (or this may be suggested to them by the leaders), and so they accept the beliefs the authorities claim follow from the impossible arguments. The followers have now been trained to just accept what the authorities say. There is a simple phrase that captures this process: Conned by bullshit.

OK, so how do we overcome the obstacle that many people have in their minds — that our present system is the only one possible? We must discredit most economists and most economic thinking as we have known it. How do we do this? First point out all the flaws, mistakes, illogical thinking that we can find in economic thinking.

Second point out all the failures of our present actual systems which were supposedly guided by the economists and their theories. There are many of these: Booms and crashes in general and the latest one in particular; no present system provides 100% employment; the present system is decreasing education; wars continue; unjust laws are enforced; excessive prison populations; grotesque wealth of the 1%; scarcity of human necessities among the poor of the world; environmental destruction, waste of human resources, etc.

Third counter the cult insulating ideas in the minds of the cult leaders (the economists) and in the minds of their most important followers (the 1% and their enablers — the politicians, the functionaries, the business leaders, lawyers, other professionals, and in everyone else we can.

Point out some simple truths like: We have not always had the present economic system. Therefore others are possible. And actually our systems are always changing, evolving, through accidents, technological changes, and deliberate changes through new laws.

Much of the above has already begun through the writings of some economists (e. g. Steve Keen) and blogs like Naked Capitalism and blogs it links to. This is significant because the ideas expressed in these books and blogs are spreading somewhat into the mass media. Remember there are no 100% barriers to ideas. Information leaks, always. No cult can keep out all new ideas. No newspapers, TV, other media, and journalists bought and paid for by the 1% can keep out all new ideas. Ideas will seep, then trickle, then flow, and maybe flood in.

We can do our part by: Learning and understanding as much as we can about how our systems work and how they might be changed, and about all the ways we can help people change their minds, and then spread the word and repeat, repeat, repeat, analyze, investigate, expose, discredit, ridicule, counter misinformation, patiently, calmly, civilly, coolly, thoroughly.

And when the revolution gets more organized we can implement more formal educational programs first in our own revolutionary organizations such as people’s assemblies, and later maybe in other schools, colleges and universities.

Here is my proposal for a new course to be taught in every economics department in the world: “Economics as a Cult and How to Dismantle It.”

A Plan for the Revolution

I say “A Plan” instead of “The Plan” because there are many paths to our goals. What are our goals? One of the first steps for a revolution is to state goals almost everybody can agree on. Almost everyone has a strong sense of justice, fairness. Rather we have a strong sense of unfairness. We easily sense when someone isn’t doing their fair share in any group activity — work, games, life in general. We don’t like cheaters, freeloaders. So if our goals are based on justice and fairness, most people will easily agree with and accept our revolutionary goals. Stated simply we want a political and economic system that fairly distributes the goods and services produced by people working within the system fairly to all people in the system. The first half of fairness is that everyone who can work should work. The other half of fairness is that the system should provide, one way or another, the things people need in order to be productive. In order to be physically and mentally productive, people need water, food, clothing, housing, health care, education, minimal coercion and violence, and maximal freedom to interact with others consistent with the integrity and well-being of others. Any system we build must be consistent with the earth’s limited resources and must be consistent with preserving the natural world. Our goal is to have such a system, to build such a system, to step by step modify our present system so that after each step, the new system is closer to the goal.

Our goal system will not be perfect. No human system is perfect. It is not a utopia. There will always be problems. There will always be things that could be improved. In the real world there are always limits. In the real world nothing is infinite. We cannot know for sure that we will be able to build such a system. We can only change our present systems, move them, one step at a time, in the direction of our goal.

Next we must spread the idea of our goal to a large number of people, to a larger and larger number of people. We must convince enough people that it is possible to take the first steps toward our goal. We can show them that the first steps, and later steps, will already in and of themselves, lead to benefits for almost everyone.

In order to take the first steps we must convince people to give up some of their limiting beliefs such as: 1) There is only one best economic system and it’s the one we have now. 2) It is hopeless. 3) Positive change is impossible. 4) Our present situation is a reflection of human nature and human nature is fixed so we can’t change anything. 5) Nothing’s wrong with our present system. 6) This is the way it was meant to be. 7) We are not smart enough to do it. 8) Our democracy has been high jacked so it’s hopeless. 9) It will take too long. 10) The mass media are owned and controlled by the 1% so it’s hopeless.

These and many other similar beliefs are real and are real obstacles to change. We must use all methods we have, consistent with our goals, to convince people to move beyond their limiting beliefs. To be consistent with our goals we must not use violence, coercion, lies, or any other methods detrimental to mental or physical health.

What are some methods we can use to help people change their minds? Education in the broadest sense of the word. Spread the truth. Expose error. Use the internet, social media. Infiltrate the mass media. The 1% owns the mass media and think they control it, but they don’t control it 100%. Nobody controls anything 100%. Use videos, humor, music, art in every form. Use and further develop memetics, the science of the spread and evolution of ideas. Work on the 1% or the lesser rich. I doubt they are monolithic. They are not all stupid. Some of them (and we would not need many) might see the wisdom of our revolution.

All the while we are helping people get over their self-limiting beliefs, we also work to spread ideas that speed up the process. We spread ideas that improve people’s thinking and decision-making — for example the knowledge about errors in human thinking and decision-making in Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. We spread ideas that improve people’s interpersonal communication — for example the knowledge about how to deeply understand other people and work with them in Marshall Rosenberg’s book “Non-violent Communication”. We spread knowledge about how our thinking and emotions work together when we make decisions and choices — good ones and bad ones — for example in books by Antonio Damasio (“Looking for Spinoza, Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain”, “The Feeling of What Happens”, “Decartes’ Error”), Joseph LeDoux (“The Emotional Brain”), Paul Ekman (“Emotions Revealed”), Daniel Goleman (“Emotional Intelligence”). When people have more correct and useable knowledge about how to think better and make better decisions and choices, and when they know how to deeply communicate with other people, they first of all will be less subject to propaganda. This, if nothing else, will diminish the power of the mass media.

As more and more people learn to think better and make better choices and decisions for themselves they will more easily accept new information and knowledge to replace many of their limiting beliefs mentioned above. People need both — both new knowledge about the social world, knowledge about how the present systems work and what new systems are possible — and new knowledge about themselves, how they can think and choose better, so they can reject misleading and false propaganda, and get out of their trapping and self-limiting thinking.

So the revolution is about spreading new information and knowledge to people about our present social/political/economic systems, how and in what ways they might be changed, the revolutionary goals, the step by step method, the obstacles to change in our present systems, possible ways to overcome all these obstacles, as well as new information and knowledge about how to improve their own abilities to understand themselves and improve their own thinking and choices.

Next we will look in more detail at the obstacles to change and how to overcome them.