“One fish says to the other fish, how’s the water today? To which the other fish replies, what water?” The fish does not know there is any water because water makes up its entire reality. Like the fish, the world we are born into is how we’ve always known it to be. In that respect, the social structure creates a truth about the world.
Behaviour goes unquestioned because it’s normal to behave how we do. It can be hard then to see our behaviour. A way to do so, and leap out of the water, as it were, is by placing our society into that of another life form. Doing so and breaking down the structure of society reveals that the rules of the social system are counter-intuitive. While society appears to be functioning, through a different lens, it is functioning in a dysfunctional way.
An ant colony is a highly functioning society, and ants are a social species. So they offer a useful system to compare human societies with.
In an ant colony, every ant has a specific role. The queen has one job — to lay eggs. The other female ants are worker ants, each contributing to the colony in different ways. The workers forage for food and supplies, defend the colony, feed the larvae or keep the colony clean. The function of the male ants is to mate with the queen.
The traits required to flourish in an ant colony include a strong collectivist spirit, where each ant works for the colony’s interest. Ants are altruistic; for example, when an ant is sick, it will leave the colony to ensure the rest of the ants do not become infected with the illness. Ants are also generous and will collect food, not for themselves but for the colony’s benefit.
Collectivism, altruism and generosity are crucial behaviours within the colony. Each ant behaves in the interests of the colony because their lives depend on the colony to survive.
A dysfunctional ant colony
Now, let’s imagine a human society the size of ants, allowing you to view the workings of the colony — what would you see?
A tiny section of the ants own everything the ants produce; they are the elite ants. In the colony, you’ll see these ants with their feet up, lounging in the most exclusive, safest and comfortable parts of the colony.
The elite ants benefit from the work of the ant colony’s largest section, the worker ants. The worker’s focus used to be on creating the stuff the colony needed to sustain itself. Now, the colony needs far fewer of the ants working to satisfy the needs of the ants.
The reason why is that the ants have created some wonderful technology that allows them to fulfil their needs with great efficiency. Before the ants started using technology, they always struggled to meet the needs of the entire colony. Now, with the help of technology, they have created abundance.
A wise ant by the name of John Maynard Keynes once argued (in the 1930s) that due to how efficient the colony was becoming in fulfilling its needs, it would not be too long before the ants would have lots of leisure time. He arrived at this conclusion because the ants would be able to produce lots more while working far less. This wise ant thought to himself because of these efficiencies the workers in the colony would only need to work 15 hours a week!
You would imagine having overcome the greatest challenge facing the colony, life would be far more pleasurable.
Yet, a tragedy is that the ants didn’t get a say in whether they went down the path of less work, more leisure, or more work and less leisure. The elite ants chose for them.
And without the colony realising, the elite ants chose more work.
Rather than freeing the ants, the technology that created the incredible development from scarcity to abundance created a far bigger problem.
The materialistic ants
Most of the colony’s energy now goes into creating stuff that does not help fulfil their needs. The ants are totally preoccupied with creating stuff the ants wear or own to impress the other ants. Because now, how the ants appear in the eyes of others has become the thing the ants value above anything else.
The addiction to stuff is great for the elite ants, who have become fabulously rich as the worker ants spend all their money buying the stuff the elite ants own. And wealth to the elite ants is the most important thing of all — far more important than the welfare of the ants in the colony.
The elite ants rather enjoy the fabulous wealth they get from producing the stuff, so they never want it to end. They want the colony to continue making the things because they can never have too much wealth.
To this end, the colony now focuses its efforts on continuous expansion. They believe that using more land and turning it into products to sell to the ants will help develop the ant colony.
Full steam ahead
The colony’s behaviour is having a destructive impact on the environment they need to survive. The ants have noticed the damage they are causing. Yet, such is their obsession with the stuff they create; the ants are unwilling to change their behaviour for the good of the colony.
Rather than worry about the damage being caused, the ants are more concerned with comparing one another based on the stuff they own. They use the stuff as a barometer of success and social status. The better the stuff you own, the higher your status, and the more important you feel when you compare yourself to other ants.
So powerful is the desire to own all the stuff; the ants don’t think twice about spending more money than they have to buy the stuff. And the elite ants had a quite brilliant idea to allow the other ants to spend more than they own. They creating the ‘credit’ card.
Credit cards make it easy for the worker ants to borrow from the elite ants, who will all too gladly lend them the money. But then the worker ants have to pay back far more than they borrowed. All to pay for stuff they don’t need.
But never mind, as long as the elite ants benefit, that is all that really matters to the colony.
Inequality in the colony
We’ve mentioned how the colony produces enough to meet the needs of all the ants, but a peculiarity is that not every ant has its needs met. For example, the ants create far more food than all the ants need. Yet, some ants get so little they starve to death from want of food.
The starving ants are the forgotten ants; these are the ants the colony would rather ignore, which is easy for the other ants to do because they live in a whole different section of the colony.
While the starving ants die, other ants get so much food they throw it away.
Then there are the jobless ants who aren’t able to find work within the colony. That’s not because they don’t want to work. These ants wish to contribute, but they’re not able to because there are not enough jobs in the colony for every ant to serve a function.
This is not their fault. These ants have nothing to do because the colony is giving them nothing to do.
The jobless ants know they are not contributing to society. This has a profound psychological effect and can lead to the ants suffering mental health problems.
The elite ants provide them with a small amount to live off. But this is barely enough for the jobless ants to afford to provide for their needs.
Then there are some unfortunate souls living amongst the ant colony. The homeless ants live on the periphery of the colony. Rather than helping the homeless ants in any way they can, the other ants blame the homeless ants for being homeless and leave them to fend for themselves.
These ants get no support from the elite ants, who have no desire to help them. Some worker ants show them compassion, offering food to help them, but these ants live desperate lives of struggle.
The elite ants justify the order of things by arguing they contribute the most to the colony. Because they play such an essential role in the colony functioning, they deserve a bigger share of what the colony creates.
The elite ants are so influential that they have convinced all the other ants of their importance. To the point where not only does this aspect of the colony go unquestioned, but most of the worker ants agree that the elite ants should enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s labour.
Managing the ant colony is the political ants who get voted to govern the colony by the other ants. Some political ants have a genuine desire to help the colony. But such is the power of the elite ants that they influence the political ants to make sure the rules of the colony benefit them.
Underlying the behaviour of the colony is self-interest. Rather than seeing one another as important parts of the colony, the ants see one another as competition.
Self-interest, greed and ruthlessness are crucial behaviours within the colony. Each ant is not doing what is in the colony’s interest. The ant’s focus is to look after themselves, even though each ant depends on the colony to survive.
A superiority complex
The human ant colony works quite differently from the natural ant colony. And if we were to watch a human society the size of ants, you imagine we would be appalled at the behaviour in the colony.
Human development and our domination of the world means we see ourselves as superior to other species. From a different perspective, our order of things is bizarre and makes no sense when we consider we are all part of one society.
It goes without saying that human societies differ greatly from those of other life forms. But what is also clear is that society is not structured to benefit everyone. Inequality is an implicit part of the structure of the system. As long as it persists, there will always be those who lose out because a few greedy individuals want to live way beyond their means.
Ultimately, when you strip away the complexity, we’ve got our goals all mixed up. Some people work too much, others not at all, while others are starving to death. All the while, our aims and desires are focused on pursuing stuff that doesn’t make us happy.
This does not appear to be the best way to organise a society.
The society Keynes foresaw was one where people valued free time over the pursuit of filling that free time with work to buy stuff they don’t need. If you take the stuff out of the equation, then each of us would have far more leisure time. The problem then would be how to fill your time, which is a far better problem to face than the bitter stress caused by having all our time filled up by stuff that has no meaning.
Inequality creates injustice
The major cause of so many problems is that an elite control how we do things. We produce enough for all, yet some people are dying for want of food.
This fact is the greatest symbol of a dysfunctional society. Overcoming scarcity was a magnificent achievement, and the abundance we now enjoy could lead to the flourishment of all. Yet, hundreds of millions of people still do not have their basic needs met.
Imagine you finish watching the human society the size of ants. Someone asks you what is the problem in the colony? What would your answer be?
The glaringly obvious problem is the power of the elite.
They manipulate the rules, so everything is in their favour. The whole structure of the system is created with their interests in mind. To change the dynamic, this section of society can not be allowed to continue dominating the order of things.
The issue is that the majority do not see the highly questionable nature of how society functions because our reality constricts how we see the world. This is the only truth we have ever known, and so we only see what is possible from the confines of the social structure we live in.
Only when you leap out of the fishbowl and start to breathe can you see society for what it is — so remember, just because society appears to be functioning, doesn’t mean it’s not functioning in a dysfunctional way.