“Survival of the Richest”, by Douglas Rushkoff

What is the point of capitalism? If asked, Scottish economic philosopher Adam Smith would have said that its primary goal is the generation of wealth, and that the riches of those who succeed “trickle down” to the rest of society, who benefit indirectly as the rich spend their wealth. While not disagreeing, economist F. A. Hayek would have instead emphasised freedom – that economic deregulation fosters individual liberty, and competition generates creativity and innovation. By adopting a free market we therefore avoid the sort of centralised state control that has so often led to totalitarianism and repression.

Of course, there are good reasons to question both these answers. Today’s economic markets have never been so free and unregulated, and yet the trickle-down effect has slowed to a drip, as the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider. And as China would seem to illustrate, economic growth and prosperity can go hand-in-hand with the most suffocating forms of state surveillance and oppression.

Despite all this, if asked the same question, today’s average billionaire would still no doubt resort to the same sort of answer: capitalism provides freedom and wealth, and through the technological and scientific progress that these allow, both society and human existence are gradually improving. But if the justification for the existence of the über-rich is that we are slowly progressing toward an earthly utopia, then why do so many of these billionaires seem so keen to escape? Elon Musk to Mars, Peter Thiel to his apocalypse-proof compound in New Zealand, Mark Zuckerberg to the Metaverse. Increasingly common among the Silicon Valley elite is also an interest in transhumanism, which proposes that technology may allow us to transcend our human limitations, and even perhaps – through mind uploading, genetic engineering, cyborgian augmentation, or some other technological means – achieve a form of immortality. All of which would seem to suggest that the techno-rich seem less interested in helping to stop climate change, societal collapse, pandemics, war, or any of the other ills that threaten our existence, than in ensuring that they have their own private bolthole in which they can continue to live out the privileged lives to which they think their wealth and success entitle them. Which is – as Douglas Rushkoff points out – not a little ironic, for many of these existential threats are in fact the result of the policies and practices that enriched these billionaires in the first place.

Survival of the Richest details what Rushkoff terms The Mindset, a form of “Silicon Valley escapism”, where for the billionaires who play the game of capitalism, “winning” means “earning enough money to insulate themselves from the damage they are causing by earning money in that way. It’s as if they want to build a car that goes fast enough to escape from its own exhaust.”

As a longtime commentator on technology and culture, Rushkoff is well-placed to trace the origins of The Mindset, having lived firsthand through the early optimistic idealism of cyberculture and the growth of the Internet, through the bursting of the dotcom bubble, up to the commercialisation of the online world into today’s Web 2.0. Fascinatingly, he traces how the early promise of an interconnected world has been gradually polluted and co-opted for the benefit of tech companies and entrepreneurs whose sole purpose now seems to be personal enrichment at the expense of everyone else, regardless of the consequences. As already noted, many of these consequences can in fact be traced to the activities that made the rich rich. For example, a central tenet of The Mindset is constant growth: if we are to colonise Mars, or upload our brains to computers, then technological advance (and the economy that funds it) needs to progress in a steadily accelerating exponential curve. But such growth requires constant cost cutting – the continuing depression of wages and standards of living, the erosion of workers’ rights, the loss of jobs through automation – and is often at the expense of other “externalities” – the effect on the environment, the disruption of communal life and the fracture of social bonds, the debasement of ethical and political discourse. When Jeff Bezos blew $5.5 billion to spend four minutes in space, on his return he thanked the staff and customers of Amazon for making it all possible – and so he should. For without Amazon’s own obsession with exponential growth (to “get big fast”, as Bezos had commanded), its ruthless destruction of competing businesses and established practices (to “move fast and break things”, to quote Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook motto), its obsessive desire to cut costs and wages (even at the expense of its own employees’ health and livelihood), his rocket would never have left the launchpad. Which makes Bezos’ trip itself a perfect illustration of The Mindset: society is just a disposable booster rocket for a billionaire’s hubristic and desperate attempt to stave off his own fear of mortality and sense of cosmic insignificance. (I may be editorializing a bit, there…)

In outlining the origins and development of The Mindset, Rushkoff also lays out its intellectual roots, which can ultimately be traced to the work of such thinkers as biologist Richards Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett and psychologist Steven Pinker. It is Dawkins’ concept of the individual as a biological machine unconsciously driven by the “selfish gene” – the dictates of our evolutionary inheritance – that underpins the worldviews of such as Musk, Thiel, Bezos and Zuckerberg. And so The Mindset also assumes that the body is a machine and the mind is a computer, leaving us ripe for reprogramming by the behaviour-modifying algorithms of social media and digital marketing – and whatever “hidden persuaders” and bad actors are pulling the levers behind the curtain. But, as Rushkoff plausibly argues, this view is not only reductive but false, for it is a model that “mistakes the map for the territory”: the fact that a person can be best manipulated by thinking of them in mechanistic and behavioural terms does not mean that they are thereby essentially programmable machines. Behaviorism and materialism are not facts but assumptions – and ones that (for instance) the continued inability to account for consciousness in purely materialist terms would seem to call into question. 

(Incidentally, this is an objection with which I have a great deal of sympathy, as it often goes overlooked that the very analogy used – that humans are machines – entails other things that materialists would not wish to argue for. A machine, as we commonly think of it, has a designer, has been created with a purpose, and does not evolve of its own accord; machines do not repair themselves or grow (unless such capacities are programmed in). So, either we are not machines, or else the word is here being used in a loose, misleading sense. In which case, why use it at all?)

Hearteningly, however, the book ends on an upbeat note, and Rushkoff signs off with various positive alternatives to The Mindset’s reductive and dehumanising picture of human nature, its pessimistic worldview, and its obsession with unsustainable economic growth. The key here is collective activity, to re-establish our communal bonds – both digital and physical – and to reinvest the profits of our economic activities locally and meaningfully, such as through the setting up of co-operative enterprises (based on what Rushkoff terms “circular economic principles” rather than “extractive growth-based capitalism”). In this way, we can have growth that sustains communities and families, providing slower but more sustainable progress, and bequeathing our grandchildren a world that they would not feel the need to escape from.

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Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

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