The actual effect of the myth of meritocracy, which is used to normalise and rationalise head to head competition, is a consistent bias to over-represent capabilities, and to actively avoid thinking about externalities. This is familiar to anyone who has ever been exposed to advertising. The cult of busyness undermines attempts at creating a shared understanding at a very basic level. The collective effects at scale and over decades are disastrous.
Collective behaviour in powered-up societies
Powered-up societies that tolerate social power gradients within a group and between groups are characterised by social norms that promote self interest over compassion. The more entrenched and effective these social norms are enforced within a society, the greater the normalisation of competitive social games.
The most extreme form of powered-up societies are societies that are dominated by the belief in the religion of the invisible hand of the market, in which most institutions have been designed on the assumption that the invisible hand of the market has a beneficial effect on human society. Of course, even a cursory honest look at global indicators of human well-being shows that nothing could be further from the truth of lived experience.
The trouble is that even when large numbers of individuals start to lose faith in the religion of the invisible hand, as is happening right now in many countries, atomised individuals and small nuclear families feel completely powerless in the face of the many powered-up institutions that effectively dictate the terms of life for all living creatures on this planet.
Self-preservation is the primary purpose of all powered-up institutions, far ahead of serving the needs of local ecosystems and communities. Even if the powerless human cogs in the institutionalised machine are fully aware of this fact, their dependence on the industrialised machine for basic survival and their lack of the essential life skills needed to survive outside of the industrialised machine, has resulted in a level of paradigmatic inertia that is best understood as complete paralysis – and this level of paralysis is rationalised, i.e. is perceived as “normal”.
Awareness of the paralysed state of normality is experienced as hyper-normality, an extreme state of cognitive dissonance, where all of human life has morphed into a competitive social game of pretend play, where the pretence of technological and social progress has become the main objective of the game.
The impact of hyper-normality on human and non-human lives is devastating and self-destructive, as all forms of mutual trust and mutual aid are systematically undermined by sanctified institutionalised bullshit, all in the name of technological progress, meticulously quantified and aggregated in abstract financial metrics of busyness. In a digitally networked world that serves as an omni-present temple for worshipping the invisible hand, abstract institutions and their powers are experienced as more “real” than living ecosystems and biological entities.
When the human dependence on hyper-normal institutions is stronger than the level of mutual trust and compassion between humans, culture has become divorced from its biological substrate, and biological life has been sidelined, and is treated as an abstract economic “externality”, i.e. a lower order effect that can be safely ignored within the realm of the hyper-normal social game. There is no escape path from within the game. The paradigmatic inertia of the culture locks all participants into a “stable” state on the suicidal path of cancerous growth in busyness.
Hyper-normalised humans are highly traumatised and hyper-vigilant humans who, in service to the social game, have become unable to extend trust to the people around them without relying on hyper-normalised institutions and their technologies as intermediaries. Some critical observers refer to this state of affairs as the Capitalocene; where abstract capital serves the needs of capital, i.e. the growth and aggregation of capital via liquidation of the entire planet, and ultimately the entire universe.
Within the Capitalocene the identification, labelling, and pathologisation of neurodivergent non-compliant humans is not only “normalised”, it is also immediately recognised as a new market that creates plenty of busyness opportunities. Celebration of neurodiversity is easily co-opted into the social game, within which neurodivergent people are the fuel from which economic “utility” in the form of abstract captial growth can be extracted. The Autism Industrial Complex is a prime example of the way in which cruel dehumanising and traumatising behaviourist techniques of coercion are hyper-normalised into a busyness opportunity.
The systemic suppression of human imagination within the Capitalocene means that it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capital. However, no matter how much energy is harnessed in service to capital, the “externalities” in the economic game, from climate chaos to ecosystem destruction, are starting to overwhelm and disrupt the logic of capital with increasing frequency.
Over the next few decades, as the Capitalocene is eroded and replaced by forces much larger than capital and also much larger than any form of human agency, it is worthwhile to step back and reflect about the ways in which we humans can not only rediscover the biological foundations of humanity, but also healthy limits of human scale in terms of social organisation, as well as healthy way of re-integrating ourselves into the local biological web of life and into ecologies of mutual care beyond species boundaries.
For Autistic people it is a waste of time engaging in conversation with neuronormative people who are unfamiliar with the pseudo-scientific foundations and the ideological bias of the W.E.I.R.D. social game.
There is a very important distinction between arguing to “win” and bi-directional sharing of knowledge and experiences to learn from each other.
It is helpful to distinguish five basic categories of beliefs and related knowledge:
- Beliefs based on scientific theories backed by empirical evidence that we are intimately familiar with. Only a small minority of our beliefs fall into this category.
- Beliefs based on scientific theories backed by empirical evidence that we are not intimately familiar with. If we are “educated”, a sizeable minority of our beliefs fall into this category.
- Beliefs based on personal experiences and observations. For those who identify as autistic, a significant number of beliefs held fall into this category.
- Beliefs that represent explicit social agreements between specific people regarding communication and collaboration. For those who identify as autistic, a significant number of beliefs held fall into this category, especially agreements with family, friends, and colleagues.
- Beliefs based on what others have told us and what we have been encouraged to believe by parents, teachers, and friends, … and politicians and advertisers, etc. For those who do not identify as autistic, the majority of beliefs held fall into this category.
All categories of human beliefs are associated with some level of uncertainty regarding the validity and applicability to a specific context at hand.
When people argue to “win”, they mostly rely on beliefs in category 5 (opinions). Such arguments are about dominance, not facts.
W.E.I.R.D. societies systematically pathologise all those who are not fully “functional” and “culturally well adjusted” machines within the factory model of society. The pathology paradigm ensures that all defective machines are identified and to the greatest possible extent are corrected by suitable therapies and medical interventions, to get as close to normal “functioning” as possible.
These graphs from Google’s Books Ngram Viewer (word usages in published books) reflect the rising levels of significant trauma in our society, i.e. the “autism epidemic” and the concern about a [lack of] externally visible displays of empathy, and the rising levels of addiction to the various forms of social status that are cult-ivated by the busyness of abstract economic growth. These trends coincide with the prominence of the internet in human lives, and thinking about the W.E.I.R.D. cultural bias that is baked into the very foundations of profit driven social media platforms and other internet technologies, this is not surprising.
People who are able and willing to play social games, very easily get pulled into addictions related to social status. These effects have been amplified with the global rise of neoliberal ideology, facilitated by internet based social technologies. They are visible in the rise of corresponding pop psychology terminology around narcissistic behaviours.
The many invisible hands of capital that shape the algorithms of that mediate digital human interactions are keeping billions of people firmly anchored within the W.E.I.R.D. ideological prison. On the one hand Autistic whistle-blowers are pathologised and demonised, and on the other hand our culture actively encourages narcissistic behaviours. The outcome is predictable.
Collective behaviour in de-powered societies
I have written extensively about this topic, and for anyone who is seriously interested, there is no shortage of excellent books on what we know from studying cultural evolution over the course of the last 300,000 years, and there is a growing body of knowledge that is being generated, shared, and curated by neurodivergent people who are engaged in collaborative niche construction outside – or at least partially outside – of the Capitalocene.
Additionally, we also know that human babies who have not yet been exposed to competitive ideology are consistently prepared to help others who seem to struggle with achieving a goal, for example with opening a door etc. This innately cooperative tendency is not limited to familiar family members and friends, but also applies to strangers.
In this article I just want to draw attention to the profound shift in human collective behaviour that is triggered as soon as a small group of humans rejects the religion of the invisible hand, and starts to systematically re-prioritise compassion over self interest.
De-powered groups represent an alternative and genuinely stable state of social organisation and cultural evolution at human scale. Human scale groups of hunter gatherers in Australia survived and thrived in small groups for over 70,000 years, without completely destroying local ecosystems, and without triggering a mass extinction event. We are well advised to take the time to study and understand the cultural foundations that differentiate de-powered human scale cultures from the increasingly short and destructive boom and bust cycles of so-called “civilisations” that have become the dominant form of social organisation over the last 10,000 years.
Within a human scale group, a shift towards social norms that no longer tolerate social power gradients over time results in a rise in altruistic brehaviour, in mutual trust, and in individual behaviour that assumes the absence of purely self interested motives as a default. Ten years of lived experience with the NeurodiVenture model have taught us that it can take newcomers several years to un-learn entrenched old habits and to adapt to life in a culturally and psychologically safe environment.
There are many ways of failing on the path towards de-powering the relationships within a group. De-powered life does not equate to a life without disagreements and to a life without a multitude of different perspectives. Quite the opposite is the case. The main difference to powered-up life is the level of conscious awareness about individual differences in needs, and the celebration of these differences, by encouraging people to explore new creative forms of collaboration, which become possible within a compassionate ecology of mutual care, in which prosocial norms protect against the emergence of permanent social power gradients.
Creative collaboration vs the invisible hand
It is important to understand how creative collaboration within a de-powered environment differs from the competition encouraged by the invisible hand in powered-up environments.
The actual effect of the myth of meritocracy, which is used to normalise and rationalise head to head competition, is a consistent bias of all participating agents to over-represent their capabilities, and to actively avoid thinking about any potential externalities. This is familiar to anyone who has ever been exposed to advertising.
In other words, the elevation of competition to a virtue results in an environment that actively encourages corner cutting and deception.
In such an environment, no one is actually sticking to the agreed rules of competition for a particular market. Instead, everyone has strong incentives to be perceived as sticking to the rules, by taking the most creative interpretation of the rules that is possible without triggering negative consequences. This tendency can be observed in all sectors of the economy in industrialised societies. The limited liability of corporations and the very limited powers of regulators means that any punishments for rule violations equate to symbolic slaps on the wrist, without any tangible impact on future operations.
At an individual level the invisible hand consistently rewards psychopathic lack of compassion. It does not take a genius to understand that this ultimately results in psychopathic hyper-normalised institutions. Attempting to counteract this tendency via improved regulation is futile once a critical mass of individuals with psychopathic tendencies have occupied key positions in established institutions.
Improvements in regulation are either conceived as perception management initiatives from the start, or they encourage the most powerful agents to identify and actively engineer new loopholes that allow corner cutting in areas that evade the scrutiny of regulators. The most powerful agents also have the deepest pockets to easily cope with heavy handed bureaucratic perception management demands. In contrast, the least powerful agents, who may offer genuinely useful services, with fewer toxic externalities, may not be able to afford to submit to expensive compliance rituals. They stand a high chance of being perceived as too small, and therefore as too “risky” to engage with in a world where bigger is always better by definition, and where being smaller is always interpreted as a sign of weakness.
The primary framing of evolution as competition – as if there are no people who reject the concept of competition as inherently cruel – is a traumatising and nauseating waste of time that only achieves one thing: the destruction of the fabric of trust that is the foundation of all healthy (de-powered) human scale societies.
The continuously evolving creative collaboration of cells and microbes within a complex organism is de-powered; there is no social power hierarchy of cells, and there is no social power hierarchy of microbes. Complex organisms have evolved non-trivial immune systems to detect aberrant competitive and exploitative mutants or invaders. Hierarchical power structures are abstractions that only exist in the minds of animals with complex brains. In the bigger scheme of evolution, hierarchical power structures are unusual.
More and more people, including neuronormative people who grew up with supportive parents, are openly questioning the fundamentals of industrialised “civilisation”, and are confronting the timeless patterns of human limitations.
The ethical issues raised by stewardship of social systems and ecological systems require input from philosophy, public policy, and disciplines across the humanities. There is no viable hands-off approach. Inaction on the part of scientists and regulators only hands the reins of collective behaviour over to a small number of individuals at for-profit companies.
In this context it is misguided and dangerous to entertain magical beliefs about the capabilities of so-called artificially intelligent systems designed by mere humans, which are only capable of emulating learning by imitation, and which run on highly resource and energy intensive and often unreliable technological infrastructure.
It is easy to gloss over all the implications of the limits of human cognition and the limits of human agency, and it is also easy to underestimate the immense diversity in cultures and human collective behaviour that our species is capable of. From an Autistic perspective, we are well advised to stay clear of all attempts of actively shaping cultures beyond the limits of human scale – because by definition, beyond these limits we are genuinely incapable of understanding the implications of our decisions and actions.
Competing against each other using culturally defined rules
Culturally well adjusted neuronormative people understand collaboration to mean working against each other according to culturally defined rules.
Think about that for moment. A few years ago I explicitly suggested this “definition” to several culturally well adjusted people, and they confirmed that this is effectively how they perceive their corporate or academic work environment. I’ve also been told the same thing in different words by a small company owner, who explained that in business there is no such thing as an eye level partnership.
People with elevated baseline sensitivities that leave them more vulnerable to being severely traumatised, who cope with trauma via social withdrawl, mutism, shutdowns and meltdowns, are systematically disadvantaged in all societies that tolerate persistent social power gradients within relationships. Since the entire industrialised world has been built on the myth of meritocracy and on the belief in the sacred invisible hand of competitive markets, it is not surprising that hypersensitive Autistic people are systematically marginalised and exploited – not because they are any less competent, but because a neurologically hard wired innate sense of fairness and social justice prevents most Autistic people from playing competitive games to “succeed”, i.e. to personally benefit from “out-competing” others.
In a hyper-competitive world unexpected non-compliant behaviour of Autistic people is often misunderstood, experienced as confusing, and sometimes this means that Autistic people are perceived as “manipulative and untrustworthy”.
A very effective technique for reducing misunderstanding is the technique of asking clarifying questions, especially asking for concrete examples (validation by instantiation) to illustrate the intended semantics of a specific word or statement. Again, in a hyper-competitive world, asking for concrete examples is easily perceived as rude, and similarly, offering examples of similar experiences – to convey shared understanding and compassion, can also easily be misunderstood.
The competitive mindset in our society undermines collaboration and attempts at creating a shared understanding at a very basic level. The collective effects of paradigmatic inertia at scale and over years and decades are disastrous.
The notion of life as a competitive game found its way into the science of biology by interpreting Darwin’s theory of evolution through the cultural lens of capitalism. The complementary perspective of life and evolution as a cooperative game as described by Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902) was largely ignored in “developed” capitalist societies throughout most of the 20th century.
- Coming back to life - March 14, 2023
- Nurturing shared understanding in a deceptive world - January 28, 2023
- Collaborative niche construction - January 21, 2023
Hi Jorn, I have been greatly enjoying and sharing many of your articles on collaborative Autistic world building in the margins of the Capitalocene. I particularly appreciate your critique of the Autism Industrial Complex and autistic relationships that challenge normative power gradients. As I was reading this piece, I had some thoughts and critiques. The first small one was something quite neat! I have been taking an oceanography class, and one of the first things we learned was the shift in thinking from “Life lives in niches” to “Life creates niches” – which your work exemplifies at the terrestrial mammal scale. Thought you might appreciate the connection.
Second, I wanted to make sure I understood your perspective on the hypernormalisation of psychopathic lack of compassion. You go on to discuss how this hierarchical social structure is something that neuronormative people have been trained to expect and respond to.
My question: psychopathy, as it is understood in neuropsychology, is also a neurodivergence. In autism, there are cognitive difficulties in understanding other people’s perspectives and emotions even while they can be sensed emotionally, while in psychopathy, there is a lack of being able to feel other people’s emotions but a clear cognitive understanding of what the emotions are is present. In a sense, they are two sides of the same coin, making up the ‘inhuman’ – psychopaths are stated to not have ‘conscience’ and autists are said to not really be ‘conscious’. To some extent, both of these are characterised by nonconformity, lack of ‘prosocial’ behaviour’, and a lack of expressing or responding to things in ways that make sense to neuronormative people.
It might be useful to distinguish in your paragraph on hyperonormalised psychopathic traits between psychopathy and antisocial behaviours. This is a tricky territory of definitions and boundaries, but it seems as though ‘psychopathy’ is what clinicians refer to as proven brain differences, lack of empathy, lack of remorse, and lack of concern about performance. These “limited prosocial emotions” include traits aee then paired with antisocial behaviours in people that show callous disregard for others emotions (even when they cognitively understand it) and engage in violent and harmful behaviours. According to Psychology Today, psychopathy and antisocial behaviours often go hand in hand but can occur independently. Things like criminal behaviour, repeated violent acts, and other forms of reckless and disinterested behaviour, often coupled with these particular emotional absences, might result in an antisocial personality disorder diagnosis. Of course, personality, much like empathy, is subject to multiple definitions and has a myriad of factors such as genetics, environment and other aspects of one’s life history. What does lack of empathy actually symbolise in young children who might kill small animals and not feel bad or sense their pain but cognitively is aware it exists? This is a pretty big detachment from another’s reality and from commonly held societal morals, but that alone does not seem to be enough to be definitively say ‘this person is intrinsically manipulative, evil and, well, psychopathic’.
With this in mind, I wonder how hypersensitive Autistics traumatised by accusations of inhumanity predicated upon their purported lack of empathy can show solidarity both with Autistics who do in fact state that they do not experience empathy and with psychopathic people who do not feel the emotions of others. Autistics have often been accused of being ‘psychopathic’, manipulative, selfish, rude and unfeeling due to the dual empathy problem. Simultaneously, the retort ‘autistic people can actually be incredibly empathetic we just process and express it differently’ seems to be an effort to put distance between autism and the perceived inhumanity of simply not experiencing certain emotions.
Given, however, that there are both Autistic people that struggle to feel empathy at the cognitive and/or emotional level (the co-occurrence of Cluster B personality disorders, conduct disorders, alexythimia and psychopathic traits in Autistic people can mean that some do not feel empathy) and psychopathic people who do not feel empathy or have blunted emotional responses to others’ feelings, how can they come together? People who do have psychopathic lack of remorse or empathy may be valorised and powerful in cut-throat individualist environments, but where does this leave them when they seek out relationships, support, safety or to not harm others due to feelings other than the ones they do not have, emotions perhaps such as Desire for Undestanding by Others or Distrust of System or others without clear labels? These are ones that both groups are constantly denied due to how ‘limited’ and ‘different’ they are, because of how dangerous they are to the status quo and to stereotyped understandings of humanity.
How can people that have done terrible things to survive, feel safe, and be seen as a human, that have perhaps profitted off of the marginalisation of others in some spheres and the hypernormalisation of their own traits, connect with people who are deeply caring, open to others and vulnerable to exploitation? Could psychopaths be committed Autistic allies, helping them navigate and fight structures of power that may sit uneasily with both of them in different ways? What kind of collaborations could come from thinking this through together?
Please let me know if you see any interesting pieces or things to tease apart more in what I wrote! I spent a few hours reading, and have some experience with family members who have psychopathic traits and my own sense of relationship as a traumatised Autistic person to BPD in particular and to Cluster B solidarity frameworks, but I am still working through my thoughts on this.