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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 20 August 2009

"Mutual Aid" by Peter Kropotkin

Prince Pyotr Kropotkin was a Russian anarchist ("The Anarchist Prince") whose studies of zoology led him to the belief that cooperation between individuals is at least as important a factor in evolution as cooperation. He then extended this concept to a consideration of history and society: he endeavoured to show that, if left to themselves, individuals will cooperate and that therefore a society free of laws is possible (hence the anarchism). Mutual Aid is his principal scientific offering to back up these ideas. It was written in England in the 1890s.

The discipline of sociobiology has now superseded Kropotkin's work. It is now clear that altruism and cooperation have evolutionary advantages; it depends on your ecological niche. Certainly it would be surprising if social animals such as humans did not have some instinctive programming towards cooperation within their family, group or tribe. It seems to be a case of in-group/ out-group: soldiers will sacrifice themselves for their comrades whilst doing their utmost to kill their enemies. Mutual Aid is interesting in the extensive evidence that it chronicles for co-operation and for the its interpretation of the history of mediaeval guilds but it is not astonishing to most people.

Points of interest:
  • In bees "both periods of scarcity and periods of an unusually rich supply of food lead to an increase of the robbing class." p19 This is an interesting fact which, if true, needs explanation.
  • His interpretation of "savage" and "barbarian" history seems to fail to acknowledge the necessary difference between hunter-gatherers and agriculturists. His village is essentially a tribe with land attached. p80
  • He sees the dark ages as a time when individual communities developed democratic institutions which were only later destroyed by the nation building of post-mediaeval war-lords. p103 and p105
  • Markets enjoy special and necessary protection from feuds: trading necessitates trust. He shows that, in history, markets enjoyed legal immunities. p118
  • He claims that workers only worked 48 hours per week (or 8 hours per day; Sunday off) in the middle ages. p121
  • "At the beginning of the eleventh century the towns of Europe were small clusters of miserable huts .... Three hundred and fifty years later .... the land was dotted with rich cities ..." p128
  • He describes the Eiffel Tower as "a meaningless scaffold" p130
  • He believes that modern society has abdicated responsibility for justice to policemen and for looking after other people to taxes; quite a modern Tory point of view! p140
  • "To speak of the natural death of the village communities in virtue of economical laws is as grim a joke as to speak of the natural death of soldiers slaughtered on a battlefield" p144
  • "Henry the Eighth not only ruined the organisation of the guilds but also but also confiscated their properties, with even less excuse and manners ... than he had produced for confiscating the estates of the monasteries. Edward the Sixth completed his work." p160. A historical fact of which I was unaware.

I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would and there were some interesting insights. However, whilst it might have been revolutionary at the time it has rather been superseded by the principles of sociobiology as articulated by eg Stephen Pinker.

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