The Scorpion & the Frog

By Daniel Margrain

 

In the famous anti-capitalist fable, a scorpion, eager to get to the other side of a stream and unable to swim, pleads with a frog to allow him to ride on the frog’s back, across the stream.“Certainly not,” said the frog. “You would kill me.”

“Preposterous!,” replied the scorpion. “If I stung you, it would kill the both of us.”

Thus assured, the frog invited the scorpion to climb aboard, and halfway across, sure enough, the scorpion delivered the fatal sting.

“Now why did you do that,” said the frog, “you’ve killed us both.”

“I am a scorpion,” he replied, “this is what I do.”

A century ago, developing the ideas of Karl Marx, the Russian Nicolai Bukharin argued that the growth of international corporations and their close association with national states hollows-out parliaments. The power of private lobbying money draws power upwards into the executive and non-elected parts of the state dominated by corporations leading to the death of democracy and, ultimately, the capitalist system itself. The impact on society that results from the growth of corporations, in other words, is akin to the role played by the scorpion.

What corporations do is strive to maximize the returns on the investments of their shareholders. As Milton Friedman put it, “The social responsibility of business is to increase profits.” Unfortunately, if corporations are unconstrained by law or regulation, they can, by simply “doing what they do”, suck the life out of the economy that sustains them. Like cancer cells, lethal parasites, and the scorpion, unconstrained corporations can destroy their “hosts,” without which they cannot survive, much less flourish.

Society to the corporation is what the frog is to the scorpion. The CEOs of the giant corporations compete against other, globally, for the limited resources of the planet. While the actions of the corporations are beneficial to their CEOs and shareholders, they have detrimental impacts for humanity and society as a whole.

Karl Marx

In his analysis of the capitalist system over a century-and-a half ago, Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto articulated the processes that were to lead to the growth of the corporations: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere” he said. Marx describes, powerfully, the workings, impulses and aggressive dynamism of an economic system in which the units of production increase in size and where their ownership becomes increasingly concentrated.

It takes an effort on the reader’s part to remember that the passage quoted above was written before the search for oil absorbed the Middle East transforming it into a contemporary battlefield, or that globalization began stamping its mark on a thousand different cultures. The accuracy of Marx’s analysis exemplified in the exponential growth of the corporation in the century following his death, is a testament to his magnificent intellectual vigor and groundbreaking dialectical insight.

Where Marx’s analysis has yet to be realized is in terms of his expectation that the working class would become increasingly radical and ultimately revolutionary. What was impossible for him to predict was the emergence of broadcast media and, by extension, the capacity by which it has been able to disorientate the masses by redirecting revolutionary impulses into passive pursuits.

Also Marx’s analysis has not been borne out in terms of the extent to which workers have been coerced into an acceptance of capitalism by their economic dependence on employment and the repression of revolutionary movements that sought to overthrow the capitalist system. These workers have also been incorporated through their organizations into the political structures of capitalist societies, and are seduced by the flood of inexpensive imported goods often created by sweated labour, that capitalist production has provided.

As bad as the suffering is for many who endure poverty within the countries of the advanced capitalist states today, it is not sufficient enough in scale – as was the case in the 1930s, for example – to threaten the capitalist economic system. But although its true to say Marx’s expectation that oppressed and exploited workers would overthrow capitalism has not been borne out by events, this does not invalidate his analysis. Marx wasn’t deterministic. He viewed the working class from a position of what he perceived they were potentially capable of becoming in the right socioeconomic circumstances.

Contradictions of capitalism

In The Communist Manifesto Marx describes capitalism at its beginnings as a revolutionary system, because it creates, for the first time in human history, the potential for liberation from want. Through the development of industrial production, it became possible for every human being to be fed, clothed and housed. But as Marx recognized, even in his time, capitalism would never achieve this society of plenty for all, because of the way production is organized, with the means of production controlled by a tiny minority of society, the ruling class – more widely known today as “the one per cent”.

Marx described the ruling class as a “band of warring brothers” in constant competition with each other – giving the system a relentless drive to expand. As Marx wrote in Capital: “Fanatically bent on making value expand itself, he (the capitalist) ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake.” Capitalism’s insatiable drive, embodied in the growth of the corporation, has brought us in the 21st century to the edge of climate chaos and environmental destruction. This is the systems Achilles heel.

Marx’s dialectical understanding of how the capitalist system works, therefore, has contemporary relevance both in terms of explaining the growth of the corporation and its competitive drive to extract resources within the context of an environmentally finite planet. Left to it’s own devices, in the absence of any revolutionary struggle, the corporation will ultimately end up destroying its host – humanity and society. In such a scenario, the contradictions of the system couldn’t be more stark.

Prisoner’s Dilemma, altruism & game theory

It should be noted that both the frog/scorpion fable and the potential for capitalism to destroy the conditions upon which human life depends, does not portray a Prisoner’s DilemmaIn international political theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is often used to demonstrate the coherence of strategic realism, which holds that in international relations, all states (regardless of their internal policies or professed ideology), will act in their rational self-interest given international anarchy. A classic example is an arms race like the Cold War and similar conflicts.

During the Cold War the opposing alliances of NATO and the Warsaw Pact both had the choice to arm or disarm. From each side’s point of view, disarming whilst their opponent continued to arm would have led to military inferiority and possible annihilation. Conversely, arming whilst their opponent disarmed would have led to superiority. If both sides chose to arm, neither could afford to attack the other, but at the high cost of developing and maintaining a nuclear arsenal. If both sides chose to disarm, war would be avoided and there would be no costs.

In the frog/scorpion fable, the former had absolutely nothing to gain by carrying the scorpion to safety. From the perspective of the cynical outsider, the frog’s altruism is foolish because he would have lived had he not assisted the scorpion. Similarly, the corporation has nothing to gain by resisting the urge to damage the environment. Regulation impinges on profits. To some, altruistic acts are consistent with the adage, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

But of course this cynical perspective is predicated on their being no mutual trust between two parties. Because the frog believed the scorpion when he said it was irrational to kill him, any intention to find a way to deflect earlier than the scorpion, hadn’t formed a part of the frogs reasoning. The frog’s actions were based purely on good faith and the acceptance of basic norms of behaviour. A rational approach in which both parties were set to benefit was understood by the frog to be a given. The frog hadn’t accounted for the fact that the scorpion was compelled to act in the way he did.

Similarly, corporate capitalists are compelled to ‘externalize’ environmental costs in order to maximize profits. It is the corporation, like the scorpion, that pulls humanity down. This kind of reasoning applies to other related areas. In the field of international relations, for example, the concept of the Right to Protect (R2P) doctrine of ‘pre-emptive retaliation’, expresses nothing other than a strategy based on defecting early and decisively, even though such an action is highly irrational.

The rationale appears to be that any attempts at cooperative actions are, at some point, doomed to be beset by the actions that pertain to that of the scorpion. This presupposes that all potential and/or perceived foes act in a highly irrational manner akin to the pathological actions of psychopaths that lead to unnecessary harmful deflections instead of mutual cooperation that is beneficial to the greater good.

Game theory does not really take scorpions into account. It holds that people will defect because that is in their best interest – because the future has no shadow. Game theory fails as a tool when we are dealing with sociopathology or extreme denial. The human dilemma is that all progress ultimately fails or at least slides back, that anything once proven must be proven again a myriad of times; that there is nothing so well established that a fundamentalist (of any religion or stripe) cannot be found to deny it, and suffer the consequences, and then deny that he suffered the consequences.

 

11 thoughts on “The Scorpion & the Frog

  1. Although I’m not certain that it was Marx’s “expectation” that the working class would spontaneously become radicalized so much as it was his “hope” that with a bit of help from a radicalized intelligentsia, it might become so, you do write in my opinion a concise and faithfully accurate overview of his theory. I very much enjoyed the read.

    ‘The old man’ was right, of course, that although profit seeking did help to birth large scale industrial production, or what he called “socialized production,” and thus at least had this aspect of it that was ‘progressive,’ as a fundamental dynamic, as the motive force for sustaining social reproduction, it is actually the doom of a life well worth living for the overwhelming majority having to endure the era of capital.

    The manner in which capital subverts itself is actually rather simple to schematize: because wages are a part of the costs of production in the calculus of for profit production, and wages, on the other hand, collectively and in the aggregate comprise the overall purchasing power of the consumer base from which profit is to be extracted, there can never be enough purchasing power among the consumers at large, taken together, to even cover the costs of all for profit production, let alone yield a profit margin for “all” of the for-profit producers. Left to its own, without the necessary fiscal infusions or stimuli, the capitalist economy cannot — like the scorpion with the frog — but occasion an ever accruing series of bankruptcies that by implication steadily and faithfully condemn ever increasing numbers of workers to the ruin of a jobless destitution. Capitalism, as a workable scheme for a humane and sustainable economy, is both a logical and practicable impossibility, let alone one that can only be enforced but by coercion and imposture. Life doesn’t get better until both production for profit and the wage system are transcended. (In this connection, a guy by the name of Paul Mattick wrote what I thought was a rather interesting piece: What is Communism?)

    And yes, indeed, then there is the problem, the obstacle, really, and as you put it, that “. . . there is nothing so well established that a fundamentalist (of any religion or stripe) cannot be found to deny it, and suffer the consequences, and then deny that he suffered the consequences,” especially so if the entire array of the apparatuses of information distribution, education and indoctrination exists, not in the interest of the public good, but to purposely service the commercial investments and ideological interests of the ruling establishment.

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  2. The only useful comment I can make is to add is that for a brief period the Internet and social media provided a potential counter force against the bread and circuses approach of Governments in the use of the mass media entertainment and influence over over the 24/7 news sources. I suggest that it was the role of social media in generating what is called the Arab Spring which has been the impetus behind the rush of measures to be able to shut down the internet and mobile communications, domestic energy and transport networks and providing 24/7 monitoring surveillance through a range of digital devices, and using the specific threats from international terrorism, international crime and child sexual exploitation as the precipitating excuse.

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  3. Good post! I think the part about capitalism that wasn’t really clear to Marx&Engels was how capitalism would increasingly reward psychopaths and psychopathic behaviour as the system grew in size and power.

    My reading choices have veered towards the social sciences in the last 10 years, in my search for the root causes of today’s problems and increasingly likelihood of human extinction in a matter of decades in the future.

    Engels himself, came across the work of early anthropologist- Henry Lewis Morgan, and followed up with his own research on “primitive” communism. In a nutshell, we as humans are hardwired for life within small, equal and cooperative groups. At the dawn of “civilization” as human settlements grew larger, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that inhabitants strongly resisted disparities in wealth and power…applying the “status-leveling” tactics hunter-gatherers use in the wild. So, why would we expect people to be happy and healthy in the kind of world we live in today?

    I’ve noticed an increasing amount of mostly ignored research hypothesizing that psychopaths (generally 1%of total population) are not only in greater numbers in prison populations and megalomaniac leaders, but company CEO’s and executives are also likely increasing, as capitalism turns more and more to short term profits and away from long term growth. Even in cases where a CEO crashes the company, he usually lands on his feet somewhere else, cause major shareholders think he will boost their stock values!

    But, all we can do is speculate on the circumstantial evidence, cause it’s not very likely or very often that a high-functioning psychopath running a bank or oil company, will expose himself to detailed psychoanalysis. What’s more, surveys that have been done on Wall Street traders, find their behaviour becomes increasingly psychopathic, the longer they are exposed to the winner-take-all/short-term-gain atmosphere of the Trading Floor!

    A few links I came across that explain why we’re F****d if we can’t change this system are:
    https://www.jacobinmag.com/2012/09/capitalism-and-insanity/
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/29/neoliberalism-economic-system-ethics-personality-psychopathicsthic
    and a few years back, research psychologist- Paul Piff created a Rigged Monopoly Game experiment that results in undeserving success causing people to act entitled and beligerent and dismissive to those who aren’t succeeding…a dire warning about the impacts of social inequality

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    1. The term psychopath is a clinical expression to describe someone egotistical who has no perception understanding or concern about the outcomes of their behaviour. I suggest that a more useful way of looking at the role of Chairmen and their Chief Executives Ministers and their Chief Public servants, Council Leaders and their Chief Executives is through the behavioural science of Management Teams and the traditional chairman and other management Teams members particularly the Creatives and Shaper Leaders and which covered in published research projects of R Meredith Belbin and Management Teams Why they succeed or fail and where his work including the use of psychometric testing was centred on the former Staff College at Henley which became the Henley Management College when the Civil service established their own college It was at this college and similar institutions that the strategy for International corporations was developed in the 1980’s moving HQ’s to countries with stable government offering low corporate taxation and opportunity to build personal wealth and moving production , especially labour intensive production to countries with stable governments and no or powerless trade unions to further and protect workers in terms of pay, hours of working, health and safety , pensions and other benefits. Their was hated of the public sector not just because of their conditions of services but recognition that the motivations were different, not skills. The privatization of public service has become a major objective and shared by Conservative governments but where Labour Governments also were seduced by the idea of creating arms length agencies and service providing bodies to avoid political accountability as well s being to creating their personal fortunes.

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    2. Very interesting contribution much of which I agree with, particularly with reference to primitive communism. As you inferred, hunter gatherer societies’ very survival was predicated on altruism..Humans flourished for about 150,000 years in our pre-history by cooperating with one another. Strange then, that ever since the advent of class society some 10,000 years ago we have been encouraged to believe that competition is somehow indicative of ‘human nature.’

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    3. “I think the part about capitalism that wasn’t really clear to Marx&Engels was how capitalism would increasingly reward psychopaths and psychopathic behaviour as the system grew in size and power.”

      There are at least two short and very eloquently written chapters in Capital, Volume One, that suggest that Marx and Engels were actually very sharply attuned to the utterly murderous psychopathy endemic among the ruling capitalist elites, as shockingly in evidence in its extremes in their day as in our own:

      Chapter Twenty-Six: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation

      &

      Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist

      Merely to quote the last line of Chapter Thirty One:

      If money, according to Augier, [14] “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt. [15]

      And to briefly follow that up with the footnote of interest to the foregoing:

      15. “Capital is said by a Quarterly Reviewer to fly turbulence and strife, and to be timid, which is very true; but this is very incompletely stating the question. Capital eschews no profit, or very small profit, just as Nature was formerly said to abhor a vacuum. With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10 per cent. will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 per cent. certain will produce eagerness; 50 per cent., positive audacity; 100 per cent. will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent., and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged. If turbulence and strife will bring a profit, it will freely encourage both. Smuggling and the slave-trade have amply proved all that is here stated.” (T. J. Dunning, l. c., pp. 35, 36.)

      Those two Chapter, by the way, are very much worth the read and without any great investment in time for what they reveal about what Marx actually took to be an ‘essential’ aspect of the ‘capitalist mindset,’ namely, it’s cold blooded brutality.

      They also help you to realize that very little has changed in social and political terms under the rule of capital since at least the 1800s and even much earlier.

      Liked by 1 person

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