Can the centre hold? From Mandeville’s bees to artificial intelligence (David Howell, 1/03/24, The Article)

Not many people nowadays read Bernard de Mandeville’s allegorical Fable of the Bees, first published in 1705. This described to a shocked world at the time how a large and successful beehive colony stayed bound together and prospered, so long as the bees all pursued their own interests within the law and their relationships one to another, as both individual and essentially social creatures, even if untidily, and with some backsliders. Each creature, by going about its reciprocal business, contributed, even if unintentionally, to the cement of society.

But once they stopped working for themselves and their individual and mutual needs, focussing instead on higher and more perfect state design for general welfare and behaviour, their precious equilibrium was rapidly lost. The framework of society, which no one had planned but in which not only bees but humankind too had always existed, fell apart. Without that glue, a cohesive society, which all the millions of their individual actions had created, crumbled and their relatively stable and balanced society disintegrated into chaos, division, grievance and immiseration.

So things would also turn out, went Mandeville’s thinly disguised message, where in human affairs states spent too much time and effort trying to iron out social blemishes, intervening to insist on virtuous conformity to blueprints of perfection and putting the interests of an increasingly separate and distanced state ahead of people’s daily lives and needs. It would all end badly, if ever it ended at all. […]

Coming from the global to the national level, the societal divisions, like deep flesh wounds, must be held with plaster strips and stitched together, not salted with more tired ideology from a past age and a partisan spectrum of beliefs and aims that now barely connect with the real issues before us. The heart of the matter is not race or gender or class, but reaching with new determination towards a capitalist system that shares, that is democratic, that is fair and spreads dignity and security to millions of households and financial literacy to an entire population, starting in the schools. This was the old dream of the Conservatives. The digital revolution brings a dream of genuinely widened ownership and financial justice to the edge of reality.