The bear, the tiger, and the trade unionist

The Swiss franc, human rights and ecocide

Last Sunday was voting day in Switzerland. I’m Swiss, and it’s one of my favourite things about being Swiss: we vote on everything and anything, several times a year. I get to decorate my balcony with colourful banners announcing my political views: Human rights are more important than profits of multi-national companies. Military spending on fighter jets is wasteful. We should save biodiversity rather than consume palm oil. And then, inevitably, my country votes against them. My balcony is a distinctly minority view.

The Indonesian Tiger and the Swiss Bear hugging in the forest: the natural imagery used by the free trade campaign to sell a vote for ecocide.

A modern religion of competition and domination

What can possibly explain the “multinational corporations should be free to conduct human rights abused with impunity” and the “ecocide in Indonesia is economically worth it” Swiss votes? Are a majority or large minority of Swiss people brutal, depraved criminals, who delight in harm to others, and rejoice when species go extinct? No, of course not. But then — why do they vote to support their economy to harm others and commit ecocide? I believe they vote this way because they are under the sway of a destructive economic creed, which in fact rules most of our world. This creed is very simple:

The cover of Peter Kropotkin’s classic “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution”

Kropotkin (and Mister Rogers) were right

This creed of the natural, even beneficial, nature of domination and exploitation, loudly repeated in economics textbooks and popular media, overshadows alternative world views: that societies are built on cooperation much more than on competition, that humans are exceptionally cooperative and caring beings, that innovation and social benefits stem almost entirely from human creativity and capacity for working together (rather than from self-regarding selfishness).

Mister Rogers, a good person (and advocate of public transit.) Picture courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Fake origin stories and fascism

Contrasting these two versions of reality, one which puts competition and domination front and centre, the other which holds up cooperation and care, goes beyond idly wondering which version fits reality better. From a purely scientific perspective, both factors come into play, and the interesting question becomes how they interact. However,from a historical perspective, only one of them has enjoyed the sustained support of power and academia for the past couple of hundred years: the colonial creed of competition. And this brings us to fascism.

Cover of “The Immortal Hour” by Fiona MacLeod (really William Sharp), part of the reinventing of colonial industrial Britain as a land of rural idyll.

The trade unionist

The first thing I found in my mailbox after learning the results of the vote was the newspaper of my new trade union. My trade union here is wonderful, quite radical and engaged. Their newspaper was full of accounts of protests, solidarity with struggles near and far. Photo after photo of people, my comrades, holding hand-made signs. Article after article of protest, demands against power, demands for a better world. It should have lifted my heart: instead it made me exhausted. I had to wonder why, and thinking through that why became my motivation for writing this overlong piece.

Learning new economics at comic-con

Cover page of the highly, highly recommended legendary graphic book by Seth Tobocman



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Julia Steinberger

Julia Steinberger

Immigrant, Swiss-American-UK ecological economist at the University of Lausanne. Research focus on living well within planetary limits. Opinions my own.