Life is unfair. Deal with it

History repeats itself and biology insists humans reproduce (or innovate). Else, death is inevitable. It is in an entrepreneur’s interest to study both themes closely

Charles Assisi

[By David Mark under Creative Commons]

It is with much interest that I read the final draft of my friend Haresh Chawla’s incisive essay on the Age of Engagement. It meticulously documents how entities like Amazon, Facebook, Google and WeChat are crafting a new narrative for business. The sum and substance of his argument is that after having expended about a hundred years in building enterprises of consequences, iconic entrepreneurs are now wondering when did the ground shift and whether or not they can survive this new age.

My short answer is, things needn’t have come to this. Inflections happen only when history is forgotten. Why does that happen? The answers are clinically documented in what I think are among the most compelling 100-odd pages ever written by anyone. The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant who dedicated their lives to studying the story of human civilization.

In those 100 pages, they continually drive home one lesson after having gone over as many disciplines as they possibly could in a lifetime. Everything repeats itself. Over. And over. Again. And again.

That is why I turn to it often when I think I am beginning to sound effusive. My affair with Artificial Intelligence being a case in point. This is a theme I have been besotted with for a while now. But inevitably, Will and Ariel Durant put me in my place.

The precursor to their essays is a foreword titled Hesitations where they write “…our conclusions from the past to the future are made more hazardous than ever by the acceleration of change. In 1909 Charles Péguy thought that the world has changed less since Jesus Christ than in the last thirty years; and perhaps some young doctor of philosophy in physics would now add that his science has changed more since 1909 than in all recorded time before.”

It is difficult to miss the irony here. And that is why I had to open and dive right into the third chapter on biology and history. Because as the authors writer there, “The laws of biology are the most fundamental of history.” It contains three lessons.

Lesson #1: Life is competition

One of my favourite songs is John Lennon’s “Imagine”.

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

The song goes on.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one

I’ve sung it often in my head and like so many million people out there, thought what a lovely place it would be if the world could live to these lines. But the truth: tens and thousands of years of history that is embedded in our biology suggests it will remain just that. The thoughts of a dreamer.

Just that I may put that into perspective, and on the back of multiple conversations with a few people on the nature of the current technology narrative playing itself out, a few questions come up. I have no answers to any of these questions.

  1. Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and the Internet of Things (IoT) seem to be the inevitable future.
  2. Until as recently as three years ago, it was widely believed India would be on top of the game. Pretty much every conversation I used to have with chief executives of technology companies in the country suggested they get the plot. But the future had other plans.

If the stock prices are any indicator, over the last three years, TCS, Infosys and Wipro, have stayed stagnant. Not just that, newspaper headlines are filled with stories of layoffs and jobs migrating to other parts of the world. Fact of the matter is, there was no way they could anticipate a force called Donald Trump and the nature of the right wing discourse he would unleash in the US.

A political narrative called freedom of movement, free markets and freedom of speech around which business narratives were built are now being subsumed by an altogether different force. Was this inevitable? 

History has it that when narratives are built on the premise of freedom of speech and equality like in the US, over time, the narrative fragments and levels of unrest go up. Various reasons exist for this. Be that as it may, there is no taking away from that large parts of the US sound lost, their stories remain untold and the nation is steeped in debt. And the so-called coarse language Trump speaks appeals to the debt ridden.

Then there is China. It crossed a tipping point by exploiting natural resources in Africa—the equivalent of the US and Europe taking over large parts of the Middle East in their heydays. It is a nation that now needs a new narrative to establish complete hegemony over the current global discourse. News reports have it that it is bristling and eyeballing India as well.

There is a school of thought that argues that times have changed and India cannot be eyeballed any more. Be that as it may, on the ground, the narrative in India has changed as well. It is steeped in nationalism of a kind that does not appeal to the urbane. But fact of the matter is, the urbane don’t matter. Because in a nation that contains over 1.2 billion people, the urbane comprise just about 100 million. The majority want to hear rhetoric of a kind that sounds appealing and holds the promise to lift them out of where they are. Inevitably, that rhetoric is a nationalist one.

Here again, history has it that when nations arrive at a tipping point, nationalism peaks. To that extent, the noise we hear and the heroes we speak of, are the voices large numbers of people want to hear. “New leaders” take over. And these are inevitably “outsiders” like Narendra Modi who storm through the bastions after having faced much resistance from the establishment and intelligentsia. He may be reviled in discourses. But there is no taking away from that his is a voice that resonates with large parts of the population.

Nature does not like status quo. It insists on competition

The Durants, in their no uncertain tone, tell us a narrative like this is inevitable and plays itself out—over and over again. Because nature does not like status quo. It insists on competition.

“Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life—peaceful when food abounds, violent when the mouths outrun the food. Animals eat one another without qualm; civilized men consume one another by due process of law. Co-operation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition; we co-operate in our group— our family, community, club, church, party, ‘race’, or nation—in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups.

“Competing groups have the qualities of competing individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, partisanship, pride. Our states, being ourselves multiplied, are what we are; they write our natures in bolder type, and do our good and evil on an elephantine scale. We are acquisitive, greedy, and pugnacious because our blood remembers millenniums through which our forebears had to chase and fight and kill in order to survive, and had to eat to their gastric capacity for fear they should not soon capture another feast.

“War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. Until our states become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.”

When looked at from that perspective, a few things are clear right away.

  1. In the US, foreign workers are a threat. They need to be driven out.
  2. And if they be from India, then so be it. They are brown, dirty, and take their lives and jobs away.
  3. In India, the 100 million people who called the shots this far, have ruled for too long. Take them out of the 1.2 people who live here, and they now want to rule as well. It is inevitable then that they compete.

Co-operation is not natural. Competition is. Bacteria, for instance, of all kinds live in our body. A lot many of them are harmless. And a lot of them are, in fact, essential, like those that exist in our gut. They co-operate so that we survive. There are times though when these micro-organisms go out of control and compete for resources within our body. The outcome can include death. Until antibiotics are introduced. The equivalent of nuclear warheads in the real world.

What everybody agrees on is that antibiotics was one of the greatest discoveries mankind ever made. Much like nuclear power. When deployed antibiotics can kill bacteria. But when used in excess, it creates a new class of super bacteria to compete with it. Much like nuclear energy can solve most of the world’s problems, it can also annihilate. The issue is, who is to decide how to use it, when and in what context? Where do you draw the lines?

While the debate on nuclear weapons is much reported on, that around antibiotics isn’t. Fact is, the theme is the subject of much debate. The most recent report I read was around September 2016 when antibiotic resistance came up at the UN headquarters for discussion with India and China at the centre of it all competing to take over the discourse. And right now, both nations are eyeballing each other on the borders of India’s North East.

From the microscopic, to the macroscopic, life is competition.

Lesson #2: Life is selection

In the two-odd decades that I have reported and written on business, I have been a vocal supporter of capitalism and free markets. But is unfettered capitalism and are free markets as good as they are made out to be? Let us take the most recent case from history. Whatever do you think happened when the world imploded in 2008? What was it all about?

Very simply put, it was about a bunch of traders on the stock markets in the US with access to insiders in the political system. They created some junk, wrapped it in pretty candy, sold it to the unsuspecting masses after getting the political ecosystem to support it, and subverted everything for personal gains. The story is well-documented. And this story includes the biggest names and institutions the world respects. They were among those who caused the implosion. But they weren’t hunted.

Instead, they continue to be respected.

Examples? Remember a man called Alan Greenspan? For that matter that hallowed institution called Goldman Sachs? Who doesn’t? But when we talk of them, their names have now been exonerated. Nobody talks of the pivotal roles they played in bringing the global economy to its knees. But they created the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the dotcom bubble while Bill Clinton, George Bush Jr, and Barack Obama, did not utter as much as a peep.

Why?

I have had the rare privilege of witnessing from close quarters how some of the most ridiculous of creatures get to be top dog at organisations they come to head by being either vicious, or because the right sperm found its way into the right egg, fused to form the perfect zygote at just the right time and expelled a creature into fortune. Think of it as the laws of heredity at work. Deserved or undeserved is for beer room banter. But that is the truth. History is littered with precedents like these.

Heard of a creature called Jakob Fugger? The first documented millionaire. His biography by Greg Steinmetz makes for a compelling read. At his peak, Steinmetz has it, that Fugger’s empire controlled 2% of the world’s GDP.

Ironically though, when his peasant grandparents first got to the gates of Augsburg from their native village to flee the Black Plague, the German record keepers at the gates had no clue what second name to give them because they did not understand the Italian these peasants spoke.

And so, for the heck of it and a good laugh, the bored folks there wrote in Latin, “Fucker Advenit”. Literally translated, “Fugger arrives”. It continues to be that way in the Augsburg city archives. But the Fuggers, as they went on to be called, had the last laugh. They prospered in Augsburg by beginning to dabble in the then fledgling textile business, an opportunity they first spotted.

One thing led to another until over the next two generations they went on to bankroll everything and everyone from Emperor Charles V who had almost gotten bankrupt to the Vatican, the revolution led by Napoleon, and expeditions to trace trade routes to find America and India.

What Jakob Fugger understood that nobody else did then was that he was lucky to be selected. To survive though, he’d have to encourage competition. If everyone competed among themselves, they’d stay distracted from his stated goal of amassing wealth. Morals, values, ethics, as we understand it in contemporary discourse be damned. It did not matter to Fugger. Only the colour of money did. This colour earned the Fugger family a coat of arms from the reigning monarch, legitimacy from the papacy, and until date, this legacy continues in Europe, albeit now as a classy one.

After he died, unhappy as history has it, this legacy continues to exist in well preserved monuments, chapels, foundations, trusts, and good will, all of which are still the bones of contention by a fractious clan who continue to survive on the back of the fortune he left. What they don’t get is, that unlike their forefather, they ought to be clannish and compete against other forces if their descendants are to survive into the future.

Again, when looked at from a microscopic perspective, it is nature and biology at work. History has all of it documented. The Fuggers’ genes competed hard to be selected.

Every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger

“In the competition for food or mates or power some organisms succeed and some fail. In the struggle for existence some individuals are better equipped than others to meet the tests of survival. … Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in a hundred ways, and no two peas are alike.

“Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities; every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before. Economic development specialises functions, differentiates abilities, and makes men unequally valuable to their group. If we knew our fellow men thoroughly we could select 30% of them whose combined ability would equal that of all the rest….

“Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically…..To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way. Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity.”

Ought it surprise? No. Because their contemporaries can be found in every part of the world. India included. Their roots can be traced from paths as diverse as opium to textiles. But their names are now literally inscribed in gold and uttered in hushed tones. Whether they implode or create more gold is something they can figure if they only choose to open the textbooks of history and look at the lessons of nature.

Lesson #3: Life must breed

If competition hadn’t declined, TCS, Infosys and Wipro would perhaps have fought harder to stay relevant

To compete hard and make it through the selection process, life must breed. A lot. But as competition declines, the inclination to select among the prosperous also declines. With it, decline is inevitable. If competition hadn’t declined, TCS, Infosys and Wipro would perhaps have fought harder to stay relevant. It is entirely possible they would have moved harder and faster as opposed to being content with status quo. That is why they are now staring at a present where margins are stagnant and laying off employees is routine.

Had they been through history, they would have known force would have emerged to disrupt them. They would have to constantly breed and innovate. Why did the mantle of innovation at the cutting edges have to be conceded to Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and even a Chinese entity called WeChat? Whatever happened to the Indians when they had a head start? The Durants have documented it after a lifetime of studying civilisations of all kinds.

“Nature has no use for organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce abundantly. She has a passion for quantity as prerequisite to the selection of quality; she likes large litters, and relishes the struggle that picks the surviving few; doubtless she looks on approvingly at the upstream race of a thousand sperms to fertilize one ovum. She is more interested in the species than in the individual, and makes little difference between civilization and barbarism. She does not care that a high birth rate has usually accompanied a culturally low civilization, and a low birth rate a civilization culturally high; and she (here meaning Nature as the process of birth, variation, competition, selection, and survival) sees to it that a nation with a low birth rate shall be periodically chastened by some more virile and fertile group. … If the human brood is too numerous for the food supply, Nature has three agents for restoring the balance: famine, pestilence, and war.”

All said and when looked at from a very pragmatic prism and in the current nature of things, if the birth rate in the US and Europe hadn’t declined, immigrants from other parts of the world, India included, couldn’t possibly have hit their shores and made it past the natives. There was an economic imperative to import talent.

But now the economic imperative to keep so-called foreign talent out is high. But the problem with Anglo Saxon powers are that they don’t have the numbers of people on their side. That is something that, by a quirk of fate, now exists in this part of the world. It includes all kinds—the competent and the incompetent.

Within these, the competent will compete to surface and try to elect themselves to the top. They will try their damnedest best to dislodge the incumbents. The Durants make no attempt to answer it. Instead, they pose a question upfront.

“….in and after 1492 the voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama invited men to brave the oceans; the sovereignty of the Mediterranean was challenged;….the Atlantic nations rose, and finally spread their suzerainty over half the world. ‘Westward the course of the empire takes its way,’ wrote George Berkeley about 1730. Will it continue across the Pacific, exporting European and American industrial and commercial techniques to China, as formerly to Japan? Will Oriental fertility, working with the latest Occidental technology, bring the decline of the West?”

Embedded in that is a lesson. That India still stands a chance. But will our entrepreneurs dust the textbooks of history and learn from it? The Chinese seem to be doing that.

If those lessons aren’t learnt, Will and Ariel Durant conclude their essay on biology with a wry line, that is also a warning: There is no humourist like history.

(This piece is adapted from an essay originally published in Livemint by the author. The original version can be read here)

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is currently co-founder and director at Founding Fuel. He writes a weekly column as well under the slug Life Hacks in Mint, India's most influential business newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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