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Support-Bargaining, Economics and Society

Individual or group? Should the individual be subordinate to the group; or should individual freedom prevail? Nietsche or Marx? Right wing or left wing? The conflict is pervasive in human society. Patrick Spead's latest research, 'Support-Bargaining, Economics and Society: A Social Species', seeks to offer new insight into the argument. Read a summary of his perspective, published in the World Economics Association Newsletter.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection presents human beings as self-interested and aggressive. Humans have survived in the ‘struggle for existence’ because they have had the aggressive instincts necessary to see off competition. The theme has been taken up by many social scientists. Many economists see it as an important corroboration of the concept of markets based on competitive individualism. The ‘survival of the fittest’ has been seen as applicable both to the process of natural selection and competition in markets.

Darwin, however, was never entirely happy with his explanation of natural selection in terms of individualistic aggression, at least as a full account of the process. In The Descent of Man he recognises that humans have ‘social virtues’ and a sense of ‘sympathy’, meaning something like empathy in modern usage. He sees that humans are sociable as well as individualistic, but acknowledges that he is unable to provide an account of the social dynamics of humans that will have comparable status to his theory of biological evolution.

The root of the problem is perhaps that Darwin missed the importance of the human instinct for self-preservation. Human individuals have by nature a strong sense of self-preservation. They will for the most part try to avoid conflict and injury. The very strong emotion of fear alerts humans to threats to their self-preservation. The response of every individual is to seek the support of others. So fear, or insecurity, is the trigger to group formation. The group provides security, both psychologically and in the real sense that groups are essential to effective engagement in violence. To gain the support of others, individuals compromise their own interests and sustain the interests of the group. Some individuals will be more valuable to the group than others, and the differences will be reflected in the compromises each makes for the support he requires. Group formation becomes a matter of ‘support-bargaining’. The individuals whose skills and talents are most valuable to the group will have the greatest influence in determining the interests of the group.

Once assured of group support, humans become more confident. Members reassure each other of their courage and fighting prowess. Each individual has an interest in ensuring that all the others fight valiantly and selflessly for the group interest. Involvement in a cohesive group can bring out the aggressive instinct in humans. Humans appear to be aggressive because they invariably get together in groups. As individuals, the instinct for self-preservation is more prominent.

In the Darwinian context support-bargaining is the process by which groups are formed for violent purposes, either defensive or aggressive. But in a social context it becomes the process by which societies identify and advance group interests. People hold meetings to discuss and agree on an approach to local problems. A dominant individual may persuade the others to support his recommendations. Or a show of hands may be requested to see which approach has the most support. Political parties form through support-bargaining to sustain certain interests. It is a fundamental principle of democracy that majority support entitles a group to advance of its interests. Even in the intellectual sphere, groups assemble through support-bargaining to sustain certain theories regarding the nature of human society and the changes they would like to see. The debates over economic theory can be understood as competitive assembly of support. Support-bargaining can be seen as the essential mechanism by which human societies evolve.


See Patrick Spread, 'Support-Bargaining, Economics and Society: A Social Species', published by Routledge, October 2012. Link:

Other reference:
Books: A Theory of Support and Money Bargaining (Macmillan 1984)
Getting It Right: Economics and the Security of Support (Book Guild, 2004)
Support-Bargaining: The Mechanics of Democracy Revealed (Book Guild, 2008)
Articles: ‘Blau’s Exchange Theory, Support and the Macrostructure’, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 35, No. 2, June 1984.
‘Lindblom, Wildavsky and the Role of Support’, Political Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 275-295, June 1985.
‘Situation as Determinant of Selection and Valuation’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 335-56, March 2011.
‘Science and Support: The Struggle for Mastery in Economics’, Real World Economics Review, Issue No. 59, 12 March 2012, pp. 39-57.
‘The evolution of economic theory: And some implications for financial risk management’, Real World Economics Review, Issue No. 61, 26 September 2012, pp. 125-135.

Related Products

  1. Support-Bargaining, Economics and Society

    A Social Species

    By Patrick Spread

    Series: Routledge Frontiers of Political Economy

    Support-Bargaining, Economics and Society links support-bargaining to Darwin's theory of natural selection and traces the implications of support-bargaining and money-bargaining across society. It provides a wholly different account of the functioning of human societies from anything that has gone...

    Published October 16th 2012 by Routledge