"And What is the Moral of this Story?": An excerpt from Trust Kids!—
Stories on Youth Autonomy and Confronting Adult Supremacy
by Gabriel Zacuto
William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, a staple of high school reading lists, eloquently describes the predicament of a group of English schoolboys who
become stranded on an uninhabited island. The boys form relationships and rituals that establish a tentative social order, but as the novel progresses, conflicts between the characters grow and their interactions become
unstable, violent, and eventually deadly. Eventually, they are found and rescued by British naval officers.
Golding’s intention was apparently to present a realistic account of human behavior. The novel is generally understood in the Hobbesian sense, which suggests that left to their own devices, people are self-interested, power seeking, and competitive. Golding told of children who,
removed from the civilizing influence of authority, revert to a brutal existence that would presumably have led to all their deaths had they not been rescued by military emissaries of a colonial power already so well known as “civilizers” of island nations. Of course, by civilization,
I mean enslavement and genocide.
Dutch historian Rutger Bregman recently unearthed a true account that closely parallels Golding’s story. In 1965, a group of six boys between the ages of thirteen and sixteen escaped from a Catholic boarding school in Tonga, stole a boat, and set out hoping to reach Fiji or New Zealand. The boat soon became damaged and the boys were adrift for days before reaching a small rocky island, Ata, which had been stripped of its Indigenous inhabitants by slave traders a hundred years earlier.
The boys were discovered fifteen months later by Peter Warner, the wayfaring son of an Australian industrialist, who happened to be sailing nearby. These events closely parallel the plot and setting of Golding’s novel, though what actually took place on Ata diverges entirely from that fictional account. On the island, the boys established what their rescuer described as a small commune where they kept a garden, animals, stores of food and water, and a fire that they kept perpetually burning. The boys collectively assigned duties and worked in teams to do the
necessary work of survival. When conflicts arose, they used a scheme that allowed time apart so tempers could cool. During their time on the island, one boy suffered a broken leg, but rather than this leading to his doom, the other boys assumed their injured comrade’s duties and allowed him to rest for weeks while his body healed. When the boys were eventually picked up by Warner, they were all in excellent physical condition.
Golding’s novel is one of the most cited—albeit fictional—arguments toward a competitive, Hobbesian understanding of children’s and therefore human behavior. The empirical, true account is more in line with the cooperative tendency that Russian anarchist luminary Peter Kropotkin termed “mutual aid.”
Mutual aid refers to the inherent tendency of living beings to help one another, acting in the interest of both the individual and collective good. As understood socially, the deliberate enactment of mutual aid represents the only set of practices that can both reduce our dependence on the existing power structure and also address our
immediate material needs. Wherever life exists, both competitive and cooperative relationships are possible. One great lie perpetuated within hierarchical societies and especially via liberal theory is that competition is a naturally
This elides the history of Empire, through which competition has become dominant through violence, discipline, and acculturation. These hierarchic relations have not brought about as straightforward replacement of cooperation by competition. Oppressive systems such as ours have always held power through the deliberate conjunction of the cooperative and competitive modes, which, in applications, allows the oppressed to be turned against one another. In short, cooperation has been subsumed by what I call cooperative exclusion.
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Gabriel Zacuto is a partner, parent, worker, artist, and writer surviving in Southern California. Anarchy lives in his heart.