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We live in a changing and accelerating period. Increasing complexity is causing disruptions such as the current supply crisis, climate chaos or rising energy prices. And with this, proposals are also increasing to try to help us understand the keys to our era. A number of ideas and new terms are emerging to analyse and try to manage this unstable period in the best possible way. Antifragility is one of those words that come to try to push in the right direction. What we are going to look at is whether in part it does a little bit the opposite.

A few years ago, the word resilience received a boost from the system itself. Many books, therapies, television programs, etcetera, explained the concept and spread it. In a nutshell, resilience is: the ability to withstand a crisis or shock. Very convenient in the midst of the financial crisis and a perfect example that these ideas often have two sides.

Being resilient like the reed, which bends but does not break, which flexes enough to remain the same as before the storm and always remains standing. Appropriate, some of us might think, even useful. But in a way also a little cruel. If you are not resilient, if life, sometimes cruel and implacable, breaks you, it could be because you have not deserved it enough. Guilt is directed at the individual while the brutal system that feeds on crises gets away unscathed.

But Nicholas Nassim Taleb doesn't even think that's enough. In his book Antifragile: The Things That Profit from Disorder, the Lebanese essayist describes antifragility as the ability to profit from stress or crisis, uncertainty and change. Not only to stand on one's own feet but even to benefit and improve. In the same way that the mythological Hydra generated two new heads every time one of them was cut off, an antifragile person or system is better after the trauma it has been through. What doesn't kill me makes me stronger. As Taleb says: we would be overprotecting the economy or health.

Nassim Taleb's unexpected global success came when he turned to analyzing the seemingly unpredictable failures of others in his bestseller "The Black Swan," which partly anticipated the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, he himself is a magnificent example of what it is to be Anti-Fragile. Taking advantage of a crisis to profit from it. Perhaps that is why he is an advocate of the term. Because he is defending himself.

If you educate yourself for resilience you are making a mistake (in Taleb's opinion) because you will be educating yourself simply to endure the shock, not to make it a kind of opportunity for improvement. The main problem with this discourse - which in some ways hits the nail on the head: the economic system is badly accustomed, banks are bailed out no matter what they do, and therefore make the whole economic system fragile - is that it can be easily misinterpreted or used to defend competition at all costs, and even a kind of law of the strongest. Moreover, biology has already shown that cooperation -first at the cellular level with the wonderful symbiogenesis of Lynn Margulis, then in complex societies- is the main evolutionary mechanism of our species. And the one that should be strengthened, and fast, because the survival of life itself depends on it.

Sometimes, discourses such as that of the work Antifragile -which drink from the neoliberal economicist mentality that dominates the imaginary of our times- forget that a chain is as strong as the weakest of its parts. The weakest link marks the resistance of a complex system. And that is the problem with these discourses, which ignore the fact that the search for individual profit at the expense of everything else is exactly what has brought us to this point. At the intersection of ecological, energy, health and inequality crises. The pursuit of relentless improvement at all costs, without regard for those who cannot be so "anti-fragile", ends up making us all more fragile. We have a good recent example, for which we are still paying the bill. The pandemic should serve us to seek a species mentality, which would serve us to try to seek more balance and equity, rather than individual benefit at all costs. But no, vaccines only for half the world, and liberalizing patents to advance research, no, no, that would be communism.

Taleb argues that "we have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, and almost everything else" by "eliminating randomness and volatility". The problem with that idea to begin with is that it is false. The final problem is that it could feed absolutely proto-fascist discourses. Chance still plays a role and volatility is increasing due to the excess of complexity - ask the victims of the growing climatic disasters. And as I was saying, just imagine what kind of positions could consider it right that we are protecting health in excess.

In short, in social issues we have to be very careful when generalizing. When looking for "social laws". Maybe more than laws, what we are finding are tendencies that are nuanced, not universalizable and always debatable. But of course, this makes an already labyrinthine subject complex, and makes it difficult to sell so many books. One triumphs more with "the definitive recipe". It's a shame that Taleb falls into positions that could be likened to those of a coach, because it is undeniable that he is a true genius and the book is full of enriching ideas, but the main one stinks.

In the 21st century, the century of limits, it is no longer enough with individualistic and short term speeches. Only trying to replicate how life itself works, biomimicry, seeking cooperation over competition, can save us from ourselves.

About the Author

Juan Bordera

Journalist and content creator.

December 20, 2021 — Juan Bordera

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