Skip to main content

Only human nature, ain't it?


Human nature is something that ordinary people have very badly – which is why we need tough laws.  All the ills of present-day society are attributed to the imperfection of human nature. This is what we are taught.

Marx explained that "each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society i.e. ..to give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational and universally valid ones". Ideas become presented as if they are universal, neutral, common sense. However, more subtly, we find concepts such as freedom, democracy, liberty or phrases such as "a fair days work for a fair days pay" being bandied around by opinion makers as if they were not contentious. They are, in Marxist terms, ideological constructs, in so far as they are ideas serving as weapons for social interests. They are put forward for people to accept in order to prop up the system. Ideas are not neutral. They are determined by the existing relations of production, by the economic structure of society. Ideas change according to the interests of the dominant class in society.


Gramsci coined the phrase "ideological hegemony" to describe the influence the ruling class has over what counts as knowledge. For Marxists, this hegemony is exercised through institutions such as education, or the media. Again the important thing to note about this is that it is not to be regarded as part of a conspiracy by the ruling class. It is a natural effect of the way in which what we count as knowledge is socially constructed. The ideology of democracy and liberty, beliefs about freedom of the individual and competition are generated historically by the mode of production through the agency of the dominant class. They are not neutral ideas serving the common good but ruling class ideas accepted by everyone as if they were for the common good.

Socialism does not presupposes any radical change in individual character. The human material with which socialism will be brought about, and upon which it will have to operate, we are convinced, is no more represented by the unselfish “saint” than it is by the ultra-selfish “sinner”. The transformation of modern civilisation into the co-operative commonwealth, involving a revolutionary change. It is not the hearts of men, but the conditions of society we rely upon to incite this change. In fact we appeal to  the workers’ enlightened selfishness rather than their unselfishness. Behaviour and actions  that are in the interest of the community as much as of the individual, and of the individual as much as of the community, cannot be described either as selfish or as unselfish. They are both and neither. In relation to the organisation of society of itself abolishes the antagonism of class interest between the capitalist and the worker the opposition between selfishness and unselfishness dwindle into insignificance. The class-conscious worker could hardly be described as an unselfish saint since he sees himself reflected in his class, but neither is be selfish in the ordinary sense, since he sees his class reflected in himself. In a word, he identifies his own interest with that of his class. We require no paragons of virtue to have socialism.

Socialism does not require us all to become altruists, putting the interests of others above our own. In fact socialism doesn't require people to be any more altruistic than they are today. We will still be concerned primarily with ourselves, with satisfying our needs, our need to be well considered by others as well as our material and sexual needs. No doubt too, we will want to “possess” personal belongings such as our clothes and other things of personal use, and to feel secure in our physical occupation of the house or flat we live in, but this will be just that – our home and not a financial asset. Such “selfish” behaviour will still exist in socialism but the acquisitiveness encouraged by capitalism will no longer exist. The coming of socialism will not require great changes in the way we behave, essentially only the accentuation of some of the behaviours which people exhibit today (friendliness, helpfulness, co-operation) at the expense of others which capitalism encourages.

We don't need to change human nature; it is only human behaviour that needs to change. Humans' behaviour has been determined by the sort of society they live in and has varied with this while their biological make-up has remained unchanged. While our genes can't be ignored , they only intervene in our behaviours in an indirect way, by programming the development of our brains. Therefore, to understand the complexities of our behaviour, it is to our brains, not directly to our genes, that we have to look.When we do this we find that our brains allow us, as a species, to adopt – and, as prehistory and history bear out, we have in fact adopted – a great variety of different behaviours depending on the natural, economic and social environments we have found ourselves in. So, "human nature" is not a barrier to socialism. On the contrary, our biologically evolved and inherited human capacity will allow us to live in a socialist society.

Erich Fromm argues in To Have Or To Be that the case for capitalism rests upon two premises. “The first is ‘that the aim of life is happiness, defined as the satisfaction of any desire or subjective need a person may feel (radical hedonism)”; The second is ‘that egotism. Selfishness, and greed , as the system needs to generate them in order to function, leads to harmony and peace’”
Fromm sums up the first section by stating that “…the pursuit of happiness does not produce well-being”. We are a society of notoriously unhappy people lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive and dependent.
The second psychological premise of capitalism, that the pursuit of individual egoism leads to harmony and peace, is equally rejected by Fromm. To be an egoist means:
“I want everything to myself, that possessing , not sharing , gives me pleasure; that I must become greedy because if my aim is having , I am more the more I have. I can never be satisfied, because there is no end to my wishes: I must be envious of those who have more and afraid of those who have less.”
Capitalist theory Fromm insisted demanded that we accept “That the very qualities that the system required of human nature - egotism, selfishness and greed - were innate in human nature ; hence, not only the system but human nature itself fostered them”

Societies in which egotism, selfishness and greed did not exist, were were described as “primitive” and their inhabitants “childlike”. Social scientists refused to recognise that those culture’s traits were not natural drives that caused industrial society to exist, but that they were the products of social circumstances.
Fromm concludes:
 “While private property is supposed to be natural and a universal category, it is in fact an exception rather than the rule if we consider the whole of human history”

Socialism creates the  framework within which humans can regulate their relationship with the rest of nature in an ecologically acceptable way has to be a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources, freed from the tyranny of the economic laws that operate wherever there is production for sale on a market. Socialism certainly does not set up as its ideal the suppression of self any more than the exaltation of self over others. Socialism means, if it means anything, not the perennial sacrifice of self, but its realisation in and through society – not repression of the individual, but its fulfilment. People dislike labour for the purposes of others, forced activity not of their choice.

Humans behave differently depending upon the conditions that they live in. Human behaviour reflects society. In a society such as capitalism, people’s needs are not met and reasonable people feel insecure. People tend to acquire and hoard goods because possession provides some security. People have a tendency to distrust others because the world is organized in such a dog-eat-dog manner. If people didn’t work society would obviously fall apart. To establish socialism the vast majority must consciously decide that they want socialism and that they are prepared to work in socialist society. If people want too much? In a socialist society “too much” can only mean “more than is sustainably produced.” For socialism to be established the productive potential of society must have been developed to the point where, generally speaking, we can produce enough for all. This is not now a problem as we have long since reached this point. However, this does require that we appreciate what is meant by “enough” and that we do not project on to socialism the insatiable consumerism of capitalism.

Let us define scarcity and abundance. It is limited supply - versus - boundless demand. Our wants are essentially “infinite” and the resources to meet them "limited" is the usual claim. According to this argument, scarcity is an unavoidable fact of life. It applies to any goods where the decision to use a unit of that good entails giving up some other potential use. In other words, whatever one decides to do has an "opportunity cost" — that is the opportunity to do something else which one thereby forgoes; economics is concerned with the allocation of scarce resources. However, abundance is not a situation where an infinite amount of every good could be produced. Similarly, scarcity is not the situation which exists in the absence of this impossible total or sheer abundance. Abundance is a situation where productive resources are sufficient to produce enough wealth to satisfy human needs, while scarcity is a situation where productive resources are insufficient for this purpose. Abundance is a relationship between supply and demand, where the former exceeds the latter. In socialism a buffer of surplus stock for any particular item, whether a consumer or a producer good, can be produced, to allow for future fluctuations in the demand for that item, and to provide an adequate response time for any necessary adjustments. Thus achieving abundance can be understood as the maintenance of an adequate buffer of stock in the light of extrapolated trends in demand. The relative abundance or scarcity of a good would be indicated by how easy or difficult it was to maintain such an adequate buffer stock in the face of a demand trend (upward, static, or downward). It will thus be possible to choose how to combine different factors for production, and whether to use one rather than another, on the basis of their relative abundance/scarcity.

If people decide that they (individually and as a society) need to over-consume then socialism cannot possibly work. Under capitalism, there is a very large industry devoted to creating needs. Capitalism requires consumption, whether it improves our lives or not, and drives us to consume up to, and past, our ability to pay for that consumption. In a system of capitalist competition, there is a built-in tendency to stimulate demand to a maximum extent. Firms, for example, need to persuade customers to buy their products or they go out of business. They would not otherwise spend the vast amounts they do spend on advertising. There is also in capitalist society a tendency for individuals to seek to validate their sense of worth through the accumulation of possessions. The prevailing ideas of society are those of its ruling class so then we can understand why, when the wealth of that class so preoccupies the minds of its members, such a notion of status should be so deep-rooted. It is this which helps to underpin the myth of infinite demand. It does not matter how modest one’s real needs may be or how easily they may be met; capitalism’s “consumer culture” leads one to want more than one may materially need since what the individual desires is to enhance his or her status within this hierarchal culture of consumerism and this is dependent upon acquiring more than others have got. But since others desire the same thing, the economic inequality inherent in a system of competitive capitalism must inevitably generate a pervasive sense of relative deprivation. What this amounts to is a kind of institutionalised envy and that will be unsustainable as more peoples are drawn into alienated capitalism.

In socialism, status based upon the material wealth at one’s command, would be a meaningless concept. The notion of status based upon the conspicuous consumption of wealth would be devoid of meaning because individuals would stand in equal relation to the means of production and have free access to the resultant goods and services. Why take more than you need when you can freely take what you need? In socialism the only way in which individuals can command the esteem of others is through their contribution to society, and the stronger the movement for socialism grows the more will it subvert the prevailing capitalist ethos, in general, and its anachronistic notion of status, in particular.

All wealth would be produced on a strictly voluntary basis. Work in socialist society could only be voluntary since there would be no group or organ in a position to force people to work against their will. Free access to goods and services denies to any group or individuals the political leverage with which to dominate others (a feature intrinsic to all private-property or class based systems through control and rationing of the means of life ). This will work to ensure that a socialist society is run on the basis of democratic consensus. Goods and services would be provided directly for self determined needs and not for sale on a market; they would be made freely available for individuals to take without requiring these individuals to offer something in direct exchange. The sense of mutual obligations and the realisation of universal interdependency arising from this would profoundly colour people’s perceptions and influence their behaviour in such a society. We may thus characterise such a society as being built around a moral economy and a system of generalised reciprocity.

The tragedy of the working class is that we labour to create a vast, global social structure powered by capital (which depends upon us for its existence) that oppresses us, and limits and constrains human and social possibilities. We work to build our own cages. The struggle for communism is both the struggle against the constraints and limitations of capitalist social life and for a new form of human society. Alienation, boredom, the length of the working day, and so on can be key issues. Explaining the mode of exploitation in the capitalist labour process would be essential – how it is that value and surplus value are produced. The exploration of the perverted form of human life in capitalist society, and the ways that human life is being capitalised (the human as a form of capital – human capital). Any ‘anti-capitalist’ revolution worthy of the name would have to break with the totalising and all-consuming ‘logic’ of capital from day one of any revolutionary transformation. The ‘education of the future’ is part of the struggle for a new society. The modern world is a society of scarcity, but with a difference. Today’s shortages are unnecessary; today’s scarcity is artificial. More than that: scarcity achieved at the expense of strenuous effort, ingenious organisation and the most sophisticated planning. The world is haunted by a spectre – the spectre of abundance.

Our capitalist society has also a deeply entrenched assumption that stress is essential to life. Many of our social and economic structures are based on conflict. Capitalism's need for continually expanding profits generates stress in all of us. We've been indoctrinated to think this is normal and natural, but it's really pathological. It damages life in ways we can barely perceive because they're so built into us. We don't have to live this way. We can reduce the stress humanity suffers under. We can create a society that meets human needs and distributes the world's resources according to those needs. We can live at peace with one another. But that's going to take basic changes. These changes threaten the power holders of our society. Since capitalism is a predatory social and economic system, predatory personalities rise to power. n the past their predecessors defended their power by propagating other nonsense: kings had a divine right to rule over us, blacks were inferior to whites, women should obey men. We've outgrown those humbugs, and we can outgrow capitalist arguments that socialism cannot be achieved because of human nature.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What do we mean by no leaders

"Where are the leaders and what are their demands?" will be the question puzzled professional politicians and media pundits will be asking when the Revolution comes. They will find it inconceivable that a socialist movement could survive without an elite at the top. This view will be shared by some at the bottom. Lenin and his Bolshevik cohorts argued that we couldn't expect the masses to become effective revolutionaries spontaneously, all on their own. To achieve liberation they needed the guidance of a "vanguard party" comprised of an expert political leadership with a clear programme. The Trotskyist/Leninist Left may remix the song over and over again all they want but the tune remains the same: leaders and the cadres of the vanguard can find the answer; the mass movements of the people cannot liberate themselves. The case for leadership is simple. Most working-class people are too busy to have opinions or engage in political action. There’s a need for some…

Lenin and the Myth of 1917

A myth pervades that 1917 was a 'socialist' revolution rather it was the continuation of the capitalist one. What justification is there, then, for terming the upheaval in Russia a Socialist Revolution? None whatever beyond the fact that the leaders in the November movement claim to be Marxian Socialists. M. Litvinoff practically admits this when he says:In seizing the reigns of power the Bolsheviks were obviously playing a game with high stake. Petrograd had shown itself entirely on their side. To what extent would the masses of the proletariat and the peasant army in the rest of the country support them?”This is a clear confession that the Bolsheviks themselves did not know the views of the mass when they took control. At a subsequent congress of the soviets the Bolsheviks had 390 out of a total of 676. It is worthy of note that none of the capitalist papers gave any description of the method of electing either the Soviets or the delegates to the Congress. And still more cu…

She-Town

In 1900 Dundee was associated with one product: jute. Jute was the cheapest of fibres, but it was tough. As such it was the ideal packing material. Jute bagging and jute sacks were used to carry cotton from the American South, grain from the Great Plains and Argentina, coffee from the East Indies and Brazil, wool from Australia, sugar from the Caribbean and nitrates from Chile. Dundee was ‘Juteopolis’ – synonymous with its main industry. This association of place and product was not unusual. We still link Clydebank with ships, Sheffield with steel, Stoke-on-Trent with pottery. Throughout the late nineteenth century, over half of Dundee's workforce worked in the textile sector, which, from the 1860s on, was dominated by jute. Migrant workers arrived in Dundee in thousands. By the end of the 19th century, the city had quadrupled in size. Many of the immigrants were from Ireland, poor and Catholic. Many Catholic Irish immigrants faced discrimination and bigotry in Presbyterian Scot…