Thursday, 19 August 2010

Is Human Nature a Barrier to Socialism?


As previously when I've done talks like this, the below is more or less what I meant to say, any resemblance to my actual, stammering and highly eclectic delivery is purely coincidental. Enjoy...


Every socialist will have heard this objection to socialism. You've got someone to agree that the current system doesn't work, that the credit crunch shows some basic problems with the system, that it's unfair that some have so much and others so little, but then you come to propose socialism as an alternative. 'Ah, but that's human nature, isn't it? You've always got to have leaders. Some people always rise to the top. People are naturally selfish/greedy/bastards.' That's why doing a speech on this topic is brilliant, because tonight we'll have the space to actually talk about why this is not an effective objection, rather than, as I usually do, to myself on the bus home.

In my experience, people believe that this is their trump card, the insuperable objection. It's all very well wanting equality, but in the end we're all a bunch of selfish buggers, right? Good point. From littering to murder we can think of all manner of examples of selfish behaviour. Indeed, the political party with the largest number of parliamentary seats is explicitly based on the politics of greed and self-interest. So how do we explain the fact that we are still socialists? There are only 2 options:

  1. This brilliant objection had never occurred to us before
  2. We think we have a good response.

Since every time you mention your politics this is brought up by someone, I think we can discount a, even if you don't credit us with the smarts to have thought of it ourselves (a point of view that implies that socialists emerge fully-formed from some kind of Damascene conversion). That leaves us with b. So what might a socialist response consist of?

There are really three aspects to the question:

  1. What is human nature?
  2. What is socialism?
  3. Is 1 incompatible with the aims of 2?

Some people have argued that there is no such thing as human nature at all – that humanity is some kind of tabula rasa on which all behaviours are written by social and cultural influences. I won't be arguing this, but rather that although some human behaviours can be seen as universal, the expression of those behaviours does not sum up human nature and that social factors hugely influence some behaviours and completely determine others. This, I think, suggests that human nature is perfectly compatible with our idea of socialism.

Some human behaviours are universal. Language is the most obvious example – all human cultures have complex languages. We are speaking, and because of that thinking, apes. Other candidates for universal behaviour include play, laughter, and tool use. You will notice from my examples that these are broad and general formal categories, they describe a general form of behaviour but no specifics. All humans laugh, but do they all titter? I honestly couldn't tell you. All humans speak, but clearly not all humans speak about Peter Mandelson's autobiography, or the advantages of Python over Perl.

Not even the person who has told you that socialism is impossible because we're all too nasty or selfish would agree that all human behaviour is essential to our nature. There is no gene to code for writing Star Trek fan fiction. So we're talking about defining what is essential to humanity and what is not, in general terms. We've already looked at some things that all humans seem to do independently of culture. So what kinds of things are particularly socially constructed, other than fan fiction?

First off there are social institutions – these clearly have only social roots, responding to a social set of circumstances and defined entirely by social relations. Money, schools and religions fall into this category. But more than that we are, as Aristotle so neatly put it, 'political animals' – animals that by our very natures exist in communities, that are social not through choice but because it is one of the things that define us. We can only have a concept of selfishness at all because it stands in opposition to our ideas of communal behaviour: selfishness is a feature of our political natures, usually defined in a negative way against our presumed social obligations rather than in accordance with them – that, I think, is our intuitive understanding of selfishness.

The idea of the individual, isolated human as a major philosophical idea begins with the Enlightenment and Rationalist thinkers, such as Descartes, with his solipsistic evil demon, and the Empiricists like Hume and Locke, for whom individual perceptions were the building blocks of philosophy. This isolationist tendency in philosophy is mirrored in the phenomenon of alienation that is produced by capitalist society.

It is sometimes thought that Marxism is somewhat crass, that it reduces the complexity of human interaction to an economic basis, but of course for Marxists, economics form the base of what humans are able to do, and society is the superstructure built on top of this base. One of my favourite quotations from Marx is about just this phenomenon: men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please, they do not do it under conditions of their own choosing. In other words, how our society is structured is fundamentally governed by how we put food on the table – how society produces for itself. So, what is alienation, why does capitalism lead to it, and what does this have to do with human nature?

To take the last question first – from a Marxist point of view, any society will emphasise certain human characteristics over others, according to how it is organised. Theft, for example, is a big issue in capitalist societies, where most things are held as private property and therefore taking most things without asking, or paying: food from a supermarket, a train journey without a ticket, burglary, are seen as theft. A society which does not hold most things to be private property would of course not have such an obsession with who owns what. Alienation is not a conscious product of capitalism, but a result of the way people relate to each other under this form of production, and I will argue is a big factor in why people make the 'human nature argument' against socialism, although they may not be aware of it.

Of course at this point many people cry foul over Marxist argument, as with the related idea of false consciousness: 'how can you tell me that what I think I'm thinking isn't at all what I'm thinking! I know I'm selfish sometimes and I'm not a capitalist, you're being very presumptive about being able to determine my psychological motivations here!' And it's important to distinguish between what we can say about the general forms of capitalism and the motivations of individuals. What we can say is that the way in which our society produces for itself means that the individuals in it are alienated in certain ways. This doesn't tell us how any individual will choose to act but it does tell something of the general ways in which people relate to each other.

So what is alienation? There are several possible ways of approaching it, but one which most people will recognise is that sense of disconnectedness from those around us, sometimes focused on the workplace, at other times more difficult to place. Alienation can be in the pointless meeting you've got to attend, or when watching the telly and realising that there is nothing on that was made with you or your tastes in mind. At these moments we feel disconnected from those we work with, disconnected from the culture that we should be able to identify with.

But alienation goes far deeper than this – consumer culture is itself a form of and response to alienation. Capitalism produces commodities at a rate far outstripping any previous mode of production, and the defining way that it achieves this is mass-production. Mass-production in a capitalist system forces redundancy (because capitalists compete with each other to generate profit and need to maintain growth in order to increase those profits) – resulting in endless iterations of objects and the idea of artefacts as inherently disposable. A good example of this is the iPhone, which although only launched about 5 years ago has gone through 4 iterations, each marketed as utterly superior not only to its competitors but also to the model that preceded it. So we come to think of objects around us as impermanent, transitory and without substance.

Mass-production creates millions of identical objects. When we see Toy Story, for example, the toys in it are instantly recognisable. Each Mr Potatohead or Barbie is after all identical to all the others. The result of this is that even the objects of play that we are presented with as children are throwaway – if my son has an Optimus Prime and his friend has an Optimus Prime, they have two completely identical toys. There is no uniqueness to the objects we purchase.

Mass-production places the actual making of objects, from the morning Weetabix we eat to the cars we drive, outside of most of our objects of experience. If I work on a production line at Toyota, I will may have a part in the making of the car I drive, but I will have had no part in making my Tesco's pizza. Most of the objects of our experience are obtained with no intervention from ourselves other than the exchange of currency. We are alienated from the things around us because we have no direct connection to them.

Perhaps most importantly, mass production places us in a position of powerlessness in relation to many of the objects that we own. If I need a table, it is still possible for me to go down to B&Q (other builder's merchants are available) and buy the wood I need to make it, and thus create an object purely for my own use. But I cannot put together a mobile phone or a computer in the same way. If I want a commodity I may be able to choose between different suppliers, but I cannot relate to the object as anything other than a commodity – it is produced to be sold more than it is produced to be used.

The wider system of capitalism alienates us from people around us. At work we are often in competition with our workmates, we are keenly aware that there are only so many jobs and more than that we in most cases have no control over our economic lives. We do not set our own wages, or our own hours. We do not choose who we work with or the way we approach our jobs. The lower the pay you're on, the more likely this situation is to be true. More than this, because capitalism is a very particular mode of production, where things are made not on the basis of need but on the basis that they will be sold, there is a sort of creeping tendency to assign everything a monetary value. Indeed, as capitalists have sought to find new markets to expand into, new arenas of profit, we have seen the creation of markets in water, in pollution – effectively parcelling up the air we breath, and even in government itself, through PFI and PPPs.

So capitalism is not only an economic model but one which defines the way society works and affects the way we relate to the people around us. The essence of capitalism is competition and private wealth. These are the driving motors of capitalism and why the logical endpoint of capitalism is Gordon Gekko's famous comment that 'greed is good' – it is somewhat telling of course that what was intended as an indictment of the relentless pursuit of profit was enthusiastically taken up as a slogan.

What effects might the profit motive have on human behaviour? In the USA people are paid for their blood donations. This means that blood is donated by people who are in need of money quickly, and is looked down upon socially. Another effect is that the blood is more frequently found to have infections – the only major illness outbreak resulting from transfusions in the UK, where blood donation is voluntary, came from a batch of blood bought from New York. Bringing in the profit motive can undermine the idea of public service itself, not just by changing the motivation from those involved in delivering it from public duty to personal enrichment, but by changing the general public perception of the nature of the service. Revelations about the levels of pay in the top levels of the NHS, or major charities like Oxfam, affect how people think about those organisations and reduce the public's support for them.

Just to briefly sum up, then: what does all this suggest? Well, along with the idea that we are animals whose nature is shaped by the social forces we encounter, and the idea that the social forces produced by capitalism do not simply encourage greed, but also alienation and commodity fetishism, there is the undeniable public-spirited side to human nature that is revealed in the reaction to inroads to public-sector work being made by the profit motive. Capitalism has no choice but to encourage the profit motive, and with it the selfishness, alienation and greed that characterises it.

One of the questions I started this talk with was: what is socialism? It's a difficult question to answer, because socialism envisages a world without an exploiting class, one in which the workers enjoy real economic and political power – which of course unfortunately also means that we cannot say what a lot of it will look like, since the decision is not ours to make. As revolutionary socialists, we look forward to the day that we are no longer needed. What then, the question should perhaps be, does socialism offer? Socialism offers the opposite to capitalism. It is fundamentally co-operative, food is put on the table not by competing consumers but by the agreement of all, by workers who are in control and where there is no class of people profiting from the work of others. Since human nature is to be sociable, adaptable and co-operative, and since capitalism makes us so unhappy and unfulfilled, not only is human nature not incompatible with socialism, human nature will actually benefit from it.

Update: This may be of use.

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