It’s almost inevitable that in any discussion about socialism someone will claim that “humans are simply too selfish”. “We have always been like that and we always will be,” they would say. “That’s just the way things are, and you can’t change it”.
This argument is as hallow as it is predictable. It’s based on the false notion that humans are born inherently evil, selfish and violent. It’s a shallow argument which serves the ruling class well. After all, their system requires selfishness and extreme violence on a mass scale in order to operate effectively, for which the ‘human nature’ argument is intended to provide some sort of justification. Indeed, there were times in the past when slavery, racism and discrimination against women were all justified by the same ‘human nature’ argument.
The proponents of this argument associate ‘human nature’ exclusively with negative things, such as selfishness and greed. But they are far from the only characteristics that define our species. The more positive, and equally as important, ones such as co-operation, solidarity and friendship are generally ignored. If people’s actions were solely motivated by greed and selfishness there would be no such thing as charity; there would have been no money raised for the victims of the 2004 Asian Tsunami or other disasters; there would be no such thing unconditional parental love; there would be no friendship; people would not give up their lives for something they believe in; people would not protest against injustices on the other side of the planet. The list goes on.
The reason many people falsely associate ‘human nature’ with greed and selfishness is because the current mode of production encourages these features. Those who are wicked, ruthless and selfish do well under capitalism. Those who aren’t are usually disadvantaged. Because capitalism is the only system most people have ever experienced, they are lead to believe, wrongly, that greed and selfishness are the only human characteristics we can harness in order to run an economy. Attempts to organise society in a different way are simply “utopian” (Ironically, the people who attack us for being “utopian” also accuse us, at the same time, of wanting to subjugate humanity under some form of Stalinist dictatorship).
The ‘selfish’ argument also presumes that ‘human nature’ is something which is set in stone; that we are genetically programmed to be a certain way and nothing can change the way we are. Of course, this view is not one based on any form of evidence. ‘Human nature’ is not something static; our behaviour is almost entirely influenced by our social surroundings, and is in a state of constant change. That’s why a person alive today would be nothing like someone who lived 5,000 years ago. It’s also why someone brought up in a western society is nothing like a member of an Amazonian tribe. As Harry Magdoff and Fred Magdoff, of Monthly Review, said: “If human nature, values, and relations have changed before, it hardly needs pointing out that they may change again”.
What many people fail to recognise is the fact that capitalism is a relatively new historical phenomenon. Of the 150,000 years humans have populated this planet, industrial capitalism has been around for only 200 of those years. Indeed, capitalism in its modern, neo-liberal, form is only 30 years old. Many people find it difficult to understand that past societies were organised in countless different ways, many of them co-operatively, before the rise of capitalism. Likewise, we can organise ourselves differently after it goes. Throughout most of our history, humans have lived in hunter-gatherer societies, where there were no ruling classes. People who lived during these times would have viewed as totally alien the idea of a small number of individuals controlling a surplus produced by a larger group. Perhaps the most well-known case of a common ownership society (or primitive communism, as Marx described it) is that of the Native Americans. Here’s what Christopher Columbus had to say about them before their culture was destroyed by European settlers:
“Nor have I been able to learn whether they held personal property, for it seemed to me that whatever one had, they all took shares of….They are so ingenuous and free with all they have that no one would believe it who has not seen it; of anything they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it.”
Many Native American tribes celebrated a festival known Potlatch. The ceremony involved the wealthiest in a certain area giving possessions away to the less well-off. The more you gave away, the higher your social status. Today’s culture of defining someone’s social standing by the number of flashy cars they own or how big their house is would be unfathomable to most Native Americans. In 1884, Potlatch was banned by the Canadian government after it was deemed to go against the Christian values of ‘civilized’ capitalism.
With the current economic system facing its biggest crisis since the 1930s, the ‘human nature’ argument is being raised now as much as ever. And it’s even more ridiculous at a time when working people are being asked to “tighten their belts” and sacrifice their living standards to pay back the debts of private banks. The fact is, only a relatively tiny number of people actually benefit from capitalism. How does it benefit anyone to work 60 hours a week for minimum wage just to pay their bills? How does it benefit anyone to have a boss? How do you benefit from capitalism when you are constantly threatened with unemployment? How would paying a high rent to a landlord for a run-down, inner city hovel benefit you? In my last article I showed how wages for the vast majority of people have stagnated over the past three decades, with many workers being left more than £10,000 a year worse off. How does capitalism serve the interests of these people?
Even more serious and disturbing is that more than 30,000 children have died over the past 24 hours because of preventable diseases. Another 30,000 died yesterday, and the day before that. They died because the capitalist market could not provide for even their most basic needs. Is dying from starvation or preventable disease in childhood just part of “human nature”?
Contrary to what is popularly believed, most people have a lot to gain from the replacement of capitalism with an economy based on common ownership. They will not have to labour half of their working lives to bankroll a class of idle rich. They will be able to run their own workplaces according to how they see fit and they will not be threatened with the destitution of unemployment.
Socialism is not about charity. It’s about the majority of humans taking control of their own lives. It would provide a massive increase in living standards for the majority of humanity and aims to promote the more positive human traits, rather than selfishness and greed.
Certainly, it would be true to say that socialism is the political self-interest of all working people.