Social Change and Human Nature
By Will Miller
When radical social change is mentioned, apologists for present practice take a philosophical turn. In nearly every discussion of social alternatives to market capitalism, defenders of the marketplace appeal to their own conception of human nature as the final explanation of the predatory competitiveness of our age of waste and greed. We are quickly assured that the ever more unsatisfying and dangerous exploitation of our natural and social environment is an inevitable consequence of our human nature.
According to the market view of human nature, we are—and have always been—greedy, grasping creatures, entirely absorbed in ourselves, manipulating others as means to our own private ends. All human ties of love, affection and social unity are really manipulative appearances that conceal the sheer private opportunism that actually motivates us. We are all bottomless pits of insatiable desires, so no amount of consuming, owning or controlling is ever enough. These traits of individualism are cast as universal human nature, making market capitalism inevitable and radical social change impossible. Occasionally, defenders of market capitalism seem slightly saddened by their own view of human nature. But more often they cannot disguise their pleasure at the dismay they provoke in gentler folk.
It is not without reason that economics has come to be known as the dismal science. Mainstream economists since Adam Smith have assumed that all human relations are ultimately those of the marketplace, of buying and selling, of control and exploitation of the suffering, vulnerability and desperation of others. The current dominance of private property relations—where land, resources and tools are exclusively controlled by a small minority of individuals for their private perpetual reward—is projected backward over the whole span of human history. However useful this projection may be for justifying existing market society, it is strikingly poor anthropology, dubious history, and third-rate psychology.
But it seems actual human history has had a much different bent. For our first few hundred thousand years on this planet—according to current evidence—humans lived in small groups organized around mutually beneficial social relations, with resources held in common as social property. Social equality and voluntary divisions of labor endured for millennia as the basis for human communal life. With essentially social incentives, everyone who could, contributed to the commonwealth for the use of all. In the long sweep of this history the emergence of dominant classes—chiefs, kings, aristocracies of birth and wealth—is a very recent event, perhaps no more than 10,000 years ago, or less, depending on which culture is considered. From time to time, small human communities organized in such communal ways continue to be “discovered”—communities that have been spared being “civilized” by conquest at the hands of more “advanced” class societies.
A common pattern for the development of class societies, where a dominant class holds the power to exploit the labor and lives of subordinate class members, begins with the emergence of wealth as social, and communally produced surplus beyond subsistence. Often the first storable surpluses came with settlement agriculture and the emergence of production organizers, who coordinated the complexities of agriculture as a new means of production. Seizure of this social surplus provided the means for the emergence of a dominant class. The surplus provides the material means for creating a “palace guard” to enforce the relations of domination, on behalf of those who seek to institutionalize their private ownership of that stolen social surplus.
This is the pattern of the earliest coup d’etat, out of which the state and class society is institutionalized. Accompanied as it often was by male-supremacist divisions of labor, the social opportunities for free and cooperative association were shattered by a succession of forms of domination from slavery and serfdom to “free” wage labor. The most recent installment in this historical process, market capitalism, is only 500 years old in Europe and much newer elsewhere. Capitalism in Europe succeeded in wresting control from the patchwork of feudal estates and their lords. The modern capitalist nation-state was the outcome of this struggle to lay the foundations for market relations of buying, selling and owning to become the primary determinants of human life. The new system’s need for primitive capital accumulation led to the conquest and colonization of most of the rest of the world over the last five centuries.
Given this history, it is plausible to claim that if voting could change the system it would be illegal
Less than 200 years ago, 80-90 percent of the U.S. labor force was self-employed. Today only about 10 percent of us can avoid going to someone else for a job, for access to the means to work. This monopoly control of the means to work, by some 2 percent of us, came about not by democratic consensus, but by the formally totalitarian structures of corporate capitalism. These structures systematically exclude the overwhelming majority of us from any significant role in economic decision-making.
In the first decades of our nation, gender, race and property requirements for voting and holding office meant that only wealthy white males could vote, and then only for even wealthier white male candidates. Political parties were in competition to see who would win the right to represent the wealthy in office. The long struggle to gain the vote for all adult citizens remains unfinished—migrant workers are often still disenfranchised by residency requirements. But the present political monopoly exercised by two parties equally committed to transnational corporate capitalism provides no real choice at the polling booth. Given this history, it is plausible to claim that if voting could change the system it would be illegal.
Under the not-so-tender mercies of industrial capitalist development, we were forcibly relocated by a succession of economic crises—twenty-seven depressions since the Civil War—to the growing urban centers, where more than 70 percent of us now live on 1 percent of the land in the United States. Stable human communities were shattered by this forced urbanization. Rural self-sufficiency of families and communities was replaced by the forced dependency of urban life and the social isolation of the anonymous city.
Most people now depend entirely on systems of energy, food, clothing and shelter that are centralized under corporate control. As “free wage labor” the vast majority of people are “freed” of the material resources—land, tools and skills—to employ themselves. Such free people are forced to compete with one another for chances to sell their ability to work. With the increasing movement of U.S. transnational corporations to the third world’s cheap labor markets, this competition between people who must work in order to live has become global, forcing them to sell their labor ever more cheaply.
Uprooting people from a direct relationship to the land, from the intimacy of extended networks of kin and community, only to thrust them by the millions into the social anonymity of contemporary urban and suburban life, has raised the level of social alienation to new heights. Our social needs, as a social species, are thwarted by conditions of life imposed on us by a tiny unrepresentative minority for the sake of their endless accumulation of wealth, along with the power to secure it.
It is when people begin to resist the dehumanizing and exploitative conditions of contemporary life that we are more often reminded of the limitations of human nature. The function of this pathological view of human nature is to discourage us from attempting to change the conditions of our lives by cooperative struggle. “After all, you can’t change human nature,” is a mythic claim calculated to drown in despair aspirations for significant social change.
But human nature is not the problem. Given social opportunities and the institutional structures to meet their needs by means that hurt no one else, historically, most people have chosen non-selfish alternatives. We are a social species, and social species survive by cooperation—evolutionary “mutual aid” in Peter Kropotkin’s sense. Our current problems are rooted in the forced competition required by the structure of market society, with its carefully crafted artificial scarcities of opportunity for cooperative and mutually satisfying activity. This forced competition for scarce educational, work, housing and other opportunities is the basis for dividing the majority of people against one another by sex, race, age and ability. A ruling minority depends on a divided majority for its security and continued privilege.
At the same time, it is a system that both produces and selects the most socially stunted among us—least able to trust and cooperate with others—and places them in positions of power and privilege. In an Adlerian sense the desire for coercive power over others is often part of a desperate strategy for enhancing one’s self-esteem. Acts of domination over others require numbing oneself to the needs of others and the repercussions of one’s own acts on others. People become mere objects, in a field of objects, to be manipulated for private advantage. For those whose self-esteem is low enough, having coercive power over others is compensatory—even exhilarating. In Henry Kissinger’s own words, “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
It is not the pathology of all human beings but the pathology of some humans that lies at the root of our current social and ecological crises. Predatory personalities among us are often in positions of control, where their pathologies are nurtured by the very structure of advanced industrial capitalist institutions. A socially concerned corporate manager who puts human interests ahead of profit maximization joins the ranks of the unemployed. It may not be strictly necessary to be a sociopath in order to be in a position of power in our society, but the rules of the game require doing a good imitation of one.
Yet other, less socially harmful strategies for self-enhancement can be found for constructively meeting the needs of those consumed with the desire for power over others. Being denied opportunities to dominate, in an otherwise supportive social environment, may allow them to come to feel better about themselves by strategies that do not require victimizing others. In any case, we need to remove them from the control over all our lives by whatever means are available. This is primarily an institutional issue. How are we to democratize the structures of decision-making in our political, social and economic institutions, so that everyone affected by a decision has a significant role in making it? How do we empower ourselves as a self-consciously organized majority, so we can create social relations in which the free and full development of every person depends on, and is made possible by, the free and full development of all of us?
Structurally, we have to take democratic control of what was—and is—social property, the means of production and reproduction of ourselves as a human community. The existing system of private, income-producing property embodies an institutionalized extortion, where those who control the means to work demand an unearned reward (profits, interest and rent) for granting permission to use what we as a society have already labored to create. The imperatives of capitalist development have shaped technologies for the domination of nature and of peoples, in the interest of securing and enhancing capital accumulation for the few. Conquest, colonialism and imperialism are the products of these imperatives. Technologies in the service of such institutions have had devastating consequences, far beyond those of all pre-capitalist social formations combined. No other society has had such ecocidal relations with its environment or deployed such destructive technologies around the world.
By taking democratic control of the means of production, we can redesign the character and uses of technologies to harmonize with the human needs of those who are affected by them. The nature of work can be recreated in more satisfying contexts of producing to meet human needs. It will no longer be necessary to spend more than 50 percent of every tax dollar on military spending to prop up the profit margins of major arms manufacturers. With social ownership and worker control, we can turn our surplus productive capabilities to environmental reclamation on a global scale, to restore much of what has been damaged already. By learning how to live in gentle and ecologically enduring ways in our world, we can reach toward the biospherical egalitarianism and social justice that holds the most promise for our survival as a species.
—Monthly Review, February 1999