Is Human Nature a Barrier to Socialism?

By John Passant

“Socialism could never work—”it’s human nature to be greedy and competitive.”  This is probably the most commonly raised objection to socialism, writes Kates Jeffreys in Socialist Alternative.

The proponents of this idea whip it out like a trump card, with the smug conviction that they’re the first person to come up with it. But recent history shows that it simply is not true.

The Arab revolutions, for example, offer countless examples of working people’s capacity for decency, solidarity and self-sacrifice. Tahrir Square became a living, pulsing monument to human creativity and the collective yearning for freedom. Protesters organised childcare, street cleaning, free medical clinics and mutual protection, all the while debating the political questions that faced the revolution. 

The movements spread, with internationalism a common theme—”and, consciously, they intersected. So across the world in the U.S., as students and unionists occupied the Wisconsin Capitol (the parliamentary building), protesting against layoffs and a proposed anti-union law, solidarity was delivered. As Andy Kroll of TomDispatch explained:

“The call reportedly arrived from Cairo. Pizza for the protesters, the voice said— Ian’s Pizza on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, was overwhelmed. One employee had been assigned the sole task of answering the phone and taking down orders. And in they came, from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, from Morocco, Haiti, Turkey, Belgium, Uganda, China, New Zealand, and even a research station in Antarctica— Ian’s couldn’t make pizza fast enough, and the generosity of distant strangers with credit cards was paying for it all.”

This generosity of distant strangers is no one-off occurrence. Movements across the world are too numerous today to list here. But what they all have in common is that basic reciprocity—”the recognition of shared pain, and shared solutions. 

As we take up the fight for our own rights, we’re more able to see things from the perspective of other groups, and better equipped to help them. Many recent Australian examples prove this. Members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), with their strong traditions of struggle for wages and conditions, supported Occupy Sydney by sending a delegation of dock workers to it. The same unionised workers struck at Port Botany in March to show solidarity with their sacked comrades in New Zealand.

At a picket of the Baiada chicken processing plant in Laverton last November, workers and activists discussed all kinds of social issues, from the experience of refugees, to Aboriginal rights, to the bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. A similar dynamic takes place at every protest and during every social movement—”the stronger we are in our own struggles, the better we can support others.

So one of two things must be true—”either the beings creating these movements, fighting in these campaigns, and showing such generosity aren’t human, or the human nature argument is bunk.

There’s nothing natural about the way society is organised today. One percent of the population own and control most of the world’s resources and productive capacity, while the rest of us work for wages. This class division creates a ruling culture that promotes greed and competition—”and the system requires a constant barrage of propaganda to back it up. 

This propaganda tells us to blame the natural failings of humanity for poverty, racism or sexism. It tells us we are “hardwired” for self service, or at best for a narrow outlook based on the interests of those who share our genetic material. But if this were the case, the internationalism and solidarity we have seen over the past year would be impossible. So why do right wing ideologues perpetuate the human nature mythology?

The answer is: because of its utility. If human beings are innately selfish, there’s no point trying to build a more egalitarian society. If our brains are programmed for xenophobia, there’s no point trying to fight for a world without racism. And if men are inherently more competitive and aggressive than women, why bother questioning, let alone trying to dismantle, gender roles? 

If we believe this rubbish, the bosses can sit back over a cigar while their profits roll in, safe in the knowledge that the world is in its rightful order, that the poor are poor because they deserve to be, that it’s natural for some people to be exploited for the benefit of others. This is bad enough. But for working people, it’s yet another lie that tells us to sit down and shut up; that nothing better is possible. 

Every ruling class in history has justified its own existence with some concept equivalent to the human nature argument. This is the divine right of kings, repackaged. We should dismiss it with the contempt it deserves. ”

En Passant (Australia), June 4, 2012