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Commentary Last Updated: Mar 7th, 2007 - 01:32:26

Fraudulent ideologies 101 -- First in a series: Does capitalism equal human nature?
By Patrice Greanville
Online Journal Guest Writer

Mar 7, 2007, 01:30

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Does capitalism equal human nature? This is an old conservative propaganda chestnut that deserves to be exposed for the defamatory fraud that it is, but most reasonable people would be forgiven for thinking that indeed it does, that what goes coyly by the reassuring moniker of �free enterprise� is in fact the economic equivalent of human nature, the only system of social organization aligning itself effortlessly with the temperamental inclinations of most people.

The problem is that, like many �self-evident truths� of this sort, �truths� that carry huge implications for policymaking and social control, this ostensibly innocent equation is actually based upon spurious science and pushed by a powerful constituency which, judging from the efforts it constantly makes to buttress its legitimacy, is deeply invested in its acceptance.

Convenient propaganda

Fact is, far from being true, this is simply a clever propaganda equation, a ruse, and one of the oldest and most effective ideological weapons routinely rolled out to defend capitalism in the so-called Free World. And while it may not have been invented in the U.S., it�s here where it has received its warmest embrace. In other nations, the reviews and the embrace by the populace are nowhere as friendly. Dom Helder Camara, the late archbishop of Brazil, a noted fighter for the poor, the �marginados� of that country, and a leading practitioner of Liberation Theology, said it best. �To examine capitalism,� said Dom Helder, �is to indict it.� With an actual unemployment rate of almost 29 percent, with almost one adult in three living outside the �money economy� while establishment economists and media creatures lavished praise on the �Brazilian Miracle,� Dom Helder knew well what he was talking about.

Still, the idea that capitalism inheres in human nature pays off handsomely in a number of important ways. First, if capitalism is congruent with �human nature,� then the capitalist system must be the most �natural� and �logical� form of social organization, as people will have a built-in tendency to observe its basic rules. Second, �human nature,� as defined in corporate terms (which the commercial press of course follows) is characterized by two significant traits: immutability and unalterable egoism.

The first �fact� automatically discourages most efforts at seriously reforming, let alone revolutionizing, society. Why should anyone bother to undertake such an immensely difficult and often risky task if in the end the stubborn intractability of human nature will render all schemes for change and improvement of social conditions worthless and utopian? It�s evident that when sufficient numbers of people are made to believe that an eternal, immutable and invincible �human nature� will time and again scuttle the best-laid plans and the costliest sacrifices for change, then most threats to the status quo will be defanged at the outset.

The second �fact,� addressing the supposedly terminally individualistic nature of people, provides a convenient justification for the harsh, dog-eat-dog conditions that prevail under the so-called free-enterprise system. In this vision, derived from classical economics, all human motivation is supposed to flow from the desire for pecuniary gain and self-aggrandisement. Individuals are perceived unidimensionally as simple atoms of unrelenting hedonism, constantly pursuing the calculus of profit and loss, pain and pleasure, as they irrepressibly �maximize� their options to fulfill the dictates of hopelessly greedy natures. This is the fabled �homo economicus� of free market literature; the heroic �rugged individualist� so dear to conservatives, and supposedly the creature on which all human progress and wealth depend.

The preceding shows why the media -- and especially the wilier corporate apologists, who are legion -- embrace this tack with so much fervor. As suggested above, the very possibility of changing things is a highly contested ideological area. Radicals argue that society can and should be drastically changed. Conservatives (and the media, which incorporates the mildly reformist liberal viewpoint) contend that nothing basic can or should be changed because our behavior is rooted in an unchanging human nature true for all epochs, systems, and states of human evolution, and, besides, the system is quite sound as it is. Thus, after capitalism, �more and better capitalism� -- forever. That, in a nutshell, is the proposition brandished by those who argue for �the end of ideology,� �the end of history� -- all clever code for the retirement of social struggles to improve the lot of the majority.

History, however, when properly read, is not very kind to conservative social science. As economists E.K. Hunt and Howard Sherman have pointed out, �human nature� seems quite adept at changing to reflect any set of prevailing social circumstances.

Thus, �it�s no coincidence that the dominant view or ideology under slavery supports slavery; that under serfdom [it] supports serfdom; and that under capitalism [it] supports capitalism. ( . . . ) Since our ideology is determined by our social environment, radical economists contend that a change in our socioeconomic structure will eventually change the dominant ideology. Before the Civil War most Southerners (including their social scientists and religious leaders) believed firmly that slavery, an essentially pre-capitalist, agricultural system, was natural and good; but after 100 years of dominance by capitalist socioeconomic institutions, most Southerners (including their social scientists and religious ministers) now declare that capitalism is �natural and good.� So the dominant ideas of any epoch are not determined by �human nature� but by socioeconomic relations and can be changed by changes in these underlying relationships. There is thus hope for a completely new and better society with new and better views by most people.� (F.K. Hunt and Howard J. Sherman, Economics, Harper & Row, 1978, p. xxviii.)

Further, if �human nature� is inherently greedy, competitive and egoist, how do we explain altruism, sharing, selflessness and social cooperation, which can be readily observed to this day in many human institutions and societies throughout the world? It should be borne in mind that class-divided societies and private property made their appearance barely 10,000 years ago, roughly congruent with the rise of agriculture, food surpluses, sedentarism and animal-domestication -- all of which eventually created the conditions for the appearance of a specialized ruling class (warriors and priests) capable of living on this social surplus, literally on the backs of others and of institutionalizing this severely inequitable regime.

It�s also worth remembering that this supposedly �unmodifiable� pro-capitalist human nature, far from being inherent in the human character, defies the historical record. For the bulk of our time on earth as a species has been spent under conditions of tribal or primitive communitarianism which stressed familial bonds and a sharing of the commonwealth. Such systems still exist in many societies around the world, as any honest anthropologist will attest, and many more of their kind existed -- in fact thrived-until �modernity� at sword -- and gun-point displaced them in favor of the industrial system.

Ideological blinders and indoctrination cut very deep in the �Western world� and nowhere as deep as in the United States, where the myth of individualism, �free enterprise,� and the bountifulness of the land have combined to give unrestricted private accumulation inordinate power in dictating the shape of all social institutions, a reality that I�m sure will come as no surprise to the tens of millions who, among other things, still suffer from lack of medical insurance or dead-end unstable jobs in what should be, by any reckoning, a nation exemplary in those regards.

Too many decades of unopposed repetition have given this lie, the idea that human nature is inseparable from capitalism, an air of veracity it doesn�t deserve. It�s time to call the bluff. So if you find yourself in front of recalcitrants who insist on the truth of this equation, just ask them a simple question: Did Native Americans have a human nature? And for that matter, were Europeans fully human before capitalism came around?

Patrice Greanville, a media critic and political economist, is Cyrano�s Journal�s founding editor.

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