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