Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Helping to Survive

Book Review from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why We Cooperate. By Michael Tomasello: MIT Press

Young children are cooperative and helpful. At the age of eighteen months, almost all children will try to help an adult they have just met, for instance by opening a cupboard door if the adult’s hands are full. This is one of the findings from experimental studies carried out with colleagues that Tomasello, a psychologist, reports in this short but informative volume.

Before they can be helpful like this, a child has to be able to perceive what another person wants to do, and to have the altruistic motive to help. Assisting others in this way seems to emerge naturally, before children have been trained by parents to behave in this manner. Moreover, concrete rewards undermine this helping, rather than stimulating it.

Helping is only one of three kinds of altruistic behaviour. The second is informing others by providing and sharing information, which children do naturally at twelve months (lying comes much later, and assumes pre-existing trust and cooperation). The third kind is sharing goods such as food, which again young children do in a reasonably generous way. Children are far more cooperative than chimpanzees, who do try to help humans in experimental situations but are less keen to share food or to inform fellow chimps.

From the age of around three years, children become more discerning in their altruism. For instance, they may share more with someone who was previously nice to them, or are more helpful to those who help others. The eventual outcome will be mutualism, where we all benefit from working together towards a common goal. Underlying this is a sense of ‘we’, a sense which is uniquely human.

If our closest primate relatives, then, do not cooperate to anything like the extent that humans do, the question arises as to how and why this cooperativeness arose. Answers here must be less definitive, but Tomasello sees cooperative foraging for food as playing an essential role in making us, in his terminology, ‘obligate collaborators’.

So in answer to claims that it is ‘human nature’ to be competitive, just say that no, we are by nature cooperative beings.

Paul Bennett

Michael Portillo tells the truth

Editorial from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

The time between the close of polls on general election day and before the return to ‘business as usual’ is an interesting one politically. It’s a brief space of freedom from bullshit, and the mainstream media reports it fairly well. Politicians are briefly free from the need to hoodwink voters (the votes are in and being counted) or to dress up business exploitation and war in the language of individual liberty and choice (that’s on tomorrow’s agenda). If you listen carefully during this brief period of freedom, you’ll hear our political masters tell it as it is. We hope all those people who voted for the main political parties were paying close attention.

Take the former Tory MP and cabinet minister Michael Portillo, for example, interviewed by BBC News on 8 May after the general election. An important part of the ‘socialist case’ is to propagate the ‘capitalist case’, stripped of the fine words and verbiage, among ordinary working people, so they can be informed about exactly what it is they are voting for and unconsciously working to support. They will then be in a better position to make informed, democratic choices. Our candidate in the general election was not interviewed by the BBC, but Portillo was kind enough to put the Socialist Party’s case (or at least aspects of it) for us.

Portillo said that, whatever else was going on behind closed doors in the negotiations about who was to form the next government, there was one key issue that that government would have to face – namely, the economy and the deficit. And on this point, said Portillo, it didn’t really matter which party formed the government: Britain’s policy would inevitably be dictated by ‘events’ in the market, and by the actions of international ‘investors’ (the capitalist class). In other words, what was more important than the result of the democratic process was the needs of a small minority of humanity to find profitable investment opportunities, and the democratic process was inevitably subordinated to that fact.

The BBC interviewer, who had perhaps been daft enough to fall for all the pre-election spin and bullshit, expressed surprise at this comment, and reiterated the propaganda point that the parties did differ on this issue, disagreeing about the timing of the Thatcher-style cuts in public services that all parties had promised. Portillo haughtily dismissed this, and said the timing would be dictated to the government by those all-powerful ‘investors’.

On this issue, Portillo was putting the Socialist Party case. We agree with him that democracy under capitalism is all about choosing between different management teams, all of which are committed to serving the interests of ‘investors’, however much they may differ in style and on other comparatively minor points of policy. That means that, whoever you vote for, the government faithfully promises to put first the interests of the rich minority who profit from investment, not the majority who work under their control for a relatively meagre wage. That’s the ‘capitalist case’, and you should bear it in mind next time you head to the polls.