Sunday, October 11, 2015

What about human nature? (2002)

From the September 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard
The human nature objections to socialism take several forms, but it is almost always other people, and not the objector, who are said to make socialism impossible by being incurably acquisitive or aggressive or whatever. Rarely is the objector himself or herself included among those who have these nasty characteristics.
It is claimed that it will be impossible to get people as a whole to work together to their mutual advantage because humans are by nature acquisitive. Each, it is said, will always want to get the better of the other, to grab the lion's share of whatever is going. True this does sometimes happen in capitalism, although there are many examples of people behave differently, even risking their own lives to help others.
In socialism there will be much more scope for us to help each other, and no reason for us to act acquisitively. Each will be free to take what they need from the common store, so there will be no point in anyone trying to get more of anything than their neighbour. Such behaviour would not only be unnecessary but also a nuisance. Air is free to all and nobody is stupid enough to try to store any up. the same would apply to things generally in socialism, to which access will be free, each determining their own needs. Anyone storing up much more than they need would be treated sympathetically, perhaps indulged a bit as an eccentric.
Then there is the question of whether the alleged aggressive propensity of human nature would make socialism impossible. In his book The Brighter Side of Human Nature Alfie Kohn effectively rebuts the claim that aggressive behaviour is part of human nature:
  • The frequency with which national leaders have to draft their citizens into combat is powerful evidence against the idea that wars reflect natural human aggressiveness
  • There is no evidence from animal behaviour or human psychology to suggest that individuals of any species fight because of spontaneous internal stimulation
  • Assumptions about aggression owe much to images presented by the mass media, controlled by interests who benefit from just such assumptions
  • No circle is more vicious than the one set up by the fallacious assumption that we are unable to control an essentially violent nature
Another human nature objection to socialism is that men and women are naturally lazy and will only work if they are forced to by economic or other means. Certainly the profit system encourages workers to get the best price they can for their skills, and to withhold it if the pay is too low or the working conditions too bad. But all the evidence is that healthy human beings are normally active and creative and don't relish sitting around doing nothing for any length of time. In fact studies show that people do their best work when they find it fun or enjoy doing it in the company of others, not when they are in it for the money.
Encouraging pro-social behaviour by the use of incentives or other appeals to financial self-interest doesn't work very well or works only in the short run. Capitalism tries to put a price, and to make a market, out of everything, but it also relies heavily on a tacit appeal to people being to helpful to others. The system couldn't operate without a substantial amount of “free” labour given by unpaid carers, volunteers and “good citizens”. In socialism all activities will be undertaken because someone or the community needs the product, service or experience that results. An outbreak of mass laziness is far less likely than a temporary shortage of things to do.
Then there is the “stupid” objection to socialism. The mass of people are said to be too ignorant and unteachable to enable any system that doesn't rely on compulsion of some kind to work. It is claimed that either most men and women are incapable of understanding socialism or they would never be able to run society in their own interest. Propagandists for capitalism never tell us that we are too stupid to understand the tortuous arguments that are used, for instance, to prove that the way to preserve peace is to prepare for war. The point is that the will to learn is only actively discouraged when its threat to the continuation to the continuation of the present system becomes apparent.
If most people are stupid then they must have leaders. Thus it is said to be human nature for some people to be leaders and others to be followers. The existence of leaders and the led means that only the former have the power to make decisions. But in co-operative enterprises in capitalism, and in socialism generally, the concept of leadership is foreign, since all participants have a common purpose. When you know what you want to do collectively, you may appoint or elect organisers, but you don't need somebody else to lead you to do it.
Human nature is strictly what is common to the biological nature of all human beings. It has nothing to do with possession or non-possession of knowledge. The varying capacity to acquire knowledge means nothing more than that some people learn things quicker than others. It does not prove that some are incapable of learning. Socialism will entail a world in which everyone will be encouraged to learn what they wish, for their own interest and pleasure and for the sake of the co-operative community and society in which they live.
Stan Parker

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