Wednesday, February 10, 2016

It's not in our genes (1986)

From the February 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

The following article first appeared in the Summer 1984 issue of The Daily Battle, published in Berkeley, California. We republish it. in a slightly abridged form, not only because it is a clear exposition of what we too would say on the same subject. but also as yet another example of how capitalist conditions are continually throwing up socialist ideas.

If you believe the classic movie 2001, our existence as humans began when an ape picked up a weapon. War, greed, and selfish behaviour of all sorts are often explained as being inherent features of our species. Recent scientific findings, however, have dispelled many such widely-held beliefs regarding “human nature", beliefs promoted by the media and other social institutions. We are not the descendants of a "killer ape" species. In fact, our human ancestors were primarily gatherers who occasionally hunted, and who lived co-operatively for some two million years. In many places, such a lifestyle remained prevalent until recent conquest by Western civilisation. A few tribes in Africa (e.g. Namibia's Kung), the Amazon and the Philippines still live this way. Even today's alienated societies show instances of human co-operation. Aggressive behaviour, warfare, competition, property and hierarchy did not mark human behaviour until the advent of fixed settlements some 10-20.000 years ago. These traits did not become dominant in any region till only some 10,000 years ago. (See Leakey, The Making of Mankind; Gribbin. Genesis.)

The first people to turn to farming did so because they encountered an increasing shortage of gatherable goods and game. They had to work long days just to produce their own food. So began the concept of private property. This situation of scarcity resulted in certain modes of behaviour becoming prevalent, and fixed as social values. The Judeo-Christian-Western tradition is loaded with these ideals of sacrifice, hierarchy and competition for the goodies, often reflected in competition for the graces of gods. Scarcity also meant that things could not be freely shared, but had to be exchanged for equivalents. The early agricultural societies also made necessary the institution of the state, whose function was, and still is, the protection of a region's social order from internal and external threats.

Over the years, people's ability to meet their needs via agriculture and industry has generally undergone vast improvements with the development of new techniques and tools. Social systems also changed with these new abilities as slavery was replaced by feudalism, itself displaced by capitalism. Incidental exchanges of goods and services along tribal boundaries have mushroomed into a world-wide interdependent fabric. A car "made in America" often has a Japanese engine. German alternator. French tyres, and raw materials from five continents.

With a growth of productivity and trade, money evolved over the past 3,000 years as a medium to facilitate the growing number of exchanges. Money could be exchanged for any good or service, and hence became the most desired object (the ultimate fetish). During the 18th century, individuals with large sums of money began to buy tools and other people's time and capacity to work. At this point, a person's daily requirements to survive as a worker could be produced in less than a full working day. Since the paid workers worked a full day, the commodities they produced beyond the equivalent to their survival needs represented a surplus. The buyers of labour-power could take this surplus and turn it into money through exchange. Hence, profits. profits which could be used to further enlarge the money pool. Money utilised in such a self-expanding way is capital.

By definition, capital needs to grow, to accumulate. Its interests in this regard are represented by real people who undertake actions to ensure the accumulation process continues. Some are owners, others are corporate managers working for faceless stockowners. and others are state bureaucrats. (The Soviet Union is really only the world's largest corporation.)

Our present-day capabilities, intelligently used, could enable each one of us to work fewer than 10 hours a week to produce our basic survival needs, (e.g. food, clothing, shelter, utilities, transportation) as a mid 60s' study by the Goodman Brothers showed. Another recent study by the University of Sussex demonstrated the world could feed twice its present population using existing farmlands. The last 10,000 years may indeed be visualised as a bridge between the pre-scarcity era to the post-scarcity age. But nearly all this capacity is being wasted, and, even worse, used in ways that threaten our survival, because meeting human needs is only incidental to capital's progress.

We're stuck with a social organisation which lags behind material reality. Hence, we see farmers destroying food in order to push prices upward, while millions starve. Meanwhile. Soviet planners push nuclear power technology, even though 1935 housing targets are unmet. And Third World farmers are forced to cut down life-supporting tropical rain forests in order to earn a miserly income. Furthermore, most of those who work in the US and elsewhere in the industrial world do not produce needs, but are busy facilitating the exchange of money or its circulation (cashiers, bank tellers, book keepers, ad agency workers). A large part of your phone bill consists of expenses incurred in the billing process.

Many who do produce needs see the results of their energy used to pay off parasitic money lenders, institutions whose existence depends on the money system. Several nations in Latin America spend their trade earnings just on interest payments. Much of what is produced in the world is designed to fall apart (planned obsolescence), or corresponds to artificially-created-and-sustained needs (advertising).

The modem state still defends the social order from within and without. Hordes of social workers, cops and clerks guard against internal disorders and keep the gears oiled. At home, as well as on the battlefields of the world market, the military and its support industries provide the ultimate defence of the "national interest," the general interest of a nation's capital, be it the US, USSR, Nicaragua, Israel or India. A social order which normally threatens us with death through terminal boredom and slow toxic poisoning now threatens total annihilation.

Neither Democrats, Republicans, "socialist" parties, nor the Soviet-led state-capitalist bloc, are interested in basically altering the world's social structure (and we're not just talking reforms). They merely debate about ways of improving national economic performance, i.e. the performance of a nation as capital on the world market. Jesse Jackson and Ronald Reagan, portrayed as on opposite ends of the political spectrum, both agree the "economy" must be made to perform well and the Persian Gulf must be defended. Also defending their economies are France's "socialist" president Mitterrand. Nicaragua's Sandinista commandantes. and the Soviet Central Committee (which talks of improving profits).

The American left's long-range programme merely calls for public control of investment decisions, still treating productive resources as capital, a sum of money or its equivalent, which must be utilised so as to yield more money. For now. most leftists (Democratic Socialists of America. Leninist sects) would be happy with govemment-corporate-labour co-ordination for the national interest. And why not? Most of them are professionals by background or aspirations. They tend to accept commodity exchange, capital investment, wage labour, hierarchy and the state — the blood and guts of this society — as necessary features of modem society. Many also have hierarchic ambitions. They are thus unable and/or unwilling to see beyond the present. They label those who want more fundamental changes "unrealistic" and their own programme "the politics of the possible". But how realistic is it to expect the world system to continue for very long without terminating human life or to expect capitalist production to meet human needs?

Many forces are at work against such a transformation. Religion, prejudices and other superstitions incapacitate people in the face of life-threatening crises, by keeping alive the values of an era whose material foundations — scarcity and lack of information — have crumbled long ago. Common nonsense ideas such as the innate aggressiveness of humans are laughable among most researchers, but are still widely held, and widely promoted by the media, religion and other institutions. Most people conceive of possible societies only from the spectrum which stretches from the USA to the USSR. And cynicism about social change runs rampant.

It will take hard work to shovel out all  bullshit. The newly-available facts about human history must be disseminated beyond academic circles. Information about past and present movements that have gone beyond the "possible” should be widely circulated so that real alternatives can be seen as attainable. Concepts and misconceptions should be critically challenged. For example, Marx's analysis focused on the relations between people, and aimed at the abolition of the economy. This means the abolition of exchange and wage labour and the assumption of control of the globe's resources by the world's population as a whole. Yet, today, most analysts, "Marxists" included, regard "Marxism" as yet another economic prescription whose goal is improved national economic performance.

The revolutionary tradition itself must be demystified. We need wide discussions on bringing about rapid and massive social change. Communications between interested people, hopefully leading to co-ordinated activities, should be our top priority. Neither we, nor anyone else has all the answers. This paper is a modest contribution to such a process. We hope to see more monkey wrenches tossed into the machine, eventually to be used to take it apart and put something else together. Have no illusions. The going will be rough, but social revolution is the only game in town, besides ecocide and World War III. Let's break on through to the other side.

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