Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The human nature argument (1993)

Book Review from the May 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the most frequent arguments used against the possibility and viability of socialism is that the ideas and behaviour it requires are against “human nature”. So any book that makes a detailed, well-researched and thoughtful analysis of the whole subject is likely to be useful to socialists. Such a book is Alfie Kohn’s The Brighter Side of Human Nature published in America in 1990. His references to capitalism and socialism are few but he is no apologist for the status quo. He is aware that most of what has been written on human nature has focused on its darker side. So his aim is to present examples of and discuss “altruism and empathy in everyday life” (the book’s subtitle).

Cynical consensus
Described as “an independent scholar, lecturer and journalist”, Kohn previously wrote No Contest: The Case Against Competition (1986). He starts by asking us to consider a curious set of facts about our culture:
  Someone who thinks well of himself is said to have a healthy self-concept and is envied. Someone who thinks well of his country is called a patriot and is applauded. But someone who thinks well of his species is regarded as hopelessly naive and is dismissed.
When you think about it, this set of facts isn't so much curious as characteristic of capitalism. Individual-ism is lauded as superior to social-ism, so that when some individuals cream off the profits while others go short of what they need this is regarded as “natural". Patriotism is the individual expression of nationalism, and the capitalist world is divided into nation-states because it suits leaders to divide and rule. Thinking well of one’s species is what people do when they overcome individualism and nationalism—when, as socialists, they identify with humanity as a whole.

In the following passage it is necessary to read "we" as referring to the current majority viewpoint, not that of the author and not, of course, that of socialists:
  The phrase “human nature” . . . is reserved, as if by some linguistic convention, for what is nasty and negative in our repertoire. We invoke it to explain selfishness rather than service, competition rather than cooperation, egocentricity rather than empathy. On any given day we may witness innumerable gestures of caring, ranging from small acts of kindness to enormous sacrifices, but never do we shrug and say. "Well, what did you expect? Its just human nature to be generous".
Illustration by George Meddemmen
After giving some examples of the ways in which characteristics such as aggression and competition, selfishness and egocentricity are persistently overstated, and their opposites understated, Kohn goes on to present what he describes as a more balanced perspective, "an affirmation of what there is to appreciate about humankind without ignoring the reality that people sometimes act rotten”:
  In response to a stubborn refusal to recognize what is heartening about humans, I am chiefly interested in showing that there is more to us than the negative qualities we have come to identify with human nature. Most of us have heard only half the story. Human beings are selfish and self-centered, looking for any opportunity to take advantage. But human beings are also decent, able to feel others' pain and prepared to try to relieve it. There is good evidence to support the proposition that it is as “natural” to help as it is to hurt, that concern for the well-being of others often cannot be reduced to self-interest, that social structures predicated on human selfishness have no claim to inevitability—or even prudence. In short, the cynical consensus about our species is out of step with the hard data.
The evidence that Kohn presents later in the book is all the more remarkable because it is evidence of how people behave in capitalism, a society that encourages and, indeed, depends for its very existence and continuation upon, a set of beliefs that emphasizes competition, being tough, accepting market forces, looking after yourself, and so on. In other words, people today are shown to behave much more pro-socially than the system urges them to. How much more pro-socially would be likely to behave in a system that emphasized the brighter, rather than the darker, side of human nature.

Pro-social behaviour
In his chapter on pro-social practices, Kohn gives us a number of examples from the literature on the subject. Some of them are findings from artificially contrived "research" situations of which experimental psychologists are unfortunately so fond. But other examples are from the author’s own experience or from studies of everyday life and are thus more credible:
  In my experience, cars do not spin their wheels on the ice for very long before someone stops to offer a push. We disrupt our schedules to visit sick friends, stop to give directions to lost travelers, ask crying people if there is anything we can do to help. According to polls, nearly 90 percent of Americans give money to charitable causes and nearly half take the time to do some sort of volunteer work. In one study, 83 percent of blood donors indicated a willingness to undergo anasthesia and stay overnight in a hospital in order to donate bone marrow to a complete stranger. And if we, like some researchers, choose to expand the idea of pro-social behaviour to include cooperative activities—working with others for mutual benefit, such as in structured collaboration at work—we would find even more evidence of prosocial inclinations. All of this, it should be stressed, is particularly remarkable in the light of the fact that we are socialized in an ethic of competitive individualism.
Kohn spends 15 pages tackling the question of whether aggressive behaviour is part of human nature. He concludes that it isn't. Here are some extracts:
  The frequency with which nations draft their citizens into combat (and invoke stiff penalties for those who resist it) qualifies as powerful evidence against the idea that wars reflect natural human aggressiveness. 
  There is absolutely no evidence from animal behavior or human psychology to suggest that individuals of any species fight because of spontaneous internal stimulation. 
  Like other beliefs about the intrinsic unsavoriness of our species . . . an assumption about aggression can also be explained . . .  in terms of images presented to us by the mass media, and in terms of the powerful interests who are benefited by just such an assumption. 
  The simple assumption that we cannot help being aggressive helps us to continue being aggressive. No circle is more vicious than the one set up by the fallacious assumption that we are unable to control an essentially violent nature.
A lengthy account is given of what a military historian of World War II discovered about the unwillingness of American soldiers to kill enemy troops. After interviews with hundreds of military companies in the central Pacific area and Europe, he found that on average not more than 15 percent of the men had actually fired at the enemy positions or personnel. This reluctance to kill was true not only of novices but also of those who had been through several battles. The historian concluded that the average and normally healthy individual has such resistance towards killing a fellow human that they will not take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility.

Illustration by Peter Rigg.
One-sided individualism
Kohn devotes three chapters to altruism, after having introduced the subject earlier in the book. The famous study by Titmuss of blood donors gives perhaps the best example of altruism. When asked why they gave blood, most donors spoke about having either a duty or a desire to help others, or talked about wanting to express gratitude for being in good health or for having received someone else’s blood in the past. Less than two percent said they were hoping to receive some benefit from donating. A further example is given of altruistic behaviour among French civilians in World War II. Residents of a village agreed to hide Jews despite the enormous risks this involved. The helpers did not see themselves as heroic: they typically said that they simply did what had to be done, they answered a call, they made the obvious choice.

Kohn is highly critical of the doctrine of individualism, as expressed from Hobbes to Freud and from Ortega y Gasset (“human life as radical reality is only the life of each person”) to Margaret Thatcher (“there is no such thing as society"). Of psychology he writes “almost every branch, school, speciality, and theory within it is based on individualism”. The separate self as the fundamental level of analysis is one way of making sense of the world. But something is missing from the picture—and that is human relationship.

The belief that concern for self is more real than concern for others results from a very partial view of human behaviour. In the last century Toqueville remarked of the United States "the individual is free . . .  to expand as a standardized individual". Kohn updates this judgment: “Our miserable individuality is screwed to the back of our cars in the form of personalized license plates”.

Part of the “human nature” argument for preserving the status quo is that the worlds work will only get done if people are paid to do it. Of course, the system does get people to work, up to a point. But, as Kohn observes, “People do their best work when they find it fun. not when they are in it for the money”. Rewards actually erode intrinsic interest. Encouraging pro-social behaviour by the use of incentives or other appeals to self-interest doesn’t work very well or works only in the short run:
  When we are rewarded for pro-social behavior, we tend to assume the reward, and not altruism, accounts for our having acted as we did . . . encouragement to think of oneself as a generous person—an appeal not to self-interest but to genuine altruism—seems to be the most reliable way to promote helping and caring over the long haul and in different situations.
Economists and other egoists have long claimed that we make all our decisions on the basis of trying to maximize our individual gains. But people (in the US) regularly do things like contribute to public television and radio stations even though self-interest theory predicts everyone should wait for others to contribute and then watch or listen for free. Actually it is not too difficult to promote behaviour that is in everyone's best interests:
  People will usually cooperate with others in a group so long as they are given an opportunity to feel a sense of belongingness to that group. Allow someone to meet and talk with the others and he or she will subsequently tend to make decisions in the group’s interest rather than trying to take advantage of the others.
Kohn makes the important point that our thinking about what is natural is affected by our economic system (he actually says “may be affected" but that seems too weak). Also there is the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy:
  If we have been socialized to expect a tat for every tit, to keep score silently in relationships so that things are nearly symmetrical (and to feel uncomfortable when they are not), to construe the act of helping as doing a favor that ought to be repaid, then these expectations can create a reality as real as any determined by natural egoism.
However, social anthropologists tell us that in some cultures the emphasis is on gifts rather than exchanged commodities, gifts made with no assurance of anything in return. That is no doubt how it will be in socialist society. After all, even in today's mercenary society we sometimes give help to strangers just because they need helping, not because we expect to get something out of it.

In his last chapter “Beyond Altruism" the author has a tantalizing section Where Humanity Begins. He suggests that we need a morality of thought and of feeling, of principle and of care. Throughout the book he emphasizes questions of morality and philosophy, although he is obviously aware of the economic—and to a lesser extent the political—implications of what he writes. Earlier he refers to the need to detoxify "the poisonous We/They structure of nationalism”. But his main message is summed up in one sentence: “Altruism—one self helping another without consideration of personal gain—is both realistic and commendable”.

The last paragraph of a book is often important because it contains the thoughts the author wants to leave us with:
  No imported solution will dissolve our problems of dehumanization and egocentricity, coldness and cruelty. No magical redemption from outside outside of human life will let us break through. The work that has to be done is our work, but we are better equipped for it than we have been led to believe. To move ourselves beyond selfishness, we already have what is required. We already are what is required. We are human and we have each other.

Election Fund: £3847 (1993)

Party News from the May 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

That is the amount standing in our Election Fund at the time of writing, including £2428 raised in the last few months from these appeals.

This is enough to pay the deposit to stand in 3 constituencies as we have in mind. Having achieved this we now need at least the same amount again to pay for publishing hundreds of thousands of election addresses for free distribution by the Post Office.

Contributions (made payable to the “Socialist Party of Great Britain”) should be sent to: Election Fund, The Socialist Party, 52 Clapham High St, London SW4 7UN.

Biology and Behaviour (1993)

From the May 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is clear that the biological characteristics of human beings have a great effect on the things we can and cannot do. For instance, the fact that we walk upright, can focus on the same object with both eyes, and have an opposable thumb determines various aspects of the way we interact with the world. If we had wings to fly or could breathe in water or survive by eating sand, we would behave and live very differently from the way we actually do. But how much of human behaviour is determined by our biological make-up? Are we the prisoners of our genes and of our animal forebears, or can we learn from experience, adapt to our surroundings and act in a manner that is not purely ordained by our biological inheritance?

A few moments’ reflection probably suggests that human beings are very different from other animals, that we can learn and invent and discover and develop in ways that no non-human can. Language gives the ability to pass on knowledge to the next generation, so that they can build on the expertise of those who have gone before, and do not need to start all over again at solving the problems they encounter. Some other animals have rudimentary languages, or make some elementary use of tools in obtaining food, but none of these is any way as sophisticated as humanity. While human beings are related to other members of the animal kingdom via the workings of evolution, we seem on the face of it to be animals with so many extra powers and abilities that we are quite unlike even our nearest non-human relatives.

Nevertheless, in spite of what common sense appears to tell us, it has often been argued that many aspects of human social behaviour are directly due to our animal inheritance. This implies that such behaviour is innate and unchangeable, and is as much part of being a human as upright gait and binocular vision. If it is claimed that aggression and genocide are an unalterable part of human nature, a challenge is thrown out to the socialist view that a society of harmony and co-operation is not just possible but is the sole answer to working-class problems.

For instance, back in the 1960s, writers such as Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz wrote best-selling books in which they argued that our instincts made us violent, just as the instincts of many animals make them. Human beings have access to far more powerful weapons, thus rendering our ingrained capacity to violence all the more lethal. Ardrey even argued that it was hunting which made proper humans out of our closest ape ancestors; hunting and killing, then, is not just part of being human, it is what made us human in the first place. Socialists pointed out that these accounts were sheer fantasy, not supported by any evidence and totally ignored the fact that so much human behaviour is learned behaviour. Moreover, these views have a clear political role:
  The lie of innate depravity is a weapon in the hands of the capitalist class: it prevents criticism of capitalism, since there is supposed to be no possible alternative. (Socialist Standard, June 1969).
The Ardrey-Lorenz view tends not to be heard in quite such a blatant form today.

However, comparable ideas can be encountered in a more sophisticated form, even among those who take pains to criticize Ardrey’s distortions. A recent example of this is the book The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond (Vintage £6.99). The author presents a synthesis of a great deal of research in anthropology, biology and archaeology, aiming to show how human beings changed from being just another large mammal into a species that has an unprecedented geographical spread and impact on the world, and yet by its pollution and violence may well be responsible for its own destruction. The title refers to the fact that the closest relative to humanity is the chimpanzee, and that we share over 98 percent of our genes with chimps. We are thus the third chimpanzee species (alongside the common chimp and pygmy chimp).

Are We Chimps?
Diamond’s essential technique in explaining human development is a materialist one, in that he argues the need to survive and reproduce drives our various responses to our surroundings. Unfortunately, he has not managed to rid himself of all the influence of biological determinism. While he acknowledges that our uniqueness as a species lies in the cultural traits (language, technology, etc) that rest on our genetic foundations he can still appeal to our genetic inheritance to explain certain aspects of human behaviour. Specifically, he provides an appalling catalogue of historical instances of genocide, and concludes:
  of all our human hallmarks . . . the one that has been derived most straightforwardly from animal precursors is genocide. . . . Chimpanzee behaviour suggests that a major reason for our human hallmark of group living was defence against other human groups, especially once we acquired weapons and a large enough brain to plan ambushes. If this reasoning is correct, then anthropologists’ traditional emphasis’ on “man the hunter” as a driving force of human evolution might be valid after all – with the difference that we ourselves, not mammoths, were our own prey and the predator that forced us into group living.
Let us look at the evidence behind this. It used to be argued that our nearest animal relations were essentially peaceful, and that there was therefore no reason in terms of evolution to consider humanity as innately aggressive. This exact argument can no longer be maintained, though: evidence cited by Diamond, and mentioned by a correspondent in the January Socialist Standard, shows that chimpanzees certainly can act aggressively, and ambush and kill each other. But what follows from this? Very little, since there is no evidence that chimp aggression is built-in to them. Furthermore, it is simply not possible to draw conclusions about human behaviour or human nature from observations about non-humans. One could pick and choose almost any aspect of animal behaviour, and point to it as a precursor of some similar human trait, but clearly this would prove nothing.

Peter Rigg cartoon from the May 1993 Standard.
In any event, the case for innateness of genocidal instincts is non-existent. Only a tiny percentage of human beings have committed acts of genocide, and, as Diamond shows, they need to convince themselves that their victims are “sub-human”, or at least different from themselves, before they can bring themselves to undertake these acts. Moreover, they do so in certain specific conditions, usually when they are under the orders of rulers or leaders who think they see some political or economic gain. If genocide was a part of being human, it would surely be far more prevalent and far easier to people to commit. The whole point, which the biological determinists ignore, is the fact that humans can learn and change our behaviour drastically. Diamond himself points out that New Guineans whose parents lived virtually in the Stone Age now drive cars and fly planes; plainly they have learned to do this, not undergone some sudden genetic modification. No matter how genetically close we are to chimps, our unique ability to modify our behaviour makes all the difference in the world.

In conclusion, it can be said that the combination of our genetic and cultural characteristics makes humanity a superbly adaptable being, well-equipped to deal with the problems that the natural and social worlds throw at us. Not even human ingenuity, however, can make capitalism an acceptable social system. In a socialist society, all our abilities will be exploited (in the good sense) to the full, and claims that humans are born to fight rather than co-operate will be seen as truly laughable.
Paul Bennett

Hunger amidst plenty (1993)

From the May 1993 issue of the Socialist Standard

To say that millions of human beings suffer from hunger because there are too many people is to subscribe to a myth. It is an explanation of a situation which is not based on an examination of the facts. The continued existence of millions of lives endured under the scourge of hunger, malnutrition and starvation is not “natural” or “unavoidable” but is entirely artificial.

The so-called population problem is in reality a poverty problem—a problem of capitalism. Who is not moved at the sight of famine victims depicted on TV screens, newspapers and magazines? The desire to do something about such an appalling situation is natural and worthy. Socialists argue that the first step to be taken in solving the problem of hunger is to recognise that famines are artificial and that the miseries that they bring are unnecessary and avoidable.

There are three dangers to be avoided, however.

First is the danger of believing that charity is any sort of solution. The danger here is that giving money to organisations such as War on Want or Band Aid diverts attention from the real causes of hunger and does nothing to remove them. It also encourages the “it’s all right. I’ve done my bit” attitude which is the basis of political apathy.

The second is getting involved in political action to pressurise governments to give more aid. Charities themselves admit that the scale of world hunger is beyond their means and call on governments to put money into schemes meant to alleviate the suffering of poor people. Those who urge the adoption of this “solution” would do well to remember the words of Tom Clausen (President of the World Bank) who said in 1982 that it was
  not in the business of redistributing wealth from one set of countries to another. It is not the Robin Hood of the international financial set. (Quoted in Anne Buchanan Food, Poverty and Power. 1982. p. 68).
The third danger is that of blaming the victims, blaming the poor for their poverty. This attitude dehumanizes the poor so that they become “hordes”, “floods”, “a cancerous growth" or “a plague of people”. It also, by making the problem seem so enormous, saps the political will to do anything let alone take any meaningful action. In addition it patronises the Third World poor in particular as they are seen as being helpless victims unable to do anything for themselves. The attitude of the neo-Malthusians is to condemn the poorest of the poor to death because, as Paul Erlich has written, “the battle to feed humanity is already lost” (The Population Bomb, 1971, p. 15).

Enough food
World population is about 5,700 million. That figure is set to reach 6,000 million by the year 2000. Estimates of the number of hungry vary. According to the US President’s Science Advisory Council 450 to 500 million people are hungry. The World Bank's estimate (using different criteria) is 730 million without enough to eat to enable them to have an active working life: of these 730 million 340 million have diets insufficient to prevent serious risk to health and they suffer arrested mental development and have stunted growth.

The question then arises could the hungry' be fed?

Current world food production is in the region of 3,800 million metric tons. Half of that by weight is grain. Equitably distributed it would give each man, woman and child on the planet 5lbs of food per day. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation statistics show that this food represents 2709 calorics per head per day and 71 grammes of protein per head per day (United Nations Statistical Yearbook, 37th edition, 1993. Table 24, p. 17). Nutritionists calculate that on average human beings need between 1800 and 2500 calories a day (for energy) and 45 to 50 grammes of protein (for body growth and repair).

The amount of food currently being produced would adequately feed the expected world population for the year 2100.

In the mid 1980s the US Department of Agriculture made some calculations based on actual nutritional needs and estimated that the 67 poorest countries (those with the lowest income per head of population) required 25.8 million metric tons of food to meet their needs. The FAO estimated needs to be 20 million metric tons. The 1984-5 global cereal carry-over was 294 million metric tons, not counting the butter, beef, milk powder, etc kept in storage because the market could not absorb the supplies. (It cost £1,570 million per year for the UK alone to keep it off the market).

These figures do not take into account the fertile land withdrawn from production in an attempt to keep up prices and maintain profit. The agricultural economist Colin Clark calculated in the early 1970s that world resources of agricultural land could feed 47,000 million people at maximum standards (Population and Land Use, 2nd edition, p. 153).

In the face of this overwhelming abundance why do millions of our fellow humans continue to starve? The situation is clearly intolerable.

Cartoon by Peter Rigg from the May 1993 Standard.
Not produced for need
What needs to be done first is to recognise something so obvious that it might be thought not worthy of restatement and that is this: food is not produced primarily to satisfy human need, but to be sold on the market so as to realise a profit. No profit, no production. Because the market only recognises effective demand (i.e. demand backed by the ability to pay) people starve within sight of food. The economist Keith Griffin (President of Magdalen College, Oxford) pul the problem this way:
  The fundamental cause of hunger is the poverty of specific groups of people, not a general shortage of food. In simple terms, what distinguishes the poor from others is that they do not have sufficient purchasing power or effective demand to enable them to acquire enough to cat. The problem is the relationship of particular group of people to food, not food itself. (World Hunger and the World Economy, 1987, p. 18).
That academic assessment is backed by the findings of aid charities in the field. War on Want’s Don Thomson has stated:
  Experienced disaster and officials now admit . . . that they know of hardly any famine in living memory where there has been an outright shortage of food locally. They found instead that the victims did not have the means to buy. (New Scientist, 7 November 1974).
In a world of buying and selling a bumper crop of food cannot be guaranteed to feed the hungry. Take for example the situation in Mozambique where up to 4 million people were facing starvation largely because the country's agricultural production had been wrecked by years of civil war. In 1987 neighbouring Zimbabwe had a 2.8 million ton “maize mountain”. A stack of white maize three storeys high stood alongside the railway linking Zimbabwe and Mozambique 55 miles away. The food would have met Mozambique’s needs for several years but as Pat Henderson. chief executive of the Zimbabwe Commercial Grain Producers Association said at the time:
  It's not only a human problem, it's a financial problem. We cannot give our maize away (Observer, 15 February 1987).
Henderson was right. It is commercial madness to give free access to food in a money economy. The human problem of hunger cannot be solved within the framework of production for profit.

The challenge that faces humanity is that of organising things on a different basis. Class ownership of the world’s resources must be replaced by common ownership. This will be done when the majority of the world's population—we who own no productive resources other than our ability to work—organise to take democratic political action to dispossess the profit-seekers who currently own those resources.
Gwynn Thomas

Socialism or Zombyism? (2000)

Front cover for the 2001 revised edition.
Book Review from the January 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Two Hundred Pharaohs, Five Billion Slaves . . . Manifesto. Available from Box 100, 178 Whitechapel Road, London. E1 1BJ.

“In short the conditions already exist for us to build a world better than utopia.” This is an inspiring statement for any contribution to revolutionary thought to kick off with, and this manifesto continues in similar style; analysing capitalism’s current trends and the prospects for working class revolution and the achievement of the classless society we call world socialism. This is a thought-provoking publication, and one of scope and detail that a review of this length can’t deal with satisfactorily.

The title refers to the situation we are now faced with: that of the subjection of humanity’s billions to the class interests of a couple of hundred billionaires: the real bourgeoisie. The vast wealth and power of such a numerically tiny class has been accumulated through the process of turning the world population into an exploitable working class, eradicating the peasantry and locking us into the global factory of world capitalism. This class, as this manifesto points out, has waged war to proletarianise the world, making capitalist relations universal. In doing so though it has created its own gravediggers. That’s us: the five billion plus, united by class position and interest, capable of abolishing class society and beginning the beautiful adventure that will be the future human society.

Though we in the Socialist Party would wish some debate on the means by which the working class majority can achieve a transformation of society, there is much here we can agree with. The need, for instance, for revolutionaries to organise openly and democratically, and in complete opposition to the “vanguards” of the Left, who are always on hand to protect and serve the capitalist system. Also, socialists will disagree with the view of “socialism” as some sort of utopian capitalist business strategy rather than a description of a classless society. Nevertheless this is a publication that socialists will find very interesting.

Of great insight, for example, is the analysis of capitalism’s efforts to colonise every second of our lives, fully subsuming our “leisure” time as it has our working time:
  “A situation in which every waking moment of a worker’s life is an uninterrupted experience of either factory labour (the regimented labour of the office, factory, retail unit or commercial hotel etc.) or intensified shopping.”
Epitomising this process is the march of the Mega-Malls, which began with Canada’s West Edmonton Mall in 1984, and now includes developments such as the MetroCentre, Bluewater etc. in Britain. The Mega-Mall, an “awesome neon cathedral” of retail and “leisure” is the environment in which we are meant to wander, controlled and spellbound. This it seems is capitalism’s vision of the future in its “advanced” nations: a docile, profit producing working class who will revert to being Consumer Zombies when we are let out to play.

Which is all very reminiscent of George Romero’s film Day of the Dead, where the Living Dead converge on The Mall, as it is the only thing they remember from their human existence. But we are not zombies; we are human beings and we need better than this. We can choose life. We can choose revolution.
Ben Malcolm