Letters to the Editors from the August 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
What about human nature?
Reading the article “Talk about Socialism
” in July’s Socialist Standard
I began to wonder in what, and how many, different ways socialists approach the argument of “human nature”.
“People are naturally lazy/greedy/aggressive”, etc. – how easily these phrases trip off the tongue, usually before the brain has been put into gear. Aren’t we all at some time, in certain circumstances, lazy, greedy, aggressive? I would suggest we are all a complex blend of “general psychological characteristics, feelings and behavioural traits” (Concise Oxford Dictionary re. Human nature).
These are some of my “human nature-an alternative view”–
- Cooperation – currently in the majority world subsistence farmers and the like already cooperate in family groups to provide basic needs, not buying and selling but simply producing.
- Cooperation/hospitality – many cultures in the world have a very strong family/community welfare ethos and base their daily lives on working together for the benefit of all. Most of these people live in the majority world and although they have little they share what they have (even with strangers).
- Generosity and Compassion – from the minority world where most people’s lives are generally less harsh a large number of people willingly donate (money) on a regular basis in the hope of easing other people’s difficulties, e.g. child sponsorship, AIDS programmes, clean water programmes.
- Compassion/Empathy – in areas/times of major/natural disasters volunteers are never lacking, nor slow to offer assistance, whether practical or monetary.
- Giving/Sharing – huge armies of regular volunteers at home and abroad are at work to help and improve people’s lives, e.g. lifts to hospitals; shopping for the old or disabled; youth workers in clubs and sports associations; parents’ associations linked to schools, playschools etc. for better education and facilities; organizers of charity events.
Yes, a lot of this is to raise money! Because that is the system now. But these are examples of people giving time freely to organize events, bake cakes, engage in sports and other promotional events for altruistic reasons.
- Sharing – cooperatives of consumers in local areas putting in time on a regular basis to benefit themselves and the community.
- Cooperation – bartering systems where people swap skills-a few hours ironing for the repair of a water leak.
An observation about retired, i.e. not-working-for-money people: many will say it’s the best time of their lives and that they don’t have enough time to fit everything in. And what are they doing? They are often involved in the kind of activities they actually enjoy, taking care of the grandchildren, helping out even older folk in the community, growing vegetables, involving themselves in ongoing educational projects, having an occasional holiday. In fact, generally playing a part in the community in ways which would admirably suit a socialist society.
So, as far as things are now, in this non-socialist, totally capitalist world, yes, of course there are those who are ‘lazy’, ‘greedy’, ‘aggressive’ and I believe volumes could be and have been written by anthropologists giving perfectly good reasons for such behaviours in our concrete jungles and human zoos.
I prefer to call attention to the industriousness, generosity, and compassionate aspects of human nature.
Working together for the common good?
People can do it, people do do it – it’s all part of that wonderful diversity called Human Nature..
Nothing has changed
Twenty years ago, there was a high profile pop concert organised by the Live Aid group, to help the famine in Ethiopia. Now two decades later nothing has changed.
The Live 8 concerts addressed the effects of poverty not it causes. Unless the present social system has changed, for many more decades down the line there will be more Live Aids, more GB summits on this poor continent, and more Bonos and Bob Geldofs, yet all their cries for billions to be spent on aid are still unlikely to make more than the smallest dent in the deprivation.
Although there is criminal incompetence of Africa’s post-colonial black elites (the people who call themselves presidents, prime ministers, and in some instances kings and princes of the continent have waged war on their own people and plundered the continent’s wealth to ever bulging Bank account in Switzerland), the main problem of the continent is capitalism.
It is common knowledge that up to two-thirds of the world’s population are hungry, while millions actually die from starvation each year. Why in a world of potential plenty is so elementary a human need as food neglected for some many people?
Some would deny that we live in a world of plenty and claim that the cause of world hunger is natural scarcity. That in other words, some people starve simply because not enough food can be produced.
In the present state scientific knowledge and productive techniques, enough food could be produced adequately to feed the population of the world.
World malnutrition then is not a natural but a social problem. Its cause must be sought not in any lack of natural resources but in the way society is organised. World society everywhere rests on the basis of the resources of the world, natural and manufactured, by very rich minorities.
Rock stars or any other celebrities will not persuade the rich class to make world poverty history. It’s in fact the world market system that ruled the world. Acting like a natural force beyond human control, it has much power than any national government.
The market creates an artificial scarcity and organised waste that is responsible for poverty and hunger in the world today. The law that governs everywhere is “no profit, no production”.
Letter to Bob
Below is a letter I sent to Bob Geldof.
I deeply respect your sincerity in campaigning for the end of poverty through the world. My understanding of poverty is the insufficiency of the necessities of life leading to an inability to enjoy the wealth potentially able to be created in abundance by humankind, including leisure pursuits, the arts and the basic necessities including shelter, warmth, food and water and the freedom from illness. This deprivation leads inevitably to hunger and disease. I believe that this insufficiency is largely caused by money.
As I am sure you will agree, it is important to understand that wide-scale hunger and even famine can occur when the available food supplies are not necessarily less than sufficient to feed the people they should be intended for. For example the well-known study of the 1943 Bengal Famine by Armatya Sen, which I am sure you are familiar with, showed this clearly. Other famines in recent times have occurred when there has been a sufficiency of food. Indeed food exporting from Ethiopia continued during the famine of the 1980’s.
It is also important to understand that not all the population of an area affected by hunger will go hungry. It is often what has been called ‘entitlement’ that denies access to the available food. Under the present way of ordering Society this entitlement can be determined by money or barter and not necessarily by a person’s need for food. Having money alone that would ordinarily secure enough of the basics does not always ensure sufficient access to those basics as, for example, when there is a shortage caused by ‘natural’ or human factors. Generally, as with anything else, when there is perceived to be a shortage, the ‘value’ of goods and services (including food) rises. Because of the way things are ordered it is the poorest who suffer most when the price of commodities rises. Therefore Poverty can be said to cause hunger and hunger to cause poverty, because hunger weakens resistance to disease, which in turn leads to an increasing tendency to an inability on the part of its victims to tend to their needs.
As things are presently ordered, therefore, there is an advantage to those who control the availability of essentials and who in some way or other profit from their sale to regulate the supply of goods and services anywhere in the world.
If the products of human labour and indeed the plentiful raw materials throughout the world – including Africa – were freely available to those who needed them and indeed to those who help make them available for human consumption without the intervention of money or any other limiting factor imposed by a minority of humans then there could not be need of any kind, much less catastrophes like famines. Where there were factors held to be beyond the immediate control of humankind, for example floods or droughts, then the technology presently widely available could be used to ameliorate their worst effects. Water can be transported, sea water can be desalinated, rivers can, to some extent, be contained in their capacity to cause widespread damage to the lives of people who happen to live in their flood plains.
Presently some African countries are troubled by, among other things, wars, corrupt government as well as crop failure due to drought and other factors. To some extent many other parts of the world have also been affected in similar ways over the last few centuries. The ‘debt’ that is owed by many countries in Africa and elsewhere is often at least in part due to the efforts of other countries to trade with them. With things ordered as they presently are – in other words governed by money – there is no incentive for traders with Africa or anywhere else to be ‘fair’. These traders are bound by the same rules all traders in the present system are – i.e. to maximise their profit in trading with anyone. If they were ‘fair’ they would quickly go out of business because their profits would decline.
Therefore ‘wiping out’ present debts is no guarantee of a long term solution to the poverty that has been more or less imposed on many African countries. Rather the abandoning of the money system itself by the entire world and sharing the resources of the earth in common is the only real way. Perhaps those countries that have experience in combating the worst effects of droughts could be called upon to help. There are many examples of international co-operation at present under the money system, Space Exploration to name one large one. Another example near to my home is the construction of the Thames Barrier, which utilised the expertise of the Dutch in Flood Defences, the Americans in producing heavy duty waterproof bearings for the gates, the British with their expertise in large scale steel structures, and Austrians with other necessary skills. If this can all be done now, with money as a limiting factor – imagine what could be done when the entire world is united in the will to solve the problems any other area may suffer! We could all share the skills and resources we all have in plenty for the benefit of all humanity! Imagine what kind of world that could be!