“Is human nature compatible with socialism?”
Usually I say that a question is a good question before I answer it. But this is not a good question. It’s a totally irrelevant one.
The idea behind the question, which I hear often, is that for a socialist society to work human beings would have to be superhumanly selfless and good. It’s a stupid question because socialism is the exact opposite: it’s about creating a society which, in contrast to capitalism, does not demand insanely utopian ideas about human nature, which we will examine below.
I stand back from making any bold pronouncements about “human nature” because that’s something that operates completely differently in different contexts, in different situations. Children brought up by dogs find it very difficult to function among humans. Humans living in, say, Ireland, tend almost universally not to eat one another. Humans on life-rafts, isolated in the ocean, or trapped in plane-wrecks in mountains, often eat their dead or even kill the weakest for food. In famines cannibalism becomes widespread.
The dispossession of the rich and the rational planning of the economy by the people themselves would provide for full employment, shorter working hours, better pay, better services, full access to education at all levels and more democratic participation. This is a new context in which people live out their lives and form their characters. It’s unreasonable to say that it would not produce a different, better human being.
We can generally count on people to want to earn wages and have good consumer products and public services, and to learn as much as possible. Where are the conflicts with human nature? Where does socialism place too great a burden on people’s self-interest?
On the other hand, the shockingly innocent demands capitalism places on human nature are very clear.
- Pro-capitalists believe that if one small group of people has the lion’s share of the money, they will tend to invest it in socially-useful areas. Of course this is utopian: these people, left to dispose of the riches of the planet as they see fit, will tend to look after themselves. This means corruption, environmental destruction, exploitation, war, gambling and economic chaos. It’s pro-capitalists, not socialists, who ignore self-interest.
- Or on the other hand, they believe that when people only look after themselves, it actually benefits everyone! So today in Europe there are trillions sitting in bank vaults and tens of millions unemployed. If one measly company then invests and creates 100 jobs, this is hailed as a great vindication of capitalism. Bosses don’t create jobs, they corner the market on jobs. The boss’ self-interest means I only get a job when it suits him to give me one, and I only get it on his terms. The workers’ collective interest is to own the wealth in common and invest it according to need, not short-term profit.
- That if someone’s born in poverty they have just as much chance as someone well-off of making it. Never mind the pressures of survival and various cultural pressures that exert themselves as well. Never mind the fact that rags-to-riches stories are freakishly rare. The idea that we can all succeed if we put our minds to it goes against both cold hard figures and any experience of human nature.
- The other side of the coin from number 3: that if the vast majority of us don’t become rich, it’s due to a lack of motivation or some other innate inferiority. Any skipping, smiling innocent idea is always joined by a dark, sick, twisted evil twin of an idea.
- There’s another funny idea that the problems of capitalism all arise from something called “crony capitalism”. That if you leave the capitalists to themselves without state interference, there will be no (or at any rate fewer) monopolies, corruption, price-fixing, reckless gambling, bail-outs, oil-spills or financial crises. This is rooted in the utopian idea that an unregulated boss class will ever be able to resist corrupting and co-opting the government, or that figures in the state will all be able to resist the temptations toward cronyism.
- The idea that democracy can function when there is massive wealth inequality. The people who believe this would be the first to call a government irresponsible and tyrannical if it failed to look after the interests of big business first and foremost. The rich fund the main political parties and provide the personnel. Not only have politicians close personal contact with huge numbers of the rich minority, they are forced by the demands of running a capitalist economy to take care of their interests first and foremost.
Fundamentally, any defender of capitalism must hold utopian assumptions about human nature. Capitalism as a system, on the other hand, encourages and rewards humans for behaving in an anti-social way. It spends hundreds of billions on advertising, much of this consisting of appeals to our irrational or vicious instincts. It actively degrades human nature even while it propagates the stupid idea that sucking up to the rich will make you rich too.
Those who attack socialism pretending to be hard-headed realists don’t actually know how loose the ground they stand on is. In fact, they typically don’t have any kind of a grasp of the facts, just a preconceived schema. Look at the following, from an article on the Russian Revolution:
“The other problem of the Bolsheviks was that, at least in the early stages of the “Revolution,” they were truly captivated by utopian delusions. The problem of all utopians is that they advocate systems and ideas that can only work with imaginary idyllic humans, but never with real human beings.”
Notice how the author deals in generalities, not specifics. This is because the specifics don’t uphold the argument. The Bolsheviks made no utopian assumptions about human nature. Enough said. The problems with the Russian Revolution were not in fact problems of “human nature”. There was no sudden epidemic of laziness or whatever other unspecified problems the above author implies.
“When they discover that real human beings refuse to knuckle under and behave according to utopian expectations, the utopianists respond with violent rage […]The most violent terrorists and oppressors of others have always been the utopians. The French Revolution turned violent and the guillotine was introduced to attempt to terrorize actual humans into behaving according to the expectations of the utopianists. The leaders of the Soviet Revolution were no slower or more squeamish in following the same route.”
Again, this is based on a schema, not on reality. The wealthy classes in Russia, funded and backed by foreign governments and armies, tried to overthrow the revolution, which had the undoubtable support of the majority.
A vicious civil war took place, which the Bolsheviks obviously couldn’t win without violence! Failure to “knuckle under” didn’t feature as a major issue. Failure of the already-backward economy to withstand nearly ten years of continuous war, well, now we’re talking. That was an enormous issue, one the Bolsheviks dealt with better than a chaotic capitalist economy could have.
The French Revolution turned to terror, similarly, as a result of huge military pressure and internal plots. The author here is talking about the guillotine, not the Vendée or the Federalist revolts, the terrors which killed far more people. None of these terrors, however, were a result of frustrated utopianism. The most “utopian” project of the French Revolution, the abolition of feudalism, was a roaring success.
Here’s my favourite piece of the article:
“The greatest strength of capitalism is that it actually works with real human beings, people who are lazy, base, narcissistic, self-indulgent, foul-smelling, mean-spirited, and unsophisticated. Capitalism does not require idyllic fictional humans in order for it to work.”
I don’t know where “foul-smelling” comes from, but anyway. For capitalism to work we would need a world in which a small number of very powerful and wealthy people NEVER take advantage of their wealth and power, and ALWAYS put workers’ interests and environmental concerns before profit.
A world in which everyone has a superhuman dogged determination to succeed in business and an impossible amount of luck. A world in which for some reason – like too much social welfare, or laziness – they choose not to employ this luck and determination.
A world in which, despite the massive inequalities that exist, ALL politicians and civil servants stand above, detached from and disinterested from society as a whole, and are totally impartial.
The pro-capitalists impose this vision on society, and when human nature resists, explanations must be found. Strikers are demonized as selfish, lazy and undemocratic. Great revolutions, when the masses shape history, are dismissed as the conspiracies of “utopians” and “terrorists”. Their problems and limits, rather than being discussed, are latched onto to fill out a prefabricated explanation.
Capitalism is utopian. Socialism is hard-headed realism.