Friday, July 29, 2005

Can ‘Human Nature’ Change? -- Harry Magdoff and Fred Magdoff

Among the arguments against socialism is that it goes against human nature. “You can’t change human nature” is the frequently heard refrain. That may be true of basic human instincts such as the urge to obtain food to eat, reproduce, seek shelter, make and wear protective clothing. However, what has usually been referred to as “human nature” has changed a great deal during the long history of humankind. As social systems changed, many habits and behavioral traits also changed as people adapted to new social structures. Anatomically modern humans emerged some 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. Over the tens of thousands of years since, many different kinds of social organizations and societies have developed. Initially, most were based on hunting and gathering, while for about the last 7,000 years many have been based on agriculture. These societies were organized as clans, villages, tribes, city-states, nations, and/or empires.

Anthropologists who studied “primitive” societies found very different human relations and human nature than the highly competitive, dog-eat-dog, selfish characteristics that have dominated during the capitalist period. The economics of these early precapitalist societies often took the form of reciprocity and redistribution. Trade existed, of course, but trade between tribes was not for personal gain. Agricultural land was neither privately owned nor could it be bought and sold, instead, it was generally allocated and reallocated by village chiefs. Much of the food collected by the chiefs was redistributed at village ceremonial feasts. There were wars and domination by local tyrants—these were not perfect societies by any means—but they had different values, social mores, and “human natures.” As Karl Polanyi explained in 1944: “The outstanding discovery of recent historical and anthropological research is that man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets.” In such societies the economy was a function of the social relations and people were not allowed to profit from trading transactions.

The variety of structure and organization of past civilizations is truly striking. It was not so long ago—in the span of human existence—that the native peoples in North and South America had a very different consciousness than that imposed by the invasions and conquests of the European armies and settlers. Thus Christopher Columbus wrote after his first voyage to the West: “Nor have I been able to learn whether they held personal property, for it seemed to me that whatever one had, they all took shares of....They are so ingenuous and free with all they have that no one would believe it who has not seen it; of anything they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it.”

According to William Brandon, a prominent historian of American Indians: “Many travelers in the heart of America, the Indian world real before their eyes, echoed such sentiments year after year, generation after generation. These include observers of the most responsible sort, the missionary Du Tertre for a random example, writing from the Caribbean in the 1650s: ‘...they are all equal, without anyone recognizing any sort of superiority or any sort of servitude....Neither is richer or poorer than his companion and all unanimously limit their desires to that which is useful and precisely necessary, and are contemptuous of all other things, superfluous things, as not being worthy to be possessed....’” And Montaigne wrote of three Indians who were in France in the late sixteenth century. They explained to him about the common Indian custom of dividing the people into halves, groups with special and separate duties for ritual or administrative reasons, such as the Summer and Winter people of the various North American tribes. The Indians were struck by the two opposing groups in France. “They had perceived there were men amongst us full gorged with all sorts of commodities and others which hunger-starved, and bare with need and povertie begged at their gates: and found it strange these moieties so needy could endure such an injustice, and they tooke not the others by the throte, or set fire on their house....”1

The European settlers in the thirteen colonies in what became the United States had no doubts about their superiority in every way over the “wild savage” Indians. But let us take a look at the Iroquois Nations. They had democracy involving not political parties but people’s participation in decision-making and in removing unsatisfactory officials. Women voted with the men and had special responsibilities in certain areas. At the same time the “civilized” settlers relied on white indentured servants and black slaves and severely constrained women’s rights. It took three and a half centuries after the pilgrims landed to free the slaves and four centuries for women to get the right to vote!

We have briefly referred above to societies in which economics was subservient to social relations. That changed dramatically in the evolution of capitalism as private property, money, and trade for gain came to the forefront. Social relations became but reflections of the dominating force of society’s capitalist economics instead of the reverse. Aristotle foresaw the dangers ahead because some aspects of what would become capitalism were present in the ancient world:

There are two sorts of wealth-getting, as I have said; one is a part of household management, the other is retail trade: the former necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is justly censured; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another. The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term interest, which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. (Politics)
Although Aristotle supported slavery, which he apparently found natural, he thought selling and charging interest to make a gain unnatural. The situation is now reversed. Most people nowadays see slavery as unnatural, while selling to make a profit and charging interest seem like the most natural of human activities.

It is, of course, doubtful whether the concept of a “human nature” means anything at all because the consciousness, behavior, habits, and values of humans can be so variable and are influenced by the history and culture that develops in a given society. Not only has so-called human nature changed, but the ideology surrounding the components of human nature has also changed dramatically. The glorification of making money, the sanctioning of all the actions necessary to do so, and the promotion of the needed human traits—“unnatural” and repugnant to Aristotle—is now the norm of capitalist societies.

During capitalist development, including the recent past, what many have considered obvious characteristics of human nature have been shown to be nonsense. For example, it was once considered a part of human nature that women were not able to perform certain tasks competently. It was extremely unusual for women to be physicians, partially because of the belief that they were not capable of learning and using the needed skills. Now women doctors are common, and women are frequently more than half of the students in medical school. The recent harebrained remarks by Harvard University’s president that perhaps it is part of human nature that women can’t do quality work in math and science indicates that a strong ideological view of human nature still exists. This sentiment is now supposedly made more scientific by presumed genetic differences, even in areas where none have been demonstrated. It is clear what many consider human nature is actually a set of viewpoints and prejudices that flow out of the culture of a particular society.

Capitalism has existed for about 500 years—mercantile (or merchant) capitalism for about 250 followed by industrial capitalism for the last 250—less than 0.4 percent of the entire period of human existence. (In large parts of the world, capitalism arrived later as the system expanded and has held sway for an even smaller portion of time.) During this small slice of human history the cooperative, caring, and sharing nature within the human character has been downplayed while aggressive competitiveness has been brought to prominence for the purpose of fostering, and surviving within, a system based on the accumulation of capital. A culture has developed along with capitalism—epitomized by greed, individualism (everyone for themselves), exploitation of men and women by others, and competition. The competition occurs among departments in companies and, of course, among companies and countries, and workers seeking jobs, and it permeates people’s thinking. Another aspect of the culture of capitalism is the development of consumerism—the compulsion to purchase more and more, unrelated to basic human needs or happiness. As Joseph Schumpeter described it decades ago “...the great majority of changes in commodities consumed has been forced by producers on consumers who, more often than not, have resisted the change and have had to be educated by elaborate psychotechnics of advertising” (Business Cycles, vol. 2 [McGraw-Hill, 1936], 73).

If human nature, values, and relations have changed before, it hardly needs pointing out that they may change again. Indeed, the notion that human nature is frozen into place is simply another way that those supporting the present system attempt to argue that society is frozen in place. As John Dewey wrote in an article on “Human Nature” for The Encyclopeia of the Social Sciences in 1932,

The present controversies between those who assert the essential fixity of human nature and those who believe in a great measure of modifiability center chiefly around the future of war and the future of a competitive economic system motivated by private profit. It is justifiable to say without dogmatism that both anthropology and history give support to those who wish to change these institutions. It is demonstrable that many of the obstacles to change which have been attributed to human nature are in fact due to the inertia of institutions and to the voluntary desire of powerful classes to maintain the existing status.

4 comments:

Joey Elijah said...

The victors write history anyway, and capitalism is deemed to have won against socialsim/communism.. society is socialised into believing that greed and selfishness is inherent as 'nature' because it 'inspires' the hoplessness of the proleteriat to just accept opression and explotation. capitalism, by claiming to people that 'communsim' failed, is telling people that capitalism is inevitable and tehre is no alternative. but perhaps the soviet model was infiltrated - or even created by the burgoise (can't spell it :P ) in order to conteract the threat of actual communism....

Joey Elijah said...

anotehr thought, is what significance is mao's china and the cultural revolution to teh study of communism? tehre are examples of non-self intrest during the cultural revvolution.

anyway, i'm not sure if you've read articles on www.communism.org - but it's a great website wit hlinks to forums and such - but you sound sussed enuff on communsit theory - just remember to question EVERYTHING.

Umer A. Chaudhry said...

I have read a bit of philosophy. The idea that man is nothing but a competitor is explained quite hardly by Thomas Hobbes. When I read his phiolosophy, I found it quite rediculous. Howcome, all of a sudden man became nothing but a savage beast fighting for his share in the kill.

On the contrary, according to communism, mans nature is coorelated with the mode of production like all other things. Communism is not going to come all of a sudden that it will be unnatural to move from competition to cooperation. On the other hand, it will be followed by a socialism. Now socialism says that you receive according to the work that you do. The TRUE worth of your work.

We communist are not pessimistic, we are optimistic since we believe that the present condition of the world (especially the third world that is suffering the most) can change. If there is no alternative the world is doomed and we are stuck in this vicious cycle.

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China, is one big example of a progressive third world. That shows a country that is able to get out from the grip of the First World and is right now in a position to challenge them economically. Ther is hardly any third world country that has been able to do that (except for USSR in the past). I think socialism is the only alternative present for the third world.

I haven't studied the Mao's model to answer your questions adequately. I am still busy with Marx, Engels and Lenin.

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"The theories of Marxism are based on a scientific method of thought called dialectal materialism; to be clear there is no one answer to a question". Its good to question everything.

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