Are we greedy by nature?

The Hobbesian War

Reactionaries will invariably turn to human nature as a starting point for arguing against anarchism, communism, and other leftist ideas. In the minds of fascists, capitalists, even liberal centrists, to be human means to be distrustful, paranoid, greedy, competitive, and selfish. According to this line of thinking, capitalistic competition is strictly necessary for the progress of our species as it harnesses our negative and self-serving traits to drive society forward.

Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who was incredibly influential on the development of Western political theory. His 1651 book Leviathan developed the concept of the “social contract.” Essentially, Hobbes argued that human beings in a “state of nature” are naturally violent and aggressive against one another and that strong governments must be formed to protect human beings from one another and create social order.

Hobbes’ ideas about human nature came to be embedded into the foundation of modern Western ideology when they became intertwined with emerging natural sciences in the late 19th century.

Social Darwinism

Social Darwinism was used by Europeans as an excuse to colonize and subjugate people around the world.

Social Darwinism was used by Europeans as an excuse to colonize and subjugate people around the world.

Social darwinism was one of the first attempts to link sociological inquiry with examination of the natural world. Intellectuals of the 19th century believed human society was built upon the evolutionary laws of natural selection.

This concept was perhaps best summarized by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf:

“Nature knows no political boundaries. She places life forms on this globe and then sets them free in a play for power.”

Social Darwinism was used throughout the late 19th and early 20th century to justify things like colonialism, eugenics, military conquest, genocide, and human slavery. According to reactionaries and capitalists society is nothing more than an outgrowth of nature, and nature was seen as a ruthless and bloody battleground where different sects fight and kill for supremacy.

Capitalists claim that the market, in turn, is merely an extension of our nature-based social habits. Markets are likened to natural systems where only the strongest ideas and products survive and the weakest are culled from the herd. If a person collects a vast fortune through capitalistic exploitation of workers that is only natural. If a worker is paid very little for their manufacturing job it only means they are less fit than the millionaire who owns the factory.

These ideas of greed and turmoil being embedded in our DNA was woven into the fabric of modern democracy.

Reactionary Interpretation of Evolutionary Psychology

Did human minds evolve to be competitive and individualistic?

Did human minds evolve to be competitive and individualistic?

In a similar fashion, today’s apologists of capitalism turn to evolutionary psychology as evidence that we are hardwired to be aggressively competitive with one another and that liberal capitalistic society is the best we can hope for, and that even that is built on shaky foundations:

Economist Will Wilkinson wrote on this topic for the right-wing libertarian think-tank Cato Institute:

“Evolutionary psychology helps us to understand that successful market liberal societies require the cultivation of certain psychological tendencies that are weak in Stone Age minds and the suppression or sublimation of other tendencies that are strong. Free, capitalist societies, where they can be made to work, work with human nature. But it turns out that human nature is not easy material to work with.”

According to Wilkinson’s interpretation of evolutionary psychology, human beings instinctively divide ourselves into adversarial sects

“Think of Hutus and Tutsis, Albanians and Serbs, Shiites and Sunnis, Crips and the Bloods, and so on ad nauseam. However, coalitional categories are fairly fluid. Under the right circumstances, we can learn to care more about someone’s devotion to the Red Sox or Yankees than their skin color, religion, or social class. We cannot, however, consistently think of ourselves as members only of that one grand coalition: the Brotherhood of Mankind. Our disposition to think in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is irremediable and it has unavoidable political implications.”

The Cato Institute goes on to describe human beings as inherently hierarchical:

“Like many animals and all primates, humans form hierarchies of dominance. It is easy to recognize social hierarchies in modern life. Corporations, government, chess clubs, and churches all have formal hierarchical structures of officers.”

According to Wilson we are, all of us, “envious zero-sum thinkers” who will never be able to rise above these egocentric flaws. However, capitalism can be used to channel these flaws to societal benefit:

“We can, however, work with human nature—and we have. We have, through culture, enhanced those traits that facilitate trust and cooperation, channeled our coalitional and status-seeking instincts toward productive uses, and built upon our natural suspicion of power to preserve our freedom.”

These ideas are far from fringe. The ideas of Hobbes and social Darwinists are woven into the very fabric of Western liberal democracy.  Writing on the “founding fathers” of the United States of America, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote:

“They thought man was a creature of rapacious self-interest, and yet they wanted him to be free — free, in essence, to contend, to engage in an umpired strife, to use property to get property. They accepted the mercantile image of life as an external battleground, and assumed the Hobbesian war of each against all.”

Logical Fallacy and Pseudo-Science

Source: XKCD

The problem with this argument of human nature is that it is simplistic, cynical, and above all, tautological.

A tautology is a logical fallacy — an argument that is built upon no further evidence than its own repetition (e.g. “the bear is blue because it is blue). The reactionary argument against communism can be broken down as “humans can’t be altruistic and cooperative by nature because humans are naturally selfish and competitive.” It’s a lazy and flimsy argument. It’s also pseudo-scientific.

According to the recently deceased Robert W. Sussman, PhD, a professor of physical anthropology at Washington University, “Cooperation isn’t just a byproduct of competition, or something done only because both parties receive some benefit from the partnership. Rather, altruism and cooperation are inherent in primates, including humans.”

“Prosocial behavior is an essential component of health and happiness in human beings,” says C. Robert Cloninger, Professor of Psychiatry who co-wrote a book on the origins of altruism and cooperation with Sussman. “Selfish and uncooperative behavior, on the other hand, is a sign of mental dysfunction because it is strongly associated with life dissatisfaction and ill health.”

Exposing the Lie

Capitalistic exploitation of workers is counter to our own nature.

Capitalistic exploitation of workers is counter to our own nature.

“To look at capitalist society and conclude that human nature is egoism, is like looking at people in a factory where pollution is destroying their lungs and saying that it is human nature to cough,” wrote Andrew Collier in his book Marx: a Beginner’s Guide.

The systems of oppression and competition which capitalism build and reinforce are anathema to human nature.

Pyotr Kropotkin, in seminal anarchist work the Conquest of Bread, explained in detail how human beings were intrinsically cooperative and how capitalism came to suppress the altruistic aspects of our nature:

“We see, first, that hundreds of millions of men have succeeded in maintaining amongst themselves, in their village communities, for many hundreds of years, one of the main elements of Socialism the common ownership of the chief instrument of production, the land, and the apportionment of the same according to the labour capacities of the different families; and we learn that if the communal possession of the land has been destroyed in Western Europe, it was not from within, but from without, by the governments which created a land monopoly in favour of the nobility and the middle classes.”

In the late medieval period lords and kings fenced off and enclosed the land that was, for centuries, held and developed communally. They declared this land to be their own private property. The first industrialists took this concept further still by developing the modern wage system:

“The worker is forced, under the name of free contract, to accept feudal obligations. For, turn where he will, he can find no better conditions. Everything has become private property, and he must accept, or die of hunger.”

Furthermore, Kropotkin saw more than a hundred years ago that global trade, made possible through industrialization, was creating a global system of oppression:

“It is no longer individuals only, or cities, that enrich themselves by distant commerce and export; but whole nations grow rich at the cost of those nations which lag behind in their industrial development.”

These capitalist-imperialist forces have lead to the situation we find ourselves in today, where the wealth gap is growing exponentially even in developed countries and developing nations are functioning as “factories of the world” where people work long, miserable hours in dangerous conditions to feed the capitalist machine so that a stunningly small segment of billionaires can grow increasingly wealthy.

Returning to Truth

Workers of the world, unite!

Workers of the world, unite!

Kropotkin described the driving principle of human behavior as “mutual aid.” Kropotkin resented the capitalistic idea that humans are by nature autonomous and individualistic. He argued that communal society and that the free exchange of labor and resources benefitted groups and individuals alike since the dawn of humanity.

According to Kropotkin, mutual aid was the defining characteristic of human culture: “The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that is has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history.”

Kropotkin’s ideas about this natural tendency for humans to work together are being proven scientifically in recent years as researchers continue to find that we are an altruistic species.

Capitalism is built upon a lie about who we are and how we fundamentally relate to one another, and modern society has been so poisoned by this lie that we find ourselves now pitted against one another in an unnatural state of brutal and endless class warfare, miring millions in poverty and strife, so that a few capitalists can live in grotesquely extravagant luxury.

“But a society cannot live thus,” wrote Kropotkin. “It must return to truth or cease to exist.”

We must fight the lie of capitalism and rebuild society on the truth of our own communal nature. We are a social species and we deserve to live and work together as comrades to lift one another up from the centuries of gladiatorial combat which have been fausted onto us by the capitalists for their own enrichment. We, the workers of the world, must unite to reclaim our own nature.

“Before such an irresistible force,” wrote Kropotkin, “conspiring kings will be powerless. Nothing will remain for them but to bow before it, and to harness themselves to the chariot of humanity, rolling towards new horizons opened up by the Social Revolution.”

4 Responses to “Are we greedy by nature?

  • Elawa Liamsi
    6 years ago

    You can debunk some of their nonsense quite quickly by simply pointing out that the overwhelming majority of Human Hunter-Gatherer societies (Hunting & Gathering is 95-99% of Human history) are non-hierarchical. As in, they don’t tend to have leaders and are usually cooperative to a point where every member of the band’s input is taken into account when making major decisions… A sort of “primitive” direct-democracy. Just have a read about the Mambuti (“Mbuti”) of Congo, for instance:

    Human nature itself is a fuzzy and somewhat nonsensical concept anyway. We’re fluid creatures whose behaviors and propensities morph and/or become biased depending on the material conditions you place us in. Raise people in a society that constantly pushes competition, self-interest, callousness and the like and don’t be surprised if you see a lot of selfish people amok or if you see sociopaths succeeding. In contrast, raise people in a compassionate, cooperative and egalitarian society and don’t be shocked if most of them come off as quite pleasant, sociable and not neurotic in the sense that is common in our modern world today.

    Also, great post! I’m really loving your work.

    • Emerican Johnson
      6 years ago

      Thanks for the comment, Elawa! Really good thoughts. I completely agree that humans are fluid and flexible. The sheer diversity of cultural norms around the world should be proof enough of that. Certainly there are traits that bond us together as a species but my experience traveling to other parts of the world has left me with the impression that the majority of these are positive in nature. The point about sociopaths is also really interesting and I am actually planning an article now on the relationship capitalism has with the sociopathic elements of society.

      Also, thanks so much for your kind words and for reading, I look forward to your future thoughts!

      • Elawa Liamsi
        6 years ago

        “The point about sociopaths is also really interesting and I am actually planning an article now on the relationship capitalism has with the sociopathic elements of society.”

        I’ll be very interested in reading that post. And you’re welcome for all the good thoughts and kind words. 🙂

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  • The Capitalist Myth of Scarcity – Non-Compete :

    […] this blog we have already discussed the concept of human nature, and explained how humans are inherently altruistic in nature, and how capitalism throws humanity […]

    6 years ago

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