The Samovar


Monbiot on human nature

George Monbiot is a writer for whom I have an awful lot of respect. In his latest article (via ukwatch), there is lots to agree with. But, assuming he means what he says, he has some fundamental views that I find quite odd.

Like Dr Ridley, I am a biological determinist: I believe that much of our behaviour is governed by our evolutionary history. I accept the evidence he puts forward, but draw completely different conclusions. Ridley believes that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly. If you belong to a small group of intelligent hominids, all of whom are well-known to each other, you will be rewarded for cooperation and generosity within the group. (Though this does not stop your group from attacking or exploiting another). If, on the other hand, you can switch communities at will, travel freely, buy in one country and sell in another, hire strangers then fire them, you will gain more from acting only in your own interest. You’ll have an even stronger incentive to act against the common good if you run a bank whose lending and borrowing are so complex that hardly anyone can understand what is happening.

Dr Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: we are inherently selfish. But the question is whether or not this nature is subject to the conditions that prevailed during our evolutionary history. I believe that they have changed: we can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved.

Wherever modern humans, living outside the narrow social mores of the clan, are allowed to pursue their genetic interests without constraint, they will hurt other people. They will grab other people’s resources, they will dump their waste in other people’s habitats, they will cheat, lie, steal and kill. And if they have power and weapons, no one will be able to stop them except those with more power and better weapons. Our genetic inheritance makes us smart enough to see that when the old society breaks down, we should appease those who are more powerful than ourselves, and exploit those who are less powerful. The survival strategies which once ensured cooperation among equals now ensure subservience to those who have broken the social contract.

The democratic challenge, which becomes ever more complex as the scale of human interactions increases, is to mimic the governance system of the small hominid troop. We need a state that rewards us for cooperating and punishes us for cheating and stealing. At the same time we must ensure that the state is also treated like a member of the hominid clan and punished when it acts against the common good. Human welfare, just as it was a million years ago, is guaranteed only by mutual scrutiny and regulation.

First of all, the idea of the evolutionary psychology of the “small hominid troop” is a scientific paradigm for which there is scant evidence. Basing fundamental political ideas on such a weak hypothesis is surely not sensible. Fortunately, I don’t think his ideas really do depend on this apparent justification.

The more significant point is his view of the role of the state.  Monbiot believes that “modern humans … if left to their own devices … are likely to behave badly” and therefore “We need a state that rewards us for cooperating and punishes us for cheating and stealing.” This view would seem to rule out the possibility of an anarchist sort of socialism, and mandates a more authoritarian, traditional big-state socialism. For this reason, I think it’s worth looking at an alternative explanation of the observed bad behaviour that Monbiot wants to eliminate, and an alternative remedy.

My view is that most people are mostly good. In order to believe things that are unpleasant, or behave in vile ways towards each other, people have to be pushed into it by social pressures. The reason that people do believe unpleasant things and do behave in vile ways towards each other in great numbers is that there are social pressures pushing them towards it.

One of the things about modern capitalist societies is the way they systematically hide information about the external costs of our actions. An example: it is very difficult to purchase ethical or green products. Information about the exploitation involved in producing products, or the amount of carbon emitted in the production of products, is enormously difficult to estimate. Modern capitalism hides all information except for one thing: the price. Not knowing anything else about the products, of course consumers will just buy the cheapest thing available. This has knock on effects that are very damaging. But the problem here is not that people are mean and don’t care about those knock on effects, but that they don’t have reliable information about them.

That’s one way that a capitalist society creates an apparently callous and uncaring world, and it exemplifies many of the others. For example, a company is owned by shareholders, separate from its management. The management of the company reasons thus: if the shareholders all sell their shares, the company will collapse and I’ll be out of a job, therefore I must do all I can to make the profits of the company as large as possible. The shareholders meanwhile have a choice of companies to invest their money in. Since their individual actions typically won’t affect the fortunes of a whole company, the only question that concerns them is where to put their money to maximise profitability. Note that they can’t even choose to put money into a slightly less profitable but more ethical venture, they have to go for one that pursues profit above all else. If they invest in a company that doesn’t do so, they have to assume that the other shareholders probably won’t, the share price will plummet anyway, the company will go bust, and by doggedly keeping shares in it they’ve neither saved the company nor made any money. (This is just The Prisoner’s Dilemma.) The structural arrangement of the system causes all the individuals involved to behave in seemingly cold and callous ways by separating individuals and groups, and making price and profit the only signal they communicate with.

Those are two key mechanisms of capitalism which contribute to this sort of behaviour, but they also have knock on effects. Those people who are better at having this sort of cold, callous view of the world will do better in a capitalist society than those who don’t. Because of the structural requirements of capitalist companies, these psycopathic / sociopathic individuals will tend to be promoted to the top jobs. Again, this is not because we like this sort of person, or that we want them to be our bosses or leaders, but that the way our society is structured, hiding all information other than price information, pushes them towards the top.

I could continue documenting this sort of thing at enormous length, but the key point is that the structural pressures in a capitalist society all emphasise price and profit, and de-emphasise everything else in life. With all these different sorts of pressures, all reinforcing themselves and feeding back on themselves, of course we end up with a society that seems cold and callous. But, returning to Monbiot, this is not because people are cold and callous.

So, if I’m right about human nature and Monbiot is wrong, an equal and free society is possible. If we can build a society in which the pressures are social rather than financial, we wouldn’t need state coercion to make people behave well. The anarchist ideal is to build such a society, but not by the right-wing libertarian or free-marketeer route of just doing away with government regulation. That government regulation grew along with capitalism as a way of mitigating its most antisocial effects, and getting rid of it without addressing the basic structure of society would make things considerably worse. The anarchist route is a change in the form of society, away from capitalism, either gradually or through a revolution, and an eventual end to state power (or at least, a minimisation of it).

Michael Albert’s participatory economics describes an alternative way to organise a society along these lines. It’s not the only one possible, but it is interesting and important because it incorporates an analysis along similar lines in a fundamental way.

Postscript: While I’m at it, the Marxist notion of the ‘withering away of the state’ is in fact an anarchist one, first posed by William Godwin in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793, 25 years before Marx was born, available in full online here and here), my emphasis:

In proportion as weakness and ignorance shall diminish, the basis of government will also decay. This however is an event which ought not to be contemplated with alarm. A catastrophe of this description would be the true euthanasia of government. If the annihilation of blind confidence and implicit opinion can at any time be effected, there will necessarily succeed in their place an unforced concurrence of all in promoting the general welfare. But, whatever may be the event in this respect, and the future history of political societies, we shall do well to remember this characteristic of government, and apply it as the universal touchstone of the institution itself. As in the commencement of the present Book we found government indebted for its existence to the errors and perverseness of a few, so it now appears that it can no otherwise be perpetuated than by the infantine and uninstructed confidence of the many. It may be to a certain degree doubtful whether the human species will ever be emancipated from their present subjection and pupillage, but let it not be forgotten that this is their condition. The recollection will be salutary to individuals, and may ultimately be productive of benefit to all.

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7 Comments

Hi Dan,

Nice piece. One question – in paragraph four you say that social pressures result in people doing bad things, but then in paragraph nine you say that it would be desirable to build a society based on social pressures. Do you mean social in a different sense, or did you mean ‘financial’ in paragraph four?

Comment by Simon West

By the way, how’s neuroscience?

Comment by Simon West

Simon – nice to hear from you. I’ll send you an email in a bit.

Re social pressures: maybe the exact term is slightly ill advised. It’s not something like peer pressure that I’m talking about, but more a pressure exerted on an individual by the structural arrangements of the society. That understood, the social pressure (or structural pressure perhaps) can be good or bad. It’s not inherently good or bad, it’s only good or bad insofar as the outcomes are good or bad.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

Thanks for this – a very good response to Monbiot there. However, the argument that human behaviour in its current form is not due to some innate characteristic of “human nature” but is rather purely a product of the structure of a capitalist society seems to me to suggest an obvious question:

if humans in a pre-capitalist society, responding to different social pressures, did not also possess the character traits and behaviour of the kind you describe above and attribute to the financial pressures of a capitalist society, why did capitalist societies first form? What made people move from pre-capitalist society to a capitalist one? This is surely an important question, for if the transition to a capitalist society was an inevitable consequence of “human nature”, this could suggest that anarchism is by its nature (or, more accurately, by ours) doomed to, at best, a temporary existence.

Incidentally, I’m not raising this in order to advance any particular argument. I really don’t know the answer, but it does seem to me as though it is an important question.

Comment by JamieSW

Hi Jamie, thanks for your comment. I’m going to have a read through some of the interesting looking articles on your blog when I get a bit of time next week. I assume you’re also the JamieSW that posts to the ukwatch blog? Assuming so – thanks for all the effort you guys put into that site. It’s much appreciated.

The Marxist answer to your question, which in this case would be pretty similar to the anarchist one I suspect, is that the material conditions would be different before and after capitalism. In a pre-capitalist society where you have to fight to survive because of the poorly developed means of production, the social pressures are very different to what they would be in a society after capitalism, in which the means of production are sufficient to easily cater to everyone’s basic needs (and then some).

Also, an anarchist society doesn’t necessarily have to be an unstructured one, nor even one without laws. I don’t have enough time right now to elaborate on this point though. Do check out the parecon link if you haven’t already read about it though. There is considerable argument amongst anarchists about whether it can be correctly described as anarchist, but by my way of thinking it certainly can.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

Thanks – I only started volunteering there recently, though, so I can’t take credit for doing the hard work of getting the site together in the first place.

I’ll check out the parecon link – I’ve got a lot of time for Michael Albert, and from the little I’ve read it looks like a very interesting concept.

Comment by JamieSW

[…] sense. I’ve written before several times about aspects of my opposition to capitalism (here, here, and here amongst other places, and also about parecon, an alternative to capitalism), but never […]

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