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.

Today’s surveillance society news
October 23, 2007, 2:04 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Surveillance Society | Tags: , ,

From The Register:

Schoolkid chipping trial ‘a success’

A school in Doncaster is piloting a monitoring system designed to keep tabs on pupils by tracking radio chips in their uniforms.

According to the Doncaster Free Press, Hungerhill School is testing RFID tracking and data collection on 10 pupils within the school. It’s been developed by local company Darnbro Ltd, which says it is ready to launch the product into the £300m school uniform market.

Hungerhill headteacher Graham Wakeling said the pilot was “not intrusive to the pupil in the slightest.”

Cops and Home Office plot uber-CCTV network

Near-real-time use of nationwide CCTV may not be an option now, but the government would like it to be. The two main requirements, of course, would be a central database of every camera and a network allowing access to it from elsewhere than a local control room, shop till etc. Consider these repetitious grumbles from the report:

The [Data Protection Act] does not require CCTV systems to be registered – this is considered to be at the heart of all the problems…No effective systems for registration of CCTV are in place…

[There is] no central register of CCTV systems nationwide…

The answer?

A system of registration is needed and an initial step towards this would be to create a database listing all CCTV schemes. Such a database would provide information such as location of cameras, their coverage…

Bingo. Step one to a real Bourne-style panopticon. And:

Only in a few of the more recent installations is there remote access… on almost every occasion where police need to view CCTV material, they first have to attend the venue… This is all prior to assessing if the CCTV has even captured the event…

This is assumed to be bad. Again, the top cops have plans:

The delays and difficulties outlined above need not arise if the live and stored CCTV systems were networked and the CCTV material was easily accessible… Consideration needs to be given to the expansion of the networks to include CCTV from shopping centres, transport and commercial CCTV schemes.

There’s even a note about plugging in the cams in the corner shop – strictly with the owner’s permission of course. And it comes with the admission that:

Security, access and audit trails need to be stringent and continuing management scrutiny of the security, access and audit trails will be essential.

No shit. This is actually worse than what Jason Bourne has to put up with, as the spooks would one day have no need to know where he was to start following him on camera. Rather, the second he drove the wrong car, used the wrong credit card – or maybe even just took down the top of his hoodie – ding! Nearby cams would swivel round and he would be followed in real time until the cold steel bracelets snapped shut on his wrists.

Honest, that’s the plan:

In future, as technology is developed… such a network will allow the use of automated search techniques (i.e. face recognition) and can be integrated with other systems such as ANPR, and police despatch systems… [there might also be links of] transport system cameras to travel cards [and] shop cameras to Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) systems… actions can be triggered by associated events and post event CCTV images can be quickly searched against other events/data…

October 19, 2007, 9:15 pm
Filed under: Frivolity | Tags: , ,

Despite the title, this is not a post about New Labour, but about this lady…


No, I’m not just a perv posting silhouetted computer generated naked woman spinning for kicks. The strange thing about this is that you can see the woman spinning either clockwise or anti-clockwise. The article I got this from claims this has something to do with whether you are left-brained or right-brained, but that’s probably nonsense. You can also flip from seeing it one way to seeing it the other way. The way I got it to work was to look at the ‘reflection’ at the bottom, and try to convince myself that when I thought the upper foot was at the back, it was actually at the front. After a few spins, the woman at the top starting spinning the other way. From then on, she stayed spinning that way quite stably until I focused on something else and then looked back.

FWIW, I naturally see her spinning clockwise, which apparently means I use the right hand side of my brain more than the left (contrary to most people, according to the article). A quick search on the internet suggests this means I am visual, intuitive, etc.

Update: Just scoured the internet to see if anyone had written anything interesting about this, and the answer is: not really. Two pages did stand out though:

  • This one from NeuroLogica blog, which like me takes a pretty dim view of the whole left/right-brained thing
  • This one which shows two slightly modified versions of the animation side by side. Minor cues have been added to bias your interpretation of the image one way or the other, and they’re completely effective.

October 17, 2007, 8:05 pm
Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , ,

This is an interesting article (long) about Gordon Brown’s transition from socialist to neoliberal:

“The distribution of income in Britain has now become so unequal that it is beginning to resemble a Third World country”, wrote Gordon Brown in his 1989 indictment of Thatcherism, Where There Is Greed. He complained that since 1979 “an extraordinary transfer of resources, from poor to rich, has taken place”. Indeed, so great had the level of inequality become that it was “difficult to argue that there remains even a common interest between the top 1 percent to whom Mrs Thatcher has given so much, and the rest of the nation”.

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What should I do with my new blog?
October 9, 2007, 10:48 pm
Filed under: Capitalism, Frivolity | Tags: ,

I was amazed to discover that the WordPress domain capitalismsucks hasn’t been taken. So I grabbed it. Now – what to do with it?

Double standards
October 6, 2007, 11:19 pm
Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , , ,

The BBC reports:

Schoolchildren in the US state of Ohio were left bemused after images of nude women were shown in a politician’s lecture on the legislative process.

State representative Matthew Barrett was giving a computerised presentation at Norwalk High School when the images flashed up on the screen.

He said he had no idea where the images came from, adding that he took them down after a few seconds.

Mr Barrett was “embarrassed and apologetic”, police said.

“I believe this was an unfortunate and unintended incident,” Superintendent Wayne Babcanec told local media.

All fairly innocent no doubt. Maybe the guy had been downloading this porn and saving it on his USB stick, maybe not, who really cares? So far, so meh. But, compare with the case of Julie Amero:

On October 19, 2004 Julie Amero was substituting for a seventh-grade language class at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, Connecticut. The teacher’s computer was accessed by pupils while the regular teacher, Matthew Napp, was out of the room. When Julie took charge, the computer started showing pornographic images.

On January 5, 2007 Amero was convicted in Norwich Superior Court on four counts of risk of injury to a minor, or impairing the morals of a child. Her sentencing was delayed four times after her conviction, with both the prosecution and judge not satisfied that all aspects of the case had been assessed.[1] The felony charges for which she was originally convicted carry a maximum prison sentence of 40 years.

A detailed look at the facts of the case strongly suggest – as does common sense – that it is much less likely that Amero was intentionally downloading porn than Barrett. But, whereas in the case of Barrett police said “I believe this was an unfortunate and unintended incident”, Amero has been going through the courts for three years, trying to save herself from a possible 40 years in jail.

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New scrabble record
October 5, 2007, 1:50 pm
Filed under: Frivolity, Games, Scrabble | Tags: , , , , , , ,

A new personal record: 539 points, thanks to using all seven letters three times during the game, and twice over a triple word score. Incidentally, that’s a 264 point lead – what does that make it on azahar’s scale? Category 6, a creamcheesewhizzing? See more of our matches here.