Is capitalism (or greed) part of human nature?

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This article is a part of Fightback’s ‘What is Capitalism’ series, to be collected together in our next magazine issue. To subscribe to our e-publication ($20 annually) or physical magazine ($60 annually) through PayPal or credit card click here.

A common criticism of socialist politics holds that greed, or even capitalism, is necessary to human nature. However, most of human history was not capitalist. This social system has existed for approximately 300 years out of 200,000 years of human existence: in other words, capitalism makes up 0.15% of our time on earth. More complicated is the claim that greed, clearly older than capitalism, is fundamental to our nature.

The claim that ‘greed is human nature’ has a kernel of truth. Humans, like any creature, are naturally attracted to activities that are rewarded. If humans are rewarded for their greed, most will act accordingly. We can’t all be Jesus. However, greed is far from the only human compulsion. Cooperation and care are also necessary to ‘human nature.’

Cooperation and care are even necessary to capitalism. A private corporation requires huge amounts of cooperation: between workers in different departments, customers and workers, bosses and workers. If everyone acted on their own individual impulses, companies would likely not function. Capitalism is a cooperative social system. Although the profits are privatised, the labour process is socialised. Without this cooperative labour, the luxuries enjoyed by the rich would be impossible.

Care is also necessary for human existence, and for capitalism. As Terry Eagleton highlights in Why Marx Was Right:

For a long time after birth [human beings] are unable to fend for themselves, and are thus in need of a prolonged period of nurturing… Even if the care they receive is appalling, infants very quickly imbibe some notion of what caring for others means. This is one reason why, later on, they may be able to identify a whole way of life as callously indifferent to human needs. In this sense, we can move from being prematurely born to politics.

Care must be built into any society. In this sense capitalism undermines human existence – unemployed single mothers are punished, rather than helped, despite doing necessary work. Although capitalism does not always reward care work, care work remains necessary for capitalism, as it would for any society. People perform care without reward, showing that ‘human nature’ involves compulsions other than greed.

Greed is not outside the range of human nature – anything humans do is, by definition, a capacity of ‘human nature’ – but it is currently so central because it drives and is driven by capitalism. By contrast, a socialist society could reward collective behaviour. Returning to Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right:

Take, for example, the idea of a self-governing cooperative, which Marx seems to have regarded as the key productive unit of the socialist future. One person’s contribution to such an outfit allows for some kind of self-realisation; but it also contributes to the wellbeing of the others, and this simply by virtue of the way the place is set up. I do not have to have tender thoughts about my fellow workers, or whip myself into an altruistic frenzy every two hours. My own self-realisation helps to enhance theirs simply because of the cooperative, profit-sharing, egalitarian, commonly governed nature of the unit. It is a structural affair, not a question of personal virtue.

Put simply, different societies reward different kinds of behaviour. A society that rewarded egalitarian cooperation would make avarice less attractive.

This would not be totally unprecedented. Anthropologists have highlighted ‘gift economies’, based on giving rather than financial exchange. In the lands that would later be named New Zealand and Australia, where indigenous societies lived off the land collectively, capitalism had to be imposed through colonisation (see ‘How was capitalism established in Aotearoa and Australia?’ in this issue). If capitalism is a part of human nature, why did so many people engage in bloody wars to defend their way of life?

Unless you’re reading this as a historical text in a post-capitalist society (inshallah), all of us were raised under capitalism. We internalise its compulsions. When we wake up in the morning, we see Capitalism in the mirror, and blame the figure that stares back:

where the whole world is against us, we begin to take its part against ourselves, to avoid the withering sensation of being alone on our side.”1

The notion of ‘human nature’ itself is debatable, hence the quotation marks. Humans are very adaptable. There are compulsions we all experience, like the need for food – but this does not mean human behaviour is permanently fixed in one form.

Now, with the complex cooperation that has overcome the scarcity of earlier societies, we could achieve an egalitarian society with greater comfort than ever before. Likely people would still harbour the occasional negative thought, but the point is to liberate ourselves, not to redeem all our sins. The primary barrier is not human nature, but that minority which benefits most from colonial capitalism, and resists any attempt at redistribution.

1Robert Maturin, Melmoth The Wanderer

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