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The Capitalist Big Lie about Human Nature

by John Spritzler

Septermber 30, 2012


Capitalism is a social system that tries to legitimize itself as one that, unlike all others, is based on what human nature really is, not what we'd like it to be. Capitalist ideologues claim that it is human nature to place self-interest above all other concerns. Adam Smith, capitalism's first and perhaps most well-known ideological defender, famously argued that only the capitalist system allows an "invisible hand" to ensure that the net result of everybody acting just in their own self-interest results in the betterment of society for all. The baker makes bread just to make a profit; ditto the shoemaker and the candlestick maker. And, behold!, it results in people having the bread and shoes and candlesticks they need.

Greed is good, say the defenders of capitalism. Were it not for greed, we're told, the baker and shoemaker and candlestick maker would have no incentive to make their wares, and we'd all go shoeless and hungry in an unlit world.

Economic inequality is also good, in fact necessary, we're told, because the only reason people work hard and smart is to get richer than others. In a society where everybody who contributed reasonably to the economy shared with each other according to need as equals there would, according to the capitalist view, be no reason for people to work and hence the economy would stop producing things.

The belief that greed is human nature, that it is good for society, and that inequality is natural and necessary are the beliefs that make our present social structure seem legitimate. It is a social structure in which money is power. Economic inequality inevitably means political inequality too. One person, one vote may be the theory, but in real life it ends up being one dollar one vote, as politicians respond less to the concerns of their consituents and far more to the concerns of Big Money. It is Big Money that funds politicians' campaigns, decides how the mass media will treat them, and provides them with cushy jobs when they leave office. Also, it is Big Money that can relocate a business that is a major employer if it doesn't get legislation that it wants.

'You May Not Like It, But It's Just Human Nature'

Those who rule our world, whose chief aim in life is the greedy pursuit of money, and who enjoy power and privileges that money makes possible for the very rich in an economically unequal society--this capitalist class of people justify it all with a Big Lie. The Big Lie is that selfishness is the primary human motivation, always has been and always will be because it is simply human nature. Capitalists argue that there is no difference between the motives and values of ordinary people and those of the richest families in society. The only difference is that the rich ones were more successful than the others.

The Big Lie about human nature is used by defenders of capitalism when they tell us that there is no point in trying to create a better world that is more equal and democratic. Even if we succeeded initially, they say, it would just revert back to the same inequality we have today because human nature would remain the same. People would compete against each other, there would be winners and losers, and inequality would re-emerge. Greed, inequality, competition for self-interest: it's all just human nature. The wisest thing to do, say the defenders of capitalism, is to recognize the fact, and turn it to the best advantage by letting Adam Smith's invisible hand work its wonders in a capitalist society.

Big Facts Refute the Big Lie abut 'Human Nature'

Human nature is not the same as capitalist nature, no matter what the capitalists want us to believe. Human beings create cultures. Cultures embody values about how relations between people ought to be. Being selfish or sharing is a behavioral choice determined in large part by one's culure.

Conflicting cultures have developed, especially conflicting class cultures. Classes of human beings have arisen that dominate, oppress and exploit other human beings, and they have created a culture that legitimizes and even glorifies their oppressive relation to others. But these oppressive classes that survive by taking economic wealth from those who actually produce it are numerically small. The majority of human beings whose labor produces all the wealth of society have developed a very different culture.

The culture of the people who produce the wealth of society is different because we are a social species; we produce the things and services we need for survival and for our comfort and enjoyment only by cooperating with others. Cooperation requires mutual trust. The reason why the Golden Rule is universally honored as the basis of morality (as discussed here), and the reason why it is therefore incorporated into every major religion, is because it is the basis for establishing the trust that cooperation and hence human survival requires.

There is a class culture that says to be selfish. And there is a conflicting class culture, enshrined in the Golden Rule, that says to share.

It is well known by anthropologists that hunter gatherer societies are extremely egalitarian. For example in the journal, Current Anthropology, Vol 35, No 2 (April 1994) online here, on page 176 one reads, "Yet the universality of egalitarianism in hunter-gatherers suggests that it is an ancient, evolved human pattern." This Big Fact contradicts the Big Lie that human nature is innately selfish and that inequality is simply what human nature inevitably produces.

In this regard it is worth reading a passage from Peter Kropotkin's Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. In his chapter, "Mutual Aid Among Savages," he writes about the "Hottentots, who are but a little more developed than the bushmen":

"Lubbock describes them as 'the filthiest animals.' and filthy they really are. A fur suspended to the neck and worn till it falls to pieces is all their dress; their huts are a few sticks assembled together and covered with mats, with no kind of furniture within. And though they kept oxen and sheep, and seem to have known the use of iron before they made acquaintance with the Europeans, they still occupy one of the lowest degrees of the human scale. And yet those who knew them highly praised their sociability and readiness to aid each other. If anything is given to a Hottentot, he at once divides it among all present--a habit which, as is known, so much struck Darwin among all Fuegians. He cannot eat alone, and, however hungry, he calls those who pass by to share his food. And when Kolben expressed his astonishment thereat, he received the answer: 'That is Hottentot manner.' But this is not Hottentot manner only: it is an all but universal habit among the 'savages.' Kolben, who knew the Hottentots well and did not pass by their defects in silence, could not praise their tribal morality highly enough.

"'Their word is sacred,' he wrote. They know 'nothing of the corruptness and faithless arts of Europe.,' 'They live in great tranquility and are seldom at war with their neighbors.' They are 'all kindness and goodwill to one another....One of the greatest pleasures of the Hottentots certainly lies in their gifts and good offices to one another,' 'The integrity of the Hottentots, their strictness and celerity in the exercise of justice, and their chastity, are things to which they excel all or most nations in the world.'"

The Hottentots are, of course, the same species as us. Their innate human nature enabled them to develop an extremely egalitarian culture. That means that our innate human nature (whatever it may be) enables us to do the same, contrary to the Big Lie of capitalism.

Some defend the Big Lie by arguing that human nature may permit egalitarianism within a tribe, but it also causes tribes to wage war against each other. But the anthropological evidence does not support the assertion, made by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Warmonger in Chief, Barack Obama, that "war appeared with the first man." As John Horgan writes in his The End of War:

"The Homo genus emerged about 2 million years ago and Homo sapiens about two hundred thousand years ago. But the oldest clear-cut relic of lethal group aggression is not millions or hundreds of thousands of years old. It is a 13,000 year old grave site along the Nile River in the Jebel Sahaba region of Sudan. Excavated in the 1960s, the site contains fifty-nine skeletons,twenty-four of which bear marks of violence, such as embedded projectile points.

"What's more, the Jebel Sahaba site is an outlier. Most of the other evidence for warfare dates back no more than 10,000 years. The oldest known homicide victim--as opposed to war casualty--was a young man who lived 20,000 years ago along the Nile...

"Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist and authority on both primates and early humans, believes that our human and proto-human ancestors were at least occasionally violent. Given how often fights occur among virtually all primates, including humans, 'we can be fairly certain that lethal aggression occasionally broke out' in the Paleolithic era, she says. 'It would be amazing if it did not.' But Hrdy sees no persuasive evidence that war--which she defines as 'organized aggression between groups with the intent of killing those in other groups'--is either ancient or innate." [pg. 30-31]

Nor does it require living in primitive conditions for egalitarianism to arise. The modern labor movement, with all its strikes and campaigns for things like the Eight Hour Day, and the social movements against racial discrimination (e.g., the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the Global Anti-Apartheid Movement) are all examples of the mass support for making the world more equal.

The fact that when polled, most Americans say they want health care to be a right of all people, and furthermore say they would agree to paying higher taxes to make it so, cannot be explained by any theory that includes the capitalist Big Lie about human nature being mainly motivated by self-interest.

Workers often continue their labor strikes far beyond the point when they have any chance at all of making up in higher wages all of the wages they have already lost during the strike, not to mention homes foreclosed for lack of money to make the mortgage payments and cars repossessed. This was the case in the Hormel meatpackers strike in the 1980s in Minnesota. Why do they do this? A striker explained why this way, as recounted by Dave Stratman in his We CAN Change the World (pdf):

"Like the British miners, the striking meatpackers understood that far more was at stake than their specific demands. In a speech to supporters in Boston in February, 1986, Pete Winkels, business agent of Local P-9, made this clear: 'Our people are never going to get back what we've already lost financially. We know that. But we're fighting for our families and for the next generation. And we're not going to give up.'

"Since it was precisely the strikers and their families who suffered the economic and emotional costs of the strike, the explanation that "we're fighting for our families and for the next generation" has to be interpreted in a class context. "For the next generation" was a phrase the strikers used again and again to describe why they were fighting, as if these words encapsulated their feelings about creating a future very different from where things seem headed, not just for their immediate families, but for other people like themselves."

The Hormel strike, and many others like it, was a struggle to make the world more equal; as a fight for merely personal self-interest it would have been crazy to continue the strike, as the strikers well knew.

During the Spanish Revolution that involved millions of people in almost half of Spain in 1936-9 peasants expropriated the land from the rich landowers. They invariably decided to own it collectively instead of dividing it up into parcels to be owned individually. Some collectives abolished money altogether and those that didn't made changes in the direction of economic equality, such as paying people according to the size of their family instead of their education or job type. If the Big Lie of human nature were true it would be very difficult to explain how this could have happened. But it did happen. Economic production by these egalitarian collectives actually increased, by the way, refuting the notion that nobody works in an egalitarian society.

From the most common everyday acts of kindness, such as people I see everyday getting up and giving their seat on the subway to an elderly person, to epic struggles for equality, there is abundant proof that the capitalist assertion about human nature being the same as capitalist nature is flat out false. There are countless Big Facts that refute it.

A Big Lie Requires Big Propaganda

It takes great effort to keep a Big Lie afloat. Let's look at one way the capitalists try to do it.

George Orwell joined the Spanish Revolution and wrote about it in his Homage to Catalonia, which describes an egalitarian society created by the Spanish people at this time. Of course Orwell also wrote Animal Farm to warn the world that Communists in the Soviet Union, for all their talk about equality, were just as bad as the capitalists, and wanted a world in which "some are more equal than others." Orwell was not making a statement about human nature; he was making a statement about Communists. Almost every American school child has read Animal Farm or at least has heard the famous line about how the Pigs were more equal than others. But virtually no American learned in our public schools about even the existence of Homage to Catalonia, never mind read it. Instead they are given Animal Farm and encouraged to view it as a wise book about human nature being selfish. They are also given Lord of the Flies by Nobel Prize-winning William Golding, a book whose theme is that human nature is vicious and selfish.

This is no accident. The capitalists need to work very hard to keep people ignorant about the truth of human nature. They need people to hear the Big Lie repeated over and over, so they will accept, as "natural" and "inevitable," the greed-based unequal society that capitalists love so dearly. After reading Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies, many of our youth go to colleges where the number one major is "Business." Here they learn to accept and work with the fundamental premises of economics and marketing, all versions of the Big Lie about human nature. Those who become teachers learn that the purpose of education is to enable American children to compete with non-Americans in the world economy when they leave school, again the premise being that competing against others and looking out for #1 is what life is all about--it's human nature.

Marxism Accepts the Big Lie

Marxism views the working class as the class that will usher in a communist society, a classless society of economic and political equality. One would think that, therefore, Marxism viewed working class people as having egalitarian rather than selfish values. But the fact is that while Marxism views the working class in the abstract as the force that will make the world communist one day, it does not view flesh and blood working class people as having values any different from the selfish values of capitalists (as discussed more fully here.)

In Marxism, the working class and the capitalist class have conflicting interests (one wants wages to be higher, the other lower, etc.) but the same values: self-interest. Marxists never talk about the conflicting values of working class and capitalist class culture, for example that the former values equality and concern for one another (solidarity) while the latter values inequality, pitting people against one another, and looking out for #1. Marxists only talk about "interests."

Marxism accepts the Big Lie that human nature is the way the capitalists say it is. Marxism also agrees with Adam Smith that there is an "invisible hand" that shapes society in a way that has nothing whatsoever to do with the subjective aims of individual people in that society: the selfish butcher, shoemaker and candlestick maker do not aim, subjectively, to provide people with bread and shoes etc., but only to make a profit for themselves.

Marxism disagrees with Adam Smith only about how the "invisible hand" will affect society. Whereas Adam Smith said it would lead to everlasting capitalism fulfilling the needs and wants of everybody, Marx said it would lead to an economic crisis for capitalism and its replacement by communism, not because flesh and blood working class people want communism (they don't, he said) but because the working class as an abstraction, as a class whose interests oppose those of the capitalists and whose liberation requires the liberation of all, will cause communism to replace capitalism after the capitalist economic crisis creates the conditions for this to happen.

Good People Accept the Big Lie

Most people who want a more equal and democratic society do not consider themselves Marxists. But whenever somebody who starts to think seriously about how to make society more equal and democratic looks for ideas and books to learn how to proceed, he or she will inevitably come across Marxist ideas that may or may not advertise themselves as Marxist. This is because Marxism is a coherent ideology (even if it is wrong) that tells good people that they should feel hopeful, because an egalitarian communist world is going to emerge in spite of the fact that most ordinary people are just as selfish as capitalists and the last thing on their minds is making the world egalitarian. Good people, who have been raised in a capitalist society that teaches us the Big Lie about human nature, are of course very happy when they discover Marxist ideas. Marxism tells them that, yes, their perception of human nature is accurate, but it's not a problem: communism will arrive despite it.

To see how Marxism affects good people who don't call themselves Marxists, one has only to go to a web site called AxisofLogic.com that is run by good people who oppose oppression and the extremes of inequality and who don't call themselves Marxists. There is an article there called The Ovarian Lottery by Paul Harris. In this article, Harris calls for making the world less unequal. In the comments that follow the article I said that what we aim for should be a fully egalitarian society, not just one that was less unequal than today. [The comments are no longer online.]

A person named Siv O'Neall objected to my post and wrote:

"Socialism is fighting against the innate tendency of man to create a hierarchy. As long as mankind has existed, that is since about 50,000 years ago when we spread out from Africa, there has been inequality. Huge inequality. So what people like Paul and me, both die-hard socialists, are fighting for, goes against the grain of human nature."

Paul Harris wrote:

"There is a reason the Spanish spring [I think he is referring to 1936-9--JS] didn't last; and the Vienna spring of the 1920s didn't last. They are not sustainable so long as humans are involved. I'm afraid you think we're a great deal more evolved and civilized than we really are."

O'Neall and Harris, as these comments illustrate, accept the Big Lie about human nature. And this leads them to forsake the idea of revolution to create an egalitarian society.

The Big Lie Leads to Leftist Dictatorships

Some people accept the Big Lie about human nature but, unlike the folks at AxisofLogic.com, still aim to make a revolution to create a classless society in the future. Because, according to the Big Lie, an egalitarian society "goes against the grain of human nature" it follows very logically that if somebody is going to make society egalitarian it must be somebody who is willing to go against the actual conscious desires of ordinary people with their selfish human nature. It will require top-down social engineering. Who will be the social engineers? Whoever they are they will have to be a dictatorship; they dare not let ordinary people have the real say in a genuine democracy because ordinary people would "go against the grain" of where the social engineers want to go. The Marxists say that the Communist Party must be in control. Non-Marxist Socialists might use a different vocabulary, but it amounts to the same thing: a dictatorship of an elite who views ordinary people as going "against the grain" of progress.

Given that an elite needs to have dictatorial power, they will need to do the things dictators must do to stay in power. Fostering solidarity and equality among people is most certainly not something dictators ever do to stay in power. And this is why such elites inevitably become "more equal than others." The egalitarian society they claim to be guiding society towards will remain a far off dream, never today's reality.

Our View of Human Nature is Key

As long as we accept the capitalist Big Lie about huan nature, we will be resigned to the idea that an egalitarian society is impossible, at least until the far distant future. We will be resigned to accepting inequality and the ideas that legitimate it. There will be winners and losers and the winners will get stonger and stronger because the Big Lie legitimates them and undermines any opposition to them. This is why we need to understand that the Big Lie is a lie, and reject it.

Please see Thinking about Revolution for discussion about creating a revolutionary movement for an egalitarian society.

Postscript June 21, 2015: Toddlers Have Sense of Justice, Puppet Study Shows (NYT).

Postscript July 26, 2015: In this report of a scientific study, in PLOS (Public Library of Science) the authors conclude:

"We investigated 15-month-old infants' sensitivity to fairness, and their altruistic behavior, assessed via infants' reactions to a third-party resource distribution task, and via a sharing task. Our results challenge current models of the development of fairness and altruism in two ways. First, in contrast to past work suggesting that fairness and altruism may not emerge until early to mid-childhood, 15-month-old infants are sensitive to fairness and can engage in altruistic sharing. Second, infants' degree of sensitivity to fairness as a third-party observer was related to whether they shared toys altruistically or selfishly, indicating that moral evaluations and prosocial behavior are heavily interconnected from early in development. Our results present the first evidence that the roots of a basic sense of fairness and altruism can be found in infancy, and that these other-regarding preferences develop in a parallel and interwoven fashion. These findings support arguments for an evolutionary basis – most likely in dialectical manner including both biological and cultural mechanisms – of human egalitarianism given the rapidly developing nature of other-regarding preferences and their role in the evolution of human-specific forms of cooperation."

In this report of a study in the journal Child Development, the authors conclude:

"In sum, the findings of the current study reveal an important developmental transition at the end of the second year of life when toddlers' helping behavior expands to include empathic as well as instrumental helping. The results point as well to the late emergence of altruistic helping, after other-oriented helping first becomes evident, inasmuch as even two-year-olds find costly helping especially difficult. This suggests that changes in social understanding and prosocial motivation may be closely linked, with other-oriented concern developing in concert with growth in children's ability to represent and understand others' subjective internal states, and altruistic helping developing later, in concert with understanding of social and moral norms. It would be productive in future research to investigate these links more directly, possibly by including additional measures of self- and other-understanding and empathy, as well as by testing older children in situations that require various types of helping."

Postscript October 14, 2015: "We're not as selfish as we think we are. Here's the proof"


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