How many times have you heard, “Socialism is inconsistent with our nature because human beings are inherently selfish” or that “Hierarchies exist in nature, thus an egalitarian society cannot exist”? Unfortunately, this is a notion all too common in our educational institutions and political discourse, and thus deserves some attention for those who might think it holds weight. Generally, people who hold this view don’t have an understanding of what socialism is, let alone how it views human nature.
The first claim, that human beings can be selfish is undoubtedly true, but the conclusion drawn from it doesn’t follow. Humans are complex creatures and it is next to impossible to develop any scientific laws which govern human behavior, or to reduce it to one characteristic such as selfishness. There’s an equally well argued alternative to this perspective put forth by Peter Kropotkin, in his essay Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which posits that cooperation is what guides human nature and historically our evolutionary development for the longest period of time, has been driven by this instinct. He famously stated, “Competition is the law of the jungle, but cooperation is the law of civilization”.
It also fails to consider the hundreds of thousands of people who do volunteer work and go as far as to do what’s in their power to help others at their own detriment. Any expert on the topic, whether it be a biologist or a psychologist will affirm that it is a mixture of the two. I leave it to the reader to figure out why the selfishness in human nature has been popularized in our current institutions, culture and media.
It is also worth noting that proponents of the view that selfishness is what defines human nature don’t take into account the nurture part of the debate. The structure of our institutions in how they allow for the expression of different human characteristics is of utmost importance in defining our behavior and social relations. It is not that selfishness is inherently bad (considering it is, to an extent, necessary for survival) but the way in which it manifests certainly can be.
Capitalism does not protect your self-interest, at least if you’re not in the top few percent which can afford to do so. For example, capitalism thrives on war for growth and resources which hardly go to the average citizen and people doing the fighting, but to sacrifice oneself for the country is considered honorable. Another example in everyday life is that workers are often told to cooperate and work hard despite the low wages, poor working conditions or the lack of social services, and make do with less resources, to serve the economy in often “tough times” which never cease to exist for the average worker.
While the first claim concerns the individual, the second one regarding the justification of hierarchies, concerns the collective. Not only is it about the power structure of a society in terms of the ruling elite and the working class, but it also defines the organization of our mode of production and social relations between individuals in a workplace. The capitalist hierarchical workplace is organized with a CEO or a board of directors, with the workers putting in their labour, having no say in the process of production and what is done with the profit it generates, which goes to the bosses. To be exploited in such a big the part of your life, your job, by not earning what you produce, as well as being told that you are simply not equipped to make decisions about a place where you spend an average of 8 hours of your day is hardly natural.
The anarchist maxim of dismantling any hierarchy which cannot be ethically justified is extremely relevant in this context. Hierarchies are not justified simply by the virtue of their existence. By this logic, the most abhorrent crimes against humanity can be justified and examples of this are prevalent throughout human history.
Slavery was justified on this basis as well as the oppression of women which continues to this day, and in all these cases were considered scientific and natural. Eugenics, which claimed that inherent superior characteristics within races exist, was the basis for “naturalizing” racism. The subjugation of women found its basis in the conception that they are mentally inferior or less competent by very questionable measures in specific fields due to biological differences, and continues to be a cause for gender discrimination. The practitioners of science in this case were generally white, privileged or wealthy men so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the subjects of their research (which is funded by the very same institutions which benefit from such exploitation) and the conclusions they reach are an affirmation of their authority.
This is yet another example of the contradictions within capitalism. It encourages selfishness and hierarchies but only as means to legitimize and present the indefensible actions by the ruling class and the authority by which they are exercised as just another part of nature. On the other hand, it demands an unreasonable amount of selflessness or in some cases self-sacrifice by workers to continue working by the sweat of their brow and contribute to a system stacked against them.
Granted that self-interest is an important part of human nature, it cannot possibly be natural for the vast majority of the population to continue to accept a system which rests upon their oppression to serve the pursuits of the top few percent. In conclusion, what is consistent with both these elements of human nature, acting in your self-interest as well as cooperation, are the answer to many of the difficulties we face: a collective struggle which will maximize the living standard and conditions of the workers individually as well as transitioning to system with actual democracy. A system under which a person’s self-interest does not entail such a drastic human cost but fosters equality, justice and a consideration for people other than yourself.
As Emma Goldman put it, “This is not a wild fancy or an aberration of the mind. It is the conclusion arrived at by hosts of intellectual men and women the world over; a conclusion resulting from the close and studious observation of the tendencies of modern society: individual liberty and economic equality, the twin forces for the birth of what is fine and true in man.”