Human Nature

Will Miller radphil at
Mon Aug 21 21:52:04 MDT 2000

Allow me to contribute this reflection on the the ideological functions of the
capitalist conception of "human nature."
Social Change and Human Nature
by Will Miller
[This essay appeared in the Monthly Review, (Vol 50, no. 9; February, 1999)]
When radical social change is mentioned, apologists for present practice take a
philosophical turn. In nearly every discussion of social alternatives to market
capitalism, defenders of the marketplace appeal to their conception of human
nature as the final explanation of the predatory competitiveness of our age of
waste and greed. We are quickly assured that the ever more unsatisfying and
dangerous exploitation of our natural and social environment is an inevitable
consequence of our human nature.
According to the market view of human nature, we are--and have always
been--greedy, grasping creatures, entirely absorbed in ourselves, manipulating
others as means to our own private ends. All human ties of love, affection and
social unity are really manipulative appearances that conceal the sheer private
opportunism that actually motivates us. We are all bottomless pits of insatiable
desires, so no amount of consuming, owning or controlling is ever enough. These
traits of individualism are cast as universal human nature, making market
capitalism inevitable and radical social change impossible. Occasionally,
defenders of the market capitalism seem slightly saddened by their own view of
human nature. But more often they cannot disguise their pleasure at the dismay
they provoke in gentler folk.
It is not without reason that economics has come to be known as the dismal
science. Mainstream economists since Adam Smith have assumed that all human
relations are ultimately those of the marketplace, of buying and selling, of
control and and exploitation of the suffering, vulnerability and desperation of
others. The current dominance of private property relations--where land,
resources and tools are exclusively controlled by a small minority of
individuals for their private perpetual reward--is projected backward over the
whole span of human history. However useful this projection may be for
justifying existing market society, it is strikingly poor anthropology, dubious
history and third-rate psychology.
But it seems actual human history has had a much different bent. For our first
few hundred thousand years on this planet--according to current evidence--humans
lived in small groups organized around mutually beneficial social relations,
with resources held in common as social property. Social equality and voluntary
divisions of labor endured for millennia as the basis for human communal life.
With essentially social incentives, everyone who could contributed to the
commonwealth for the use of all. In the long sweep of this history the emergence
of dominant classes--chiefs, kings, aristocracies of birth and wealth--is a very
recent event, perhaps no more than 10,000 years ago, or less, depending on which
culture is considered. From time to time, small human communities organized in
such communal ways continue to be 'discovered', communities that have been
spared being "civilized" by conquest at the hands of more "advanced" class
A common pattern for the development of class societies, where a dominant class
holds the power to exploit the labor and lives of subordinate class members,
begins with the emergence of wealth as social and communally produced surplus
beyond subsistence. Often the first storable surpluses came with settlement
agriculture and the emergence of production organizers, who coordinated the
complexities of agriculture as a new means of production. Seizure of this social
surplus provided the means for the emergence of a dominant class. The surplus
provides the material means for creating a "palace guard" to enforce the
relations of domination, on behalf of those who seek to institutionalize their
private ownership of that stolen social surplus.
This is the pattern of the earliest coup d' etat, out of which the state and
class society is institutionalized. Accompanied as it often was by
male-supremacist divisions of labor, the social opportunities for free and
cooperative association were shattered by a succession of forms of domination
from slavery and serfdom to "free" wage labor. The most recent installment in
this historical process, market capitalism is only 500 years old in Europe and
much newer elsewhere. Capitalism in Europe succeeded in wresting control from
the patchwork of feudal estates and their lords. The modern capitalist nation
state was the outcome of this struggle to lay the foundations for market
relations of buying, selling and owning to become the primary determinants of
human life. The new system's need for primitive capital accumulation led to the
conquest and colonization of most of the rest of the world over the last five
Less than 200 hundred years ago, 80-90% of the U. S. labor force was
self-employed. Today only about 10% of us can avoid going to someone else for a
job, for access to the means to work. This monopoly control of the means to
work, by some 2% of us came about not by democratic consensus, but by the
formally totalitarian structures of corporate capitalism. These structures
systematically exclude the overwhelming majority of us from any significant role
in economic decision making. In the first decades of our nation, gender, race
and property requirements for voting and holding office meant that only wealthy
white males could vote, and then only for even wealthier white male candidates.
Political parties were in competition to see who would win the right to
represent the wealthy in office. The long struggle to gain the vote for all
adult citizens is unfinished--migrant workers are often still disenfranchised by
residency requirements. But the present political monopoly exercised by two
parties equally committed to transnational corporate capitalism provides no real
choice at the polling booth. Given this history, it is plausible to claim that
if voting could change the system it would be illegal.
Under the not so tender mercies of industrial capitalist development, we were
forcibly relocated by a succession of economic crises--27 depressions since the
Civil War--to the growing urban centers where more than 70% of us now live on 1%
of the land of the United States. Stable human communities were shattered by
this forced urbanization. Rural self sufficiency of families and communities was
replaced by the forced dependency of urban life and the social isolation of
anonymous city life. Most people now depend entirely on systems of energy, food,
clothing and shelter that are centralized under corporate control. As "free wage
labor" the vast majority of people are "freed" of the material resources--land,
tools and skills--to employ themselves. Such free people are forced to compete
with one another for chances to sell their ability to work. With the increasing
movement of U.S. Transnational Corporations to the Third World's cheap labor
markets, this competition between people who must work in order to live has
become global, forcing them to sell their labor ever more cheaply. Uprooting
people from a direct relationship to the land, from the intimacy of extended
networks of kin and community only to thrust them by the millions into the
social anonymity of contemporary urban and suburban life has raised the level of
social alienation to new heights. Our social needs, as a social species, are
thwarted by conditions of life imposed on us by a tiny unrepresentative minority
for the sake of their endless accumulation of wealth, along with the power to
secure it.
It is when people begin to resist the dehumanizing and exploitative conditions
of contemporary life that we are more often reminded of the limitations of human
nature. The function of this pathological view of human nature is to discourage
us from attempting to change the conditions of our lives by cooperative
struggle. "After all, you can't change human nature," is a mythic claim
calculated to drown in despair aspirations for significant social change.
But human nature is not the problem. Given social opportunities and the
institutional structures to meet their needs by means that hurt no one else,
historically, most people have chosen non-selfish alternatives. We are a social
species, and social species survive by cooperation--evolutionary 'mutual aid' in
Peter Kropotkin's sense. Our current problems are rooted in the forced
competition required by the structure of market society with its carefully
crafted artificial scarcities of opportunity for cooperative and mutually
satisfying activity. This forced competition for scarce educational, work,
housing and other opportunities is the basis for dividing the majority of people
against one another by sex, race, age and ability. A ruling minority depends on
a divided majority for its security and continued privilege.
At the same time, it is a system that both produces and selects for the most
socially stunted among us--least able to trust and cooperate with others--and
places them in positions of power and privilege. In an Adlerian sense the desire
for coercive power over others is often part of a desperate strategy for
enhancing one's self-esteem. Acts of domination over others require numbing
oneself to the needs of others and the repercusions of one's own acts on others.
People become mere objects, in a field of objects, to be manipulated for private
advantage. For those whose self-esteem is low enough, having coercive power over
others is compensatory--even exhilarating. In Henry Kissinger's own words,
"power is the ultimate aphrodisiac."
It is not the pathology of all human beings but the pathology of some humans
that lies at the root of our current social and ecological crises. Predatory
personalities among us are often in positions of control, where their
pathologies are nurtured by the very structure of advanced industrial capitalist
institutions. A socially concerned corporate manager who puts human interests
ahead of profit maximization joins the ranks of the unemployed. It may not be
strictly necessary to be a sociopath in order to be in a position of power in
our society, but the rules of the game require doing a good imitation of one.
Yet other, less socially harmful strategies for self-enhancement can be found
for constructively meeting the needs of those consumed with the desire for power
over others. Being denied opportunities to dominate, in an otherwise supportive
social environment, may allow them to come to feel better about themselves by
strategies that do not require victimizing others. In any case, we need to
remove them from the control over all our lives by whatever means are available.
This is primarily an institutional issue. How are we to democratize the
structures of decision making in our political, social and economic
institutions, so that everyone affected by a decision has a significant role in
making it? How do we empower ourselves as a self-consciously organized majority,
so we can create liberatory social relations in which the free and full
development of every person depends on, and is made possible by, the free and
full development of all of us?
Structurally, we have to take democratic control of what was--and is--social
property, the means of production and reproduction of ourselves as a human
community. The existing system of private, income-producing property embodies an
institutionalized extortion, where those who control the means to work demand an
unearned reward (profits, interest and rent) for granting permission to use what
we as a society have already labored to create. The imperatives of capitalist
development have shaped technologies for the domination of nature and of peoples
in the interest of securing and enhancing capital accumulation for the few.
Conquest, colonialism and imperialism are the products of these imperatives.
Technologies in the service of such institutions have had devastating
consequences, far beyond those of all pre-capitalist social formations combined.
No other society has had such ecocidal relations with its environment or
deployed such destructive technologies around the world.
By taking democratic control of the means of production, we can redesign the
character and uses of technologies to harmonize with the human needs of those
who are affected by them. The nature of work can be recreated in more satisfying
contexts of producing to meet human needs. It will no longer be necessary to
spend more than 50% of every tax dollar on military spending to prop up the
profit margins of major arms manufacturers. With social ownership and worker
control, we can turn our surplus productive capabilities to environmental
reclamation at a global scale, to restore much of what has been damaged already.
By learning how to live in gentle and ecologically enduring ways in our world,
we can reach toward the biospherical egalitarianism and social justice that
holds the most promise for our survival as a species.
Will Miller Phones: (802) 656-3137 (office)
Philosophy Department before 9:00 PM (802) 879-0288 (home)
University of Vermont (UVM) Philosophy Dept. FAX (802) 656-3133
70 South Williams Street, Room 107 E-mail wmiller at
Burlington, VT 05401-3404 Web page:
If you give me a fish, you have fed me for a day.
If you teach me to fish, then you have fed me until
the river is contaminated or the shore line seized for development.
But if you teach me to organize, then whatever the challenge
I can join together with my peers and we will fashion our own solution.
Ricardo Levins Morales

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