[Marxism] Capitalism Short Circuits Our Moral Hard-Wiring

Dbachmozart at aol.com Dbachmozart at aol.com
Sat Dec 20 22:40:22 MST 2008

By Gary  Olson 
December 20, 2008  "_Commondreams_ 
(http://www.commondreams.org/view/2008/12/18-11) " December 18, 2008 -- In a recent New  Yorker piece, Naomi Klein 
astutely observes that "The crash on Wall Street  should be for Friedmanism what 
the fall of the Berlin Wall was for  authoritarian Communism, an indictment of 
an ideology." One hopes so. The  financial system's collapse in 2008 offers a 
rare opportunity to question  certain underlying assumptions about our state 
capitalist economy and its  neoliberal ideology.  
For the last few years I've been writing  about neuroscience research which 
shows that the human brain is hard-wired  for empathy, the ability to put 
oneself in another's shoes. This is the  discovery of the mirror neuron system or 
MNS, a finding some  scientists believe rivals what the discovery of DNA meant 
for biology. The  technical details showing how morality is rooted in biology, 
hardwired  into our neural circuits via evolution rather than handed down 
from on  high, lie beyond this article. But our understanding is increasing at an 
 exponential rate and it's compelling. Earlier this year, UCLA  
neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni's superb book, Mirroring People (NY: Farrar,  Strauss and 
Giroux, 2008, paper) made this important research accessible  to the lay public.  
However, this is not to underestimate the  barriers to the public's 
appreciation of these findings. At the apex of  misunderstanding is the cynical, even 
despairing doubt about the existence  of a moral instinct for empathy. From 
doctrines of original sin and Ayn  Rand to Alan Greenspan and David Brooks, 
certain intrepretations of human  nature have functioned to override empathic 
responses. In the words of  famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal "You need to 
indoctrinate  empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist 
We know that cultures are set up to reward  some people and disadvantage 
others. Capitalists maintain domination, in  part, through subtly but actively 
creating society's prevailing cultural  norms. Antonio Gramsci's writing reminds 
us that this control is achieved  through the mass media, education, religion 
and popular culture as  subordinate classes assimilate certain ideas as 
"common sense." It isn't  that individual deviations don't occur within the 
interstices of society  but generally they don't threaten elite control.  
If we assume that the human brain or more  specifically, the aforementioned 
mirror neuron system, is the implicit  target of elite propaganda, then the 
current economic meltdown provides an  almost unprecedented opportunity for us. 
Perhaps not since the 1930s have our  citizens been more skeptical of 
received wisdom about our socioeconomic  system. That is, the carefully manufactured 
narrative of market capitalist  identity and its assumptions about human 
nature are now thrown into sharp  relief.  
Not only has economic reality made a  shambles of the canonical model of Homo 
economicus but robust  empirical evidence offers promising alternative 
responses to basic  questions about human nature. Parenthetically, other highly 
regarded  cross-cultural studies reveal that the self-interested behavior 
predicted  by the selfishness axiom simply fail to materialize and cooperation is the  
Of course there are also predatory and  cruel urges within our nature, 
complete with their own neural correlates  and evolutionary origins. But now we know 
that organizing an alternative  to our vicious system of "natural" 
hyper-individualism will enhance the  opportunity for the empathic aspect of our nature 
to flourish. Social  historian Margaret Jacobs captures my optimism with her 
insight that "No  institution is safe if people simply stop believing in the 
assumptions  that justify its existence." Therein lies both our challenge and  
Gary Olson, Ph.D., is  chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian 
College in  Bethlehem, PA. Contact: _olson at moravian.edu_ 
(mailto:olson at moravian.edu)  

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