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Does capitalism equal human nature?

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Most reasonable people would be forgiven for thinking that indeed it does, that what goes coyly by the reassuring moniker of "free enterprise" is in fact the economic equivalent of human nature, the only system of social organization aligning itself effortlessly with the temperamental inclinations of most people. The problem is that, like many "self-evident truths" of this sort, "truths" that carry huge implications for policymaking and social control, this ostensibly innocent equation is actually based upon spurious science and pushed by a powerful constituency which, judging from the efforts it constantly makes to buttress its legitimacy, is deeply invested in its acceptance. Convenient propaganda Fact is, far from being true, this is simply a clever propaganda equation, a ruse, and one of the oldest and most effective ideological weapons to defend capitalism in the so-called Free World. And while it may not have been invented in the U.S., it's here where it has received its warmest embrace. It pays off handsomely in a number of important ways. First, if capitalism is congruent with "human nature," then the capitalist system must be the most "natural" and "logical" form of social organization, as people will have a built-in tendency to observe its basic rules. Second, "human nature," as defined in corporate terms (which the commercial press of course follows) is characterized by two significant traits: immutability and unalterable egoism. The first "fact" automatically discourages most efforts at seriously reforming, let alone revolutionizing, society. Why should anyone bother to undertake such an immensely difficult task if in the end the stubborn intractability of human nature will render all schemes for change and improvement of social conditions worthless and utopian? It's evident that when sufficient numbers of people are made to believe that an eternal, immutable and invincible "human nature" will time and again scuttle the best-laid plans and the costliest sacrifices for change, then most threats to the status quo will be defanged at the outset. The second "fact," addressing the supposedly terminally individualistic nature of people, provides a convenient justification for the harsh, dog-eat-dog conditions that prevail under the so-called free-enterprise system. In this vision, derived from classical economics, all human motivation is supposed to flow from the desire for pecuniary gain and self-aggrandisement. Individuals are perceived unidimensionally as simple atoms of unrelenting hedonism, constantly pursuing the calculus of profit and loss, pain and pleasure, as they irrepressibly "maximize" their options to fulfill the dictates of hopelessly greedy natures. This is the fabled "homo economicus" of free market literature; the heroic "rugged individualist" so dear to conservatives, and supposedly the creature on which all human progress and wealth depend. So now we begin to see why the media--and especially the wilier corporate apologists-- embrace this tack with so much fervor. As suggested above, the very possibility of changing things is a highly contested ideological area. Radicals argue that society can and should be drastically changed. Conservatives (and the media, which incorporates the mildly reformist liberal viewpoint) contend that nothing basic can or should be changed because our behavior is rooted in an unchanging human nature true for all epochs, systems, and states of human evolution, and, besides, the system is quite sound as it is. History, however, when properly read, is not very kind to conservative social science. As economists E.K. Hunt and Howard Sherman have pointed out, "human nature" seems quite adept at changing to reflect each new set of prevailing social circumstances. Thus, "it's no coincidence that the dominant view or ideology under slavery supports slavery; that under serfdom [it] supports serfdom; and that under capitalism [it] supports capitalism. (...) Since our ideology is determined by our social environment, radical economists contend that a change in our socioeconomic structure will eventually change the dominant ideology. Before the Civil War most Southerners (including their social scientists and religious leaders) believed firmly that slavery, an essentially pre-capitalist, agricultural system, was natural and good; but after 100 years of dominance by capitalist socioeconomic institutions, most Southerners (including their social scientists and religious ministers) now declare that capitalism is "natural and good". So the dominant ideas of any epoch are not determined by "human nature" but by socioeconomic relations and can be changed by changes in these underlying relationships. There is thus hope for a completely new and better society with new and better views by most people." (F.K. Hunt and Howard J. Sherman, Economics, Harper & Row, 1978, p. xxviii.) Further, if "human nature" is inherently greedy, competitive and egoist, how do we explain altruism, sharing, selflessness and social cooperation, which can be readily observed to this day in many human institutions and societies throughout the world? It should be borne in mind that class-divided societies and private property made their appearance barely 10,000 years ago, roughly congruent with the rise of agriculture, food surpluses, sedentarism and animal-domestication-all of which eventually created the conditions for the appearance of a specialized ruling class (warriors and priests) capable of living on this social surplus, on the backs of others and of institutionalizing this severely inequitable regime. It's also worth remembering that this "unmodifiable" pro-capitalist human nature, far from being inherent in the human character, defies the historical record. For the bulk of our time on earth as a species has been spent under tribal or primitive communitarianism which stressed familial bonds and a sharing of the commonwealth. Such systems still exist in many societies around the world, as any honest anthropologist will attest, and many more of their kind existed-in fact thrived-until "modernity" at sword- and gun-point displaced them in favor of the industrial system. But ideological blinders and indoctrination cut very deep in the "Western world." Too many decades of unopposed repetition have given this lie, like all lies buttressing an exploitative system, an air of veracity and common sense it doesn't deserve. So if you find yourself in front of recalcitrants who insist on the truth of this equation, just ask them a simple question: Did native Americans have a human nature? Patrice Greanville, a media critic and political economist, is Cyrano's Journal's founding editor.
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Patrice Greanville is founding editor and publisher of The Greanville Post (

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