Recently, some exciting studies cast doubt on widely held conventional assumptions about so-called human nature. Although the philosophy anthropology and psychology are the classical disciplines traditionally tasked with such research, an invigorating infusion of exciting new data comes from the fields of biology, economics, mathematics and computer science.
One such idea that is long overdue – and has been at the heart of social justice movements since time immemorial – is that selfishness is learned.
How many times have we all had to reckon with the conventional argument that human nature is inherently self-interested and greedy? This sentiment has been the basis for defending consumerism from the greed of modern capitalism and the savage individualism inherent in the idea of the American Dream.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, socialist and communist ideas seemed to have been crushed by the dominating global empire of US-led capitalism.
For the rest of the 1990s, anti-capitalist organizers in the United States managed to organize in resistance to the Gulf War – in response to the devastating effects of neoliberal globalization. at NAFTA, in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis and to advance the rights of LGBTQ+ communities. However, in terms of organizing to create alternative economic relationships based on cooperation rather than self-interest and competition, the American left seemed to be at an impasse.
That is, until the Occupy Wall Street Movement was triggered in response to the Global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Greedy cartoonish financial deregulation by bankers and stockbrokers had resulted in the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression of the 1930s. growing population, both domestically and abroad.
While Occupy died out after a short while, the conversations and ideas it put forward only amplified. A 2018 Gallup Poll showed that less than 45% of young people in the United States find capitalism favorable.
Now, two years into a global pandemic, we are all compelled to witness disruption of supply chainsas we see our governments failing to keep us safe and housed, as they prioritize the economy and stay open over public health despite the upsurge in COVID-19 cases. We also could barely look away as the world’s 10 richest men have collectively become $1.5 trillion – yes, trillion – richer during this same pandemic when the vast majority of us have suffered. Some of them even went to space to show it to us.
It is after all of this that refreshing ideas and innovative approaches to inequality issues are a welcome respite. Just like what happened with the lies inherent in climate science denialmaybe if we can break through the propaganda and mythologies that our society and our systems hand down to us as indisputable fact, we can open ourselves up to beautiful new horizons.
Again, we are not born selfish. According to studies gleaned from 10 different experiments by David Rand and colleagues at Yale University, when people rely more on their intuition, it increases cooperation. In contrast, strict self-interest is higher the more time one spends weighing the cost-benefit analysis of a given situation.
It is important to note that the challenges to the idea that we are inherently selfish are not really that new. In his seminal pamphlet, An anarchist programthe end of the 19th century Italian anarchist Ericco Malatesta wrote: “We believe that most of the evils which afflict mankind arise from bad social organization and that man could destroy them if he wanted to and if he knew how.
The crux of his argument was that social structures condition people to develop in certain ways regardless of their will or intentions. These structures often bring out the worst in people because they are designed to do so. He offered the solution that to change society we should change the social structures themselves rather than the simplistic, individualized conventional thinking that says we can simply replace bad leaders with good leaders, or reform bad behavior individuals while leaving the system itself. intact.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Lord John Acton said in 1887. “Great men are almost always bad men.”
Rather than focusing on rotten individuals who invoke our anger, we should be prefigurative, constructing new ways of being that replace those selfish, individualistic ways of being here and now. Societal systems reproduce themselves through repeated behaviors and customs – and their influence on the kinds of people who emerge from them.
If we want a world based on egalitarian cooperation, we will have to completely change ourselves and the structural systems around us and, in doing so, create the conditions for new and evolving modes of social and economic relations.
We can look to another old bearded philosopher, Peter Kropotkin, for inspiring and scientifically grounded insights into human cooperation. His scholarship and theories vigorously countered the dominant notions of his time, namely those of Social Darwinism, which can be concisely summarized as “survival of the fittest”. Darwin himself was not a supporter of this unscientific application of his theory of evolution of biology.
It was Kropotkin who coined the now ubiquitous expression of mutual aid in the treatise of the same name. In it, he challenged the dominance Hobbesian pro-capitalist worldview– namely that human nature is driven by aggressive impulses and is inherently selfish, competitive and possessive. Kropotkin did not deny the realities of conflict, competition and selfishness. On the contrary, he proposed that cooperation, mutual support and care are also widely expressed in the animal kingdom and in all human societies throughout history.
In fact, these ideas are even older than Kropotkin or Malatesta – or even Karl Marx. The principles of flat-structured societies based on collectivism and cooperation are as old as the human species, and have been and still are present in many societies around the world.
In the Pacific Northwest, many indigenous peoples have organized their entire society around potlatches, which were celebrations of giving and sharing. We owe them, and this tradition, the English word potluck. On the other side of the American continent, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy— better known as the Iroquois Confederacy — held all land in common, practiced self-management of labor duties, and did not believe in private property.
There are many other examples of flourishing communalist and cooperative societies before the rise of capitalism and colonialism. And there are plenty of books you can – and should – read on the subject, such as The dawn of everything by the late David Graeber, power of worship by Peter Gelderloos, society against the state by Pierre Clastres and The art of not being governed by James C. Scott, to name a few of my favorites.
We can draw inspiration from our own collective histories, but we can also look to the findings of science to affirm broader possibilities than the current paradigm allows. In all of these we will find that human beings are not predestined or stuck in this deterministic trap. We are not inherently mechanistic, selfish, or simply individuals competing for wealth in a winner-take-all bloodbath.
There are many forces that transpire to create the conditions in which we emerge. It is incumbent upon us to transform these and ourselves in the pursuit of human flourishing and development. All human beings, by virtue of their existence, have an inalienable right to everything they need to survive, thrive and prosper. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.