I recently ran across a couple of good articles that relate to a lot of themes The HipCrime Vocab project has been discussing lately.
This article in The Guardian: Who’s correct about human nature, the left or the right? makes the point that I’ve made repeatedly over the past year. As the byline says, “Most conservatives see it as ‘common sense’ that humans are selfishly competitive – but things looked different pre-capitalism.”
Indeed they did. Pre-capitalism, society was tasked with “habitation” rather than “improvement,” and social ties were based around one’s group ties. Economic relations were “embedded” in social institutions. That means constraints as well, but the constraints served an important purpose. The idea of everyone being in a zero-sum competition for a small number of jobs would have struck most people as an absurd way to organize society. I’ve been reading a book called, The Market as God, by theologian Harvey Cox which makes a point I’ve also made repeatedly here on this blog: economics is far more of a religion that it is a science. The author writes of the Market’s mythical Genesis:
The relationship between religion and The Market is a long and convoluted saga. When did it start? One day a Cro-Magnon man traded a chiseled-stone spearhead with a hunter for a slice of newly slain saber-toothed tiger. He was so pleased with the exchange that the next morning he laid out some other tools he had made on a large rock and watched for passersby to stop and deal. The first market was born, and that was about forty-three thousand years ago.
This, of course, is a myth, and like any other myth it takes place on some other plane of time and space. It has no basis in fact; its purpose is to explain or justify some feature of our own times.
But there are good myths and bad ones…Its lack of any basis in real history is not what makes it a bad myth. Many good myths share that quality. Still, since those who use it often assert it is historical.
It is important to remember that anthropological and historical research has shown that the earliest people did not have markets. Rather, theirs were gift cultures, at least within social groups. One was expected, of course, eventually to reciprocate for gifts accepted. But the reciprocation was not expected to happen right away; otherwise it would amount to tit-for-tat bargaining. What little barter did happen took place only with outsiders. Thus trust, reciprocity, and the importance of community are more primal and more natural, if that word is relevant in this case. They were present before markets or even bartering appeared.
Also, when two people met each other in even the most primitive of exchanges, they were already embedded in social and symbolic worlds which overlapped in both conflict and mutuality. There had probably been previous encounters and there would be more to come.
As intertribal connections increased, the role of traders, once peripheral, grew as well. But even when simple forms of currency appeared (in the form of shells or beads, for example) both the buyer and seller knew they were part of larger interlaced worlds that relied on some common assumptions. The spearhead-for-a-slice or any of its variants is ahistorical. It may be a useful fiction, for some people, because it serves as what theologians call a “myth of origin” for the religion of the Market God. It suggests that market values are primal, even ingrained in the human psyche. We are, as the T-shirt has it, “Born to Shop.”
But the truth is that market economies are not timeless. They appeared in human history under certain ascertainable conditions. The fact that they have existed for a long time does not make them eternal and it does not guarantee they will always be with us.
The Guardian article makes many of the same points. The primacy of the Market and the individual was an intellectual project from the start, and pressed into service to justify land and resource grabs that Europeans were undertaking across the globe, including within their own countries by the upper classes. History was subsequently ‘retconned‘ to make it seem like something natural and inevitable; dissenting views and ideas were quashed.
Liberalism, which first emerged in the 17th century, has at its core a distinctive conception of human nature. The most important point about humans for liberals is the fact that they are individuals. It involves “seeing the individual as primary, as more ‘real’ or fundamental than human society and its institutions and structures” and “involves attaching a higher moral value to the individual than to society” (Arblaster).
Furthermore, this conception of human nature “tends … to impute a high degree of completeness and self-sufficiency to the single human being, with the implication that separateness … is the fundamental, metaphysical human condition”.
As a fundamentally “complete” individual, the liberal human has pre-given and fixed, rather than socially constructed needs and preferences. More often than not, the liberal individual is also a radical egoist who enters into interaction with other individuals simply in order to satisfy pre-formed preferences.
The relationship between this conception of human nature and capitalism is obvious. The atomised liberal individual reflects the atomised conditions of bourgeois society in which social ties of kinship and fealty have been dissolved. It is worth stressing that this was a new understanding of human nature. In pre-capitalist philosophy wholeness or completeness usually belonged to the community rather than to the individual.
Rather than self-sufficient individuals, humans were seen to be embedded in communal relations that almost wholly defined them. The view of human nature that underpins the politics of the modern-day right, then, arose at a particular historical juncture. It is not some ideologically “neutral” description.
Definitely read the whole thing at the link above. The other eloquent post is entitled A liberal elite still luring us towards the abyss by journalist Jonathan Cook.
Cook points out that Liberalism itself has become something of a religion. For the true believers, anyone not on-board is a heretic. Yet the zealots of liberalism refuse to see the problems inherent in their own world view. Instead they tell themselves reassuring stories about they are on “the right side of history”, and cast anyone with the slightest doubts about their project as “irrational,” if not outright barbaric as John Gray points out,
…there has been a shift in the mood of liberals. Less than a decade ago, they were confident that progress was ongoing. No doubt there would be periods of regression; we might be in one of those periods at the present time. Yet over the long haul of history, there could be no doubt that the forces of reason would continue to advance.
Today, liberals have lost that always rather incredible faith. Faced with the political reversals of the past few years and the onward march of authoritarianism, they find their view of the world crumbling away. What they need at the present time, more than anything else, is some kind of intellectual anodyne that can soothe their nerves, still their doubts and stave off panic.
Thus, we currently stand between two options that are truly terrible to contemplate. On one side is the Neoliberal status quo that pits us against each other, sets up a hereditary aristocracy of wealth and PhD. degrees, seizes the public’s common heritage in a new Enclosure Movement, and pushes us ever closer towards what I’ve termed Neofeudalism. Its result is conflict and heartrending psychological despair across the globe, combined with the ongoing destruction of the natural world.
Davos Elites Love to Advocate for Equality – So Long As Nothing Gets Done (Branko Milanovic, Promarket)
On the other side is reactionary nationalism, inflaming racial and ethnic divisions as a pathway to gain and retain power. It uses the classic tactics of “us-versus-them” thinking, scapegoating, images of a mythic past, surrendering to a “strong-man” patriarchal leader, open hostility to intellectualism and the arts, and an utter disdain for the very concept of equality before the law.
Both of these options are quite grim to contemplate, as Cook points out. We need to find another way he argues, one that preserves the gains of liberalism but adopts a view of human nature more in line with who we really are as human beings:
…the abyss has not opened up…because liberalism is being rejected. Rather, the abyss is the inevitable outcome of this shrinking elite’s continuing promotion – against all rational evidence – of liberalism as a solution to our current predicament. It is the continuing transformation of a deeply flawed ideology into a religion. It is idol worship of a value system hellbent on destroying us.
Liberalism, like most ideologies, has an upside. Its respect for the individual and his freedoms, its interest in nurturing human creativity, and its promotion of universal values and human rights over tribal attachment have had some positive consequences. But liberal ideology has been very effective at hiding its dark side – or more accurately, at persuading us that this dark side is the consequence of liberalism’s abandonment rather than inherent to the liberal’s political project.
The loss of traditional social bonds – tribal, sectarian, geographic – has left people today more lonely, more isolated than was true of any previous human society. We may pay lip service to universal values, but in our atomised communities, we feel adrift, abandoned and angry.
The liberal’s professed concern for others’ welfare and their rights has, in reality, provided cynical cover for a series of ever-more transparent resource grabs. The parading of liberalism’s humanitarian credentials has entitled our elites to leave a trail of carnage and wreckage in their wake in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and soon, it seems, in Venezuela. We have killed with our kindness and then stolen our victims’ inheritance.
…the absolute prioritising of the individual has sanctioned a pathological self-absorption, a selfishness that has provided fertile ground not only for capitalism, materialism and consumerism but for the fusing of all of them into a turbo-charged neoliberalism. That has entitled a tiny elite to amass and squirrel away most of the planet’s wealth out of reach of the rest of humanity.
Worst of all, our rampant creativity, our self-regard and our competitiveness have blinded us to all things bigger and smaller than ourselves. We lack an emotional and spiritual connection to our planet, to other animals, to future generations, to the chaotic harmony of our universe. What we cannot understand or control, we ignore or mock…
Go check it out.