Social Change and Human Nature

By Miller, Will | Monthly Review, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Social Change and Human Nature


Miller, Will, Monthly Review


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 own 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 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 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 societies.

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. …

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