On human nature and capitalism

One of the more common arguments against socialism, or in general, against imagining or enacting alternatives to capitalism, revolves around the notion of human nature. The argument goes that humans are intrinsically selfish, and will put their interests before that of others. This is, in effect, held to be “the law of nature” — animals step over each other to accomplish their self-preservation. So, the argument implies, it is human nature to be self-interested in the way that we all are now and to want more things.

There are two levels at which I’d like to respond to this argument, but I should add that these two levels are not the only ones from which it can be approached. The first is at the level of what constitutes “human nature” itself. The second is to examine the role of society (or “nurture”). However, the one approach bleeds into the other.

I agree that there is a human nature.

As humans, we have biological functions that, for the most part, we simply cannot ignore. We have to eat, drink, breathe, sleep, excrete, engage in sexual activity, and move, among other things. Although these drives can be overcome, at least, for a given period of time, through utmost determination and discipline, I do not believe the privilege necessary for that kind of discipline to be available to most people, nor do I think, for instance, that most people want not to eat — I, for one, certainly do. Similarly, I agree that there is a natural drive toward self-preservation. I also think that this can be overcome with utmost determination and discipline. I don’t care for overcoming the drive toward self-preservation, though, and that’s not what my argument or discussion is about. (The implication in my argument is that socialism does not require one to suppress the drive for self-preservation.)

What I’d like to point out for a moment is that these “natural” drives are overdetermined socially. That is to say, it may well be true that we have such natural drives, but none of them — not a one — exist outside of our social relations. Indeed, from the day we are born till the day we die, these drives will be regulated in myriad ways through agents and methods of socialization: television, films, family, friends, teachers, partners, billboards, etc. Moreover, we cannot ignore the spatial arrangements of regulation. For instance, one may well point out the natural drive to urinate. One could posit that it’s natural for us to piss on rocks and trees, yet none of us do so. When the drive to pee strikes, we don’t move aside a bit and start pissing on walls and on the street (and in the cases that people do, they’re considered sociologically as deviant). Indeed, when we face the drive to pee, we look urgently for the nearest washroom. The point I am making here is that our excretory functions — as natural and innate as they may well be — are incredibly regulated by socially determined norms. The same applies for our alimentary drives, and every other drive I noted above.

Indeed, it is a testament to the overdetermination of the society we live in that, often, the main kind of “self-interest” one imagines revolves around acquiring more things. For some reason, the natural drive that one might have for self-preservation transmogrifies into a desire for more cars, more houses and more televisions. Needless to say, none of these things are natural. Yet, the argument posited by the defenders of capitalism is that the natural drive for self-preservation manifests itself in individualistic self-interest. How is this not socially overdetermined?

As I pointed out, even though one might be considered to be sociologically deviant for violating certain socially prescribed norms, the truth is that these deviations exist. Alternative methods of realizing natural drives exist. There is no reason, in theory and in fact, that the natural drive for self-preservation has to take the form of individualistic self-interest as it is made to take in a capitalistic society. There is ample evidence of people fulfilling their drive for self-preservation through alternative methods of communication and through cooperative (and not competitive) measures, throughout the world and also within capitalistic societies. Indeed, the destruction and marginalization often brought about by capitalistic processes forces people to imagine and operate in ways that do not correspond to the kind of individualistic self-interest that defenders of capitalism feel is such an intrinsic part of “basic human nature.” It is not. What it is, to the extent that it is, is social overdetermination that creates what the philosopher Herbert Marcuse refers to as a “second nature.” As I’ve pointed out, this second nature is not set in stone, and is not natural. It merely appears to be natural because the mystification that surrounds it hasn’t been pulled back, and indeed because this mystification is self-reproducing it actively prevents us from pulling itself back. But it’s not hard to do, while also being the hardest thing to do.

So much for the discussion on basic human nature. In my next post, whenever that is, I will expand on the nature of this mystification, its relation to privileged positions, and how that relates to the other aspects of how capitalism facilitates freedom.

  del.icio.us this!

4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Amna said,

    March 8, 2008 @ 7:44 am

    Good post; reminds me of an article written by Pierre Bourdieu, challeging Adam Smith’s reductionist notion of economic behaviour based on the Kantian model of human needs or more simply as you put it “human nature” driven capitalism. He used Algerian ecomonic values to ethnographically explain exactly what you are saying. I think you will enjoy reading it. Here is a link to it:

    (incase the link doesn’t work)
    Its called “Making The Economic Habitus” Algerian Workers Revisited.

  2. 2

    noaman said,

    March 8, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

    Thanks, Amna, this seems like a fantastic article. And who can mess with Bourdieu.

  3. 3

    Steve said,

    March 23, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

    Would you consider it appropriate to argue (conversely) that socialism destroys the economic necessity for families, churches, and communities – the true binding units of human organization?

    The classical argument for capitalism is not simply a practical argument, but a moral one. No individual should be rightfully entitled to wealth that if forcefully expropriated from another. Capitalism, by definition and in practice, is an inseparable corollary to freedom. You are not a free person when 50% of what you earn is confiscated by the government.

  4. 4

    dave said,

    March 25, 2008 @ 2:17 pm


    Socialism doesn’t necessitate the destruction of the family, church, etc.

    “Capitalism, by definition and in practice, is an inseparable corollary to freedom.”
    The freedom to choose between starvation and slavery.

Comment RSS · TrackBack URI

Say your words