Getting the rid of the idea of humankind’s innate selfishness
March 20, 2011 Leave a comment
There is presently a fundamental belief throughout much of the world, especially in the West, in the selfishness of humankind, a belief based on, amongst other things, the theories of leading Western thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Sigmund Freud, Adam Smith, and Thomas Hobbes. This conviction either tends to make capitalism the sole applicable system for humankind or allegedly necessitates a strong central government, a state capitalism, to counter humankind’s innate selfishness. Capitalist liberals have even attempted to claim that freedom is inherently individualistic and that my freedom is more or less in opposition to the freedom of others.
The irony is that the proponents of capitalism, who have for decades now claimed capitalism to be the only sustainable, non-utopian system, are being proven wrong – not only by the growing social movements such as the Global Justice Movement, but by undeniable environmental disasters that capitalism and state capitalism have brought upon us, including global warming and an increasing resource scarcity. Consumerist capitalism, and its need for continuous growth, that many of the poorer nations aspire to, is well on its way to bringing about an ecological disaster that will leave mass poverty in its wake – especially in the poorer nations near the equator that can least afford it.
But why have we built societies that feed on mankind’s alleged selfishness when mankind is not inherently selfish? Rather, mankind is inherently sociable. As Peter Kropotkin says in ‘A Factor of Evolution’, “it is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience – be it only at the stage of an instinct – of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependency of every one’s happiness upon the happiness of all.”
Mankind has survived and prospered precisely because of its solidarity, sociability and mutual aid. Liberalists would have us believe that when we are stripped of a thin layer of civilisation, such as when disaster strikes, we all turn into selfish individualists. But as the aftermath to many disasters have shown the opposite often happens: we become more altruistic, co-operative and sociable towards our fellow human beings. In earthquake-struck Japan, for instance, supermarkets cut prices, vending machine owners gave out free drinks, and people worked together to survive.
Freedom is thus not inherently individualistic, as proponents of capitalism would have us believe. On the contrary, freedom is actually a social product that one must achieve together with others. The world need therefore not be driven by the belief that only self-interest and self-indulgency can drive society forward because as we can see today, self-interest will only drive the planet towards an ecological catastrophe. To break the present greed-infused downward spiral, however, we need a change in mentality and consciousness that ensures that we act on this sociability.
What we now see as a human conformity and inability to act that leads to inward thinking and selfishness is in fact the flipside of the coin of mankind’s urge for community, sociability, and fear of separation. Because if the human urge for sociability, belonging and community is not realised, human beings will attempt to find it wherever they can, in whatever form. In the Western world flock sociability, communality, and belonging is mostly sold to us pre-packaged as “brands” where everyone is trying to imitate instead of innovate. In other parts of the world nationalism, religion or culture serve the same purpose, namely to keep us docile and obedient towards the status quo.
But the alleged “selfishness” and “conformity” of human beings are products of the way we think of ourselves, as well as the way we have organised our societies. Studies that show humankind to be conformist and selfish do so because they study us in our schools and workplaces as society is presently arranged. But it is not possible to study the psychological set-up of a watchdog in chains, and even less plausible to study and theorize about human beings in chains. Changing all this therefore requires a change in consciousness as well as a change in society – we need to metaphorically cast of our chains and fulfil our potential for solidarity and communality as human beings.