Why Human Nature Is Not A Barrier To Socialism
“Does Human Nature Make Socialism Impossible?” is the question posited in the second ABCs of Socialism lecture. Adaner Usami replicates an argument that vocal socialists hear often, about how the competitiveness and selfishness of capitalism are innate to human nature, and he reviews potential answers to the question and their pitfalls. His ultimate response is to redefine human nature.
Usami, an NYU Sociology PhD, begins the lecture by setting a familiar scene for most socialists. When discussing socialism some people react with distaste. Usami role plays with an imaginary cousin who “overdosed on economics classes in college”. The cousin’s argument: “Socialism, it’s all good on paper. Sharing, caring, et cetera. It sounds great, but unfortunately you’re preaching to the wrong species. Humans aren’t hippies, they’re selfish and they care only about themselves. Hence war, plunder, exploitation, violence. With the raw materials that are human beings you’ll never build anything other than what we have today.”
Usami reduces an initial first response to the argument that there is no such things as human nature. Human attributes are learned, and human vices such as selfishness could be overcome if everybody’s basic needs were being met by society. He refers to this as the Blank Slate Thesis. A belief that human behavior is entirely learned, not intrinsic. He then spends 15 minutes undermining the thesis that humans have no innate nature.
Usami believes that all socialists believe in human nature whether or not they know they do, and that the concept of human nature is intrinsic to socialist thought. He then provides three difficulties for a socialist arguing that human nature does not exist. They are moral, analytical, and political.
The moral difficulty rests in the assumption that all people, everywhere share the desire to have autonomy. Socialists oppose injustices wherever they are found. They look for, “elemental forms of deprivation”, when highlighting injustice. These deprivations are the source of socialist outrage. Access to clean water, food, and shelter are physical needs required for justice to be present. Universal access to education, freedom of movement, and healthcare are more needs that act as beacons for justice and injustice. When seeking out injustice, socialists need to make the assumption that the victim of the injustice also considers their treatment outrageous.
The assumption is that everybody, everywhere is basically the same. Nobody enjoys subjugation and domination. The rallying cry, “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains”, applies to everybody whose basic needs are not being met. So socialists, by agitating for a politics that addresses the basic needs of all humans, are acting in the interests of exploited laborers. But to make the argument that you can understand the interests of other people means one needs to accept that, “People are meaningfully animated by their human nature, whatever the influence of culture or history on them.”
Analytics allow us to understand and describe society and its power dynamics. It is a tool for social critique but it is useless without also holding the belief that there are certain expectations of what humans are like “across time and space”. Historical Materialism relies on this assumption to explain how people will act when placed into society at any time and in any social class. Analytical data and research are essential for socialists intent on compiling knowledge and debating political theory with an eye on building political power. The Blank Slate Thesis makes interpreting that data impossible.
The political difficulty relates to how understanding humans’ shared motivations helps the Left to build a compelling political vision to attract a broad swath of society. A policy mindset which does not attempt to understand the worldviews of potential recruits leads to ruinous political analysis because of bad diagnosis and strategy. Socialists need to ask why people are not joining the socialist party. But their response must account for people’s shared motivations. It cannot demonize them, not all Trump voters were racists or nationalists.
He says that the litmus test for any political analysis of individual behavior should be whether it factors in a person’s concerns for their livelihood, their family, and their desire for dignity and autonomy. It needs to be able to explain why a woman from West Virginia might vote for Trump. Blank Slate Thesis convinces you to forget about people’s fundamental motivations and judge them in a black and white fashion. We need to take their motivations seriously if we intend to create a socialist politics which attracts regular Americans.
The lecture ends with Usami responding to his cousin, the socialism skeptic. He notes that his arguments need to concede that there is a common human nature and self-interest is part of it. But other elements of human nature are compassion, empathy, and the capacities for self-reflection and morality. Society can foster these qualities in people. Competition and ruthlessness allowed humanity to ascend to its current domination of the planet, but to truly continue surviving and thriving as a species we need to find a better way to address the physiological and social needs of all people. So, Usami gives his listeners a rationally stronger argument for placing socialism in a natural political order. It exists but its properties are malleable. Self-interest and compassion for all life can occupy the same mind.
Usami’s presents two caveats for supporting a socialist platform. Firstly, citizens of a socialist society should never be compelled to sacrifice their lives for militaristic expansion or for ideological reasons, “For that is the road to Pyongyang”. Secondly, it cannot ignore that people are not perfect, and that vices are normal, and reasonable. The government cannot be a morality police for any activities without a victim. Its citizens need freedom and autonomy to pursue their interests, within reason.
Usami, expecting protest, describes capitalism as a system that has spread access to basic resources and freedoms further than any system before it. He praises the system, and praises socialism for its potential to do the same thing and improve life on earth for those who were left out of, or damaged by, the boons of capitalism. Some of the symptoms of the self-interested person are mass consumerism, exploitation of labor and the environment, and wealth inequality. Humanity can overcome these symptoms, but we are running out of time. Socialists need to make political arguments that can attract popular support and help build viable political movements.
Watch the entire lecture below.