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Capitalism is not natural
by John-Baptiste Odour
Tuesday Jul 13th, 2021 10:48 AM
Political programs in the 20th century, then, were meant to create equality, not merely alleviate poverty. How we live collectively, what we value as a society, and how we want to conceive of ourselves - all these questions were politicized by these programs and helped lay the foundation of a society based on solidarity.
Capitalism is not natural
Right-wingers like to claim that capitalism is the system closest to human nature. This thesis is not tenable.
Is man basically good and only corrupted by capitalism? Deterministic criticism of capitalism is just as misleading.
By John-Baptiste Oduor
[This article published on 7/6/2021 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Adam Smith, the eminent theorist of early capitalism, made the following remark in The Wealth of Nations:
"No one ever witnessed one dog exchange one bone with another for another bone in good faith and with deliberation, nor did anyone ever observe one animal signifying to another by its behavior, 'This is mine and this is yours; I am willing to give this for that.'"

This remark is meant to imply that man's propensity to barter and exchange goods, as asserted by Smith, is a trait that can only be found in man. The existence of private property and the exchange and sale of this property are thus character traits of human existence which are as natural as walking or talking. And if these traits are inherent in man, then capitalism is merely a generalization of these traits at the level of society as a whole, according to Smith. Accordingly, capitalist society is the one that allows human nature to run unbridled.

Critics of capitalism have always been suspicious of this argumentative leap - from a general statement about human nature that still seems halfway plausible to the assertion that the necessity of a particular social system follows from it. It is one thing to acknowledge that people sometimes think and act according to market principles. But to conclude from this that people have always structured their society according to this logic is an entirely different matter.

"The complexity of the capitalist mode of production cannot be explained solely in terms of a range of possible human motives and desires."

There is a significant difference between capitalism and mere market driving. Marxist political scientist Ellen Meiksins Wood, who died in 2016, describes capitalist society as one in which "economy is not embedded in social relations" but social relations are "embedded in economy." Thus, the complexity of the capitalist mode of production cannot be explained solely in terms of a set of possible human motives and desires. Capitalism is characterized not only by the fact that the human propensity for exchange and trade is predominant in this system, but that people are urged to conceive of all areas of life as transactions. This is not the result of free choice, but coercion.

History is made
Many other aspects of human nature - for example, the need for love, solidarity and individuality - are subordinated to the pursuit of profit under capitalism. Capitalism is thus a system in which a particular aspect of human nature has prevailed. Explanations for the existence of capitalism that invoke human nature or the permanent existence of quasi-capitalist forms of society all ultimately have the same problem: they treat the development of human history as unchangeable. In doing so, they ignore the fact that, according to Marx, people "[make] their own history." Without this insight, not only socialism, but already the idea that people can have some control over their destiny, is doomed.

Historian Robert Brenner criticized the trend that began in the late 1970s to explain capitalism by appealing to proto-capitalist behavior or social relations. These approaches, Brenner argued, presupposed what they sought to prove, namely: the existence of capitalism. The mere existence of trade or other commodifying practices does not equate to capitalism per se. For capitalism is a system in which these structures of social relations not only exist, but prevail.

"All these attempts could not explain why capitalism developed on a rainy island in the Northern Hemisphere in the 17th century, of all places."

Earlier explanations of the emergence of capitalism tended to presuppose pre-capitalist tendencies. They argued either that these dynamics became more widespread until they eventually became dominant, or that structural changes in the demographic composition of feudal society shifted the balance of power in favor of capitalism. But all these attempts could not explain why capitalism developed in the 17th century on a rainy island in the Northern Hemisphere, of all places.

In 17th-century England, nearly two-thirds of the land was owned by landlords and farmed by peasant tenants. The preceding two centuries were marked by violent conflict. Conflict flared over the rents and penalties that the landlords imposed on peasant tenants. As Brenner noted, the landlords' victory over the tenants cemented the unequal property relations that characterize English land ownership to this day.
As a result, rents in England were increasingly determined by market pressures. Common law became less important. The social conditions for the development of capitalism grew out of the inequality created by the victory of the landowning class in the first place. The defeat of the tenants enabled the landlords to fence off land and build large farms. They henceforth leased these to capitalist tenants who could secure them a better return. This, in turn, created a market for leases: Peasant tenants competed against each other and were forced to prove who was most able to increase the profitability of the leased land.

In contrast, if the tenant class had won the battles against the landlords, the development of such a partnership between landlords and capitalist tenants might not have been possible. This is because the incentive to increase the productivity of the land through investment in new technologies and the use of wage labor arose only out of the obligation to pay the landlords the rent they owed. Those peasants who were not tenants continued to have control over their means of livelihood and were able to escape market competition to some degree.

For the peasant tenants, the opposite was true: they had to provide the landlords with a reasonable return in order to continue to live on the land. The landlords thus had an indirect interest in increasing productivity in tenant farming. In The Origins of Capitalism, Wood describes how capitalist tenants eventually became capitalists:
"He became a capitalist not simply because he had attained a certain size or level of wealth, not even because his relative wealth allowed him to employ wage laborers (even noncapitalist peasants did so in antiquity), but because his relationship to the means of production he needed subjected him to market coercion from the outset-along with any wage laborers."

What shapes society
Brenner and Wood's core thesis shows that the structure of a society is determined not by abstract considerations of human nature, but by political conflict.

In the face of the abysses of capitalist competitive society, it is tempting to wax nostalgic at the thought of a pre-capitalist human nature - free from the corrupting influence of the market. And indeed, an entire tradition of radical social critique invokes this perspective: beginning with Rousseau and extending to contemporary critics of capitalism such as Rutger Bregman, opponents of capitalism's exploitative structures have often argued that human nature, if left to its own devices, would create a society full of unconstrained cooperation and harmony.

As wonderful as it may sound that we already have within us everything we need to make socialism a reality, this notion about human nature is misleading. The emergence of capitalism, slavery, medicine and art: all these are expressions of human nature. We cannot simply pick and choose which human characteristics and behaviors we understand to be essential because it would suit our reasoning, and which ones are not.

"In order to cultivate a different kind of human nature, corresponding conditions must also prevail."

For socialists, society is on the one hand a place of coercion, control, and oppression, but on the other hand it is a place where all individuals can develop their full potential. Building on this line of reasoning, which goes back to Aristotle, socialists have often taken the position that an antisocial, solitary life is deficient, if not inhuman.

The particular strength of Brenner and Wood's analysis is that it demonstrates that capitalist social relations are neither the product of individual choices nor a direct reflection of human nature. They arise from the constraints generated by the internal logic of a social system. This tempts individuals to commodify everything - the land as well as their labor and the labor of their fellow human beings.

Capitalism thus creates a form of society that is fundamentally antisocial. Instead of ensuring that our social interactions are mutually beneficial, capitalism puts people in competition with each other. In order to cultivate a different kind of human nature, appropriate conditions must also prevail - conditions that can only be created if there is an authority that can counteract the coercion of the market.
Hegel, the philosopher by whom Marx was most influenced, recognized that a social order based primarily on market relations corrodes truly egalitarian interpersonal relationships. Instead of fostering the development of individuality, it stifles human subjectivity. On labor under capitalism, Hegel wrote:

"Labor becomes all the more absolutely dead ... the consciousness of the factory worker is reduced to the last dullness."

The paradox is that under capitalism, human reliance on communality becomes a weapon: Instead of being enriched by social relations, people are degraded by them. Marx denounced the dehumanizing effect of the market on human life and showed what needs the individual is deprived of by capitalism:

"Time for human education, for spiritual development, for the fulfillment of social functions, for sociable intercourse, for the free play of the physical and spiritual life forces, even the celebration of Sunday - and be it in the land of the Sabbath saints - pure frippery!"

Reforms and human nature
The most serious attempt to take this critique of capitalism at its word occurred in the last century. Rather than simply rejecting the authority of the market, socialists and social democrats sought to institutionalize forms of collective power. Any push against the miseries of contemporary capitalism must therefore begin with a critical appreciation of the achievements of the past century.

In his reflections on the development of postwar social institutions, British sociologist T.H. Marshall described the reforms of the British Labor government as part of a radical attempt to redefine the power of the state over the market. Marshall conceived of this social democratic transformation as a developmental process of "social rights."

According to his description, civil rights emerged in the 18th century, when the right to individual liberty and property was recognized. In the 19th century, political rights were born, including political design rights. Social rights - in Marshall's view the most radical development of the 20th century - included the right to equality for all citizens.

Social rights offered the opportunity to address the causes of inequality and the mutual exploitation of individuals. They included the regulation of wages and working conditions through collective bargaining, the provision of public housing, and the creation of a universal education and health care system.

Unlike contemporary advocates of the welfare state, Marshall did not measure the value of these social institutions by their ability to alleviate poverty:

"The question is comparatively unimportant ... What is of interest here is the general enrichment of the concrete substance of a civilized life, the general lessening of risks and uncertainties, the equalization of the more or less fortunate at all levels-between the healthy and the sick, the aged and the employed, the bachelor and the father of a large family."

Political programs in the 20th century, then, were meant to create equality, not merely alleviate poverty. How we live collectively, what we value as a society, and how we want to conceive of ourselves - all these questions were politicized by these programs and helped lay the foundation of a society based on solidarity.

Driven by this goal, Marshall opposed the tradition of means-tested poverty alleviation born of poor law, which resurged under "New Labor" at the turn of the millennium. Although these programs targeted the most disadvantaged and helped ensure that no one fell below a certain poverty level, they served equally to stigmatize the poor. In doing so, they undermined the central principle of the welfare state, which is that it is for everyone.

"Those who were at the forefront of this counterrevolution did not believe that they were acting on the basis of an immutable human nature. They understood that their project was not nature-based, but constructed."

If a service is offered to all, then equal value is placed on all who use it. Social housing is then not housing for the poor, but housing for all. The overarching goal of this project of radical social transformation was to counter a particular expression of human nature shaped by market forces.

However, the struggles that took place beginning in the 1970s undermined attempts to build a foundation of solidarity for a society in which people would be encouraged to help each other based on their instincts, rather than acting out of avarice or greed. Out of the ruins of the welfare state arose a new capitalist vision that measured the value of people by their ability to compete and rob one another.

Those at the forefront of this counterrevolution did not believe that they were acting on the basis of an immutable human nature or on the basis of some absolute imperative that had endured through the centuries. They understood that their project was not inherent, but constructed.
Speaking to the Sunday Times in 1981, Margaret Thatcher said of her reforms, "The economy is the method; the goal is to change the heart and soul." This is the perspective that today's left should take advantage of. We should therefore understand human nature as a contested field on which the class struggle must be waged.

John-Baptiste Oduor is a London-based writer on contemporary politics, philosophy and culture.
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