I just got hit with the old Socialism doesn’t work because of human nature “argument”. This wouldn’t usually bother me too much, but it was in reply to an article I spent weeks researching for, so I was pretty irritated.
It’s a great example of a thought-terminating cliche, a tactic used by cults and the like to prevent critical thinking. Cliche means it gets repeated nauseatingly often. Thought-terminating means it’s dismissive and its purpose is to shut down discussion. You can imagine, it’s painful and a little eyebrow-raising to get such a snappy and generic response to something you spent careful thought and effort on.
But who cares how I feel. If the idea of moving beyond our current society is so stupid or monstrous it’s not even worth discussing, a cliche might as well do. Sure, there’s the Kibbutz movement, worker and housing cooperatives, open source projects like Wikipedia and Linux, intentional communities like Bruderhof, and short-lived worker-managed societies like Revolutionary Catalonia. But, maybe these are too marginal to be worth considering.
So, is there something inherent in human nature that makes socialism impossible? This is a very hard question to answer. Nobody agrees on what socialism is, and there is no scientific definition of “human nature”. Socialist thinkers from Marx to Kropotkin to Chomsky have come up with their own ideas of what human nature is. Karsten J Struhl has written a paper on this which I highly recommend you read.
Another problem is that we know very little about the majority of human history. While modern humans have existed for hundreds of thousands of years, writing and even farming were only invented a few thousand years ago. Basing all of human nature on our current way of life ignores the incredible changes we’ve had to make to live the incredibly unnatural way we do.
In fact, for as little as we know about the hunter-gatherer societies all humans used to live in, they seem to have been far more communistic than anything our human-nature lovers would ever dream of being possible. No private property, more fluid gender roles, and communally raised children may have been the norm for most of our existence as a species. If so, radical libertarian socialist utopians like Joseph Déjacque are making perfectly natural proposals for the future of society, even if they sound absurd to modern ears.
The question is clearly not whether socialism is “natural”. It’s whether or not it’s possible to implement a stable structure that supports the ideal that all men are created equal with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness better than what we have right now.
There are at least three major crises we have to solve in our time. The first is environment. Our current system is willing to destroy the common resources we need to survive for short term profits. The second is technology. Our current system promises to give incredible power to the very rich through artificial intelligence and augmentation while it impoverishes vast amounts of people, leaving them jobless through automation. The third is democracy. Democracy in the United States is currently unstable and undermined by corporate influence, whereas China and Russia are adapting to an oligarchic capitalism which appears compatible with their authoritarian regimes.
Like the distant past, our future is obscure to us. It is possible that Stephen Pinker’s “Better Angels” will win out and liberalism will triumph with only minor modifications. Maybe Capitalist innovation will win the day and entrepreneurs will discover the cures to all of our problems and they’ll all happen to be profitable. Maybe all of these problems are just hoaxes spread by radical Maoists who want to destroy our freedom.
I cannot find it within myself to share in this faith. I have to live in the future. Right now, some of the very smartest people in the world are telling us it will be harder than anything in living memory. We are capable of solving the problems that face us, but we need new tools. We need to bring out the genius of billions of people who currently have little to no voice. Our so-called leaders have proven themselves consistently incapable of solving the challenges facing our species. We must do it ourselves.