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Human nature and social change

This article is over 15 years, 8 months old
Anthropologist Penny Howard argues against the commonly held notions that human beings are inherently selfish and that capitalism is somehow "natural"
Issue 2094

Socialists argue that it is both possible and necessary to construct another kind of society, in which resources are shared equally, that is free of war and racism, and which is run on the basis of genuine democracy.

But we come up against an argument from many people that socialism is impossible to achieve because human nature is inherently selfish and greedy.

This argument is supported by the daily experience of living in capitalist societies that are organised around the principles of profit and competition. For the vast majority the only way to survive is by competing for jobs to earn enough money to buy the necessities of life.

The greatest material rewards and comforts go to a small group who are able to use this system to accumulate huge profits.

Their wealth is not based on their skill in caring for other human beings, in writing great novels, or in teaching our children. It is based on exploitation – using the skills and labour of others to enrich themselves.

Under capitalism, money and privilege goes to those who behave in the most selfish and greedy ways.

In addition, the most essential aspects of daily life – food, shelter and caring for children – are deemed to be the responsibility of individuals or families rather than the responsibility of society.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that people come to the conclusion that human beings have to act in selfish ways in order to be successful. But that is a quite different argument to saying that humans are naturally selfish.

Socialists are materialists. We believe that people’s ideas are shaped in some way by the reality of their life experience, and we believe that human beings have the collective power to act and change the world ourselves.

Human behaviour is not simply encoded in our genes for us to act out without any control, and social change is not the inevitable consequence of a sequence of events.


Human behaviour is the consequence of dynamic interactions between humans, their environments, and their social and economic circumstances. All of these things constantly change over time.

It is possible to change our own lives, the economic system and society, and the future of the planet we live on.

If we argue that human beings are not inherently selfish, but are just trained by capitalism to think this way, we must not fall into the trap of arguing instead that human nature is essentially “good”. Instead we need to look at the dynamic forces driving our lives.

First of all, what makes us human? We need air, food and water, clothing, shelter, and warmth. Humans can make things with their hands and have always been creative. We can only survive to adulthood with the care of others.

Throughout history, we have found ways of working together collectively to meet our needs. Humans cannot survive as individuals. We are social beings. That sociality is based in and mediated through our creative labour.

We made tools, and then we made them better. We taught our children how to use them. We developed language to describe and coordinate what we were doing. We made homes and found ways of surviving in deserts, in the Arctic and in forests. We built structures that became cities and we changed the earth so that we could farm it.

It is impossible to explain the existence of contemporary human society without acknowledging the necessity of collective activity and cooperation in its development.

If we accept that collaborative and creative labour is the basis of human development, it also means that humans are dynamic and changing beings.

As we transform our environments and develop new technologies, we transform ourselves and the ways we relate to others.

We cannot have a moral, essentialist and abstract idea of “good” and “bad” human nature. Instead we need to look at “human nature” as the diversity and creativity in the ways in which humans have met their basic needs and organised their societies.

Capitalism has generated extraordinary wealth, but it is not organised around the principle of meeting people’s needs. It is organised around the principle of profit, and people are only allowed the means to survive if they apply their labour to generating more profit. In this sense, capitalism can be said to be against human nature itself.

Studies of human history and societies show that many “common sense” arguments about the essential and biological aspects of human nature are a product of capitalist society. These studies point to the possibility of many other ways of living.

The socialist theorist Karl Marx also recognised the importance of comparing human societies in different parts of the world. In the last two years of his life in 1881-83 he wrote about human societies based on the anthropological information available at the time.

Instead of accepting the existing state of affairs, Marx questioned how societies evolved to have classes of people that didn’t produce anything useful.


Under what circumstances did humans decide that we could buy and sell land and other things that are essential for human life? Marx was interested in the “resilience of communal forms [of living] in the face of overarching structures of domination”.

He argued against the conservative philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who thought that without a coercive state there would be a “war of all against all” where life could only be “nasty, brutish and short”.

Later anthropological research supported many (though not all) of Marx’s ideas. The British anthropologist EE Evans-Pritchard did research among the Nuer of southern Sudan in the 1930s and 1940s.

He showed that they lived in a society of “ordered anarchy”, where every Nuer believed themselves equal to the others and no one was able to monopolise organised force.

The anthropologist Richard Lee argued that whereas the state under capitalism protects power and profit, the strict egalitarian system of the San people of Southern Africa was protected by a system of gossip, ridicule and fear of witchcraft – rather than being some kind of blissful uncorrupted state of human nature.

The San had developed their own instruments of social and political control, which guarded against accumulation of power and privilege instead of reinforcing and protecting it.

More recently, Barbara Bodenhorn has described the social relationships of the Iñupiat people of Alaska.

In Iñupiat society, your relatives are considered to be those people with whom you maintain a reciprocal relationship. Thses may or may not be people you are related to by blood. Children are given the freedom to choose the family they wish to live in.

Social relationships are based on the hard work of maintaining them, or by contributing labour or equipment to the collective effort of the whale hunt, and by sharing the food among all members of the community.


The example of the Iñupiat directly contradicts at least two of the central “common sense” myths of capitalism. First, that we must choose between individual autonomy and collectively organised society, and second that nuclear families are a necessary and natural part of social reproduction.

Bodenhorn argues that individual autonomy reinforces social relations and collective action, and that collective action is based on such autonomy.

The Iñupiat example shows that it is possible for human beings to successfully live in a society that is built on the principles of sharing, collectivity and individual autonomy.

Today the vast majority of people live in societies dominated by capitalism. But the nature of work under capitalism also means that people are drawn together in new ways and on an unprecedented scale, creating an enormous and expanding working class.

Over and over again during the past 150 years working class people have organised collectively to challenge the system that is exploiting them.

Through its work, this new working class has the skills to meet the needs of society, but it does not own the tools. The process of reorganising society to ensure that every­one’s basic needs for food, shelter, companionship and creativity requires revolutionary change.

The very process of struggling to change society transforms those who get involved in it. Fixed and pessimistic notions of what human nature is can rapidly crumble in the course of a strike or a campaign to win justice.

And because human nature is a dynamic process based on existing relationships, we can only begin to guess at the potential such a revolution will have to transform human relationships from ones based on competition, selfishness and greed to ones based on collectivity and mutual respect.


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