When you discuss socialism, you are guaranteed to hear someone say “socialism won’t work because of human nature”. This argument is particularly lazy, but I keep hearing it, so I wanted to address it in my own words.
What the argument entails
It is incredibly vague, but it usually goes something like
Greed and selfishness is an essential part of human nature, hence socialism will fail.
It often follows that capitalism is the only system that works.
So where does this argument fail?
Human nature is not capitalistic
First off all, human nature is not capitalist. Capitalism means that the means of production is privately owned, and the surplus value of the labour goes to the owner of the production.
The human race has lived far longer without capitalism than with it. In fact, capitalism is a relatively recent invention. In most countries it did not exist until the 19th century. It is simply ahistorical to say that capitalism is a part of human nature, unless you think that human nature is something recent.
It is not
human nature to spend most of your day producing surplus value for a small elite, who gives you little to nothing in return. Nor is it human nature to exploit child workers in the third world in order to consume endlessly. This is the inevitable result of capitalism – a system of exploitation.
I want to direct your to following quote from The Conquest of Bread (by Peter Kropotkin):
However, the moment we consider human history more attentively, it loses its strength. We see, first, that hundreds of millions¹ of men have succeeded in maintaining amongst themselves, in their village communities, for many hundreds of years, one of the main elements of Socialism—the common ownership of the chief instrument of production, the land, and the apportionment of the same according to the labour capacities of the different families; and we learn that if the communal possession of the land has been destroyed in Western Europe, it was not from within, but from without, by the governments which created a land monopoly in favour of the nobility and the middle classes
¹before someone points out that this number is in fact not true: This book was written in the late 19th century and thus not with the knowledge from contemporary sciences.
Capitalism does not mean trade
Trade has indeed been going on since the early days of civilization. It is however distinct from capitalism in an important way, that many people seem to miss: Capitalism means that the means of production is not controlled by the workers, but instead a system of investors, capitalists, etc.. Trade simply means the exchange of goods for money or other goods.
Socialism is in no way incompatible with trade nor ownership². In fact, many socialists (like myself) believes in trade of goods and services.
²there is a distinction between private and personal ownership in socialist theory. Here’s
a video, which does a good job at explaining this distinction.
Human nature is adaptive
Many socialists thinks that human nature is a “spook” (to invoke the wonderful terminology of Max Stirner) and outright nonexistent. I tend to disagree with that. Human certainly have some nature, however there is one particular thing that makes it radically different from other species.
Ability to adaption. This is why the human species is so successful: We are able to adapt to almost any environment we are put in. There is a reason that humans are the only mammal to walk all continents — it’s the adaptive human nature.
The human nature adapts to whatever environment, such as economic system, it’s under. If a system A rewards behavior B, then this behavior will naturally become more common under this system.
Greed is exactly why capitalism fails
What is particularly weird about the argument is the point about “greed”. Any system that rewards greed will obviously take basis in greed, and humans are greedy, which is why you want to avoid rewarding such behavior.
This is the opposite of what capitalism does: It rewards greed. If you want to build a successful business, you must create as inhumane work condition as possible³.
Capitalism is responsible for this — and it’s not an issue of “free markets”, it is at the core of capitalism. Rosa Luxemburg wrote a good book on why reformism fails
: Reformism fails to actually address the problems with capitalism. Reformed capitalism is still capitalism, and it will still have the same fundamental properties of capitalism.
The failure of capitalism isn’t in its functioning: It clearly works, but it’s in its ethical aspect. It relies on exploitation and fails to distribute wealth fairly, causing mass starvation next to extreme wealth.
³although recently this oppression have been moved to the third world. I’ll elaborate on this in a future post.