Monday, October 26, 2015

Are humans inherently selfish? No.

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I have been involved in a friendly discussion on FB about human behavior and why people do what they do, vote against their own self interest for example.  I think this is important for activists to consider and I thought I'd write down a few of my thoughts on the subject and they were motivated as well by this posting. They are below. It's not a treatise.

It would seem to me natural that people would always avoid being on the bottom in a class based society. It means less food, worse living conditions, less chance for advancement, poorer health etc. It means an even higher climb up.

But is this an innate human trait? I think that there is no such thing as human nature as it changes depending on conditions. But if there is a strong thread running through it, I believe that we are collective creatures and basically see solidarity and cooperation as human and would agree that everyone deserves not to be on the bottom in the sense of their material well being. We have free will as someone famous once said but not within conditions of our own choosing.

Where I worked was one of four corporation yards for a public utility.  Our yard was the strongest union yard before I got there and myself and two other workers, one black, one Latino kept it that way.  The yard was going to have a plaque outside it facing the street with the yard’s name on it. Beneath the name was to be a slogan of some sorts.  As the union reps in the yard we put forward “An Injury to One is and Injury to All.”. This slogan was chosen overwhelmingly by the 90 workers that worked there. Yet the slogan that ended up on the plaque was  “Can’t Touch Us” from the song by an early rapper whose name escapes me at the moment. He made lots of money, ended up in bankruptcy and I think raps Christian rhyme now. The slogan they put up, throws us in to competition with each other which makes unity and solidarity harder. It benefits the employer over workers.

So in the struggle between class interests over the name of the place we spend most of our waking lives it was won by the forces that own the workplace, not those that work in it.  From the employer’s point of view, unity between the workforce is not a profitable enterprise.

So when I read about studies done in universities about human behavior, especially if the study implies that there is something innate about the its findings, I am quite skeptical. Human behavior is determined by the objective conditions, change the conditions and you can change behavior. Some time ago, there was a global study that asked women what they desired most in a partner. The overwhelming result was kindness.

This is despite that we are constantly bombarded with ads on TV and in the print media and movies with the idea that if we own this car or dressed this way, or looked like this film star and all this nonsense we would “get the girl” or be successful and content  Despite the massive ideological warfare that encourages us to glorify individualism and narcissistic behavior.  Despite success being described day in day out as having money and material things and ruthless, selfish individuals like Steve Jobs and coupon clippers like Warren Buffet and others who do no socially productive labor being held up as icons of social respectability.

Despite this, what the majority of people chose was kindness.

Where are the magazines promoting this? They’re not at the Safeway checkout counter. There’s nothing there but propaganda aimed at convincing us of the degenerate nature and pathetic quality of humanity. Look at Hollywood. It’s almost guaranteed that if a man and a woman are working closely together in a Hollywood movie that they sleep together at least once. Well, we don’t screw everyone we work with or are even attracted to physically, that’s more like real life.

There are no magazines about kindness because one step from kindness is solidarity and class solidarity is the strongest kind.

I was reading some history about the origins of class struggle in Louisiana recently and the author was referencing the poor white yeomen who either had no slaves or maybe one or two working for them.  Every time the class hatred of the white poor against the rich began to raise its head, the white owned racist papers, owned by capitalists, merchants or slave owners, would inflame racial hatred, blame the slaves; blame the black people.

When we talk of the pay gap between men and women. From what source does this originate? It’s not the male worker. It’s the capitalist. They openly at one time and more subtly now as the women’s movement has fought back, put the fear of god in to the male worker that women will either drag down their wages, take their jobs or both. This was their argument all the time that we would be paid less so women could earn a wage. Same with immigrants, other nationalities, religious minorities etc.

So our struggle is for the consciousness of the working class as, yes, it is the worker that exhibits the prejudice, but it is the class in power that creates it.

I always argued at work that I’ll fight for the unemployed, the poor, the disadvantaged and specially oppressed to get a job, but not mine. 


BenL8 said...

You might find interesting the interview with Samuel Bowles at Institute for New Economic Thinking. I forget the title of his book, but it's all about your theme.
Then look at his books written. He was a strong voice against Reagan. His brother is an architect, retired. Worked in S.F., he became friends with my sister, and I've had dinner with him. Their father was a brahmin, in a sense, there is some sort of blue book registry in Boston, and the family was on it. Father was ambassador to India. Samuel was black sheep communist, but then again his writing had a large circulation. Hope you're not sick of my comments, I read your stuff and like it.

Richard Mellor said...

Not at all comment away. Glad to see you are still healthy and active Ben. I've had a bad attack of gout.