How much does the way we conceive of human nature matter? Normally, we pay very little attention to it, with the exception of philosophers, but I’m not even sure we still have those. It’s been suggested that people are the product of their genes, which would mean that human nature is something programmed into us the way dog-ness is programmed into dogs. I think its more like a collage of different influences: our genes, which is another way of saying the millions of years we spent as all kinds of other animals before we evolved into primates, hominids, sapiens; everything every other human has ever figured out before us and passed down to us in the guise of “culture”; the social conditions we are born into; the material circumstances of our life; and surely other stuff, too.
In our century, the idea that humans are competing with each other all the time has become widespread. This idea didn’t exist until Darwin came up with the theory of evolution and natural selection. Before Darwin, societies conceived of their members at various times as free sovereign beings, god’s children, vessels of sin, and other things. People can be treated as the subjects of their own destinies or as objects of oppression or exploitation, in accordance with the way they are thought of. Today, we have the ability to feed, clothe, house, and entertain everyone on Earth, and technological tools to make the planet a paradise. It seems to me that the idea that humans are always competing with one another is a way to justify maintaining the status quo: a world of economic inequality, where the haves have everything and the have nots make everything. The richest 1% now own as much wealth as the other 99% combined, a level of disparity never seen before– not in Ancient Rome, not in Genghis Khan’s times, not in the age of the Robber Barons.
Any other conception of human nature would imply certain inalienable rights to mankind; at a minimum, the dignity not to be treated like something disposable. Not in the “competition” model of society. Here, no one owes anyone anything, and getting away with something at others’ expense means you’re smart. If someone isn’t doing so well, it’s their own fault. Poor people are poor because they are stupid and lazy. Rich people are rich because they are smart and worked hard for their money. Any boy or girl can be the president of the U.S.A.
People are not by nature competitive. Some are, and some aren’t. But people are social to a fault, and have a profound need to belong. This need is so strong that, in a fascist society people adopt fascist principles, and in a socialist society they adopt communitarian ones. In a capitalist society people adopt heartless capitalist principles, and act the competitor because that’s what society at large promotes and values. To think that the American personality is what people are really like is ethnocentrism: there are plenty of other people living in other ways in other societies even now, despite the centuries-old campaign to rid the world of any way of living that doesn’t recognize private property and such.
For how often one hears the American way of life is evoked and lauded, you’d think it would be a well-defined, well-understood thing. But what the American way of life is, exactly, is rarely discussed, and never defined: all we get are the clichés “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and the “American Dream” (now more likely to be achieved almost anywhere else). Yet, the American way of life is a real thing as well as a slogan, and can be described and understood.
For a period of decades following World War II, the material standard of living in the U.S. was the highest in the world. European competition was bombed to pieces while American industry had spent the war years making things like cars, planes, and bombs. Americans got used to being well off and being able to afford stuff, and ideas of social justice were put on a back burner amid this unprecedented prosperity. When movements for social change came back around after thirty years, they were of a very different kind from those of the Depression years. Depression-era social movements were about economic issues, which naturally begged the question, “why exactly do the haves have everything and the have-nots nothing?” Late 1960’s social movements were often born of boredom rather than poverty and injustice, and the infusions of energy provided by the genuinely revolutionary movements happening at the same time or shortly before, movements for an end to segregation or apartheid for blacks and indigenous people, end to colonial occupation, and perhaps for equal rights for women, didn’t really catch on with kids rebelling against what they imagined was oppressive conformity. The rebellion against boredom eventually produced results: American capitalism responded to the crowds by providing products tailored to individual tastes, and learned to sell lifestyles and experiences. Apparently, this solution has kept everyone content for 45 years and running. Content not to riot, anyway.
Americans are obsessed by the idea of individualism: one can safely say that individualism has become one of the pillars of the American way of life. Despite all evidence to the contrary, everyone believes they are unique. In 1880, the ten most popular boys’ names were given to 40% of all newborn boys. Throughout the 20th century the proportion has been shrinking. Today the top 10 most popular boys’ names account for about 8% of male newborns. People used to name their kids in honor of a relative to continue a human chain through generations, or at least to give their kids a name respected and popular with their peers. Today, parents want to give their kids a unique name, which will presumably help them grow up into a unique individual. The names have changed, too: only half of the most popular boys’ names in 2015 were even in the top 50 until recently. Top 3 of 2016? Noah, Liam, and Mason—boys, Emma, Olivia, Sophia—girls.
The most important thing we misunderstand about our nature as human beings is the degree to which we are social beings. Everything we do depends on our continual engagement with others of our own species, and the rest of creation. We can’t achieve anything without the support of others. Very slight failures of socialization in childhood can make a person permanently miserable and incapable of doing anything for themselves or anyone else.
It’s hard to over-emphasize the degree to which we under-estimate our social natures. Most of the problems people hire psychologists to fix for them stem from improper or inadequate socialization, at childhood or another point in life. Ironically, psychologists’ method of solving these problems often involves advising their patients to focus more on themselves, which works just fine if your goal as a medical professional is to continue getting paid indefinitely, but not so well if you’re actually trying to get better. Society has been described as running on “organized lovelessness.” If people were properly socialized at all stages of their lives, no one would work a shitty job for a minute longer than it takes to make sure one is fed and clothed. Properly socialized people would never stand for a society built on violence, as ours is, and you can bet they would have no trouble coming together to find ways to overthrow the rotting carcass of the oppressive civilization around them and build a better society from scratch. In a million ways, people starved of human warmth and affection are the absolutely indispensable foundation for a society like ours.
Most people are raised in an environment social enough to maintain basic function, but not nearly enough to create complete human beings. From civilizations’ point of view, it’s a delicate and necessary balance. Below a certain threshold, people stop functioning; above a certain threshold, people stop being manipulable. Because people innately understand their need for socialization, and make efforts in that direction in any situation, there is a constant effort to break up these efforts. At the same time, where socialization is too retarded, the costs of policing people become too high.
What happens when socialization falls below a critical threshold? The story is told adequately in commonly sited statistics. In 1972, U.S. prisons held 300,000 people. Today, they hold 2,300,000. This is actually undesirable to a capitalist society, since somebody has to pay for all these prisoners. Ideally, they would all be working at McDonalds for just enough money to buy essentials and an occasional iphone or whatever. It may be argued that this social model, call it the U.S./ third world model, is competing with the European social model, where workers get higher wages and support a greater proportion of the overall economy than in the U.S. at the expense of the richest of the rich. I see it as an experiment everyone in the business of oppression is happy to see carried out: how low can you go before the little people either rebel, starve, or go mad, whichever the case may be in the particular experiment. The fact that European “elites” accept slightly lower portions of the pie to ensure slightly smoother social functioning may or may not be better than the “take ‘em for all they’re worth” mentality of the American super-rich. Neither system is currently doing anything constructive to prevent the impending global climate catastrophe. Still, considering that it’s impossible to get anything at all done among people lacking socialization, I would probably prefer Europe to America.
Have I communicated how worrisome (and debilitating) I find the current trends in socialization? More and more, people I meet seem to lack even basic social graces, never mind the instincts to be supportive to one another. Everyone believes themselves to be smarter, better, or anyway more special than everyone else, and this is considered normal, if not a good thing. Selfishness is, for many, a virtue. Personal ambition is assumed to take precedence over relationships. And in spite of all evidence that we are a nation of lonely people, everyone insists that what they personally need is money, or love, or fame, or new breasts, anything but the obvious—friends and family, a good home and community.
Socialization is invisible to us until it is gone, at which point we all of a sudden realize that we can’t get anything done without some amount of it. But it can remain invisible after it is gone, too, especially when so much effort goes into convincing us that the problem isn’t our world, it’s us. But it’s actually not us for once: the society we inhabit is the problem.