ParEcon Questions & Answers

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ParEcon Defies Human Nature?

This section is adapted from the book Parecon: Life After Capitalism.

vA better economy? Don’t be silly. Human nature precludes it. Humans are greedy, avaricious, self-seeking, consumerist, individualist, antisocial, authoritarian, order-givers and takers. You cannot build a house out of sand. Neither can you build a better economy out of humans. We lack the right stuff. Parecon is utopia in the sense of being impossible, isn’t it? 

The anarchist Voline had a ready answer to this concern; “`Incapacity of the masses.’ What a tool for all exploiters and dominators, past present and future, and especially for the modern aspiring enslavers, whatever their insignia … Nazism, Bolshevism, Fascism, or Communism. `Incapacity of the masses.’ This is a point on which reactionaries of all colors are in perfect agreement… and this agreement is exceedingly significant.” We could leave it at that, but it would only convence those who already agree.

The claim that “humans are rotten” may be a rationalization that hypocritically propels self-interest or it may be truly believed. In either event, it operates with great power. 

When I was a college student at MIT in the class of 1969, I was very active in the anti-war movement. As part of my organizing efforts I spoke to a great many students, sometimes one-on-one, often in large groups. Discussions would go on long into the night. 

The mood would be very intense since, after all, these folks took school very seriously and not only were matters of great social consequence on the agenda, but also such matters as whether they would have classes to go to or classes would be shut down. In these meetings I would refute misgivings and misconceptions about the anti-war movement’s view of history and society, one after another, but for many folks these facts were actually secondary, a kind of red herring. The rock-bottom line of defense against having to commit to stopping the war in Indochina was, for most, a variation on one theme. Finally, someone would express this argument explicitly: “Why bother opposing it? Even if we were to curtail this war, there would just be another one. Even if we reduced, temporarily, the destruction, massacre, and indignity, these would return and make up for lost time. That is the nature of humanity.” The speaker would continue: “People are greedy violent animals, so what more can you expect? Let me go back to my classes, let me avoid all this distraction. Stop berating me with it. There is nothing I or anyone can do. Human nature sucks.” 

I think this was then and is still now a bedrock logic of both repression and capitulation. It is hammered into our every pore from every direction for a good part of our lives. How does an advocate not only of ending a war or some other atrocity, but of attaining a just world, rebut such cynical views? 

The first answer I like to give I first heard from Noam Chomsky. Imagine you are in an upstairs window looking out over a nearly empty street below. It is a scorching hot day. A child below is enjoying an ice cream cone. Up walks a man. He looks down, grabs the cone, and swats the child aside into the gutter. He walks on enjoying his new cone. What do you think, from the safety of your distance from the scene, about this man? Of course, you think this fellow is pathological. You certainly don’t identify with him and think, that’s me down there, I would do that too. Instead you would be horrified and you would likely even rush down to comfort the child. But why? 

If humans are greedy, self-centered, violent animals wouldn’t we expect that all humans, confronted with the opportunity to take a delicious morsel at no cost to themselves, would do so? Why should it horrify us when we see someone do it? Why should we find it pathological? The answer is that we actually do not think that people are innately thugs. We only gravitate to that claim when it serves our purposes to rationalize some agenda we hold for other reasons entirely, such as when we ignore widespread injustice because to do otherwise would be uncomfortable, costly, and even risky. 

Is there a second answer?

For my second answer, I ask an advocate of the view that “humans suck” to consider from personal experience if there is some exception to this otherwise general rule. Do you suck, I ask? Are you greedy and avaricious, concerned only for yourself? If you are, okay, but do you know anyone who isn’t? Some relative, an acquaintance, a hero from history, anyone? Just one such person? And then I ask, how did this one social rather than antisocial person arrive at their concern for and solidarity with others? 

To confused stares I say, well, think about it. We live in a world with institutions that propel greediness and self-centered calculation. The messages all around us foster these antisocial attitudes rather than countering them. It is easy to explain selfishness arising in us in this context. In our world selfishness is the way to get ahead and we even often get punished in our own lives if we care so much about others that it diverts us from personal advancement. Indeed, it is easy to explain even gross proportions of greed and narrow individualism in our world. After all, if we merely have the capacity to drift in that direction, then given our environments, there is no surprise that we will do so, some of us more than others. But what about the one person you have conjured into mind, or the millions I can think of, almost everyone in various parts of their lives, who displays more social and empathetic behavior? From where do their mutually supportive acts and feelings arise? If people suck as you say, and they suck due to a wired-in disposition that we cannot hope to transcend even to the degree of ending war and starvation, then these better attributes should not exist at all, and if they happened to accidentally arise in some modest dose, surely they would be buried out of existence by the overwhelming pressures of our circumstances. Therefore for social caring to be as prevalent as it is—and in truth, we know it is very widespread—perhaps it is the trait that is wired-in, rather than its opposite. 

This argument begins not with a look at human nature itself, as if we could peer down and see the immensely complex implications of our genes, but from a look at what human nature must embody to get the outcomes we see in the context of the antisocial structures we endure. Your good niece or grandmother, the good person in history, and the good inclinations you yourself have, all these could not possibly have emerged if the view that we are innately horrible is correct. Innate evil plus surrounding institutions stifling sociality and enlarging greed would not yield even one good grandma. 

ccIs there a less hypotnetical case to be made….something less clever, but more precise?

The long answer is different—more erudite, but ultimately no more conclusive than what goes above. It rebuts social Darwinism, discussing the actual logic of inheritance, evolution, and so on. It rarely has any real bearing on why people hold the views they do, because people decrying human nature as abysmal rarely if ever are doing so due to actual views about the mechanics of the evolution of human nature. At any rate, we know so little about such matters that in fact there is no conclusive scientific argument about human nature, starting at the genes. We know from experience that human nature is such that greed and violence and worse can emerge from human beings. After all, we have all seen this, or know of it, for ourselves. We also know that human nature is such that love and loyalty and respect and caring can emerge from human beings. The cynic says there is too much disposition toward the former for any institutional structure to prevent the baser tendencies from emerging and dominating. One thug with a club can wreak havoc, forcing others, even against their inclinations, to wield clubs in return. This is not an entirely crazy fear, though it is hard to understand why it leads the cynic to favor institutions that virtually compel people to pick up clubs. The optimist says that given circumstances that foster and reward their better selves, humans can engage in mutually beneficial social relations with means for handling what little violence and anti-sociality arise in the normal order of events, and without tumbling down a slippery slope of greed or destruction. We urge this, and provide parecon as a set of relevant economic structures. So who is right? 

So, if we don’t know for sure, the critic is correct, no?

One important answer to offer the cynic is that since we do not know for certain who is right, why are you betting on the depressing outcome being the case? How can you not favor acting on the possibility that we can develop institutions which would foster the best in us, and in the context of which, therefore, we would be social and caring and the horrible artifacts of competition and self-centered violence would be eliminated? Why are you betting against the efficacy of having institutions which less aggressively promote self-centeredness and greed, much less foster their opposite? 


Wouldn’t the critic say, “but they tried that, in Russia, in China, and so on, and it failed horribly. Out with the old boss, in with the new. Out with the old horrible outcomes, in with new ones, as bad or worse. You cannot do it.” 

Yes, I think so, and the activist reply has got to be, yes, what you say about those historical efforts not yielding a truly just and equitable new society is the case, but what was implemented was not, in fact, new institutions fostering the best in us. It was, instead, new institutions still fostering antisocial outcomes, class divisions, and all the old crap, as the saying goes. It doesn’t prove that we cannot have desirable social structures that institutions with predictably horrible implications—Leninist political structures, central planning apparatuses, etc.—had the expected horrible effects. 

Yes, you are correct that if we institute structures like those of parecon and if, against the socializing pressures of these new institutions, people still en masse strive to subjugate and oppress one another in ways that subvert equity and justice, you will then have a real argument for the impossibility of these goals. But until then, it is nothing but unfounded cynicism. 

Another way to put this is to ask folks, who do you want to be right? When a cynic rebuts desires for a better world by claiming human nature precludes it, it always seems that he or she really wants it to be the case that people are innately evil. The cynic’s whole manner, their demeanor in the discussion, their advocacy, and their stubborn refusal to even consider other possibilities, all reveal a disposition to want their claims to be true—and I ask them, how can this possibly be? Why, I wonder, do you have a vested interest in being right about human nature precluding sociality? Why don’t you weep over your belief, if, as you say, you think it means we will have murders and wars and hierarchies of hunger until the end of time? What can it be about this belief being right that so rewards you that you actually want it to be the case? And could it be that whatever benefit you enjoy from the belief is what makes you feel as you do? 

Of, course, what I have in mind is what Voline addressed in the quotation opening this chapter—the need to rationalize injustice, whether to enjoy its fruits without remorse, or to avoid remorse over being immobilized by fearing the consequences of battling it.  

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