“THE first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘this is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.'”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Philosophers over the last few centuries have presented a variety of perspectives on the interaction between human nature and capitalistic competition. Thomas Hobbes considered human beings to be fundamentally selfish and competitive, driven by our need for survival in a world in which resources are finite and scarce. He envisaged that, in a ‘state of nature’ with no rules or established systems of authority, every individual would be at war with every other, and life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ The job of any government (or, in Hobbes’ case, the monarch) would be to oversee obedience to the ‘social contract’ that we all ‘sign’, agreeing to abide by certain social behaviours in order to protect ourselves. I will not steal your food or kill you, on the understanding that you will not steal from or kill me.
With his overtly pessimistic stance undoubtedly influenced by his experience of living through civil war, Hobbes’ individualistic philosophy appears to overlook the evolutionary evidence which suggests that our survival depends not upon a selfish nature, but instead upon our capacity to work co-operatively within a social group. The social brain hypothesis demonstrates that cortex size in primates is linked to social group size, suggesting that our intelligence and survival capacities have only evolved as a result of our ability to live harmoniously in large social groups. Whilst we may indeed be driven to search for limited resources, we have also evolved to support one another in the quest for survival, recognising that our chances to live and propagate the species are much greater if we can fulfil our function in our group whilst also depending upon one another to get our needs met.
With scenes of chaos displayed nationally today as shoppers desperately compete with one another for ‘scarce’ resources, one might be fooled into thinking that Hobbes’ claims about our selfish nature are being played out in retail outlets around the country. However, philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx have a different story to tell. For Rousseau, humans in their natural state are far from competitive, instead showing compassion and generosity to fellow humans. For Rousseau, it is the ‘invention’ of private property, the claim that there are goods which belong exclusively to one person or group of people, that creates fear and competition for resources that would otherwise be readily available. We do not experience envy unless we perceive that there is something someone else has that we want for ourselves. Our nature is therefore corrupted by the invention of private property, without which there would be nothing to steal and nothing to covet.
Karl Marx’s dialectic materialism also suggests that our nature emerges from the society in which we live, rather than society emerging from our nature. Marx claims that capitalistic societies produce individuals that learn only to value themselves on the basis of their economic utility, i.e. how much they generate in terms of goods or wealth. The young students I teach in an education system that encourages them to measure themselves entirely on grades, their capacity to find employment and achieve economic independence, are prime examples of this. Others that regard themselves as failures because their strengths lie in creative or interpersonal skills which remain unnurtured and under-valued by the current system, also exemplify Marx’s claims. From this perspective, any sense of selfish competition that we may have comes entirely from our origins in a society that promotes individualism and focuses almost exclusively on our value as tools of production. We are encouraged into lives of economic slavery where we must work harder and longer to pay for the goods that we need (shelter, food, transport) to be effective employees in the first place.
In a society in which arts and humanities funding is facing persistent cuts, where students and schools are judged entirely by examination results, where provision for those with mental and emotional health needs is beyond poor, where the success of the individual is measured by how much money they have, what kind of car they drive, what kind of house they live in, what type of job they have, and where the employee is judged upon the extent to which they are willing to work unpaid overtime whilst those in power at every level reap the rewards of the toil of others, it is little wonder that our innate sense of humanity and compassion is lost amongst packed supermarket aisles of baying hounds ripping out the throats of anyone that stands between them and that cut-price TV.