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Are people selfish?

category international | sci-tech | opinion/analysis author Thursday January 08, 2009 12:26author by Kevin Doyle - WSM (WS 107) Report this post to the editors

Anarchists want to change the world. Instead of the present order – capitalism – with its focus on inequality and profits for a few, we want to build a new society based around the principles of participatory democracy, freedom and production for need not profit. For anarchists the type of society we want to build is best summed up by the slogan: ‘To each according to their needs, from each according to their ability’.

Is an anarchist society possible? Although many people agree that it sounds like a good project, there are also plenty who argue that an anarchist society simply wouldn’t work. ‘Come off of it,’ the objectors say. ‘People are selfish and only interested in looking out for themselves. After all it’s human nature – most people, given a choice, would put themselves before the rest of society. How could an anarchist society function if this is true?’

For anarchists human nature is not an obstacle. In actual fact, anarchists look at it the other way around. In other words anarchists think that it is precisely because of human nature that the prospects for building an anarchist society are so good in the first place.

For anarchists the important issue is the conditions of life under which we live at any one time. Right now – in capitalist societies – at work and in large areas of society, we are forced to compete with one another all the time. Indeed for most of us from an early age it is the idea of competition rather than cooperation that is fostered. For example at school we learn competition via the exams process. And at work we are divided into ‘contract’ or ‘full-time’ workers – and so on and so forth.

Everywhere in fact, around us, we are confronted with the notion that as individuals we should be ‘doing better’ and working harder – and to do this we should compete more with our neighbours. The idea of competition is central to capitalism, and is very effective because under capitalism society is organised hierarchically. The ever present hierarchy means that there is the constant sense of the pecking order – in terms of pay, social position, individual standing.

This has the overwhelming effect of creating a climate of competition and it’s not any surprise to anarchists that as a result we do see a lot of negative impulses in society and around us. But what must be borne in mind, first and foremost, is that this negativity (or selfishness) has more to do with how society is organised than with who we are as people.

But there is even more evidence that fundamentally human nature is a very positive force. Despite the competition fostered in this society people find loads of ways to make things different. For example throughout the ages workers have created unions and have struggled together – very often against great odds – to shorten the working day and improve pay rates.

Although we all know things could be hugely better, we still owe a debt to those who made the effort and collectively fought for better conditions for all workers. How do such advances by workers – based around the idea of solidarity - tie in with the notion of ‘people being selfish’? The truth is they don’t. People aren’t universally selfish of self-centred. A huge part of our lives is about helping others and cooperating – it is on this platform that a future anarchist society can be built.

Human nature is actually one of the strongest weapons we have – as anarchists see it. Why is that? Well, people want to be free! The desire to be free, to run your own life and not be ordered about by a boss (or a husband or a teacher or a cop) is an irrepressible and central part of who we are. It’s why people from time immemorial rebel as individuals against an injustice but it is also why communities and groups of workers come together to fight for their rights and for a new order.

Essentially – and you will find it hard to find anyone who will dispute this – we all want to live in conditions where we have justice and equality. Sometimes the idea of ‘justice and equality’ can seem like a small demand, but at other times the desire for it is the stuff of revolutions. We only have to look back through our own history to see countless examples of where people have taken small stands against seemingly small injustices only to end up shaking great powers into dust. They did this not in spite of human nature but because of it. To be human, after all, is to want to be free.

This article is from the forthcoming print edition of Workers Solidarity 107, this is it's first online publication. You can find back issues of Workers Solidarity online at http://www.wsm.ie/ws

author by Jimpublication date Thu Jan 08, 2009 15:53author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Anywhere radical socialist experiments have been attempted they have invariably led to the personality cult of a tyrant in charge of a totalitarian elitist state, using abritrary arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution and forced labour to maintain its rule over a silenced, impoverished and starving underclass.

In 1960 more than 22 million people perished from famine as a direct result of the collectivist economic policies enforced by the Maoist dictatorship. This was the greatest loss of life in a famine in one year in any country in all of recorded history. It is estimated that the attempt to establish a communist utopia in China led to more than 60 million deaths due to war, suicide, execution, overwork, disease and starvation.

To enforce radical socialist ideology requires an apparatus to control every though word and action of every human being through mass terror.

author by Jimbobpublication date Thu Jan 08, 2009 23:03author address author phone Report this post to the editors

All people are somewhat selfish. After all, we can only truly see life from our own perspective, though some of us are more willing to try to see other people's perspectives than others.
I don't think that it's mostly a selfish urge that plagues us, in terms of self interest, but rather short-sightedness, brought on by poor education, a dumbed down media and the poor level of public discourse.

We are at a stage where people think more often of themselves as consumers than as citizens, and this shapes their thinking in their interactions with the rest of society. A citizen has rights and responsibilities. A consumer is a different animal.
A consumer wants to get good deals,


Compassion can be seen as a limited resource (for busy fearful people) and how do we apportion it?
To ourselves, our families, and friends. Some stranger we have never seen is far removed from that, and doesn't feel at all real.
In our fast moving 'spectacle filled' world, few people make the time to stop and really consider that the child in Gaza, or the woman starving in Somalia, is a real person, as real as their own parents and friends, rather than fleeting like the characters in the TV ads.

Also, look at the direct, consequences for failing to have compassion for the further away stranger. (I'll do this by contrast)

Stranger A is a Palestinian. If we ignore his plight, he may die or live out his life in a giant concentration camp. But we won't be there to see it, or hear his condemnation.

Stranger B works in a factory in Ireland which manufactures hi-tech electronic components, including those used in attack helicopters, missiles, and fighter and bomber jets.

If Stranger B happens to live in your home town, or even two doors away, you will experience more direct condemnation from him, if you so much as hold a banner outside his place of work, damning their work. Stranger A, of course can die in isolation, without ever getting to condemn you for ignoring him.

Even our ignorance of how our spending choices affects global trade, and third world producers as well as our own, is fairly widespread compared to those who shop ethically.

As good little consumers, we all want to 'shop around' and get the best bargain. This is repeated over and over again like a mantra.
But very few people remember much about good service or fair trade, or even the sensibility of keeping jobs local.
If we all want to buy cheap plastic crap from China, then that's what we'll get, and many people won't make the connection between a longer dole queue and consumer habits of favouring imports from countries paying slave wages or cutting corners in production.
We've learned to disconnect ourselves from the idea that these things come home to roost.
If we don't support local traders, we'll end up dealing with multinationals, who can leave when they see a better deal.

So the question isn't so much whether we're selfish or not, but rather, how brave , and aware we are.

A lot of people will act more compassionately, if we catch their attention, and show them that it's not so difficult to change our habits.

author by Kevinpublication date Fri Jan 09, 2009 11:22author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Hi Jimbob,
Although I think there is a lot of truth in what you are saying I think you overemphaise the matter of us all being consumers. I realse that we are much more so nowadays but the notion of us seeing ourselves as consumers is very much based on us hiding other aspects of our lives that are in fact also central to who and what we are (and incidently to whether we can be cnsumers or not). What I mean is that we are workers too ... I am not sure we can talk about how to engage with people in poltics - particularly in radical politics - if we continue to ignore our 'ecomomic' reality. I accept that none of what i am saying is fashionable but nonetheless lots of us go to jobs where we are subjected to an authoritarian enviroment that we have a lot of difficulty escaping.... This environment and the fact that many have to accept it and put up with is essential to creating the passivity that the 'consumerism mentality' exploits ... Although I am all for encouraging compassion I think that for many the problems is more basic to how we are forced to have to lives in capitalims - unless we tackle and address these issues and encourage fundamental political activity by people at a grassroots level, then much of our effort will be waste - I fear.

author by Jimbobpublication date Sat Jan 10, 2009 00:36author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I don't forget for one minute that we are workers too. Part of my point, is that when we are buying anything, a lot of us FORGET about the workers that produced it.

Also, recent encounters I've had with people, reinforce my feeling, that the majority of people are more likely to push for their consumer rights than their workers rights. (although for the most part we are too timid in asserting any of our rights).

I couldn't decipher the second half of your comment as clearly as I would like.
Perhaps I wasn't clear enough in my original post, (which was done at an unsocial hour).
I feel that a lot of the " pressure" to live in a capitalist society is more imagined than real.
I blame our government for a lot, and then other parts of the blame have to go to how we decided to go with the flow ourselves.
It's certainly a combination of the economic policies formulated at government level and the economic /financial decisions we ourselves make.
I mean, the government and their IBEC friends can tell us all we need to have pensions, and get one fast, but they didn't march us down to the financial advisor and make us sign it. Some of us don't bother with pensions, cos, rather than watch the mind numbing crap on TV, we've informed ourselves, and thought, nope, the banks will just end up with our pension funds anyway, cos it's a rigged game, and they'll have it handed on a plate (think, recapitalistion and there's NOBODY, actually stopping you from making alternative choices in some areas
e.g. No, I won't gamble my money on a pension fund (which might be invested in the arms trade, GM crops, and World Bank bonds), instead, I will not bother with wasting money on a TV, a fancy car, fancy holidays, and instead, I'll make sure I feed and educate my kids, and build a wee greenhouse out the back to grow some of my own food, insulate the hell out of the house (all that white polystyrene we used to throw away eh?) and aim to reduce my living costs, rather than slave away attempting to keep up with what other people tell me I must have.
There's little required for that other than will power to ignore the bleating of sheep.

Other problems are not so easily fixed, but if we try to make ourselves a bit more self sufficient, and less panicked, we can start to mobilise and organise better on other issues.

That's where the idea of being aware, informed and compassionate comes into it.
Capitalism isn't some unstoppable monster, and I think it can be tamed, but I think it needs a huge sea-change in public consciousness, and that involves, debunking the myths that rob people of confidence, create barriers to solidarity, and innovation.

author by catladypublication date Sat Jan 10, 2009 03:02author address author phone Report this post to the editors

we are selfish.
any effort we as a race make to save anything, be it tigers or turf, is done with the expectation of direct benefit to ourselves as a species.
as a race.
as a gender
as a welfare system
as a ?????????????????????
what motivates you?????????????????????

we are despicable as a race because we know better.(but choose to ignore it)
bring on that meteorite!

author by Jimbobpublication date Sat Jan 10, 2009 09:43author address author phone Report this post to the editors

When we're not being totally exploited by others, people make time to help others. Every day I see small acts of charity with no material benefit to the giver.
It's when we're worried we don't have enough for ourselves, that we are less likely to help each other.
Hence, 'my mortgage' 'the price of X, Y,Z ' going up are factors that make us less helpful to one another.
Also, the individualisation brought about in the 80's reduced the trust we shared between each other.

author by Michael - Human Leaguepublication date Sun Jan 11, 2009 02:33author address author phone Report this post to the editors

The year 1979 brought a new horror to The people of England with the advent of a Scourge Named Thatcher .

Thatcher quite simply was the greatest Manipulater of her era and the same Scourge caused Havoc in everything She put her Dirty Nose in .

She is the ONE who taught people to say No to Everything thus nursing the greedy society amongst us today .

Thatcher would rise a row in a Grave yard with her obnoxious behaviour and an arrogance that is second to none .

It was not long before her arrogance caught on in this country where Greed was encouraged and the word NO became the basic word in our vocabularly.

One could see arrogance at its best in Government Departments which ran through same depts faster than the speed of sound .

Thatcher will be best remembered for her Falklands Invasion on 2nd April 1982 an invasion that was totally geared for her own political agenda .

And thats only a minute description of that Scourge ,

author by Alan - nonepublication date Sun Jan 11, 2009 23:16author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Maggie Thatcher was a Thug hiding behind a system to which the British People Elected the Conservative Party .

She was a war monger and responsible for a lot of trouble in the North Of Ireland with her No No No attitude .

Her Policies closed down Steel Works in Sheffield ,Car Manufacturing Plants in The Midlands, to name but a few .
And Hill Billy Hilary Clinton wondered why Borack Obama Won the American Presidental Election ?

She, Thatcher put millions of her own people on the Dole and on their way to nothing .

author by Maria Bpublication date Sun Jan 11, 2009 23:33author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Mrs. Thatcher also known as The Iron Lady was a good example of when you have a cause and make up your mind you will not deviate from that cause.

As she famously said THE LADY WILL NOT BE TURNED. Good for her. A strong woman to be proud of.

She will never be forgotten and showed a lot of men how to do things during her days in power.

We need more like her. Good on you Maggie.

author by Peterpublication date Fri Feb 06, 2009 19:54author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism) to the rescue:

"The term anarchism derives from the Greek ἀναρχος, anarchos, meaning 'without rulers' ..."

Reckless and grossly deceitful "Rulers" practicing corruption, tyranny, and extreme lawlessness from behind a fraudulent mask of "democracy" and "the rule of law": NO!

Responsible "Public Servants": YES!

Is the last category above what anarchists are generally seeking?

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