Thinking about anarchism:

Anarchism and human nature


"Then, in the souls of the oppressed, powerless men every other man is taken for hostile, inconsiderate, exploitative, cruel, sly whether he be noble or base."
- Friedrich Nietzsche - Human, All Too Human, 1878.

It's the last line of defence against anarchism. You're in the pub, you've convinced them, they can see the possibilities, they want to know more - they're interested and then the voice pops up: "shure that would never work because of.... human nature...bud" But, in fairness, it is a very sincerely held belief by many people, that we are "naturally" greedy, rotten feckers and, in the absence of government, some mad form of capitalism would be inevitable.

The English philosopher Hobbes was first to systemise this pessimistic view of human nature. He coined the term " war of all against all" to characterise a return to nature where people just survived through hand to hand fighting, digging lumps out of each other, even eating each other if necessary. Handily this horror could be avoided if a sovereign was agreed to. This would be the last assertion of power by the "people" as, after that, only the sovereign could rule. Needless to say, his book "Leviathan" was a big hit with European monarchs and rulers in the Seventeenth Century.

Rousseau expressed the exact opposite view about hundred years later. He saw Mankind as "naturally good" and wanted to strip off the layers of "civilisation" that were preventing us from being our most "natural" and good selves.

Most anarchists, myself included, would see human nature as neither good nor bad. The very terms are "socially constructed". People are shaped by their biological make up and by their environment. You can't change your biological inheritance (much!) but the influence of your parents, education, friends, the media and so on vary widely from person to person. In general the prevailing morality of a society, indeed the very concepts of "good" and "bad" are set out by the ruling forces in that society.

For example historically meekness and mildness are seen as "good" where as selfishness and maliciousness are "bad".

Certain traits are encouraged because they keep us in line but cheeky or rebellious ones are frowned on.

In this present western phase of late capitalist over-production two things are required. 1. That we stay at home in front of "the box" and cause no trouble. 2. That we pitch in and consume!

Advertising plays on our most basic human need for security and the slightly more advanced need for contentment. It sells us a very shallow in-duh-viduality based entirely on what we consume and how we look. We become shallow, snobby, alienated and hostile towards everyone around us as per the Nietzsche quote above. We want to do others down. Basically the system encourages everything that is crap in us!

But we know people can be better than this. Just look at voluntary organisations like the GAA, the lifeboat service etc. Local community groups draw on the time and effort of thousands of people, which they give quite gladly. Further, many of these grassroots organisations, though they may appear quite harmless and run of the mill are run in a very democratic fashion.

Some even practice direct democracy and so (though they might be shocked to hear it) are functionally anarchist. They bring people together, empower them and move them beyond in-duh-vidual consumerism. They present for the system the danger of a good example. We too know the power of a good example. When people hear libertarian ideas and, where they see them working in practise then their "better" side begins to emerge. Capitalism or any society of leaders and led inevitably brings out our worst - that's what it's designed to do. Anarchism brings out our best - that's what it's designed to do!

There is no fixed, inalienable human nature - people can change, and society can change - for the better.


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This edition is No89 published in Nov 2005

WS 89 cover