the human essence

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By Valerio Arcary*

People are not naturally good, they are complex. They are capable of sublime or despicable actions, of cooperation and conflict..

The pandemic that threatens us is imposing the emergency need for a unique social experience in history. Billions of people are confined indoors like never before in history. Societies are testing the limits of their discipline and social cohesion. The gigantic metropolises are today a laboratory of our ability to adapt to extreme conditions.

The degree of civilization of a society can be measured by its attitude towards the most vulnerable. At this time, the danger of death is greatest for the elderly and the poorest. But the depression that will collapse over the world economy on an unprecedented scale will indiscriminately punish hundreds of millions of workers. In a few months, nothing will be like before.

The catastrophe that surrounds us is not, however, a natural accident. The most likely hypothesis, recognized by experts, is that the contagion of the coronavirus could have been avoided. It was only possible because an unbridled expansion of greed went beyond all limits. Could it be that greed is intrinsic to human nature? 

A perverse and/or immutable human condition has been the argument for denouncing the socialist project as a utopia “outside of history”. But the tragic disjuncture, collaboration and conflict, that we find throughout history allow us to imagine an open future. The Marxist premise is that in a socialist society, in which the most intensely felt needs are satisfied, built on values ​​such as solidarity and compassion, there would be less reason for rivalries, quarrels, and disputes. It wouldn't be paradisiacal, obviously. It would be superior.

Marx vigorously rejected an interpretation of history based on rigid patterns of human social behavior. He argued that humanity has permanently reinvented itself through work and culture. Human nature would be an uninterrupted process of adaptive transformations.

The idea of ​​an evil and invariable human nature – man as a wolf to man – bases the justification of capitalism on natural inequality. The rivalry between men and the dispute for wealth would be an unavoidable destiny. A selfish impulse or a self-indulgent attitude, an insatiable ambition or an incorrigible avarice would define our condition. This is fatalism: individualism would finally be the essence of human nature. And political and social organization should conform to human imperfection. And resign.

A humanity dominated by pettiness, ferocity, or fear cannot build a less unequal and freer society. Incidentally, it corresponds to a human nature, essentially defined by greed, by taking advantage, a disciplined political order, therefore, repressive, which organizes the limits of its internal struggles as a form of “harm reduction”.

Summarizing and being brutal: the right to enrichment would be the reward of the most enterprising, or the most courageous, or the most capable and their heirs. Private property would not be the cause of inequality, but a consequence of natural inequality. It is because the abilities and dispositions that distinguish men are very varied that, according to the defenders of a rigid and inflexible human nature, private property exists, and not the other way around.

Diversity among individuals, innate or acquired, would be the foundation of social inequality. Consequently, capitalism would be the possible historical horizon, and even the limit of what is desirable. Because with capitalism, in principle, anyone could dispute the right to get rich.

These arguments do not, however, have the slightest scientific foundation. In opposition to the vision of an inflexible human nature, Marxism never defended the symmetrical and naive vision of a generous and solidary humanity. People are not naturally good, they are complex. They are capable of sublime or despicable actions, of cooperation and conflict.

Marxism did not base the need for social equality on a supposed natural equality either. Capabilities and aptitudes are different. Social equality is based on the possibility of satisfying the most intensely felt material and cultural needs that are universal.

What Marxism affirmed is that human nature has a historical dimension and therefore changes. What Marxism preserved was the idea that the diversity of abilities does not explain the social inequality that divides us. It is the exploitation of some by others that causes inequality, not the other way around.

The naturalization of human conflicts was never, politically speaking, innocent. What is natural cannot be changed, or only changes on such a slow scale that it would be beyond the possible dimensions of politics. It's the curse of the scorpion. Ethnocentrism to justify racism, leadership followership to justify militarized states, xenophobia to justify turf wars, ambition to justify social inequality. The search for an inflexible pattern of behavior goes against history, and reduces human conduct to the pressure of forces beyond its control. It was history that conditioned us, favoring plasticity. We made ourselves adaptive, not rigid.

Nature or culture is the form that takes the dilemma that, in these terms, is false. We are the children of a cultural heritage that has transformed our nature. We make our history, but we don't choose the conditions. The attempt to explain a constancy of human nature through hundreds of thousands of years of prehistory and history by biological determinism has returned, disguised as science. The enlargement of the richness of human nature was the substance of progress. We became faster than the cheetah and stronger than the elephant. We fly higher than the condor, and we descend to greater depths than the fish.

Marx admitted, however, that there were limits. He recognized that men transformed nature and all of its social relationships – language, the tools of work, their relationships with each other, etc. – in natural and social conditions which he cannot choose, which are beyond his control; but he did not accept the premise that conditioned the change of society to the previous change of man. Fighting for transformation and for the conscious control of its social relations, humanity would be transforming itself.

By recognizing that human nature could only be understood from the perspective of social relations, that is, from the relations that humanity establishes in each historical epoch with nature, and of men and women with each other, he agreed that there are determinations that change, and others that remain more or less constant for a historical period, which can be more or less long, until these, too, evolve.

Saying that the human essence is conditioned by the form of dominant social relations means recognizing that, if these favor envy and stupidity, then a majority of human beings will behave greedily and brutally. But this does not mean that these actions respond to innate impulses. Collaboration and conflict have always been present in social relations, to varying degrees, throughout the process of historical evolution. Not only are we social beings, we are one of the most social forms of life. If the capacity for collaboration did not exist, we would not have survived.

Social equality is for socialists the condition of human freedom. Social equality is not the leveling of wages. Socialism is not the rise of wages, but the gradual extinction of money and wages. Social equality is not the standardization of goods. Socialism is the expansion and diversification of consumption, and the end of the commodified form of products. Social equality is not the lessening of differences between rich and poor, or the division of property. Socialism is the satisfaction of the most felt needs for social control of the production of wealth and the end of private property.

We cannot be free until we are all free. There is no freedom where fear reigns. Fear of unemployment and poverty tears workers apart, and workers' fear tears capitalists apart. We will not be free from fear as long as a system survives that divides humanity into owners and wage earners.

Freedom is a synthesis of rights that only make sense if they are universal. If they are not accessible to everyone, they are advantages. What are advantages of only a few, are privileges. Freedom is the right of opinion, of manifestation, of organization. It's freedom of the press. It is religious freedom. It's the freedom to come and go. It's sexual freedom. But, rights are always relative, that is, they are conditioned by other rights.

* Valerio Arcary He is a retired full professor at IFSP (Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of São Paulo).

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