1980s >> 1986 >> no-979-march-1986

A highly adaptable animal

Compared with a lion, a gorilla, or even a horse, the human animal is weak, slow and defenceless. And yet homo sapiens has become the dominant species of the planet. Our species developed none of the specialised attributes that have fitted other creatures so perfectly for their environments. Physiologically, we have hardly evolved at all since we became a distinct species. Whereas other species have evolved to fit their environments and the available food supplies, human beings have remained unspecialised, but very adaptable. Instead of their bodies altering to suit their environments they have altered their environments to suit themselves.

Human beings spread across the surface of the planet, occupying tropical rain forests, deserts, temperate regions and even Arctic ice. They lived upon virtually every type of food possible, from seal fat to tropical fruits and desert insects. And from this variety of life-patterns arose wide differences in knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, feelings and behaviour. Almost every conceivable kind of belief and behaviour has been adopted by some human beings at some time somewhere. Although we are one species, from the jungle of New Guinea to the streets of New York, the inhabitants of different places may think and act in quite dissimilar ways.

And yet a baby, carried across the world from New Guinea to New York and brought up there, could become a complete New Yorker, with the accent, the food preferences, the personal habits, the love of baseball and the Stars and Stripes, and the average tendency towards obesity, heart disease, divorce and crime. The basic animal is the same, but all behaviour patterns are shaped by the society in which the child is brought up.

Making a living
But if societies mould individuals, different types of society are themselves shaped by a number of external factors, as well as by the activities of individuals and classes within them. The basic needs of the human animal are, like those of any other mammal, food, drink, warmth and sex; but these needs have not been easily met. For most of human existence the lives of the great majority have been dominated by scarcity. The methods of making a living from the land and sea have therefore been the major influences upon the sorts of lives people have led, the types of society that have been formed, and the attitudes and behaviour of the members of those societies.

The development of gathering roots and fruit, organised hunting and fishing, the growth of herding with its nomadic pattern of life, the emergence of agriculture, encouraging settlements, and the growth of towns and cities — all this has repeatedly modified relationships within societies. It has modified the material conditions of life and led to the accumulation of riches for some and poverty for others.

The discovery and utilisation of metals, and the development of more and more complex tools and machines have often gone hand in hand with progress in methods of making a living, increasing the amount of wealth produced per head of the population many times over; but the benefits of these improvements have not been shared by all members of society. After the rise of settled townships on an agricultural base in Mesopotamia, trade between localities developed; for the first time the product of hands and brains took on an alien life as commodities to be bartered, and then bought with that abstract commodity — money. Property, realised at the boundaries between tribes, began to impinge within. Laws of inheritance were formulated and the first property society developed when people came to be bought and sold as slaves.

Chattel slavery gave way to feudalism, and feudalism to capitalism; and still all the land and factories and mines and transport are owned by a small minority of the population, who make the laws to protect their wealth, and employ the majority to work for them.

Employers and employees
The fundamental division between workers and employers in the structure of modem society affects all the relationships within it. It affects feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and has a fundamental effect upon the personality of every individual. The child brought up in a family owning a few million shares, a few thousand acres, and four or five houses to live in has a completely different outlook on life from that of the child brought up in the average factory or office worker’s semi-detached house on a housing estate. The children born into a family with adequate capital realise as they grow up that they are part of an élite with the freedom to chose how they occupy their lives. They may also realise that, although they will not necessarily do the hiring and firing themselves when they grow up. and may never even see the mines, factories and offices where their wealth is made, their inheritance of capital will make them employers of other human beings. The vast majority of children, on the other hand, become aware that their future depends upon being able to find someone to employ them. If they want to succeed in this, not only their education but their dress, their manners, their attitude to authority, even their political opinion must conform to the standards laid down by employers.

The employment they must seek is a fundamental part of a society in which the market, the price mechanism, the profit motive have come to dominate almost every aspect of life. There is a tendency for all relationships to be reduced to that of buyer and seller. And the interests of buyer and seller are opposed to one another. Good business consists of getting the better of someone. Competition means winning by fair means if possible, by foul means if necessary. The fictional heroes are gangsters, ruthless tycoons, spies “licensed to kill”, or policemen using the same kind of unconventional methods.

Contradictory values
This, therefore, is the atmosphere in which most children grow up. We are born essentially the same living beings as our ancestors of thousands of years ago; but we learn to think and feel and act from what goes on around us. From school, the newspapers and television, we take in the knowledge of the world’s hunger and disease. At other times we learn that “butter mountains” are being piled up. milk poured down quarries, wheat burned, or crops ploughed back into the ground. We may not bring these facts together in our mind to raise questions about the system by which society is run indeed we are actually discouraged by the schools and the media from doing so. Instead we are persuaded to believe that the present organisation of society is eternal — even divinely ordained — and that it is ordinary people like ourselves with our selfishness. laziness and greed, who are to blame. And so. unresolved, these contradictions remain at the back of our mind, causing confusion, frustration, and a vague sense of guilty helplessness.

At school and at home we are repeatedly told that kindliness, cooperation and constructiveness are the guidelines of good social behaviour, but the films about war. robbery and violent crime that form one of television’s staple diets teach very different lessons: there are always “baddies” against whom violence is not only justified but necessary and even enjoyable — Nazis, terrorists. Apaches, criminals, mad scientists. Martians, agitators. Russian spies, and so on.

We are taught that hard work and thrift are the recipe for success in our future “career”; and then occasionally we see members of the ruling class in the news, who never do a day’s work in their lives and spend money like water, playing at fox-hunting on their ten thousand acre estates, or racing ocean-going yachts, or shooting grouse on their Scottish moors, while our hard-working, thrifty parents get worn out before our eyes with years of work and worry. Our potential for behaving with affection, generosity, trust and creativity is made to seem naive and ridiculous up against the power of wealth in a society of ruthless competition.
There are many different reactions to the disillusionment (sometimes called ‘maturity”) that this causes, and none of them is good for the individual. The commonest, because it avoids conflict with authority and the forces of law and order, is an almost complete refusal to be concerned with the problems of society. Workers who take this line silently or openly admit that they cannot make sense of what goes on; and they absorb themselves energetically in their darts team or football supporters’ club, hobby or garden, trying to remain unaffected by the drudgery of their daily job. or the threats of unemployment or nuclear war.

Others look for scapegoats to blame: black people (if they are white), white people (if they are black), men (if they are women). Jews, foreigners, atheists, trade unionists, and so on. The fashions change from time to time.

Still others become completely cynical turning to crime or something close to it. in an attempt to beat the system and to get hold of the only thing which seems to have any value money. The use of tranquillisers is widespread and the number of people who receive psychiatric treatment at some time in their lives has risen rapidly. We behave like this because we are forced to live under conflicting pressures which, as individuals, we do not have the power to resolve.
All of us. whether we remain relatively sane or not. are inevitably contaminated by the social values that provide the real motive power of capitalist society. The behaviour of capital in its urgent, relentless drive to make profit, which can be reinvested as capital to make yet more profit, regardless of human need or suffering, is the essence of avarice or greed. The very structure of modern society, in which the minority own and control all the means of producing and distributing wealth — and employ all the powers of the state to preserve their monopoly this class-divided structure has insecurity and self-interest at the foundations of society. None of us can fail to be affected by it.
Yet, adaptable as we are, we cannot completely fit the pattern that modem capitalism demands, because it is inconsistent and, at times, directly contradictory. Articles and advertisements regularly appear in magazines and newspapers explaining how we can become rich by setting up in business and applying “hard-headed” (ruthless) business principles. But when workers, especially those organised in trade unions, apply such principles in wage negotiations there is a chorus of condemnation from the press. We hear, only too often, that “there is no sentiment in business”; but as workers we are exhorted equally often to be “loyal” to the company we work for. Modern wars are fought over power and wealth — as becomes only too clear when the truth comes out afterwards — but they are always presented to the working class as fights for freedom of one sort or another, in order to persuade us to risk our lives in killing workers from other countries.
This inconsistency is inevitable. Capitalist society is not a collection of individuals with common interests and a common set of guiding principles, it is a society deeply divided, at odds with itself. Class conflict was built into the foundations and shows up every day in its workings. To criticise workers as being selfish, greedy, unco-operative, deceitful, violent, when these are the main characteristics of the nations and the businesses with which we are compelled to be involved all our lives is to add insult to two hundred years of injury. Certainly these are anti-social forms of behaviour; but then this is an inhuman social system. As long as we, its working-class majority, allow it to continue, we can expect nothing better.
(An extract from our most recent pamphlet From Capitalism to Socialism: How We Live And How We Could Live.)