1990s >> 1993 >> no-1061-january-1993

Greed, need and free access

In the Euston area of London there is an Indian vegetarian restaurant where you can eat as much as you like from their buffet for £3.95. Punters have been known to comment that this is “a very reasonable price”. As if there can ever be anything reasonable about having to pay money in order to be able to eat. As if philosophers, in some kind of endless quest for capitalist Reason, have determined that this shall cost £3.95 and a McDonalds’ crapburger shall cost a few pence less and a piece of lettuce with meat in pastry cooked by a chef with a French name shall cost twenty quid a head—booze and service not included. There is nothing reasonable about having to pay to eat. The equivalent of one Hiroshima die every three days due to starvation—they cannot afford to buy food in a world that is subsidizing farmers to destroy food. That is reasonableness under the market system.

But let us return to our Indian buffet—as several of us do, frequently. As well as being a pleasant enough place to eat and talk, this “eat as much as you like” joint is an interesting social laboratory for those of us who advocate a social system where all human beings will have free access to all goods and services available. How often are we told that a moneyless society based upon such a principle would be utterly unworkable? Is it not the case, we are asked, that humans are naturally greedy and will always take more than they need?

Greedy person myth
This old human nature chestnut about the Greedy Person is derived from the stale old Christian belief that basically we are all sinners. According to such dismal reasoning, it is in the nature of the human species to be competitively individualistic—to want to beat his or her neighbour—to take for the sake of acquisition—to be anti-social. Modern advocates of this horrible ideal of humanity speak of selfish genes and our biological propensity to survive at the expense of others. This thinking fits in well with the economic ethos of capitalism with its ruthless war of all against all as its dehumanizing morality. It does not fit in well with what we know to be true about human behaviour. We know that humans are uniquely social animals, with a capacity for co-operation, linguistic communication. planning and empathy far more sophisticated than any other species. We know that the survival of our species has been largely dependent upon our ability to adapt to our environment and respond to it socially. We know that Robinson Crusoe is a literary myth of capitalist origin, whereas in reality “no man is an island” and life is about interdependence.

So back to our “eat as much as you like” laboratory. If the contention of our opponents were true this restaurant would be full of workers eating and eating until they can do nothing but vomit. After all, they are humans, so is it not natural for such greed to prevail? First results do not look very promising. For it is true, and cannot be concealed for the sake of the socialist argument, that quite regularly customers are seen staggering back from the buffet having balanced on to their plates the hugest mountains of food possible without it falling on the floor. It is even true that such people have been spotted, by those with the rudeness to conduct such observations, staggering over a second and occasionally even a third time to stuff themselves. Round One goes to the Human Nature Brigade. But it is an illusory victory.

What is most noticeable about the place is how the vast majority of people do not eat too much or too little, but just what they need. Nobody has to tell them what they need. They know when they are hungry. They know when they are full up. Regardless of the “freedom” to eat as much as they like, they prove that what humans like is to eat what they require, not what they can consume to the point of sickness. This is because the majority of customers are regular eaters at this restaurant. They know that they can have what they want of what is available and that is what they take.

Self-defined needs
But what of the indulgent staggerers from Round One? Two points explain their sad behaviour scientifically. Most of those who take more than they want do so because they have never eaten in this restaurant before. The idea of unrestricted access (albeit within the confines of a set price) is new to them. They are used to having to pay for exactly what they receive, and usually receiving less than they think they should, so they go crazy when the possibility of helping themselves occurs. It is possible to watch a person come into the restaurant week after week, each time taking less, being more selective, feeling more secure about the freedom to satisfy their need. Secondly, we cannot ignore the fact that all of this is going on under capitalism. Some of those who are the biggest consumers are living on a very low budget (several of the mountain-eaters are students from the nearby university) and eat more than they would normally take because for the rest of the week they can only afford to eat less than they need.

We are not suggesting, in case anyone should draw an absurd conclusion, that restaurants were you can eat what you like for £3.95 have anything to do with socialism. The restaurant in question is a capitalist enterprise which is run to make a profit. If they stopped making profits the deal would end. In a socialist society food would no more cost £3.95 than it would cost £39—the price of a modest lunch in a central London hotel. Socialism will be a moneyless society. People will give to society according to their abilities and take according to their needs.

What our “experiment” does demonstrate is that people are capable of behaving reasonably in determining their own needs. The newcomer to a “help yourself” situation is unlikely to behave sociably, because the market system has conditioned us to anti-social, consumerist thinking. Just as most workers would rush in and take as much as they could of everything if the shops were to abolish prices for one day under capitalism, so it is that the worker who is momentarily free to eat without restraint eats without rationality. Abolish prices once and for all, and replace this outdated system with a society of free and equal access for all, based upon self-defined needs, and the social habit of behaving sociably will emerge as surely as the habit of learning to walk for more than six feet in any one direction is adopted by prisoners released from years in a cell.

Steve Coleman