Adam Smith, the great theorist of early capitalism, remarked in The Wealth of Nations that
Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that.
The implication here is, of course, that what Smith famously referred to as ‘truck, barter and exchange’ are traits unique to humans. Private property and, with it, exchange and sale of this property, are features as natural to human beings as walking or talking. If these traits are unique to humans, then, the argument goes, capitalism is itself merely a generalisation of these characteristics on the level of society as a whole, and therefore capitalist society is the one in which human nature is finally given free rein.
For critics of capitalism, this kind of jump — from a vaguely plausible generalisation about human nature to an assertion about the necessity of a whole system of social relations — has always seemed a bit too quick. It might be one thing to grant that people sometimes act and think according to market principles, but it is another claim altogether to say that people have always structured their society around this logic.
What distinguishes capitalism from mere market activity is, as the late Marxist political theorist Ellen Meiksins Wood observed, that capitalist society is a society in which social relations are ‘embedded in the economy’ rather than the ‘economy being embedded in social relations.’ What she meant by this is that we cannot account for the complexity of the capitalist mode of production merely out of a set of potential human motives and desires. What is distinctive about capitalism is not simply that the human tendency to ‘truck, barter and exchange’ reigns supreme, but that people are compelled to govern their whole lives in a transactional and commodifying way. It is not a matter of mere choice but of compulsion.
A Moment in History
Under capitalism, many other aspects of human nature — such as the need for love, solidarity, and individuality — are secondary to the values associated with profit-seeking. Capitalism is therefore a system in which a certain tendency in human nature has won out. Ultimately, the problem with explanations of the existence of capitalism which appeal to human nature, or the permanent existence of quasi-capitalist social formations, is that they treat the development of human history as inevitable. They ignore the fact that, as Marx said, ‘men make their own history.’ Without this insight, not just socialism, but any attempt to defend the idea that human beings can have some control over their fate is doomed.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the historian Robert Brenner attacked the trend of explaining capitalism by appealing to proto-capitalist behaviours or social relations. These explanations, Brenner argued, assumed what they aimed to prove, namely: the existence of capitalism. The existence of commerce, just as much as the prevalence of commodifying practices, was not capitalism. Capitalism is a system in which these social relations are dominant, not just existent.
Previous explanations for capitalism’s emergence tended to presuppose pre-capitalist tendencies, arguing that these tendencies either increased in prevalence until they became dominant, or that structural changes in the demographic composition of feudal society tipped the balance in capitalism’s favour. The problem with these explanations was that they failed to explain why it was that capitalism developed when it did — in the seventeenth century — and where it did — on a rainy island in the northern hemisphere.
In England in the seventeenth century, almost two-thirds of land was owned by landlords and worked by peasant tenants. The previous two centuries were characterised by violent struggles between peasant tenants and landlords over the rents and fines the latter could impose on the former. It was, Brenner observed, the victory of the landlords over the tenants that created the incredibly unequal property relations that would characterise English land ownership up until the present day.
Peasant rents in England increasingly were governed neither by custom nor tradition, but by market imperatives. Out of this inequality, which was a product of the victory of the landlord class, emerged the social preconditions for the emergence of capitalism. This defeat allowed landlords to enclose land, creating large farms which would be leased to capitalist tenants able to assure landlords a better return. This, in turn, led to a market in leases where peasant tenants competed with one another over their ability to increase the profitability of rented land.
Had the tenant class been successful in their struggles with landlords in the previous century, the development of a partnership between landlords and capitalist tenants may not have been possible. The push to increase the productivity of land by investing in new technology and relying on wage labour emerged from the requirement to pay rents owed to landlords. Peasant farmers that were not leaseholders were relatively free from market competition because they had control over their means of subsistence.
In contrast, peasant tenants had to assure adequate returns to landlords in order to continue to live on the land. Therefore, landlords had an interest in the increasing productivity of tenant farming. Summarising Brenner in her book The Origin of Capitalism, Wood wrote that it was the conditions in which the capitalist tenant found himself that made him into a capitalist:
He became a capitalist not just because he had grown to some appropriate size or level of prosperity, not even just because his relative wealth allowed him to employ wage labour (non-capitalist farmers even in the ancient world were known to employ wage labour), but because his relations to the means of his own self-reproduction from the outset subjected him, together with any wage labourers he may have employed, to market imperative.
What Shapes Society
The gist of Brenner and Wood’s thesis demonstrates that it is ultimately political conflict — and not abstract notions of human nature — that determine the structure of society.
Given the ugliness of competitive capitalist society, it’s easy to feel a kind of nostalgia for a pre-capitalist notion of human nature, free from the corrupting influence of the market. Indeed, there is a whole tradition of radical social critique that takes this perspective. Starting with Rousseau and going up to contemporary critics of capitalism such as Rutger Bregman, opponents of exploitation have often argued that human nature, left to its own devices, is a site of uncoerced cooperation and harmony.
As wonderful as it would be to believe that everything we need to create socialism is already within us, this way of thinking about human nature is also incoherent. The emergence of capitalism, just as much as chattel slavery, medicine, and art can all equally be said to be expressions of human nature. Essential human characteristics and activities aren’t ours to pick and choose between as we like, or as we find flattering.
For socialists, although society can often be a site of coercion, control, and domination, it is also where individuals develop their full capacities. Building on a line of argument that has its origin in Aristotle, socialists have often held the view that there is something deficient — non-human even — about an asocial life.
The power of Brenner and Wood’s account is its demonstration that capitalist social relations are not the product of individual choices, nor expressions of human nature in any straightforward sense. Capitalist social relations emerge out of the compulsions produced by the internal dynamics of a social system. These dynamics force individuals to commodify the land as well as their labour and the labour of their fellow human beings.
Bluntly, we could say that capitalism creates a form of sociability that is fundamentally anti-social. Rather than allowing our social interactions to be mutually beneficial, it pits humans in competition with one another. The right conditions must be in place in order to cultivate the right form of human nature, conditions which require an authority capable of counteracting the compulsion of the market.
Hegel, the philosopher who had the deepest influence on Marx, recognised that a sociability which had its basis primarily in market relations undermined genuinely egalitarian human interactions. Rather than serving as a means for the development of individuality, it instead dulled human subjectivity. Work under capitalism, Hegel wrote:
Becomes even more absolutely dull . . . the skill of the individual becomes infinitely more limited, and the consciousness of the factory workers is reduced to complete apathy.
What is paradoxical about this state of affairs is that under capitalism, human sociability is weaponised against itself. Rather than being enriched though interactions, people are instead diminished by them. Decrying the dehumanising effect of the market on human life, Marx, expressing himself in exasperation, stated that capitalism deprives the individual of
Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilment of social functions, for social intercourse, for the free play of the vital forces of his body and his mind, even the rest time of a Sunday . . . what foolishness!
Reform and Human Nature
The last century represented the most serious attempt to take up this critique of capitalism. Rather than merely rejecting the authority of the market without putting anything in its place, socialists and social democrats attempted to institutionalise forms of collective power. Any attempt to push back against the malaise of contemporary capitalism must take as its starting point a critical appreciation of the achievements of the last century.
Reflecting on the development of social institutions in the post-war era, the English sociologist T. H. Marshall wrote about the reforms brought around by the post-war Labour government as part of a radical attempt to reconceive the way we understood the power the state had over the market. Marshall saw this social democratic transformation as developing what he termed ‘social rights’.
In his neat schema, the eighteenth century saw the rise of civil rights, which recognised the right to individual freedom and property ownership; the nineteenth saw the birth of political rights, which entailed the right to participate in the running of one’s society; but social rights, which Marshall saw as the radical development of the twentieth century, was a right to equality with one’s fellow citizen.
Importantly, social rights provided a way of counteracting the tendencies that led to inequality and undermined the exploitative relationship that individuals could have to one another. These rights included the regulation of wages and conditions through collective bargaining, the provision of public housing, and the creation of a universal education and healthcare systems.
What is unique about the way that Marshall understands the value of these institutions is that he does not, unlike contemporary defenders of what we now term the welfare state, see their value as measured in their ability to alleviate poverty. In some cases these programmes may alleviate poverty, and in others they may not:
The question is relatively unimportant . . . What matters is that there is a general enrichment of the concrete substance of civilised life, a general reduction of risk and insecurity, an equalisation between the more and the less fortunate at all levels between the healthy and the sick, the employed and the unemployed, the old and the active, the bachelor and the father of a large family.
By aiming to create equality rather than to alleviate poverty, these programmes helped to create the social base for solidarity. They did this by politicising the question of how we live collectively, what we chose to value as a society, and how we wish to understand ourselves.
For this reason, Marshall opposed the poor-law tradition of means-tested poverty alleviation which would resurface under New Labour. Although these programmes, aimed at the most disadvantaged, helped to assure that nobody would fall below a certain level of poverty, they also served to stigmatise the poor. In turn, this helps to undermine the central principle of the welfare state: that it exists for everyone.
When a service is offered to everyone this serves to equalise the value of all those who use it. Council houses no longer become homes for the poor, but homes for all. The overarching aim of this project of radical societal transformation was to combat a certain version of human nature created by the forces of the market.
Unfortunately, the struggles of the 1970s onwards undermined this attempt to provide a more solidaristic basis to society — one in which people would be incentivised to act based on their instincts towards mutual aid, not avarice or predation. Out of the ruins of the welfare state emerged a renewed capitalist vision in which value was measured through the ability of individuals to compete with and dispossess one another.
But those who stood at the vanguard of this counter-revolution did not believe they were acting on the basis of some unchanging human nature, an absolute imperative cast down through the ages. Instead, they understood that their project was contingent and constructed.
Speaking to the Sunday Times in 1981, Margaret Thatcher said of her reforms that ‘economics are the method: the object is to change the soul.’ That same perspective would be useful for the contemporary left. For us, the struggle begins with recognising human nature as a battleground on which class struggle must be waged.