Monday, October 30, 2006

Making things vanish

You've got to hand it to Margaret Thatcher. As horrible as the Iron Lady was as Prime Minister of the UK, she was a first-rate magician. David Copperfield gets a TV special for making the Statue of Liberty vanish, and it reappears before the eleven o'clock news. Mrs. Thatcher announces that "there is no such thing as society," and--allakazam!--it's still missing.

Case in point: the latest issue of Mother Jones Magazine, which features on its cover a piece called "The Thirteenth Tipping Point." This is the author's hoped-for moment when humanity "slips from selfishness to altruism." Why are we trashing the planet? Well, we simply don't know enough; children aren't taught in schools about the impact their personal choices have on the environment. If only they realized! And we haven't organized enough to convince the corporate world that there's a market for efficient and green goods. So let's harness the power of the web! Evolution has brought us so far--now let's nudge it along, before we're all either toast or up to our necks in the rising sea level. These little changes will all add up, and then, all at once, human nature will change.

Now, human nature changes all the time and is different in different places, and what our author doesn't seem to realize is that the most recent shift (a partial one, to be sure) went the wrong way--from altruism to selfishness. By "only recently" I mean in the past 25,000 years or so, after the beginnings of large-scale agriculture. For the half a million or more years before then people lived in close-knit, supportive, bickering, sometimes violent but generally intimate and supportive communities. And this way of life, which some people today still prefer to the wonders of the modern world, was itself the result of a change--what anthropologist Christopher Boehm called the "egalitarian revolution." None of our brother and sister apes shows anything like it, not even the much-romanticized Bonobo.

What happened in the part of the world that calls itself civilized was a change in social structure that gave some people power over others. In other words, we undid the egalitarian revolution. From then on everything in social life was a zero-sum game. And in the past 400 years, in one part of the world, a further revolution took place which took almost every decision of any importance out of our hands. Under capitalism these decisions have been turned over to the market, which demands by its logic that production and consumption increase without end.

What really changes--and what makes for those changes in human nature--are the rules of the particular game that a culture plays. Capitalism shapes all production to maximize profits and expand markets. People are selfish in that kind of society because it doesn't make sense for them to act any other way. It's not because they're biologically programmed for selfishness. (They're not programmed for altruism, either, to be sure.) All of the carbon set-offs, buying clubs, acts of self-restraint, and other personal efforts we make won't change a thing as long as our interactions and collective decisions follow market logic.

Maybe you don't agree with me. I don't know if the author of this article does or not, because she never once mentions capitalism and never suggests that our own culture is anything other than transparent, value-neutral, and totally responsive to unfettered individual choices. In other words, she shares the Thatcher fallacy--thinking that all that exists is a bunch of independent, rational actors moving around in a social vacuum. But every human change throughout time has been a change in social structure, too; individual and social are indivisible. If there is no society, then there is really no hope--except for some mysterious global psychic transformation that overtakes all of us in our sleep. That hasn't happened before. I wouldn't count on it now.


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