Political Power and "Human Nature"
By Dennis Loo (May 1, 2014 - International Workers' Day)
Many people in this country do not see government’s role clearly because they have been misinformed about what government does and why it does it.
There are two essential tools that all governments use – and must use – in order to exercise political power: persuasion and coercion.
Before going into further detail about those twin tools, some important background: Governments have not always existed and, in fact, for the vast majority of human societies’ existence, governments did not exist. It was only with the advent of an economic surplus that governments came into being as a means by which the unequal distribution of economic goods could be maintained.
In the absence of a body of people using force, any economic surplus would be distributed roughly equally because anyone who was in want while others had more than they needed would insist on it. It is only through coercion that such a surplus can be kept in the hands of a (well-off) minority.
While using force is a persuasive argument in the sense that someone with the ability and willingness to hurt or kill you can always get their way, if governments had to always use force to obtain compliance from everyone, there are not enough armed men to get enough compliance from the populace for governments to stay in power. That is why persuasion is so important and why coercion always comes in tandem with persuasion.
Persuasion is the means by which those in authority convince others who are not in authoritative positions to comply with authorities’ wishes. Another way of putting this is that governments use ideas to convince others that their use of authority is legitimate. People are mainly governed by abiding by rules that they have learned and that they believe to be legitimate. You could not govern any group for any extended period of time if you had to rely solely on force.
What does this lead us to?
The first point is that one of the key and indispensible ways that those who now rule – and even more importantly how the system that they personify and lead continues – is through the use of ideas that justify that system. As Marx pointed out, the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class. They rule in part because their ideas serve their interests and those ideas are the dominant ideas overall. As a result of this, their ideas are the most common within the population. These ideas are not the dominant ideas because they represent the most advanced and truest understanding of human affairs, economics, social dynamics, the physical and biological and social sciences, etc. On the contrary, the ideas that the bourgeoisie makes the dominant ideas are contrary to the most advanced ideas and truth in all of those areas.
When slaveholders were the dominant class in slave societies, their ideas constituted the dominant ideas. That is, the ideas that were considered the most correct and the ideas that were the most widespread in “polite” society, that is, especially among the non-slave citizenry, were that there will always be slaves and slave owners, that some people are born to be slaves and are biologically inferior and worth no more than and can be treated like any other kind of beast of burden or inanimate property. The idea that slave owning and beating, raping, selling, killing, and so on were wrong and deeply immoral was a dissident idea, considered absurd by those who adhered to slave society’s mainstream ideas. The notion that slave owning as a system should be and could be done away with was considered simply outlandish and not even worth discussing by the vast majority of those outside of slaves themselves. And importantly, even among slaves, the idea of insurrection and ending slavery was considered far-fetched and for many, simply impossible. Among most slaves the view that slave owners were too powerful to overthrow was the conventional wisdom. The notion that there would be a bloodbath and that slaves would be one-sidedly and overwhelmingly the victims of that bloodbath were the common opinion, even among many of the slaves themselves. Slaves, who had all the reason in the world to resist and attempt to end their condition as slaves, were given plenty of reasons to remain as slaves, both through violence directed at them and through the dominant ideas of the day.
The first thing most people do when they think about the possibility of a different system and a different governmental structure is that they consider these things using the dominant and conventional ideas. It’s to be expected that people would do this since most people imbibe the ideas that surround them in their life through school, mass culture, public officials and media, their family, friends, associates, etc. But what is happening when they think using those mainstream ideas as their analytical tools is they are using the ideas that justify the status quo and serve the interests of those who already hold power. These ideas aren’t the dominant ideas because they are simply the best and most advanced ideas. They’re the dominant ideas because those who dominant are dominant to a large extent because the ideas that they promote serve their interests and are accepted without question as common sense and as correct unthinkingly by the majority.
Without training and exposure to alternative ways of thinking, even those who receive a higher education automatically apply the analytical methods and outlook of those in authority, even while some among them might be searching for ways to undo the status quo. People pick up the ideas that they have been taught and are most familiar with, so familiar with that they don’t think to ask whether or not the ideas that they are using are the most appropriate or the truest. They take for granted that these ideas are true because nearly everyone around them has told them that they’re true since they were a child and they can readily find approbation for their ideas in people around them. The dominant ideas are so dominant that anyone who questions them is considered a little odd.
It is only to be expected, therefore, that many people think that radical change is impossible or at least highly improbable because they are seeing things using the ideas of those who already hold power. Why would you, if you want to preserve the existing system, invite a full discussion and vigorous debate about what’s true and what the best tools are to analyze the world? You wouldn’t if your power rested on keeping people from really understanding things. You’d make sure that ideas that challenge your power were suppressed and that those who try to popularize such ideas are marginalized or ridiculed as out of the pale. This is why, for example, the Nazis burned books that they found threatening. They recognize the potent power of ideas and facts becoming more widely known.
What I want to do for this particular segment is focus on one key aspect of the ruling ideas of our time.
This system is governed by a legitimation doctrine that says that “human nature” is inherently selfish.
Now if you think about this for a bit from a different perspective than how this view is usually articulated, you can see how peculiar this idea is.
Those who rule over us tell us that humans are naturally self-serving and only interested in material rewards. The people who are in charge of our collective fates, in other words, are telling us that they are not actually interested in our collective condition because they are themselves in fact self-serving – and everyone else is too. If the people who are responsible for the public welfare don’t believe that such a thing as the public welfare exists, then what are we doing listening to and siding with selfish bastards in charge of us all? Aren’t they telling us by advocating these notions about “human nature” that we can expect that they are going to screw us and take royal advantage of us, because after all, aren’t all people supposed to be self-serving?
You can’t have this both ways. You can’t be advocating for the doctrine that “humans are all naturally selfish” and by the same token, claim that they should be chosen as our public servants and that CEO’s are all compassionate corporate leaders who care about the environment, workers, and citizens/consumers, since these two ideas are entirely contradictory!
You can’t tell people that you have to pay leaders in government, education, and business huge amounts of money because otherwise you won’t get the best leaders, and then claim that these individuals who you are attracting on the basis of their being self-centered, will in turn do what is best for the community. You have already decided that the people you are putting in charge are selfish by saying that you can only get the best by offering them the most money. How can people who you are attracting on the basis of their selfishness be simultaneously the most committed to the common good?
Adam Smith whose ideas about this form the justification for much of this line of reasoning, argued that the best society comes about if you allow the “invisible hand” of the market to determine what is done and how it is done. Why is this supposed to be the best way to do things? Because people are all self-seeking after material rewards and if you allow selfishness to govern the economy and the society, then you get the best society. How is that again? How do you get public goods to be safeguarded when you’ve put the doctrine and the people who are the most benefited by and who personally benefit from this doctrine of “everyone’s selfish” in charge? This is like saying that we should put the wolves in charge of the hen house because they are the most upfront about the fact that they don’t care about the welfare of the chickens and would sooner eat them than do anything else.
If you have a system based on this notion about “human nature” in that the system logic of capitalism is based on individuals maximizing their personal material gains and businesses operating on the principle of “expand or die,” then why again is that that system is supposed to be better than any other system? If you have a system whose governing logic is that everyone is out to exploit the most of others and the environment in the name of maximizing capital, then why is this the best system of all in ensuring the common welfare? And if the planet is being destroyed by those whose goal is to maximize in the short-term material gains, then why should anyone be surprised at this outcome?
You cannot reform a system that is based on a certain logic and insist that its governing logic not be its governing logic. Nor can you change things using the logic of the system that is creating the problems in the first place. You can only do that - change society - if you adopt ideas that most thoroughly match a) the truth and b) your aims to promote the common good.
This site aims to accomplish two related goals. First, it complements Dennis Loo's book Globalization and the Demolition of Society so that people reading the book can get more deeply into it. (See navigation bar above, labeled "GDS Book Annotations"). We believe that his book is a landmark, providing a solid foundation for politics of a new path. Taking such a path is critical to humanity and the planet's future. As his book's dust jacket states:
[F]ree market fundamentalism - also known as neoliberalism - makes us not more secure or prosperous: it tears the social fabric and undermines security, leading inevitably to disasters on the individual, regional, and global levels.
Neoliberalism is based on the mantra that market forces should run everything. It aims to eliminate job and income security, the social safety net (including welfare and other social guarantees), unions, pensions, public services, and the governmental regulation of corporations. It consequently undermines the basis for people to voluntarily cooperate with authority as almost everyone is increasingly left by themselves to face gargantuan private interests, with governmental and corporate authority ever more indifferent to the public’s welfare.
Those in charge of our collective fates in government and business personify a heartless system based on profit and plunder. They have been relentlessly instituting profoundly immoral and unjust policies even while they insist that they are doing the opposite. We, on the other hand, stand for and are fighting for a radically different system and set of values than this.
Second, in order to get at the truth and because the ways in which humanity's historic striving for understanding and its capacity to wonder and imagine are very rich and diverse, we seek to reflect that richness and diversity on our site. See "About Us" on navigation bar. We intend to be engaging and compelling, as the best investigative journalism and art are, and relentlessly scientific, rigorous, and direct, as those who cherish the truth are. We believe that we can be both accessible and sophisticated. As Loo lays out in his book,
Defeating the empire is not something that occurs only on the literal battlefield. It is also something that is determined throughout the continuum of battles over many issues, including: ideas; philosophy; forms of organization and leadership in economy, politics, and other realms; ways of arguing; ways of responding to and respecting empirical data; interest in truth as opposed to expedience; how people and the environment should be treated; the nature of relations among people (e.g., between women and men, different races and ethnicities, rich and poor countries, etc.); ways of responding to criticism and ideas that are not your own; ways of handling one’s own errors and those of others; and more, all the way up through how warfare is carried out. The contrast between the methods and goals of the neoliberals and those of us who seek an entirely different world is stark. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 326-7)