Was Marx right? Or was his timing just wrong? But, if so, what do we do with these ‘inglorious bastards’ — those sociopathic free market capitalists stomping hither and thither? Is it time for a great accommodation?
Given the fast globalizing economy, a momentum in which we are all increasingly caught up, it is hard to believe that personal acquisitiveness, capital accumulation, and competitiveness were not always key human instincts. The accepted narrative, trumpeted loudly throughout the modern — Western and increasingly Eastern — world, is that individual advancement and competitive advantage are crucial not only to a healthy economy, but to a happy personal life as well. This, at least, is the official narrative. Is it, in all fairness, a modern fairy tale perpetrated by the strongest elements of hierarchy in our culture, those in power positions – the politicians, the military, the oligarchs, and yes, even the priests — those who stand to gain the most by perpetuating the myth?
In his work, The Evolution of Political Society, Morton Fried argues that there were two major issues that distinguished us (the Homo genus) from our immediate primate predecessors. These two distinguishing characteristics were (1) the lack of formal hierarchy, and (2) the preponderance of sharing in tribal life.
It has been noted subsequently by a number of scholars in social anthropology, ethnography, ethnology, and paleontology, that a fundamental key to human survival, and a primary marker of the Homo genus was our sociability and our natural sharing of resources, whether that meant sharing food from the hunt, daily tools, or sexual favors (cf. Sex at Dawn). Our earliest forebears, living in relatively small bands of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers, shared anything and everything: that is what distinguished them from most, if not all, of their primate forebears. Sharing, as a basic and primal human activity, further mitigated against the articulation of hierarchy and individual power accumulation. Formal hierarchies and competition only truly emerged with the birth of cities on the heels of big agriculture a mere six thousand years ago. But for two hundred thousand years before that, Homo sapiens were egalitarian; and for two million years, earlier members of our genus (Home erectus, Homo neanderthalensis) were also basically egalitarian social creatures.
Sharing is how our earliest ancestors lived before the first city walls were erected, before the first social laws were enacted, before the first kings and priests started lording it over the rest of us, first giving voice to the illusion that competition and personal advancement — getting to the top of the power pyramid — were all that mattered. Sharing is, most simply, a human act… naturally human. It is not selfless, because the act implicates you as well in a profound circle of reciprocity. But neither is it calculating, like a quid pro quo – doing something in order to get something in return. It is just the human thing to do, rooted in our genetic makeup as a species, in our Pleistocene origins.
Yet, here we are, ‘living’ in hierarchically organized, complex socio-economic structures with competition and self-regarding behavior (i.e., individual advancement) as the foundation stones of everyday reality — the norm. Perhaps, it’s time for a great accommodation. We cannot, and need not, give up on capitalism; after all, it would be nigh impossible to do so now. After a few thousand years, the habits of thought and behavior have become second nature to the large majority of humans. The costs in psychological counseling or other behavior modification techniques alone would be gargantuan, and ultimately unsuccessful. But, leaving the current model in place, unchecked, to continue down this slippery slope, will itself add to further human degradation and annihilation (it’s already begun).
Because of its current place of prominence in the socio-economic sphere, it is capitalism that must someway accommodate itself to include our more fundamentally human, egalitarian sense of sharing. Certainly we can allow, even encourage, those who are driven by this recent (competitive) narrative to carry-on within certain clearly-defined limits. But, if the system provides opportunity for some to ‘get ahead’ then it must make it incumbent upon those beneficiaries to help maintain the social net which provides them those opportunities in the first place. In short, you cannot win at poker, if there is no one around to play the game. On the other hand, for those for whom this narrative of competition seems strangely unmanageable, we the people need to find adequate ways to share, and give those others an opportunity to contribute as best they can. Certainly, one could make the argument that philanthropy is precisely meant to address this issue, as is volunteerism.
In fact, volunteering is fundamentally giving something of your self to the other. It is essentially an act of sharing, reinforcing bonds of kinship, of affinity, of caring between and among people. Volunteerism represents a modern example of this primal and very natural human tendency to share. And it works in both directions. So go ahead and act against hierarchy, against the accepted narrative of competition and accumulation, against the greed and selfishness of modern urban culture. Go ahead and volunteer. And, if you already enjoy volunteering, maybe now you understand why. Continue to do it for the sheer joy it brings you, reconfirming your basic humanity.
But volunteering and philanthropy cannot in themselves lead to real accommodation. The hierarchic system must build such accommodation into the very structure of the socio-economic order. There must be a mandate for those benefiting from the levers of productive capital growth to redistribute a proportional amount of that wealth in the form of health, education, and welfare benefits among the general population. I will say it again, if there is no one around to play, there is no poker game, and therefore no winner. And in the world that characterizes America’s current economic reality, enough of the population — particularly those under forty — realize they cannot even play the game, the stakes are too high, and the buy-in too formidable. So, they see that Bernie represents some possibility of rejiggering, re-engineering, or perhaps re-imagining of the system. The big question remains: will those holding the cash and the money cards allow such a project to proceed. I believe you all already know my answer. No, they will not! But, not to be too cynical, we can always close our eyes and hope against hope!