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'Human nature' is no barrier to change

There are few who can deny that the global economic system is in a tailspin of truly giant proportions. And the faltering nature of the climate change talks in Copenhagen add to the sense of crisis. Meanwhile, at the level of everyday life, jobs, pensions, and services are under threat.

Even as you read this, writers and thinkers of all descriptions are seeking ways out. Then there are others who love to tell us that humanity is simply doomed and it’s not worth getting worked up about things. The leading protagonist of that school of thought is philosopher John Gray.

He has made a living of telling all and sundry that they are suffering from delusive fantasies. Naturally, he has no problem getting column inches in leading newspapers and magazines. In “The End of a Dream” (New Statesman), for example, he accused a whole range of politicians, including Clinton, Bush and Blair, and the general public of “a chronic inability to engage with reality”. His latest rant against humanity was in yesterday’s Observer.

Gray claims that “passionate activist” Raj Patel, whose new book The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market society and redefine democracy, is unable to provide an alternative to the “hegemony of the market”. Gray says that Patel’s solutions are unviable because people, especially the oppressed, are too greedy to curb their desires for material wealth.

Well, whatever the merits or otherwise of Patel’s vision of a different, non-marketised approach, Gray, who likes to pose as the illusion-buster, is himself a complete prisoner of capitalist market dogmas. He cannot conceive of any kind of “value” that is not “price”. But even a child can point to values which cannot be priced – for example, mother love. And the value of something can remain the same while its price can vary wildly.

Humanist philosopher AC Grayling, has done a good job in dissecting the many sloppy errors in Gray’s book Black Mass, including the lumping together of Nazism, Bolshevism and Islamic theocracy and Gray’s dismissal of all progress in history. The biggest illusion of all, and one that even well-meaning people who want change are prey to, is at the root of Gray’s philosophy. In his view, human action is first and foremost motivated by the satisfaction of individual needs and desires. And, human history is the story, in his opinion of “erroneous beliefs”.

But the real aim of Gray’s musings about the collapse of market worship is to promote his own ideology that human beings and human psychology can never change. We are prisoners of desire, delusion and what he calls “self-realisation”. In this view of things, there is only one outcome: humanity will destroy itself together with the planet in an unstoppable drive to extinction.

The fact is that Gray’s philosophy is nothing more than the flimsiest cover for an adulation of the capitalist status quo. He preaches that nothing can ever change because human nature is innately greedy and selfish. In the end, this is a fundamentalist, religious standpoint not a million miles away from all the nonsense about “original sin”.

Contemporary biology is showing more and more clearly how human beings are socially shaped and find that survival is essentially a collective, not an individual endeavour. For humans, self-interest is something that we share, not only with other human beings but with all life on the planet. More than that, humans are unique in their desire and ability to solve problems and challenges.

That is why A World to Win is working on a draft of a Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions. We invite you to take part in shaping the manifesto – and the future.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
14 December 2009

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