Zoological determinism

Gerry Downing takes a closer look at the latest musings of George Monbiot

Has former Respect member George Monbiot (he resigned within days of Respect's formation because the Greens would not join) managed to attack the free market ideologue Matt Ridley, Northern Rock's former chairman, from the standpoint of an even more reactionary ideology? Not possible, we thought, until we read:

"Like Dr Ridley, I am a biological determinist: I believe that much of our behaviour is governed by our evolutionary history "¦ wherever modern humans, living outside the narrow social mores of the clan, are allowed to pursue their genetic interests without constraint, they will hurt other people. They will grab other people's resources, they will dump their waste in other people's habitats, they will cheat, lie, steal and kill "¦ Human welfare, just as it was a million years ago, is guaranteed only by mutual scrutiny and regulation" ('Governments aren't perfect but it's the libertarians who bleed us dry' The Guardian October 23).

This is a truly depressing view of the human condition, a rehash of Machiavelli and Hobbes. Machiavelli says in The Prince: "Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you."

Or Hobbes in Leviathan: "In such condition (of the war of all against all), there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain "¦ no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

What we needed were princes who knew how 'not to be good', who tortured and assassinated for the common good of Florence, according to Machiavelli; or absolute sovereigns who kept our evil inclinations in subjection by whatever force was necessary, according to Hobbes, in reaction against the civil war digger and leveller egalitarians, in the main, but also against the absolutist divine rights of kings.

Humanity, according to our zoological determinist Monbiot, must reject the enlightenment egalitarian Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch (around the first piece of private property), and crying to his fellows, 'Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody'?" (On the origin of inequality).

And we cannot even consider whether human nature might be a product of its circumstances, whether changing circumstances might change that nature, a là  Robert Owen, or more profoundly whether Marx was right and we might entertain the notion that human beings might change the circumstances that fashion their nature and so change themselves in the process - whether 'the educator needs educating', as he claims in the famous Theses on Feuerbach.

Can we not envisage a state responsive to Rousseau's general will and/or to Marx's dictatorship of the proletariat (the last state form before the advent of the withering away of all repressive states in the communist, fully egalitarian society of super-abundance) where society would actively promote the flourishing of the human species-essence?

Monbiot's is a bleak introspective reliance on the implicitly necessarily repressive state to protect us from free marketeers and defending our every right, implicitly lodged in our right to private property as the only way of preventing us from murdering each other wholesale. However, this 'cure' which liberates us from the tyranny of the free marketeers like Matt Ridley might be worse than the disease: we could well end up with a fascist state on this logic. Monbiot clearly does not desire this, but how is his truly reactionary utopia to come about?

Here he explains his world view: "Ridley believes that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly. If you belong to a small group of intelligent hominids, all of whom are well known to each other, you will be rewarded for cooperation and generosity within the group (though this does not stop your group from attacking or exploiting another). If, on the other hand, you can switch communities at will, travel freely, buy in one country and sell in another, hire strangers then fire them, you will gain more from acting only in your own interest" (The Guardian October 23).

This is a biological version of the selfish gene with, amazingly, a reactionary attack on the free marketeer Ridley. The key to Ridley's reaction is contained in the phrase "if left to their own devices". This assumes man as monad and society composed of isolated individuals who only cooperate in order to con each other. Marx's project is to allow our species-essence to flourish as cooperative co-producers who can only overcome all forms of alienation and mental anguish produced by bourgeois society when we commonly own and produce for our needs.

Monbiot opposes this, so his opposition to modern capitalism is a rehash of the early 19th century ruralism, combined with modern communitarianism, with a thin veneer of science as cover. To combat Ridley's greedy egotism we must adopt the ideology of "a small group of intelligent hominids". Not Aristotle/Rousseau/Marx, but Plato/Machiavelli/Hobbes and Bilbo Baggins celebrating his 110th birthday in the happy shire must become our new vision of freedom.

Here it is: "The democratic challenge, which becomes ever more complex as the scale of human interactions increases, is to mimic the governance system of the small hominid troop. We need a state that rewards us for cooperating and punishes us for cheating and stealing. At the same time we must ensure that the state is also treated like a member of the hominid clan and punished when it acts against the common good. Human welfare, just as it was a million years ago, is guaranteed only by mutual scrutiny and regulation" (ibid).

Old Fredrick Engels thought that "the English translate their ignorance into Greek and call it agnosticism". Monbiot translates his ignorance into a pessimism and calls it zoological determinism.