Some Thoughts on Rousseau, Human Nature, and Capitalism

As I write this, I am currently in the middle of finishing part 2 of my Irish history essay project. Encompassing the vast tapestry of Irish history into a small collection of papers is proving to be quite the monumental task, one of which I may not conquer until the end of the school semester. Anyways, I decided to take a small break from that and write a small post about something that I enjoy talking about. To my regular readers, the very well-appreciated few of you, this will be a quite different essay. More informal and not as long-winded as my histories and praxis works seem to be. Well, it may be just as long-winded but, I sure hope you get some enjoyment from my ramblings. Hopefully, it can explain some things to those of you less inclined towards Marxism or leftism in general.

First, I would like to talk about Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau is one of my favourite non-Marxist philosophers. His work is critical in understanding the formation of societies and the need for revolution. His definitive work Of the Social Contract is necessary for all who want to even begin to understand modern philosophy. While Of the Social Contract is important and definitely essential reading, it sometimes overshadows Rousseau’s other important work A Discourse on Inequality. The Discourse outlines the basic fundamental roots of what Rousseau calls social inequality. He also describes the “natural state” of humans outside of civilisation and societal structures. Rousseau describes humans in this state as truly peaceful and happy, a sort of Garden of Eden situation. While Rousseau says that the natural state is when humanity is at its happiest, he acknowledges how inefficient and senseless it is to remain in that state. Rousseau says that humans began to cooperate due to the sheer need to survive and due to a basic feeling of empathy. It was these feelings that led to people settling in small towns and villages. However, these settlements are not the root cause of civil society and social inequality as Rousseau defined it. Rousseau says that the root of inequality is private property. In the Discourse, Rousseau says the following:

“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, 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.”

Rousseau sees private property as the root of the society he lived in. He saw it as the root of social inequality, which boils down to those who have and those who do not have. Now, Rousseau was also very cynical in a lot of what he wrote, especially on matters such as this. While realising that things like private property and civil society caused much evil, he also realised that without them, he would not be able to criticise them. Rousseau espoused some very proto-socialist ideas but, was always very vague about them. Rousseau was a clear inspiration for Marx with dialectical materialism, the roots of inequality, and human nature. Although, it can be said that Marx came to different conclusions than Rousseau and Marx was much more progressive than Rousseau. Rousseau maintained a very sexist view in much of his work. He would downplay the role of women in changing society and would call them “the sex that ought to obey”. This thinking only ever really manifests itself in off comments and in his work on childhood development, Emile. His Confessions also have many sexist and problematic tendencies in them. While these problems cannot be ignored when reading Rousseau, it does not detract much from what he said, especially on inequality and social contract theory. Rousseau proves to still be relevant in studying the formation of societies and trying to wager the ability of a revolution to succeed. I do not think Rousseau will ever not be relevant. His work, like much of Enlightenment philosophy, proves itself to be less of a philosophical assertion and more of a study into the factual roots of societies.

With my brief views on Rousseau out of the way, I can begin to expand more upon human nature and capitalism. Rousseau and his ideas on the natural state of man mostly line up with Marxist ideas but, they differ in key ways. Where they diverge is mostly in the fact that Rousseau speaks little of human nature itself. It is wrong to conflate the natural state of man with human nature. Where Rousseau speaks of human nature is in Of The Social Contract where he talks about the general will. According to Rousseau, the general will is the expression of the will of the masses, this also encompasses human nature. Human nature is expressed through the general will in many ways but, not in a pure way. The expression of human nature through the general will is often diluted by the process of expression, be that through the democratic bodies or revolutionary action. Due to this, it is often difficult to truly decipher what human nature is and we can only propose theories and assertions. Human nature is also not concrete, it is ever-changing around material conditions. Human nature in the pre-civilisation world is different than human nature today under an advanced stage of capitalism. This being said, what do people mean when they talk about human nature as it transcends throughout the centuries of human history? Well, when looking at the development of human nature and its changes, one finds trends, certain things stay the same. To Rousseau, this trait was empathy, the ability to sympathise and want to help other people. This is true but, I and many other Marxists assert, alongside empathy, the need for cooperation is constant in human nature. Human society is built upon cooperation and general consensus, it requires the general will to favour it in order to survive. Humans also require cooperation and social interaction in order to function properly. Given the basic human need to cooperate and interact with other human beings, a communal and communist society makes sense. I find that many comrades get tripped up by the vitriolic arguments spewed by anti-communist pundits. All one needs is to examine human nature to realise how incorrect those arguments are. You can find evidence of this within capitalism itself. As previously said, social and economic systems require the general will to continue their existence, capitalism is a good example of this. The existence of markets rely on collective participation and cooperation between those involved. This is not the same as socialist or communist cooperation but, it still shows the cooperative basis of human nature.

This is why I find the assertion that human nature is purely competitive preposterous. The Ayn Rand objectivist viewpoint does little to actually service society. What it does is provide certain people with an excuse for their general lack of caring about their fellow human beings. That being said, one may ask: if human nature is to care and cooperate, why are there greedy people? This is a question not easily answered but, an answer has been attempted by many philosophers. To Marx and Rousseau, the reason greedy people exist is due to things like private property and capitalism. People needed a reason to be greedy before they actually could be. With the formation of the concepts of land ownership, commerce, and capitalism; people would hoard assets and begin to accumulate vast amounts of wealth, ignoring their fellow as if he were an animal. This is the sort of inhumanity that flows from capitalist society and the feudalist predecessor. Where it differs today is that sometimes the capitalist must provide a façade of caring and humanity in order to maintain a profit. If the capitalist does not see profit in it, they will not do it. This has led to progress but, at the cost of exploiting the labour of both the first and third world. We can look at SpaceX and their advancements in space travel technology. These are, without a doubt, great achievements for humanity but, at what cost? To get the metals, miners in poor third world countries had to break their backs for pennies an hour. Factory workers had to do the same for minuscule pay. The simple fact is that, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Everything you buy or do services the exploitation of working people and there is nothing we can really do about it within the current systems of bourgeois democracy. You can help alleviate the burden on the workers, sure, but what does that accomplish other than prolonging the life of capitalism? That is not to say we should not support the efforts of labour activists, we should always. What it means is that we must stay steadfast in promoting radical socialist change through revolution. We must always strive for the liberation of the working people through tireless struggle.

Despite the inherent cooperative elements in capitalism, it is still in gross violation of human nature in more ways that it is not. The most basic evidence of this was put forward by Marx in his theories on alienation under capitalism. This happens in two ways: The first is with the alienation from the products of one’s labour. This occurs through the taking of surplus value by the capitalist. After the capitalist takes the surplus value, what is left is given to the worker as a wage. This wage is, generally, too small for the worker to be able to afford what they had produced. This leads to the workers being alienated from the product, this leads to a feeling of inadequacy. In the situations of a workplace, it can also be seen that other workers get paid more than others. This leads to a feeling of anger and hatred in workers for their fellow workers. Even with these minor differences in pay, they all suffer mostly the same struggle. This method has been used by the capitalist to divide and conquer the working class. Another form of alienation that stems from capitalism is social alienation. In order for the worker to survive and make a living, they must often sacrifice time with their family or friends, sacrifice doing pleasurable things. This leads to depression and the ramifications that come from that. In recent decades, we have seen an increase in the rate and amount of people with conditions such as depression or anxiety. This is due to improved methods of detecting and treating such conditions but, what does this really show us? Well, the sheer volume and amount of people that have conditions like depression have led many psychologists and sociologists to think that conditions like these may have been prevalent for a very long time. This coupled with the number of depression cases linked to work conditions and labour prove much of Marx’s assertions on the negative effects of capitalism on the human mind as true. The open refusal of many of Marx’s ideas on this is purely ideological. Whether you agree with Marx or not, you cannot dispute much of what he said in the realm of sociology must be taken into serious consideration.

I often find it hard to believe that those who preach ideas of capitalism or Americanism are actually trying to do any good for humanity but, this may be a disingenuous line of thinking. Not every person that exudes those ideals knows of other ideas. Education on different ideas is so rare in the American education system that the prevalence of American exceptionalism and reactionary ideas is an expected fact. Also, as Rousseau said, a constant of human nature is empathy and a want to help others. With some exceptions, I believe this to be true. Rousseau also talks about the general will being misguided and needing help and guidance. This is true for people as well. Sometimes people who espouse harmful ideas only need to be talked to. Mao Zedong talks about this too in great detail in many of his works on party discipline. It is very important for communists to attempt and correct mistaken ideas among people about Marxism and communism. This is how we can begin to build a mass base. It is critical to revolution.

I do hope this was somewhat interesting. In this current interbellum between the parts in my Irish history series, I thought something like this would be easy to write and put out. Bit of a ramble but, eh. Again, I would like to say thank you to the small number of you who are regular readers of mine. Part 2 of the Irish history essay will be out soon!

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