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The Human Prospect

I am quite certain that we have not begun to exhaust the generalizations that can be risked with regard to the political forces at work in history, and I must stress as strongly as possible that I do not have in mind the formulation of an all-embracing “theory” of political behavior. I have entirely omitted, for example, the crucial problem of aggression, individual or national, and left unexplored the political dynamics of bureaucracy. I have done so in part because the two attributes of “human nature” that I have singled out seem to me to have been neglected, and still more because these attributes seem especially relevant, in a positive sense, to the longterm prospect for survival. For the capacity for survival must reckon with the need for—perhaps the ultimate reliance on—welcomed hierarchies of power and strongly felt bonds of peoplehood, to the discomfiture of those who would hope that the challenges of the human prospect would finally banish the thralldoms of authority and ideology and foster the “liberation” of the individual. Our analysis provides a warning that these hopes are not likely to be realized, and that the tensions immanent in socio-economic trends must be worked out within and through the political elements in “human nature.”

The last point is important. An essential difficulty in our estimate of the human prospect is the apparent conflict between our intuitive sense of the fixity of “human nature” and our knowledge that behavior can be altered. According to one of the tenets of radical thought, “man makes himself,” and is therefore capable of far-reaching changes in his “nature.” I have put forward the view that this plasticity of culture must adapt itself in some manner or other to the needs that spring from man’s conditioning, and this does not permit us to assume that the political structure of society can accommodate itself to whatever image we may have of what man should be.

For the assumption that man ultimately “makes himself” in a benign manner implies that within the raw stuff of the human infant there exists some gyroscopic tendency that will finally guide him, as an adult, in a direction that will accord with the radical’s high moral estimate of mankind. Otherwise, why should we not conclude that the self-made man, stripped of all his false consciousness, divested of the delusions and fantasies that have misled him, will settle into a state of utter existential despair, or relapse into a suicidal solipsism? Indeed, why not conclude that before the terrifying truth of mortal finitude each man must shed the frail moral teachings of the past and finish his life in an orgy of self-indulgence that knows no bounds? That truly pessimistic possibility can only look for its refutation to the persistent promptings of a portion of man’s being that he does not “make,” but that makes him. In this regard it is worth reflecting that the hideous visions of man’s future in Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984 are both based on the premise of the unlimited plasticity and malleability of the human species.

It is possible, of course, that in the future men may be so altered in their genetic characters, or nurtured in such carefully planned circumstances, that the “class” or “patriotic” attributes of political life would disappear because they no longer answered to an inner need. But at this juncture in history, our attention had better be focused on what men are likely to be rather than on what they could eventually become. The human prospect forces us to deal with human change within an indeterminate, but not indefinite, time period; and speculations about the degree of potential change must give way before the degree of change that is imaginable within that period.

So far as the genetic question is concerned, the time required for change is very long indeed, unless we discover chemical means of altering human behavior and apply these on a global scale—a prospect still happily well beyond our reach.21 As for the rapidity with which institutional changes can work their effect on behavior, we face the problem of the natural “inertia” of the human condition, an inertia ascribable not only to the presence of a stubbornly persisting substratum of psychological needs, but also to the laggard pace of change in the family setting through which those needs are gradually shaped into the attitudes of adult behavior.

I do not raise these considerations to dismiss the possibility of dramatic transformations in social organization, such as we have seen in China. Indeed, I am persuaded that changes of this magnitude may be required within the time span with which our examination has been concerned. My analysis leads me, rather, to reiterate that these behavioral alterations, much as those that have taken place in China, will have to allow for, or build on, recalcitrant elements in the human personality, including the two that I have singled out for emphasis, namely the “hunger” for political authority and the “fantasy” of political identification. Further, it is not genetic evolution or cumulative amelioration in rearing that are likely to be the crucial means of affecting the behavioral reorientations of the “post-industrial” future, but the use of those primal elements on which political power rests—a belief for which, once again, the Chinese experience provides some supporting evidence.

I am all too aware that these conclusions may bring dismay to many whom I consider my friends and comfort to many whom I consider my foes. To suggest that political power and hierarchy serve a supportive function in society plays directly into the hands of those who applaud the “orderliness” of authoritarian or dictatorial governments. To find a reason for the appeal of nonrational political beliefs is to encourage those who advocate irresponsible political programs. To stress the psychological roots of peoplehood is to weaken the cause of those who seek to overcome the curse of racism and xenophobia.

If I nonetheless publish these thoughts, with all their potential mischievousness, it is because the weakest part of the humanitarian outlook, both philosophically and pragmatically, has been its inability or unwillingness to come to grips with certain obdurate human characteristics. As a result we find buried within “humanist” appeals a conception of human nature that is often as reactionary, in the sense of ascribing an inherent element of evil to man, as that of the most unthinking conservative. Let me cite this example from a contemporary radical publication:

In the most profound sense, the proletariat has not one enemy but two the ruling class and itself. In the absence of a humanizing militancy and a militant humanism, in the absence of a fierce common hatred for the common enemy, and a fiercer common love for the proletariat as a whole, history will degenerate into barbarism.22

The encouragement of aggressive impulses (militancy, fierce hatred, fiercer love), the dehumanization implicit in the admonition to “love” the proletariat “as a whole,” and above all the view of man as engaged in a struggle to the death with himself open this view to a critique as scathing as any that could be directed against a “bourgeois” conception of humanity. If radicalism is to go to the roots, as the term implies, it must be prepared to examine the “nature” of man in ways much more courageous and much less pietistic than those it uses in the name of “humanism.” Anything less will only build an architecture of hope on false beliefs.

V: Reflections on the Human Prospect

What is needed now is a summing up of the human prospect, some last reflections on its implications for the present and future alike.

The external challenges can be succinctly reviewed. We are entering a period in which rapid population growth, the presence of obliterative weapons, and dwindling resources will bring international tensions to dangerous levels for an extended period. Indeed, there seems no reason for these levels of danger to subside unless population equilibrium is achieved and some rough measure of equity reached in the distribution of wealth among nations, either by great increases in the output of the underdeveloped world or by a massive distribution of wealth from the richer to the poorer lands.

Whether such an equitable arrangement can be reached—at least within the next several generations—is open to serious doubt. Transfers of adequate magnitude imply a willingness to redistribute income internationally on a more generous scale than the advanced nations have evidenced within their own domains. The required increases in output in the backward regions would necessitate gargantuan application of energy merely to extract the needed resources. It is uncertain whether the requisite energy-producing technology exists, and, more serious, possible that its application would bring us to the threshold of an irreversible change in climate, as a consequence of the enormous addition of manmade heat to the atmosphere.

It is this last problem that poses the most demanding and difficult of the challenges. The existing pace of industrial growth, with no allowance for increased industrialization to repair global poverty, holds out the risk of entering the danger zone of climatic change in as little as three or four generations. If that trajectory is in fact pursued, industrial growth will then have to come to an immediate halt, for another generation or two along that path would literally consume human, perhaps all, life. That terrifying outcome can be postponed only to the extent that the wastage of heat can be reduced, or that technologies that do not add to the atmospheric heat burden for example, solar energy transformers—can be put to use. The outlook can also be mitigated by redirecting output away from heat-creating material outputs into the production of “services” that add only trivially to heat.

All these considerations make the designation of a timetable for industrial deceleration difficult to construct. Yet, under any and all assumptions, one irrefutable conclusion remains. The industrial growth process, so central to the economic and social life of capitalism and Western socialism alike, will be forced to slow down, in all likelihood within a generation or two, and will probably have to give way to decline thereafter. To repeat the words of the text, “whether we are unable to sustain growth or unable to tolerate it,” the long era of industrial expansion is now entering its final stages, and we must anticipate the commencement of a new era of stationary total output and (if population growth continues or an equitable sharing among nations has not yet been attained) declining material output per head in the advanced nations.

These challenges also point to a certain time frame within which different aspects of the human prospect will assume different levels of importance. In the short run, by which we may speak of the decade or two immediately ahead, no doubt the most pressing questions will be those of the use and abuse of national power, the vicissitudes of political history, perhaps the short-run vagaries of the economic process, about which we have virtually no predictive capability whatsoever. From our vantage point today, a worsening of the situation in the Middle East, further Vietnams or Czechoslovakias, inflation, severe economic malfunction—or their avoidance—are sure to exercise the primary influences over the quality of existence, or even over the possibilities for existence.

  1. 21

    See E.O. Wilson, “Competitive and Aggressive Behavior,” in Man and Beast (Smithsonian Institution, 1971), p. 207, who discusses “rapid” behavioral evolution in a time span of 300 years.

  2. 22

    The Making of Socialist Consciousness,” by the editors of Socialist Revolution (1970), reprinted in The Capitalist System, Edwards, Reich, Weiskopf, eds. (Prentice Hall, 1972), p. 505.

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