Judt’s eloquent essay in the Guardian last Saturday has been remarked on by many commentators on the left, with its plea for a new language of social democracy coupled with pride in its past achievements. However, in many ways this essay is the ideal exemplar for Judt’s entire career: wrong but in an interesting way. The difficulty with his argument is one that afflicts the secular left as a whole: his manifesto is based on a misunderstanding of human nature and consequently it relies on wishful thinking.
Judt begins by assuring us that “the materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition.” Yet, as a historian, he must know that this is untrue. History affords us with endless examples of how humans predominantly look after their own and their family over the species as a whole. Where we cooperate, it is to advance our own ends. Yes, Adam Smith explained how markets can provide a common benefit derived from all the individual actors pursuing their own goals. But no workable theory of economics or human behaviour has been proposed that demonstrates that human beings are fundamentally altruistic.
Recent work in behavioural genetics and economics has borne this out. There was once a trend towards believing that altruism could be a serious force in economics. This followed experiments such as the “dictator game” where subjects were given some money and had the choice of how much of it to give away. Many did so, apparently for no reason. But recently, as the Freakonomics team of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have brilliantly reported, we’ve realised that human beings are only naturally altruistic when they are students doing economics experiments in front of their professors. In real life, people tend not to give away their cash for nothing.
Evolution has similar lessons for us. It is well established that we have evolved a capacity for reciprocal altruism (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours). Furthermore, ‘kin selection’ means that we act altruistically with regard to our family because this helps us to advance the interests of our shared genes. But pure altruism has no satisfactory evolutionary explanation. That examples of genuine self-sacrifice exist, no one denies. We can transcend our evolutionary inheritance and be better than nature intended us to be. But most of the time we aren’t.
So, when Judt claims that selfishness is not inherent in human nature, he has confused the exception with the rule. And this fundamental mistake means that his whole argument is built on air. Nonetheless, he is able to identify the core of his problem when he states,
In post-religious societies such as our own, where most people find meaning and satisfaction in secular objectives, it is only by indulging what Adam Smith called our "benevolent instincts" and reversing our selfish desires that we can "produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole race and propriety".Unfortunately, a post-religious society lacks the most obvious tool with which to make people do unto others who are in no position to repay them. This leaves the secular left with the desire that we transcend our natures, but no lever to make us do so. This is not a new challenge. Communists used violence to achieve their aims, but no democrat can countenance such methods. The unions have always acted explicitly for the material gain of their members. No one should blame them for that, since benefiting their members is precisely their purpose. As Daniel Finkelstein has recently explained, this is why the unions have so often acted contrary to the interests of Labour governments.
The third strand of the nineteenth century left was Christian socialism, once a very strong force in the UK. It has become a cliché to say that the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism. Christian socialism was important because it provided the only way for a mass movement to persuade people to be better than they might otherwise be. Religions do ask us to transcend the crocked timber of our humanity. Even if the promise of heavenly reward represents yet another example of reciprocal altruism, at least the bills do not come due this side of the grave.
The secular left want for this string in their bow. They can cajole us into listening to our better natures or, like New Labour, appeal to our self interest. Only the latter is ever likely to be an election-winning strategy. For Judt, who won’t as he says “retreat to religion”, the problem is more than one of language and renewal. He must find a way either to defy human nature or to convince the prosperous middle classes that the left has something to offer them.
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