"We Are All Socialists in Our Private Lives"
David Graeber gets to the heart of human (and more than human) nature.
Tomorrow night my husband and I are going out to dinner with some friends to celebrate my best friend’s birthday. While we are out our friends, who also happen to be our neighbours, will be looking after our children. I would normally ask my Mum to look after them but she has recently had a knee replacement and can’t drive for a few weeks. Before we go out to dinner tomorrow we will be watching my youngest daughter perform in her end of year dance concert. We will be giving another friend and her children, who live on our street, a lift to the concert and back so that her daughter can perform and she and her son can watch her.
This afternoon my daughter will be getting a lift to and from her touch football game with a neighbour who lives two doors down, as our daughters are in the same team. Last week my son went to a friend’s house before his cricket training and the friend’s Mum took both my son and her son to training. We looked after her son the following day before and after their cricket match. Today a friend dropped around her beautiful golden retriever dog, Ruby, as we are looking after her for a couple of nights while her family are away for the weekend. Ruby’s family looked after our labrador for a week in the last school holidays while we were away.
I could go on, but I think I’ve illustrated my point. In not a single case that I’ve mentioned above has there been an expectation that anyone should profit from helping the other person out. We certainly are grateful and willing to reciprocate where we can, we may even give a gift to say thank you. But that is very different from an outright expectation that we should be financially better off after having helped a friend or family member. I’m sure you can think of similar examples in your own life. That is because, according to the late anthropologist David Graeber, “we are all socialists in our private lives”.
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But humans are, of course, a part of nature, so it begs the question - do we see this desire to help others without private gain in the rest of nature too? The answer is yes, we do! Trees, for example, communicate potential dangers to other trees via “pheromones and other scent signals” released into the air to warn of an impending threat, allowing at-risk trees to release chemicals to proactively defend themselves against the threat. Similarly, tiny fungal threads (mycelium) - which are much thinner than a human hair - form an underground “mycorrhizal network” which connects individual trees together to share water, nitrogen, carbon and other minerals. It is through this process that larger trees provide weaker trees with the nutrients they need to survive and thrive. They do this without the expectation of profiting from their assistance.
Chimpanzees help treat the wounds of community members by applying insects to the injury. Monkeys share food, protect each other from threats and even groom each other. Elephants are a particularly cooperative species, looking after each other both physically and emotionally and raising calves cooperatively to ensure their safety and well-being. Female white rhinos regularly adopt older calves into their family, “investing time, energy, and resources in raising another individual’s offspring, an act of care that extends beyond their own genetic lineage”. Bees, ants and termites (and many other insects) all act cooperatively to collect food, build nests and raise their young.
Far from being surprising, as evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis’ research proved, evolution happens as much through cooperation as competition: “[a]nimal and plant life evolved from bacteria through symbiosis.” We evolved because we cooperate, not despite it. So, how do we find ourselves stuck in a growth-based primarily capitalist economic system that doesn’t reflect not just human nature, but nature in general?
It is because we reward behaviours that more cooperative systems would have had a natural ‘check’ in place to guard against. Where cooperative systems wouldn’t allow one person to gain wealth at the expense of others, in this economic system the hoarding of wealth is idolised even though if we saw it happen in a non-human animal or plant species we would be very concerned:
If a monkey hoarded more bananas than it could eat, while most of the other monkeys starved, scientists would study that monkey to figure out what the heck was wrong with it. When humans do it, we put them on the cover of Forbes.
Source: Nathalie Robin Justice Gravel on X
If we want a system that is consistent with the flourishing of life on earth, we will need a system that mimics nature. Our current economic model doesn’t - for many reasons - and needs to change. Looking at nature, including our own human nature in our private lives, gives us many ideas for what this new, harmonious system could look like.
This article was inspired by this quote from Jason Hickel: “My colleague David Graeber was fond of saying that people are actually all socialists in their private lives”, from the Macro and Cheese podcast, episode #185: Episode 185 – Please Look Up with Jason Hickel.
Another piece of David Graeber’s that I refer to often is this article: ‘David Graeber: ‘To save the world, we’re going to have to stop working’ in The Big Issue.
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