[Written By: John Hill]
The nineteenth-century American philosopher Ralph Emerson wrote that ‘the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it’. It is natural to focus on the needs or desires of ourselves above anybody else’s concerns as self-interest drives us all and impels us to fulfil our own individual wills. Freud himself was interested in the study of our innermost drive and concluded we have two primitive instincts: Eros and Thantos, our will to live and our death drive, the pursuance of personal fulfilment and preservation.
Consider one of the greatest practical forms of self-interest: capitalism. The system is predicated on a self-interest which motivates someone to maximise their profits. If we are to believe that humans are naturally capitalist, then it is worth reviewing the history of this ‘economic man’, and how prevalent it is today.
Individuals in the middle ages created their wealth through merchant capitalism. In the thirteenth century, Jews across Britain were usually given the job of money-lending as Christians were unable to charge interest. So, in 1290, Edward I expelled the Jews from Britain in order to accumulate their profits.
Fourteenth century Florence also showed indications of capitalism: their great banking families engaged in transactions across the breadth of Europe. From as far back as the middle ages people have been driven by self-interest to create wealth, even if it comes at the expense of others. It seems that self-interest is pursued through capitalism even if we dislike the potential immorality behind it.
While Marx treated the capitalist – whom he portrays has having viciously seized control over production to maximize surplus – with contempt. However, his own hypocrisy can be seen as contemptible. Despite his polemics over the morality of the capitalist, he often partook in their greedy game, gambling on the stock market himself. This hypocrisy, from the father of communism no less, just goes to show that the most thoughtful, those most concerned with the immorality of the capitalist system, could still succumb to their natural drives.
The point of Thatcherism was to encourage individuals to help themselves before helping others. This controversial strategy makes sense in that if we are unable to help ourselves then we cannot first attempt to help others. Only by seeking to advance our own self-interest we will then be able to provide the means for others to help themselves.
So, when we approach the statement that “humans are naturally capitalists”, what do we think? It certainly seems to be a valid point. Capitalist self-interest is often fulfilled at the expense of others, and so we are all prone to this self-interest, even if we dislike the morality of it. Yet, while it seems that (most of the time) we are self-interested people, does this mean that we are equally self-seeking creatures too?