Human Nature: Cooperative or Competitive?

It is only 5000 years ago that society was first divided into class

The classical economist David Ricardo sometimes sought to resolve the contradictions of capitalism by recourse to nature, a fallacy that Karl Marx decried as “organic chemistry”. The apologists of neoliberalism have extended such chemistry to the system as a whole. Humans are competitive by nature, they say, and capitalist competition is merely an expression of this.

Even if we grant the premise that humans are competitive by nature, that would no more vindicate capitalism than the equivalent human inanity of violence (assuming we were to concede such an equally tenuous proposition) would vindicate the Jewish Holocaust. Capitalism is a humanly organised economic system, just as the Final Solution was an industrially organised act of genocide.

The rapacity of violence in the world today renders a critique of the latter notion (violence as human nature) equally relevant and deserving. Imperialists have historically employed the fallacy as a justification for their militarism: by explaining violence as human nature, they characterise their own actions as merely expressive thereof, by which logic any conscious criminal act or conspiracy can be ultimately rationalised. Thus, as noted above with the Holocaust analogy, this conclusion doesn’t follow even if the premise were true. The deep reaction imbuing both reflect the limited historical and analytical insight of said imperialists.

Human history, they say, is riddled with violence. Of course it is, but for concrete reasons. The majority of human history (the hunter gatherer period) has in fact been characterised by a peaceful, harmonious communal continuum. It is only 5000 years ago, with the agricultural revolution, that society was first divided into class. The subsequent monopolisation of society and its resources by a ruling minority, a plutocracy, ushered in the period of violence we have since seen, which climaxed with the organised violence of empires, both pre-capitalist and post-capitalist.

The latter is evident even today when one compares the amount killed by Islamic terrorism to those killed by America since WWII, or even since 9/11. The Holocaust was a product of the historic crisis of German capitalism (another post). Even genocide, e.g. Rwanda, occurs within a political and ethnic context. Indeed, such reactionary violence is itself a product of the colonialist partition of Africa and the Middle East, not that the average Westerner has even heard of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

The above record would thus indicate that violence is not necessarily ‘human nature’, but consciously organised by historical ruling elites. They enforce the violence via, as Nazism did, what Marx termed the lumpen-proletariat: the dregs at the very bottom of society. In relation to Nazism in particular, one must factor in of course not only the ‘national humiliation’ of the Treaty of Versailles (which was real, and a crucial pole from which to understand the rise of Hitler) but its physical compunction by the economic chaos of the Great Depression.

In ‘Origins of Altruism and Cooperation’ (Springer 2011), Robert Sussman (PhD) and Robert Cloninger (MD) make the case that “altruism and cooperation are inherent in primates, including humans”. There are, of course, other studies affirming that competition and/or violence is inherent in human nature.

Of course, it is extremely important for such inquiries to distinguish between human nature and human behaviour within an artificial environment. In this frame of reference, human competition within the capitalist market is determined by a particular purpose: self-enrichment. As such, the internal behaviour within such a (albeit human) setup can hardly be construed as being necessarily a mere extension of human nature, any less than a murder by the mafia should be.

What do you think? Are humans competitive or cooperative, and does the answer have any bearing on the capitalism-vs-socialism debate?

Author: WeatherEye

Author of "Eurasian Tinderbox: The US Buildup against Russia and China". Ebook available at Amazon for $2.99 Producer of Flashpoints (2017), a documentary about NATO/Russia/Ukraine. Available for free viewing at

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