A darwinian leftist

There are some interesting things in Unity is Health: An Evolutionary Left, an article by a neo-lefty British journalist who takes the notion of innate human nature seriously. What’s interesting in it is that there is apparently good reason to think that social inequality as such leads to bad health for those at the bottom, and that some left-wingers are trying to reconstruct leftist thought to take into account innate human differences.

The first aspect of the article requires further investigation and interpretation, but is of general interest. The second is mostly interesting for the example it offers of thought that wanders off into the swamps of confusion because of unanalyzed and wrong-headed premises. As a neo-lefty, the author believes in social policy. He therefore tends to identify social inequality with strictly material inequality, perhaps because he thinks such inequalities can be managed and reduced by appropriate government intervention. However, the facts he presents make it clear that it is not material inequality as such that is the issue: one of his examples is the British civil service, in which death rates are three times higher—in the case of heart disease, four times higher—among junior grades than at the mandarin levels. Since the strictly economic distinctions among civil servants are not extreme, the example makes it clear that the problem is less money than the intangible aspects of inequality.

On the whole, his analysis confirms that. He says:

Evolutionary psychology understands humans as fundamentally social beings. It is unsurprised to hear that increments of wealth fail to bring corresponding increases in happiness. Instead, it expects to find the keys to happiness in the eternal verities of status and belonging. Status exists without hierarchy, through friendship, reputation, reciprocity and mutual obligation; but as a society becomes more hierarchical, status increasingly depends upon the ability to achieve visible superiority. It becomes less important to be well regarded, and more important to be looked up to.
That still doesn’t quite capture the situation, though. The problem is not hierarchy as such. He should recognize that, since his model of a society in which human relations lead to good health is Japan, one in which deference and hierarchy are prominent. The key, he says, is that “The traditional Japanese company might be highly formal, but it is based on an ideology of mutual involvement, which in turn rests on the assumption that its relationship with an employee will be long-lasting.” It should be clear, however, that mutual involvement and permanent connection are less opposed to hierarchy than they are to bureaucratic egalitarianism. He contrasts Japan to the West, in which
the call centre managers may teach their staff the company song, but they’ll be ready to fire them the moment a bad quarter’s results come in. Loyalties are as portable as pension plans. As individuals do not belong anywhere for very long, their status and reputations attach to themselves alone. Instead of building up a store of respect through living within a single community, you can take your accumulated material wealth and use it to assume status anywhere you choose to go. Despite the managerial talk of ‘flattened hierarchies’, the modern economy is as fluent in dominance as it is in English.
Fluid, portable hierarchy that denies personal connections isn’t really hierarchy at all. What the author really seems to be saying is not that inequality kills but that modernity does. That’s hardly news to readers of VFR.

As a leftist, however neo, the author cannot see it that way. For him, man and his inclinations are the raw material for social engineers whose goal is a technologically rational society of equal freedom, comfort and respect. He simply cannot take in as a problem that personal “friendship, reputation, reciprocity and mutual obligation” that matter are necessarily absent from a society in which everything must be administered for the sake of an abstract conception of justice that may take some aspects of human nature into account but in its fundamentals owes nothing to them. His attitude toward the sexes is emblematic. He admits that there are “different emotional propensities in males and females.” For him though the point is not to accept such things as constitutive of human nature and build on them for the ties to which they naturally give rise, but to guard against them because they mean that “males will tend to form coalitions, which exclude and subjugate females.”

Take that approach and it’s hard to see how society can consist of anything but the atomic individual clients of the administrative state. If feeling insignificant and ineffectual is a health problem, that can hardly be the answer. In post-Soviet Russia we see what the program of the Left, vigorously applied, leads to. The statistics the author cites suggests that liberal society has some of the same antihuman tendencies. However, the tendencies are a consequence of the basic modernist understandings behind liberalism, communism and the left in any form, and so cannot be cured by adding evolutionary biology to the mix.
Posted by Jim Kalb at October 12, 2002 01:50 PM | Send


The journalist has put forward an interesting argument.

He wants to justify left-liberalism within the framework of a Darwinian human nature.

He does so by claiming that a survival strategy of earlier hunter gatherer societies was to employ an “intuitive counter dominance” in which exceptional individuals were pulled back to maintain group coherence.

In this way, egalitarianism is part of human nature. Furthermore, although equality doesn’t create material wealth in a modern technological society as it did for hunter gatherers, it can still secure other immaterial essentials, such as good health and reduced crime and violence.

Therefore, it is important to follow our hunter gatherer instinct for equality by implementing high levels of taxation and state welfare.

Posted by: Mark Richardson on October 12, 2002 9:36 PM

The thought seems to be that a hunter/gatherer society is structureless, and kept that way by envy, so bureaucratic egalitarianism is justified by Darwin as doing what comes naturally.

A difficulty with the analogy of course is that a structureless society that includes the entire population of Australia, America, or the globe is not at all the same as one of 40 hunter/gatherers. One difference is that the former is impossible; the classless society will in fact be ruled by an omnipotent New Class. Another is that a structureless society with millions of members has no place for the close and enduring human relations that provide the necessary setting for the attitudes of personal regard that on the author’s account are necessary for good health.

The author’s right of course that anything whatever people do politically can be explained by reference to something that had a function in hunter/gatherer bands.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 12, 2002 11:06 PM

Isn’t this just the usual postmodern trick of subverting and taking over the master narrative from within rather than confronting it directly as the enemy?

Posted by: Matt on October 13, 2002 5:13 PM

I “tend to identify social inequality with strictly material inequality” because I’m a “neo-lefty”? No I don’t, and that’s the whole point of the article. Evolutionary perspectives offer a way of looking at developed societies, in which most of the ‘poor’ are rich by historical and global standards, and understanding why there is still something badly wrong. But unless you feel there’s something wrong in the first place, you may simply be inclined to assume that the world we have made is natural, and that natural is right.

Posted by: Marek Kohn on October 14, 2002 6:36 AM

But a major thrust of the article was the idea that a growing disparity in incomes was undermining solidarity, unity, community, the social fabric and so on.

In my view, the breakdown in the social fabric has more to do with the liberal insistence that we should be autonomous individuals, self-created from our own reason and will.

Once you adopt this view as a kind of template, the deeper forms of connection between people become (intellectually) illegitimate.

For instance, evolution may have left a strong instinct in men to provide and protect for women, something still reflected in the romantic ideals of both men and women.

But this instinct obviously collides with the liberal idea that women should be financially, and even emotionally, autonomous of men. Is it really surprising that there is dissatisfaction in modern life when the romantic instincts of men and women are undermined by liberal ideals of autonomy?

Similarly, there were traditionally real historical ties of ethnicity between individuals. Again, these became illegitimate because they were inherited and unchosen forms of identity, when liberals insist that individuals should be free to rationally choose their own forms of identity.

The whole thrust of liberalism has been to “deconstruct” whatever represents an unchosen impediment to individual will. This necessarily means tearing large holes in the social fabric.

Therefore, even if the state intervened to nearly equalise incomes, it’s unlikely that any deeper sense of connection between individuals would result.

Posted by: Mark Richardson on October 14, 2002 7:44 AM

“Neo-lefty” is vague and somewhat derogatory. Since Mr. Kohn has posted a civil reply I apologize.

The analysis on which the article relies should make social inequalities broadly speaking—more precisely, lack of social connectedness—and not money the problem. I take it that is what Mr. Kohn means when he says the whole point of the article is that social inequality is not strictly material.

Nonetheless, the article emphasizes money. My main point was that in view of the fundamental analysis the emphasis is misleading and makes the article internally inconsistent. If it’s social factors rather than money why talk about money so much?

I suggested that the (apparently illogical) emphasis on money likely reflects an attempt to define the problem in a way that makes it amenable to bureaucratic solution. Moving money around is something it ought to be easy for government to do. I further suggested that the (characteristically left-wing and indeed modern) habit of defining problems that way contributes to the lack of connectedness that seems to be the problem.

As to whether the actually-existing is the natural, no I don’t think so. It just seems to me that socially manipulative methods make things worse on that score.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 14, 2002 9:45 AM

If I understand Mr. Kohn’s article correctly the premise is that it is not absolute wealth that matters but relative wealth, and not because of what it affords materially but because of the status it affords socially. It isn’t that little Jimmy is dying because he is starving to death but rather little Jimmy is dying because he can’t keep up with the Joneses. I suppose now that it has become irrefutably obvious that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is an outright lie — in actual fact the rich get richer and the poor do too — there is a need for some other theory to support economic egalitarianism. Since it is no longer possible to argue that little Jimmy is dying of starvation the substitute argument is that little Jimmy is dying of low self-esteem.

Of course if little Jimmy is literally dying of low self esteem it seems possible that there are factors other than economics as a measure of social status involved.

Posted by: Matt on October 15, 2002 12:32 AM

I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised that death and taxes loom so large in the discussion! Death is easy to measure, and its importance is difficult to deny. So it makes a an easier way to introduce the argument than to speak in vague terms about stress or unhappiness. Taxes are important as a means of shaping the distribution of wealth. But they don’t directly address the underlying issue.

This is about status and social relations. The argument is that people are healthier if their relations with each other are based on mutuality rather than dominance. Income inequality is an important element in the balance between mutuality and dominance. So is the whole vast network of everyday relationships that make up neighbourhoods and civil society.

I’m reminded somewhat of Stephen Jay Gould’s observation, in his critique of The Bell Curve, that he and Murray shared an ideal of small-town, white-picket-fence community. Perhaps where I differ with other commentators on this page is over the question of the cost of this community, and how the bill should be shared.

BTW, I don’t mind being called a ‘neo-lefty’ in the slightest. Thanks to all of you for your civility.

Marek Kohn

Posted by: Marek Kohn on October 18, 2002 5:33 AM

People are different in ways that matter. It follows that if their relations to each other are important in defining their lives and are based on somewhat free give-and-take—and those things seem to be involved in mutuality—they won’t be equal. Mutuality therefore means some sort of hierarchy. The Left seems to use “dominance” to refer to hierarchy without mutuality. Categorically to identify hierarchy and dominance is to deny the possibility of mutuality.

If declining social mutuality is the problem the Left can therefore propose no useful remedy. Their goal is the elimination of dominance, and they think comprehensive programs aimed at eliminating dominance will, among other good things, promote mutuality. They won’t, though, because by attempting to eliminate inequality as such they eliminate the inequality that is the necessary associate of mutuality. The way to make people equal is to make their lives depend on some universal administrative scheme rather than their mutual relations with each other. The benefits of such an approach do not include an increase in mutuality. While extreme inequalities in income may destroy community, it does not follow that the redistributive state can restore it.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on October 18, 2002 7:24 AM

But if mutuality and heirarchy are not polar opposites then we might have to face the fact that human relations are the messy quasichaos, exhibiting plenary resistance to manipulation, that traditional conservatives have always claimed them to be. That would imply the end of the leftist project to control such relations technologically in order to achieve egalitarian outcomes, and we can’t have that.

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