What "The Lives of Others'' reminds us of -- and the reason it is such a timeless work of art -- is that man is capable of totalitarianism, but not perfect totalitarianism. Even when all the pegs are in place, something will alter the clockwork mechanism of the regime. That ``something'' is human nature, pure and simple. Nobody in the film is a perfect totalitarian in the sense that no one -- not the bosses, not the servants, not the victims -- acts in the way that the logic of the system dictates they should act in any given circumstance. There will be moments of weakness in the least humane of despots and moments of fortitude in the most hopeless victims that will shatter the perfect order of the totalitarian system.
The minister who uses the power of the Stasi to satisfy his libido rather than to preserve the German Democratic Republic's ideological purity, and who blacklists a theater director for reasons that have little to do with cultural orthodoxy, ensures that the system is less than perfect: His actions have consequences that in small ways subvert the order he is supposed to preserve by triggering the gradual disobedience of a subordinate, the moral awakening of an artist who has shown no prior penchant for rebellion, or the self-doubt of a woman torn between her career and her heart. Emotions, intuitions, and free expressions of will begin to erode the edifice of oppression in the most unpredictable circumstances....
The lesson of our time, a decade and a half after the fall of communism in Europe, is that the slow, almost geological, accumulation of little bits of heroism throughout society can bring down a totalitarian giant over time. These acts of heroism, both inside and outside the structure of power, constitute the best hope for countries in which governments continue to enslave millions of people today.
But even if these acts of silent heroism are not enough to cause all despots to come tumbling down, they are at least enough to keep the human spirit alive. That is a comforting thought.(emphasis mine)
It is indeed a comforting thought, especially in light of the unbelievable idiocy and totalitarian proclivities of some people in the teaching profession:
...the Hilltop Children’s Center in Seattle has banned Legos.
A pair of teachers at the center, which provides afterschool activities for elementary-school kids, recently described their policy in a Rethinking Schools cover story called “Why We Banned Legos.” (See the magazine’s cover here.)
It has something to do with “social justice learning.”
The root cause of Hilltop’s Lego problem was that, well, the kids were being kids: There were disputes over “cool pieces,” instances of bigger kids bossing around little ones, and so on.
An ordinary person might recognize this as child’s play. But the social theorists at Hilltop saw something else: “The children were building their assumptions about ownership and the social power it conveys — assumptions that mirrored those of a class-based, capitalist society — a society that we teachers believe to be unjust and oppressive.”
This is probably as good an example as anything of the kind of biological fantasies that swirl around in the minds of tyrants not too dissimilar from those teachers. The teachers at Hilltop justify their particular brand of "selfless" tyranny and malignant narcissism by couching its oppression in terms like "social justice", but it is tyranny nonetheless. Because, unlike the capitalist system they abhor, where basic human nature--both the good and the bad parts--is harnessed and made socially useful, the ideologically-motivated teachers intend to stamp out all the parts of human nature they don't happen to like.
Someone should tell them it has been tried before, and by much smarter tyrants than they will ever be. It won't work.
A Cato Institute Policy Report from 2005 notes:
In the spring of 1845, Karl Marx wrote, ". . . the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations." Marx's idea was that a change in the "ensemble of social relations" can change "the human essence."
In June 2004 the communist North Korean government issued a statement to its starving citizens recommending the consumption of pine needles. Pyongyang maintained that pine needle tea could effectively prevent and treat cancer, arteriosclerosis, diabetes, cerebral hemorrhage, and even turn grey hair to black.
Tragically, human nature isn't at all as advertised, and neither is pine needle tea. According to the U.S. State Department, at least one million North Koreans have died of famine since 1995.
Marx's theory of human nature, like Kim Jong Il's theory of pine needle tea, is a biological fantasy, and we have the corpses to prove it. Which may drive us to wonder: if communism is deadly because it is contrary to human nature, does that imply that capitalism, which is contrary to communism, is distinctively compatible with human nature?
The Cato article goes on to discuss evolutionary psychology, which is a relatively new area of psychology that "seeks to understand the unique nature of the human mind by applying the logic and methods of contemporary evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology."
Somewhere between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene era, when humans adapted from a "hunter-gatherer" to "agricultural" mode of living, the physiology and structure of the human brain--and hence, human psychology--was finalized by the concerted environmental and biological pressures on the human species during the previous 1.6 million years. In other words, modern human beings have the brain of their stone age ancestors. Our brains are not designed specifically for the "modern" world that we live in.
The article goes into some of the recent research of evolutionary psychologist, who are trying to understand exacly what "human nature" is all about. Basically, the results of their research shows that we are hard-wired--and therefore psychologically the same "hunter-gatherers" of 50,000 years ago. OUr social interactions are thus defined and limited by those ancient humans. Their findings are:
- HUMANS ARE COALITIONAL
We tend to form into groups of 25 - 150 most easily. Larger groups--where we do not have face-to-face contact with other members, are instinctively considered less trustworthy; and we tend to think often in terms of "us" versus "them". Having said that, when we develop social institutions that reinforce this built-in coalitional tendency (e.g., representative, democratic government) social tensions are relaxed and societies can thrive. OTOH, when political rhetoric encourages people to identify themselves as members of groups with no biological basis (e.g., "rich" versus "poor") tensions rise and animosity interferes with social stability. Free trade, or capitalism, encourages us to be wary of other groups, but also wo view them as partners in mutually beneficial trade; rahter than as "enemies".
-HUMANS ARE HEIRARCHICAL
If you look around you will see evidence of this in every aspect of our life. Most social organizations have formal heirarchical structures (president, VP and the like). Even in area that aren't "formally" organized (e.g., high school or middle school) dominance and status issues are a primary concern of the students who vie with each other to be the most "cool". We so dislike being at the bottom of a heirarchy, that we naturally form coalitions that help to check the power of the dominant groups.
-HUMANS ARE ZERO-SUM THINKERS
We have difficulty in thinking of resources or wealth as ever-expanding, and tend to think that their gain must be our loss. This leads to envy and all the associated social and political conflicts. And yet, the first two characteristics (coalition and heirarchy forming qualities) show that by working together and engaging in mutually beneficial trade and thereby increasing productivity, wealth can be created beyond what we think it can. But this tendency from hunter-gatherer days makes us have difficulty understanding our own economic system (especially if coalitions are formed which enhance the "us" versus "them" thinking).
-PROPERTY RIGHTS ARE NATURAL
In order to prevent the allocation of all resources to those at the top of heirarchies, the recognition of individual property rights has been part of our make-up for thousands of years. Animals mark out territories for exclusive use in foraging, hunting, and mating--and so did our ancestors. This is "hard-wired" into our species as a survival tool.
-MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL EXCHANGE IS NATURAL
Trade, exchange, and division of labor are human universals that existed long before complex societal structures.
-WE CAN NAVIGATE THE "US" vs."THEM" CONUNDRUM BY TRUST
We have a biological capacity for and need to trust others. This psychological trust enables us to solve otherwise unsolvable social problems--e.g., how to deal with strangers; outsiders; and other groups. Without this biological instinct to give other humans the benefit of the doubt, complex social interactions are impossible.
An article in the LA Times titled "The Anatomy of Give and Take" discusses some recent research that tries to explain the economic interaction of humans, using high technology equipment such as MRI scanners. In one such experiment, two individuals are pitted against each other in an attempt to see which one could maximize their financial gain in the marketplace:
As the pair wavered between cooperation and betrayal, scientists recorded how their brains changed. The researchers hoped to discover the secret of trust — the human variable missing from the mathematics of modern economics.This is an example of a new scientific field known as "neuroeconomics", which trys to figure out why people trust each other, when economic theory says they won't. The field of evolutionary psychology has evidence that such trust is built into our brains, and it is what makes such economic activities as "trade" and "production" possible.
The terms of the experiment were simple: At the beginning of each round, Belur could put up to $20 in play. Any investment automatically tripled. Tang then decided how much to return and how much to keep.
Belur's safest strategy was to hoard all of her money. Tang's most logical move was to cheat her partner at every opportunity.
There was a riskier but potentially more profitable way.
They could trust each other.
The experiment was part of a new frontier in the exploration of the brain — a field called neuro- economics that seeks to understand the biology underlying economic behavior.
In universities and research centers across the country, scientists are probing the brain with coin flips, $5 bills and gift certificates from Amazon.com. Bit by bit, they are assembling a mosaic of the financial brain, identifying how competing neural circuits shape decisions.
Matt Ridley, in his book The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation tackles this particular issue head-on (and is well worth reading, I might add).
The point of all this discussion is to emphasize that human nature must be taken into account as we evaluate the usefulness and consequences of certain economic and political systems that are advocated in the world today.
Humans are clearly well-suited to some economic and political systems and not to others. Some social, economic, and political systems--socialism and communism to be precise-- are nothing more than the Procrustean bed of mythology that try to adjust human nature to their "perfect" theories. That is why their implementation almost always end in either in catastrophic human misery and death (when the theory is applied ruthlessly and viciously) or stagnation and decay (when applied nonchalantly and accepted passively).
Many will say that it is capitalism that destroys humans, spiritually and physically, but they are incorrect; and all the evidence leans to the exact opposite conclusion. In fact, among social, political and economic systems, democratic capitalism is probably the one and only system that is most consistent with human nature in that it allows all aspects of human nature to express itself in socially acceptable ways that can benefit the individual and the society-at-large.
Capitalism does not pretend that those messy and omnipresent negative human emotions can be "stamped out" by the will of a tyrant or even an elementary school teacher in Seattle, for that matter. It accepts human nature as a given and provides a system through which humans are able to sublimate and redirect those negative emotions to better both themselves and incidentally the larger society. As economic systems go, this is a miraculous psychological breakthrough; and it is why capitalism dovetails so nicely with political systems that promote individual freedom and democracy. Altogether, these theories come as close to "perfection" as humans are likely to get--and it isn't accomplished by making humans survive on pine needle tea; or squelching their quite natural inclination to stake out a territory and mark it as their own.
And, far from encouraging the "survival of the fittest", capitalism encourages cooperation for mutually beneficial trade as well as for competition. Instead of encouraging war and dominance; capitalism thrives on trust and human cooperation; as well as alliances to maximize productivity and wealth creation.
Far from concentrating wealth in the hands of a few, capitalism makes it possible for anyone to accumulate wealth (contrast for example the number of people who earn over $100,000 a year in the U.S., with those do in Cuba. The only really wealthy person there is Fidel Castro and his cronies. Likewise, in Iraq, the only wealthy were Saddam and his thugs).
Envy and greed are both real human emotions that will always be part of the human condition, but only in a capitalist system can one transform both envy and greed into socially acceptable actions that improve one's own lot without attacking or destroying others. As Llosa's article on "The Lives of Others" demonstrates so clearly, it is actually in the totalitarian systems that emotions like envy and greed are allowed to run amok because they are pushed into the unconscious and given no healthy outlet. Because of that, their destructiveness in those societies is unchallenged and unparalleled.
Human nature is what it is. This is not at all tragic; it is a simple truth. The biological fantasies of the leftist utopians; and the delusional fantasies of communists and socialists and all their 21st century heirs, have lead to incalculable levels of human suffering all over the world, as the proponents of these theories have tried to force humans to evolve into some sort of "ideal" state.
All such systems have failed the real-world tests in the last century; and all current versions of these ideologies will also eventually fail and fade away. To the extent that they attempt to incorporate some aspects of "human nature" into their failing system, they may last a bit longer as they slowly chip away at the human spirit and work to extinguish it; but it is actually much more likely that human nature will transform the perverse ideology than that the reverse will happen.
What we see in the Middle East today is the re-assertion of human nature after years of being crushed under the oppression of yet another social system that has attempted to rebuild humans along the lines of a religious "ideal", spiked with totalitarian fantasizing. For all the opposition to giving democracy and freedom a chance in Iraq in Afghanistan, the seeds have been planted and there is little doubt that those seeds will grow as healthy human nature reasserts itself after decades of oppression.
Ask yourself how many deaths will it take before despots like Kim Jung Il with his theory of pine needle tea will be wholly and unequivocally discredited in the minds of those pathetic socialist teachers/oppressors at Hilltop Children's Center in Seattle? Oh, they would be so shocked!shocked! at the idea that their little exercise in "social justice" lays the moral foundation for a social system quite indistinguishable from Kim's paradise, where all structures belong to everyone and no one; where the individual means nothing and his desires and needs are subservient to the state; and where nothing is special and everything is "standard" (except of course for Dear Leader who looms rather large).
How much human misery and oppressive injustice will it take before the social engineers of today's neo-fascist left abandon their attempts to force human beings to adapt to their fantasies? When will their "moral awakening" occur? As SC&A noted once, " Utopias cannot be created without imposing tyranny.
In a post titled "Utopian Dreams and Nightmares" I wrote about the differences between today's left who advocate the New!Improved! versions of totalitarian ideologies; and the selfish capitalists they so despise:
The do-gooder leftist in all the various ideological incarnations--the antiwar crowd, the environmental crowd, the communists, socialists, and assorted collectivists--offers the rationale that he does what he does for the "common good" and for "social justice", "peace" and "brotherhood". His high-minded, self-righteous rhetoric justifies (to him anyway) imposing his will and beliefs on others for their own good; and he will not hesitate to use whatever coercive capablity he has at hand to get others to do what he wants and what he says.
The capitalist, on the other hand, is overtly out to pursue his own selfish profit, and understands he must use persuasion. That is, he must convince people that his ideas and the products of his mind are better than all the rest so that they will be willing to part with their hard-earned money to possess them. His desire for power over others is manifested in an indirect manner because people must wnat what he has to offer and believe that they will benefit from an interaction with him.
Imperfect freedom and selfish capitalism do not rely on biological fantasies for their implementation. That is why they work.