Happy FamiliesThe Politics of Human Nature by Thomas Fleming. Transaction Books, New Brunswick 1988 ISBN 088738-189-8
THE MAIN THRUST OF THIS BOOK is to argue the case against all political theories of human beings as a tabula rasa for whom the optimal political system, whatever it may be argued to be, is consensually based on the “social contract” theory of human society. Fleming argues instead that realistic politics is founded on the pragmatic acknowledgement of the fact of human nature, a nature which has evolved as all nature has evolved, from the past into its present-day, and formed out of the compulsions of survival and adaptation. Fleming pleads the conservative case for realism in the face of the calamitous attempts made by day dreamers to try to imitate an idealised human nature (Christians) or deny its existence (Marxists). The soured Utopias of Catholic Rome and Marxist Moscow are, according to this thesis, the consequence of leaning too heavily on a vision of Homo sapiens as he might have been or could become, rather than just accepting him with all his warts, as a facet of nature. The central wisdom which Fleming enjoins was handed to us by the Ancient Greeks: Gnothi Seauton, know thyself.
The Politics of Human Nature seeks to re-root politics in the principle of accepting the essentials of human nature and adapting to them rather than changing them by force. Unlike libertarians, who similarly identified the enemy of freedom in anyone who believes in a common solution to the collective ills of a collective mankind, Fleming is not pleading for individualism. On the contrary, he argues that individualism is itself a symptom of what he calls “social fragmentation”.
The fact that society is losing cohesion has been much commented on. Lack of social consensus is a salient feature of post-modernist society; with its multifarious tastes, interests and values under the roof of a protective “multi-culturalism”. The process is commonly supposed to have been caused by technology and mass movements breaking down cohesive and geographically dense social units; but for Fleming, as for Christopher Lasch and other “populist” American writers, social fragmentation is neither so impersonal nor so inevitable a process as this argument implies; they argue that to a considerable extent, social fragmentation is intentionally created and nurtured by a socio-economic elite.
Fleming tells us in a short preface that his book is the fruit of research carried out in free time afforded by his position at the Rockford Institute, which publishes Chronicles magazine, of which he is editor. This fact has no direct bearing on the book but it is nevertheless pertinent. Books are written and speeches made, political influence gained and economic power obtained, not by acts of an individual alone, but by his/her actions within a more or less favourably disposed social, economic and technical environment. The principle argument of the work is that to achieve success in our goals we should understand human nature, which is not an individual construct but an evolutionary and social one. Fleming insists that a refusal to recognise human nature in social and political theory as something which cannot be changed by diktat, is the hall mark of project Utopia. Democracy and communism, with their mendacious exaggeration of human virtue and idealisation of the species as a whole, are in Fleming’s words “church militant” Utopian doctrines. Political theory should eschew the path of ideology and rediscover human nature, not ignore it or deny its natural existence (which is to say that Fleming also denies that human nature is God given).
“If communism is Soviet power plus electricity, progress is democracy plus plumbing.” Fleming’s witty aphorism exemplifies his distrust, even contempt, for ideologies and the ambition to impose a universally applicable theory upon human social order at the expense of mos mairorum, ancestor worship, the acceptance of what Edmund Burke called “the wisdom of the dead”. According to Fleming, Utopias ignore the reality of human nature. Fleming locks horns with behaviouralist psychologists, who believed that human psychology could be moulded for better and for worse from outside, with precious little in human behaviour inherited. For behaviouralists like John Watson, the raw material of man can be reduced to three primitive emotions: fear, love and anger. Everything else is appropriated through experience. Professor BF Skinner, who was Watson’s pupil, came to the conclusion that human beings, like his laboratory rats, could be altered in their nature by imposed experience. The implication is that humans can be educated to be better in their nature. Following Edmund Wilson, Fleming argues that the learning process of humans is different from that of rats. This is true, but the argument against the behaviouralists could be taken further: there is a difference between creating and stimulating behavioural characteristics. Homo sapiens comes into the world with an immense diversity of potential which can be stimulated by experience but not in the life of one individual, created by it.
A key tenet of conservative political theory is that “you can’t change human nature” and that if human nature does not change nor do human values. (Do values exist beyond or before the human?) Fleming’s work is based on this conservative insistence on the importance of recognising human nature and on this basis he attacks theories of social order which are either individualistic or contractual. Since the seventeenth century, notes Fleming, “almost every writer on social ethics takes the individual for granted as the most basic element of society.” This applies to Thomas Hobbes and to Machiavelli as much as to John Locke and to Jeremy Bentham. From the belief that society is an aggregate of individuals assembled for mutual advantages arises the belief in the social contract. Society, political order, is an arrangement between contractual parties to further their ultimately individual ends. The power of the state extends in the name of an idealised non-existent man or class of man, at the cost of the power of the extended family.
For Fleming, human nature is rooted in the biological family; consequently, the extension of state power he sees as thoroughly deleterious. Family adhesion is the glue of our biologically determined natural social environment. From John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to existentialism (and by implication, nihilism) and social fragmentation, the way is shorter than we think. The principle that society consists of a social bond created contractually between each member and every other, is in accordance with the existentialist belief that existence precedes essence. For the existentialist, man creates his nature and his history by existing and the actions which constitute that existence and not by virtue of a biological inheritance or the unfolding of an inherent “human nature”. If there is no God which precedes Man, there is no essence to which his reactions refer. This implies a rejection of essential or immutable human nature.
Fleming might be expected to have a theosophical position, but he does not. He is convinced by social evolutionist arguments and states that “when sociologists and anthropologists set their minds against human nature, they are rebelling against Darwin…guilty of…fostering a cultural Lysenkoism that sees limitless possibilities in the human species to change the conditions and nature of its existence.” (p.41) We are bound by our nature in other words, and this nature underlies or subsumes the variety of human cultures in all places and times. The substratum of the “common human” is the bedrock of the history of Homo sapiens. Here is a conservative position which accepts evolutionism. If “Man” is an abstraction as Fleming argues, then the rights of Man can mean nothing other than the rights of individuals and the aim of social order should be the protection and fostering of the individual at the expense of all collective considerations. Since Rousseau, notes Fleming, individualist arguments have moved towards an increasing emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual human being. The insistence on the uniqueness of each human being in Christianity is formalised in the assertion of the existence of a unique and immortal soul. Christianity insists that the soul exists beyond all circumstance of class, race, intelligence, environment, chronology. This contradicts the Christian doctrine that Man and Woman are by nature different and it is at odds with evolutionist doctrine, according to which there can be, historically speaking, no clear dividing line between hominid and non hominid, only a gradation.
The immutability of human nature is at odds with the mutability which is the sine qua non of evolutionist theory. If Fleming accepts that evolution is the driving force of human nature, and he does, then how does he square this with the belief in the immutability of human nature, or for that matter with its universalism? This book does not tell us. The different races, Fleming presumably believes, are the products of separate evolution, surely by his own arguments they are therefore different even in their human nature? In other words human nature, once one looks at evolution a little more closely, cannot be the solid and eternal factor which Fleming believes that it is.
Fleming makes an interesting distinction between natural and primitive. Living “in accordance with nature” is for Fleming in what amounts to a radical rejection of Rousseau, anything but living as a natural individual if it means rejecting the achievements of civilization in making people more comfortable within their environment. It is not society or authority as such which are unnatural, but the insistence on universal human rights based on an abstracted individual which does not exist in nature. Society is in any case more surely held together by mores, customs, opprobrium and praise than by laws inscribed in stone. It comes as no surprise to discover that Fleming presents the conservative case for minimalist government: successful authority is innate and felt more than it is proscribed or proclaimed.
Fleming is right to point out that social cohesion and conformity is not principally a matter of laws, although his examination of the genealogy of custom is extremely sketchy. He ignores the extent to which custom in society may alter wildly according to circumstance. For example, social attitudes towards homosexuality and laws about it not only vary widely from society to society but may also change within the same society within a short space of time. The same can be said for the taste for homosexual behaviour. This suggests that human beings are much more malleable even in their “human nature” than Fleming is willing to admit. Like many social commentators, he also fails to acknowledge the significant fact that post-modern society uniquely encompasses cultural and social worlds that exist cheek by jowl in more or less total ignorance one of the other. This is not a “multi-cultural society” as preached by proponents of racial dysgenicism, but a milieu made up of cultural parallel worlds. Increasingly, cultural difference is regarded as an idiosyncrasy, a matter of taste. Whereas in the past a liking for classical music was a more or less unconscious acceptance of a cultural fact of life, it is today a consumer choice, a hobby, an individual token or marker. (“He’s a Verdi fan.”) It is increasingly difficult to assume what the cultural or religious preferences of one’s immediate neighbours might be.
If human nature is rooted in Nature, then the “rights of man” can be viewed not as rights based on a for Fleming fictitious contract, but rights which are deduced from natural law. Natural law, according to Fleming, is much different to the laws of mature. “Separating them is the result of the modern philosophical consensus that there is a split between the realm of fact and the realm of value…Because of an unbridgeable chasm between the realm of fact and value, there can be no natural basis for morality.” Morality, in the modern, non-religious perspective, is a consensual agreement without natural foundation. We may take this one step further and say that modern morality, in rejecting the imperative of nature, is proclaiming its own immorality! For many pre-modern peoples, Fleming notes, such as the Ancient Greeks, the words which we translate as “law” and “justice”, in Greek, themis, dike, nomos, may also be translated as “the way things are.” “It is a natural step from custom as the way things are to what E.R. Service calls “sanctioned customs”.
A significant intellectual debt acknowledged by Fleming is to Edmund Wilson, author of Sociobiology: the New Synthesis, which appeared in 1975. The socio-biological thesis was a challenge to the then dominant Marxian doctrine of the economic essence of human nature. Human nature for the Marxist did not exist per se, (and this was the Marxist retort to the standard charge that communism did not take human nature into account-namely that the very concept of human nature was itself bourgeois) but was created by socio-economic power relations within the scope of the development of historical class struggles. Socio-biology emphatically rejected this. There existed a real human nature which played an enormous if not decisive role in human behaviour and which had a far older ancestry than human history because it was rooted not in economics but in biology. What this socio-biologist view shares with the Marxian view is the atheistic interpretation of human historical developments. There is no one time and for ever creation of “Man” or “human nature” in the image of God.
This book contains the by now predictable standard conservative critique of Margaret Mead and the Boas school of anthropology. The main intention of the Jewish anthropologist Franz Boas, writing in the early part of the last century, was to as Fleming puts it, “to counter the racial theories that predominated in early twentieth century thought” but comments Fleming, “with the bathwater of racism went the baby of human nature.”(pp38/39) In other words, it was correct of Boas and his most famous student Margaret Mead, to undermine the belief in anthropology in the innate biological superiority of the Caucasian race but wrong of them to reject at the same time the existence of universal human nature.
But it is far from clear that M. Mead was trying to disprove the existence of human nature. Her Coming of Age in Samoa purported to have found a society which proved the existence of Rousseau’s “noble savage”. The implication was that civilization made human beings worse not better and that if the white man was more civilized he was not therefore better but probably worse. In particular, Margaret Mead stressed the absence of sexual conflicts or neuroses among Samoans, who, according to her, accepted sexuality as something as natural and inevitable as the weather. This view accorded perfectly with the contemporary theories of Freud’s pupil, also Jewish, Wilhelm Reich, a refugee from Germany, who argued that sexual freedom was the way to political freedom. Human nature for Reich would attain freedom, not as Marx saw it, firstly through economic emancipation, but firstly through sexual emancipation.
Predictably Fleming cites Derek Freeman, who studied the Samoans in the seventies and reached the conclusion that they were not the innocents Margaret Mead had claimed them to be. Mead, concluded Freeman, was a fraud: the Samoans were every bit as nasty as the rest of us and a bit nastier. Like most conservative commentators on this controversy, Fleming does not suggest what should be obvious: that Samoan society had come under the influence of American civilization in the intervening years. If Freeman was right in what he saw it could well be understood as a resounding confirmation of Mead’s implication that Western society corrupts. If Samoans had lost their innocence, if rape, cruelty and dishonesty now plagued Samoans, was that not evidence of the changeability of human nature according to outside influence? The nature versus nurture debate again, with the conclusion that human nature is profoundly influenced by environment
It is surprising that Fleming does not argue the issues here in depth, because if human nature is subject to change, this damages the conservative Christian belief in a universal fallen man, and does not damage Fleming’s belief that human nature is the product of evolution. Conservatives and progressivists alike both hang onto the fiction that man in essence is the same throughout history, the way he behaves being a matter of social, political, environmental and religious influences, or lack of them. Conservatives tell us that we are corrupted beyond help and society can do no better than keep the beast within us permanently at bay, while progressivists believe that when “ignorance and poverty” (the progressivist mantra) are defeated and destroyed everywhere, the dawn of happiness and freedom for all will break on a day that will last all our days. So at the end progressivist and Christian join hands-there is a place somewhere- let us call it Utopia -where humans in their natural state obtain complete happiness.
Just as any argument about whether progress is desirable or not is only meaningful when the destination of progress is named, so is any judgement upon a given social order meaningless without first stating what a better social order should be. The achievement of Western society is above all that it has won power over a large part of nature so that nature is in many ways not something anymore to be feared but to be protected. “Primitives” writes Fleming, in words which recall Ayn Rand’s in The Anti-Industrial Revolution, “do not build 100-storey buildings, compose symphonies, or structure their lives much beyond tomorrow or next week. When it rains, they shiver. When the game leaves, they follow or they go hungry.” The defence of the natural is therefore not necessarily the defence of the primitive. In evolutionary terms the primitive is the origin, and we should be beyond the origin. Nostalgia for the primitive in man is then seen as reactionary. This is something different from the protection of the natural. The natural is the entirety, the primitive is a stage. For Fleming what is natural from the point of view of the human species is that which is best equipped to ensure survival.
Human nature at its most truly natural, according to Fleming, when not distorted by theological or theoretical pressure, and is defined in relation to the family. Authorities are cited to support the view that the family is a universal social institution. The family is for Fleming “a natural institution” replacing the “sacred institution” /sacrament of the Christian Church. Fleming quotes Julian Steward (Theory of Culture Change-Methodology of Mulitlinear Evolution University of Illinois Press 1976) to the effect that there was at the beginning of human society not Adam and Eve or Eve but Adam-and-Eve, the primordial family. The “natural family” is the bastion of sanity in Fleming’s world. Man is a “familial ape”. It is not the attack on the individual but the attack on the family which destroys civilization. The threat to the family is seen as coming from two sides-firstly from the state, which provides the wherewithal to those who would otherwise be forced to keep together in families and which often acts as surrogate father, and which has historically pushed the extended family back to its origins so to speak in the nuclear family: “there is…a marked relationship between the rise of the state and the shrinking of kinship into the conjugal household.” (p.115) secondly, from individualism, which brings forth a society in which “many people no longer regard themselves as essentially members of families (and communities) but as helpless individuals, eager to snatch a little comfort or excitement out of life, no matter what the cost.” (p.102). “Marriage was gradually turned from a practical expression of community needs into a private fulfilment of personal desires.” (p.117) Much of what Fleming notes about the decline of family life is not new, although it is perhaps unusual to read a conservative defence of the family which is indifferent if not hostile, to the principle of established religion. Fleming refers approvingly to the Marxist Ernest Mandel’s thesis in Late Capitalism, that the family has changed from being the principle unit of production in society to the principle unit of consumption. Underneath Fleming’s coolly observational prose is a discernable growl at the retreat of the family in the face of the double onslaught of individualism on the one side and the state on the other.
The fact that Fleming approvingly quotes a Marxist and later another leading leftist theoretician, Christopher Lasch, who is well known for having made an impassioned appeal for “family values” from the point of view of a left critique of capitalism, is another indication of a coming together of a conservative and socialist critique of the “inorganic” nature of contemporary money society. There is no question that the position of a child for example, is changing from that of family dependant to age group specific consumer, who will perhaps one day be equipped with identical rights to adults. Giving children equal rights will further weaken and would presumably be intended to further weaken family jurisdiction. (For Fleming as for Lasch, the dismantling of the family is not incidental but promoted and even to a certain extent planned, by an internationalist capitalist elite. Fleming also notes but does not examine in depth, the issue of male intrusion into the female world in the form of technically driven birth and death.
Fleming charges individualism with separating sexuality from procreation. He is critical of what he calls the “obstetrics industry” which “forced pregnant women into antiseptic environments designed for the convenience of the (male) physician. She had her legs strapped in the air, as if she were a desperate cornered animal. She was filled with drugs to stop and start contradictions-often to suit her obstetrician’s schedule-or to numb sensations or induce an artificial euphoria.” (p.89) This is after all a conservative critique but is also the view taken by radicals. There is scant recognition here of the fact that a good deal of reaction to the technology worshiping 1940’s and 1950’s was present in the upheavals of the 1960’s. This is not surprising This reaction had much more of female conservatism to it than many radicals or many conservatives would be prepared to admit. The difference of views about human nature concerning the application of science to natural processes is much less a left/right conservative/radical issue than a “female”/natural versus “male” technical one. But Fleming tends to the view that generally feminism favours technological advance, something which an examination of feminist writing will not support.
The issue is not unproblematic. To “numb sensations” by which Fleming presumably means pain killing, will be welcomed by very many women (understandably enough!) –and what about the attitude that says the contraceptive pill is “unnatural” but aspirin is not? (This is the view of the Roman Catholic Church). “Birth, lactation and the need for prolonged care cannot be overturned by social whim” writes Fleming. Indeed not. But they may be overturned by scientific whim. It is wishful thinking by conservative theorists that the “unnaturalness” of amniocentesis or of cloning will mean that society as a whole will always reject them.. Ironically for conservatives, liberal thinking at the moment is strongly opposed to human cloning, principally on the grounds that it could lead to “abuse”. But if cloning is “unnatural”, what is “natural” about the medical prolongation of human life? Fleming calls the natural childbirth movement the “real revolution of the past twenty years” i.e. 1960’s and 1970’s but wasn’t it the argument of the opponents of monogamy in the 1960’s that staying with just one partner was “unnatural”? What this all means in terms of the politics of human nature is that our social and political legislation should return nature to the centre of human decision making. A weakness of the book is that there is little distinction between fundamental human nature and human behavioural characteristics which may or may not be culturally or politically induced or manipulated. And just as Rousseau was unable to see that the natural is not simply the primitive, a politics of human nature which does not carefully examine and define what constitutes the primitive as opposed to the natural is capable of praising barbarism and calling it Mother Nature. (This is not Fleming’s failing but it is a danger of the “don’t fight human nature” position as such.) Gang rape on these grounds could be excused as a case of just “boys will be boys”. Nature within society is something different to the primitivism which returns to human affairs once constraint and authority have vanished.
Power, contract and evolution are for Fleming the three staple ingredients in the forming of political institutions. Our wisdom comes from understanding these institutions and thereby realising “where we come from”. Fleming, in his eagerness to insist on the underlying force of an eternal human nature in our lives, inadequately distinguishes between human nature and human behaviour. But how people are wont to behave is as “natural” or “unnatural” as we care to make it, for behaviour that occurs may be defined as natural simply because it occurs. Such a definition of natural is not helpful. Fear may alter behaviour drastically, for example, without having altered human nature.
If there is a constant in human evolution and human history which persist through the ages, and it is essential to Fleming’s principle argument that there is, then how do we identity it? Fleming writes, “Three considerations might lead us to consider some item of social life as natural: primate (and mammalian) parallels, universality (or even prevalence) in human societies, and the tendency for cultural evolution to accentuate and develop rather than diminish a trait.” (p.69) In fact these three traits identified by Fleming are widely different. The first, common social behaviour among primates, poses the question: why stop at primates?
Crucial and surely right for an understanding of human nature is Fleming’s pragmatic insistence on experience for the purposes of understanding human beings and the likelihood that a given project will really work. Conservatives often note that intellectuals tend to be fascinated, even attracted, by the strength and brutality they themselves are lacking. Liberal intellectuals, perhaps, admire the powerful out of a kind of self-hating admiration for the fit and strong. It is frequently said by challengers of liberalism that liberals ignore experience. The atomised self-seeking individual is unnatural and in that sense anti-human. The social contract is a dominant paradigm of Western political thought.
Fleming’s solutions to the assault on the family-for this book is ultimately a defence of the political roll of the family more than it is an attack on the contract theory of political science-are simple and pragmatic. Repeal all legislation which is detrimental to the family. No-fault divorce should be subject to scrutiny with a view to repeal. Compulsory schooling, social security, family assistance –ironically-, sex education, equal rights education, should all be scrapped or drastically cut, so Fleming. “The biological Utopia is I believe even less likely than the political. Most of us do not want to be perfect or even better. What would be the point? For all our powers of imagination, we are what we are and will resist any effort to change us. That too, is a part of the resiliency of our nature and is a provision of the natural law.” (p.231).
This sounds rhetorically fine but is, unfortunately or fortunately, as you please, not true. Humans are very easy to manipulate and change. At least it is easy to change them in their behaviour, if not in their nature. Behaviour is not simply a reflection of nature of course. It may be and often is, imposed upon us by mores, rules, customs and not least fear, fear of ridicule, fear of being different. The very conservatism which Fleming praises can be the undoing of any resistance because it is by its nature reluctant to take desperate or radical action. It is precisely because it is conservative that conservatism is generally ineffective as a fighting force. Reaction against change is undertaken not by conservatives but by revivalists of one hue or another, never by those who simply cry “stop” and say “enough is enough” but by those who say “let us restore what has been taken from us”.
The laws of nature, concludes Fleming, are just “more than just, they are justice itself in this sub-lunar sphere.” Strong words. But for all that, humans will strive for something better and that striving retains something of the quest if not for perfection, at least for a better world. If all that is needed to obtain what it is the will of providence that mankind would obtain, if the politics of human nature were fully practised, namely peace and prosperity in a natural environment, then Fleming himself stands accused of wishing to introduce a Utopia of his own to political debate-the Utopia of a society constituted entirely of natural families whose fears and feelings are the Alpha and Omega of political and social practice. That sounds suspiciously like “the end of history.” to me. But the restoration of the sovereignty of family and tribe? That sounds like a battle cry.
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