In a recent New Yorker piece, Naomi Klein astutely observes that “The crash on Wall Street should be for Friedmanism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for authoritarian Communism, an indictment of an ideology.” One hopes so. The financial system’s collapse in 2008 offers a rare opportunity to question certain underlying assumptions about our state capitalist economy and its neoliberal ideology.
For the last few years I’ve been writing about neuroscience research which shows that the human brain is hard-wired for empathy, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. This is the discovery of the mirror neuron system or MNS, a finding some scientists believe rivals what the discovery of DNA meant for biology. The technical details showing how morality is rooted in biology, hardwired into our neural circuits via evolution rather than handed down from on high, lie beyond this article. But our understanding is increasing at an exponential rate and it’s compelling. Earlier this year, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni’s superb book, Mirroring People (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008, paper) made this important research accessible to the lay public.
However, this is not to underestimate the barriers to the public’s appreciation of these findings. At the apex of misunderstanding is the cynical, even despairing doubt about the existence of a moral instinct for empathy. From doctrines of original sin and Ayn Rand to Alan Greenspan and David Brooks, certain intrepretations of human nature have functioned to override empathic responses. In the words of famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal “You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions.”
We know that cultures are set up to reward some people and disadvantage others. Capitalists maintain domination, in part, through subtly but actively creating society’s prevailing cultural norms. Antonio Gramsci’s writing reminds us that this control is achieved through the mass media, education, religion and popular culture as subordinate classes assimilate certain ideas as “common sense.” It isn’t that individual deviations don’t occur within the interstices of society but generally they don’t threaten elite control.
If we assume that the human brain or more specifically, the aforementioned mirror neuron system, is the implicit target of elite propaganda, then the current economic meltdown provides an almost unprecedented opportunity for us.
Perhaps not since the 1930s have our citizens been more skeptical of received wisdom about our socioeconomic system. That is, the carefully manufactured narrative of market capitalist identity and its assumptions about human nature are now thrown into sharp relief.
Not only has economic reality made a shambles of the canonical model of Homo economicus but robust empirical evidence offers promising alternative responses to basic questions about human nature. Parenthetically, other highly regarded cross-cultural studies reveal that the self-interested behavior predicted by the selfishness axiom simply fail to materialize and cooperation is the norm.
Of course there are also predatory and cruel urges within our nature, complete with their own neural correlates and evolutionary origins. But now we know that organizing an alternative to our vicious system of “natural” hyper-individualism will enhance the opportunity for the empathic aspect of our nature to flourish. Social historian Margaret Jacobs captures my optimism with her insight that “No institution is safe if people simply stop believing in the assumptions that justify its existence.” Therein lies both our challenge and responsibility.