The word “innate” seems to set the ideological alarms bells ringing for a surprising number of people who term themselves “anarchists”.
This is rather strange, since the notion in fact lies at the core of the anarchist philosophy!
The central insight of the anarchist tradition is that the state – along with other forms of authority – is not only unnecessary but positively inimicable to a healthy human society.The alleged “need” for authority, for hierarchy – drilled into us from an early age – is exposed as nothing but an insidious lie, invented as a justification for domination and exploitation.
What this big lie is hiding from us is that, left to our own devices, we would follow our inherent instincts for solidarity and mutual aid and organise ourselves from below, among ourselves and in our own communal interests, rather than in those of a parasitical elite: that we are essentially co-operative and benevolent by nature.
It is a terrible sign of the wrong-headedness of the times that even this last point is now widely regarded as naïve, as I discussed in a previous piece here.
Noam Chomsky points out that it was once taken for granted that people had a naturally caring attitude towards others: “Normal human emotions are sympathy and solidarity, not just for people but for stranded dolphins. It’s just a normal reaction for people.”
Are we now so cynical that we really believe that human beings simply do not care unless they are told to do so by authorities – religious, educational or judicial? Is that what most people now feel inside – a complete indifference to others?
If so, I suspect this is something that has been deliberately induced as part of a long-term effort to reduce humanity to a condition of cowed dependence on authority.
We can see the beginnings of the attempt to discredit the very idea of “innateness” in the 17th century work of John Locke and his tabula rasa vision of a blank human nature. It was no coincidence that Locke’s anti-innatist philosophy was combined with an elitist, authoritarian and capitalist political stance.
A humanity with innate qualities is empowered with its own vision of justice, of common sense, of how things are supposed to be.
But a humanity devoid of any inherent moral compass is ready to be directed, cajoled, controlled – all ostensibly in its own best interests, of course, as it is supposedly unable to properly understand its own predicaments or determine its own paths.
The whole development of positivist, empiricist and behaviourist theory can be seen as part of the ideological war being fought by the ruling capitalist elite against the population.
In the same way that the mainstream Church was historically scared by heretical talk of “god” being in the hearts of believers and not mediated by its authority and institutions, so is the secular system still frightened stiff that the “rabble” might one day discover social power within itself.
Inherent solidarity, innate disgust at injustice, a common sense hatred of the walls of repression being built around them – all of these are anathema to those who want us to languish in a state of supine disempowerment.
Chomsky sets all this out well in his 1990 essay Containing the Threat of Democracy. He writes: “On the matter of common sense and freedom, there is a rich tradition that develops the idea that people have instrinsic rights. Accordingly, any authority that infringes upon these rights is illegitimate. These are natural rights, rooted in human nature, which is part of the natural world…
“This picture contrasts with a conflicting one that has dominated much intellectual discourse: the view that people are empty organisms, malleable, products of their training and cultural environment, their minds a blank slate on which experience writes what it will. Human nature is, then, a historical and cultural product, with no essential properties beyond the weak and general organizing principles with which the largely vacuous system may be endowed. If so, there are few moral barriers to compulsion, shaping of behavior, or manufacture of consent.”
He goes on to conclude: “Looked at in this way, the empty organism view is conservative, in that it tends to legitimate structures of hierarchy and domination.”
This is a crucially important point, for in the upside-down world of contemporary thinking, the opposite is often held to be true! Those anarchists who raise their eyebrows in horror at the term “innate” seem to assume that it implies a regressive or reactionary attitude, a narrow biological determinism. Here they are falling into a dangerous trap.
As Chomsky and others have shown, the manufacture of consent to the hierarchical capitalist system extends far beyond the obvious means of blunt media propaganda into the more subtle realm of intellectual thought.
The ideological rejection of innateness must be seen as deliberate – even if by “deliberate” we do not mean the work of a single individual or group, at a particular time or place, but the broad and cumulative work of a whole culture which serves the ideological interests of the status quo.
Writes Chomsky: “It is, I think, a fair conclusion that in any domain where we know anything, the empty organism thesis, or any of its varieties, is demonstrably false… Nevertheless, the thesis that lacks empirical support has always been widely accepted. Why should this be the case?
“One speculation derives from the question: who benefits? We have already seen a plausible answer: the beneficiaries are those whose calling is to manage and control, who face no serious barrier to their pursuits if empty organism doctrines are correct.”
Left-wing thinking, even anarchist thinking, has not been immune from the impact of this mental conditioning.
In the 19th century, an historically significant anarchist such as Michael Bakunin was still able to write of “the laws of our own individual nature” which are “immanent and inherent, forming the very basis of our material, intellectual and moral being”.
But he was also already warning of a tendency, appearing via Marxist theory, to ignore important “natural traits” common to humankind, including “the intensity of the instinct of revolt, and by the same token, of liberty, with which it is endowed or which it has conserved”.
This process accelerated and spread throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, to the point where any talk of “natural traits” is apparently regarded as suspect in some anarchist circles.
We should perhaps not be surprised that the prevailing power system should spawn and nourish ideologies – even supposedly dissident ideologies – which back up its ill-founded claims to legitimacy and block any fundamental insight into the nature of its domination.
What is being denied and covered up by positivism, behaviourism and all the other forms of anti-innatism which infect so much contemporary thinking is what Chomsky describes in Language and Freedom as “the essential human need for freedom from the external constraints of repressive authority”.
It is the recognition of this essential human need, this innate vital impulse, that lies at the core of the anarchist belief and accompanies our firm conviction that people are entirely and innatelycapable of running their own lives in a just and equitable fashion.
The word innate, the very concept of things being innate, thus urgently needs to be pulled back into the body of our revolutionary anarchist vision, of which it should be the proudly beating heart.