What is human nature? Conservatives tend to believe in “essentialist” arguments; that is, biological, cultural or psychic essences that permeate all humans throughout all times and spaces. In contrast, progressives generally believe that “human nature” is socially constructed and therefore distinct in different cultures and places. My own view is that while we do have biological, cultural and psychic predispositions we are ultimately shaped by world history and our consciousness of that history. “Human nature” is defined by the spirit of the time. The question of course then is what determines that spirit. The most powerful historical force in the contemporary age remains the state: the rise of corporations has occurred because of decisions made by states and when the corporate era ends it will do so because of choices made by future national or transnational states. The dominant state of our time, the one that most influences all other ones — not only in terms of politics and economics but also via culture — is the United States of America.

In order to understand human nature in our era we have to understand the form that it takes in the USA, because it is that conception, experience and design that shapes, pressures and appeals to all others in our globalizing world. One could legitimately respond that China, India and Brazil’s cultural manifestations of human nature are the ones that we should observe closely. The most recent United Nations Development Program report “The Rise of the South” informs us that these three countries together will by 2020 create 40 per cent of world economic production — thus their weight will tip the scale of global influence: they may reshape the world in their images. Yet when one speaks to young, talented Brazilian, Chinese and Indian students what becomes clear is that if they were to emigrate they would prefer New York, San Francisco or Silicon Valley than Sao Paulo, Beijing or New Delhi. The American notion of the self, that is, one that is autonomous, expressive, diverse and entrepreneurial, is the one that seduces the most talented from around the planet. 

American human nature is characterized by continual reinvention: today few think in terms of permanent occupations or practice durable marriages. The key word of our time is “innovation”: Americans experiment, improvise and recreate themselves trying on not only a range of fashions, but also a variety of careers, diets, spiritualities, partners and personalities. The 65-year-old mother of an American friend of mine recently told me, “I am starting a new career and I am in love with a new man!” The contemporary American individual is an existential entrepreneur; that is, someone who is continually sampling new roles, occupations and the masks that go with them. A pessimist would say that this postmodern, consumer capitalist personality lacks character or depth: all we now have are incurably shallow, extinguished selves. Meanwhile a more cheerful sort might respond that today’s individual lacks a stable essence because they have developed something far more valuable: an unprecedented flexibility, adaptability and capacity for self-renewal. They would contend that it is precisely the latter — the qualities of an Odysseus or Rinehart in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — that are necessary in a world that is perpetually mutating.

In the past, leaders embarked on projects that took centuries or millennia to flower: the pyramids, world religions and nation-states required an ambitious imagination as well as followers who were comfortable seeing themselves as minor characters in a grander narrative. In contemporary society only political activists — on the far right and the far left — dream in such epic terms. The political activist Tom Hayden once said “political change — for example, women attaining the right to vote — takes on average a hundred years to achieve, therefore activists need to think in terms of improving the world not for themselves or even their children but for their grandchildren.” To build projects that will take a hundred or a thousand years to complete entails a very different human nature than the one currently on offer: the contemporary personality is not made of unbending marble; for example, the divorce rates of both right-wingers and left-wingers are equally high. Thus the challenge for the prophets of both sides: to transform society one needs virtuous, committed agents who have faith in a vision that will transcend their experience and benefit — that is, one needs the exact opposite of what is required to thrive in our impermanent, endlessly innovative era.

Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

Image: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: skez,  JoesSistah…

Thomas Head Shot by Monianne (1)

Thomas Ponniah

Thomas Ponniah, Ph.D, was a Lecturer on Social Studies, Assistant Director of Studies, and Faculty Associate of the Project on Justice, Welfare and Economics at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He...