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A darwinian leftist

There are some interesting things in Unity is Health: An Evolutionary Left, an article by a neo-lefty British journalist who takes the notion of innate human nature seriously. What’s interesting in it is that there is apparently good reason to think that social inequality as such leads to bad health for those at the bottom, and that some left-wingers are trying to reconstruct leftist thought to take into account innate human differences.

The first aspect of the article requires further investigation and interpretation, but is of general interest. The second is mostly interesting for the example it offers of thought that wanders off into the swamps of confusion because of unanalyzed and wrong-headed premises.

As a neo-lefty, the author believes in social policy. He therefore tends to identify social inequality with strictly material inequality, perhaps because he thinks such inequalities can be managed and reduced by appropriate government intervention. However, the facts he presents make it clear that it is not material inequality as such that is the issue: one of his examples is the British civil service, in which death rates are three times higher—in the case of heart disease, four times higher—among junior grades than at the mandarin levels. Since the strictly economic distinctions among civil servants are not extreme, the example makes it clear that the problem is less money than the intangible aspects of inequality.

On the whole, his analysis confirms that. He says:

Evolutionary psychology understands humans as fundamentally social beings. It is unsurprised to hear that increments of wealth fail to bring corresponding increases in happiness. Instead, it expects to find the keys to happiness in the eternal verities of status and belonging. Status exists without hierarchy, through friendship, reputation, reciprocity and mutual obligation; but as a society becomes more hierarchical, status increasingly depends upon the ability to achieve visible superiority. It becomes less important to be well regarded, and more important to be looked up to.

That still doesn’t quite capture the situation, though. The problem is not hierarchy as such. He should recognize that, since his model of a society in which human relations lead to good health is Japan, one in which deference and hierarchy are prominent. The key, he says, is that “The traditional Japanese company might be highly formal, but it is based on an ideology of mutual involvement, which in turn rests on the assumption that its relationship with an employee will be long-lasting.” It should be clear, however, that mutual involvement and permanent connection are less opposed to hierarchy than they are to bureaucratic egalitarianism. He contrasts Japan to the West, in which

the call centre managers may teach their staff the company song, but they’ll be ready to fire them the moment a bad quarter’s results come in. Loyalties are as portable as pension plans. As individuals do not belong anywhere for very long, their status and reputations attach to themselves alone. Instead of building up a store of respect through living within a single community, you can take your accumulated material wealth and use it to assume status anywhere you choose to go. Despite the managerial talk of ‘flattened hierarchies’, the modern economy is as fluent in dominance as it is in English.

Fluid, portable hierarchy that denies personal connections isn’t really hierarchy at all. What the author really seems to be saying is not that inequality kills but that modernity does. That’s hardly news to readers of VFR.

As a leftist, however neo, the author cannot see it that way. For him, man and his inclinations are the raw material for social engineers whose goal is a technologically rational society of equal freedom, comfort and respect. He simply cannot take in as a problem that personal “friendship, reputation, reciprocity and mutual obligation” that matter are necessarily absent from a society in which everything must be administered for the sake of an abstract conception of justice that may take some aspects of human nature into account but in its fundamentals owes nothing to them. His attitude toward the sexes is emblematic. He admits that there are “different emotional propensities in males and females.” For him though the point is not to accept such things as constitutive of human nature and build on them for the ties to which they naturally give rise, but to guard against them because they mean that “males will tend to form coalitions, which exclude and subjugate females.”

Take that approach and it’s hard to see how society can consist of anything but the atomic individual clients of the administrative state. If feeling insignificant and ineffectual is a health problem, that can hardly be the answer. In post-Soviet Russia we see what the program of the Left, vigorously applied, leads to. The statistics the author cites suggests that liberal society has some of the same antihuman tendencies. However, the tendencies are a consequence of the basic modernist understandings behind liberalism, communism and the left in any form, and so cannot be cured by adding evolutionary biology to the mix.