"Humans are inherently selfish creatures. So if we help ourselves, we inherently help others by taking care of ourselves." This logic of individual selfishness lies at the heart of neoliberalism. What is interesting about this logic is that I have heard it reiterated among the middle class elites in India in my years of growing up. During many of these debates, when I pointed to anecdotal examples of people that I knew who dedicated their lives to the service of others, the logic came back with the response "helping others is also a self-driven endeavour. When we help others, we do so because we feel fulfilled." Such logics then point to the self-actualization needs of humans as suggested by Maslow to note that helping others help us fulfill our self-actualization needs, which are also selfish in nature. Ultimately then, this is how the neoliberal logic justifies the individualistic greed of neoliberal subjects: You are being honest and being true to what is your fundamental human nature (i.e. to take care of your selfish interests) by pursuing those individualistic mechanisms of self-fulfillment that allow you to accumulate wealth as an individual.
For a long time, I have felt that there is something wrong in this logic. In this blog, I will work on articulating my argument.
The problem I have with the reduction of every form of human action to self-interest is the foregrounding of self-interest as the metric of human nature, and the conflation of self-interest into every form of human action such that it is no more possible to distinguish between human actions driven by self-interest and those that are not driven by self-interest. Human nature then is fundamentally defined in terms of self-interest such that every human action can be reduced into the residues of self-interest.
In contrast to this generalized definition of selfishness, the reality of selfishness in neoliberalism is enacted in the form of the ownership of personal wealth. The politics of neoliberalism ultimately plays out in the modes of ownership of property and within the notions of private property. Therefore, selfishness of human action within the framework of neoliberalism needs to be measured in terms of the desire for accumulating wealth at the individual level, in terms of the definition of human beings as property bearing citizens. For the purposes of operationalization, selfishness then can be defined in terms of the manifestation of human action in individual wealth accumulation. Although the reality of the inequalities produced by the neoliberal logic is ultimately tied to the differentials in private ownership of wealth, the extension of selfishness to define generalized forms of human action obfuscates the politics of neoliberalism.
What gets erased in the framing of human nature as fundamentally selfish is the value-driven nature of this assumption, and the effects that therefore are produced as manifestations of this assumption. To assume that human beings are fundamentally self-seeking justifies our individual greed and the desires for wealth accumulation at the individual level. Furthermore, the depiction of every form of human action as self-driven distracts attention from thoughtful criticisms of self-driven greed in wealth accumuluation, and the broader inequalities that are produced by the unregulated accumulation of wealth.
Ultimately then, to reduce other-oriented human activities to be rooted in human selfishness is an argumentative leap that obfuscates the unethical ramifications of selfishness that produce large-scale disparities between the haves and have-nots. In re-occupying the concept of selfishness as one that needs to be interrogated, a critical stance draws attention to the need for discussing the ethics of wealth accumulation and possibly setting limits to how much wealth accumulation is acceptable in society. Acknowledging that there exist a wide variety of human actions that are not selfish create openings for imagining alternative worlds.